The main topic of this parashah seems to be how Jacob succeeds in building his family and getting riches. At the beginning of the parashah, he travels alone, without any goods. Then, he settles with his uncle Lavan, marries Lavan’s two daughters and works for him for twenty years. When Jacob leaves Lavan, he has thirteen children and possesses lots of riches.
How did Jacob manage to accomplish such achievements?
It seems that he used his creativity. He knew how to adapt the elements which were surrounding him, either positive or negative, to what he needed to create.
For example, we are told (Genesis Chapter 28, verse 11) that Jacob took some stones of the place where he had settled for the night to put under his head. The Talmud (Hullin 91b) notices that, later in the same chapter (verse 18), the word “stone” is in the singular. How could it be that Jacob took several stones, and then in the morning, only one remained? The Talmud explains that all the stones were quarrelling to have Jacob’s head on them, and finally, they ended all bound together.
What does it imply?
The Midrash Haggadol explains that, when Jacob awoke, he was astonished that all the stones now formed a single one. God explained to him that “as there were several stones and they were made a single stone, thus his children would all be righteous and have a united heart”.
It seems that Jacob’s influence permitted diverse elements, and even quarrelling elements, to form a single coherent structure. He was able to give birth to the whole people of Israel, with all its diversity, because of this ability to unify different elements despite their opposition.
In the same way that we find solutions to foster solidarity, respect and friendship between diverse people, so they would be able to build things together, each one bringing their own personal skills or knowledge to the whole group.
This is what happens for example at Limmud, a series of conferences on Jewish themes which now exists in many countries. During this event, Jews from different trends and people from other religions interact and participate in conferences together. People who may not meet each other in everyday life and who share different visions of Judaism are united by this event and the desire to make it richer for everybody.
To achieve the unity of the stones, Jacob benefited from past experiences. The Midrash haggadol says that these stones were taken from the altar on which Isaac was bound. Thus, these stones already had a story related to Jacob’s family. This can allude to the fact that he remembered his father’s experiences and was inspired by it when creating.
The Midrash Haggadol adds another interpretation according to which Jacob took precisely twelve stones. Indeed, he knew that God had decided to create twelve tribes. Abraham and Isaac did not succeed in establishing them. Jacob thought that, if his stones united to form a single one, then he would know that he would establish twelve tribes.
So, it appears that Jacob was not the first who intended to give birth to the whole people of Israel. He could benefit from his forefathers’ experiences. If Jacob had not remembered his ancestors’ attempts, he might have lacked knowledge to achieve his goal.
Thus, the memory of what happened before is necessary to correct the errors of the past so as to achieve a state of solidarity.
But the knowledge of the past is not the only thing which can help us in the creative process.
The creativity of Jacob is also shown later in our parashah, when he guards Lavan’s sheep (Genesis 30, 31-43). Lavan and Jacob agreed that all the white animals would remain those of Lavan, and all the brown or spotted ones would be the property of Jacob. Then, Lavan divided the flock: his sons were looking after all the brown and spotted sheep, whereas Jacob had to pasture the rest of the sheep. Rashi tells us that the “rest of the sheep” were the sterile and weak ones. We can also think that it was the white ones – as the sons of Lavan took the spotted and brown ones.
But, whatever interpretation we give to the words “the rest of the sheep”, it is obvious that Jacob, from this weak/white sheep, succeeds in obtaining strong/brown or spotted lambs. From something of bad quality, he created something good. And how did he do?
He built a structure of different trees, whose Hebrew names are livneh lah, luz and ‘armon. The word “livneh” is constructed on the root lamed-beit-noun, which is also that of “Lavan” (“white”). So, it may represent all the experiences of Jacob when he settled with Lavan. Luz was the other name of Bethel, were Jacob had the dream of the ladder (Genesis 28, 19). So, this type of tree can allude to this particular event in Jacob’s life. The letters of ‘armon might allude to the root ‘ayin-resh-mem. One of the meanings of this root is “cunning”, which can represent the way Jacob inherited the birthright and the benediction of Esau. Then, the ‘armon may symbolise the period of Jacob’s life, when he lived with his brother and parents.
Then, to obtain a “good” flock from a bad one, Jacob used all that he had experienced in life, both bad and good.
How did Jacob manage to build the people of Israel and acquire riches from nothing? It seems that he used both the experiences of his ancestors and his own ones in a creative process. He built new and personal things from existing ones.
May we succeed in developing these creative abilities, so as to accomplish the verse: “The wilderness and the parched land shall be glad; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose” (Isaiah 35,1).
Leo Baeck College student rabbi Iris Ferreira