4 is the year of starting school
11 is the year of getting a mobile phone
13 the age of Bnei Mitzvah
15 is the age of having your first girlfriend
18 is the year to start drinking
30 is the year to write a will.
80 is the year that if you are still working you should probably stop.
100 is the age you get a letter from the Queen.
Just a few examples from the eleven year olds I was teaching this week as they attempted to rewrite Pirke Avot 5:25, a text that outlines the life stages of a person, to reflect the way they see their future lives. Both the original text and the conversation I had with this group of young people focus on a persons’ responsibility and agency and how that changes as we mature.
In the time our Torah portion is set it was normal for a parent to make the decision as to who their child married. Therefore it is not particularly surprising that when Jacob falls madly in love with Rachel upon seeing her at the well he asks her father for her hand in marriage. Now although Jacob and Rachel have made it clear what they want, the cards are in Laban’s hands. Laban agrees for Jacob and Rachel to marry provided that Jacob works for him for seven years. As we know, Jacob accepts and is then tricked on his wedding day resulting in him marrying Leah and having to work a further seven years to marry his true love Rachel.
There is a philosophical concept when talking about children’s’ rights called ‘rights in trust’. The idea is that parents take rights away from children and hold them ‘in trust’, exercising decisions on their behalf until they are able to make them for themselves. To apply this to our Torah portion we could say that Laban has the right to decide who his daughters are to marry because they are not at a stage to make a good decision for themselves. In the case of Jacob and Rachel it could be said that Laban is not making choices for the good of Rachel (or Jacob) but rather for his own benefit. But we could also ask, does he really know better?
After years of working for Laban, Jacob requests that he be given livestock and pasture for them to roam. This can be seen as the first indication in this week’s parashah that Jacob finds his voice and is able to demand some control over his life. Laban agrees, it would seem that by working for Laban for many years Jacob has shown ability and earned the responsibility of owning his own flock. Sure enough, our text tells us that Jacob was successful and prosperous we also learn at this point that Laban’s manner towards him was not as it has been in the past. Could it be that Laban has become jealous of Jacob’s success or could it be that he has seen Jacob’s ability as an adult and so is keeping his distance in order to allow him to succeed in his own right? At this stage in Jacob’s development God speaks to him and tells him to return to the land of his ancestors, the land where he was born. It seems to me that Jacob has reached a stage of maturity where he no longer needs the interference of Laban and that is why God choses this moment to send Jacob on his way.
Jacob, Rachel and Leah leave in what seems like an act of defiance, without telling anyone and when they could not be seen by Laban. At this moment Jacob and his family are taking responsibility for themselves. If no one knows they are leaving then no one can stop them but we see as the parashah comes to a close that Laban was ultimately ready to let the family go on their way.
There are times when people really do know better and times when we can get trapped in a feeling of powerlessness, sensing that other people or factors in life hold power over us. As it was for Jacob, sometimes a grand act is what is needed to feel your own agency even if no one was holding you back at all.
Student rabbi Anna Posner
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.