Yaakov left from Beer Sheva and he went towards Charan
at this portion in a Torah scroll, we are struck by an unusual sight:
instead of being broken up into smaller sections (parashiot), Vayetzei
is, from beginning to end, one uninterrupted parasha. From the moment Yaakov leaves home until the time that he
stands at the threshold of Canaan - during which period he has a vision of
angels; he marries four women and
fathers 12 children; he builds a
personal fortune; he takes his
family from his father-in-law’s house in secret;
he establishes a non-aggression treaty with his father-in-law;
and he has another angelic vision - the Torah’s narrative is one
non-stop, breathless parasha.
Sefat Emet (R. Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter [1847-1905], second Rebbe of
Ger) notes that this pattern indicates Yaakov’s constant focus on the
land of Israel throughout the twenty years he is away from home.
All of Vayetzei, in effect, is Yaakov’s journey to return to Eretz
departing from the land at Bet-El, his thoughts are of returning to the land:
Yaakov vowed a vow, saying, “If G-d will be with me;
and guard me on this path which I walk;
and give me bread to eat and clothing to wear; and
I return in peace to my father’s house; and Hashem will be a G-d for me;
then this stone which I have set up as a pillar will be a house of G-d,
and all He will give me will I surely tithe to You”
years later in Charan, Hashem reconnects him to this promise:
am the G-d of Bet-El where you anointed a pillar, where you vowed a vow to Me; now, arise, leave this land and return to the land of your
is it possible to remain so sharply focused for such a long time?
How can Yaakov retain his strong attachment to his home - from which he
fled to escape the bloodthirsty wrath of his twin brother Esav - as he settles
in, raises a family, and becomes materially successful in his new home?
Certainly, having the crafty Lavan for a father-in-law might prevent
Yaakov from becoming too comfortable. But,
Yaakov must have had a positive plan in mind when he declared in his
vow that he will “return in peace to my father’s house”;
he must not have expected to rely on alienation alone in order to
concentrate his mind on the goal of returning to Eretz Yisrael.
life in exile is enclosed in a parenthesis of two events that share a number
of similarities. In both his departure from Eretz Yisrael at Bet-El and
his separation from the land of Aram at Gal’ed, Yaakov uses stones to mark
the places and give them significance. And
both times, Yaakov makes a point of giving names -Hebrew
names - to the places. At the
site of the vision of the angels ascending and descending the ladder,
Yaakov called the name of that place Bet-El (House of G-d);
however, Luz was the name of the place at first
before Yaakov severs his ties with Lavan at the mound of stones he has
Lavan called it Y’gar Sahaduta (Mound of Testimony, in
Aramaic), while Yaakov called it Gal’ed (Mound of Testimony, in
Sahaduta are the only unquestionably
Aramaic words in the Torah. Yaakov
counters Lavan’s declaration with a Hebrew name, Gal’ed.
Sforno (R. Ovadia ben Yaakov Sforno, c. 1470-c.1550) notes that
Yaakov thereby demonstrates that throughout these years he did not change his
language, although Lavan spoke Aramaic.
(on Bereishit 45:12) takes
the position (unlike Rashi) that the Holy Tongue, which we call Hebrew,
was originally the language of Canaan, and that the Patriarchs, who came from
the East, originally spoke - and could always fall back on - Aramaic.
But they adopted Hebrew as a way of forging a distinct identity in
their Promised Land.
branch of the family that remained in Charan adopted Aramaic.
Betuel, father of Rivka and Lavan, as well as Lavan himself, are called
the Arameans (25:20; 31:24),
because they assimilated to their Aramean environment.
of Yaakov’s children born in Charan are given Hebrew names (29:32-30:24).
Leah and Rachel, although born in Charan, clearly join Yaakov’s
mission to maintain his ties to his homeland via the Hebrew language;
All their children’s names, except Levi’s, are given by them;
either an angel (according to Rashi) or Yaakov himself
(according to Rashbam) gives Levi his name.
the final confrontation between Yaakov and Lavan at Gal’ed turns into a
struggle for naming and language, and thus of identity.
Yaakov calls the place Gal’ed and never wavers.
Lavan equivocates; first
he suggests Y’gar Sahaduta, but then
Lavan said, “This mound is a witness between me and you this day”;
therefore he called its name Gal’ed
says that Lavan may have agreed to Yaakov’s Hebrew name, or he may have
repeated Y’gar Sahaduta, but the Torah translated Lavan’s Aramaic
into Hebrew. With Lavan the
Aramean, one cannot be sure.
in history, when the descendants of Yaakov would be slaves in Egypt, their
identity would again be preserved through a tenacious retention of their names
and their language:
were redeemed from Egypt because they did not change their names:
Reuven and Shimon they descended, and Reuven and Shimon they ascended.
They did not call Reuven, Rufus, nor Yehudah, Lullianus, nor Yosef,
Lustos, nor Binyamin, Alexandrae. Nor
did they change their language, but they would speak in the Holy Tongue (Vayikra Rabbah 32:5).
set the example for his descendants.
in exile, Yaakov’s descendants need to retain their connection to their
people and their land by using Hebrew names and learning Hebrew.
Yaakov lived the ideal, later expressed by Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav (1770-1811): “No matter where I go, it is always to Israel.”