Growth Requires Truth: Commentary on Parashat Vayeitzei
Jacob was given a blessing that promised him all the worldly goods and acclaim he could want. He would be rich and important. But this week’s portion, Vayeitzei, opens with Jacob using a rock as a pillow, utterly destitute and completely alone. Jacob is running from one of the central truths of his life: his mother has been willing to take advantage of his passivity to manipulate him, at the cost of his good relationships with the rest of his family.
That night, Jacob has a dream that tells him God will stay with him wherever he goes. When he wakes up, Jacob declares, “Truly, the Eternal is in this place, and I did not know it!” (Genesis 28:16). Even though everything is going against Jacob at this point, we don’t see him giving up hope: he is naturally resilient. He may wake up and realize the truths of his life and grow from this experience – a central message of this week’s parashah.
Jacob ultimately arrives at his Uncle Laban’s household. When he is brought back to the house, he tells Laban everything that has happened. After listening, Laban replies, “You are truly my bone and my flesh” (Genesis 29:14). While Laban immediately recognizes his sister’s handiwork in Jacob’s story, Jacob does not understand that this story is part of a larger pattern in his family. Jacob is not aware that his mother has been taking advantage of his passivity – a family pattern that he’ll need to transcend.
Not eager to take initiative or forge a new path and a new identity, Jacob stays with his uncle for a while. At first, it seems a mutually beneficial arrangement: Jacob agrees to work for Laban for seven years to marry Rachel. But Jacob does not realize that trickery is part of the dynamic with his mother’s family; he doesn’t suspect that his uncle might be manipulating him. One might think that he would be savvier at this point.
Why doesn’t he recognize the truth of the situation? It’s especially difficult to rise above family patterns, as they feel so familiar and comforting – even patterns that do not serve us and prevent us from reaching our full potential. Following Laban’s instructions probably felt just like following his mother’s instructions: she would tell him to do what she said, and he obeyed without questioning. It does not occur to him to question Laban or his motives.
When his two wives engage in a desperate battle of fertility, Jacob does not yet have the resilience or fortitude needed to navigate that rivalry. All three of them come from the same branch of the family; each has grown up with their assigned role in the family’s disfunction. I get the sense that Jacob does not know how to speak up for himself or navigate interpersonal difficulties, as he had always been discouraged from doing so.
When Rachel, Jacob’s favorite wife, confronts him with the evidence that he has been helping Leah bear son after son, he shrugs off her pain, saying, “Am I in place of God who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” (Genesis 30:2). He would rather dismiss Rachel’s pain than risk an uncomfortable conversation with Leah.
There are a set of truths about Jacob that Vayeitzei brings to light – he avoids confrontation, doesn’t force issues, and prefers to trick someone than admit the truth – each of these truths make his later actions surprising.
Eventually, Jacob figures out how to move past the generational patterns that were holding him back, preventing him from taking responsibility for his own future, and keeping him from navigating the complicated dynamics between his wives.
Jacob’s insight appears to come to him rather suddenly: Jacob realizes that Laban is taking advantage of him, makes plans to leave, and talks to both of his wives to be sure he has their support. It’s easy to imagine that this conversation is a difficult one for him. He has never been honest with them about his relationship with Laban, nor is it clear how they will respond. We get the impression that none of them have ever had a conversation like this before.
It turns out that Rachel and Leah have their own grievances against Laban and are happy to leave their father’s household. They even speak as one in spite of their own rivalry. Jacob had not realized that Laban cheated Rachel and Leah as well, selling them as concubines rather than giving them the full status of wives. Laban had pocketed Jacob’s wages instead of doing the right thing for his daughters and giving them the money as a dowry.
Finally having this conversation allows all three to admit these truths, recognize each other’s pain, and work together to leave Laban. It is a rare moment of truth for the family and pushes them to grow in ways they hadn’t thought possible. Thus, Jacob decides to leave Laban’s household and face his brother while Rachel and Leah agree to stop engaging in their baby war. They all grow from this difficult conversation.
We learn quite a bit from this story, but most of all we learn that living is about learning to transcend ourselves, our lives, and our limitations to leave a legacy worthy of the next generation. It is the hardest possible task – and the most necessary. There is no truth without growth, and there is no growth without truth.