This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Elliot Dine
At the outset of our parashah, Yakov sees angels going up and down (עולים ויורדים) a ladder. After twenty years living with Lavan in Haran, Yakov dreams instead “that all the he-goats mounting (עולים) the flock are streaked, speckled and mottled (Bereishit, 31:12).” He cannot even dream beyond his livelihood. How does Yakov fall so far? More importantly, how does he snap out of it, so that by the end of the Parasha he once again meets up with angels (32:3)?
To answer these questions, we must understand how Yakov comes to depend on the spotted sheet for his livelihood, and why he may specifically think about their mounting/mating habits. After marrying and having 12 of his children, Yakov makes a deal with Lavan to go back to shepherding Lavan’s flock to “make provisions for his own household (30:30).” This deal gives Yakov all the speckled, streaked or mottled sheep and leaves Lavan with all the pure white ones. Lavan readily agrees to this deal, as speckled sheep are the much rarer kind – it’s a recessive genetic trait- yet Yakov has a plan that he puts in place right after making the deal.
This plan involves Yakov breeding “vigorous” sheep in front of peeled rods and poplar branches, so that the sheep will have the images of white spots on black branches or black spots on white reeds at the time of mating. Yakov’s plan may be based on a folk belief that images present at the time of mating will be imprinted on the embryos, and the progeny will thus match the speckled and streaked nature of the poplar branches. Some modern commentators, such as Yehuda Feliks, try to argue instead that Yakov’s plan was rooted in sound concepts of genetics and animal breeding. Specifically, “vigorous” animals are more likely to be heterozygotes and therefore give birth to speckled sheep even though the parents are completely white. As a biologist and reader of the text, I find this argument less than compelling, mostly because reliance on folk beliefs seems to appear as a motif throughout our parasha, most notably with the story of Rachel requesting Reuven’s mandrakes.
Regardless of its basis, Yakov’ plan raises a troubling ethical question: isn’t Yakov taking unfair advantage of Lavan in this agreement, making Lavan think he’s getting a great deal while having this stratagem in his back pocket?!
Yakov seems to have become the trickster that Lavan is. Professor Nahum Sarna points out that the language used in the agreement, with its strained repetitions of the whiteness (Lavan) of the sheep, seems to blare out that Yakov has out-Lavaned Lavan in this deal. Moreover, Yakov appears to think little of God’s role in his livelihood, instead relying on folk beliefs or his knowledge of animal breeding to bring wealth to his family. Unlike his wives, Yakov only mentions God twice up to this point in his time at Haran; first when he yells at Rachel “Can I take the place of the Lord?! (30:2)”, and secondly when he makes this deal with Lavan and repeats Lavan’s words to state “And G-d has blessed You [Lavan] wherever I [Yakov] turned (30:30).” Yakov has lost all sense of God’s promise at Bet-El and cannot even think that God has provided for and protected him in Haran. rather it has all gone to Lavan. Thus, Yakov turns to and turns into Lavan to provide for his family.
So how does Yakov snap out of it? Clearly, God’s appearance to Yakov in his dream about speckled sheep leads Yakov to realize that God was with him this whole time (see 31: 10-14). But what leads Yakov to merit God’s appearance? Other cases of God appearing to those in need (even those who are undeserving) necessitate the person crying out and God hearing those cries, such as with the stories of Hagar or the Israelites in Egypt. Yet Yakov never cries out or turns to God even when he is in danger. So what allows Yakov, who has disregarded God in Haran, to see Him again?
I think the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’ emphasis on the importance of “the face of the other” is helpful here. Immediately before God appears to Yakov, “Yakov saw the face of Lavan, and it was not disposed towards him as in the past (31:2).” Professor Robert Alter notes that the physical concreteness of this wording and image is striking and should not be overlooked; rather, Yakov looking at Lavan’s face and recognizing its inconstancy may be the key to the story. The person who Yakov has spent the last twenty years following and imitating changes his face, in stark contrast to the God of Yakov’s fathers. Yakov makes the contrast explicit in his words to Rachel and Leah: “I see your father’s face and it is not disposed towards me as in times past, but the God of my fathers has been with me (31:5).” Yakov sees the face of another, Lavan, and recognizes its lack of godliness due to its changing nature. Therefore, Yakov turns back to the face of the Ultimate Other and recognizes it once again, even when it takes the form of speckled sheep.
Elliot Dine (SBM 2010, 2015) is a third-year PhD student in the Department of Molecular Biology at Princeton University.