Shabbat Table Topics – Parashat Vayetze

Religiosity of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs

 Is it possible that not all our ancestors were pure monotheistic believers, and that for some, belief in one God was rather the result of a religious journey?  Rachel's Stealing of the Terafim raises this question for the reader who wonders why Rachel would have stolen her father's figurines. 

  • Did she do so for her own personal use, perhaps having inherited some of her father's idolatrous beliefs? Or did she steal them so as prevent Lavan from such worship?  If the latter, do the ends justify the means? Compare RashiBereshit 31:19About R. Shelomo Yitzchaki and Ibn Ezra.
  • Debate the two possibilities at your Shabbat table.  Are there any other incidents in the lives of the Avot which might lead one to question their level of religiosity?1

Messages for the Present or Future?

Commentators debate whether Yaakov's Dream held a message for him in the present (Bemidbar Rabbah) or for the Nation of Israel in the future (Tanchuma).  A similar disagreement can be found with regards to the significance of Yaakov's Wrestling with the man/angel.

Do you think it is possible that events that transpired in the Patriarch's lives could have held meaning only for future generations, or does everything in Torah need to have held some significance for its own time as well?  What would be the purpose of sharing with Yaakov a foreshadowing of events which were first to occur thousands of years after he died?

In-laws or Outlaws in Tanakh

There are several stories in Tanakh which detail the relationship between a husband and his father-in-law.  These include the stories of Yaakov and Lavan, Moshe and Yitro,2 and David and Shaul.  A comparison of the narratives (see In-laws) shows that while they all share certain features, only Moshe and Yitro enjoyed a positive relationship.

  • Was it inevitable that Yaakov and David would have problems with their in-laws? Was there tension from the beginning?  If not, what changed to cause the strife? How were Moshe and Yitro able to avoid the same pitfalls?
  • It is a stereotype that in-laws do not get along.  What is it in the nature of such a relationship that often causes tension?  Do you think that any of the standard sources of friction played a role in the episodes in Tanakh?

How Old?

We often ignore the ages of characters in Tanakh, making assumptions based on the overall narrative rather than the given facts.  When reading closely, however, some of the ages, or unknowns, turn out to be quite surprising.  Challenge your Shabbat Table to think about the following:

  • How far apart in age were the sons of Yaakov? Though one might think that Yosef was much younger than his older siblings, a simple reading of the verses suggests that Yaakov bore all of his first 12 children3 in just 6 years!  Considering that seven were from Leah alone, how is this possible?
  • How old were Shimon and Levi when they massacred the population of Shekhem?   The verses would seem to suggest that they were at most 12 and 13!  Is this tenable?  For other possible ways of reading the siblings' ages and their ramifications, see The Births and Relative Ages of Yaakov's Children.

Other stories outside of our parashah also raise age-related questions:

  • How old was Avraham when he married Keturah?  Did he really remarry at the advanced age of (at least) 140, as the verses seem to suggest?  See Avraham's Many Wives.
  • How old were Kayin and Hevel at the time of Hevel's murder?  How old were Yaakov and Esav during the sale of the birthright, or Rivka at her marriage?  Was Yitzchak an adult or a child at the Akeidah? These ages are all unknown, but the various possibilities can greatly impact each story.  See how several artists render the characters in Kayin and Hevel in ArtAkeidat Yitzchak in Art, Rivka at the Well in Art, and Sale of the Birthright in Art.  Afterwards, compare to the opinions of traditional commentators.
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