You would remember that at the end of the last Portion, Toledot, Isaac sent Jacob to Paddan-Aram to take a wife from there. This happened after the story of the “stolen blessing” – the blessing that Jacob received from Isaac while pretending to be Esau. In fact, Jacob was fleeing from the wrath of his brother. On his way to Haran, scared and exhausted, Jacob stopped at a certain place to rest for the night: He encountered a place and stayed there because the sun had set. He didn’t know it then, but this stop would affect countless future generations, because, according to Jewish tradition, this was the institution of our evening prayer.
You may know that there are three Jewish daily prayers: Morning Prayer – shacharit; afternoon prayer – mincha; and evening prayer – maariv. Talmud finds the roots of these prayers in the Torah. Thus, Abraham instituted the morning prayer: three times in Abraham’s story we read that Abraham got up early in the morning—when he was wondering what had happened to Lot; when he was fulfilling God’s command to send Ishmael away; and when he was going to sacrifice Isaac. Each of these times, he was overwhelmed with anguish, pain and questions—and each of these times, he got up early in the morning to pray and pour out his heart before God!
Isaac instituted the afternoon prayer when he went out to meditate in the field toward evening. The word rendered as “meditate” here, might also mean prayer. Did he pray for his bride? If so, his prayer was answered quickly, as it is right after this prayer that he saw his bride, “loved her, and found comfort after his mother’s death”. Thus, the afternoon prayer, mincha, is said to go back to Isaac.
Finally, Jacob instituted the evening prayer, as we just read: He encountered a place and stayed there because the sun had set. Ever since, the Jewish people have sought God in the evening prayer, maariv, since one of the most well-known encounters with God happened there and then: “Then he dreamed, and behold, a ladder was set up on the earth, and its top reached to heaven.”
First Up, Then Down
We read that “the angels of God were ascending and descending on” this ladder. There have been many interpretations of this dream in Jewish tradition, and one of the questions asked, concerned the order: Why did the angels, the denizens of heaven, first ascend and only then descend on the ladder?
A famous Jewish medieval commentator Rashi explains: A man’s experience in his own land is different from his experience in a strange country. Wherever he went, Jacob was always furnished with Divine protection, but on foreign soil, he needed different guardians. The angels that accompanied Jacob in the Holy Land did not go outside that Land, and therefore had to ascend to Heaven; then another group of angels descended to accompany him outside the Holy Land.
It’s interesting that at the very end of our portion, when Jacob returns to the Land, we hear once again about two groups of angels. There is an intriguing detail here that can be seen only in Hebrew: When Jacob saw the angels, “he said, “This is God’s camp”, so he named that place Mahanayim”. If you know some Hebrew, you would recognize that in fact, Jacob called this place “Two camps” since Mahanayim is a dual construction of the word “mahane” (camp). Maybe, Jacob indeed saw two teams of angels exactly like in his dream: the camp of the angels outside the Land, who came with him up to this point, and the camp of the angels of Israel, who came to greet him. “Mahanayim” means “Two camps”, and this brief account fits perfectly with Rashi’s approach!
Interesting interpretations of Jacob’s dream are based on Gematria, a Jewish interpretive method that assigns a numerical value to a Hebrew name or word based on the numerical values of its letters. The numerical value of the word sulam (ladder in Hebrew) is 130: סֻלָּם: (samekh-lamed-mem=60+30+40). Amazingly; 130 is also the value of the word Sinai:סיני samech-yod-nun-yod = 60-10-50-10). Thus, according to Gematria, Jacob’s ladder symbolizes the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.
Love for all Ages
The story of the love of Jacob and Rachel is one of the most beautiful romance stories in the Bible. While reading a very graphic description of their first meeting at the well, a Christian reader usually imagines a young man who is so excited to see this beautiful girl that he alone rolled the stone that several men were supposed to roll together: “… when Jacob saw Rachel the daughter of Laban his mother’s brother… Jacob went near and rolled the stone from the well’s mouth.” However, in Jewish tradition we find a very different picture. How old was Jacob when he fell for Rachel?
Let’s start from the end. Jacob was 130 years old when he came to Egypt. How old was Joseph then? Joseph was 30 years old “when he stood before Pharaoh.” There were 5 years of famine left when Joseph called Jacob into Egypt, which means that Joseph was 30+7+(7-5) = 39 years old when Jacob came to Egypt at the age of 130. Accordingly, Jacob was 91 years old when he fathered Joseph (indeed, “a son of his old age”).
In Padan Aram, after Joseph was born, Jacob asked Laban to let him go. He didn’t leave at that time though, but spent a total of 20 years with Laban: 14 years for his wives and 6 for his sheep and cattle. After Joseph was born, he stayed for another 6 years. This would imply that Jacob came to Padan Aram, and saw Rachel for the first time, when he was 91-14 = 77 years old.
The Biblical concept of age differs significantly from our modern understanding, and the story of 77-year old Jacob falling in love with Rachel proves it. In Hebrew, a person’s age is expressed in a very peculiar way: to say that Joseph was 30 years old, Scripture literally says that “Joseph was son of thirty”. Jacob was “son of 77” when he met Rachel!
In Genesis 31, after long years of serving Laban, Jacob decides to return home. When he leaves, his wife Rachel steals her father’s idols. Laban overtakes Jacob and accuses him of the theft. Jacob, not knowing of his wife’s theft, invites Laban to search the whole camp. Laban searches the tents but doesn’t find his idols, which Rachel hid by sitting on them. Thus, the story seemed to end favorably. Is it really the end, though?
Shortly after arriving in the land, Rachel, still a young woman, unexpectedly dies in childbirth. Most readers don’t see any connection between this death and Laban’s search in chapter 31. Yet Jewish commentators connect this tragic event to Jacob’s oath to Laban: ‘With whomever you find your gods, do not let him live.’ This oath was fulfilled—not by Laban, but by God Himself; moreover, the Hebrew shows that both Jacob and Rachel realized this connection as well. The name that the dying mother gives to her son – Ben-Oni – probably means “the son of my iniquity” (און שלי, “my evil”). Understandably, Jacob didn’t want the child to carry this name, therefore he called him Benjamin, “son of the right hand,” which may be also interpreted as “son of the oath,” since right hand in the Bible often symbolizes an oath.
The Scriptures tell us about the laws of the spiritual world. Unseen and often ignored, they are nonetheless just as inviolable as the law of gravity. This is why the emotional oath of Jacob ends up with the tragic death of his beloved wife. The connection is lost in translation, but the Hebrew Scriptures make it very clear.