November 20, 2004
The reason for the selection of this haftarah for Parshat Vayetze is obvious in the very first verse: “Then Jacob had to flee to the land of Aram; There Jacob served for a wife, for a wife he had to guard [sheep].\” (Hosea 12:13) Hosea used the story of Jacob’s experiences in Laban’s household, where he was forced to serve Laban seven years each in order to marry Leah and Rachel, in order to express God’s displeasure with the children of Israel. This conclusion, while not obvious in this verse, is drawn from the verse’s context which criticizes Ephraim [another name for the northern kingdom] for its idolatrous practices. (See verse 12:15; 13:1-3)
Rabbi David Kimche (Provance 12th century) expressed the conventional understanding of this verse: “[This verse expresses God’s displeasure over Israel’s ingratitude.] They do not remember the good that I did for their forefather when he fled from his brother, Esau… When he was there, he needed to work for Laban, guarding sheep, in order to be permitted to marry his wife [Leah]. And again, he needed to guard the sheep in order to be permitted to marry his second wife [Rachel]. All this time, I [God] was with him and I blessed him so that he might return [to Canaan] with wealth and possessions.” Kimche sees Hosea’s whole first prophecy as a monologue criticizing the people of Israel.
Most commentators favor Kimche’s approach. However, Rabbi Meir Malbim (Poland 19th century) interpreted this verse quite differently. He asserted that this opening prophecy is part of a dialogue between those who scoff at God and the prophet: “After the prophet’s reproof in the preceding verses, the scoffers reply: ‘Didn’t Jacob flee to the field of Aram because he deceived Esau by taking the right of the first born and Isaac’s blessing? If so, Jacob was also guilty of deception. Consequently, Laban deceived him and he was forced to marry both sisters and to work guarding sheep for the both of them. This proves that our ancestors were accustomed to deception [and we are not doing anything different from our ancestors].’” (Adapted and abridged) The later verses (12:15; 13:1-3) then turn into God’s response to this ridicule.
In either case, the message of this passage speaks to the question of the people’s loyalty to God and their religious integrity. The following midrash takes the episode mentioned in this opening verse and changes its focus entirely. It turns it into a message of imploring the people to have patience with the process of redemption: “Said Rabbi Yochanan: It is written, ‘And Jacob fled to the fields of Aram. There Jacob served for a wife…’ Rabbi Yochanan explained to them: ‘Your situation [those expecting redemption to be immediate] is similar to that of Jacob, your forbearer. Just as Jacob, before he married was indentured to Laban and after he married, was still indentured to Laban, so, too, you are dominated before the birth of the redeemer, and even after the advent of the redeemer, you will still be under domination.’” (Genesis Rabbah 70:20)
This midrash turns the opening verse of the haftarah into a warning against false expectations when it comes to redemption. Jacob’s life, even under God’s providential guidance, was still complicated. We should not have a false sense that our lives will be any less complicated. This, according to Rabbi Yochanan, should not be a reason for loss of faith. Rather, faith entails patience.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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