Jacob the Refugee: Vayetze 5776

It’s not just that Jacob is a refugee when he arrives at the well near Haran; he also has a presumptuous attitude. This much is apparent from the first sentences that he utters to the local men. Calling out to them with a tone of familiarity, “My brothers, where are you from?” he proceeds to criticize and them direct them. Jacob says, “It is still broad daylight, too early to round up the animals; water the flock and take them out to pasture.” The shepherds seem to have been taking a siesta in the afternoon, using the well-worn excuse that they need to wait for more workers before returning to work. Jacob implies that they are lazy; his gallant feat of single-handedly rolling off the stone emphasizes that point. Perhaps it impresses Rachel, but I doubt it makes friends of his new neighbors.

Midrash Pesikta Zutrata (29:7) understands Jacob as a budding lawyer. His complex inquiry is designed to ascertain whether they are hired hands, in which case they still owe hours to their employer, or if they are the owners of the flocks, in which case they are missing the opportunity to maximize their profit. The Midrash concludes, “from here we learn that when an important man goes to another place and sees something out of order, that he must intervene with them and not say, ‘let my soul be quiet.’” This reading assumes that Jacob would have preferred to mind his own business, but since he already understood himself to be an “important man,” he felt obliged to intervene. A less charitable reading would be that Jacob is never willing to leave things be. He is on the lookout for opportunity, and minding his own business is not in keeping with his character. 

Midrash Bereshit Rabba plays up the judgmental side of Jacob—he views the shepherds as evil from the outset, before he has even gotten to the well. Most of the rabbinic commentators continue this line of interpretation. Rashi has Jacob noting that the shepherds are “rovtzim”—lying on the ground like tired animals, eager to knock off work early. Seforno says that, “a righteous man despises dishonesty,” citing Proverbs 29:27. Or HaHayim takes another tack—Jacob is motivated by concern for the thirsty animals. Even if Jacob is just trying to help, the laconic replies of the locals do not convey much appreciation. Perhaps they resent the arrogant tone of the over-eager immigrant. 

It is possible that Jacob is focused on business ethics or animal welfare, but when Rachel (the ewe) appears he quickly refocuses his attention, presumably to the relief of the other shepherds. Avot D’Rabbi Natan (B 40) has them say, “If you are looking for conversation, here is his daughter Rachel.” Jacob is only too happy to abandon the gruff guys and turn to wooing his first cousin. Indeed, Hizkuni says that his conversation with the shepherds was meant to distract them from Rachel; “He was afraid that she would go with them, and he wanted to talk with her.” In one of my favorite word-plays in the Torah, he “waters” (va’yashk) the flock, and kisses Rachel (va’yishak), both verbs spelled the same way, וישק

Tempting though it may be to turn our focus to the kissing cousins, let’s remain with Jacob and the other shepherds. Jacob is a runaway, a refugee, and he has zero social capital, at least until he meets Rachel. The commentator Moses Al Sheikh (16C Turkey, Israel) believes that Jacob wants to criticize the locals from the outset, but he knows that he will fail if he does not first establish rapport. He calls them, “my brothers,” as a way of establishing commonality—Al Sheikh says this means, “You are people of equal value to me.” Then he asks where they are from—again to establish connection, not to imply that they come from an evil city where all shepherds are lazy or dishonest. Only after these attempts at establishing connection does he proceed to criticize them and demonstrate with his own action that there is a better and more noble way to conduct oneself. 

Sometimes refugees are entirely accidental—they have been displaced by a natural disaster or by a war that engulfs their region. Other times  however, refugees are restless people—unwilling to accept an unjust situation—and unable to make peace with their circumstances. In such cases—and this certainly is so with Jacob—they flee for their lives, taking their righteous indignation along for the ride. Arriving in a new society, some such refugees decide to keep their heads down: This time I won’t make trouble. But others are emboldened by the first flight, and are unwilling to hold their peace. They see problems in their new home, and speak out loud.

I think of examples of both types. Some Jewish immigrants came to America from oppressive lands and focused their efforts entirely on securing a safe and prosperous future for their families. They became deeply conservative, concerned mostly with stability and survival. Others came over radicalized—outraged by the oppression that they had experienced, sensitive to the sorrows of others, and eager to intervene. Consider the hutzpah of a Holocaust survivor like Abraham Joshua Heschel, or my own childhood rabbi Andre Ungar. Just a few years in this country and they were already marching in protest for civil rights. What gave them the right to criticize the land that had so warmly welcomed them? Like Jacob, they arrived in town with appreciation but also with attitude.

All of the above is part of a complicated attempt I am making to understand the estrangement experienced by many immigrants, especially Muslim immigrants, in Europe. I have zero interest in making excuses for terrorists. There is no justification for murder, and it would be outrageous to expect any nation to ignore threats to public safety. What I do think is worth exploring is the deep alienation between some of the immigrant communities and the larger nations that have failed to absorb them. The immigrants bring difference with them—different language, different clothing, different food and different faith. It is naïve to expect such significant changes to go unnoticed. And it is hardly surprising that some members of the host culture resent some of the newcomers, even as some of the newcomers have deep criticism and anger toward their new home. 

It seems to me that a smooth and peaceful absorption of large numbers of refugees is the exception rather than the rule. Tensions between newcomers and established residents are a constant of human experience, even when the two groups share a common religious identity. I think of Spanish Jews who fled Iberia in 1492 (megorashim) and promptly criticized their North African co-religionists (toshavim) who had welcomed the refugees into their homes. And of the German Jews here in NY who were appalled by the dirty and superstitious (that is, traditionally observant) cousins from Eastern Europe. The same thing has played out in Israel (think of the shanty towns where poor Sephardim were parked in the 1950s) and it is no wonder that refugees who lack a cultural or religious commonality with their hosts will experience even greater tensions.

This is why the Jewish community created organizations to help with resettlement. It is not a process of one month or one year. It may take a generation or more before the different layers of population can unite into a polity. Immigrants should reserve some judgment of their new home, but established residents also need to accept that the newcomers are bound to challenge and redefine the society, often in wonderful ways. 

Father Jacob had many talents—he brought strength and creativity with him, and he helped his cousins to prosper. He also cleaned them out in the end, and they were not entirely wrong to be suspicious of him. I read this part of his story as a cautionary tale. Welcoming refugees means accepting some instability. Investment in their success, fair treatment, and appreciation for their distinctiveness are necessary strategies for both them and the broader society. Handled well, the welcome of refugees can lead to a virtuous cycle of an enriched culture and economic growth. Handled poorly, it leads to fear, hatred and violence. It is our responsibility as Jews and as citizens to lead our society towards a virtuous approach to welcoming refugees.

בראשית פרק כט, איב

(א) וַיִּשָּׂא יַעֲקֹב רַגְלָיו וַיֵּלֶךְ אַרְצָה בְנֵי קֶדֶם: (ב) וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה בְאֵר בַּשָּׂדֶה וְהִנֵּה שָׁם שְׁלֹשָׁה עֶדְרֵי צֹאן רֹבְצִים עָלֶיהָ כִּי מִן הַבְּאֵר הַהִוא יַשְׁקוּ הָעֲדָרִים וְהָאֶבֶן גְּדֹלָה עַל פִּי הַבְּאֵר: (ג) וְנֶאֶסְפוּ שָׁמָּה כָל הָעֲדָרִים וְגָלֲלוּ אֶת הָאֶבֶן מֵעַל פִּי הַבְּאֵר וְהִשְׁקוּ אֶת הַצֹּאן וְהֵשִׁיבוּ אֶת הָאֶבֶן עַל פִּי הַבְּאֵר לִמְקֹמָהּ: (ד) וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם יַעֲקֹב אַחַי מֵאַיִן אַתֶּם וַיֹּאמְרוּ מֵחָרָן אֲנָחְנוּ: (ה) וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם הַיְדַעְתֶּם אֶת לָבָן בֶּן נָחוֹר וַיֹּאמְרוּ יָדָעְנוּ: (ו) וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם הֲשָׁלוֹם לוֹ וַיֹּאמְרוּ שָׁלוֹם וְהִנֵּה רָחֵל בִּתּוֹ בָּאָה עִם הַצֹּאן: (ז) וַיֹּאמֶר הֵן עוֹד הַיּוֹם גָּדוֹל לֹא עֵת הֵאָסֵף הַמִּקְנֶה הַשְׁקוּ הַצֹּאן וּלְכוּ רְעוּ: (ח) וַיֹּאמְרוּ לֹא נוּכַל עַד אֲשֶׁר יֵאָסְפוּ כָּל הָעֲדָרִים וְגָלֲלוּ אֶת הָאֶבֶן מֵעַל פִּי הַבְּאֵר וְהִשְׁקִינוּ הַצֹּאן: (ט) עוֹדֶנּוּ מְדַבֵּר עִמָּם וְרָחֵל בָּאָה עִם הַצֹּאן אֲשֶׁר לְאָבִיהָ כִּי רֹעָה הִוא: (י) וַיְהִי כַּאֲשֶׁר רָאָה יַעֲקֹב אֶת רָחֵל בַּת לָבָן אֲחִי אִמּוֹ וְאֶת צֹאן לָבָן אֲחִי אִמּוֹ וַיִּגַּשׁ יַעֲקֹב וַיָּגֶל אֶת הָאֶבֶן מֵעַל פִּי הַבְּאֵר וַיַּשְׁקְ אֶת צֹאן לָבָן אֲחִי אִמּוֹ: (יא) וַיִּשַּׁק יַעֲקֹב לְרָחֵל וַיִּשָּׂא אֶת קֹלוֹ וַיֵּבְךְּ: (יב) וַיַּגֵּד יַעֲקֹב לְרָחֵל כִּי אֲחִי אָבִיהָ הוּא וְכִי בֶן רִבְקָה הוּא וַתָּרָץ וַתַּגֵּד לְאָבִיהָ:

פסיקתא זוטרתא (לקח טוב) בראשית פרשת ויצא פרק כט סימן ז

ז) ויאמר הן עוד היום גדול. אמר להם אם שומרי שכר אתם, הן עוד היום גדול וחייבים אתם לרעות את הצאן, ואם שלכם אתם רועים, לא עת האסף המקנה, מיכן לאדם חשוב שהולך למקום אחד ורואה דבר שלא כהוגן, שצריך למנעם ואל יאמר שלום עלי נפשי:

רשי בראשית פרשת ויצא פרק כט פסוק ז

(ז) הן עוד היום גדול לפי שראה אותם רובצים, כסבור שרוצים לאסוף המקנה הביתה ולא ירעו עוד, אמר להם הן עוד היום גדול, כלומר אם שכירים אתם לא שלמתם פעולת היום, ואם הבהמות שלכם אף על פי כן לא עתל האסף המקנה וגו‘:

ספורנו בראשית פרשת ויצא פרק כט פסוק ז

(ז) הן עוד היום גדול. הצדיק ימאס את העול גכ אל האחרים כאמרו תועבת צדיקים איש עול (משלי כט, כז):

אור החיים בראשית פרשת ויצא פרק כט פסוק ז

(ז) ויאמר הן עוד וגו‘. טעמו אשר נעשה שופט להם, הוא לצד צער בעלי חיים דבר תורה (במ לב ב) וחש על הצאן. ועוד רצה לדעת אם טעם עכבתם היא לצד שאין זמן להשקות הצאן ולרעות כי העיר רחוקה היא והצאן בייתות הנה, ודבר זה נוגע לו לדעת דרך בא בו, ומתשובתם ידע כי לא לסיבת ריחוק העיר הם עושים:

מסכתות קטנות מסכת אבות דרבי נתן נוסחא ב פרק מ דה ועל שהוא

ועל שהוא יודע יודע ועל שאינו יודע אינו יודע אלו אנשי חרן בשעה שאמר להם יעקב אחי מאין אתם ויאמרו מחרן אנחנו ויאמר להם הידעתם את לבן בן נחור ויאמרו ידענו ויאמר להם השלום לו ויאמרו שלום (שם כט דהו‘). ואם לשיחה אתה מבקש והנה רחל בתו באה עם הצאן (שם שם):

חזקוני בראשית פרשת ויצא פרק כט פסוק ז

(ז) לא עת האסף דוגמא ואין איש מאסף אותי הביתה. השקו הצאן ולכו רעו למה היה ליעקב לומר להם כל כך, אלא מתיירא היה שמא תלך לה רחל עם הרועים והוא היה רוצה לדבר עמה.

אלשיך בראשית פרשת ויצא פרק כט דה ויאמר להם

(ד) הנה בראותו אותם רובצים על הבאר והוא לא חשב לעיכוב גלילת האבן מעל פי הבאר, חשבם למתרפים במלאכתם וכן לא יעשה, ומה גם אם היו שכירים, והיה חפץ לומר להם הן עוד היום [גדול] כמו שאמרו זל (בראשית רבה ע י) שהיה מוכיחם שהיו פושעים במלאכה. ועל כן לו היחל בהגיעו להוכיחם יקשה בעיניהם מאד באמרם כי טרם בואו לגור ישפוט שפוט, על כן התחיל בדברים אחרים ואמר מאין באתם עם יודעו הדבר, כי קרוב לעיר היה. והוסיף לדבר ולומר (ה) הידעתם וכו‘. ואחר כך התחיל בתוכחת מגולה הן עוד היום וכו‘, ולהיות שיקרה אל הרואה אנשים בלתי הגונים לשאל להם מאין באתם, כלומר אולי בעיר בלתי כשרים נתגדלתם, על כן בפתח דבריו קראם אחי כלומר אנשים כערכי, ואחר כך שאל מאין אתם לבל יחושו שעל רעתם היה שואלם: