Jacob’s 20-year stint in Laban’s service teaches us the virtues of capitalism: hard work, ingenuity, courage, and independence
This week’s Torah reading is one the best known and the most consequential for our Jewish history because it recounts Jacob’s travels back to his grandfather Abraham’s ancestral homeland in Mesopotamia and his servitude with his uncle Laban in exchange for the hand in marriage of Laban’s daughters (and Jacob’s nieces) Rachel and Leah.
Jacob’s first “job” was with his father’s family business back in Canaan, but his ethically challenged behavior in the incident with the “purchase” of his brother Esau’s primogeniture followed by the fraud he and his mother Rivkah perpetrated upon the dying Isaac to uphold that purchase and bestow upon him the family blessing made his position there untenable upon Isaac’s death. Thus it became advisable for Jacob to relocate, at least temporarily to the family’s branch office in today’s Iraq operated by his uncle Laban.
Upon arriving at his destination, Jacob immediately sees something he very much likes: his young and gorgeous niece Rachel. Young, fertile, and desirable women were a highly sought after commodity at the end of the second millenium BC. They were very much akin to what we today might called “preferred stock” in a closely held corporation. Acquiring one for free, even for a close family member, was therefore not really an option. Since Jacob had no wealth with which to purchase this stake in his uncle’s business, he had to barter the only thing he could: his “sweat equity”.
The agreed upon amount was seven years of service as a manager of Laban’s livestock business with no pay outside of, presumably, room and board. However, as often happens in corporate life to this very day, when it was time for Laban to pay up and grant Jacob the agreed upon preferred shares in his business, he did something rather different. He invited Jacob to a junket. We can imagine that there was plenty of booze and “entertainment” and when Jacob finally stumbled into his own bed and found in it a female body, he did what any man would do, only to find out in the morning that his semen had found its way not into the promised womb of Rachel, but to the much less desirable one of her elder sister Leah.
Now the people, our ancestors, that we are dealing with here, were shepherds. Just as the Native Americans of the plains knew the buffalo, as the Lap herders of the Arctic know the caribou, all they knew was their livestock, their sheep and their goats, and their camels. Such was their connection to their animals that they named their daughters after them. Rachel is a young ewe, Rivkah is a ewe that is lying down, and Leah is a tired ewe, perhaps one that is not long for this world.
Leah, with her “soft” eyes, was at the very least unattractive, perhaps even slightly disabled. She was most assuredly not “preferred stock” in Laban’s business, though she was nevertheless a type of equity. In other words, Laban did to Jacob what Jacob had done to Esau, came very close to cheating him, while not committing outright breach of contract. The explanation given by Laban, wherein it was not the custom of his people to marry off the young daughter before the elder was plausible as the same custom exists today in Eastern cultures like the Hindu one, but this is something he could have mentioned before Jacob put in the seven years of service. But oh well, seven more years it was, this time for the real prize, Rachel herself.
Anyone who has had the experience of starting out in corporate America can surely sympathize with Jacob, because at the end of fourteen years he had nothing but liabilities; a large and growing family, a managerial position that required his non-stop attention, and company stock that he could not trade. What he needed was liquidity; seed capital that would allow him to strike out on his own. Back then liquidity came in the form of sheep and goats and so Jacob had to work more, this time to earn the capital that would set him free.
Six more years passed and it became clear to Jacob that his time was now or never. The time to negotiate his exit had come. In this negotiation, Jacob had a bit of what many entrepreneurship gurus today call “an unfair advantage”. It had been decades since Laban himself had any hands on experience; being the CEO, he left the details to his operations guy, Jacob. Laban had no idea how many sheep and goats he had that had spotted coats, but he imagined that it wasn’t very many, so when Jacob suggested that his payout would be the spotted livestock, Laban was probably thinking that he was parting with about 10% of his liquid capital for six years of top level managerial labor. Not bad at all.
What Jacob knew and Laban didn’t was that Jacob had a perfectly legitimate way of making more spotted lambs and kids than nature intended. In other words, he had developed a bit of intellectual property on the side, property that he had not shared with his employer. Here we come to a rather startling and amusing description of Jacob’s patent application, so to speak, passed to us from the deep antiquity in which such IP must have been quite the thing. It is worth bringing the Jacob – Laban negotiation and the ensuing use of Jacob’s secret IP verbatim from the Torah in Chabad’s translation enhanced by yours truly (Genesis 30:25 – 43):
“It came to pass when Rachel had borne Joseph that Jacob said to Laban, “Send me away, and I will go to my place and to my land. Give me my wives and my children for whom I worked for you, and I will go, for you know the value of my work, which I have worked for you.” And Laban said to him, “If only I have now found favor in your eyes! I have divined and the Lord has blessed me for your sake. Specify your wages for me and I will give them.” To which Jacob replied: “You know how I have worked for you and how your livestock was with me. The little that you had before me has increased in multitude and the Lord blessed you upon my arrival; but now, when will I, too, provide for my own household?” “What shall I give you?” asked Laban and Jacob said, “You shall give me nothing, really. Let’s do this: I will return, I will pasture your flocks, and I will watch them. I will pass throughout all your flocks today, removing from them every speckled and spotted kid, and every brown lamb among the sheep, and every spotted and speckled one from among the goats, and this shall be my wages. My righteousness will testify for me at a future date, for it will come upon my wages before you. Whatever I take that is not speckled or spotted among the goats or brown among the sheep shall be counted as if stolen by me.” And Laban said, “Very well! If only it would be as you say!”
So Jacob removed on that day the ringed and the spotted male goats and all the speckled and spotted female goats, whichever had white on it, and all the brown sheep, and he gave them into the hands of his sons. Then Jacob went to tend Laban’s remaining animals three days travel from Laban’s compound. Once there, he took fresh branches of poplar, and hazelnut, and chestnut, and he peeled white streaks upon them, exposing the white that was in the branches under the bark. Then he placed the dappled branches into the watering troughs from which the livestock drank so that when the females came into heat they would be looking at them. As a result the flocks that came into heat looking at the dappled branches bore ringed, spotted, and striped young.
Then Jacob separated the new spotted sheep and he kept them together, away from Laban’s animals. Whenever the animals that were bearing their first would come into heat, Jacob would place the branches in the troughs before the eyes of the animals, so they could see them when coming into heat. Those that immediately conceived, he kept for himself and those that did not, he placed back with Laban’s animals. And (by means of this selective breeding) the man became exceedingly wealthy and he had prolific animals, and maidservants and manservants, and camels and donkeys.”
What transpires next teaches us that if you press your “unfair advantage” to the disadvantage of the other party, you must be ready for a hasty departure and this is indeed what Jacob does. He gathers his “sweat equity”, his wives and concubines and children and livestock, and sets forth westwards toward Canaan without as much as a goodbye.
As far as Jacob knows, he has taken only what is legally his, even if that is not how Laban may have seen it. But there is something Jacob doesn’t know. While he did not leave without asking and obtaining both Leah’s and Rachel’s agreement, it turns out that Rachel’s heart was not quite there, that she was not fully reconciled with leaving her homeland and most importantly her guardian spirits as represented by her family’s idols, the “terafim”. These objects must have been very old and very precious, passing down from one generation to the next, alleviating the anxiety of a life lived at the mercy of the elements and of other humans, always fearing floods and droughts and bandit raids. Leaving these objects behind was taking the ultimate leap of faith, reconciling to an ultimate break with the old and the familiar and embracing the new and strange God of Jacob’s clan and His unique Blessing. As it turns out, Leah was willing to take this plunge, while Rachel was not.
Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Itzchaki, the 11th century Torah commentator who spent his life in France and is considered by many the greatest biblical exegesis expert that had ever lived, gave Rachel the benefit of the doubt, commenting that she had removed the terafim so that her father Laban would not commit the sin of idol worship. Bowing to Rashi’s intellect, which is undoubtedly far superior to mine, I beg to differ. Had Rachel despised the idols as unclean and wished to remove them from her father’s household to save him from idolatry, why had she not simply disposed of them on her way to Canaan? Why not smash them into pieces and scatter them in the desert?
Rachel did quite the opposite. When Laban’s party, angry and armed, caught up with her and her husband’s caravan in Gilead just east of the Golan heights in today’s southwestern Syria, she hid the idols under her skirts, excusing herself from rising when Laban and his people came to search her tent for the missing idols by saying that she was unclean, taboo, in fact, by virtue of having her period. This was not the behavior of someone who did not deeply cherish the idols, in fact quite the opposite.
Rashi must have realized that too because later in his exegesis he opines that Rachel’s early death en route to Canaan came because of her sin of stealing the idols. I would add: because of her sin of worshipping the idols. Giving up on our old beliefs and cherished convictions is hard; it is the ultimate test of our inner strength, a test that Rachel our Mother has not quite met. In this, much truth can be found. Even one of our exalted matriarchs can be and indeed was only human, a young woman with the weight of the world on her shoulders, a woman who needed to cling to a small shred of familiar comfort on the way to a new life far from her childhood home, a life she would tragically not live to enjoy.
What “Vayeitzei” teaches us above all else is the value of hard work, and ingenuity, and taking calculated risks, and having the drive and the self-confidence to succeed, even against all odds. It teaches us to live by our hands and our wits, to be independent and to always strive to build something of lasting value that we can leave to our children. These are fundamental lessons of the Western civilization, of capitalism, in fact.
We don’t teach the Bible in schools anymore. The lessons of the Bible are forgotten or glossed over by new age interpretations that are as vacuous as they are ridiculous. But the text is there and we still have our eyes to see it, our wits to understand it, and our souls to live by it. Let’s strive to live today just like Jacob, Leah, and Rachel did all these years ago.
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