Any great lover of the Torah must eventually confront the simple truth that certain parts of this book are just not that interesting. We have been trained to treat every word of this text as equally sacred and important, and so we are loathe to admit it when, suddenly mired in a section full of the most prosaic minutiae, our eyes begin glaze over and we wonder, “What is this doing here?!”
To wit, in the book of Exodus there are four complete parshot detailing the construction of the Tabernacle and describing the priestly garments. Four! And the second two mostly just repeat what’s in the first two. If reading the intricate details of how sockets go into planks weren’t challenging enough on its own, this stuff comes on the heels of the Revelation at Mount Sinai, the most theologically exciting event in Jewish history. That’s quite an act to follow with an instruction manual.
Why would a book that contains some of the most epic stories in world literature also be interested in excruciating accounts of seemingly insignificant processes? Our commentators struggle to find answers, desperately seeking symbolic depth in the details.
This week’s parsha presents them with just such a challenge. The parsha is Vayeitzei, which takes us through the formative years in Jacob’s young life and his journey into adulthood. It is an action-packed narrative, with one gripping scene after another: we begin with the classic “Jacob’s Ladder” dream; then Jacob falls instantly in love with Rachel, only to get tricked into marrying her sister Leah; he ends up married to both of them and their maidservants, and has twelve children with them. There is no shortage of drama in this parsha.
At the end of all that, Jacob decides it is time to go home. Remember that all of this has happened during a 20-year journey that began when he fled from home in fear of his older brother, Esau, who was getting ready to kill him. So he goes to his father-in-law, Lavan, and asks for permission to leave. Jacob has been working for Lavan all these years, so it’s time to settle accounts. So they come up with a deal.
And this is where things get, well, a little less than riveting.
Jacob begins this elaborate explanation of how he’s going to get paid in animals. He’s going to take “every brown sheep and every spotted and speckled goat.” (Gen. 30:32) Okay, that’s intricate detail #1. We can handle that.
Then we hear about how Jacob moves through the flock and picks out all the streaked and spotted he-goats and the speckled and spotted she-goats and all the brown sheep. Okay, intricate detail #2, and it follows from #1, so it’s getting a little repetitive, but we’re hanging in there.
And then…things go into very strange territory. For we are thrown into a full description of the mating process that Jacob uses to breed the kinds of animals he wants. So buckle in, this gets pretty complicated:
Jacob then got fresh shoots of poplar, and of almond and plane, and peeled white stripes on them, laying bare the white of the shoots. The rods that he had peeled, he set up in front of the goats in the troughs, the water receptacles, that the goats came to drink from. Their mating occurred when they came to drink, and since the goats mated by the rods, the goats brought forth streaked, speckled and spotted young. But Jacob dealt separately with the sheep… (Gen. 30:37-40)
לז וַיִּקַּח–לוֹ יַעֲקֹב, מַקַּל לִבְנֶה לַח—וְלוּז וְעַרְמוֹן; וַיְפַצֵּל בָּהֵן, פְּצָלוֹת לְבָנוֹת—מַחְשֹׂף הַלָּבָן, אֲשֶׁר עַל–הַמַּקְלוֹת. לח וַיַּצֵּג, אֶת–הַמַּקְלוֹת אֲשֶׁר פִּצֵּל, בָּרְהָטִים, בְּשִׁקְתוֹת הַמָּיִם—אֲשֶׁר תָּבֹאןָ הַצֹּאן לִשְׁתּוֹת לְנֹכַח הַצֹּאן, וַיֵּחַמְנָה בְּבֹאָן לִשְׁתּוֹת. לט וַיֶּחֱמוּ הַצֹּאן, אֶל–הַמַּקְלוֹת; וַתֵּלַדְןָ הַצֹּאן, עֲקֻדִּים נְקֻדִּים וּטְלֻאִים. מ וְהַכְּשָׂבִים, הִפְרִיד יַעֲקֹב…
I’ll spare you the rest. But the Torah goes on to describe the process he uses with the sheep, and then another process detailing how he got his flock to be sturdier and Lavan’s to be weaker. And it all works, so that in the end Jacob gets very wealthy, with large flocks of various kinds.
Now, what in the world is going on here? Besides the fact that we have no idea what Jacob is doing, there’s the larger narrative question of why we have to get all the gory details about ancient animal husbandry. How could the Torah think this was a part of the story worth telling? What is the point of it all?
So we turn to our commentators, searching for answers.
There are, indeed, some explanations of the meaning of this scene scattered across the various Midrashim: This shows how much Jacob liked to work hard (Mishnat Rabbi Eliezer) Or, it shows how ready God was to do a miracle for him (Midrash Shir HaShirim 1:17) More mystically inclined texts, like the Zohar, (Vayeitzei 32) suggest that this section shows how Jacob had tapped into secret powers that gave him mastery over nature.
But none of these explanations really get to the question of the painstakingly detailed nature of the description. The Torah could have just told us Jacob did all this. Why did it have to take us through every step of the process?
Another way to think about the meaning of this scene is to pan out and see where it appears in the larger narrative. One thing we do know about this animal breeding passage is that it directly follows the long section detailing the birthing of Jacob’s own children. This seems like a significant parallel.
When we turn back and review the account of Jacob becoming a father of twelve, we begin to see that this was a period of Jacob’s life characterized by a total lack of control. Let’s take a look:
– First, the births themselves seem to come like rapid-fire, at an almost overwhelming pace. Leah starts off with four in a row: Reuven! Shimon! Levi! Judah! They all arrive in the space of five verses.
– Then, when Rachel is unable to have children, she complains to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die!” (30:1) He loses his temper and says, “Can I take the place of God, who has denied you the fruit of the womb?!” It is an exasperated admission that he has no ultimate control over the reproductive process.
– Finally, we hear of Rachel and Leah bargaining over their rights to Jacob with the special aphrodisiacs found by Reuben. When they settle on an arrangement, independent of Jacob, Leah announces to him when he comes home, ”‘You are to sleep with me, for I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes.’ And he lay with her that night.“ (30:16) So Jacob also seems to have little control over who he shares his bed with. (That, after all, has been true from his first night of marriage!)
With all that in mind, we arrive at our scene with the speckled and spotted goats. Is it possible, then, that as this chaotic period of birthing and mating in Jacob’s own life has come to a close, he turns to animal husbandry and finds there the control he lacked in his own “husbandry.” The strange science of manipulating animal births to produce the exact colors he desires must, on some level, serve to soothe the frazzled nerves he has after all the tumult and unpredictability in his own mating life.
If that is true, then what seemed like an overkill in details turns out to be exactly the point of the story. Jacob needed this very strict, mapped-out, plan of breeding to bring him back to a sense of control over the growth of his household.
And we, the readers, need to follow Jacob through this process, to feel him working hard to master his environment, in order to believe he is ready, at the end of the parsha, to go home and face his demons.
If that’s true, then this scene is not a tedious sidetrack from the main narrative; it is critical to movement of the narrative itself. It also means that what seems like a description of menial farm labor turns out to be a therapeutic journey into the depths of Jacob’s psyche – with all the intense drama of anxiety, sexuality, insecurity and confidence.
This approach may also help shed light on other “uninteresting” parts of the Torah. That is, whenever we encounter an exceedingly detail-heavy section of the text, we would do well to take a step back and wonder what might be prompting such an obsessive focus on the mundane.
Take, for example, those parshot from Exodus that methodically detail the construction of the Tabernacle. Not a few commentators have noted their juxtaposition with the narrative of the sin of the Golden Calf, and concluded that the Tabernacle was ordered in response to this calamity, as a mechanism for atoning for the sin. But even if we accept that interpretation, the question we had above remains: why do we need to hear about the measurement of planks and the number of sockets?
The great modern commentator, Aviva Zornberg, begins to suggest an answer in her essay on the subject, when she calls the Tabernacle (Mishkan): “A Therapeutic Project.” There she writes:
There is an intimate, repressed sense of the Mishkan’s function that has everything to do with the Golden Calf. Viewed psychoanalytically, the Golden Calf was a disaster that was always waiting to happen. The Mishkan comes to engage with a profound pathology that finally comes to crisis in the Golden Calf. (“Exodus: The Particulars of Rapture,” p. 320)
If the construction of the Tabernacle is an attempt to grapple with the “pathology” of boundary-breaking represented by the wild, ecstatic dancing around the Golden Calf, then it is not so surprising that the Children of Israel would need a quiet, precise, almost subdued kind of therapy, as a way of cooling down the fires of their sin. Like their father Jacob before them, they underwent a process of regaining control over their lives by slowly, patiently focusing on the tiniest details of the task in front of them.
We, the readers of the Torah, are also being asked in these moments to have patience as our ancestors move through the careful rituals they require to regain their sanity. It may not make for the most interesting reading, but when you love someone, you stick by them even when they are down.