Our parashah opens with the 63-year-old Jacob fleeing his parents’ house, his family, and his homeland, to escape his twin brother Esau’s murderous wrath and thirst for revenge. With the clothes he wore and a wooden staff to lean on as his sole possessions, he went into exile.
The Talmud (Megillah 17a) calculates the chronology of these events: Abraham was 86 when Ishmael was born (Genesis 16:16) and 100 when Isaac was born (21:5), making Ishmael 14 years older than Isaac. Isaac was 60 when Jacob and Esau were born (25:26), so Ishmael was 74.
Since Ishmael lived 137 years (25:17), he still had another 63 years left to live. Therefore when Ishmael died, Jacob was 63 years old.
We know from tradition that Esau married Ishmael’s daughter Mahalath (28:9) immediately after Ishmael died, which means that Jacob and Esau were 63 when their father Isaac gave them their blessings (27:27-41).
So Jacob was 63 when he departed from Beer Sheva, at the start of Parashat Vayeitzei.
During Jacob’s time with Laban he begat eleven sons and his daughter, and the last to be born there was Joseph. Immediately after Joseph’s birth, Jacob began labouring for his own wages, to be paid as flock (30:25). Now since Jacob served Laban 14 years for his two daughters and 6 years for his flock, a total of 20 years (31:41), Joseph was born when his father Jacob was 77, which was 6 years before the family left Laban’s house for Canaan.
Now Joseph was 30 when he became ruler of Egypt (41:46), and from then another nine years passed until his father and brothers came down to Egypt – seven years of plenty and two years of famine (41:29-30, 45:6), at which time Joseph was 39, and Jacob told Pharaoh that he was 130 years old (47:9).
A simple calculation shows a major discrepancy here: Isaac was 123 and Jacob was 63 when he left his parents’ home; at the end of Jacob’s 20 years with Laban, Isaac was 143, Jacob was 83, and Joseph was 6. Thus 33 years later, when the 39-year-old Joseph was 9 years into his rulership of Egypt, his father Jacob should have been 116 years old; but as we have seen, he was actually 130 years old!
Clearly, 14 years are missing from this chronology, 14 years unaccounted for in the Torah’s account of Jacob’s life.
The Torah hints at this 14-year break with exquisite subtlety, in the opening verse of Parashat Vayeitzei:
וַיֵּצֵ֥א יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב מִבְּאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ חָרָֽנָה׃
“Jacob went out from Beer Sheva; and he went to Haran” (Genesis 28:10).
The cantillation-mark (the “note”) under the word שֶׁבַע (“Sheva”, in the name Beer Sheva) is an אֶתְנַחְתָּ֑א (etnachta), which connotes a break in the sentence approximately equivalent to the semi-colon in English. Hence our translation here, “Jacob went out from Beer Sheva; and he went to Haran”.
The break indicated by the אֶתְנַחְתָּ֑א is the Torah’s exquisitely subtle hint at Jacob’s 14-year break.
During these 14 years, Jacob studied at the Yeshivah of Shem and Ever before leaving Canaan for his uncle Laban’s house (Megillah 17a, Bereishit Rabbah 68:5).
Why did Jacob spend 14 years studying at the Yeshivah of Shem and Ever?
– Jacob was “an innocent man, a tent-dweller” (25:27): אִישׁ תָּם, “an innocent man”, connoting that he was not wily or cunning, he trusted others. He was the opposite of his twin brother Esau, the cunning hunter who knew how to trap animals and people.
Jacob was embarking on a new stage of his life, in which he would have to deal with his cunning and devious and mendacious uncle Laban. He would have to marry and raise a family, deal with the tough world outside of his familiar family tents.
And for this, he needed a strong and stable ideological and spiritual base.
Decades ago, in my final months before I made Aliyah from England, I came to Israel on a one month “pilot-trip” to decide how to begin my new future. I had three items on my agenda for the next several years: to serve as a soldier in the Israeli Army, to study in Yeshivah, and to study in university.
I did not yet know, however, in which order to do these three.
I had the opportunity to meet Rabbi Meir Kahane Hy”d in the Knesset, where we spoke very intensely for well over an hour (one of the most unforgettable hours of my life!).
I asked him for advice, and his answer was unequivocal: Yeshivah comes first! In both the Army and university, the Rav zatza”l admonished me, you will inevitably encounter any number of challenges to your faith and to your mitzvah-observance. Without a strong and stable ideological and spiritual base, it is exceedingly difficult to maintain the life-style expected from a Jew.
This is indisputably true. I followed his advice – and only after learning in Yeshivah for more than two years did I enlist as a combat soldier in the I.D.F.
Indeed, the time I had spent in Yeshivah stood by my side throughout the rest of my life.
Jacob, about to leave the cloistered life to which he had been accustomed until he was 63 (!), had to strengthen his spiritual muscles in order to face his impending challenges with fortitude, without being corrupted by the influences the he would encounter.
So he studied in the Yeshivah of Shem and Ever.
Who were Shem and Ever?
Shem was the son of Noah, the son whom Noah had blessed (Genesis 9:26-27), and Ever was Shem’s great-grandson (10:21-24).
Intriguingly, the Midrash tells us that when G-d told our father Abram to circumcise himself when he was ninety-nine years old and thereby become Abraham (Genesis Chapter 17), Abram called to Shem, son of Noah, to circumcise him (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 29; also Yalkut Shimoni, Genesis 80).
Part of the Covenant of Circumcision was that G-d told Abraham, “Walk before Me and be perfect” (Genesis 17:1), using the word תָמִים for “perfect”. תָמִים, connoting “complete” (Targum Onkelos, Targum Yonatan, Radak), or “perfect” (Rashi).
And the Torah describes Jacob as תָּם, a cognate of תָמִים. Jacob had to follow the path which his grandfather Abraham had begun. Just as Abraham was to be תָמִים, so Jacob was to be תָּם.
Just as Shem had circumcised Abraham to initiate him into G-d’s Covenant, so to Shem and his great-grandson Ever mentored Jacob for 14 years so that he would withstand the trials and temptations which awaited him.
Jacob’s subsequent loyalty to his grandfather Abraham’s path is tribute to his mentors, Shem and Ever.
Specifically: in all the years that their disciple Jacob, spent in Paddan-Aram with his uncle Lavan, when he got married and raised a family, acquired flocks and wealth – he never became fully acclimatised to Paddan Aram.
Even though that was where he established himself as a patriarch in his own right rather than as his parents’ son, he always knew that Paddan Aram was exile. He never stopped yearning to return home to Canaan – the Land which would later be named for him, Israel.
The tradition that Shem circumcised Abraham was transmitted by Rabban Gamliel.
Now there were six Talmudic Sages who bore the appellation Rabban Gamliel, beginning with Rabban Gamliel the Elder, the grandson of the illustrious Hillel.
His grandson was Rabban Gamliel of Yavneh, the grandfather of Rabbi Yehudah the Nasi (“Prince”, meaning Head of the Sanhedrin), who compiled the Mishnah circa 200 C.E.
Rabbi Yehudah the Nasi’s son was Rabban Gamliel the Third, known as Rabban Gamliel be-Rabbi, who lived in the transition-period from the Tanna’im (the Sages of the Mishnah) to the Amora’im (the Sages of the Gemara).
His grandson was Rabban Gamliel ben Yehudah Nessiah, the grandfather of Rabbi Hillel (an 11th generation direct male-line descendant of Hillel).
Rabban Gamliel the Fifth (רַבָּן גַּמְלִיאֵל ה') was Rabbi Hillel’s son, living in the late 4th century.
And finally Rabban Gamliel the Sixth, the last Nasi ever. In 415 C.E. the Roman Emperors Horonius and Theodosius II abolished the office of Nasi; the Jewish community in Israel still revered him as Nasi, but when he died 11 years later, the office of Nasi disappeared from Jewish history, and was never revived.
When the Talmud or Midrash refer to Rabban Gamliel without defining which, they generally refer to the second of them, Rabban Gamliel of Yavneh (Tosafot Niddah 6b, s.v. בשפחתו של ר"ג).
Rabban Gamliel of Yavneh was a disciple of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai (Bava Batra 10b), who was Nasi, Head of the Sanhedrin, at the time of the destruction of the Holy Temple. Rabban Gamliel succeeded his mentor Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai as Nasi about two years after the Destruction (Tosafot Shabbat 54b, s.v. הוה).
Rabban Gamliel was Nasi as the first wave of exile was reaching its crescendo. It was in 71 C.E. that the Roman Empire struck its first Ivdaea Capta (Judea is Conquered) coin: so important was the defeat of Judea to the Romans that they issued the Ivdaea Capta coinage in a series for the next 25 years under three emperors – Vespasian (who had actually defeated Judea) and his two sons who succeeded him as emperor, Titus and Domitian. They minted these coins in bronze, silver, and gold, in every denomination of Roman currency.
Then in 81 C.E. the Roman Emperor Domitian commissioned the Arch of Titus, commemorating his older brother Titus’s deification – the arch which depicts Rome’s triumph over Judea, the captive Jews being led into slavery and exile bearing the treasures of the destroyed Holy Temple to give as tribute to their captors.
Rabban Gamliel established the Torah in Yavneh after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem; by doing this he built the foundations of the infrastructure of the Mishnah, which his grandson Rabbi Yehudah the Nasi would compile when he realised that without writing it down, it would not survive the vicissitudes of exile.
Just as Jacob, on his way out of the Land of Israel, had to prepare himself for decades of exile, so Rabban Gamliel had to prepare the entire nation of Israel for centuries – millennia! – of exile.
Our father Jacob studied from Shem and Ever for 14 years before leaving Israel to fortify himself spiritually and resist the allure of exile. And he studied from the best of his generation – Shem, who had initiated Abraham into G-d’s Covenant by circumcising him.
This was taught to us by Rabban Gamliel of Yavneh, who saw impending exile and fortified the nation spiritually before they left the Land of Israel for millennia.
All the time that Jacob our father was in exile, he was painfully, acutely aware of the fact that he was in exile, precisely because he never forgot his intimate connexion with the Land of Israel, the land of his past and his future. And it was this constant knowledge of being in exile that guaranteed his eventual return to his homeland.
Our history demonstrates only too clearly that Jews who eschew Torah, swiftly break any faith with the Land of Israel; and Jews who eschew the Land of Israel, swiftly break faith with the Torah.
The original heresy of the Reform movement, even before rejecting belief in the Torah, was its re-defining of the Jewish nation – not a nation, but only a “religion”, and therefore equally at home anywhere in the world. A religion without a homeland – which is why the early Reform movement thoroughly rejected Zionism.
And the inevitable result, in a very short time, was its denial of Torah as Divine.
Contrariwise we have seen the results of denying Judaism in the secularists who fought for Israel with incredible bravery and dedication before and during Israel’s War of Independence – men and women who risked their lives, gave their lives, fought tenaciously, for the Land of Israel, defeated enemies insuperably more powerful than themselves – and who were unable to transmit that ideology to their own children, some of whom are today among Israel’s bitterest enemies.
The Torah and the Land of Israel are inseparable. Even the arch-secularist, Theodor Herzl, recognised this when he proclaimed in 1897 that “the return to Zion must be preceded by our return to Judaism”.
And this recognition began with our father Jacob, who prepared himself for exile from his Land by ensconcing himself for 14 years in the Yeshivah of Shem and Ever. And only after that was he ready to go to Haran.