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AUDIO ESSAY: Torah for the Earth - Vayeitzei

Updated: Jan 17, 2020

Parashat Vayeitzei

Kislev 9, 5980 – December 7, 2019

Torah Reading: Genesis 28:10 – 32:3

Haftarah: Hosea 11:7 – 12:14

Welcome back everyone to this week’s Torah for the Earth audio essay. I’m your host, Charlie Forbes, and this week I will be addressing Parashat Vayeitzei, which means “and he left.” This is the parashah where Jacob leaves his hometown, leaves the comfortable environment of his parents, and journeys to Charan where he will spend the next 20 years staying and working for his uncle Laban. En route, Jacob encounters “the place (ha-makom)” and prepares himself to have an extraordinary dream. We are told that “he [Jacob] took from the stones of the place which he arranged around his head, and lay down in that pl ace.” (28:11) Jacob then sees a ladder connecting heaven and earth, with angels ascending and descending on it, and G-d appears and promises the land upon which he is having the dream to his descendants. This is, of course, an event that determines the future site of the Temple, which is why Jacob names the site “Beth-el” (28:19) meaning “House of God.” After arriving in Charan, Jacob meets Rachel by a well and falls in love, works for Laban and tends to his sheep, and – after seven years of labor – is given Rachel’s hand in marriage. But Jacob is deceived by Laban on the wedding night and is instead given Laban’s older daughter, Leah, which Jacob only realizes in the morning. Jacob and Rachel do marry shortly after, but only in exchange for seven more years of labor. Coupled with the six additional years that Jacob works for Laban’s sheep, Jacob does ultimately feel pressured to slip away from Laban with his family rather covertly – which he does, although Laban pursues him – and they make a covenant atop Mount Gal-Ed by a pile of stones.

This “going out” of Jacob is a process of preparation that he must endure to situate himself for his transformation from Jacob to Israel. This week’s parashah foreshadows this event by detailing the various ways in which Jacob’s character is being tested and strengthened in all the areas of his life. In the first part of Jacob’s life (the first sixty-three years, in fact), he studied Torah with his father, and lived in a rather insulated world separate from the corruption of Canaan.[1] But, in this parashah, Jacob goes out in a way that neither Isaac or Abraham did to work for Laban – a man, whom the Kabbalists say, is an embodiment of the primordial serpent himself.[2] Jacob’s tikkun (the balance and healing that he must bring to the world) is very much about situating himself within broken spaces and fixing them. Why, for example, would Jacob go and spend 20 years under the authority of Laban, whom Rashi describes as a “mendacious rogue”?[3] The point here is that Jacob’s transformation is intimately tied to his very literal environment and this becomes one of the most notable aspects of his character – his ability to understand the physical geography around him, the state of his flock, and his mastery of animal breeding and husbandry are just a few examples of how Jacob adapts and harmonizes different geographical and social environments. Jacob’s spiritual labors are very much physical labors, and Jacob must learn how to operate within a material reality that is fractured – a material reality where good and evil are mixed, a phenomenon that occurred after the sin in the Garden (which also explains why varieties of souls like Rachael and Leah are born to people like Laban). In this way, Jacob’s going out is a form of social and material activism, and is how he becomes a force for positive change.

In the previous commentary on Parashat Toldot, I introduced the concept of “companion species” – an idea developed by feminist scholar Donna Harraway, which recognizes the symbiotic evolution that takes place between humans and their animal ‘companions.’ For us, we may commonly think of a companion as a pet (like a dog, or a cat, or a horse) but in the Torah, companion species are the animals that accompany an individual on their journey throughout life and help them to fulfill their purpose. For Jacob, these are his sheep, who – alongside the various people in his life – are intimately involved in shaping his lived experience, and (in a sense) define him. But I would ask us to extend this concept a step further and to consider the earth as a transformative partner and character in our lives – a “companion species,” or – rather – a companion being[4], of sorts. As I mentioned, one of the more striking characteristics about Jacob is his keen understanding of his physical environment – the earth is intimately involved in shaping his destiny and this is illustrated most vividly in the story of Jacob’s ladder. Jacob’s ladder (and the dream which encases this vision) takes place at a very specific location which plays a key role – not only in Jacob’s life – but in several stories that are pivotal to the transformation of the Jewish people and the nation of Israel. Three stories in particular – (1) the Akeidah, where the binding of Isaac takes place on Mt. Moriah, (2) the wrestling with the angel that takes places in the next parashah (Parashat Vayishlach) which ushers in the death of Jacob and the birth of Israel, (3) and the building of Solomon’s Temple – a place where the earthly home of G-d will reside – all occur at “the place” described in this parashah. Additionally, the Midrash tells us that Jacob took several stones – 12 stones, in fact – and placed them around his head.[5] These twelve stones represented the twelve tribes of Israel, which is why – when Jacob wakes up – they had coalesced into one stone, symbolizing one nation and the capacity for them to unite.

Keith Basso, who was a cultural and linguistic anthropologist, would call this process “place-making.” In Basso’s book, Wisdom sits in places: Landscape and language among the Western Apache, he describes how something happens when we connect our lived experience to a geographical space. Basso states: “Places possess a marked capacity for triggering acts of self-reflection, inspiring thoughts about who one presently is, or memories of who one used to be, or musings on who one might become. And that is not all. Place-based thoughts about the self lead commonly to thoughts of other things – other places, other people, other times, whole networks of associations.”[6] The main point here is that places contain inherent wisdom, and we can attune to that wisdom by connecting to events, stories, and bodies of knowledge that are animated when a place is actively sensed. In this way, “the physical landscape becomes wedded to the landscape of the mind”[7] and wisdom can be gleaned from places by actively observing them. This wisdom, of course, “is present in varying degrees”[8] and may be experienced differently. In Basso’s ethnography of the Western Apache, place names are very important, and our ability to know them and pronounce them properly is what facilitates the mental conditions needed to connect with relevant bodies of knowledge whenever they are uttered. In reference to the spot where Jacob has his vision, sets up the unified stone as a pillar, and renames the place “Beth-el,” Rashi states: This is not an ordinary place, but a sanctuary of G-d’s Name, a place suitable for prayer. Furthermore, it is the gate of the heavens, meaning that it is the site from which [the] prayers [of humans] go up to G-d.”[9] This very specific location is what links individual and group identity with very powerful messages, moral directives and symbolism – take, for instance, Jacob’s Ladder which alludes to Sinai and the technology that will be given which allows the Jewish people to connect with G-d’s master plan.[10] It is also the site of the Holy of Holies, where the High Priest would enter once a year to perform a ritual and utter the Name of G-d. At this site, Jacob is fully encountering G-d in his aspect of “place,” which is also why G-d is sometimes referred to as Makom.[11] In this way, G-d is the “place” of the earth; it is not that the earth is G-d’s place.[12]

For Jacob, his physical setting was the medium for his spiritual journey and spiritual practice. His arrival at “Beth-el” was important, but his relationship to the space is what allowed him to engage in a critical process. Donna Harraway, and her theories regarding “companion species” points to the role of animals in forming us. In the same way, Parashat Vayeitzei teaches us that the earth, and very specific physical geographies, can become an intimate part of the formation of our higher selves. Jacob’s understanding of the earth (and his geography) is what allows him to arrive at the right place to have his dream – a dream that provides for the birth of a nation, and a place where the divine can descend and dwell on the earth.

Thank you all for listening. That’s all for now and catch you next week.

Topics Include: The story of Jacob’s ladder, healing broken spaces, the earth as a “companion species,” and “place-making”


Basso, Keith H. Wisdom sits in places: Landscape and language among the Western Apache. UNM Press, 1996.

Scherman, Nosson. "The Stone Edition of the Chumash: The Torah, Haftoras and Five Megillos, with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings." (1993).

[1] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.144


[3] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.144

[4] Peruvian indigenous scholar Marisol de la Cadena calls such places Earth Beings, geographical and geological locations that are in themselves earthly beings. De la Cadena speaks to the role that that the earth and Earth Beings play in indigenous and ancient communities for whom location is an intimate part of the formation of their world

[5] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.145

[6] Basso, Wisdom sits in places, p.55

[7] Basso, Wisdom sits in places, p.55

[8] Basso, Wisdom sits in places, p.73

[9] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.145

[10] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.145


[12] I reworded a statement that was made on ( which references the Beit Ya’akov

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