The Covenant of Separation

  • Rav Ezra Bick





This week's parsha shiur is dedicated
memory of Emanuel and Samuel Gluck z"l.






The Covenant of Separation

By Rav Ezra Bick





            Parashat Vayeitze, as has been pointed out in this forum in the past, forms a carefully delineated unit, framed by parallel scenes at the beginning and end. The parasha begins with a vision of angels as Yaakov leaves the Land of Israel, and concludes with a vision of angels as he returns. After the first, Yaakov erects a monument, and before the latter he does the same. In between, he has two contests with Lavan, the first over marriage with Lavan's daughters, and the second in order to keep those daughters. The middle section of the parasha describes how Yaakov produced his family and wealth.


            To a great extent, the first monument (28,18-22) is a sign of God's protection of Yaakov in his coming journey - "If God shall be with me, and protect me on the path that I am going, and give me bread to eat and a garment to wear; and I shall return in peace to my father's house...." (20-21). In other words, Yaakov's sojourn in Lavan's house is "covered" by this monument and what it symbolizes. Although Lavan is not mentioned by name in the first case, it turns out that he is the center of what God's protection will be needed for. The monument at the end of the parasha is the conclusion of Yaakov's confrontation with Lavan. As one prepared him for Lavan, the second seals his relationship with him.


            However, while the content and meaning of the first monument is clearly spelled out both by the content of God's revelation to Yaakov in the dream of the ladder and Yaakov's declaration when he raised it (20-22), the meaning of the second is unclear, obscured by multiple statements by Lavan, Yaakov's relative silence, the accompanying "pile of rocks," and a confusing order of events. It is to this issue that we will address ourselves in this week's shiur.




            After Lavan has caught up with Yaakov and searched all his tents looking for the "terafim," Yaakov, in "anger" (31,36), rebukes Lavan, not only for this latest incident, but for his crooked dealings all the previous twenty years. Lavan answers,


Lavan answered and said to Yaakov: The daughters are my daughters and the sons are my sons and the sheep are my sheep, and all you see is mine; and what shall I do for these, my daughters, today, or for their children that they bore?

Therefore, let us seal a covenant, you and me, and it shall be a witness between me and you (31,43-44).


            In apparent response to this, Yaakov raises up a stone as a monument (matzeiva).


            The basic question we wish to answer is what is the significance of this entire episode, what is the meaning of the covenant and the monument? On the way to answer this thematic question, we have to consider a slew of difficulties in the telling of the story.


1. Lavan suggests a covenant, but defines no content for it. Yaakov is already busy constructing the means of enacting the covenant, by raising the stone, without knowing what the content is to be.

2. Yaakov raises the stone, but also has his "brothers" gather a pile of rocks. Why? What is the difference between the monument and the rocks?

3. Yaakov raises the monument himself, but has his "brothers" gather the pile of rocks. Why?

4. They then eat "on the pile." Eating after COMPLETING a covenant is normal - compare Yitzchak's covenant with Avimelech (26,30). In fact, at the end of this story, we also find that they eat "on the mountain" (verse 54). What then is the purpose of this earlier eating "on the pile?"

5. Lavan calls the pile of rocks "yigar sahaduta," and Yaakov calls it "galeid" (47). Both terms are the same, and mean "pile of witness." Why do we need to know how to say galeid in Aramaic? Either Lavan always speaks Aramaic, his language, to Yaakov, and the Torah has conveniently translated it into Hebrew for us, as is always the case when someone speaks a foreign language (for instance, Par'o) - and then the question is why do we need to know, in this one case, the original Aramaic of "galeid;" or in fact Lavan speaks Hebrew to Yaakov, and only this phrase was uttered in Aramaic, in which case the question is both why did he do it and also why the Torah thinks it important to inform us of it. Either way, the entire verse 47 seems extraneous. Why do we need to know the name of a pile of rocks?

6. Lavan, after naming the rocks and the "mitzpe" (which many commentators think is the monument), proceeds to spell out the terms of the covenant (50). Since he had previously (verse 43) declared that his motivation for the covenant is his concern for his daughters and their children, we are not surprised to learn that he abjures Yaakov not to marry other women or mistreat his - Lavan's - daughters. On the other hand, this is not a covenant - it is one sided, and there is no mention of what Lavan is promising. Where is the other side?

7. In the next verse (51), we finally find what sounds like a covenant. The Torah introduces this verse with "And Lavan said to Yaakov," even though Lavan was speaking in the previous verse as well. This indicates that this is a new speech and not a continuation of the previous one. But at least, finally, in this third speech of Lavan, we get to what we have been waiting for since the beginning. He demands that neither of them cross the line formed by the pile of rocks and the monument with malicious intent against the other (52). This demand is accompanied by an oath, and Yaakov swears as well. One small question here. Lavan introduces his covenant by referring to the monument that he has "thrown between myself and you." We know that Yaakov erected the monument, not Lavan, and in fact erected it by himself. Why does Lavan take credit for it?

8. One final observation - not quite a difficulty, but a point to consider. The Torah repeatedly refers to this entire story as taking place on "the mountain." Lavan catches up with Yaakov "at Mt. Gilad" (31,23); Yaakov has pitched his tent "on the mountain" (25) and Lavan pitches his fellows "on Mt. Gilad" (ibid); and, at the conclusion, the Torah tells us that Yaakov slaughtered animals for food "on the mountain" and they ate and slept "on the mountain" (54). Everything Yaakov does is "on the mountain." What is the meaning of this phrase and what is the significance of the mountain?




            Lavan begins the suggested covenant by reminding Yaakov that his wives are Lavan's daughters, his children Lavan's grandchildren, and all his wealth a spin-off from the flocks of Lavan. In other words, he affirms the fact that Yaakov is a dependent member of his family. In fact, his language not only suggests that he and Yaakov are kinsmen, but that Yaakov is a member of Lavan's clan, where Lavan himself is at the head of it. "All that you see belongs to me." This is the basis of his suggestion that he ought to do something for his daughters and their children.


            This sort of a covenant is not that between equals, but between a lord and his subjects. Naturally, this is two-sided, for the lord grants favors to the subject just as the subject owes allegiance to the lord. It is a covenant between two parties, but one that grants benefits to the subject only to the extent that he accepts the overlordship of the lord, that is, Lavan.  In a less-blatant fashion, this was the covenant that existed between Avraham and his friends, Mamre, Eshkol, and Aneir (14,13). Avraham is living as a stranger amidst the Emori, and he must be included in some sort of clan to have protection locally. Living in the grove of Mamre, he enters a covenant with him and his brothers. Similarly, Avimelech offers a covenant to Yitzchak (26,28-29), which gives Yitzchak residency rights in Gerar, of which Avimelech is ruler. In the tribal situation of Canaan, a stranger who did not belong to some grouping would be helpless. Lavan is offering Yaakov the same sort of tribal identity before he returns to Canaan.


            There is no need to spell out the contents of such a covenant, just as we are never told the terms of Avraham's covenant with the Emorite brothers. To be a "ben-brit" means first and foremost to belong, thereby gaining all the benefits of membership in the family or tribe. And so, Lavan says, "Therefore let us seal a covenant, you and me, and it shall be a witness between me and you (44)." This is Lavan's first offer.


            Yaakov gives no verbal reply, neither accepting nor rejecting, but he does set up two stone symbols, a monument (matzeiva) and a pile of rocks. A matzeiva is a symbol of a covenant, used by Yaakov before and found elsewhere in Tanakh. But a pile of rocks is a very strange and unique symbol. "Gal avanim" most readily conjures up a vision of destruction, of what is left when a house is destroyed. There is another difference between a matzeiva and a gal. The first is a single stone, while the latter is a collection of many stones. I believe the meaning of Yaakov's actions is the following. He, alone and by himself, outside the tribal framework, raises a matzeiva. This stands for him as an individual - or, as we know from reading the first part of the parasha, as an individual with a covenant with God, based on the previous monument which he raised in Beit El. Yaakov's protection throughout the previous years has not been his membership in Lavan's household, but God, even as God saved him the night before from Lavan (42). Yaakov is a dependent of God, who is his Lord, and not a member of any clan at all.

            The rocks symbolize the fellowship of many grouped together which Lavan is offering him.  Here, Yaakov asks his "brothers" to construct it. We all know that Yaakov did not have any brothers present, and Rashi therefore interprets the phrase to refer to his sons. Ramban asserts that it refers to the kinsmen of Lavan who rode with him in pursuit of Yaakov. I think that in either case, the use of the term indicates the nature of the construction - these people are "brothers," meaning kinsmen, members of the same tribe or group. Yaakov, without participating himself, has them build a pile of rocks. The "tribe" to which he could belong is no more than a heap of rocks, a remnant of a building, the rocks themselves not joined or molded together. This then is his response to Lavan's claim and Lavan's offer. Immediately, they eat "on the pile," meaning that Yaakov is willing to eat together with Lavan if Lavan accepts the significance of the pile of rocks.

            Lavan does not give up, and offers a second suggestion. He understands that Yaakov is truly leaving - "when we hide each from each other" (49). He calls God to witness that Yaakov shall not abuse his daughters. This consideration is truly touching, though we have to wonder if he was really afraid of Yaakov's treatment of his wives (this twenty years after the marriage!). But I think the main point was to assert a degree of overlordship - Lavan is the guarantee of the welfare of Yaakov's wives. If this be accepted, then they, at least, are still members of Lavan's clan. Yaakov, who is going to behave honorably in any event, will not be seen as behaving properly because he is honorable, but rather because he respects Lavan and therefore treats his daughters accordingly. If this works, Yaakov will still be, to some extent, a dependent member of Lavan's family.

            This offer is apparently met with silence on Yaakov's part, a silence that is correctly interpreted by Lavan as rejection. And so, he makes one more suggestion, and this one is accepted by Yaakov - "Yaakov swore by the Fear of Yitzchak his father" (53).

This pile is witness, and the monument a witness, that I shall not cross this pile over to you, and that you shall not cross this pile over to me, nor this monument, for evil.

            This covenant is fundamentally different than the previous two suggestions. Here there is no offer of mutual aid or of protection, but only of disengagement. It would have been normal, in the context of a covenant, to suggest that each one WOULD cross over to aid the other. Lavan does not suggest that - on the contrary, he swears, and has Yaakov swear, that he will NOT cross over the line marked by the stones. This is truly the covenant that Yaakov is hoping for, for it does not create a bond between them but dissolves the bond between them and finalizes their separation. Yaakov is being divorced from the clan of Lavan, not adopted by it. As a going-away present, he is promised that they will not attack him.

            The formulation of the covenant which I just quoted is rather convoluted. Although it is clear that what is being forsworn is the crossing of the border with malicious intent, this is indicated only at the end of a long sentence, at the very last word. Until that point, one might have thought that Lavan was simply forbidding the crossing of the border for any reason. I would suggest that that is indeed the true import of the covenant. Lavan is setting up the stones as a border, a separation, a gulf between the two of them. From now on, he says, you go your way and I stay on my side, and I suspect we will never see each other again. This is precisely the point that finally elicits a positive response from Yaakov. Yaakov is FLEEING Lavan, and his purpose is to eliminate the ties between them. A "covenant" of this kind is acceptable and even desirable.

            By taking credit for raising the monument in his introduction to this offer (51), Lavan is accepting the significance of the monument as Yaakov intended it. Yaakov is a single individual, and not a member of the group, not one stone within a pile. Lavan says, I too recognize that. In formulating the terms, Lavan says that he will not cross the pile, and Yaakov will not cross the pile or the monument. The Radak (52) explains that the pile of stones belongs to both, while the monument belongs only to Yaakov, and therefore Lavan holds it out exclusively as the border for Yaakov but not for himself. This accords with what I have claimed is the significance of the two structures.

            In other words, according to the final version of the covenant, the pile of stones has become a border, one which basically should not be crossed. It represents the division of Yaakov's house from the family of Nachor, Betuel, and Lavan. We must remember that the avot continued to view their family in Aram as family. This is true not only as a source of brides - Avraham stresses that Eliezer should go to "my BIRTHPLACE AND MY FAMILY" for a bride for Yitzchak - but as an extended support system as well. Rivka sends Yaakov to Lavan because he will be safe there. "Yitzchak sent Yaakov and he went to Padan Aram, to Lavan ben Betuel the Aramite, the brother of Rivka, the mother of Eisav and Yaakov" (28,5). Rashi comments on the family description of this verse "I do not know what it teaches us." Ever since asking the question which Rashi does not answer of my teacher in third grade, I have been fascinated by this perplexing formulation. I now think that it is to stress that at this point, there still exists an extended family relationship, whereby Rivka, Yaakov, and Eisav are all members of the same clan as Lavan. It is not just that Rivka remembers her brother; it is that Yaakov, her son, is also related to Lavan and can therefore, according to the laws of clanship, be protected there. This now comes to an end. We will never hear again of Nachor's family or of Lavan - and of course, the brides of Yaakov's children will not be drawn from Aram.

            This is an important stage. The original command which commenced the story of the avot was to go "from your country, your birthplace, and the house of your father." Although Avraham has traveled from those places, he is still connected to them, and so is Yitzchak. The complete fulfillment of that command takes place only now, and is sealed by the covenant between Lavan and Yaakov. From now on, they are not related, and the pile of stones stands as a testimony to that divorce. A physical border stands between them. Lavan is the old world, the "alte heim." From now on, it no longer exists. Israel is cut off from that origin.

            That is the reason, I think, for the repeated reference to "the mountain." By not calling the place Mt. Gilad, but only "the mountain," it is clear that not the geographic location is important here, but the typography. The two are on a mountain, and will descend, each in his own separate direction. In other words, a mountain separates them from now on. On this last night, they will eat and sleep together on the mountain; then each will go in opposite directions and the mountain will remain between them.

            Since the pile of rocks is a border, the Torah wishes to stress that its meaning is different dependent on which side you are standing. This is the meaning of "yigar sahaduta." The point is not that the two names mean the same thing, but that they are actually different, despite having the same meaning. On one side of the pile is Aram, where the language is Aramaic; on the other side, Israel, where the language is Hebrew. Because it is a border, and not merely an interesting location within the life of Yaakov, it has two different names, one from the one side, one from the other. If it were a site of a real covenant, binding the two into a single clan, it would have one name; because it marks the dissolution of the clan and the beginning of two clans, it has two different names.


            The separation from Lavan, of course, symbolizes and finalizes the separation from the "families of the lands." Yaakov, unlike his fathers, will not have allies either in or outside the Land of Israel. The cutting of all family ties to the non-Jewish world is here accomplished, and this initializes Yaakov's creation of the House of Yaakov and of Israel.


            This is stressed by the next two verses.


Lavan arose early in the morning and kissed his sons and daughters and blessed them; and Lavan went and returned to his place.

And Yaakov went on his way, and angels of God met him.


            Lavan returns to his place, and Yaakov goes on his way. Lavan returns to where he came from, but Yaakov is beginning a journey, without Lavan. Yaakov's clan, if we can call it that, from now on is the camp of the angels of God.