2 Kislev 5778
20 November 2017
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London School of Jewish Studies

Jacob meets Rachel

  • Subject: Book of Genesis, Parsha
  • Date:
  • Teachers/Presenters: Felicia Epstein,

In last week’s parsha, Toldot, Isaac strove with the herdsmen of Gerar over the digging of, and access to, wells of living water. As is apparent from the dispute that arose between them, wells were clearly essential and important sources of life. They were centres of economic and social life. In this week’s parsha, Jacob goes to a well to meet his future wife. It is possible to see the well as symbolic of much more than a mere meeting place for our forebears: the symbol of what can be created.

In Judaism, as in many other cultures, water is symbolic for fertility and spirituality/Torah – in other words, a symbol for potentiality. In the Midrash (traditional rabbinic narrative), Miriam becomes associated with the well for her capacity to redeem the undrinkable water in the midst of the desert, when the people lack water for three days – or, allegorically, lack spirituality or Torah. Perhaps the Jewish tradition has recreated the well with themikvah (ritual bath), which itself is the symbol of fertility and possibility.

In our parsha, Vayetze, Jacob meets Rachel at the well. This scene is familiar to us. It forms a type scene. But it is different from a similar scene before it and a similar scene which follows later in the Torah. Meaning can be read into the small but revealing differences between the three consciously similar scenes.

In Chayei Sarah, Abraham sends his servant to Aram to search for a wife for Isaac. The servant arrives at the fountain where the women come to draw water. Rebecca feeds his camels, and is chosen for Isaac for her many good qualities and for, as the servant later discovers, being from the same family.

In Vayetze, Jacob, travelling towards the east, comes upon a well with a large stone covering over the mouth of the well. He is enquiring as to where Laban, his mother’s brother, can be found when Rachel arrives at the well with her father’s sheep. With considerable strength Jacob unrolls the stone off the well’s mouth. He then waters Laban’s flock for her. Jacob then kisses Rachel and weeps.

In Chapter 2 of the book of Exodus, Moses flees from Pharoah to Midian, and sits down by a well, as his forefathers had done. Rashi (11th century commentator) brings a Midrash to suggest that Moses intentionally sat by the well like his forefathers so that he would find a wife. However, Moses does not choose Tsipporah as his wife. Rather, Reuel, her father, gives her to him when Moses comes to dwell with them after he had helped them. Moses had proven himself when he watered their flock after local shepherds tried to drive them away.

The story in this week’s parsha differs from the other two well scenes, in that the central characters, Jacob and Rachel – who are going to create their own future and a future for the Jewish people – actually meet. Unlike the story of Isaac and Rebecca, where Rebecca is chosen by Abraham’s servant, or in the later story, where Reuel rewards Moses with one of his seven daughters, Tsipporah, Jacob and Rachel uncover the potential of their relationship at the well together. Whilst all three stories share the motif of a meeting at a well, this week’s story is unique in emphasizing that Jacob actively uncovered the rock for Rachel, in her presence, so that she could access the water. It is only out of this active union of uncovering the potential of the Jewish people together that the Jewish people emerge.