But in the Torah the word vayetze, "he went out", calls up other associations. There's the coming of age of Moshe -- "Moshe grew up, and he went out to his brothers" (Exodus 2:11). For Moshe, "going out" meant emerging from the cocoon of Pharaoh's house and confronting the horror of slavery just outside. What Moshe saw when he went out, led him to take action, and then he too had to flee, to literally go out until God would reveal his mission of leading the Israelites to freedom.
Next week we read: Vatetze Dina (Genesis 34:1). Dina, the only daughter of Yaakov, goes out from her father's house and where she is taken and raped by Shechem, one of the Canaanites. In many places, the expression "to go out and come" refers to leading the people in battle.
Vayetze, therefore, is much more than a literal going out from one place to the other. It is about growing up. It is about widening one's lens. It is about risk, and danger. And in most cases -- Dina's being the glaring exception -- "going out" has a purpose. Think of the Going-Out from Egypt, Yetziat Mitzrayim, which began as a flight away from Egypt, and became a journey toward Torah and the promised land.
Yaakov's going-out blends the different layers of vayetze in an instructive way. At first, he is simply running away. As soon as he gets to the edge of the Land of Israel, though, he receives his famous vision of the ladder, with divine messengers going up toward God and down toward the earth. God promises him that what started as a run for survival will become a journey under God's protection.
God does not let Yaakov know the meaning of his going-out, what Yaakov will encounter and learn. Yaakov isn't told what's ahead of him: working and being cheated, marriage and children, conflict in his family, an eventual return to confront his brother Esav...but he will emerge at the end as Yisrael. The one who struggles with God, and builds the foundation for the Jewish people.
At the start, Yaakov could have seen his going-out either way. As push or pull. As flight, or a move toward challenge and risk that might yield growth and wisdom. Sometimes we find ourselves leaving something -- leaving home, leaving a job, leaving a relationship, abandoning one mission for another -- and at first it seems like the push is primary. What we're running from. Yet even that can become purposeful. Once we're leaving, we might subsequently realize that we're going somewhere.
And the dangers and risks that we face like Yaakov, Dina, or Moshe don't mean that it's time to turn back. They are the signal that we are not just going out, but going forward.