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Parashat Vayetze 5775 — 11/26/2014

Parashat Vayetze 5775 — 11/26/2014

Sister Act

One of the themes winding its way through our parashah, and actually continuing throughout Jewish history, is the rivalry between Leah and Rachel.  This rivalry extended throughout the generations:

  • The primary confrontation that led to the Egyptian exile was between Yosef [Rachel] and Yehudah [Leah]
  • Moshe Rabbeinu of the tribe of Levi, from Leah, is replaced by Yehoshua of the tribe of Ephraim, from Rachel
  • King Saul from Benjamin [Rachel] vs King David from Yehudah [Leah]
  • the Northern Kingdom, led by Yerov’am ben Nevat of Ephraim [Rachel] splits off from the Davidic monarchy, from the tribe of Yehudah [Leah]

and will persist, in some form, even down to the time of Mashiach, when there will actually be two Miashiach’s: Mashiach ben Yosef (Rachel) and Mashiach ben David (Leah).

We are aware of the divisiveness that often plagues the Jewish people (we only seem to come together and unite under external threat, as we have seen when Israel has been under attack).  We understand that in our generations overcoming differences is a difficult task, as our limited egos get involved and create barriers and obstacles.  It is more surprising, given that the Sages go to great lengths to emphasize the transcendent righteousness of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs (including the 12 tribal progenitors, Jacob’s sons), that we find this kind of disunity among them.  In fact, considerable effort is made to establish that the Torah’s brief descriptions of events in the Patriarchal households should not be read on the simple level, as we would if they were taking place in our households among people with ordinary levels of consciousness.

In the case of Rachel and Leah, the “standard” explanation that I have seen is that Rachel (“beautiful of form”) was the wife for Ya’akov’s manifest, individual side, corresponding to the name Ya’akov (the only name he had during the entire time he was at Lavan’s).  Leah, on the other hand, was the wife for Ya’akov’s transcendental, spiritual side, corresponding to his name Yisrael.  Of course we are called by this latter name, which includes one of the Names of Gd.  In this context the rivalry between the two wives is seen as a manifestation of the composite nature of humanity – a soul ever striving towards the infinite, and the body simply looking for sensual pleasures here below.

Rav Kook takes a somewhat different approach:

We live in a divided reality.  We continuously deliberate: how much should we live ffor the moment, and how much should we work for the future?  We must continuously balance between the here-and-now and the yet-to-come…  We endure constant conflict between the present and the future, the temporal and the eternal.

   Rachel, whom Jacob immediately loved for the beautiful qualities of her soul, is a metaphor for the simple and natural love we feel for the revealed present…

   But Gd’s counsel decreed that the future destiny of the people of Israel belonged not to Rachel, but to Leah [R. Morrison notes that Leah was the mother of 6 of the twelve tribes, including Levi, which provided the spiritual leadership of the nation, and Yehudah, which provided the political leadership (the Davidic dynasty).]  Leah would be the princniple matriarch of the Jewish people.  Yet this future was so profoundly hidden, that its current state – in Leah – was hidden from Jacob.

   This concealed quality of Leah is embedded in the very foundations of the Jewish people.  Because of the legacy of Leah, we can raise our sights afar, skipping over the present circumstances, in order to aspire to a lofty future.

   Nevertheless, we aspire for the simpler state in which the present is uplifting, and by means of its light, the future acquires its greatness. (Sapphire from the Land of Israel)

Now to Gd, there is no such thing as past, present or future, and while we may never be able to have that perspective completely, Rav Kook does give us a vision of a state of life where the distinctions between the tenses start to blur.  Certainly, as time-bound creatures we must make plans for the future – life cannot just drift aimlessly.  On the other hand, we don’t want to keep our vision so fixed on some future paradise that we do not enjoy and thank Gd for everything that we have been given in the present moment.  Furthermore, “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”  Nobody has the ability to take into account all the various forces and influences, from both far and near, that affect the outcome of our actions.

Ultimately, I think the solution is that the values represented by Rachel and Leah have to be reconciled and harmonized in our awareness.  We have to maintain awareness of our own infinite nature at the same time as we maintain our awareness of our individual self, interacting with our environment.  We have to maintain awareness of eternity while we act in the present.  In other words, we have to make infinity and finite values coexist in our personality.  Not surprisingly, this is indeed the goal of Jewish life, on the individual level (called devekut, clinging to Gd), and on the communal, and even cosmic level, where we are tasked with bringing Gd out of “hiding” and making His presence manifest in the world.  If we can do this, we can enjoy the eternal present while trusting Gd to arrange a glorious future for us.

I’d like to append two teachings about Rachel and Leah that I found a bit startling.  The first is quoted by R. A. Leib Scheinbaum in his Peninim on the Torah, 19th Series:

Had he [Lavan] allowed Rachel to marry Yaakov immediately, she would have given birth and established all twelve tribes, precluding the Egyptian exile and all of its subsequent displacements. The necessary tikun, spiritual repair, for which Hashem was waiting, would have occurred without delay. Today we are in galus, exile, as a result of Lavan’s manipulating, his deceitful maneuvering, all in the name of frumkeit (religiosity).

I don’t know where R. Scheinbaum is quoting this assertion from,  It is cited by R. Yissachar Shlomo Teichtal (1885-1945, Hungarian Rabbi murdered at the end of WW II) from an anonymous manuscript in his possession.  It is in the genre of “if Eve only hadn’t listened to the serpent” or “if Israel would observe two Shabbats in a row we would be instantly redeemed.”  In one sense it is another explanation of the obvious fact that we in fact live in an unredeemed world.  In this partciular case, however, it leaves unanswered the question why it should be Rachel, who, as we mentioned, corresponds to the “this worldly” aspect of life (Ya’akov), who should have been the one to be the progenitor of a perfect Israel.  This obviously will take further study.

The second teaching I heard from R. Yissachar Frand in a lecture on this week’s parashah given in 5773, citing the K’tav Sofer (R. Avraham Sofer, 1815-1871, son of R. Moshe Sofer, the Chatam Sofer and his follower as leader of the Hungarian Jewish community).  He begins with the premise that the Patriarchs kept the entire Torah, even before it was given.  However, there are some exceptions.  For example, marrying a woman and her sister is forbidden, specifically so that they shouldn’t become rivals to one another.

Once the Torah was given of course there is no arguing around this, or any other law of the Torah, even if we believe that it doesn’t apply in our circumstances.  In the days of the Patriarchs, however, the Torah had not been commanded, and therefore there was some room for flexibility.  Ya’akov determined that he could marry Rachel even after having been tricked into marrying her (twin) sister, because he saw that they would not be rivals.  After all, hadn’t Rachel given the secret passwords to her sister Leah so that she wouldn’t be humiliated when their nefarious father switched them?

Ya’akov turned out to be correct to a certain extent.  However, there was still a certain level of doubt about the situation.  People do sometimes rise to an occasion and perform feats, either physical or emotional, that are actually substantially beyond their actual level of development.  On the physical side we find occasions where a woman will lift up a car to save her child, something that would ordinarily take two or three men to do.  Was Rachel’s giving the secret signs to Leah a one-off, superhuman act of self-sacrifice, or did it really indicate that this was her level of development?

The answer came in the incident in which Leah’s son, Reuven, brought her some mandrakes.  Rachel asked Leah for them, and Leah, rather incredibly, complains to Rachel that “not only have you taken my husband, now you want my son’s mandrakes as well?!”  (Mandrakes were held to be a fertility aid.)  Rachel does not reproach her sister for ingratitude (after all, had Rachel not given her the signs, presumably Ya’akov would not have gone along with Lavan’s plot and married Leah), but simply proposes an exchange – her night with Ya’akov in return for the mandrakes.  Deal!

Rachel proved that she was not, in fact, Leah’s rival, and therefore, in retrospect, that Ya’akov’s original reasoning was correct and their marriage was legitimate.  It is only then that Rachel becomes able to bear children.  For if it had turned out that she were Leah’s rival, Ya’akov’s and her marriage would have been retrospectively illegal, as the Torah states, and any children they might have had would also have been illegitimate – mamzerim in fact!

I might add that our Sages tell us that it was not just this one night with Ya’akov that Rachel gave up for the mandrakes.  They tell us that since she didn’t value being with Ya’akov enough not to use it as a bargaining chip, she forfeited the right to be with him eternally in the Cave of Machpelah.  In fact, Leah is buried with Ya’akov.  Rachel died in childbirth [Benjamin] shortly after the family returned to the Land of Israel.  Our Sages say about this that although it was possible for Ya’akov to be married to two sisters outside the Land, the greater holiness of the Land of Israel would not support such an arrangement, and Rachel, being chronologically the second wife, is the one who died.  Ya’akov buried her “on the road to Ephrat [Bethlehem],” where her tomb is, to this day, a great pilgrimage spot for all Jews, whether they are from a Leah tribe (almost all of us are descended from Levi [Kohanim and Levi’im] or Yehudah) or a Rachel tribe or one of the handmaids’ tribes.

The Sacks Haggadah

Essay 7: Pesach and the Rebirth of Israel

The Exodus from Egypt was a miraculous event, filled with wondrous occurrences.  By now, we can recognize that, albeit in a more hidden way, the birth of the modern State of Israel was equally miraculous, from the defeat first of the British, then of the invading Arab armies in 1948, to the destruction of the Egyptian Air Force in 1967 to the almost chance discovery of a large network of infiltration tunnels from Gaza this year.  There is more human input now than there was in the days of Moshe Rabbeinu of course; Gd is in hiding, but He is there running the show for anyone to see.

And this is, I believe, R. Sacks’ main point.  The fundamental concept in the Jewish view of history is that history is not merely cyclical, and certainly not unchanging.  Rather, as we have discussed on occasion, it is more like helical, going through cycles of estrangement/sin/exile and reconciliation/t’shuvah/redemption.  And it is our faith that, even in times of our suffering at the hands of our enemies, Gd is with us and will bring the redemption we seek.

V’hi she’amdah lavoteinu v’lanu, shelo echad bilvad amad aleinu l’chaloteinu ele sheb’chol dor va dor, amad aleinu l’chaloteinu,  v’haKadosh Baruch Hu matzileinu miyadam

And this promise is what has stood by our ancestors and by us, for not just one [enemy] arose to destroy us, but in every generation [enemies] have arisen to destroy us, but the Holy One Blessed is He saves us from their hands.

This view of the historical process is perhaps the central theme of the Seder (in my opinion).  The freedom that we experienced coming out of bondage to the evil Egyptians was wonderful, but just being free physically is not the be-all and end-all of the process.  True freedom, as our Sages point out, is to be found only in Torah, which means, in bringing both ourselves individually and our society as a whole into conformance with Gd’s Will.  With Gd’s help we can achieve it!