Dvar Torah on Parshat Vayetze

Parashat Hashavua Vayetze 2015 / 5776 - All in the Family: Yaakov, His Wives, and What we Need to Know About Jewish Leaders

20.11.2015 by

There really is only one way to describe the domestic drama which takes place in this week’s parsha, Va’yetze: it’s a real mess. Yaakov works seven years for the sneaky, dangerous Lavan, in order to marry Lavan’s daughter, Rachel. Lavan tricks him, and Yaakov finds himself married to her sister, Leah, and then forced to work seven more years for Rachel. The dynamic between the beloved Rachel and the less beloved Leah is, unsurprisingly, difficult, as it is among their sons. There is sexual jealousy, anger, and competition for who can give birth to the most children.

The drama only gets more complicated when Yaakov decides to leave Lavan’s home and return to the land of Cannan. Lavan feels that he has been cheated by Yaakov, and chases after him, threatening to do him harm. Rachel, meanwhile, steals some objects of idolatry from her father’s home, doesn’t tell Yaakov, and, ironically, Yaakov ends up lying to and deceiving his father in law. It seems that only God’s intervention is able to keep Lavan from actually killing Yaakov and taking his daughters and sheep away from him.

What are we to make of all this? Yaakov’s behavior is mostly commendable: he is honest and hard working, and, trusting in God, makes the best of a bad situation, but not in a way that deviates much from what you would expect from any decent fellow. He is not perfect, though, as he loses his temper at one stage, is deceived a few times, and, one could argue, does make a fortune shepherding Lavan’s sheep in a somewhat tricky way (it’s complicated – he whittles some sticks into visual triggers which somehow inspire the sheep to bear lots of the kind of animals he will receive as payment: speckled, spotted, and brown. For an explanation you can see Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice; Shylock explains it.)

How is all this less-than-perfect behavior on the part of Yaakov and his family meant to teach us anything in particular? Almost all the lessons to be gleaned from it seem to be negative, or obvious: polygamy is messy and ill advised; fathers in law are not always to be trusted; you should be nice to your wife, or wives. What is so special here? What is the added value that Yaakov, Rachel, and Leah bring to this story above and beyond what any family drama could teach us?

A famous lesson that is often gleaned from this and other, similar domestic disaster stories in the Chumash, is that the Torah wants to focus on its heroes’ warts. The Torah seems to be committed to presenting its leading characters as not being superhuman, without fault. On the contrary, they are all too human, with messy marriages, problem children, and financial difficulties. Just like us. 

I would like to just elaborate a bit on this idea, in light of some recent tendencies I have noticed in the Jewish – and non Jewish – worlds. More and more we see Rabbis presented, or presenting themselves, as more or less perfect: infallible, possessing an insight and knowledge that borders on, or actually is, supernatural. For some strange reason, an awful lot of people seem to not only accept this, but actually clamor for it. Jews and non-Jews seem to want charismatic, all-knowing, divinely gifted leaders whom they can blindly follow. 

In Israel, and in Jewish communities elsewhere, these Rabbis not only claim powers to heal, reveal the future, and give advice, they also take a lot of money for these services. As an awful lot of money always spells trouble, some of these Rabbis have been involved with seedy characters and illegal activities. They get into grotesque fights with competing wonder Rabbis or doubters, get involved with criminals and the police, and sometimes do jail time. Some have taken advantage of their exalted position to molest or rape naïve, credulous believers.

Even Rabbis who, thankfully, don’t get involved in this grotesque behavior, often claim that their Torah knowledge gives them insight into Jewish and halachic matters which is, essentially, unassailable. They claim a kind of super-halachic ability to interpret the Torah the right way, the only way, brooking no argument or dissent. Although not as problematic as the criminal and near-criminal behavior I spoke of above, this is a serious problem, as it is extremely damaging – antithetical, in fact - to the halachic process, which is all about open debate, question and answer, and coexisting dissenting views.

The mundane, somewhat depressing, sort of embarrassing, stories about Yaakov’s messy family affairs teach us a crucial lesson. Even someone who really is close to being perfect, like Yaakov – considered by the Rabbis of the Talmud to be “the best of our forefathers”, the founder and namesake of the people of Israel, and father of the 12 tribes - is subject to the slings and arrows of everyday life. He is forced to dissemble. He doesn’t always “get” his wives and children, or others around him, and doesn’t always handle them as well as he might. He finds it difficult to deal with his family, and sometimes acts without the insight needed to really master the situation.

This is a crucial lesson to us about our leaders: they don’t always get it right. They are not exempt from the weaknesses and mistakes inherent in being a person. The Torah does not want, or believe in, leaders who are superhuman, or angels, or essentially different from you and me. Anyone who claims otherwise, who tells us that he (or she – there is a wonder-working religious woman here in Israel who, believe it or not, acts as a kind of arbitrator for arguments among competing criminal gangs!) is above all this, and on some higher plane of being, with some special, Godly insight and understanding, is lying, and, obviously, not a leader, not a Rabbi, not someone we should be listening to at all. This is the litmus test for true Torah leadership: a basic honesty and candor about how absolutely human and fallible we all are, how in the dark we ultimately are about our lives, and the people around us. Sometimes we get it right, but to pretend that one always does is to disqualify oneself from being a true Jewish leader.  

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Shimon Felix

What is the added value that Yaakov, Rachel, and Leah bring to this story above and beyond what any family drama could teach us?Rabbi Shimon

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