Every week, parshaoftheweek.com brings you a rich selection of material on parshat hashavua, the weekly portion traditionally read in synagogues all over the world. Using both classic and contemporary material, we take a look at these portions in a fresh way, relating them to both ancient Jewish concerns as well as cutting-edge modern issues and topics. We also bring you material on the Jewish holidays, as well as insights into life cycle rituals and events...
This dvar Torah is an attempt to remember, reconstruct, and embellish something I learned from Rabbi Jay Miller in the early 1970's. If there is anything here that is less than wonderful, it's either a failure on my part to remember correctly, or an embellishment.
In this week's parsha, Yaakov, after running away from home to escape the anger of his brother Esav, settles in Charan, marries the sisters Leah and Rachel, and works for two decades for his shifty father-in-law, Lavan. Rachel, Leah, and the two concubines Bilhah and Zilpah give birth to a total of 11 sons and one daughter. Immediately after the last of these children, Rachel's first child, Joseph, is born, Yaakov decides to return home, to the land of Canaan. He tells Lavan of his decision, and asks permission to leave and take with him his wives and children. Lavan asks Yaakov to remain as his shepherd, for he sees that God has blessed him and made him wealthy because of Yaakov. Yaakov consents, and a salary is agreed upon; Yaakov will get all of the spotted, speckled and streaked sheep and goats that will be born - these are apparently relatively rare - as his salary. Lavan will keep all the rest. Once this agreement is made, Yaakov does some sort of magic or miracle or some kind of genetic hypnosis with sticks, and many, many sheep are born spotted, speckled, and streaked. In a relatively short time (you know what sheep are like) Yaakov becomes extremely rich, and owns the bulk of the local livestock.
Lavan's children are upset by this turn of events, Yaakov sees that Lavan himself is angry, and at this dramatic juncture God tells Yaakov to "return to the land of your fathers, to your birthplace, and I will be with you." At this point, Yaakov, instead of simply hightailing it out of there as quickly as possible, as common sense and God's word would seem to dictate, calls for his wives, Rachel and Leah. He then, in the course of nine verses, explains to them in detail how their father Lavan, who has consistently cheated him in the past, is now angry at him for becoming rich, even though this came about fairly, as a result of God's blessing, and that he, Yaakov, has cheated no one, and that God now wants him to return to his homeland. Rachel and Leah respond positively, agree that it is best to leave their father, who has treated them badly as well, and they all pack up and go.
It is important to note the sensitivity and humanity - the derech eretz - that Yaakov shows here. Even though he knows that from a practical point of view he must leave, as Lavan and his sons are a real threat to him, and God Himself has told him to return to his homeland, he goes to great lengths to first explain the situation to Rachel and Leah, and gain their support for this course of action. In his presentation to them, he is careful to detail the practical reasons for leaving, while the commandment from God is presented only as the final step of his thought process, giving the wives a chance to understand the situation, rthar than simply obey.
What Yaakov does here with his wives tells us a lot about the kind of relationship - the partnership - that husbands and wives should strive for. Yaakov does not order them, does not beat them over the head with the commandment he has received from God. Rather, he carefully lays out the situation, and invites them to be part of the decision-making process, leaving room for their input and assessment. Although he has his own compelling reasons for wanting to leave, both mundane and divine, he does not lose sight of the fact that Rachel and Leah are being asked to leave their father, their family, and the only home they have ever known, and therefore deserve to be consulted.
But Yaakov's interaction with his wives tells us more than how husbands and wives should respect one another's autonomy. Yaakov's behavior also says a lot about the way we are meant to respond to a religious imperative, to the word of God. Even though Yaakov has heard directly and clearly from God that he should return to Israel, that commandment does not negate other considerations, other relationships. True, Yaakov could have simply told his wives that God said we have to go, so get on your camels and let's go, and we would have understood that he was acting under a divine imperative, one that was binding for his wives as well as for him. Instead, he does his best to include them in the experience that he has had with God, to share that experience with them. The fact that God told him to do something does not negate the need to bring his family into the picture, to make them part of the decision-making process that will lead up to leaving Lavan and going to Canaan. God's commandment does not automatically render all other considerations irrelevant, nor does it usurp one's obligations to the important people in one's life, or to one's self, for that matter, to behave reasonably and thoughtfully. If we believe that we are bound by God's will, or by some other overriding compulsion or power, to do something, to behave in a certain way, that imperative does not automatically absolve us of the need to behave reasonably and respectfully to those around us. On the contrary, it demands of us precisely the sensitivity, patience, openness, and love that Yaakov shows here for his wives, when he takes them into his confidence, so that they may share with him his understanding of God's will, and its logic, and respond to it with him.
Rabbi Shimon Felix