I think we tend to think of Jacob as the old patriarch with wives and concubines and twelve children and all kinds of family drama. The man who loves Joseph and spends so many years mourning his loss. The father who is so damaged and who, in many ways, passes on that damage to the next generation. But, in today’s parsha, we see a young man who is now suddenly on his own and seeking to find his destiny.
What can we learn from THIS parsha, Vayetze, from this early narrative of Jacob’s life?
And by this question, I obviously don’t mean to imply that Jacob was an exemplary or even morally admirable figure. We know that he has spent much of his life deceiving those around him, and we know that there is much NOT to admire in his character. But I think that his behavior in this morning’s parsha tells us a lot about how he is evolving and about what it takes, on some level, to do teshuvah.
First, we know that Jacob works hard. He is willing to stay with Laban and his family in order to be able to be with the woman he loves, Rachel. He agrees to work for seven years for Laban, who has promised him the beautiful Rachel. And so he does. But even when Laban tricks him into marrying Leah, Jacob stays and works. He doesn’t just work hard—as he himself points out to Laban, he has increased Laban’s flocks and stock by ‘multitudes.’ Perhaps he stays because he’s finally realized that this is his comeuppance for tricking his brother Esau. Perhaps he stays to work because he doesn’t have anywhere else to go. Perhaps he stays to work because he sees that there is something other than study that he is good at. The reason or reasons why he stays don’t really matter; what matters is that he invests in the work, and that his work bears fruit.
No wonder Laban doesn’t want to let him go. This little yeshiva bocher can figure out how to get animals to cross-fertilize and how to maximize an animal’s healthy offspring. His efforts have made Laban a wealthy man. Jacob seems to set aside the rancor he must have felt at being tricked and focus on the work that needs to get done. And from what we read in the Torah, it appears that Jacob hasn’t even demanded any wages for his years of labor.
Hard work. Devoting oneself to the task at hand. And such devotion leads to excellence. It seems that everything Jacob touches turns to gold. Remember: when he later encounters Esav, he tells him he has everything. That can of course be metaphorical, but the Torah tells us explicitly: “In this way, the man grew exceedingly prosperous and came to own large flocks, and maidservants, and menservants, and camels and donkeys.” Jacob is a wealthy man.
There is something else we can learn from Jacob’s actions. Jacob is willing to compromise. Think about it. He loves Rachel. He works seven years. He eagerly awaits his marriage to her, and on the awaited day, he discovers that he is marrying the daughter with the “weak eyes.” He could have, I suppose, walked out at that point. Perhaps he could have had the marriage annulled. Perhaps he could have run off with Rachel, who I think would have probably been more than glad to leave that awful family. But he doesn’t. He compromises with Laban—not an easy thing to do with someone so shady and duplicitous. He agrees to stay another seven years.
Compromise is hard, and yet we all need to learn to do it if we want our relationships to work. I’ll give you an example. A friend of mine wanted a boat more than anything. His wife kept refusing, but he bought one anyway. She was furious that he went out and did that on his own. "I'll tell you what," he told her, "In the spirit of compromise, why don't you name the boat?" Being a good sport, she accepted. When her husband went to the dock for his maiden voyage, this is the name he saw painted on the side: "For Sale."
May we all see the fruits of our hard work and be willing to compromise.
Rashi offers three different reasons to explain Yitzchak becoming blind in his old age. One answer is that his eyes were affected by the smoke of the idolatrous incense offerings of Esav’s wives. Yitzchak had a greater sensitivity to the ill effects of idolatry due to his higher spiritual level having been the offering at the Akeidah. The second answer that Rashi offers is also Akeidah related. At the time of his being bound as a sacrifice the angels wept. The tears that fell from the sky came to land in Yitzchak’s eyes. These two answers are therefore along the same theme of the higher spiritual nature of Yitzchak. The third reason, the most practical of all and the one that is easiest for us to accept, is that Hashem purposely made Yitzchak experience failing eyesight so that Yaakov could perform the ruse and take the blessings from his older brother.
The Ramban is even more practical in his analysis. He wrote that this was a natural development of a person reaching older age. Not everybody is blessed with perfect eyesight to begin with and very frequently we see older people suffering with failing eyesight. The Seforno gives us a different theme. The loss of vision for Yitzchak was a punishment for not restraining Esav. This theme could be developed into a course on the responsibility of a parent in disciplining his offspring. The fact is that we still debate today how a child ends up in life is linked to the parents and the effective or defective method of parenting used in the home. There is a passage in the Talmud that states that how our children turn out can be attributed to Mazel. We recognize that there are many outside influences in the development of our children when they are in the maturing ages of their latter teens. Not everything is in the control of parents. Nevertheless, the Seforno tells us that parents should always live up to the responsibility that they have for bringing children into the world.
We know that the Torah is famously sparse when it comes to details – often we jump in a narrative and can’t help but wonder what happened in between. Or we read a very concise version of what could be a much longer story. But in this week’s parsha, Chayei Sarah, Eliezer, right-hand man of Avraham, gives us a very detailed description of how he came to the home of Laban to find a wife for Isaac. How important is that description? We have to assume that it’s very important, since it’s so long and drawn out. But what’s really remarkable is that Eliezer tells the story TWICE. And he tells it in almost exactly the same way each time. But for the spelling of ONE WORD.
In the first iteration of the story, Eliezer repeats what he has said to Avraham: “Perhaps (OOLAI) the woman will not follow me?” He’s wondering what he should do if that is the case. The Hebrew word in this sentence is spelled with a Vav, rendering it unable to be read as anything other than oolai, that is, maybe, perhaps. But when he recounts the dialogue with Lavan later, the Hebrew word is spelled without a Vav, rendering it possible to be pronounced aylye, to me.
So—of course—we have to have a midrash here. The rabbis tell us that the two different word forms for perhaps or maybe make clear that Eliezer is ambivalent about going to find a wife for Isaac. Why would that be? He’s the faithful servant of Abraham, and has never declined to do as he instructs. The reason, according to tradition, is that Eliezer himself had a daughter. He was hoping that Avraham would give his approval for Isaac to marry the daughter to Eliezer. So, the second telling is the CLUE—if the word could be read as TO ME, perhaps Eliezer is hinting to Avraham that Isaac could just as easily be a member of HIS family. But Rashi tells us that Eliezer was a descendant of Canaan who had been cursed by Noach, so one who is accursed cannot marry one who is blessed.
So, there is no possibility that Avraham would accept Eliezer’s daughter for Isaac. And that teaches us that ONE WORD can make a WORLD OF DIFFERENCE.
I grew up addicted to the early Superman series on television. The opening voice-over informed us very clearly about the values for which Superman stands, “Truth, Justice and the American Way.” If we throw in motherhood and apple pie, the list of virtues is complete. I say this not to denigrate those values, but only to suggest that we seldom examine them in the depths they deserve.
Let’s take a look at one of those values: Truth. Philosophers have argued for centuries about how strict a demand human beings have for telling the truth. At the most extreme we find Immanuel Kant who argues that we have an absolute obligation always to tell the truth, despite the consequences. The famous example he gives involves a crazed killer who is stalking an innocent person whom you are sheltering. That killer comes to your home and demands to know if his prey is there. Kant would have us tell the truth. I think most of us are uncomfortable with this extreme and might cite righteous lies in Nazi Germany as the surest counter-argument to Kant.
Another ethical view Utilitarianism instructs us to tell the truth only when doing so maximizes utility. This school of thought seems to negate the moral obligation most of us feel to tell the truth. An example would be telling a dying Temple member that his bequest will go to his pet project which you have no intention of funding. As tempted as we might be, I think we would all agree that that’s wrong. But notice that the default position here is utility rather than honesty. That too seems to contradict our intuitions.
How does the Torah guide us through this moral thicket? In out Parshah, we have the story of three angels visiting Abraham. One of them says “I will return to you next year, and your wife Sarah will have a son.” Sarah overhears the conversation. She “laughs to herself, saying, ‘Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment – with my husband so old?’” In the very next verse, God reports her laughter to Abraham. But He does not tell Abraham the whole truth. Instead, He tells Abraham that when Sarah laughed, she said: ‘Shall l in truth bear a child, old as I am?’” God lied!
Jewish tradition says that the God acted this way to teach that peace in the home is more important than telling the truth. Why should God tell Abraham that Sarah thinks he is too old? That would embarrass him. Better to tell a little white lie. Peace in the home is a principal virtue. A little deviation from the truth is a small price to pay.
The Talmud derives a stronger principle. The rabbis assert there is a strong prohibition against “hurting with words.” It prohibits embarrassing anyone in public even if the words are true. The ancient rabbis noted that when someone is seriously shamed, the blood drains from his face. They equate this with murder, the shedding of blood, in its severity. The Bible teaches that it is better to tell a lie than to publicly shame anyone. In our story today, God avoids shaming Abraham even privately.
So, we can see that Judaism is neither absolutist nor utilitarian. At the same time, it does not offer total flexibility and permit lying whenever we feel like it or whenever it serves our interests. Instead, what becomes clear is that doing Chesed, loving-kindness, is a greater duty than the duty to tell the truth. Just as God protected Abraham’s dignity, so should we strive for compassion in our dealings with our fellow human beings.
We can’t leap tall buildings with a single bound, but we can do that!