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Conspiring, Consequences, and Collateral 

11/12/2021 11:32:32 AM


     Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Vayetzei, in which Jacob runs off to his uncle Laban’s house to escape his brother Esau, who in last week’s parasha he twice deceived and claimed what was rightfully Esau’s. In this week’s parasha, Jacob meets and immediately falls in love with Laban’s daughter Rachel. However, in the light of the morning after the wedding, he discovers that the bride in his marital tent was in fact Rachel’s sister Leah. Laban explains that it is simply not done to marry off the younger sister first, but that Jacob can marry Rachel as well if he works for her, too (having already worked for seven years to earn his first bride’s hand in marriage). 

     Through this series of events, the family turned out larger and better set up to be the People of Israel. However, modern Torah commentator Nechama Leibowitz teaches strongly that the ends do not justify the means for Jacob. While many of the classical commentators bend over backwards to make excuses for Jacob, Leibowitz teaches that all of Jacob’s misfortunes, and potentially even the enslavement of his descendants in Egypt, are a direct result of his misdeeds and a punishment for his immoral behavior toward his brother. 

     In the Midrash Tanchuma, this week’s parasha is told with an additional rebuke from Leah. When Jacob confronts her for tricking him, she throws it back in his face that what she and her father conspired to do is no different than what he and his mother did. In Rabbi Benjamin S. Yasgur’s book, Torah Conversations with Nechama Leibowitz, he underscores Leah’s response in the Midrash by pointing out an easily overlooked line in the Torah portion itself. In the text, Laban does not hold the mirror up to Jacob quite so clearly, but in his excuse that the older sister must marry first, he utilizes the specific phrasing of “the first born,” just as Isaac calls Esau when Jacob is pretending to be his brother. When Jacob first requests Rachel’s hand in marriage, the Torah refers to the sisters in terms of “bigger” and “smaller,” so the shift to “first-born” hearkens back to Jacob’s behavior in a subtle yet distinct way. Rabbi Yasgur then brings this all back to Leibowitz’s drash that Leah’s and Laban’s trickery is a direct result of Jacob’s own. 

     Going forward, then, Leibowitz and Rabbi Yasgur point out how the deception with the sisters results in the unequal treatment of Jacob to his wives and their children. Jacob never really wanted to marry Leah, and so although he stayed committed to their marriage that he was bamboozled into, he didn’t care for her or her children with quite the same affection he shows to Rachel and her two precious sons who were additionally conceived and delivered with great difficulty. As we will see in coming parashiyot, this favoritism leads to Joseph being sold into slavery and sent to Egypt, which in turn precipitates the children of Israel being trapped and enslaved in Egypt for several generations. The two modern commentators in their Torah Conversations even take the concept of Divine punishment for Jacob’s swindling all the way to the Jews of Shushan, Persia, quoting Midrash Rabbah which highlights the similar use of Hebrew between Esau’s “loud and bitter cry” when he discovers that his father has given away his blessing and the “loud and bitter cry” of all the Jews in the Book of Esther when they learn of Haman’s genocidal plot.

     I don’t generally buy into concepts of Divine punishment. Letting out loud and bitter cries are pretty universal responses to these difficult situations, so the parallel between Genesis and Esther seems a simple coincidence. And the cause of the Jews’ enslavement in Egypt was Pharaoh’s xenophobia and to blame Jacob’s causation feels a bit victim-blamey. And yet, I think the midrashim, Nechama Leibowitz, and Rabbi Benjamin Yasgur all point to an important message: our actions have consequences. Sometimes those consequences ripple far beyond our own repercussions, and can affect generations to come. It is impossible to always prepare for the future, to know exactly how things are going to turn out, to eliminate negative effects on our progeny (biological or spiritual) altogether. But it is possible to think before acting, to always act with integrity and in accordance with our own values, and to hopefully avoid truly catastrophic fallout that destroys futures. 

     May we all stick to our values, learn from our mistakes, live with our consequences, and in doing so, may we create a better future for our families and communities. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 

Sat, May 28 2022 27 Iyyar 5782