Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

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Location: Bet Shemesh, Israel

I taught Tanach in Immanuel College, London and in Hartman, Jerusalem. I was also an ATID fellow for 2 years. At present, I work for the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, in Bar-Ilan University, Israel. The purpose of this blog is to provide "sedra-shorts", short interesting ideas on the weekly Torah reading. Please feel free to use them and to send me your comments.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Parshat VaYetzeh

There are four Sedra Shorts on Parshat VaYetseh. Scroll down for each Dvar Torah:

Yaakov's Many Wives

Yaakov and Lavan's Working Relationship

Yaakov's Guilt

The Dust of the Earth


Yaakov's Many Wives

In this week's parsha, Yaakov Avinu, marries two sisters, Rachel and Leah. He then takes their maidservants, Bilha and Zilpa, as concubines. It is possible that they, in particular Bilha, also became his wives at a later stage.


Yaakov was not the only one of our forefathers who had more than one wife. Avraham himself married not only Sarah, but also Hagar and Keturah. In fact, Yitschak was the only one of the Patriarchs to have one wife.

It is however, interesting, that polygamy does not seem to be the natural Biblical ideal. To begin with when God created Man, He said: "It is not good that man is alone" (Bereshit 2:18) and so He creates a partner for him. After having created a soul-mate for him, the Torah states: "a man shall leave his father and his mother, and cleave to his wife, and they shall become one flesh" (ibid 24). Adam and Eave are the archetype human beings and their relationship is totally monogamous and complete when they found each other.

Indeed, the Rabbis even suggest that the original human being was a hermaphrodite, that God split them and therefore, when they found each other, they were actually finding themselves.

Furthermore, if we examine the Biblical examples when a man had more than one wife, we will find cases of suffering and strife.

The first person to have more than one wife was Lemech: "Lemech took himself two wives; one was named Adah, and the other was named Zillah…'incline your ears to my words, for I have slain a man by wounding (him) and a child by bruising (him)'" (ibid 3:23). While we cannot attribute Lemech's murderous actions directly to the fact that he had one wife, the Torah does imply that in Lemech's time, humanity took a turn for the worse.

The next person who had more than one wife was Avraham: "Sarai said to Avram, 'Behold now, the Lord has restrained me from bearing; please come to my handmaid'" ibid 16:2). Sarah makes an ultimate sacrifice. She knew her husband was promised an heir, however, she did not know that she was to be the mother. So after years of childlessness, she gave Avram the opportunity of having that child. However, it turned out that it was a challenge she found impossible to cope with: "Sarai said to Avram, 'May my injustice be upon you! I gave my handmaid into your bosom…and I became unimportant in her eyes. May the Lord judge between me and you'" (ibid 5).

Indeed, Avram is eventually forced to send his son Yishmael away as Sarah was concerned about him impeaching Yitschak's inheritance. Avraham is even forced to send away his other sons from Keturah, in order to protect Yitschak: "To the sons of Abraham's concubines, Abraham gave gifts, and he sent them away from his son Isaac while he [Abraham] was still alive" (ibid 25.

Rachel and Leah, both of Yaakov's wives, also did not get on, even though they were sisters. Indeed "The Lord saw that Leah was hated" (ibid 29:31). Leah felt hated and second best. Rachel herself is so jealous of her sister's childbearing that she's prepared to give Bilha to Yaakov. Leah promptly follows suit and gives him Zilpa. The episode with the dudaim, the mandrakes that Reuven had gathered for Leah, also shows the tenseness and deep jealousy of their relationship.

It is therefore, no surprise that this mutual jealousy was transferred to their sons with Yoseph, eventually being sold into slavery by his half-brothers.

The relationship between Hannah and Penina, the wives of Elkana, was also hostile: "Her rival (Penina) would frequently anger her (Hanna), in order to make her complain" (I Shmuel 1:6).

Certainly Adoniah and Shlomo, two sons of David from different wives, did not get on and were rivals for the throne. Adoniah plots against Shlomo who has him executed (see I Kings 3:13-25).

Shlomo himself had many wives: "He had seven hundred royal wives and three hundred concubines, and his wives turned away his heart.It was at the time of Solomon's old age, that his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not whole with the Lord" (ibid 11:3-4).

Every single case that the Torah reports of a man having more than one wife led to problems.

It is therefore, clear, especially if we consider Adam and Eve's harmony in the Garden of Eden, that while the Torah tolerated the concept of polygamy, it seems to consider monogamy to be the ideal.

Yaakov and Lavan's Working Relationship

When Lavan first met Yaakov, he embraced him, welcomed him into his house and declared: "Indeed, you are my bone and my flesh" (Bereshit 29:14), signifying a warm relationship.

However, it's very clear that Lavan often chose his words carefully, allowing them to be understood in a number of ways, so that he could take advantage of the situation. A prime example occurs after Yaakov has been with Lavan for a month. Lavan says:

הֲכִי אָחִי אַתָּה וַעֲבַדְתַּנִי חִנָּם הַגִּידָה לִּי מַה מַּשְׂכֻּרְתֶּךָ

There are two ways to translate and understand this passuk (ibid 15):

"Because you are my kinsman, should you work for me for free? Tell me what your wages shall be."

This translation implies that up until now Yaakov had been working for Lavan without pay. This put him on the level of a slave who does not get paid, but lives on the meals provided for him in return for his labor. Lavan seems to be saying to Yaakov that as he is family, he should be paid. Sounds good.

However, there is another way to understand the passuk:

"Are you my kinsman that you should work for me for free? Tell me what your wages shall be."

Slaves are not the only people that do not get paid a wage; the family members also do not get regular pay. They share a portion of the profits. Note that previously Yaakov had "stayed with him a full month" (ibid 14). Lavan, it appears, is therefore angry with Yaakov and is saying to him that he is not a clansman who does not have to pull his weight and yet share the profits. Lavan tells Yaakov that from now on he is a mere hired hand who must work hard to earn his keep.

Indeed, it is clear that Yaakov is considered to be a slave, for when his second set of seven years is over, Yaakov asks Lavan: "Send me away, and I will go to my place and to my land" (ibid 30:25).

Yaakov asks to be sent away – this an expression of being released from servitude. Furthermore, Yaakov also says: "Give [me] my wives and my children for whom I worked for you, and I will go, for you know my work, which I have worked for you" (ibid 26). A master has the right to keep the wives and children of a slave when he sets the salve free. Yaakov is therefore saying that he is not a slave for he worked for his wives – but the underlying theme is that he is treated as a slave.

Indeed, once Yaakov flees, in a further sign that he was not a free man, he explains to Lavan: "Because I was afraid, because I said, 'Lest you steal your daughters from me" (ibid 31:31). Yaakov is afraid that Lavan will insist on keeping his wives and children.

Lavan even says this implicitly claiming that by secretly fleeing Yakkov had: "led away my daughters like prisoners of war" (ibid 26). Lavan even claims that he has: "the power to inflict harm upon you" (ibid 29), i.e. the legal right to punish Yaakov for fleeing.
However, by this time Yaakov has had enough: "What is my transgression? What is my sin, that you have pursued me?" (ibid 36). Yaakov is saying that he is an independent unit and has no need to seek permission to leave.

Furthermore, Yaakov calls for an independent tribunal to judge between them and to clarify this. "Put it here, in the presence of my kinsmen and your kinsmen, and let them decide between the two of us" (ibid 37).

Lavan is rocked by this tribunal and feebly responds: "The daughters are my daughters, and the sons are my sons, and the animals are my animals, and all that you see is mine. Now, what would I do to these daughters of mine today, or to their children, whom they have borne?" (ibid 43). I.e. all he really, meant was that he would never harm his daughters, not that he would actually take them away.

Lavan clearly loses this tribunal as he is forced to make a pact with Yaakov as equals acknowledging that Yaakov is his own separate clan over which he has no rights.

Yaakov's Guilt

Yaakov is constantly cheated by Lavan. First he works for him for a month without being paid (Bereshit 29:14-15). He is then given Leah instead of Rachel and is forced to work another seven years for Rachel.

After the fourteen years were over Yaakov then made a deal with Lavan that: "every speckled and spotted kid, and every brown lamb among the sheep, and [every] spotted and speckled [one from] among the goats" (ibid 30:32), would be his wages.

Rather then being satisfied with this good deal, Lavan "removed on that day the ringed and the spotted male goats and all the speckled and spotted female goats, whichever had white on it, and all the brown [from] among the sheep, and he gave [them] into the hands of his sons" (ibid 35).

He wanted to ensure that Yaakov would not have any of those types of sheep and goats in his flock to breed. It would therefore be unlikely that Yaakov would be able to earn any wages. Lavan even "set three days' journey between himself and Yaakov" (ibid 35) so that there could not even be accidental contact with those sheep and goats.

When Lavan saw that Yaakov had nevertheless succeeded, Yakkov claims that he: "mocked me and changed my wages ten times...If he would say thus, 'Speckled ones shall be your wages,' all the animals would bear speckled ones, and if he would say thus, 'Ringed ones shall be your wages,' all the animals would bear ringed ones" (Bereshit 31:7-8).

Slowly but surely, Lavan enslaved Yaakov to such an extent that when Yaakov asked for his freedom, he used the language of a slave being released from his master: "Send me away, and I will go to my place and to my land" (ibid 25 and compare to Shemot 5:1).

Why did Yaakov allow this to happen?

On one occasion Yaakov did confront Lavan, when he switched Rachel with Leah. However, even then his response was minimal and when Lavan said: "It is not done so in our place to give the younger one before the firstborn" (Bereshit 29:26), which appears to be a poor response to a major fraud, Yaakov remains silent. Why?

The answer lies in the events of Parshat VaYetsh and Parshat VaYishlach.

Yaakov was not a willing partner to the snatching of the berachot from Esav. Rivka insisted he do it. She waived away his protests saying that she would be responsible for the repercussions; she cooked the food, put it into Yaakov's hands and even dressed him in Esav's clothes (see ibid 27:13-17). Yaakov was a reluctant partner in this treachery, barely succeeding in disguising his voice.

Nevertheless he is duly punished. He is exiled from his home and comes into darkness. The man that dwelt in tents found himself sleeping in the open air, all alone. He is actually shocked that God hadn't forgotten him (ibid 28:16). Perhaps he thinks that he is getting all he deserved.

Lavan did not give a feeble excuse to Yaakov; he chose his words well: "…in our place to give the younger one before the firstborn" (ibid 29:26). Lavan is playing on Yaakov's conscience for he, the younger son, had pushed himself ahead of Esav, his older brother. Yaakov is stunned into silence. He cannot respond to Lavan's simple defense and proceeds to accept all of Lavan's further frauds, asking nothing of substance for himself.

Yaakov's deeds linger so much on his conscience that when he finally returns to Canaan, he humbles himself before Esav, describing himself as a slave to Esav, his master. He is trying to say that the blessing that he would be his master was nonsense. Yakov says that he was promised: "dew of the heavens and the fatness of the earth and an abundance of corn and wine" (ibid 27:28) but in reality all he got was exile with Lavan.

Yaakov finds the guilt of his actions all consuming and eventually begs Esav: "to take my blessing" (ibid 33:7), which Esav reluctantly does.

Perhaps Yaakov's taking of the Yitzchak's blessing was not such a good thing.

The Dust of the Earth

God promised Avraham, Yitschak and Yaakov individually that they would have countless descendants. However, He used a different expression with each forefather:

Avraham

"I will make your seed like the dust of the earth, so that if a man will be able to count the dust of the earth, so will your seed be counted" (Bereshit 13:16).

"Look heavenward and count the stars, if you are able to count them." And He said to him, "So will be your seed" (ibid 15:5).

"I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens and as the sand that is on the seashore" (ibid 22:17).

Yitschak

"I will multiply your seed like the stars of the heavens" (ibid 26:4).

Yaakov

"Your seed shall be as the dust of the earth" (ibid 28:14).

All three expressions imply that their descendants would be countless. But are these expressions merely expressions or do they have extra meaning?

Stars in the sky – each star is bright and untouchable. Even as individuals the star is special.

Sand on the shore – sand is forged through the waves crashing against the shore. It takes many millennia for the sand to form and comes through hardship.

Dust on the earth – one treads on dust; being a piece of dirt is nothing to be proud of.

Perhaps these expressions represent different phases in the Patriarchs' and the Jewish people's lives.

Abraham made the move to the Holy Land, but he also experienced exile and much hardship in his life. All three expressions are appropriate for him.

Yitschak remained in Canaan his whole life. He was prosperous and had stability. The expression of stars is appropriate for him.

Yaakov begins this Parsha with the sun setting. He is left in darkness and insecurity as he begins his life in exile. There he will find himself repeatedly cheated with no rights. Even though he flourishes and becomes a large family, he must still resort to subterfuge to escape from Lavan. He may have become numerous, but he is no star, nor is he as sand: He is "as the dust of the earth" - trodden on, frightened and homeless.

Yaakov represents the Jew in exile: worried, defenseless, yet still flourishing. However, Yaakov does not remain in exile, he returns, as will all his progeny.

2 Comments:

Blogger nancy said...

Your post attracts me. It is indeed poignant.
Keep blogging!!

This is Nancy from Israeli Uncensored News

8:57 AM  
Blogger Moshe Abelesz said...

Thank you once again. Nancy. Your words are very encouraging to me.

keep checking the blog as I plan to keep it updated.

6:51 PM  

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