SALT - Parashat Vayetze 5781 / 2020

  • Rav David Silverberg
Motzaei Shabbat
            Parashat Vayeitzei tells of Yaakov’s experiences over the course of the twenty years he spent in the home of his uncle, Lavan, where he married Lavan’s two daughters and shepherded his flocks, earning great wealth.  This period ended with Yaakov abruptly leaving Lavan’s home with his family and herds, whereupon Lavan chased after him.  After a tense exchange, Yaakov and Lavan made a truce, and the Torah concludes, “Lavan returned to his place, and Yaakov went along his way” (32:1).
            Rav Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, in his Meshekh Chokhma, finds it significant that Lavan is described here as having “returned to his place,” which could be taken as intended to emphasize that he emerged from this experience unchanged.  Lavan resumed life as usual, returning to the same “place” – the same condition, mindset and lifestyle – where he had been previously.  Rav Meir Simcha suggests explaining this to mean that Lavan was not impacted in any way by the presence of his righteous nephew in his home for twenty years.  Citing the verse in Mishlei (13:20), “Holeikh et chakhamim yechkam” – “He who walks with the wise becomes wise,” Rav Meir Simcha writes that normally, one who spends time in the proximity of a great person is enriched and influenced by that person’s greatness.  Lavan, however, parted ways with Yaakov after being together for twenty years, and then he “returned to his place,” to his corrupt and sinful character, living a life of evil just as he had before he met Yaakov.
            The verse then proceeds to contrast Lavan with Yaakov, stating that Yaakov left Lavan and then “went along his way,” which Rav Meir Simcha explains to mean that he continued his lifelong efforts to grow and improve.  When Yaakov left Lavan, he maintained his determination and work to raise himself higher – in direct contrast to Lavan, who refused to take advantage of opportunities for improvement.  Whereas Yaakov consistently and proactively strove to grow, Lavan consistently and proactively resisted growth.  This contrast, as described by Rav Meir Simcha, teaches that we, as the descendants of Yaakov, must always be trying to improve, and, at very least, capitalize on all the many opportunities that present themselves for inspiration and motivation to advance.
            Parashat Vayeitzei begins with the story of Yaakov’s journey from Canaan to Charan, during which he dreamt his famous dream of the ladder extending to the heavens, and received a prophecy.  God promised Yaakov, among other things, that He would protect him throughout his sojourn and bring him back to his homeland, adding, “for I will not abandon you until I do that which I spoke to you” (28:15).
            This promise might, at first glance, sound peculiar, as God seems to say that once He fulfills His promise of protecting Yaakov and bringing him back to Canaan, He would then “abandon” him.  After all, God promised not to abandon Yaakov “until I do that which I spoke to you,” implying that afterward, he might. 
The commentators resolved this difficulty in several different ways.  The Rashbam explains that God refers here to the special protection that is needed during travel, assuring Yaakov that He would provide this protection throughout his journey, until he returns back home.  In a generally similar vein, Chizkuni explains that this proclamation refers to God’s promise to bring Yaakov back to his homeland.  God reinforces this promise by pledging not to “abandon” him until he returns to Canaan.  The Radak takes a different approach, suggesting that God speaks in this phrase of all the promises He had made to Yaakov in this prophetic vision, which include the promise of a large nation that would descend from him and would be given the Land of Israel.  And thus God assures Yaakov that He would not abandon him “until I do that which I spoke to you” – meaning, forever, because the promises He made were about an eternal nation that would descend from him.
            Netziv, in Ha’ameik Davar, explains that God did, in fact, put a limit on His promise to accompany Yaakov.  He guaranteed to accompany Yaakov along his journey and back to his homeland, but left open the possibility that he or his descendants might later be again forced into exile, which of course ended up happening, on several occasions.
            An especially novel interpretation to this verse is cited in the name of Chatam Sofer.  He suggested reading the word “ad” (“until”) in this verse to mean “before,” referring to the period “until” – that is, prior to – the fulfillment of His promise.  God assured Yaakov that even before the promises were fulfilled, even during his period of hardship and travails, he would not be alone, because God would be assisting him.  Chatam Sofer explained that when we find ourselves in a situation of crisis or difficulty, even as we pray, yearn and wait for God’s assistance, we must feel try to feel comforted by the faith that God accompanies us even amid the hardship.  God assured Yaakov – and, by extension, all his descendants – that even before “I do that which I spoke to you,” before we receive the assistance which we long for, we are being assisted and supported by our loving Father in heaven, who never abandons us under any circumstances.
            We read in Parashat Vayeitzei of Yaakov’s arrival at the well outside the city of Padan Aram, where he had come to take refuge with his uncle, Lavan.  Upon reaching the well, Yaakov observed three herds of sheep assembled with their shepherds around the well.  The Torah explains that all the local shepherds would gather around the well and work together to uncover it by pushing away the stone that covered the top.  Then, after drawing water for their herds, they would together roll the stone back on top of the well (29:3).
            The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 29:8) suggests a symbolic association between the sight which Yaakov beheld upon arriving in Padam Aram and the public Torah reading in the synagogue.  The well outside the city, the Midrash comments, parallels the synagogue, from which we draw Torah knowledge and inspiration, which is often compared to water.  The three herds that assembled around the well correspond to the three “keru’im” – the three people who are called to the Torah to recite the blessings before and after the reading.  And the large stone on the mouth of the well, the Midrash teaches, represents the evil inclination.  The congregation – like the shepherds of Padan Aram – remove the “stone,” the evil inclination, but then, the Midrash writes, “once they leave, the evil inclination returns to its place,” symbolized by the shepherds’ returning the stone to the mouth of the well after drawing water for their flocks.
            The Midrash here teaches that the effort to remove the “stone” that so often covers our hearts, the burden of sinful pressures and tendencies that weighs upon each and every one of us, requires the collective participation of a community.  Just as the well could not be removed from the well until all the shepherds assembled and worked together to push it off, similarly, we cannot succeed in overcoming our negative inclinations if we try to do so alone.  The communal Torah reading represents the indispensable role of the community in religious life, in enabling each member to access the “water” of Torah and sanctity, which is obstructed by the large “stone” of our natural vices.
            The Midrash further teaches us that this struggle to remove the “stone” is one which we must constantly be waged, each and every day.  Even when we succeed in pushing the stone away and exposing the mouth of the well, granting us access to the life-giving waters of Torah, invariably, the stone returns, and we must struggle anew.  Accessing the “water” of Torah and spirituality always requires hard work and effort.  We may never assume that the “stone” has permanently been removed, that we will no longer face any obstacles or struggles to achieve.  The “stone” will always be returned to its place, and we must therefore always be prepared to invest hard work in the pursuit of religious excellence.
            Parashat Vayeitzei begins by telling of Yaakov sleeping along the road as he journeyed from Canaan to the home of his uncle, Lavan.  The Torah relates that Yaakov “took from among the stones in that place” (28:11) as a surface upon which to place his head.  Rashi famously cites the Gemara’s comment in Masekhet Chulin (91b) understanding this phrase to mean that Yaakov took a number of stones, which began quarreling with another, as each wanted the privilege of having Yaakov’s head rest on it.  God performed a miracle and combined the rocks into a single rock, and the Gemara explains that this is why the Torah refers to a single stone several verses later (“He took the stone which he had placed underneath his head” – 28:18).  Although Yaakov began with a number of stones, by the time he arose in the morning, there was but one stone.
            Maharam Shick offers a symbolic explanation of this image, of the stones under Yaakov’s head merging into a single entity.  Before going to sleep along the roadside, Yaakov did two things.  First, the Torah tells, “Va-yifga ba-makom” (literally, “He encountered a place” – 28:11), which the Gemara (Berakhot 26b) famously explains to mean that he prayed.  Secondly, he collected stones for his head, which Rashi, citing the Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 68:11), interpreted to mean not that Yaakov placed his head on the stones, but rather than he put them around his head for protection.  It emerges, then, that Yaakov both appealed to God for help, and also took measures to help himself.
            Accordingly, Maharam Shick writes, the image of the stones merging together might symbolize the synthesis between faith in Providence and personal effort.  We believe, on the one hand, that all events are orchestrated and ordained by God, but on the other hand, that we are to take personal responsibility for our own wellbeing and extend ourselves for the sake of others.  These two precepts, like the stones underneath Yaakov’s head, “quarrel” with each other.  There is tension between faith in God and assuming responsibility.  After all, if everything in any event depends solely on God’s decision, then there seems to be no value in our own work, effort, initiatives or ingenuity.  Yaakov’s conduct before sleeping, fusing prayer with reasonable means of protection, sets for us a model of synthesis between these two seemingly contradictory perspectives, symbolized by the merging of the stones.  Just as the stones quarreled and then blended together, so must we try to resolve the tension between faith and personal responsibility by delicately balancing our trust in God and our commitment to do what is necessary to care for ourselves and for those around us.
            The Torah in Parashat Vayeitzei (29:17) relates that whereas Rachel was very attractive, her sister, Leah, had eyes which were “rakot,” which is commonly understood to mean “weak,” indicating that Leah’s eyes looked weary and drawn.  (The Rashbam, though, explains differently.) 
The Gemara in Masekhet Bava Batra (123a) famously comments that although this description of Leah sounds offensive and derogatory, in truth, the Torah here speaks in praise of Leah.  Her eyes had a weary appearance, the Gemara explains, because she heard people saying that her sister was destined to marry her righteous cousin, Yaakov, whereas she was destined to marry her sinful cousin, Eisav.  Leah asked about her two cousins, and learned that Yaakov was pious and Eisav was iniquitous.  A righteous woman, Leah was horror-stricken at the prospect of her marriage to a man like Eisav, and so she wept – in fact, the Gemara tells, she wept until her eyelashes fell from her eyelids, and this is the Torah’s intent when it describes her eyes as “rakot.”
            Rabbi Natan of Breslav, in Likutei Halakhot (Hilkhot Sheluchin, 18), applies the Gemara’s depiction of Leah’s weeping to our daily lives.  Just as Leah feared the prospect of her marrying Eisav, Rabbi Natan writes, similarly, we must all fear falling into the trap of the spiritual force of Eisav – meaning, our sinful inclinations.  We must pray and plead to avoid the “Eisav” influences that abound, no less than Leah pleaded to avoid being bound to Eisav in marriage.  Rabbi Natan adds that just as Leah’s pleas were effective, and through the most unlikely and unexpected sequence of events she ended up marrying Yaakov instead of Eisav, so can we always be spared from falling into the trap of negative pressures and influences.  Even if it seems all but certain that we are bound to “marry Eisav,” that we will fall prey to the lures of sin, we can pray, as Leah did, and thereby ensure that we will adhere to “Yaakov,” to the forces of sanctity.
            We might extend this analogy further, noting that the Gemara describes Leah as hearing the news of her anticipated marriage to Eisav while standing “al parashat derakhim” – at the crossroads.  It was at major intersections – where, apparently, people would congregate – that Leah received this information, and where she then inquired about the conduct about both Yaakov and Eisav, and wept.  Symbolically, this might allude to the fact that every day of our lives, we stand at an “intersection,” with the possibility of following either the direction that leads us to “Yaakov” or the direction that leads us to “Eisav.”  So often, have decisions to make, whether big or small, and each time we must choose between two paths, we must, like Leah, carefully consider the two options, and recognize the benefits of “Yaakov” and the great danger of “Eisav.”  And we must fervently pray, as Leah did, to be spared from the lures of “Eisav,” in all its manifestations, and to always have the wisdom, strength and courage to follow the path that brings us to “Yaakov,” the course of genuine religious devotion.
            The Torah in Parashat Vayeitzei tells of the birth of Yaakov’s children in Charan, and the names given to them.  Yaakov’s fourth son, Yehuda, was so named because Leah joyfully exclaimed at the time of his birth, “Ha-pa’am odeh et Hashem” – “This time, I shall give thanks to the Lord” (29:35). 
            The Gemara in Masekhet Berakhot (7b) comments, “Since the day the Almighty created His world, there was no person who thanked the Almighty, until Leah came along and thanked Him, as it says, ‘This time, I shall give thanks to the Lord’.”  Apparently, there was something special and distinct about Leah’s expression of gratitude after the birth of her fourth child, one which set it apart from other expressions of gratitude.
            The Gemara’s remark becomes particularly puzzling in light of the Midrash Tanchuma’s understanding of this verse, cited by Rashi in his Torah commentary.  The Midrash explains that Leah exclaimed that “this time” she would thank the Almighty because with the birth of her fourth child, she had now been assured to have mothered a disproportionately large number of tribes.  Leah prophetically foresaw that Yaakov would have four wives and produce twelve tribes, and so once she delivered her fourth child, she was guaranteed to have a higher share of the tribes than any of the other three wives.  She thus jubilantly exclaimed, “This time, I shall give thanks to the Lord,” thanking God for the unique privilege she had been granted.  Seemingly, then, Leah’s expression of gratitude was intuitive, a perfectly natural, appropriate response to having received something special and unique which others do not have.  Why, then, does the Gemara appear to point to Leah’s expression of gratitude as something extraordinary?
            This question was raised by Rav David Kviat, in his Sukat David, where he suggests that it is precisely Leah’s recognition that she had received more than she deserved which made her expression of gratitude so special.  People generally tend to feel they rightfully deserve all the blessings in their lives, or that they rightfully deserve even more.  What was unique about Leah’s gratitude, Rav Kviat writes, is the acknowledgement that she had received something special, more than she felt she was entitled to.  The Gemara here teaches that the highest level of appreciation is recognizing that we do not necessarily deserve all we have, that we are not entitled to receive anything we wish.  Leah’s proclamation upon the birth of Yehuda is viewed as the paradigm of thanksgiving because it expressed a denial of natural entitlement, an acknowledgment that we receive far more than we deserve, for which we must be eternally grateful.
            We read in Parashat Vayeitzei that as Yaakov made his way from his homeland, Canaan, to Charan, to escape from his brother, he made a vow to God.  He declared, “If God will be with me, and protect me along this journey along which I am now traveling, and give me bread to eat and clothing to wear…then this stone which I have made into a monument shall be a house of God, and all that You give me, I shall tithe for You” (28:20).
            The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 70:5) relates (according to one version of the text of the Midrash) that this verse was cited by Rabbi Eliezer when he was confronted by a distraught convert to Judaism.  The convert, named Akilas, asked Rabbi Eliezer why the Torah in Sefer Devarim (10:18) says about God, “and He loves the convert, granting him bread and a garment.”  Akilas wondered, “Is this all the praise of a convert?” – meaning, is this all that a convert can hope for, to have his basic necessities met?  Rabbi Eliezer replied, “Is it something simple in your eyes, that which the elderly man [Yaakov] struggled with?!”  Citing the pledge Yaakov made on condition that he would be provided with “bread to eat and clothing to wear,” Rabbi Eliezer noted that Yaakov considered the provision of these basic needs a precious blessing, which could not be taken for granted.
            The story continues that Akilas went to Rabbi Eliezer’s colleague, Rabbi Yehoshua, and posed his question.  Rabbi Yehoshua spoke to him more assuringly, explaining that when the Torah describes God as granting converts “food” and “a garment,” it means that God enables converts to acquire knowledge of Torah – which is considered “food” for a Jew – and a tallit with tzitzit strings.  God blesses converts with not just their basic necessities, but also the opportunity to excel in Torah study and mitzva observance, just like all other Jews.  Alternatively, Rabbi Yehoshua explained, this verse means that God enables converts to have offspring who will be kohanim, such that they will eat sacrificial food and wear the special priestly garments.  The Midrash concludes: “They said: If not for the patience which Rabbi Yehoshua extended towards Akilas, he would have reverted back to his wayward conduct.”
            Rabbi Yehoshua understood that what troubled Akilas was not the verse itself, but rather the vexing question of his place within his new nation.  As a newcomer, Akilas felt uneasy about whether he can or would be completely integrated, whether he would be accepted as a full-fledged member of the Jewish People, and given the same opportunities granted to other members.  And so Rabbi Yehoshua assured him that God empowers converts to accomplish as much as anyone else, that he, too, would be capable of spiritual greatness.  This reassurance prevented Akilas from despairing and regretting his decision to join Am Yisrael.
            But while Rabbi Yehoshua’s response was the correct one considering Akilas’ justified uneasiness, we must not discount Rabbi Eliezer’s response, or overlook its great importance.  For the purpose of addressing Akilas’ real and understandable concerns, Rabbi Yehoshua’s reply was what was needed at that time, but for our own outlook, Rabbi Eliezer’s reply expresses the vitally important message that even our basic needs must not be taken for granted.  “Food to eat and clothing to wear” is a precious gift that must be appreciated and cherished.  While it is certainly acceptable to strive for more, we should never take our basic necessities for granted.  And even if we, like Akilas, have accomplished something remarkable, making difficult sacrifices for the sake of God, even then, we should not necessarily assume that we deserve anything beyond “food to eat and clothing to wear,” and even that must be regarded as a precious, unmerited gift.  We must appreciate everything we are given, without ever assuming that we deserve more.