“And Hashem stood by it. And He said, ‘I am Hashem, the G-d of Avraham your father and the G-d of Yitzchak your father. I will give you and your descendants the land that you lie upon. Your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth. You shall spread to the west, east, north and south. All the families of earth will be blessed through you and your descendants.” (Beresheit 28:13-14)
Yaakov flees his father’s home in order to escape the anger of his brother, Esav. He is traveling to Charan. He seeks refuge in the home of his uncle, Lavan. Evening comes before Yaakov has left the land of Canaan. Yaakov makes a camp and falls asleep. He has a vision. In this vision, the Almighty addresses him. Our pesukim contain a portion of this prophecy. Hashem promises Yaakov that he and his descendants will possess the land that he sleeps upon. His descendants shall multiply. They will become as numerous as the dust of the earth. They will expand in all directions. There seems to be a contradiction in these promises. First, Hashem promises Yaakov that he and his descendants will possess the land that Yaakov now sleeps upon. This seems to refer to a specific area. Sforno explains that it refers to the land of Canaan. Rashi quotes the Talmud and offers a similar explanation. However, Hashem then tells Yaakov that his descendants will occupy and take possession of the land to the east, west, north and south. This seems to indicate that the territory of Yaakov’s descendants will extend beyond the land of Canaan.
The commentaries offer various solutions to this problem. Sforno suggests the simplest approach. He explains that the two promises refer to different periods. The first promise refers to the near future. Yaakov will become a prince in the land of Canaan. His children would enjoy similar respect. Bnai Yisrael will be exiled to Egypt. But, eventually, Yehoshua will lead the nation in the conquest of the land. The second promise will not be fulfilled immediately. There is an intervening step. Hashem tells Yaakov that before the fulfillment of this promise, his descendants will become similar to the dust of the earth. Above, we explained this comparison to the dust in accordance with Unkelus’ explanation. Unkelus understands this to mean that the population will be as numerous as the dust. Sforno offers a different explanation. The nation will experience exile. In exile, Yaakov’s descendants will suffer terribly. They will become as low as the dirt. However, this exile will end with redemption. The Messiah will restore Yaakov’s children to their land. At this point in time, the second promise will be fulfilled. Bnai Yisrael will spread beyond the borders of the land of Canaan. The nation will extend its boundaries in every direction.
Rav Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik offers a different explanation. He explains that there are two ways an area can become part of the land of Israel. The first means is through Hashem’s specific assignment. This applies to the land of Canaan. Hashem gave this land to Bnai Yisrael as a homeland. The second method is through conquest. Land that is conquered by Bnai Yisrael becomes part of the land of Israel. In other words, even an area that is not part of the original boundaries, as defined in the Torah, can become part of the land of Israel. This is accomplished through conquest of the land. Based on this analysis, Rav Soloveitchik resolves the contradiction between the two promises. First, Hashem promises Yaakov and his descendants the land of Canaan. This is a specific area with defined borders. If the Almighty had stopped with this promise, other lands conquered by Bnai Yisrael would not be included in the nation’s homeland. Therefore, Hashem adds that the nation will grow and expand the borders of the land. These extended borders will become the boundaries of the land of Israel. Conquest also defines the land as part of the land of Israel.
“Wait until this week passes and I will give you this one also for an additional seven years of work that you will do for me.” (Beresheit 29:27)
Yaakov agrees to work for Lavan for seven years. In exchange, Lavan will give Rachel to Yaakov as a wife. Yaakov fulfills his obligation. Lavan deceives Yaakov and substitutes Leya for the younger Rachel. Yaakov confronts Lavan. He agrees to allow Yaakov to marry Rachel, as well. In return, Yaakov must agree to work for Lavan an additional seven years. Yaakov agrees to this arrangement. Yaakov marries Rachel and works for Lavan another seven years.
Rashi maintains, based upon the Talmud, that the Torah was revealed to the forefathers. The forefathers scrupulously observed the mitzvot. This creates a problem. The Torah prohibits a man from marrying two sisters. How could Yaakov marry Rachel and Leyah? This is a violation of a prohibition of the Torah! Various commentaries ask this question. They provide a number of answers.
The Ohr HaChayim offers one of the most interesting responses. He explains that the avot the forefathers were rewarded for observing the mitzvot. However, they were not obligated to observe the commandments. Therefore, it was not inappropriate for the avot to make exceptions for themselves. In specific circumstances, they could justifiably decide to disregard a specific command. On the surface, this seems to be an odd thesis. The mitzvot are Hashem’s guide to life. True, the avot were not obligated to observe the commandments. However, they benefited from adherence to this guide. How can their deviation from the Torah possibly be justified or explained? In order to understand the Ohr HaChayim’s answer, we must answer this question. The Ohr HaChayim’s position is based upon a profound understanding of the nature of halacha.
Halacha is a system of law. Law is composed of general rules. These rules dictate appropriate behavior under specific circumstances. However, because the rules are general, they will apply even under circumstances for which they were not designed. Let us consider an example from secular traffic law. We are required to stop for stop signs. This law is designed to control the flow of traffic at intersections. Each motorist is obliged to stop and check vehicular and pedestrian traffic before proceeding. However, imagine you come to a stop sign late at night. The streets are deserted. You slow as you approach the intersection. But, rather than coming to a complete stop, you slowly roll through the intersection. Have you violated the law? Certainly, you have. It is true that the law was not designed or instituted to regulate minimal traffic on deserted streets. Nonetheless, the law is framed as a general rule. It must be obeyed, even under these circumstances for which it was not directly designed. The phenomenon we have just described will occur in any system of law. This is not because of a flaw in the system. It is because laws are general statements. This generalization in the formulation of the law produces the phenomenon. The law will apply even in situations for which it was not directly designed. We can now understand the position of the Ohr HaChayim.
The Torah was revealed to Bnai Yisrael at Sinai as a system of halacha. The mitzvot are generalized principles for behavior. They must be obeyed at all times. In other words, imagine that we were able to identify the exact purpose of a mitzvah. We could not limit our observance to the circumstances under which the purpose is fulfilled. A law must be observed at all times. The avot knew the Torah. However, it was not obligatory. This means it was not a system of halacha. Instead, it provided general guidance for life. The forefathers understood the purpose of some mitzvot. With this knowledge, they were able to determine the exact circumstances under which a mitzvah would apply. Yaakov had this understanding of the prohibition against marrying two sisters. He understood the purpose of this prohibition. Therefore, he was qualified to determine whether it applied to his own situation. He decided that the prohibition did not apply. He did nothing wrong in marrying Rachel and Leya. The key issue is that these mitzvot were not laws. Therefore, the individual could determine the application of the commandment to his or her personal situation.
And Rachel saw that she had not born children for Yaakov. Rachel was jealous of her sister. She said to Yaakov, “Give me children. For if not, I am dead.” And Yaakov was angry with Rachel. He said, “Am I in the place of G-d, Who has withheld from you offspring?” (Beresheit 30:1-2)
Rachel is barren. Leya has children. Rachel is jealous of her sister. She asks Yaakov to help her conceive. Yaakov is angered by Rachel’s entreaty. He feels that she has made an unreasonable request. In order to understand these passages, we must begin with a simple question. What was Rachel’s expectation? How should Yaakov help her?
The commentaries respond to this question. They explain that Rachel asked Yaakov to pray on her behalf. This explanation creates an even greater obstacle to understanding these passages. Why did Yaakov become angry? Rachel made a completely appropriate request. It is fitting to turn to Hashem in a time of trouble! What better response could be expected of Rachel? The commentaries offer a wide variety of responses to this question. One of the most interesting is provided by Sforno. He explains that Yaakov felt that Rachel attributed to him too much power or influence. He told Rachel that only the Almighty could help her. She was wrong to rely on her husband. Apparently, Sforno maintains that there was nothing wrong with the substance of Rachel’s request. She asked Yaakov to pray on her behalf. This is an appropriate response to suffering. However, Rachel phrased her request in an unacceptable manner. She did not say to Yaakov, “Pray for me.” She said, “Give me children.” This implies Rachel felt that the issue was in Yaakov’s hands. She was completely reliant on Yaakov and confident in the efficacy of his prayers. This level of confidence and reliance is only appropriate in one’s relationship with Hashem. Yaakov held a position in Rachel’s mind that is exclusively reserved for the Almighty. Through having these feelings towards Yaakov, she was allowing Hashem’s position to be usurped.
Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 28:13.
Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 28:13.
Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, Bais HaLeyve Commentary on the Torah, Parshat VaYaetzai.
Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 26:5.
Rabbaynu Chaim ibn Atar, Commentary Ohr HaChayim on Sefer Beresheit 49:3.
R. Yonatan ben Uziel, Rashi, Nachmanides, R. Avraham ibn Ezra and others. Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 30:2.