Parshat Vayeitzei: Miracles on Behalf of the Tzadik

Miracles on Behalf of the Tzadik

And he came upon the place and he spent the night there, for the sun had set. And he took from the stones of the place and he put them under his head and he lay in that place. (Beresheit 28:11)

It seems from this pasuk that Yaakov took a number of stones and he placed them under his head. Later, the Chumash explains that Yaakov took “the stone” upon which he had rested his head and made it into a pillar. He anointed this pillar with oil and designated it as a monument. The Chumash seems ambiguous regarding the number of stones that Yaakov used. The first pasuk indicates that there was a plurality of stones, while the latter mentions a single stone.

Rashi quotes the comment of the Talmud in Tractate Chullin. He explains that Yaakov chose a group of stones. During the night, these stones began to argue. Each vied for the honor of supporting the head of the righteous Yaakov. Hashem resolved this debate by combining the individual stones into one large rock.[1]

The meaning of Rashi’s comments can be understood within the context of Yaakov’s dream. In his dream, Yaakov was assured by Hashem that during his sojourn with Lavan, he would continue to experience His providence. He would return to the house of his father, physically and spiritually unharmed.

The workings of Divine providence are depicted through the allegory of the stones. In order to understand the message of this allegory, it is important to understand the concept of Divine providence. Hashem created a universe governed by natural laws. Each law is a result of Hashem’s wisdom. They are designed to guide the universe in the best possible manner. However, on occasion, natural laws produce outcomes detrimental to humankind. The laws that govern weather are an excellent example. These laws produce the climate and the seasons that provide the human race with sustenance and comfort. Rain falls to nourish crops. A drier season follows, during which the produce is harvested. Seasonal variations in temperature remain within the range that supports life. However, sometimes, these same, wondrous laws can produce catastrophe. Hurricanes, tornadoes and floods do not happen every day. Yet, they are the outcome of the same amazing laws that express Hashem’s benevolence towards humanity.

Nachmanides explains that providence involves Hashem’s interference with nature. Hashem intervenes on behalf of the deserving to prevent catastrophes that would otherwise naturally occur.[2]

We can now understand the parable of the rocks. The rocks represent the individual laws of nature. Each is an expression of Hashem’s wisdom. Each is designed to support humanity. However, on occasion, these laws come into conflict, and disaster can result. Providence involves Hashem’s intervention in this conflict. He alters natural cause-and-effect for the benefit of the deserving person. Thus, the many individual laws are coordinated to produce the best result for this individual.

Yaakov’s Vow to Hashem

And Yaakov made a vow saying: If the Lord will be with me and he will care for me on the road on which I travel and He will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear and I will return in peace to my father’s house and Hashem will be my Lord, then this stone that I have placed as a monument will be a house of the Lord and I will tithe to You all that You will give me. (Beresheit 28:20-22)

Yaakov is traveling to the home of Lavan, the brother of his mother, Rivkah. Along the way he spends the night in Bet El. There, Yaakov has a prophetic dream. When Yaakov awakens he makes a vow to Hashem.

This vow is expressed in the above pesukim. These passages contain an interesting mystery. The vow expresses a reciprocal relationship or a “deal” with Hashem. In response to specified kindnesses, Yaakov will carry out certain commitments. The “if” clause contains Hashem’s acts of kindness. The “then” clause expresses Yaakov’s responding commitment. The mystery is where the “if” clause ends and the “then” clause starts. This is not at all clear from the original text.

The above translation adopts Rashi’s response to the issue. He reasons that the phrase “Hashem will be my Lord” is part of the “if” clause. Yaakov was praying for Hashem’s protection during his journey and for a safe return to his home. This would be an expression of providence, or Hashem, acting as Lord over Yaakov. He vows that in response to this benevolence, he will dedicate Bet El as a place of worship and will give a tithe from all of his wealth to Hashem.[3] Rashi reasons that the phrase “Hashem will be my Lord” cannot possibly be part of Yaakov’s response; Yaakov would not state that acceptance of Hashem to be his Lord as contingent upon Hashem’s benevolence.

Many of the commentators disagreed with Rashi. Sforno is among these dissenters. He argues that the phrase “Hashem will be my Lord” can be interpreted as part of Yaakov’s reciprocal commitment. Sforno bases his conclusions upon a careful analysis of Yaakov’s wording. The actual term in the pasuk represented by Hashem is the Tetragrammaton. This name is used in reference to Hashem acting with kindness. The term translated as “Lord” is the name Elokim. This name is associated with instances of G-d demonstrating strict justice.

Sforno continues to explain that in the pesukim the names for G-d are alternated. He suggests that this indicates the intention of the vow. Yaakov recognizes that the Almighty is Creator of the universe. Such an awesome deity has no obligation to care for an individual creature. If G-d exercises providence over Yaakov, then He is acting as a G-d of mercy. Elokim has transformed Himself to Hashem. This expression of G-d’s benevolence requires Yaakov’s recognition and gratitude. This will be expressed through the dedication of Bet El and the tithing of his wealth. Yaakov also accepts that a failure, on his part, to respond to Hashem’s grace would be a grave sin deserving severe punishment. It would be appropriate, in such circumstances, for the benevolent Hashem to revert to the Elokim of judgment. Sforno would paraphrase the pesukim as follows: If the Creator treats me with mercy and kindness, then I must respond with complete dedication. Any failure would deserve strict punishment.[4]

This then is Yaakov’s meaning. Hashem treats His creations with mercy and kindness. In response, humanity must recognize this benevolence through complete devotion. Only through this recognition can we attain His continued kindness. If we cannot recognize Hashem’s grace, we deserve His judgment. Providence requires our recognition and appreciation.

Lavan’s Suspicion of Yaakov

And Yaakov was angry and he argued with Lavan. And Yaakov responded to Lavan and he said: What is my crime and what is my wrong-doing that caused you to pursue me? (Beresheit 31:36)

Yaakov becomes wealthy during his stay with Lavan. He sees that Lavan’s sons have become jealous of his success. Also, Lavan is less friendly than in the past. Yaakov decides that it is time to return to Canaan. He fears that Lavan may try to interfere with his decision. Therefore, Yaakov prepares his family and they depart in secret.

Lavan discovers that Yaakov and his family have left and he immediately gives chase. Lavan overtakes Yaakov. He admonishes Yaakov for fleeing and depriving him of the opportunity of a providing a proper farewell. He also accuses Yaakov of stealing an idol.

Yaakov is reveals to Lavan that he feared his father-in-law would attempt to interfere with his plans. Yaakov challenges Lavan to search his possessions and prove that either he or a member of his family stole the idol. Lavan searches thoroughly and finds nothing.

Our pasuk introduces Yaakov’s reaction. Yaakov is angry. He asks Lavan to explain his reasons for chasing him. He then reminds Lavan of the honest services he provided Lavan as a shepherd. He emphasizes his dedication and vigilance. Yaakov contrasts his own behavior with Lavan’s dishonesty. Lavan did not honor the deals he made with Yaakov and constantly altered the terms of Yaakov’s compensation.

Yaakov’s reaction needs to be considered. It is understandable that he was angered by Lavan’s accusation that he had stolen from him. It makes sense that he would remind Lavan of the honesty he had consistently demonstrated. However, it is difficult to understand Yaakov’s reasons for delving into Lavan’s duplicity. If Yaakov had a complaint against Lavan, it should have been stated long ago. Yaakov had agreed to work for Lavan knowing his nature. What does Yaakov hope to accomplish now through accusing Lavan of dishonesty? This is a behavior that we would understand in a normal person. However, it is out of character for a tzadik and chacham – a righteous and wise person.

There is an interesting hint to be found in the wording of our pasuk. The word commonly used in the Chumash for “pursuit” is redifah. Yaakov did not use this term. Instead he chose the word delikah. Rabbaynu Avraham ben HaRambam comments that his grandfather, the father of Maimonides, explained the difference between these two terms. Redifah means to pursue an object or person. The term describes an action. It makes no reference to the feelings of the pursuer. In contrast, the term delikah implies anger and hatred. The term describes a pursuit by a person driven by these feelings of hostility.[5]

Yaakov is telling Lavan that he did not accept Lavan’s explanation for his pursuit. Yaakov claims that Lavan has accused him wrongly. Lavan’s accusation is motivated by hatred and distrust.

Yaakov next analyzes Lavan’s reasons for hating him. He proves that these feeling are not based upon any legitimate claims. Yaakov has been upright and honest in all of his dealings with Lavan. Now, Yaakov comes to the conclusion of his analysis: It is Lavan who has been consistently dishonest. This explains Lavan’s feelings towards Yaakov. Lavan is a hateful crook. He projects his own attitudes onto those with whom he deals, assuming that everyone is as corrupt as himself. This conveniently provides Lavan with a rationalization for his own dishonest behavior. He rationalizes his hateful pursuit of Yaakov by reasoning that he is simply protecting himself. Lavan’s distrust of Yaakov is an expression of Lavan’s own desire to cheat Yaakov.

Rabbaynu Avraham ben HaRambam explains that this instance proves the truth of a teaching of our Sages. They tell us that a false accusation is inevitably an accurate reflection upon the accusers own deficiencies – Kol haposel, bemumo posel.[6]

Yaakov’s Understanding of Lavan

And Yaakov told Rachel that he was the brother of her father and that he was the son of Rivkah. And she ran and told her father. (Beresheit 29:12)

The Torah cannot be defined as merely a religion. The term “religion” is generally understood to refer to a system of worship. It is true that the Torah does include a system of divine service. However, this is only a part of the Torah’s message. Beyond providing a system of worship the Torah also deals with many other issues. It regulates conduct within the family. It includes a system of adjudication and it assures social welfare. The Torah provides regulation and an orientation that extends to virtually every element of communal, national and personal life. This includes a sophisticated system of laws and ethics that govern commercial and business conduct. Our parasha includes the first extensive treatment of business relations. This is communicated through a comparative analysis of the business ethics of Yaakov and his father-in-law, Lavan.

Yaakov travels to Haran. There he comes to a well and meets Rachel, the daughter of Lavan. In our pasuk, Yaakov introduces himself to Rachel. He tells her that he is her father’s brother. Rashi is bothered by the obvious question. This was not an accurate description of his relationship to Lavan. Yaakov was not Lavan’s brother. He was Lavan’s nephew. Yaakov’s mother – Rivkah – was Lavan’s sister.

Rashi offers two explanations. The simple interpretation is that Yaakov did not mean that he was Lavan’s brother in the literal sense. He meant that they were kin. Rashi points out that this is not the only instance in which the term “brother” is used to denote kinship.

However, Rashi offers another explanation. Yaakov provided two descriptions of himself. He said he was the brother of Lavan and the son of Rivkah. Now, it would have sufficed for Yaakov to describe himself as Rivkah’s son. Why did Yaakov also describe himself as the brother, or relative, of Lavan? Rashi responds that there was a message communicated in this description. Rivkah was an honest, straightforward individual. In contrast, Lavan was a dishonest conniver. Yaakov intended to compare himself to both his mother and uncle and communicate that he was the equal of both. He was as honest as Rivkah but also capable of being as devious as Lavan.[7]

It seems that Yaakov was saying that he was prepared to act dishonestly! If Lavan attempts to treat him unfairly, he will retaliate by treating Lavan in the same manner. Yaakov seems to be arguing that it is sometimes appropriate to be less fair and honest. But, as shall become clear, this was not Yaakov’s message.

And Yaakov loved Rachel and he said: I will work for you for seven years for Rachel, your younger daughter. (Beresheit 29:18)

Our pasuk tells us that Yaakov loved Rachel and wished to marry her. He asked her father for his approval of the marriage and offered to work for Lavan for seven years in exchange for marriage to Rachel. He described Rachel as “Rachel, your younger daughter.” Once again, Yaakov adopts a rather elaborate description when a more simple description would seem adequate. Lavan knew who Rachel was. Yaakov did not need to describe Rachel as Lavan’s younger daughter.

Rashi explains that Yaakov was fully aware of Lavan’s deviousness. He did not want to describe his chosen wife as “Rachel.” Lavan might substitute another girl with the same name. Also, Yaakov was not satisfied in describing his wife as “Rachel, your daughter.” Lavan might switch the names of his daughters and then substitute Leyah – the newly named Rachel – for the real Rachel. In order to preclude either of these possibilities, Yaakov described his chosen very carefully as “Rachel, your younger daughter.” But Rashi explains that despite this precaution, Lavan succeeded in deceiving Yaakov and substituted Leyah for Rachel.[8],[9]

This raises two questions. Yaakov claimed that he could be Lavan’s equal in deviousness. Apparently, Yaakov was very wrong! Why did Yaakov assume he could match Lavan and where did he make his mistake?

Let us begin with the first question: Why did Yaakov assume he could match Lavan? Yaakov believed that he was just as smart as Lavan. He knew that Lavan was very shrewd. But he assumed that his wisdom was a match for Lavan’s shrewdness. In fact, Yaakov was correct. Yaakov described Rachel with such precision that he succeeded in precluding the legitimate substitution of Leyah, or any other woman, for Rachel. It is true that Lavan substituted Leyah for Rachel. But then Lavan never claimed that he had fulfilled his bargain. He admitted to the substitution.

We can now understand Yaakov’s intention in describing himself as Lavan’s equal. He did not mean that it is appropriate to be dishonest or unfair and that he could, and would, match Lavan in dishonesty. He meant that his wisdom was a match for Lavan’s shrewdness. He claimed that with this wisdom he would be able to foresee and forestall any attempt by Lavan to be devious. HHeHeHeeSo, what was Yaakov’s mistake?

And Lavan said: This is not done in our place – to give the younger daughter before the elder daughter. (Beresheit 29:26)

Yaakov discovers that Lavan has substituted Leyah for Rachel. He confronts Lavan. Lavan does not deny the substitution. Instead, he explains that the substitution is justified. Leyah is the elder daughter. It is not appropriate to give the younger daughter in marriage before the elder.

In this passage, the Torah tells us how Lavan succeeded in deceiving Yaakov. Yaakov realized that Lavan would use any legitimate means to substitute Leyah, or some other woman, for Rachel. He assumed that stating their agreement in precise terms he would remove all the opportunities for a substitution. In other words, Yaakov’s concern was that Lavan would defend a substitution with the contention he had kept the terms of their agreement as he understood them. Therefore, Yaakov painstakingly detailed the terms of the agreement, eliminating any potential claim of by Lavan that he had misunderstood the bargain. However, he did not realize that Lavan would rationalize an overt abrogation of their agreement. Through relying on the rationalization that Leyah was the elder daughter, and should therefore be married off before her younger sister, Lavan completely ignored the terms of his agreement with Yaakov and substituted Leyah for Rachel. In other words, because Yaakov underestimated Lavan’s deviousness, he was deceived. He assumed that Lavan would rely on his shrewdness to defend another interpretation of their arrangement to his own advantage, and to Yaakov’s detriment. But he did not expect an open breach of their agreement.

Of course, this raises another question. Yaakov recognized that Lavan was a cheat. He knew he was devious. Yet, he did not predict that Lavan would be able to rationalize an open breach of their agreement. Why was Yaakov unable to foresee the extent of Lavan’s dishonesty?

And he came also to Rachel. And he loved Rachel more than Leyah. And he worked with him another, additional seven years. (Beresheit 29:30)

Lavan agrees to give Rachel to Yaakov as a wife after Yaakov’s marriage to Leyah. Yaakov and Lavan make a new deal. In exchange for Rachel, Yaakov will work for Lavan for an additional seven years. Our pasuk tells us that Lavan gives Rachel to Yaakov and Yaakov fulfills his part of the bargain by serving Lavan the additional years.

The wording of the passage is problematic. The pasuk says that Yaakov worked for Lavan “another, additional seven years”. The phrase “another, additional” is clearly redundant. It would have sufficed to use either term – “another” or “additional”. But why does the Torah use both? Rashi explains that the intent is to equate this second seven years with the first seven years of labor that Yaakov provided. During the first seven years, Yaakov worked under the assumption that Lavan would respect their agreement and provide him with Rachel as a wife. However, the second seven years began after Lavan cheated Yaakov. This second set of seven years was a direct result of Lavan’s dishonesty. Nonetheless, the service that Yaakov provided during this second seven years was indistinguishable from his service during the first set. During the first set, Yaakov was a dedicated and honest employee. During the second set, he provided the same level of service. [10]

There is an important point here. Yaakov entered into this agreement as a result of Lavan’s dishonesty. Nonetheless, once Yaakov made the agreement, he scrupulously observed its terms. Unlike Lavan, he did not resort to rationalization. He did not breach his agreement and reduce the quality of his service. Despite the disagreeable circumstances that motivated him to enter into this agreement, Yaakov did not cheat Lavan, nor did he deceive himself into justifying a reason for cheating Lavan. [BMF1]

Now, we can explain Yaakov’s error at a deeper level. Yaakov was confident in his own wisdom. He correctly considered it the match for Lavan’s shrewdness. But Yaakov was not a master of human psychology. As a fundamentally honest person, he could not appreciate the ability of human beings to rationalize unmitigated dishonesty. Lavan resorted to a form of behavior with which Yaakov could not identify. Because this behavior was so alien to him, he could not foresee or predict its manifestations. Yaakov could not rationalize deceit. Because he could not identify with or relate to such blatant corruption, he could not foresee Lavan’s behavior. Because of his own goodness, he underestimated the human ability to rationalize open dishonesty.

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[1] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 28:11.

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Ketvai HaRamban, Drush – Torat Hashem Temimah (Mosad HaRav Kook, 5724), pp. 153-155.

[3] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 28:21-22.

[4] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 28:21.

[5] Rabbaynu Avraham ben HaRambam, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 31:36.

[6] Rabbaynu Avraham ben HaRambam, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 31:45.

[7] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 29:12.

[8] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 29:18.

[9] It should be noted that there seems to be a contradiction in Rashi’s comments. Our Rashi explains that Lavan succeeded in deceiving Yaakov. However, according to Rashi’s comments later in the parasha, this is not the case. According to these later comments, Yaakov and Rachel agreed to a signal that they would use in order to assure that the woman Yaakov married was indeed Rachel. This signal should have prevented Lavan from making a substitution. However, when Lavan made the substitution, Rachel provided Leyah with the signal, rather than expose her sister to embarrassment. According to these comments, Lavan did not succeed in out-maneuvering Yaakov. Instead, Rachel’s complicity led to Yaakov’s marriage to Leyah. It is possible that this apparent contradiction can be resolved through assuming that Lavan suspected that Yaakov and Rachel had arranged some signal, but he depended on Rachel’s loyalty to Leyah to undermine Yaakov and Rachel’s precaution. However, this explanation is speculative.

[10] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 29:30.