Last week, we saw Yaakov trick his father Yitzchak and stole Esav's birthright, devastating his brother and causing him to cry. Are we really meant to applaud Yaakov's behavior? In this video, Rabbi Fohrman explores the scene when Yaakov and Rachel first meet, in which Yaakov too cries. Through a deeper understanding of this midrash, we are shown special insights into the text and can begin to understand how Yaakov can be called a man of truth.
This is Rabbi David Fohrman, welcome to Parshat Vayeitzei.
It seems to me that one of the great challenges that face us is how we come to grips with the story told in last week’s Parsha involving Yaakov’s deception with Yitzhak his father and his brother Esav. How are we meant to look at that story? There are statements of our sages that seem to suggest that Yaakov was in the right that either he had no choice but to deceive and was therefore in some way justified, or that the deception at some level was not really a deception. There are, however, other strains of interpretation which suggest a picture that in some sense is more gray and leaves open the possibility that the reader of Chumash is meant to struggle with whether Yaakov’s resolution of the situation is something we should applaud or view with some level of concern.
I want to share with you a Midrash that seems to lead us at that direction and explore with you, some of the implications. So the background of this is Midrash is something that takes place in this week’s Parsha, Parshat Vayeitzei. And that background event is Yaakov’s first encounter with Rachel, the woman destined to become his beloved wife.
The moment he sees her, he seemed to see that she is destined for him but the verse chronicles something strange that happens. “Vayisa kolo vayevch.” He raises his voice and he cries. The obvious question of course is, why is he crying and here Chazal, our sages, tell us a thing that is both fascinating and completely bewildering. Let me read Rashi with you, he gives two interpretations as to why Yaakov cried. Here’s the first: “l’fi she-tzipa b’ruach ha-kodesh she-enah nichneset imo l’kvurah.” Because he saw through some sort of divine inspiration that in the end “enah nichneset imo l’kvurah,” she would not be buried with him.
“Davar acher”: Here’s a second interpretation: “l-fi she-bo b’yadayim reykaniyot.” The reason why he cried is because he came empty-handed, he didn’t have any money with him. “Amar,” Yaakov said to himself, according to the Midrash, “Eliezer, eved avi abba,” Eliezer, my grandfather’s servant, “hayu b’yadav nizamim u’tzmidim u’migdanot,” had all sorts of wealth, jewels, gold to give the bride’s family. “V’ani eyn b’yadi klum.” I have nothing.
Why did he have nothing? The Midrash continues, because Eliphaz, the child of Esav was running after him to kill him. The Midrash is referring to the aftermath ofYaakov’s deception of his brother Esav. After that Esav dispatches his son, Eliphaz, to go hunt Yaakov down and Eliphaz catches up to Yaakov but because Eliphaz grew up in the household of Yitzhak, murder didn’t come easy to him. The last moment he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He dropped the dagger. Eliphaz says to Yaakov, what am I going to do, my father commanded me to kill you?
Yaakov says to him, take my money, being poor is as good as dead. Go tell your father I am not alive anymore. What a strange story this Midrash tells. What are the sages trying to tell us? The sages are coming from somewhere in the text and once you realize, you see not only what the evidence is for what they are saying, but why it matters so much as well.
What are the words that the Torah uses to characterize Yaakov’s tears when he first sees Rachel? It turns out that those words are “vayisa kolo vayevch” and he lifted up his voice and he cried. That expression doesn’t happen all that often. When it does occur, it seems to suggest, something precious slipping through your fingers, being lost irrevocably. For example, another time we have that is when Hagar cries, after she casts down her child and sits from afar, there’s no more water left in the canteen. She thinks Ishmael is dying of thirst and she lifts up her voice and cries. It’s the sense of anguish, of utter loss of hope. Something is lost and it’s not coming back again. Ironically in Hagar’s case, it wasn’t true. She didn’t see the wealth that was there to allow Ishmael to live. But when Yaakov cries, Chazal are saying he too sees something precious slipping through his fingers, only in this case, that which is precious is Rachel.
She is slipping through his fingers in one of two ways. He sees prophetically that he won’t be buried with her, that somehow that ultimate union symbolized by being buried next to your soul-mate, he wouldn’t have that. Rachel would elude him. And she would elude him not just in death but in life too because, remember, Yaakov, as desperately as he wants to marry Rachel, is tricked by his father-in-law Lavan. He ends up marrying Leah in place of Rachel, then has to spend seven more years working for Rachel. It’s as if he spends his life, trying to have Rachel, only to somehow have Rachel constantly elude his grasp.
And when he first met her, that sense of foreboding that he wouldn’t really have her, that something would always get in the way, was something he sensed even then, that very first moment he met her. But Chazal are saying something more too, they know something about these words “vayisa kolo vayevch”—about the last time, they were used. It turns out that the last time, someone raised his voice and cried, it was Esav when he realized he had been deceived by Yaakov about the blessings.
What our sages seem to be doing is connecting these two events. If you want to understand the “vayisa kolo vayevch” with Yaakov, you need to understand the last “vayisa kolo vayevch” in the Torah with Esav, because one led to the other. When Esav lifted up his voice and cried, after realizing that he was deceived, then, they say, he dispatched his son Eliphaz to kill Yaakov, only to have Eliphaz in turn foiled by Yaakov.
Yaakov suggests that he deceive his father Esav much as Yaakov himself had deceived his own father Yitzhak. ‘Take my money, tell him I am dead’. And then what happens? Well at face-value Yaakov escapes harm; he survives the threat of Eliphaz, but it comes at a cost. He has no money left and indeed, perhaps, a poor man is as good as dead. At least when it comes to dealing with Lavan. Lavan takes advantage of disadvantaged people. Yaakov would like to marry Rachel but he has no money to give the bride’s family. Lavan presses Yaakov into service for seven years and then takes advantage of the penniless Yaakov. Switching Rachel for Leah under the Chuppah.
When Yaakov challenges Lavan and says, why did you deceive me this way? Lavan answers and says, we don’t do that in our place, where we come from, to give the younger before the older. What’s the implication? Maybe where you come from Yaakov, you give the younger before the older. Lavan’s words too hark back to Yaakov’s deception of Esav. Chazal seem to be connecting the dots for us. One ‘vayisa kolo vayevch’ leads to another.
Whatever it is that we think about Yaakov’s deception of Esav, Chazal seem to be saying, what goes around comes around and Yaakov can’t escape the effects of that action. The tears he caused his brother to shed when Yaakov replaced the older son with the younger son, would be repaid with the tears that Yaakov himself sheds when his father-in-law, Lavan, replaces his younger daughter with his older one. Rachel will always just barely elude Yaakov’s grasp, both in death and in life and upon first seeing her, he gets a premonition of that. He raises his voice and cries as his own brother did before him.
Now just to pull back the zoom-lens, one of the great challenges that now faces us when we look at this strain of Midrash that seems, at least implicitly, to be critical of Yaakov’s actions in last week’s Parsha—one of the questions that faces us is, Yaakov is one of our forefathers; we look up to him as a role model, so how are we to deal with this? Yaakov is associated with the idea “emet,” of truth. And yet he seems to have been involved in this deception, so how do we square all this?
The answer to how this strain of Midrash would view those questions, I think they may become clear in next week’s Parsha. I am going to pick up with you next week and talk with you about that.