Vayetze: Is All Fair in Love?

Love is one of the great themes in Jewish Scripture.  The Torah and other books speak of G-d’s love – severely tested -- for the Jewish people; their love of the land; and, of course, many instances of interpersonal love.

A prominent example of the latter occurs in this week’s Torah portion, Vayetze.   Jacob has fled from his home and from his older brother, Esau’s, wrath over the theft of his birthright.  Jacob goes to Laban, his mother Rebecca’s uncle, and meets the “shapely and beautiful” [Genesis 29:17] Rachel, a shepherdess.  He immediately seeks to impress her by rolling a stone off the mouth of the well to water Laban’s flock (quite a feat for a “homebody” who lived among the tents with his mother).  

After a month living in Laban’s household, Jacob offers to work for seven years to marry his beloved.  He does so, yet, the Torah tells us “they seemed to him but a few days because of his love for her.”  According to former chief rabbi of the British Empire, J.H. Hertz, “The six Hebrew words of which this is the translation condense a world of affection and tenderest love.  They are unsurpassed in the whole literature or romantic love.”  

At the end of the seven years, Jacob asks for Rachel.  But in the evening, after the wedding feast, Laban brings Leah, Rachel’s older sister with “weak eyes,” to Jacob, who cohabits with her. In the morning, Jacob protests.  Laban explains “it is not the practice in our place to marry off the younger before the older.”  He offers to fulfill his original promise to give Rachel to Jacob if Jacob works for him another seven years – which he does.  Fourteen years of work, and presumably of sufferance under the thumb of her duplicitous father, for Rachel!  What a great example of love.  

Yet, there is much more to this story than simply “a world of affection and tenderest love.” Blindness and deception are also key motifs.  When cousins Jacob and Rachel first meet at the well, he identifies himself as her uncle, her father’s brother. Rachel must have known that this wasn’t true; surely she knew who her father’s siblings were!  And, surely, Jacob would have known that Rachel – whom he was trying to impress -- knew it wasn’t true.  So, why did Jacob say it? 

The Midrash (B. Meg 13b; B. BB 123a and Rashi) supposes the following conversation between them:

J:       “I am your father’s brother … will you marry me?”
R:       “Yes, but my father is a trickster, and you cannot beat him in trickery.”
J:       “How would he trick me?”
R:      “I have an older sister and he will not have me marry ahead of her.”
J:       “In trickery, I am your father’s brother.”  (Thus explaining what he actually meant by patently false identification and, presumably, anticipating the need for deception right from the beginning). 
R:       “But is it proper for a righteous man to resort to trickery?”
J:        “Yes, for we read (the words of David upon being saved from his enemies): “’With the pure Thou does show thyself pure, and with the perverse Thou does show thyself wily’” (2 Samuel 22:27).  

The Midrash continues to explain that Jacob gave her certain tokens by which to identify herself to him.  But when the wedding night came, Rachel said to herself: “Now my sister will be humiliated.”  So she turned the tokens over to Leah, who in the darkness, gave them to Jacob as proof that she was Rachel.  Thus, Jacob did not know until the morning that it was Leah. 

What ironies in this account!  Leah had “weak eyes,” yet it was Jacob who could not see, and so was deceived.  Moreover, it seems that his blindness might have been at partially willful.  Could he really not know that the marriage custom in his own family was to marry the eldest daughter first?  And even if he didn’t know earlier, Rachel told him!  

As for Rachel, she characterizes her father as the consummate trickster, but first connives with Jacob to trick her father… and then tricks Jacob on behalf of her sister!  Rachel will later trick her father again on behalf of Jacob, when she steals his household idols and then hides them in a saddle bag, sits, and claims it would be unseemly for her to rise since “the manner of women is upon me.” (Gen. 31:15).   

Rachel dies (Gen 35:1) but deception continues to shape Jacob’s life.  He lives in misery for many years when his sons deceive him about the fate of their tattling and prophesizing brother, Joseph.  And so it goes.  

Last Shabbat I wrote that the saga of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs can teach us, as parents and grandparents, about the great dangers of family favoritism.   It can also teach us that although “love is blind,” not all is “fair in love” (nor, as we learn later, in war).  The Torah’s account of love teaches us the wisdom of Sir Walter Scott’s poem, Marmion:  “Oh what a tangled web we weave, when we practice to deceive!” 

Shabbat shalom! 

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He who guards his mouth preserves his life
Proverbs 13:3