Sefer Bereishit is all about our role models: Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, Leah and more. We learn from them our most basic values: Loving kindness and justice, truth and commitment. But when it comes to the workings of a healthy family, something seems to be wrong.
This week in the parsha of Vayetze, Yaakov finds what appears to be the love of his life. Meeting Rachel at the well, she seems to take his breath away and it is clear (29:17-18) that he is captured by her beauty and he loves her deeply. And then Lavan, his soon to be father-in-law, who has come to represent deception in Jewish tradition, pulls the ultimate underhanded deception and switches one daughter for another such that Yaakov suddenly finds himself married to Leah, Rachel’s’ older, and apparently not as beautiful, sister.
So Yaakov works for another seven years and wins Rachel as well, and watching this from the side, we imagine this is going to get complicated — until (ibid. v. 30) the Torah tells us that Yaakov loves Rachel as well, which would seem to indicate that Yaakov understands he has two wives and he will find a way to love them both. But then we are told that “Yaakov loves Rachel as well, more than Leah.”
The syntax of the sentence makes no sense — you cannot love someone as well and more than at the same time. Which of course may well be the point; when a verse in the Torah does not work grammatically it is usually because the Torah is trying to tell us that something is very wrong.
As an example (ibid. 4:8) the Torah tells us: “And Cain said to Abel his brother and when they were in the field.” This sentence is grammatically incorrect — because when Cain and Abel are in that field, something is very, very wrong.
Indeed, in the very next verse in our para, the Torah tells us (ibid. 29:31) that Hashem sees that Leah is hated. But the Torah never said Yaakov hated Leah, only that he loves Rachel. Perhaps Yaakov did not in fact hate Leah, but when Leah sees how much Yaakov loves Rachel, she feels hated, something which becomes quite apparent when we take note of the names she gives to her first three sons: Reuven. so named because “G-d has seem my travail, perhaps now my husband will love me”; Shimon, “G-d has heard I am hated”; and Levi, “Perhaps now my husband will accompany me.”
The root of the problem seems to be love.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes in his writings that Judaism is essentially a religion of love: we are meant to love G-d, to love our fellow, and even to love the stranger. But love is a double-edged sword and when you love someone it is easy to give the impression, even if unintended, that you love someone else less.
What parent of more than one child has not had to deal with a child asking that age-old question: Who do you love more? Indeed, this was exactly at the root of the terrible conflict between Yaakov and Esau: way back when they were young lads the Torah tells us (ibid. 25:28): “And Yitzchak Loved Esau because he was a hunter, and Rivkah loved Yaakov.”
It’s important to note that Yitzchak loves Esau “because.” Ideally, love should not be because; it should just be. Rivka loves Yaakov simply because he is Yaakov. And while Rivka seems to receive a prophecy that gives her a heads-up that Yaakov will be chosen, perhaps the Torah wants us to take note of this difference.
Yaakov will struggle with the impact of love his entire life. His next challenge will be his great love for his son Yosef, whom he “loved more than all his sons.”
Interestingly, the first brothers in the Torah who do not have conflict (Menashe and Ephraim, the sons of Yosef) will be the sons who are not loved more or less (ibid. 41:51-52) but are clear about their different roles — and to this day, we bless our children as Shabbat begins by invoking the names of these two brothers who, even when faced with a role reversal (ibid. 48:8-20) which might have caused strife or jealousy never seem to engage in conflict.
The Torah gives us role models who were spiritual giants but who were not perfect. And from their mistakes, which the Torah does not whitewash, we see that we need to love people for who they are and value their roles whatever they might be. And, equally important, whenever we love, there may be those who feel less loved, and we need, as well, to feel their pain.
Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem.