“Dissing G-d”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeitzei, we learn of Jacob’s flight from his brother Esau, his arrival penniless at the home of his uncle Laban, Jacob’s marriage to Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah, and his departure from Haran with significant wealth after twenty years of working for Laban.

Jacob’s relationship with his father-in-law, Laban, is extremely troubled. Laban, one of the wiliest characters of the ancient Near East, deceives Jacob on many occasions. He not only switches Jacob’s intended wife on the night of the wedding, substituting Leah for Rachel, he even makes Jacob work for 14 years to earn the right to Rachel’s hand. Although, Jacob had been caring for Laban’s sheep for many years, when Jacob asks for a flock of his own, he is repeatedly cheated by Laban. Only by outwitting Laban at his own game does Jacob obtain a herd of his own and his own personal possessions. Jacob then overhears Laban’s sons expressing resentment of his success, accusing Jacob of taking his father’s wealth, and realizes that Laban also harbors ill feelings toward him (Genesis 31:1-2).

G-d then appears to Jacob and says (Genesis 31:3): “Shoov el eretz ah’vo’teh’chah ool’mo’lah’d’teh’chah, v’eh’yeh ee’mach,” Return to the land of your fathers and to your native land, and I will be with you. Jacob calls his wives, Rachel and Leah, out to the field for a consultation, and expresses his resentment about his treatment by Laban. He then bitterly describes how their father mocked him, changed his wages tens of times, and declares that only G-d’s intervention prevented him from winding up penniless. Upon hearing Jacob’s plaintiff report, Rachel and Leah immediately reply: “Ha’od lah’noo chay’lek v’nah’chah’lah b’vayt ah’vee’noo,” Have we still a share and an inheritance in our father’s house? Are we not considered by him as strangers? For he sold us and even totally consumed our money. But, all the wealth that G-d has taken away from our father belongs to us and to our children. So now, whatever G-d has said to you, do.

How chivalrous of Jacob to consult with his wives regarding his intention to leave the household of Laban. What a far cry this is from Abraham–G-d asks Abraham to sacrifice his son, Abraham simply proceeds without ever speaking to his wife Sarah. What a far cry this is from Isaac–who is about to be slaughtered, asks not a single question nor consults with the local social worker! Jacob, on the other hand, meets with both Rachel and Leah to discuss his plans.

This is not the first time in the biblical narrative of the patriarchs that G-d seems to be treated with disrespect and His words disregarded, at least according to the Midrash. In parashat Vayeira, Genesis 18:1-3, we encounter Abraham sitting in Elonei Mamrei, recovering from his recent circumcision. He lifts his eyes and sees three people coming toward him. Rising quickly, he runs toward the people and begs them to partake of his hospitality.

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) states (Genesis 18:3) that Abraham told the Al-mighty (who had come to visit him as he was recovering from his surgery) to wait until he welcomed his guests. From here, our sages learn (Shabbat 127a) that the mitzvah of welcoming guests is even greater than receiving the face of G-d.

Similarly, in parashat Toledot (Genesis 24:15-19), we learn that when Eliezer arrives in Aram Naharayim he encounters Rebecca at the well, watering her father’s flock. Rashi (Genesis 24:17) informs us that Eliezer ran toward the girl because he saw the water miraculously coming up from the well toward Rebecca. If Rebecca was indeed a miracle worker and was so holy that the Al-mighty brought the water to her, why was it necessary for Eliezer to seek an indication of her extraordinary kindness by seeing if she offers water to him as well as to his camels? Once again, we see that the omen from G-d is discounted. Eliezer concludes that kindness is a true sign of a potentially good wife, not miracles.

We find an additional instance in our own parasha, Vayeitzei. G-d instructs Jacob clearly and boldly (Genesis 31:3): “Shoov el eretz ah’vo’teh’chah ool’mo’lah’d’teh’chah,” get up and get out of this place and return to your native land. Instead of immediately heeding G-d’s directive, Jacob calls his wives into the field for a consultation. The commentators explain that Jacob does this, not to defy G-d, but rather to make certain that he and all the members of his household will depart from Laban’s estate willingly and with a full heart. Jacob wants to be certain that his wives will not long for their father after their departure, and wish to return.

Jacob was concerned about three factors that might cause his wives to cling to their father: 1. love that they harbor in their hearts for Laban; 2. an inheritance that they are likely to receive; or 3. a debt that they might possibly owe Laban.

His wives respond forcefully: How can we speak of love of our father when we are regarded by him as strangers? After all, do we still have a share or an inheritance in our father’s house? While it is customary for fathers to provide doweries when their daughters marry, our father abandoned us, leaving us with nothing! Not only did he not give us what we deserved, “He has sold us”–for 14 years you [Jacob] worked for him, and you received nothing. In fact, he consumed our money, and anything that we had that was beautiful, any utensil or ornament of value, he took from us. We owe him nothing! And now, whatever G-d has said to you, do.

There is a well-known aphorism cited in Vayikra Rabbah 9:3, “Derech eretz kad’mah l’Torah.” Although this statement has several interpretations, it is widely understood to mean that good manners precede Torah, and that proper behavior takes precedence over the acquisition of Torah. One can not be a Torah scholar and lack proper manners.

It is this Talmudic principle that underlies and clarifies the unexpected behaviors that we encounter in the patriarchal narratives. It is because of the primacy of the Divine directive to care for guests that Abraham turns away from G-d. Similarly, because proper behavior takes precedence over miracles, Eliezer disregards the miraculous omen from heaven and seeks a human omen of kindness from Rebecca. It is for this same reason that Jacob consults first with his wives, despite G-d’s clear directive to leave Laban, to show his respect for his wives-–which is exactly what G-d expects of Jacob!

One should not assume from this interpretation that there is a license to simply disregard the word of G-d. Rather, what is implied here is that it is in fact the Al-mighty’s wish that under certain circumstances G-d’s honor may be put aside in order to show respect to human beings and/or promote exalted human behavior.

May you be blessed.