Ya’akov Also Works for His Goals

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Akedat Yitzhak, Sha’ar 25, Part Three

A Digression on Laziness

To describe Ya’akov’s leaving where he had the dream, the Torah says va-yisa Ya’akov raglav, Ya’akov picked up his legs. R. Arama relates it to the Midrash’s comment about Shemot 15;22, where Moshe leads the people away from Yam Suf. As Mekhilta said about the Jews there, Ya’akov here was loath to leave a place where he experienced Hashem more directly than previously. He forced himself only because of the weight of his parents’ command to go.

I am skipping a long piece of R. Arama’s thoughts about Ya’akov’s encounter with Rahel at the well and his agreement to work seven years to marry her. Towards the end of the discussion, he says a person’s efforts show what he values, Ya’akov demonstrating the value he placed on Rahel. [I wonder whether we remember the point: what we invest in is what we value, regardless of what we say.]

The connection between effort and priorities shows laziness demonstrates lacks beyond the failure in physical exertion. Lazy people are intellectually deficient as well, failing to see they need to set priorities and work to achieve them. Shlomo Ha-Melekh sends us to the ant in Mishle 6;6, to learn from her ways and become wise. Mishle 10;5 echoes the point, calling one who remembers to store up food in good times (the summer) a ben maskil, a wise son. The wise see when the time is right to prepare for the future, make a plan for how to reach the future they want, and work towards it.

The risk shows two kinds of imperfect self-awareness. The peti, the unlearned who do not know the right way to live, often do not recognize their unfortunate state, where the wise see themselves as lazy [or, perhaps, as working insufficiently hard].

Laziness also leads to complaining about how Hashem runs the world, where wise believers always know they could make better efforts [and, I think, are less fully righteous than some of us assume about ourselves], always justify Heaven’s decrees. (Awareness of what we could be doing, I think he is saying, makes clear how far short we all fall. While the wise, too, hope and pray Hashem treats them mercifully, when life goes other than they would want, they know it is not more than they deserve.)

The value of effort explains R. Shimon b. Yohai’s assertion, Berakhot 5a, three great gifts Hashem gave to the Jewish people come only with yissurin, trials–Torah, Israel, and the World to Come. R. Arama thinks the trials are the efforts we have to make to achieve any of those. Most people put their efforts into mundane business matters, where the wise put them into what truly counts, showing their better priorities.

Ya’akov demonstrates the principle, putting effort into securing the blessings from Yitzhak, with some risk, accepting hard labor for Rahel, finding ways to have the sheep yield the kind of offspring Lavan had agreed would be his.

Hashem Plays a Role, Too

For all Ya’akov’s efforts, R. Arama sees places where Hashem intervened. He starts with Lavan, whom he reads as claiming he was legally fully right. Lavan had only said it was better for him to give Rahel to Ya’akov than any other man, never said it would be immediately after seven years of work. He could claim Ya’akov should have known the customs of the place, should have known Lavan would never mean for Rahel to go before Leah. (Caveat emptor with a vengeance.)

R. Arama adds it was all from Hashem, a way to maneuver Ya’akov into having four wives, mothers of the future Jewish nation. (He does reconcile the idea with freewill; I suspect here the problem is less acute, Hashem having to do little to nudge Lavan in a direction he wanted to go anyway).

Rahel and Leah’s infertility were also part of Hashem’s plan, to make clear how much Hashem values each of the shevatim, the sons who would father the Tribes of Israel. (Had the Matriarchs had children right away, we could think it only natural, with no particular connection or input from Hashem; with their infertility, Hashem stepping in, as it were, to allow each pregnancy, Hashem’s role became more explicit.)

Rahel Has to Turn More to Hashem

The infertility also created room for an object lesson in Hashem’s response to the prayers of the righteous. The verse tells us Hashem saw Leah was hated, and we do not see Rahel intervene on her sister’s behalf in any way [a complicated issue: Rashi had credited Rahel with giving Leah the signs she and Ya’akov had arranged for their wedding night, to spare her embarrassment; R. Arama seems to think her compassion for her sister did not extend to praying for her to have children; he also expects her to be prepared to care for Leah when she herself is also struggling with infertility; he is sure the Torah would have told us had Rahel made efforts to reconcile Ya’akov and Leah, or to pray on Leah’s behalf; and that she had the ability to effect meaningful change. All assumptions I am not sure are in evidence.]

To teach her a lesson, Hashem opens Leah’s womb and leaves her infertile, a connection he infers from the verse’s juxtaposing the two ideas. Sadly, Rahel’s first reaction did not match her mother in law’s or Hannah’s when faced with infertility, prayer. Instead, she complains to Ya’akov. His harsh response intended to point her to Hashem, the One Who could help.

She takes the lesson and imitates Sarah in offering her maidservant to her husband.

R. Arama means she had learned her lesson, as he also infers from the names she gives Bilhah’s children, Dan (Hashem has judged me) and Naftali (I fought with my sister, perhaps too hard). [The Torah never says she prayed, a crucial missing detail for his perspective; I also remember Ramban thought Ya’akov was sinfully harsh, to me an example of the difficulties of inferring more than the text tells us, because we can reach opposite and sometimes incompatible conclusions. For another time.]

Providence Gave Us Mother Rahel

R. Arama sees Hashem’s intervention in the birth of Binyamin as well (where Rahel passes away). At Yosef’s birth, the Torah tells us Hashem opened her womb, a phrase R. Arama takes to mean her birth canal was naturally too narrow for either impregnation or birth. For Yosef, Hashem opened everything up enough to proceed without incident; for Binyamin, Hashem allowed the pregnancy, Rahel passed away during the birth, to have her buried where she was, to be an image and a comfort to her descendants on their way to exile.

The Shame of Infertility

The name she gives her son, Yosef, speaks of Hashem having taken away her shame. We all know her shame was childlessness, a shame R. Arama casts differently than we might expect. He reminds us of Rambam’s saying (Guide III;49) the sense of touch is an embarrassment to human beings, an animalistic side many of us indulge too much.

To R. Arama, the idea translates into childlessness being embarrassing because it means a couple’s sexuality was purely for the animalistic pleasure; with the arrival of Yosef, Rahel could again stand with those who use their physical sides for important values. (I think he means the shame comes from people thinking they are using the physical as an end of its own. In motive, there’s no difference between infertile couples trying for children and those not. Also, his view makes infertility equally a problem for the husband as for the wife, although that’s not usually how people see it.)

Ya’akov Gets Rich

I am trying to be as brief as I can, and cutting much, yet R. Arama keeps producing ideas I think enrich and enlighten. Lavan short-circuits Ya’akov’s first attempt to leave by offering him the pay he deserves for his years of service. In the superficial version of the incident, Ya’akov manipulates the flocks to produce the type of sheep Lavan agreed would be his.

R. Arama had been comfortable with Ya’akov’s trickery to secure Yitzhak’s blessings, yet here limits the extent of Ya’akov’s cunning. He first says the agreement did not cover methods, leaving Ya’akov within his rights to use whatever he could to stimulate production of his preferred offspring (I think he means Lavan was confident Ya’akov had no way to produce outcomes; while Ya’akov could have disabused him, his actions were fully within the terms of the agreement.)

Further, he thinks Ya’akov used his trick on Lavan’s sheep only for as long as it took to create a starter flock of his own; from then on, he did it only to his own flock, to avoid any claims he had taken sheep not rightfully his. He even assumes Ya’akov sometimes did not use the sticks on his own flock, white sheep were born, and he returned those to Lavan, above and beyond the technical right and wrong.

Lavan’s Sense of Justice

I am really out of space, yet could not resist one more set of points R. Arama makes, as he reads Lavan’s claims to Ya’akov when he catches up to him. Lavan complains about Ya’akov’s running away without a good-bye because of the public embarrassment, revealing intra-familial tensions to the world.

Outed that way, Lavan points out he would have had the right to mistreat Ya’akov, because a person suspected of wrongdoing has the right to then commit the wrongdoing (R. Arama reads Lavan to say, a fascinating idea about how expectations affect us). More, he tells Ya’akov Hashem had appeared to warn him against acting against or for Ya’akov, a revelation R. Arama thinks Lavan understood to mean he, Lavan, would be justified were he to hurt Ya’akov. Revenge for wrongs committed was a right in Lavan’s world, an entitlement. (As R. Arama points out with Shimshon as well, but I really don’t have the space to go there).

For Lavan, Hashem told him he could not assert his proper rights in this one instance, without it being a call to rethink his idea of justice.

And here, we have to stop. R. Arama’s rich reading of Va-Yetze has taken us to prophecy, to dreams, and to how we have to work to earn the providential help we need to reach our goals, as Ya’akov did in Lavan’s house.

About Gidon Rothstein

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