Thursday, December 08, 2005

FOR FRIDAY NIGHT: Keeping One's Balance (Vayeitzei)


Kislev 7, 5766 * December 8, 2005


Parshat Vayeitzei

Keeping One's Balance
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The relationship of the individual with other people often demands a special skill: keeping one's balance. There are my needs and the needs of others. There are personal points of stringency; and there are universal imperatives. This point is brought out in the discussion by the Sages of an intriguing feature of this week's Sedra [1].

The Sedra tells of Jacob's marriages, to the two daughters of his uncle Laban. Jacob offered to work for Laban without pay for seven years. Then he would marry Rachel, the younger daughter. At last came the wedding night; but Laban cheated him and gave him the older Leah instead. When Jacob discovered what had happened and complained, Laban gave the excuse that the older girl had to be married off before the younger.

What should Jacob do? Laban suggested that after the week of festivities for Leah's wedding, there should be another marriage ceremony in which Jacob would marry Rachel. Then he would work for Laban for a further seven years in order to pay off the second dowry. This was accepted. Jacob was now married to his famous wives, Rachel and Leah, the mothers of the Jewish people.

However, the Sages point out a problem. The Torah forbids a Jew to marry two sisters. How could Jacob do something forbidden by the Torah? One answer is, of course, that the Torah had not yet been given. The special law that a man may not marry two sisters had not yet been revealed at Sinai, so it did not apply to Jacob.

The problem with this explanation is that according to the Sages, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob did keep the laws of the Torah, which they knew through spiritual intuition [2]. If so, how could Jacob marry two sisters?

An answer given by the Lubavitcher Rebbe helps us understand the question of balance in Jewish life. The Rebbe explains that Jacob kept the laws of the Torah as a personal stringency, as a private expression of his closeness to G-d. By contrast, his promise to marry Rachel, as far as she was concerned, was a significant pledge, an expression of commitment which was universally meaningful and valid.

When Jacob found out he had been tricked into marrying Leah, he had the choice of keeping his personal stringency, at the expense of a universal principle. He could have said to Rachel "I am sorry; I cannot keep my promise, because now I am forbidden to marry you...". Instead he decided to forgo the stringency in order to keep his promise.

From this we learn, says the Rebbe, how to act in our generation. There are cases when our personal stringencies might hamper us from the universal imperative to do good to others. One may prefer to study Talmud with a scholarly colleague rather than teach Alef-Beit to an unlearned individual. Which is more important? More basic? Sometimes bold action is needed in order to keep the balance of one's responsibilities, and to respond to the deeper needs of others. Through this sense of balance and priority one is truly following the example of Jacob [3].

1. Genesis 28:10-32:3.
2. Nachmanides suggests the Patriarchs only kept Torah law in the Land of Israel. At this point Jacob was in Haran, outside Israel.
3. Based on the Lubavitcher Rebbe's Likkutei Sichot vol. 5, p.145 ff.


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