PARSHAT VAYEITZEI 5773: D’VAR TORAH
Rabbi FIshel Todd
Parashat Vayeitzei appears to be the first in the middle of the three parshiot that focus on Yaakov Avinu – the Patriarch Jacob. The first – Toldot – sets the scene and escalates the tension between Jacob and Esau. Firstly over the birthright, and secondly, with the blessing. Jacob has to leave home and the Holy Land in a hurry, to the hospitality of Laban some eight hundred kilometers to the north. The second parasha – this week’s – is the bridging ‘roller coaster’. G-d promises him His protection wherever he goes. But he still has to endure falling in love with Rachel and his uncle holding her back, ‘excusing himself’ with local custom. And his success as a cattle breeder arouses Laban’s family’s jealousy to the degree that he has to leave – again in a hurry – with an enraged Laban in hot pursuit. And the greatest tension of all in the next parasha – Esau coming to meet him with four hundred men, which eventually gives way to Jacob’s homecoming and (finally, albeit temporarily), literally ‘Jacob living in quietude and at ease, with none to make him afraid’ (c.f. Jer. 46:27).
In short, this week’s Parasha is one of temporary – though spectacular – trials and tribulations, towards a greater goal.
The next three parshiot – are in the same rhythm; and this time the focus is on Joseph and his brothers, Jacob’s sons. The first – Vayeishev – sets the scene and escalates the tension: more than once. With the dreams and Joseph’s narrowly escaping death, and being sold into slavery. And his rising from a humble slave to the position of Potiphar’s manager, getting him the ‘attention’ of Potifphar’s wife, and her allegations of Joseph ‘getting too close’ – following which Joseph finds himself at the bottom of the Egyptian dungeons. The second parasha – Miketz – is again the bridging ‘roller coaster’; his rise to the top of Pharaoh’s court, his brothers having to make ‘over-frequent journeys’ between Canaan and Egypt for ‘high-tension-charged’ reasons – finishing on a note where Benjamin is to be taken into permanent Egyptian slavery. And again – with Judah’s impassioned plea rising to the highest point of the tension opening the following parasha, the truth emerges that ‘Joseph is still alive and he is a ruler in the land of Egypt’ (45:26), and the family is finally re-united and reconciled.
In short, Miketz – the parallel parasha to this week’s – is in the same mold. Like Vayeitzei, it goes through temporary – though spectacular – trials and tribulations, towards a greater goal.
Vayeitzei and Miketz have the distinction of not only being amongst the longest parshiot in the Torah, but have the joint uniqueness of being written in the Sefer Torah without a break – in one continuous prose paragraph. No other parasha in the Torah – however long or short – contains that characteristic. They are all broken up – as Rashi elsewhere (to Lev. 1:10) points out – to allow ‘pause for thinking it over’ between section and section.
Not so with Vayeitzei, not so with Miketz. Despite their great length, there are no pauses to catch breath and ‘think things over’.
This arrangement brings an important message. Many honest people who strive to their great and worthy goals in life find themselves on the seemingly interminable lonely ‘path less trodden’, with tensions, trials, tribulations, and a long series of frustrations. The message is – like this week’s parasha – ‘Don’t pause! Don’t look behind’. Press on, with your compass pointing to those great goals and destinies which will become yours in due course – and only then, on arrival, can you sit and contemplate the long journey, whose ‘trials and tribulations’ will finally make sense as the dots join themselves all together.
‘I will make you My bride forever. I will make you My bride [in reward for] your righteousness, justice, kindness, and compassion. I will make you a bride in reward for your faith. Then you will know G-d.’ (Hosea 2:21-22)
The prophet Hosea preached to the Ten Tribes in the northern kingdom of Israel during the prosperous reign of Jeroboam II – after whose death came the troubled times leading to their final fall to Assyria in 721 BCE. His Divine revelations focused on their pagan practices, and their infidelity towards G-d and their own traditions. The Talmud (Pesachim 87a) brings a tradition, creating the background to the prophecy. G-d told Hosea that Israel had sinned, to which the prophet replied: “All the world is Yours. If they are untrustworthy, exchange them for another nation.”
G-d replied to him: “Go and marry a prostitute who has conceived children from her prostitution, because the Land strays from G-d.” (1:2). This opening chapter of Hosea relates that he had three children from this marriage, and was instructed by G-d give them names of such a nature that they would reveal G-d’s plans for the wayward northern kingdom. The first was a son – which He ordered to be called ‘Jezreel’, meaning that G-d would gather in the exiled Israelites and ‘plant’ them in their Land. That would, however, be in the distant future only. The second was a daughter called ‘Lo-Ruchamah’ – ‘Object of No Mercy.’ That was near to the present: G-d would no longer show mercy to unrepentant Israelites. And the third – the youngest son – was ordered to be called ‘Lo-Ammi’ – ‘Not My People’. That also concerned the present – a statement that the Israelites had forfeited their right to be the Chosen People.
The Talmud (supra 87b) interjects that at that point G-d commanded Hosea to turn his wife and three children out of his home. Then – only then – did Hosea realize his grave mistake in having made a similar suggestion to the Almighty: “All the world is Yours. If they are untrustworthy, exchange them for another nation.”
This forms the scenery for the Haftara – in which Hosea pleads with G-d to have mercy on the Israelites once more. Understanding the depth of his error in speaking ill of his own people, he gives his own blessing that the Israelites will be as numerous as the grains of sand on the seashore (2:1). Their grave faults will be put right: Israel, like the straying wife, will be loved once again. The children’s names will change to ‘Ammi’ – ‘My People’, and ‘Ruhama’ – ‘Object of Mercy.’
That, however, is for the future. The message for the immediate present was simple: Hosea tells the children: “Rebuke your mother” to live faithfully (2:4) for if she does not, she and the children themselves will be disowned. She consorts with other men because she sees them as supplying ‘my bread and my water, my wool and my linen, my oil and my drink.’ (2:7) She will find that they betray her, leaving her abandoned, vulnerable, and utterly helpless. She will then yearn to return to her first husband, but he will not embrace her. Instead, he ‘will uncover her shame in the sight of her lovers’ (2:11), blighting ‘her vines and fig trees, about which she said “these are my fees which her lovers gave me.”‘ She will lose her joyous festivals, which are G-d’s true festivals, as well as the festivals of the pagan worship of Baal (2:13,15) with which she tried to replace them, leaving her with nothing. For she, and the subject of this object lesson, the Israelites themselves, abused the wealth given to them by their ‘lovers’. Israel abused its G-d given wealth by using silver and gold for Baal-worship (2:10).
This dejection will give way to a new era. The wife in the parable and the Israelites in real life will be ‘charmed’ (2:16) – in the case of the latter, G-d will instill a desire to repent and come close to Him (c.f. Deut. 4:29). They will be taken to the ‘desert’. Most commentaries understand this to mean the long period of exile, but Ibn Ezra suggests that it refers to a period that may well be part of living memory – to the land of Israel, which will have taken on the appearance of a desert. He will give her ‘vineyards and change the Valley of Affliction to the Opening of Hope.’ Significantly, the Targum advocates that these ‘vineyards’ are Israel’s spiritual leaders and the philanthropists: the necessary spiritual and economic elements to restore the people in harmony to the Land.
The Haftara concludes with a promise that Israel will be restored to its innocence. The cruel physical and wicked human forces will cease to trouble her, and she shall be G-d’s chosen in security and at ease. He will restore the His relationship with Israel as in the beginning: ‘I will make you My bride forever. I will make you My bride [in reward for] your righteousness, justice, kindness, and compassion. I will make you a bride in reward for your faith. Then you will know G-d.’ (2:21-22)
The issue of G-d Who hates promiscuity ordering His prophet Hosea to marry a whore disturbed the commentators. The Rambam (Guide II:46), and Ibn Ezra maintain that he did not actually take a prostitute as a wife, but merely saw himself doing so in a prophetic vision. However, Abarbanel and later the Malbim take the narrative literally – he did form a union with such a woman of low repute, and the opening chapters of Hosea do mean what they say. Indeed, Abarbanel claims that the passages must be read that way in order to understand the true nature of prophecy. He writes:
“Those commentators have no claim in saying that, out of concern for the prophet’s honor, G-d would not have commanded Hosea to marry a harlot… G-d did not select the prophets in order to bestow honor upon them or raise them to the throne! No, he selected them for only one purpose: so that they would serve as His envoys in assisting His chosen people to repent for their sins. He commanded His prophets to do whatever He deemed necessary to reach this goal, regardless of their honor. Sometimes words were not sufficient; sometimes real actions were required to grab the people’s attention. Only in this manner would the prophet’s rebuke penetrate the people’s hearts, since that which a person sees with his eyes affects him for more that which he hears. Therefore, regardless of the fact that the prophet was a holy man, G-d commanded him to marry a harlot in order to illustrate that by worshiping idols, the Israelites had in fact done the same. In truth, it would have been fitting for Hosea to do even stranger things than marry a harlot if this would have helped dissuade the people from idolatry.”
Underlying this explanation is the notion that there are situations where the very mission of great personalities requires them to act in a way not normally associated with their position. Hosea being told to take a whore is one example. The story below – much nearer to our own times, serves to illustrate the same theme: a leader must be prepared to act in an unusual way in order to make the right impact on the community. In this case, the issue was not idolatry, but the importance of never doing good at the expense of others – never being a ‘tzadik’ (righteous person) at someone else’s expense.
Rabbi Israel Salanter (1810-1883) illustrated this above maxim with a personal experience, one of which had to do with Yom Kippur, of which he said:
“It is right and it is good that women go to the synagogue. It is true that the most important day of the year is Yom Kippur and that women should attend the Kol Nidrei (evening) service. But it is wrong that a woman attends that service if she leaves babies and young children at home without proper supervision.”
It once happened that Reb Israel was late for the Kol Nidrei service, so late in fact that members of the synagogue went in search of him. They found him in the home of a poor woman, rocking a baby’s cradle. “What is the matter, Rebbe?” they asked. “I was passing when I heard a baby crying,” Reb Israel replied, “I came in and found the mother had gone to synagogue leaving the tot in the care of the eldest daughter who is six or seven. I quietened the little one, but then the elder one begged me to stay because she was frightened of being all by herself.”
From the pulpit that evening he pointed out that the Mitzvah, the good deed, the mother thought she was doing by attending synagogue was more than negated by the sin she had committed in leaving her young children unattended.
Remember that Rabbi Israel Salanter was one of the greatest and most influential spiritual leaders of his day, indeed, of the entire modern era. He was neither a child minder nor a babysitter – most certainly not on Yom Kippur, when a vast community was waiting for him. He could no doubt have sent for someone to look after the children so that he could hurry along and not keep the congregation waiting.
But Reb Israel had a real message to give: one that was right and fitting for the ‘over-holy’ members of his congregation: never being a ‘tzadik’ at someone else’s expense! And like Hosea, he acted it out to ensure that his message would be remembered and internalized: “Why was the Rabbi late for Kol-Nidrei?” And that was underlined by the people’s having to wait for a long time until the proceedings of the evening began…
Rabbi Fishel Todd