Gen 27:1. A very deep and fascinating insight into the Netziv’s theology and understanding of the spiritual make-up of reality.
This week’s focus is on Genesis 24:1-2
DIFFICULT EPISODES in JEWISH THOUGHT:
Part I – “Those who say David Sinned Are Simply Wrong….”
Feb 24, 2016
- Reuven and Bilhah
- Genesis 35:22
And it came to pass, while Israel dwelt in that land, that Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine; and Israel heard of it. Now the sons of Jacob were twelve: the sons of Leah: Reuben, Jacob’s first-born, and Simeon, and Levi, and Judah, and Issachar, and Zebulun.
וַיְהִ֗י בִּשְׁכֹּ֤ן יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ בָּאָ֣רֶץ הַהִ֔וא וַיֵּ֣לֶךְ רְאוּבֵ֔ןוַיִּשְׁכַּ֕ב֙ אֶת־בִּלְהָ֖ה֙ פִּילֶ֣גֶשׁ אָבִ֑֔יו וַיִּשְׁמַ֖עיִשְׂרָאֵֽ֑ל (פ) וַיִּֽהְי֥וּ בְנֵֽי־יַעֲקֹ֖ב שְׁנֵ֥ים עָשָֽׂר׃ ;בְּנֵ֣י לֵאָ֔ה בְּכ֥וֹר יַעֲקֹ֖ב רְאוּבֵ֑ן וְשִׁמְעוֹן֙ וְלֵוִ֣יוִֽיהוּדָ֔ה וְיִשָּׂשכָ֖ר וּזְבוּלֻֽן׃
- Genesis 49: 3-4
Reuben, thou art my first-born, My might, and the first-fruits of my strength; The excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power. Unstable as water, have not thou the excellency; Because thou went up to thy father’s bed; Then defiledst thou it—he went up to my couch.
רְאוּבֵן֙ בְּכֹ֣רִי אַ֔תָּה כֹּחִ֖י וְרֵאשִׁ֣יתאוֹנִ֑י יֶ֥תֶר שְׂאֵ֖ת וְיֶ֥תֶר עָֽזפַּ֤חַז כַּמַּ֙יִם֙ אַל־תּוֹתַ֔ר כִּ֥י עָלִ֖יתָמִשְׁכְּבֵ֣י אָבִ֑יךָ אָ֥ז חִלַּ֖לְתָּ יְצוּעִ֥י עָלָֽה
- Tractate Shabbat 55b
- Samuel b. Nahman said in R. Jonathan’s name: Whoever maintains that Reuben sinned is merely making an error, for it is said, “Now the sons of Jacob were twelve” – teaching that they were all equal. Then how do I interpret, “and he lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine?” This teaches that he switched his father’s couch, and the Torah describes it as if he had lain with her. As it was taught, R. Simon ben Elazar said: That righteous man was saved from that sin and that deed did not come to his hand. Is it possible that his seed was destined to stand on Mount Ebal and proclaim, Cursed be he that lieth with his father’s wife, yet this sin should come to his hand? But how do I interpret, and he lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine’? He resented his mother’s [Leah’s] humiliation. Said he, “If my mother’s sister [Rachel] was a rival to my mother, shall the bondmaid [Bilhah] of my mother’s sister be a rival to my mother?” [Thereupon] he arose and switched her couch.
- Netziv (19th cent. Torah commentary)
וישכב את בלהה. לא הי׳ מעשה ח״ו אלא שמר שלא יבא אביו לחדרה
There was no actual sexual incident, chas v’shalom; rather he stood guard and did not allow his father to enter her room.
- Mishna Megilla 25a
מעשה ראובן נקרא ולא מתרגם
The incident of Reuven is read but not translated.
- Radak (13th cent. French commentary on the Torah)
וילך ראובן, הלך לאהל בלהה ושכב עמה.
Reuven went, walked to the tent of Bilhah, and slept with her.
- David and Batsheva
- Book of Samuel II: 11-12
And it came to pass at eventide, that David arose from off his bed, and walked upon the roof of the king’s house; and from the roof he saw a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful to look upon. (3) And David sent and inquired after the woman. And one said: ‘Is not this Bath-sheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?’ (4)And David sent messengers, and took her; and she came in unto him, and he lay with her; for she was purified from her uncleanness; and she returned unto her house. (5) And the woman conceived; and she sent and told David, and said: ‘I am with child.’….And it came to pass in the morning, that David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah. (15) And he wrote in the letter, saying: ‘Set ye Uriah in the forefront of the hottest battle, and retire ye from him, that he may be smitten, and die.’ (16) And it came to pass, when Joab kept watch upon the city, that he assigned Uriah unto the place where he knew that valiant men were.(17) And the men of the city went out, and fought with Joab; and there fell some of the people, even of the servants of David; and Uriah the Hittite died also. …
1) And the LORD sent Nathan unto David. And he came unto him, and said unto him: ‘There were two men in one city: the one rich, and the other poor. (2) The rich man had exceeding many flocks and herds; (3)but the poor man had nothing save one little ewe lamb, which he had bought and reared; and it grew up together with him, and with his children; it did eat of his own morsel, and drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom, and was unto him as a daughter. (4)And there came a traveller unto the rich man, and he spared to take of his own flock and of his own herd, to dress for the wayfaring man that was come unto him, but took the poor man’s lamb, and dressed it for the man that was come to him.’ (5) And David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man; and he said to Nathan: ‘As the LORD liveth, the man that hath done this deserveth to die; (6) and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.’ (7) And Nathan said to David: ‘Thou art the man….
(9)Wherefore hast thou despised the word of the LORD, to do that which is evil in My sight? Uriah the Hittite thou hast smitten with the sword, and his wife thou hast taken to be thy wife, and him thou hast slain with the sword of the children of Ammon. (13) And David said unto Nathan: ‘I have sinned against the LORD.’
- Tractate Shabbat 56a
Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani said in the name of R. Yonathan: Whoever maintains that David sinned is merely making an error, for it is written, “”David was successful in all his actions and God was with him” and if he was a sinner why would God be with him?” How then should I understand the statement (II Sam. 12:9) – “why have you despised the word of God?” – he wanted to do [evil] but did not do it…You have killed Uriah the Hittite by the sword – you should have executed him after a legal debate at the Sanhedrin; “You took his wife as your wife” this insinuated that she was eligible to him,since Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani said in the name of R. Yonathan: all of David’s soldiers would divorce their wives before the war…
- Tractate. Ketubot 9a
Like the incident that happened, wherein the woman was raped!
Rashi: This refers to Batsheva…
- Contemporary Insights
- Maharatz Chajes Sotah 36b
“One opinion says he entered to fulfill his desires”
It is generally the way of the Sages in several places to highlight the positives of the righteous ones, and to always emphasize the good and to judge favorably even in places where the simple reading of the text indicates that they sinned. Ie David, and Shlomo. What, then, did they see here, to judge the righteous Joseph in a negative light – that he entered to fulfill his desires.
- Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin, Bnei Banim 4:9 (contemporary US & Israeli rabbi)
According to the plain meaning of the text, one could certainly describe the scandals of Reuven and David and the others, but what gain would come of this? Similarly, we must ask people today whose tendencies are to be myth-busters in their Tanach-study – what gain will come of it?
…Rav Shmuel bar Nachmani lived two hundred years following the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Sanhedrin. These verses teach us that even the greatest of our nation can sin, but what type of news is this to Israel in a generation of Roman oppression, in a generation who had no leader?
Even Rav Shmuel bar Nachmani himself would agree that if there were a positive result in explaining the verses according to their pshat, one should do so. Elsewhere he describes how the Sotah woman would be told of the sins of Reuven and Yehuda, in order to convince her to admit to her own sin…. bar Nachmani bends the explanation of the verses towards a generous view of Reuven and David – for a particular purpose. But this is just like the Torah “bends” the language of their deeds more negatively [assuming they did not, in fact, sin], and that too is for a purpose! But in neither case is it helpful to describe the sins of leadership in a leader-less generation. In his generation, it was important to emphasize and highlight the previous leaders, to strengthen the hope and yearning that these good years would return once again….
The center-piece of this week’s parsha, and in some senses the center-piece of the Exodus narrative is Keriat Yam Suf, the splitting of the sea and the Israelites walking through.
Its a crescendo, etc, etc… even the terrible special effects of 1956’ The Ten Commandments cannot mess up the emotion and thrill of the moment.
The Biblical text is a bit unclear as to exactly how does the splitting take place. First, the Jews complain when they see Egypt bearing down on them. Moshe says, dont worry, God will save you. Then God says to Moshe – what are you looking at me for? Speak to the Jews and tell them to travel (ie travel into the Sea!). Moshe – lift up your staff and split the water.
And then, Moshe lifted up his arm over the Sea, and God brought a wind over the sea over the course of the night, splitting it into “walls” on either side.
-So the questions is: what exactly caused the Sea to split? Was it the people moving forward; or Moshe’s waving of his hands, or God’s intervention?
The rabbis of the midrash try to answer this question, which gives rise to several inter-related midrashim which I will describe.
- Midrash “V’atah” (cited in Netziv 15:15) And you Moshe, lift up your hand. Meaning, if you, Moshe, do not do it, no one else will.
→ The lesson according to this midrash is that Moshe is still ambivalent about his leadership position. Perhaps its the enormity of what they are about to do… in any case, Moshe wants someone else to do it, either one of the Israelites, or Hashem… but not himself. GOd says – you must lead, even in this very difficult circumstance.
but on the other hand…
- b) (Meshech Chochma, Ex. 14:15) According to the pasuk, Mah Titzak Eilay, Dabeir El B’nei Yisrael Va’yisau – Why are you crying to Me, Speak to the Israelites and tell them to travel? One interpretation of this is in the Mechilta (3:1), which has God saying to Moshe – “don’t you realize? All they have to do is keep walking forward.” The Meshech Chochma interprets this as follows: normally, Moshe was leading the Israelites through the desert. But here, God wanted the Israelites to move first, and for Moshe to follow behind them.
→ At this juncture, there’s already a beautiful midrashic lesson: namely, that the key that God desired from the Israelites was to take the initiative and leadership into their own hands. Yes, they can always follow Moshe, but are they able to move on their own? Is their faith, and self-confidence, strong enough to handle that?
Assuming its true that the Israelites will go first, we have conflicting midrashic accounts of who, exactly, will take the lead:
- c) The Talmud (Sotah 36b-37a) relates, R’Meir says: each tribe was fighting for who had the merit to go first; each tribe wanted the honor. The tribe of Benjamin ran first towards the sea, but the tribe of Judah said, no, we want to be first. They picked up stones and threw them at Benjamin. They were able to overtake them, and it was shevet Yehuda who ultimately entered first. (side question asked by the Rif: why did there have to be one tribe that went first, why couldn’t all the tribes enter at once? Answered by the Ben Ish Chai in Ben Yehoyada).
→ According to this midrash, everyone had faith, and it was a fight as to who would get the glory. Nice idea that seems to go against the grain of many other descriptions.
- d) The gemara (R. Yehuda): That’s not how it went! Rather, no tribe wanted to go first. And they were all just talking (natlu eitzah), oh, maybe this way would be better. But one leader, Nachshon ben Aminadav of the tribe of Judah, saw, oy, they are just going to keep on talking. No one is actually going to step up. I can tell. So he just jumps in. And – the sea splits for him!
→ Generally known midrash, that it took someone who was willing to be the first, the pioneer. To have complete faith in what was going to happen, even while around him no one else could.
- e) Further midrash: And this is what I’d like to focus on. An alternate version of the same midrash claims that once Nachshon jumped in, he was able to walk forward. But then, when the next person came up, the sea came back together; and then that next person had to walk through themselves! Each of the 600000 people had to experience the act of faith of walking up to the sea, it wasn’t just that one person broke the faith-barrier for the rest of them.
→ What is the lesson here? As hard as it is to imagine the entire miraculous scene, it seems even more difficult to imagine a situation where the sea was coming back together time and again. But the authors of this midrash are invested in the point: each person must make the leap for themselves. We don’t want to have to get in a back way – oh, someone else opened the door for us. I want to be able to look back and say, I have a place here.
There is a beautiful story told about Rav Shlomo Carlebach (Holy Brother, pg 31-33). A man who had been brought under Shlomo’s wing, started showing up time and again at the synagogue on the UWS of Manhattan. He showed up one night, not knowing that a Shlomo concert was scheduled. He really wanted to go, but didn’t have any money, he was on welfare at the time, totally destitute. He thought about sneaking in, but there was someone collecting the $10 admission fee in a very determined fashion. He considered throwing himself at the bouncer’s mercy, but didn’t feel good about it…. he tried to catch Shlomo’s attention, and succeeded, Shlomo comes up to him, and the guy explains his problem to Shlomo. He asks, “Can you sneak me in”” Shlomo thinks about it, and says, “why don’t you come upstairs with me?”
Shlomo lived above the shul in a couple of rooms. The man was sure that Shlomo was going to take him to a side entrance of the shul. They go to the back room, but the guy sees there is no special staircase or exit. Rather, Shlomo opens up a drawer, and begins rooting around in it. Finally, finds the object he was looking for, and emerged triumphant from the closet, clutching a well-worn pouch with many zippered compartments. Then Shlomo proceeded to zip open each compartment, only to find it empty. Finally, he opened the last compartment and jubilantly pulled out a $10 bill, which he handed to me. “There!” He said with great satisfaction. “Now you can buy a ticket!”
Shlomo could’ve easily gotten the guy in for free, said a couple of words to the guy out front. But Shlomo understood the impact you experience when you go in the front door, of your own power and purchase. We dont want a freebie. We dont want to be snuck in. We want to go through the front door.
I think the rabbis of the midrash are saying the same thing. God wanted this group of just-freed slaves to have purchase, impact, dignity. To go through the front door, in this case of Yam Suf. For each person to make the decision themselves, and not to have to rely on someone else’s largesse, whether spiritual or otherwise.
Our hope is that we too can be bold and brave, finding the wherewithal to do that which we find scary, daunting – that which requires faith. We have God’s promise goading us on – “Why do you cry to Me? Move forward!”
The gemara in Masechet Berachot 9a notes a difficulty between two passages in the Torah. Both passages are discussing when, exactly, the Israelites left Egypt.
In Deuteronomy 16, the Torah relates that hotzeeacha Hashem Elokecha miMitzrayim Layla – God took you out of Egypt during the night. While in Numbers 33, the Torah claims: MiMacharat ha Pasach yatzu Bnei Yisrael, meaning from the next day after the night of eating the korban Pesach. So which was it, night or day? Says the gemara – the redemption began at night, but the main act of leaving took place during the morning.
And that is where the gemara leaves it.
What then, is the significance of the Jews being redeemed at night? What did that look like? Remember what’s happening that night; the Jews are bunkered down, not going outside, because there was the Divine Destroyer – HaMashchit – going around killing all the firstborn not in a home on which the doorframe has been painted in blood. There was screaming outside “tza’aka g’dola” going on outside, as Egyptian families found their dead, family by family.
We can try to imagine some of their emotions; I would suspect fear; anxiety, nerves, tension.
While that is all going on, the Israelites are also – feasting! On the korban pesach, with their friends and family. What a contrast! Outside screaming and fear, and inside, the attempt to celebrate and commemorate their upcoming departure.
Some of this tension is played out in the rules about how the Pesach should be eaten. Our parsha (12:46) tells us that no bone of the Pesach may be broken while eating it (etzem lo tishb’ru vo). The Chinuch explains that this is because our inclination would be to eat it hurriedly, like a starving person who finally has food. But no; this is to be a nice of dignity, of celebration; make sure not to eat ravenously, in a way which might break bones of the meal.
This night was the beginning of the redemption. Amid all the terror, the recently slaughtered animal in front of them, would Israelites feel, experience, redemption?
There is an insightful claim by the Netziv, Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin of the 19th cent.
He notes that the verse which the gemara in Berachot quotes about the “beginning of the redemption at night” nevertheless uses the language of God took out the jews at night. But the gem. interprets “took out” against its literal meaning. It seems geographic – I’m taking you from place X to place Y – but is interpreted as the beginning of a process which will really bear fruit in the mornig claims that that act of redemption wasn’t an emotional one, the Jews didn’t necessarily feel redeemed that night, but it was a metaphysical status change. In his words, “What was the “taking out” that God performed that night? God took us out from the status of being enslaved to Pharoah.”
In other words, what the Netziv is saying is this: Pharoah owned our bodies; and then, at midnight of the 15th of Nissan, Pharoah no longer did. Amidst screaming, and eating – we experienced a status change; perhaps in the words of the social media generation, for those who use Facebook – there was a status update.
If we accept the Netziv’s explanation, we are left with an interesting paradox. On the one hand, the Israelites were free women and men. Owned by noone. But they weren’t truly free to leave; stepping out of their front door would be death to the first born. It was too dangerous. And, we know further, that Pharoah would still, even after ten plagues, not let them leave without a fight, and that a split Sea as still needed to complete that part of the story.
I think this is a dissonance that rings true in our personal stories and in our national stories.
Thank God, no on ein this room, to my knowledge, has ever suffered as an actual slave. We all have retained full agency, and free will, in our own lives. But despite that personal freedom, we nevertheless all have times where we are in dark places – vayehi b’hatzi halayla – and it was in the darkest midnight. Narrow places – meitzarim, Mitzrayim. Times when, on the one side, things look like they cannot get any better. We feel hopeless.
And yet internally, we are free. No one can tell us what to do, how to do it. We can take on our circumstances and situations in whatever way we see fit. We are free people, who struggle to reconcile what to do in difficult surroundings. This is in many ways the state of being; how to use our freedom, as humans, as Americans, to engage with and affect our difficult world in which we live.
And there are particular historical manifestations of this. It is most reminiscent, I think of how the Emancipation Proclamation (Jan 1st 1863) affected 3 million slaves (of 4 million us slaves) who were living in the South; but the vast majority of which were still enslaved. Those slaves that learned of the Proclamation (which by no means was all of them, Juneteenth commemorates those slaves who heard about their freedom some time later), and for many they saw it as an internal status change.
As the Chicago Tribune noted three days prior to the Proclamation:
“Old Abe’s Proclamation is beginning to work. The Negroes are counting the days and hours when the 1st of January shall come. They meet in little knots, and talk over the whole matter, and lay their plan for going. The day of Jubilee they think, has surely come.”
Its no accident that the term Jubliee was used. This is the English word for the Hebrew, Yovel, which the Torah employs to describe a time when all slaves in the Land of Israel would be freed. The Yovel itself is modeled in some ways on Yitziat Mitzrayim.
Frederick Douglass wrote as follows in 1876, looking back:
“Can any colored man, or any white man friendly to the freedom of all men, ever forget that night…? I shall never forget that memorable night, when in a distant city I waited and watched at a public meeting, with three thousand others not less anxious than myself, for the word of deliverance …. Nor shall I ever forget the outburst of joy and thanksgiving that rent the air when the lightning brought to us the emancipation proclamation…we forgot all delay, and forgot all tardiness… we were thenceforward willing to allow the president all the latitude of time, phraseology, and every honorable device that statesmanship might require for the achievement of a great and beneficent measure of liberty and progress.”
On this shabbat parshat Bo, leading up to MLK day on Monday, one cannot help but marvel at the parallels between our parsha, and the night of Pesach; the great and terrible night of Pesach, torn between screaming, violence, and terror, with a moment of joy, emancipation, redemption. Bayamim haHem b’zman Hazeh. Just like in that day, in our day as well.
In this past year, we have seen Black Lives Matter activists agitating for change, forcing the country to confront the variety of ways in which there still exists a gap between the legal status of freedom, and the great oppression still experienced by African-Americans. If we have truly absorbed the lessons of Yetziat Mitzrayim, then we must rededicate ourselves to eradicating this chasm between “freedom” and freedom. We must ally with all peoples as they move from midnight, b’chatzi haLayla, into the daybreak of true freedom.
|Yosef, Chanukah and Miracles|
|Gen. 37:22-24And Reuben said unto them: ‘Shed no blood; cast him into this pit that is in the wilderness, but lay no hand upon him’–that he might deliver him out of their hand, to restore him to his father.And it came to pass, when Joseph was come unto his brethren, that they stripped Joseph of his coat, the coat of many colours that was on him; and they took him, and cast him into the pit–and the pit was empty, there was no water in it.
Gen 50: 14-15
And Joseph returned into Egypt, he, and his brethren, and all that went up with him to bury his father, after he had buried his father. And when Joseph’s brethren saw that their father was dead, they said: ‘It may be that Joseph will hate us, and will fully requite us all the evil which we did unto him.’
|Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 21b-22aR. Kahana said, R. Nathan b. Minyomi expounded in R. Tanhum’s name: If a Hanukkah lamp is placed above twenty cubits [from the ground] it is unfit, like sukkah and a cross-beam over [the entrance of] an alley.R. Kahana also said, R. Nathan b. Minyomi expounded in R. Tanhum’s name: Why is it written, and the pit was empty, there was no water in it? From the implication of what is said, ‘and the pit was empty’, do I not know that there was no water in it; what then is taught by, ‘there was no water in it’? There was no water, yet there were snakes and scorpions in it.|
Meshech Chochma (Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, 1843–1926):
One who sees the place where a miracle was done, recites the blessing “Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech HaOlam Sh’Asi Li Nes BaMakom HaZeh.” Blessed are you God who did a miracle for me in this spot. We understand this to mean supernatural miracles. For instance, on Chanukah we recite a blessing over Chanukah candles, because the miracle of the oil, which was supernatural. But behold – the main aspect of the miracle was the military victory over Antiochus, and the following Jewish sovereignty which lasted 200 years. For the remembrance of this we light candles, for which, normally, simply being able to see them would be sufficient. But in order to spread the message about the jug of oil, this requires [the halachic requirement of] “one’s eyes gaze upon it”, ie within 20 cubits…
Regarding Yosef, Rabbi Tanchum said in a midrash that when Yosef returned from burying his father, he passed by the pit and looked upon it; but his intentions were towards heaven [and not on revenge against his brothers]. He was reciting: “Blessed is God who did a miracle for me in this spot.” But the main aspect of the miracle was that he was raised up from the pit, and through various acts and episodes became an Egyptian minister. But the blessing itself nevertheless only applies to something supernatural. And this is why Rabbi Tanchum states, “there were snakes and scorpions in it”; for surviving such a pit is supernatural.
And this is why the Talmud juxtaposes the two statements of Rabbi Tanchum: to teach us the parallels of the Yosef story and of Chanukah. Namely that in both the deepest miracles came about through political gains and victories, but that the bracha in one case is on a snake-filled pit, and in another case is on a jug of oil….
והבור רק אין בו מים. הרואה מקום שנעשה לו נס מברך ברוך שעשה לי נס במקום הזה. הפירוש כדברי אבודרהם דוקא שיצא מדרך הטבע. והא דמברך על נר חנוכה משום שנעשה נס בפך השמן שזה נגד הטבע. והנה עיקר הנס היה לנצחון מלכות אנטונינוס וישראל קבלו מלוכה מאתים שנה ולזכרון צריך להאיר נרות. ולזה סגי בחזותא בעלמא. אך להורות על נס פך השמן צריך דוקא דיהא שלטא ביה עינא תוך עשרים אמה …
והנה ביוסף אמר ר’ תנחומא במדרש שבשעה ששב יוסף מקבורת אביו שהציף בבור ולשם שמים נתכוין לברך ברוך שעשה לי נס במקום הזה. ועיקר הנס הוא מה שהעלוהו מהבור ובסבות השגחה נעשה לשר על כל מצרים, אך הברכה צריך לברך על דבר יוצא חוץ מהטבע, וזה שאמר ר’ תנחום שבת כ”ב אבל נחשים ועקרבים יש בו והיה נס יוצא מטבע העולם. ולזה בירך ברוך שעשה לי נס, לכן נסמכו שני מאמרי ר’ תנחום הוא ר’ תנחומא דבמדרש כידוע להורות שבחנוכה וביוסף הנס היה הסבות מההשגחה נצחון ומלוכה רק שהברכה היה כאן על הבור שלא הזיקוהו נחשים וכאן על פך השמן….
Parshat Vayetze – Love and Waiting
This morning’s Torah reading has one a line that is quoted occasionally by those in love. Jacob has to work seven years before he is able to wed Rachel, but as the Torah tells us (Gen 29:20): They were in his eyes as only a few days, because of his love for her.
When we are in love, time passes quickly….
But this year, I realized for the first time – this seems to be the inverse of what we would expect! He and Rachel are not yet wed, nor living together. Wouldn’t the seven years seem… very long? Almost interminable? If you are in love, but can’t be with the person you love, that would be terrible!
What does the Torah mean here?
As with all good questions on the Torah, they have been asked before. And once I had this question, I saw that it was asked (at least once before), by R. Hayyim Zev Rosenfeld, in a sefer called Sefer ha-Hayyim . His answer is that Jacob’s love for Rachel had no sexual component. It was almost platonic in this sense. And somehow, for R Rosenfeld, the lack of sexual desire made the time pass more quickly, because the love was an idealized, non-corrupted one.
Its an interesting answer (and he quotes a fascinating Maharsha in Yevamot that adds additional proof to the idea that Jacob was non-sexual [or “post-erotic”?]), but not one that is particularly satisfying. He seems to love her fully, erotically and personally alike.
The Radak , R David Kimchi of Provence, 13th cent. also chimes in on the question. He notes that it was only afterwards, when looking back, did the seven years shrink down to seven days worth…But in the moment, that wasn’t necessarily Jacob’s experience of the events.
I think Radak’s view is a nice one, but it still doesn’t answer our question. For isn’t this true for everyone; events in retrospect always seem shorter in the mind’s eye and memory than they did at the time? So what is special in this particular case?
I think the answer can be found in the words of the Shadal; Shmuel David Luzzatto, the 19th cent. Italian Torah and Hebrew scholar. This is what he writes:
ויהיו בעיניו כימים אחדים: גם במשך זמן עבודתו היה נראה לו שהזמן קצר בערך השכר המקווה שהיה גדול מאד בעיניו: ומלבד זה היו לו הימים ההם ימי שלוה ותענוג, כי היה מתענג באהבתו ובתקותו (ואין לנו טובה למעלה מן התקוה) וידוע כי
ימי השלוה והתענוג קצרים בעינינו וימי הרעה ארוכים.
During the period of his working, it seemed to him that the time was short when compared to the value of the anticipated reward, which was tremendous in his eyes. Additionally, these were peaceful and sweet days, as he exulted in his love and expectation – and there is no greater good than hope. It is known that tranquil days of enjoyment seem shorter while bad days seem longer.
What a profound insight from Luzzatto! “There is no greater good than hope – Ain lanu tova lma’alah min haTikvah). When, in our life, things are difficult, hard – if we have the hope that a better time is on the horizon, is on some level immanent; this knowledge can trump the negativity that is being currently experienced. In Jacob’s case, seven years of toil and drudgery are redeemed, and in fact, sweetened, by the knowledge of what will come after them.
It can be difficult to hold on to this notion of hope. Jacob knows he will get to marry Rachel, it is their destiny, and he trusts Lavan; which of course ends up being the wrong move…
But for us, when we are mired in a difficult place, it can feel impossible to acknowledge that things will, in fact, get better. I think it is helpful here to share a distinction offered up by Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his book, The Dignity of Difference.
One of the most important distinctions I have learned in the course of reflection on Jewish history is the difference between optimism and hope. Optimism is the belief that things will get better. Hope is the belief that, together, we can make things better. Optimism is a passive virtue, hope an active one. It takes no courage to be an optimist, but it takes a great deal of courage to have hope. Knowing what we do of our past, no Jew can be an optimist. But Jews have never – despite a history of sometimes awesome suffering – given up hope.
Sacks is claiming: Its true! Today’s world, events in Paris, Africa, Israel, the US… “optimism” seems dead. But hope – must, for, us, remain alive. And if we can harness it, especially during these dark days, our lives achieve a dash of salvation.
I’d like to share a story that is coming out of Israel this week. Some of you may have heard that a father and son were murdered last week outside a small west bank town, R Yaakov Litman and his son Netanel. They were going to spend a Shabbat Chatan, celebrating with the groom of an upcoming wedding for their daughter, and sister Sara-Techiya. But they were attacked, shot and killed.
So the wedding was postponed. Halachically, you may not have a wedding during the seven days of aveilut, mourning. But they announced this week in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Achronot; that they will not postpone the wedding long. In fact, it is going to be rescheduled for Nov. 26th, this coming Thursday. And the guest list has expanded; as they said in the paper, Bo’u l’chatuna shelanu. Kol Am Yisrael Muzman l’Tekes. Everyone is invited. Everyone.
In the depths of their darkness, they are allowing the hope, the promise of their future marriage and family, to trump. It is, to me, inconceivable, but there you have it.
There is no greater good than hope – Ain lanu tova lma’alah min haTikvah
And so, as we reflect on Yaakov’s seven years, we learn about how to endure not good times, but bad. We focus on the future, the hope, belief, knowledge, that there must be good times ahead. Let us not be naively optimistic. But let us hope, and bring in a positive vision into our present; we may infuse and sweeten our days with this happiness and holiness, even though we cannot fully taste it yet.