This Week's Torah Portion: Why Did Rachel Fool Jacob Into Marrying Her Sister?

Dëvar Torah – Parashath Va-Yétzé’ (Genesis XXVII, 10 — XXXII, 3)

Our parasha tells the story of Ya‘aqov’s (“Jacob’s”) sojourn with his uncle and father-in-law, Lavan. As we read at the end of last week’s parasha (XXVII, 42 — XXVIII, 9), Rivqa (“Rebecca”) persuaded Ya‘aqov to flee to her brother in Charan both to escape from the wrath of his brother ‘Esav and to find himself a proper wife. Just as Avraham had opposed the marriage of Yitzchaq to any daughter of the depraved Canaanites (XXIV, 3), so too did Rivqa consider any such prospect repugnant.

When Ya‘aqov arrived in Charan, he met Lavan’s daughter Rachel as she brought her father’s sheep to a well to drink. Upon Ya‘aqov’s self-introduction as a relative from afar, Rachel ran home to tell her father.

When Lavan heard that his nephew had come, he ran to greet him and escort him home. After a month’s stay with Lavan, Ya‘aqov proposed that he marry the younger of Lavan’s two daughters, Rachel, and offered to work seven years for the privilege. Lavan agreed.

At the end of the seven years, however, when Ya‘aqov went to claim his bride, he found that he had married the older daughter, Lé’a, instead.

Confronted with the deception, Lavan pointed out that to marry off the younger daughter before the elder was contrary to local custom, and offered Ya‘aqov Rachel’s hand as well, in exchange for another seven years’ labor.  Ya‘aqov agreed, and so came to be married to both sisters.

This is the outline of the story told in Chapter XXIX. As always, the Talmud offers us more detail and draws some conclusions from the outline. Thus, we find (Mëgilla 13b, Bava Bathra 123a) that because of Rachel’s tzëni’uth, her modesty, she merited to be the ancestress of King Sha’ul (who was of the tribe of Binyamin).

The Talmudic account offers us a description of her modesty. At the well, we are told Ya‘aqov already asked Rachel to marry him. She agreed, but warned him:

Daddy is a trickster and you can’t get the better of him.

Ya‘aqov answered:

If he is a trickster, I am his brother in trickery.

This, from the “simple man, the dweller in tents” (Genesis XXV,27; cf. also my comments on last week’s parasha) about whom the prophet exclaimed: “You give emeth, truth, to Ya‘aqov” (Micha VII,20)? Rachel’s response to her cousin is the very question we would ask:

Are tzaddiqim — the righteous — allowed to engage in deceit?

Ya‘aqov answered “yes,” and then made a statement later echoed by King David:

With the upright you should be upright, and with the crooked you should be devious (II Samuel XXII, 25).

Ya‘aqov then proceeded to ask what trick Lavan would pull, and Rachel told him about her father’s “bait and switch” tactics. As a result, Ya‘aqov agreed on a password with Rachel by which he would be able to identify her from behind the veil and in the dark.

But Rachel gave this password to her sister.

Thus, when the Torah tells us: “And it was morning and behold, she was Lé’a” (XXIX, 25), it means that until he saw her in the morning light, Ya‘aqov, with reason, had believed her to be Rachel.

This was due to Rachel’s transmittal of the password to Lé’a, but was made possible by her great modesty, such that Ya‘aqov did not expect to be able to identify her by any other means.

The Talmudic account tells us that Rachel had been intended to be Ya‘aqov’s wife, that people had been heard to comment in the streets:

Yitzchaq has two sons, and Lavan has two daughters; the elder daughter should marry the elder son and the younger daughter the younger son.

This, explains the Talmud, is why “Lé’a’s eyes were soft” (XXIX, 17) — she had been crying, contemplating life with ‘Esav. Rachel’s act, then, was motivated by her compassionate desire to save her sister from such a fate.

As a result of her self-sacrifice, she did not become the mother of Ya‘aqov’s first-born. Lé’a did. Her “consolation prize,” though, was to become the mother of Yoséf (“Joseph”), in many ways the greatest of Ya‘aqov’s sons.

Rabbi Moshe Yëchi’él ha-Lévi Epstein, the previous Ozherover Rebbe, in his Bë’ér Moshe, comments on the verse “An Aramaean sought to destroy my father” (Deuteronomy XXVI, 5) and the midrashic slant on the verse familiar to Jews from the Haggada shel Pesach that “Lavan sought to uproot everything.” He cites the comment of the 13th – 14th century Rabbi Ya‘aqov ben Asher, known as the Ba‘al ha-Turim, that the letters of the word Arammi, “Aramaean,” also spell rammai: “trickster, deceiver.”

He then remarks that Lavan, as the very embodiment of sheqer, falsehood, is the antithesis of Ya‘aqov, the man of truth. He therefore “sought to uproot everything” by instilling this spirit of sheqer into his grandchildren, eponymous ancestors of the tribes of Israel. For this reason, Ya‘aqov had to escape his father-in-law’s pernicious influence, lest he corrupt Israel, destined to be stand-bearers of truth in the world.

If the implication of the remarks of the Ba‘al ha-Turim and the Bë’ér Moshe is that ramma’uth, “trickery, deceit,” represents some sort of inherited tendency among the Aramaeans, it is worth remembering that Israel received a double dose: Rivqa, after all, was Lavan’s sister, and Lé’a and Rachel his daughters.

This said, it is necessary to understand the ramifications of sheqer in the service of emeth. 

What could Ya‘aqov, who had objected so strenuously to fooling his father Yitzchaq (Genesis XXVII, 11-12), possibly have meant when he told Rachel, “I am his brother in trickery”?

The key to understanding this conundrum lies in the motivation of the mothers of Israel in all of the acts of deceit which they perpetrated. All of them were occasioned by their compassion.

As we saw in last week’s parasha, Rivqa’s motivation for forcing Ya‘aqov to fool Yitzchaq was the love of a grandmother for her descendants. Rachel, as we have seen, was motivated by her compassion for sister, Lé’a. Lé’a, in turn, returned the favor. After having borne six sons (two more each having been born to the servants Bilha and Zilpa), Lé’a once again found herself pregnant. The Talmud (Bërachoth 60a) tells us that the prophetess was aware that her baby was another male. She also knew that Ya‘aqov was to have twelve sons. Therefore, she reasoned, if she bore a seventh, her sister would be shamed and mortified for being less than the servants.

Accordingly, she prayed, and the child’s sex changed; Dina was born (XXX, 21), Rachel thereafter bore Yoséf (ibid., 23) and Binyamin (XXXV, 17-18).

The qualities of mercy and compassion are essential elements in the world in which we live. As Rashi famously tells in his comment on the first verse in Genesis, G-d Himself “placed mercy first and associated it with judgment.” The fact is that, while emeth is an absolute, it can be misapplied.

The Talmud (Këthubboth, pereq Keitzad Mëraqdim) offers an example, declaring that one should pay compliments to the bride and groom to let them know that their chosen mates are highly regarded and good matches. Thus, one should tell the bride how handsome and learned the groom is, and the groom how beautiful and modest his bride is. The question is then asked: What if she’s really ugly? Not everyone looks like a movie star; what does one say then?

One opinion is to find something about her which is praiseworthy; perhaps she has nice hands. The Talmud counters that if everyone tells the groom about his wife’s nice hands, he’ll figure out that something is wrong. The truth is that beauty really is relative, “in the eyes of the beholder”; whatever my opinion of the woman, to her husband she must be beautiful; therefore, she is beautiful. The absolute standard of emeth is inapplicableand a little ramma’uth concerning my feelings is in order.

Israel, the rabbis tell us, are rachmanim bënei rachmanim, “the merciful, sons of the merciful”; that is why we needed the double dose of ramma’uth, filtered through our compassionate matriarchs, Rivqa, Rachel, and Lé’a.