Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Did Yaakov Stray After His Eyes In Preferring Rachel?

Yet another interesting Rabbenu Bachya is about the reason for Yaakov's punishment. Chazal say that for the years he neglected kibbud av vaEm, he was punished middah keneged middah by being deprived of Yosef. The problem with this, as Rabbenu Bachya points out, is that Yaakov only went to Charan to fulfill his parents' directive. They told him to leave, and to go there to get a wife. They were thus mochel him this kibbud av vaEm, and indeed he was fulfilling their instruction. So how could he be punished for this?

Indeed, Bereishit 28:7 states:
ז וַיִּשְׁמַע יַעֲקֹב, אֶל-אָבִיו וְאֶל-אִמּוֹ; וַיֵּלֶךְ, פַּדֶּנָה אֲרָם. 7 and that Jacob hearkened to his father and his mother, and was gone to Paddan-aram;
His suggestion is that he was supposed to simply go to Charan and marry Leah. But he set his eyes on the younger daughter, and fell in love with her. As the pesukim say in parshat Vayeitzei {Bereshit 29:16-18}:
טז וּלְלָבָן, שְׁתֵּי בָנוֹת: שֵׁם הַגְּדֹלָה לֵאָה, וְשֵׁם הַקְּטַנָּה רָחֵל. 16 Now Laban had two daughters: the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel.
יז וְעֵינֵי לֵאָה, רַכּוֹת; וְרָחֵל, הָיְתָה, יְפַת-תֹּאַר, וִיפַת מַרְאֶה. 17 And Leah's eyes were weak; but Rachel was of beautiful form and fair to look upon.
יח וַיֶּאֱהַב יַעֲקֹב, אֶת-רָחֵל; וַיֹּאמֶר, אֶעֱבָדְךָ שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים, בְּרָחֵל בִּתְּךָ, הַקְּטַנָּה. 18 And Jacob loved Rachel; and he said: 'I will serve thee seven years for Rachel thy younger daughter.'
And because she was beautiful and fair to look upon, he loved her, and was willing to work 7 years, instead of marrying Leah and returning immediately. (Perhaps related: This recent Hirhurim post about a beautiful wife, and how one should be attracted to his wife.)

To me, this seems akin to innovating a criticism of one of the Avos. Not to say that this is not doable, but everybody talks about it when Ramban is critical of Avraham, and when he is critical of Sarah. This would be, then, another example, this time from Rabbenu Bachya. On the other hand, perhaps he considers this just a clarification of what Chazal actually meant, such that it is not he who is criticizing Yaakov Avinu.

This perush goes against modern sensibilities, for we look at the story of Yaakov working for 7 years (and then an additional 7!) for his destined mate as something extremely romantic, and beautiful -- certainly nothing to criticize him for. And I believe that this ethos is present even in the Biblical text itself, without having to really read anything into it. But this perush might well reflect the sensibilities in Rabbenu Bachya's community, at his time. See once again Dixie Yid's post about Yitzchak first marrying Rivkah before coming to love her, as a possible optimal approach.


Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

I disagree with your take on this issue. It seems clear that Rahel is regarded as of less noble character than Leah on several accounts, and that Yaaqov's affection for her was not solely based upon her personality, to put it kindly.

For example, Rahel "sells" a night with Yaaqov for the dudaim, she steals the teraphim of her father, she insolently demands a child from her husband, and, notably, she is the only one of the Imahot who is buried outside of Me-arat Hamakhpela, which is regarded as a negative according to peshuto shel miqra.

All of this evidence points to the possibility, developed convincingly in the book Genesis:The Beginning of Wisdom by Leon Kass and echoed in a somewhat controversial article by a YCT grad a while back, that Yaaqov is subtly taken to task for the mistake of preferring Rahel over Leah.

I arrived at that conclusion independently simply by studying the text on a literary level without prior ideological commitments, and found confirmation in the opinions of these scholars who present a compelling line of argumentation.

I realize this assertion is unsettling and would be dismissed as heretical in some circles, but that doesn't militate against its coherence.

joshwaxman said...

interesting points. i certainly would not consider such a position heretical, but i am not sure i agree with it, despite the data points you present. i might draw up a psychological portrait in the opposite direction. and some of those might be more Leah-positive (and Leah-sympathetic) focused that Rachel-negative. And I don't think there was anything wrong with the terafim incident. perhaps this would make for an interesting future post.

just off the cuff, though, as i was discussing with someone offline, Esav might easily be read as the righteous character, and Yaakov as the wicked. After all, look at the data points, which Esav himself enumerates. Yaakov from birth is grasping at Esav's heel, trying to pull him back and take what is not his. He is a weakling, staying indoors. He takes the birthright by coercion. He steals the blessing via trickery. He *sleeps* in a holy place, obviously not attuned to its sanctity beforehand. He prefers the pretty, younger daughter. He takes all of Lavan's flock, via trickery with the striped rods. And he takes leave of Lavan without saying goodbye.

And yet, at the same time, he clearly is the hero of the story, and God favors him. We have to be careful of judging Biblical characters by *any* 21st century standards. Perhaps this is what I have done with Rachel, but perhaps not. I'll think about it, and perhaps post about it.


Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Sorry for this delayed response - I was out of town for a couple of days.

Actually, I would tend to agree that many of Yaaqov's actions are indeed less than ideal, and that much of the narrative in these parashiyot revolves around his process of personal development, the culmination of which is his confrontation with Esav which he (for the first time) conducts without lying, cheating or running away. This explains why anticipation and negotiation of this major challenge is the stimulus for Yaaqov's name change to Yisrael. It is the defining point in his spiritual odyssey, where he finally becomes the "adam ha-shalem" he was intended to be.

Esav, on the other hand, is clearly cast negatively overall - he is impulsive, he marries Canaanite women who are a source of angst to his parents in violation of Abrahamic tradition, he sells his bechora for the momentary satisfaction of a bowl of soup and then despises the whole institution, he responds in an almost childlike manner to the loss of his father's blessing and seems desperately in need of his father's approval, and finally, chooses to resolve his dispute with his brother by murdering him.

That is not to say Esav is all bad, but the fact that he winds up the father of rather militant tribes is very telling.


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