In every Amidah (also called the ‘Shemoneh Esrei’, the extended silent devotion that constitutes the core of our daily prayers), we address HaShem as the “G-d and the G-d of our fathers Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov.”
How are we to understand that designation, and what is its source?
HaShem introduced Himself to Moshe at the burning bush as “the G-d of your forefathers Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov” (Exodus 3:15), then instructing him to tell the Jewish people that HaShem “the G-d of their forefathers Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov” appeared to him and is going to take them out of Egypt (Exodus 3:17).
HaShem then gave Moshe three miracles to perform in front of the Jewish nation’s elders to convince them that He had indeed appeared to him (Exodus 4:5), and, for the third time, referred to Himself as “the G-d of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov.”
That HaShem repeatedly identified Himself with the founders of the Jewish people means that the great and holy HaShem was comfortable as being known as their G-d, and that they are worthy of being HaShem’s representatives through their accurately and completely demonstrating to the world what HaShem is all about. Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov each served HaShem perfectly in their own way.
Avraham modeled HaShem’s attribute of kindness and successfully passed ten tests, including the most difficult of all, being prepared to sacrifice his precious son, Yitzchak.
And with completely pure intentions, Yitzchak was willing to be that sacrifice, and subsequently lived a perfectly righteous life.
Yaakov is known as the ,”בחיר שבאבות” “the choicest of the forefathers”. Indeed, the Midrash (Bereishit Rabah 68:12) tells us:
ישראל אשר בך אתפאר את הוא שאיקונין שלך חקוקה למעלה עולים למעלה ורואים איקונין שלו ויורדים למטה ומוצאים אותו ישן
Yaakov’s image was chiseled out on HaShem’s throne of glory. At the very beginning of this week’s Parshah, when Yaakov dreamed of angels ascending and descending the ladder, the Midrash explains that they went up to look at Yaakov’s image on HaShem’s Throne of Glory, and came down to compare it to the image of Yaakov as he was sleeping, taking note that they were indeed the same.
The following is one of the reasons that Yaakov was considered the “בחיר שבאבות”.
Avraham, as we know, had two sons, Yishmael and Yitzchak. Yitzchak was completely righteous, whereas Yishmael was the opposite.
Yitzchak, and his wife, Rivkah, also had two sons, Yaakov, a complete Tzadik, and Esav, a completely evil person.
Yaakov, on the other hand, had twelve sons, all of whom were righteous, an indication that he was completely pure and had no evil within him at all. Rabbi Moses (Maharam) Alshich (1507-1593) explains (Genesis 25:22) that for that to occur a refining process was required. Avraham accomplished the brunt of it by being thrown into the furnace, successfully passing the ten tests, and having Yishmael from Hagar, an Egyptian woman, before his Brit Milah.
Yitzchak, then, by offering himself for a sacrifice, further removed a substantial amount of impurity, the remainder going into Esav. Hence, Yaakov was born pure, allowing him to father twelve righteous children.
This being the case, it would be impossible to attribute to Yaakov inappropriate intentions or thoughts regarding Rachel, his “bashert.” We note this because some verses in this week’s portion seem to attribute to Yaakov a less than holy approach to marriage.
For example (Genesis 29:17-18):
“וְעֵינֵי לֵאָה רַכּוֹת וְרָחֵל הָיְתָה יְפַת תֹּאַר וִיפַת מַרְאֶה. וַיֶּאֱהַב יַעֲקֹב אֶת רָחֵל”
“And Leah’s eyes were weak, and Rachel was beautiful of form and beautiful in appearance. And Yaakov loved Rachel.”
Our Sages caution us not to take the verses at face value (namely, that Yaakov’s attraction to his Rachel was purely physical) for there is a deeper explanation, which interprets the verses in terms appropriate for a holy person like Yaakov.
Yaakov knew that his job as the “בחיר שבאבות” – “the choicest of the forefathers”- was to create the foundation of HaShem’s holy nation, the special nation that would ultimately receive the Torah. It would be insufficient that he just be free of impurity; he would have to be holy as well. That would require a lifetime of work to create within himself the holiness required to father the twelve holy tribes of Israel.
How would he go about accomplishing this daunting and formidable undertaking?
From the time Yaakov was thirteen years old, he was engaged in preparing himself for his holy task. The first description of Yaakov is (Genesis 25:27) “אִישׁ תָּם יֹשֵׁב אֹהָלִים” – “A perfect person who dwelled in the tents [of Torah]”, studying Torah day and night. This was the exclusive path to holiness, studying the Torah fulltime.
With this introduction, we can understand some of the seemingly peculiar things that Yaakov did.
When Yitzchak, his father, was forty years old, he married Rivkah who had just become of marriageable age. Yaakov was sixty-three years old when he left his parents’ home with instructions to go to Lavan, Rivkah’s brother, to find a wife. But instead of immediately following their instructions, Yaakov took a fourteen-year detour to study Torah in the Yeshiva of Shem and Eber. Although Yaakov was old enough to get married, he was unconcerned about his age, focusing rather on learning more Torah. Our Sages tell us that Yaakov did not sleep during those fourteen years, meaning he never left the Beit Midrash to go to sleep; he would just doze off as necessary as he was learning and immediately return to it.
Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky זצ”ל (1891-1986) adds that as Yaakov left his parents’ home and went out into the hostile world of the evil Lavan (his mother’s brother), he had to learn a special type of Torah, one geared to dealing with a hostile environment. This special learning he would need to acquire from Shem who remained righteous even in the generation of sinners who perished in the flood and Eber who also remained righteous in the generation of people who rebelled against HaShem by building the Tower of Babel.
After fourteen years of intensive and uninterrupted Torah study, Yaakov, when he arrived at Charan, his destination, was finally ready to take on the challenge of the evil Lavan. There he met his “bashert” Rachel. Yaakov asked Lavan permission to marry his daughter Rachel, and he would work for him for seven years before marrying her. Why did Yaakov offer seven years before marrying Rachel instead of marrying her immediately and working to pay her off? And why did he start with seven years? Lavan may have been agreeable to a much lower number.
The Torah then reports the following (Genesis 29:20):
“וַיַּעֲבֹד יַעֲקֹב בְּרָחֵל שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים וַיִּהְיוּ בְעֵינָיו כְּיָמִים אֲחָדִים בְּאַהֲבָתוֹ אֹתָהּ”
“And Yaakov worked for Rachel for seven years and they seemed like just a few days because of his love for her.”
This doesn’t seem to make sense. When someone wants something very badly, every day is like a year, and every year is like an eternity. How is it possible that, to Yaakov, the seven years seemed like only a few days?
Yaakov was seventy-seven years old when he reached Lavan’s house; when he saw what a scoundrel Lavan was and who he had to contend with, Yaakov realized that he needed another seven years of preparation to hold onto his level of holiness in the environment of such an evil and devious person. (This would in turn equip the Jewish people throughout the generations to maintain their holiness even in the most adverse of conditions.) This is why Yaakov suggested the seven years and why it seemed like a few days to him. Yaakov wasn’t sitting idly by and waiting for Rachel; he was rigorously working on himself. He had much work to do and had a deadline by which he had to finish. So busy was he intently working on himself, time flew by.
Rabbeinu Ovadiah Seforno understands this verse differently.
“ויהיו בעיניו כימים אחדים. שחשב שהיה ראוי לתת מהר רב מזה”
“And it seemed to him like just a few days”: Yaakov felt that he should have paid much more for her.“
It was as if he had paid for her with only a few days of work.
According to this understanding, was Yaakov going crazy for Rachel during the seven years of working? Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian זצ”ל explains why he wasn’t, using the following story to illustrate his point.
A man walked into a restaurant and ordered fish. “I love fish!” he told the waiter. When the waiter came out with his baked salmon, the man promptly stuck his fork into it and started cutting it with his knife. A bystander was appalled. “I thought you said you love fish!” he said. “I do!” responded the man. “Then why are you poking it with your fork and cutting it with a knife? If you loved it, you wouldn’t harm it! The truth is that you love yourself! You eat the fish because you like the way that it makes you feel!”
Similarly, sometimes we like the other person only because of the way he makes us feel, rather than on the merit of who he is. In Yaakov’s case, there wasn’t a shred of lust or physical desire in his effort to marry Rachel. His attraction to her was purely because he saw her as his soul partner in building the foundation of the Jewish nation. Because his regard for her was so great, and he felt so privileged to work only seven years for her (instead of the hundred he felt she was worth), the years passed quickly for him.
When the seven years were up, Yaakov said to Lavan.
“וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב אֶל לָבָן הָבָה אֶת אִשְׁתִּי כִּי מָלְאוּ יָמָי וְאָבוֹאָה אֵלֶיה”
“And Yaakov said to Lavan, “Deliver my wife for my term is fulfilled, and I will come to her.”
“ועוד מלאו ימי”. שהרי אני בן פ”ד שנה ואימתי אעמיד י”ב שבטים? וזהו שנאמר, ואבואה אליה. והלא קל שבקלים אינו אומר כן! אלא להוליד תולדות אמר כך”
“My term is fulfilled”: I am already eighty-four years old; when will I establish the twelve tribes? That is why Yaakov said, “and I will consort with her.” How could Yaakov say that? Even the lightest of the light don’t speak that way! It is because he was impatient to have generations.
Once again, the foremost concern on Yaakov’s mind was starting his mission to establish the holy Jewish nation. Hence, the second he felt ready, he did not want to waste any time in getting started. This is one of the positive attributes of righteous people: when a Mitzvah comes their way, they want to seize it immediately, and not let any time pass, lest some outside factor intervene and derail the process.
Rachel warned Yaakov that her father Lavan was a crook and would try to give him Leah as a wife in her stead. So Yaakov and Rachel devised a plan to prevent Lavan from making the switch. They decided on a specific sign that Rachel would give Yaakov when they came together that night. If an imposter tried to impersonate Rachel, but did not know the special sign, Yaakov would know that it was not Rachel and call her bluff.
Lavan, true to his character, took Leah and substituted her for Rachel. When Rachel realized that her sister would be extremely embarrassed when caught red-handed acting like Rachel, she relented and gave Leah the secret sign. The Torah reports the aftermath of the switch:
“וַיְהִי בַבֹּקֶר וְהִנֵּה הִוא לֵאָה וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל לָבָן מַה זֹּאת עָשִׂיתָ לִּי הֲלֹא בְרָחֵל עָבַדְתִּי עִמָּךְ וְלָמָּה רִמִּיתָנִי”
“The next morning, behold, she was Leah. He said to Lavan, “What have you done to me? The work I did for you was for Rachel! Why did you deceive me?””
Notice how the Torah doesn’t say that Yaakov got angry or screamed at Lavan. Just: “He said to Lavan.”
This really proves the point that the Sages are making. Had Yaakov set his heart on Rachel for reasons other than for creating the Twelve Tribes, how angry and upset he would be! For seven years he worked day and night for her, and in the end he got Leah! How could he be so calm and collected about it?
Yaakov also never held it against Rachel for “betraying” him and giving the secret signs to Leah, allowing her to trick him. On the contrary, he respected Rachel all the more for her sensitivity and compassion for her older sister. This quality of Rachel is what makes her the matriarch who always comes to the rescue of her children. Her grave at the entrance to Bethlehem is a common destination for people in need of salvation.
How did Lavan respond to why he did what he did?
“וַיֹּאמֶר לָבָן לֹא יֵעָשֶׂה כֵן בִּמְקוֹמֵנוּ לָתֵת הַצְּעִירָה לִפְנֵי הַבְּכִירָה
מַלֵּא שְׁבֻעַ זֹאת וְנִתְּנָה לְךָ גַּם אֶת זֹאת בַּעֲבֹדָה אֲשֶׁר תַּעֲבֹד עִמָּדִי עוֹד שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים אֲחֵרוֹת”
“And Lavan said, “We don’t do this in this place to give the younger daughter before the older in marriage. Wait a week (for Sheva Berachos for Leah to end) and I will give you Rachel also for another seven years of work.”
What chutzpah! Yaakov should again work seven years for Rachel? What happened to the first seven that he worked for her? But Yaakov agreed and put in the very same perfect work as he had the first time, even though he had been swindled by Lavan.
Once again, we see Yaakov’s integrity who could as easily have said, “This work is really not due to Lavan, I am going to do as little as necessary to get by.”
How was Yaakov able to be so calm about the switch? True, he married Rachel the next week, but this was totally unexpected to have an extra wife along with Rachel.
Yaakov understood that if this is how things worked out, this is the way HaShem wanted them to be, and he was prepared to accept HaShem’s judgment with a full heart.
Rabbi Yehonason Eibeshitz (1696-1764) has a novel twist on this matter: He explains that Yaakov planned to marry Leah all along, but he was afraid to marry her first because if he did so, his brother Esav would want to marry Rachel. Yaakov knew that Esav wouldn’t want Leah because her eyes were weak and she wasn’t as pretty as Rachel. Therefore, Yaakov’s strategy was to marry Rachel first, then marry Leah, which explains why Yaakov wasn’t upset about marrying Leah.
When we view the Torah through the eyes of our holy Sages, we see a completely different Torah than we would see at first glance.
This is the way the Torah was meant to be understood, with a depth and with meaning that we would have never seen on our own.