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Torah Sparks

December 6, 2008 – 9 Kislev 5769

Annual: Genesis 28:10-32:3 (Etz Hayim, p. 166; Hertz p. 106)
Triennial Cycle: Genesis 30:14-31:16 (Etz Hayim, p. 176; Hertz p. 111)
Haftarah: Hosea 12:13 – 14:10 (Etz Hayim, p. 189; Hertz p. 118)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

Jacob sets out for Haran, fleeing Esau’s wrath. He stops for the night and dreams of a stairway (or ladder) between earth and heaven with angels ascending and descending. God speaks to Jacob in his dream and renews the promise made to his father and grandfather. Jacob vows that if he returns safely to this place, he will give God one-tenth of all he has.

Jacob arrives in Haran and meets his cousin Rachel at the well. He falls in love with her and agrees to work for her father Laban for seven years in exchange for making Rachel his wife. When the time comes, Laban tricks him into marrying Leah, Rachel’s older sister, instead. Jacob agrees to work another seven years for Rachel. Leah gives birth to four sons, but Rachel is childless. Rachel gives her maid Bilhah to Jacob as a concubine and Bilhah bears two sons. Leah then gives her maid Zilpah to Jacob and Zilpah bears two sons. Leah gives birth to two more sons and a daughter. Rachel finally becomes pregnant and gives birth to Joseph.

Jacob wants to return home to Canaan, but Laban persuades him to stay by promising to pay him a share of the flocks that Jacob has caused to increase. In time, Jacob realizes that Laban’s sons resent his growing wealth and that Laban himself seems less welcoming and he tells Rachel and Leah it is time to leave. They agree and the family sets out for Canaan, although Jacob is unaware that Rachel has taken Laban’s teraphim (household idols) with her. Laban pursues and overtakes Jacob and his family, condemns their secret departure, and demands the return of his stolen gods. Jacob and Laban make a covenant of peace and go their separate ways.

1. Where Can God Be Found?

Then the Lord said to Jacob, “Return to the land of your fathers where you were born, and I will be with you.” (Bereisheit 31:3)

  1. And there I shall be with you. But as long as you are associated with the unclean it is impossible to cause my Divine Presence to rest upon you. (Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1105, France])
  2. The Holy One said to him: You request that I should be with you (during all the days that Jacob was in the house of Laban, the Holy One never spoke with him). Separate yourself from the wicked Laban and I will be with you. (Tanhuma [a midrash collection] Vayetze 21)
  3. Rav Ami said in the name of Resh Lakish: “There will be no blessing on your possessions that you acquire outside Eretz Israel until you ‘return to the land of your fathers... and I will be with you.’” (Bereisheit Rabbah 74) One may explain this as follows: The reason why there is no blessing on one’s possessions outside Eretz Israel is so that we will not leave Eretz Israel. A similar idea is seen in Pesahim 50b: “The Men of the Great Assembly fasted 24 days to ask that those who wrote Torah scrolls, tefillin, and mezuzot would not become rich, because if they would, they would stop writing.” (Yalkut Yehudah [Rabbi Yehuda Leib Ginsburg, 1885-1946, Russia, United States])
  4. No spot on earth is devoid of the Divine Presence. (Bamidbar Rabbah 12:4)
  5. “And I will be with you” that no harm befall you during your journey. (Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, 1475-1550, Italy)

Sparks for Discussion

Rashi, Tanhuma, and Yalkut Yehudah all understand “return to the land of your fathers... and I will be with you” to mean: I will be with you only after you return to the land of your fathers. How else might you understand this verse? Are there times or places where God is absent?

Yalkut Yehudah also provides a fascinating explanation of how economic motives affect the performance of mitzvot and the choices we make. Obviously, most people work to earn a living and would not do their jobs unless they were paid. Are there people who would continue working if they were no longer paid or if they no longer needed the money? Do you think the sofrim (scribes) mentioned in Pesahim would continue writing Torah scrolls, tefillin, and mezuzot if they became rich? What jobs do you imagine people would continue to do if they didn’t need the paycheck?

2. Reason and Religion

Jacob had Rachel and Leah called to the field, where his flock was. (Bereisheit 31:4)

  1. When a man wants something from the members of his family, it is not proper that he should force them against their will, even if he is the master of the household. Rather, he should try to persuade them as much as possible to want to do what he wants of their own volition, for that is better than forcing them to do it. See here how Jacob spoke to Rachel and Leah to persuade them to leave their father, even though God had commanded him to return to his home. (Shnei Lukhot HaBrit [Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, 1556-1630, Europe and Israel])
  2. At first Jacob explained to his family, using logic, why he wanted to flee from Laban, but only in the end did he tell them that God had commanded him. Jacob wanted to make it easier for them, and that was why he first appealed to their reason, telling them of the wrongs that Laban had done to him, and only then he revealed God’s will to them... (Rabbi Simcha Zissel of Kelm, 1824-1898, Lithuania)
  3. Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah declared: A man should not say, “I do not like swine’s meat, I do not like wearing linsey-woolsey [a material made of a linen-wool mixture, prohibited as shatnez].” He should say, “I like both. But what can I do? My Father in heaven decreed for me not to.” (Sifra 93d)
  4. Rabbi Judah said in the name of Rav: A man should in any case occupy himself with Torah and its precepts, even if it be not for their own sake, for as he occupies himself with them not for their own sake, he will end up occupying himself with them for their own sake. (Nazir 23b)

Sparks for Discussion

Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah describes the ideal situation – that people would perform mitzvot strictly out of love and reverence for God. How realistic is this? Are there mitzvot you do simply “because God said so?” Is this sufficient for most or all mitzvot or for all or most members of our communities? What types of appeals to reason and logical arguments are most likely to draw people closer to mitzvot and Jewish living? What is the danger of teaching mitzvot as a matter of logic and self-interest?

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