A Bima-Ready D’var Torah Every Week
7 Kislev 5779
The Trials of Jacob Part I: Hard Work
Torah Portion: Genesis 28:10-32:3
Haftarah Portion: Hosea 12:13-14:10
"The true right to a country--as to anything else--springs not from political or court authority, but from work."
Let's face it, how would you feel if your ancestor, the founder of your people, had swindled their way to success? How would it make you feel knowing that your roots were grounded in cheating and ill-gotten gain? The answer is probably not very good. Essentially, that's where we start Parashat Vayeitzei. Jacob has just fled his family's home after taking advantage (with his mother's help) of his elderly father Isaac's blindness and scamming his older brother Esau out of his birthright. Up until this point, Jacob is not a very honorable man. While Esau is a strong and fearless outdoorsman, Jacob is a quiet homebody who prefers to stay in camp and take advantage of others when they are the most vulnerable (namely those who are tired, famished, old, or blind). It's not a very auspicious or noble beginning for the man who will father the twelve tribes.
In this week's parashah, however, all that changes. Upon reaching the camp of his Uncle Laban, Jacob sees his first cousin Rachel and falls madly in love with her the second their eyes meet. While she is watering her family's flocks, he takes the heavy stone that is covering the well and moves it so she can retrieve water. When Jacob tells his uncle that he wants to marry his daughter Rachel, Laban tells Jacob that in order to have her hand he must toil under his employ for seven years. Laban turns out to be far more cunning than Jacob, putting his older daughter Leah in Rachel's stead on her wedding night. Jacob is forced to work yet another seven years for Rachel. Jacob cannot bargain, negotiate, or trick his way out of it. For the woman he loves, he must engage in back-breaking labor for a grand total of fourteen arduous years. This is far from the end of Jacob's physical exertions. In next week's parashah, Vayishlach, Jacob wrestles with an angel for hours, and is severely injured in the course of their struggle. Ultimately, however, Jacob prevails and is blessed with the name "Israel" (meaning "one who struggles with God").
At the end of his fourteen-year servitude, Jacob is a far cry from the quiet homebody who used trickery, dishonesty, and deception to get his way. He is now strong--not only physically, but morally and mentally tough as well. Both his body and soul are conditioned and experienced. Working his father-in-law's fields has transformed Jacob into the patriarch he was meant to be.
In Judaism, there are key middot, or "values," which we live by: chesed (lovingkindness), shalom(peace), emet (truth), and din (justice), to name a few. As we read this week's parashah, perhaps it is important to think about avodah (service), m'lachah (labor), and y'gi-ah (toil) as well. As painful and as difficult as these concepts sound (in other words, things to be avoided), many in our history cherished them. Rabbi Judah bar Ilai declared, "Great is labor for it confers honor on the laborer." Rabbi Jeremiah pronounced, "Labor is more precious than ancestral merit." Finally, David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of the State of Israel, proudly told the world, "We don't consider manual work as a curse, or a bitter necessity, not even as a means of making a living. We consider it as a high human function, as the basis of humanity, the most dignified thing in the life of the human being, and which ought to be free, creative. Men ought to be proud of it."[ii]
There are things we can learn from books, from inspiring teachers, from TV, movies, and the Internet, and even great conversations. But there is something that getting our hands dirty, our palms blistered and calloused, our feet bloody, and our brow sweaty from a hard day's work will teach us about dedication and life itself that we can't replicate anywhere else.
Kein y'hi ratzon, may we all get to indulge in hard labor and reap its spiritual rewards.
Rabbi Aaron Rozovsky
Director or Rabbinical Services
Please share this message with family and friends and when your congregation gathers for services we invite you to read this Taste of Torah from the bima. As always, please be in touch. We would particularly appreciate hearing about simchahs, (moments of joy) like births, birthdays, engagements, anniversaries, graduations as well as illnesses or other challenges in your family or community.
[i] Ben Gurion, David. Earning a Homeland. 1915.
[ii] Babylonian Talmud Nedarim 49b; Midrash Genesis Rabbah 74:12; David ben Gurion, Address to Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry. March 19, 1946 (courtesy Baron, Joseph L. A Treasury of Jewish Quotations. Jason Aronson, Inc. 1977.).
© 2018 Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life
Taste of Torah:
Sign up for the weekly