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The Desire For Greatness

Vayetzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

Rachel and the burning desire for spiritual growth.

"And God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her, and opened her womb. And she became pregnant and she bore a son, and she said God has gathered in my disgrace. And she called his name Jospeh, saying, 'May God bear me another son.' " (1)

After many years of barrenness, the matriarch Rachel finally merits to give birth to a son. She reacts to this joyous event by asking for another child. This reaction seems somewhat surprising. It's like a child who asks his parents for another present instead of thanking them for the one he just received!(2)

In truth, Rachel's desire for more children was not merely a desire for more in the realm of gashmiut (physicality), rather it was a result of her great desire to strive in ruchniut (spirituality). For Rachel, having children meant playing a key role in the building of the Jewish nation. Her request to have more children was a reflection of her own desire to play a greater role in building the Jewish nation. So it was more akin to one who has just completed a piece of Torah learning asking God to help him complete another one. That is not a sign of ingratitude, rather it is an expression of the person's desire to grow more in spirituality.

This idea can also help us understand another difficult passage in the Torah portion. After Leah gives birth to four sons in quick succession, the Torah tells us that Rachel was jealous of her elder sister.(3) Rashi explains that Rachel was jealous of Leah's good deeds, because she felt that it was in the merit of her righteousness that Leah was granted so many children.

Based on this reasoning, it would seem logical that Rachel strive to improve her own actions. However, she does not seem to do this, rather she requests from her husband, Jacob that he pray for her to have children. Why does she not immediately strive to improve her own behavior instead of asking Jacob to help her?(4)

The answer is that she did strive to improve her own behavior through emulating Leah's intense desire and efforts to have children. She felt that the best way to do this was by requesting a righteous man, such as Jacob to pray for her to have children - this action in and of itself represented a way of improving her action.

In yet another section in the Torah we learn a further lesson about the power of the desire of the Matriarchs to build the Jewish nation. After Leah has four sons, the Torah tells us that she stopped giving birth.(5) Nonetheless she did not stop in her efforts to have more children. She was even willing to give her son's dudaim (6) to her sister Rachel in exchange for an extra opportunity to have more children. After these intense efforts the Torah writes: "And God heard (vayishma) Leah and she became pregnant, and bore a fifth son to Jacob." (7) The commentaries note that there is no mention of Leah praying to have more children, so why does the Torah say that God heard her? She didn't say anything! Rashi explains that in this sense, the word 'vayishma' refers to 'perceiving' - "God perceived that Leah desired and strived to create more tribes and as a result of that desire He granted her another child." (8) We learn from here that God responds to an intense desire for spiritual accomplishment which is accompanied by great effort, even when a person does not actually pray to Him.

These examples demonstrate the importance of developing an intense desire to grow in spiritual matters. Without such a desire a person cannot achieve anything of great significance in the spiritual realm.

The following story gives a great example of the importance of desire and a willingness to attain great achievements in the spiritual realm. There was once a meeting of many of the leading Rabbis of the generation and the descendants of the leaders of the previous one, including the Chafetz Chaim. Rabbi Yechezkel Sarna, the great Rosh Yeshiva of Chevron stood up to speak and he surprised everyone, saying that there was one person who had achieved more for the Jewish people than everyone present and their illustrious ancestors. Moreover, he confidently asserted that once he would tell the audience who it was, they would all agree. Who was this great person?

It was Sarah Schenirer, the founder of the Bais Yaakov movement. She was a seemingly ordinary woman who lived at a time where there was no formal Torah education for Jewish girls. Consequently, young women from observant families were leaving Torah in great numbers. The scale of this tragedy was magnified by the fact that many Torah scholars were unable to find an appropriate match given the lack of suitable women. It is no exaggeration to say that the very future of the Jewish people was in great danger.

Sarah Schenirer recognized the threat and founded the first network of Torah schools for girls, Bais Yaakov. With the guidance of leading Rabbis, such as the Chafetz Chaim and Gerrer Rebbe, she succeeded beyond her wildest expectations and, effectively assured the future of Torah observance. Thus, when Rabbi Sarna revealed to the audience the identity of this savior of the Jewish people they unanimously agreed with his assertion that she had done more for the Jewish people than anyone else.(9)

How did she merit this? Rabbi Sarna explained that it was because she was willing to cry for the Jewish girls who were being lost to the Jewish nation.(10) Her pain at the spiritual destruction that was taking place and her desire to improve the situation was the key in giving her the impetus to save them. Moreover, it seems clear that God 'heard' her intense desire to improve the situation and gave her great siyata dishamaya (Heavenly help) in all her efforts.

A person can live their life and, to a certain extent, live on a kind of 'automatic pilot'- going through the motions of life but without any great desire to achieve spiritual greatness. We learn from the Matriarchs that the only way to achieve greatness is to develop great desires in the spiritual realm and to act upon them. May we all merit to emulate the Matriarchs and attain true greatness.



1. Vayetzei, 30:22-24.

2. It is true that she also thanked Hashem for 'gathering in my disgrace,' nevertheless her request for more children needs to be understood.

3. Vayetzei, 30:1.

4. This question is asked By Be'er Yosef, Rav Yosef Salant, Parshas Vayetzei.

5. Vayetzei, 29:35.

6. They are some kind of herb that was said to help increase fertility.

7. Vayetzei, 30:17.

8. Rashi, ibid. Cf. Seforno and Ohr HaChaim who write that Leah did in fact pray to have more children.

9. Heard from Rav Noach Weinberg, of blessed memory.

10. Taken from Six Millenia of Great Leaders, p. 217-218.

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