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The Greatest Achievement

Vayetzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3 )


The secret of Rachel’s greatness.

In this week's parsha, Jacob sets off to his Uncle Lavan's town to find a wife. When Jacob arrives and meets his cousin Rachel, he decides that this is the one for him. Jacob is so enthralled with the shidduch ("match"), that he agrees to work a full seven years for Uncle Lavan before earning the right to marry Rachel. In fact, the Torah reports that Jacob's excitement was so great that the seven years "seemed to him like only a few days" (Genesis 29:20).

The appointed day finally arrives, and Lavan invites the entire town to the wedding festivities. Everyone is celebrating - everyone except for Rachel's older sister, Leah, who has remained single with her fate undecided. Jacob, not known to be naïve (recall how he cleverly wrested the birthright away from his brother Esav), suspects that Lavan might covertly try to marry off his older daughter Leah that night instead.

Since brides traditionally wear a veil covering her face, Jacob arranges a "secret password" to guarantee it will in fact be his beloved Rachel under the chuppah.

Picture the scene: Hundreds of guests have arrived. The caterer, band and photographer are all ready and positioned. Jacob stands expectantly under the chuppah and... here comes the bride! Because she is veiled, nobody knows that Lavan had pulled the old switcheroo - and it's really Leah in the wedding dress!

What would we expect to happen next? When Jacob asks the bride for the secret password, Leah would be standing there dumbfounded. With the ruse confirmed, Jacob would lift the veil and reveal Lavan's deceit. The crowd would gasp as, disgraced, Leah runs from the room crying.

But that's not the way it worked out. Instead, when Leah arrived under the chuppah, she gave the correct password. Why? Because Rachel, knowing what a terrible embarrassment her sister would suffer if the ruse were to be revealed at that moment, told Leah what to say. In order to spare embarrassment, Rachel was actually willing to give up the husband she'd waited patiently for seven years! (see Talmud, Megillah 13b)

Imagine being engaged to be married, but due to circumstances scheduling the wedding seven years in advance. Finally the great day arrives. Would you ever consider giving it all up to spare someone from embarrassment?

Rachel achieved greatness because she was willing to do just that.

Biblical Ethics

The Torah has built-in laws to safeguard the principle of not embarrassing anyone:

  • In the times of the Holy Temple, offerings brought for serious transgressions were processed in a nondescript location, so that onlookers were not able to identify the specific reason why the offering was being brought. (Leviticus 6:18; Talmud - Sotah 32b).

  • Similarly, when a person confesses their mistakes (as we do on Yom Kippur), it should be done in a way that is not audible to others.

  • In the laws of damages, one person can sue another not only for physical damages, but for emotional distress as well - specifically for the pain of embarrassment. (Maimonides, Laws of Damages 3:1, 3:7)

  • In listing the levels of charity, one of the highest degrees is when neither the giver nor the receiver knows each other's identity. This minimizes any embarrassment the poor person may feel. (Maimonides, Laws of Tzedakah 10:7-14)

  • In the story of biblical Bilaam and his talking donkey, an angel slays the donkey so that it won't be a continuing source of embarrassment to Bilaam. The Torah even demands sensitivity to an evil person! (Numbers 22:33 with Rashi, Midrash Bamidbar Rabba).

  • When being called up to the Torah for an Aliyah, a person should publicly chant the verses himself. However, since many are unable to read properly, the Sages mandated that one person be appointed to read for everyone, to avoid embarrassment for those who cannot read for themselves.

The Talmud goes so far as to say that embarrassing another publicly is comparable to murder. Blushing is caused by blood rushing to the spot, causing the face to turn red; the blood then drains, causing the face to turn white. "Draining another's blood" is an act which resembles murder. On a deeper level, embarrassment can "kill" a person emotionally.

Rachel's Reward

The Midrash (Genesis Rabba 82:10 and Pesikta Eichah Rabbasi 24) describes how Jacob buried Rachel alongside the road in Bethlehem, not in Hebron like the other matriarchs. He foresaw how the Jews would pass by Bethlehem on their way to exile, and wished that Rachel would sense their anguish and pray for them.

A thousand years later, the Jews erected an idol in the Holy Temple, and God sought to destroy Jerusalem. The souls of the Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs pleaded with God to spare the Jews from permanent exile. In exchange for God's assurance, Abraham offered all the merit of having brought monotheism to the world. But God said that would not suffice. Isaac pleaded with God in the merit of his willingness to be sacrificed on Mount Moriah; that too was rejected as insufficient. Jacob, Moses and others presented their merits - but none would suffice.

Rachel's soul then presented itself before God. "Master of the Universe," she began, "I waited seven years to marry my beloved Jacob. When the wedding day finally arrived, my father schemed to switch me with Leah. I realized that she would be put to shame, so I had compassion and gave her the password. I overcame my own feelings and was not jealous. I allowed a competitor into my home. So if I was able to do it, then all the more so You, God, should not be strict about the idolatrous 'competitor' in Your home."

Immediately, God's compassion was aroused. He said, "Don't cry over the exile, Rachel. For your sake I will return the children of Israel to their homeland once again." (see Jeremiah, chapter 31)

Plain Folk, Great Deeds

In the Western world, the "big" achievements typically get all the attention. Politicians, celebrities, and business tycoons are splashed on magazine covers and glorified as symbols of power and influence.

That is a distortion of reality. Because if you ask 100 people to name the greatest influence in their life, chances are none will mention an Olympic gold medallist or a U.S. President. The most common response is parents and teachers. They have molded and shaped who we are - not because of any dramatic, life-changing discoveries, but because they consistently demonstrated care and compassion.

This is the lesson that God is teaching us by accepting Rachel's prayer above all the others.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the leader of 20th century American Jewry, was picked up by a student to take him to an appointment. The driver helped Rabbi Feinstein into the car, then closed the door. Upon arriving to his destination, Rabbi Feinstein was greeted by another student who noticed that his hand was crushed and bleeding. "What happened?" he asked. Rabbi Feinstein explained: "The driver closed my hand in the door, but I didn't say anything so not to embarrass him."

In life, we inherit many things from our ancestors: medical conditions, hair color, wealth. We inherit spiritual DNA as well. When Rachel exhibited character beyond the bounds of human expectation, that genetic coding is ingrained for all eternity, giving us the innate potential to rise to those heights. Our task is to actualize that into reality.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shraga Simmons

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