Vayeitzei 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayeitzei

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

VaYetze (Gen. 28:10-32:3)


Yaakov begins a long exile from his home and family, yet right at the beginning of this journey, God appears to him in the vision of the ladder and promises him protection, descendants, and blessing. Yaakov then meets and falls in love with Rahel, daughter of Lavan, his mother’s brother. Lavan, however, substitutes her sister Leah for Rahel on their wedding night, and Yaakov agrees to work many more years for Rahel as well. After some dramatic uncertainty, the sisters have children and their servants also bear children- Yaakov’s sons will be the ancestors of the 12 tribes of Israel. Yaakov plans his escape from Lavan, but eventually they part in peace.


“Lavan replied, “It is not our custom here to give the younger daughter in marriage before the older one. Finish this daughter’s bridal week; then we will give you the younger one also, in return for another seven years of work.” (Genesis 29:26-27)


Yaakov, the trickster, who deceived his father at the urging of his mother, is now deceived by his mother’s brother, Lavan. Yaakov wanted to marry Lavan’s younger daughter, Rahel, but Lavan put Leah, the older daughter, into the marriage tent instead. When Yaakov indignantly protests the next morning, Lavan appeals to local custom (perhaps giving Yaakov a verbal jab over the treatment of his older brother Esav at the same time), and offers to let Yaakov marry Rahel as well, after the week of feasting for the first marriage is concluded.


Yaakov, our most morally complex ancestor in Genesis, tends, not surprisingly, to be surrounded by other, equally complex figures. His brother Esav is comes across as both shortsighted and tragic, though the rabbis will later portray him as wicked and corrupting. Similarly, his uncle Lavan seems like a shady character when making deals with Yaakov, yet he also seems very caring and protective of his daughters, especially at the end of the parashah, when he has to let them go. His switching of Leah for Rahel might have been solely motivated by a desire to protect Leah’s honour and feelings, or it might have been a way to bind Yaakov to his family for another seven years, or more likely, a combination of these and other motives.

Surprisingly, although the ancient rabbis disliked Lavan as much as they disliked Esav, they were willing to learn from his example when they thought he was acting properly. The rabbis of the Jerusalem Talmud, in the tractate Moed Katan (Jerusalem Talmud, quoted in Y. Nachshoni’s book of essays on Torah interpretation), derive an important principle from Lavan’s insistence that the “bridal week” for Leah be finished before Yaakov could also marry Rahel . They called this idea ein ma’arbin simcha b’simcha, or “one does not mix one happy occasion with another,” which basically means that one does not celebrate two happy events at the same time. Some of the rabbis also learn this from the story of the dedication of the Temple (1 Kings 8:65); King Shlomo [Solomon] doesn’t dedicate the Temple on the feast week itself, but waits and has a separate celebration.

In our day, the classic example of ein ma’arbin simcha b’simcha is the general reluctance to schedule a bar/bat mitzvah, or a wedding, on a major holiday. Even though the Torah is being read, so one could call up a bat mitzvah or have an aufruf (pre-wedding blessings at the Torah service), the tradition is concerned that we pay full attention to the special meaning of the day. If we had a big family gathering, with all the time and trouble that entails, we might not really celebrate the holiday itself properly. Another example, closely related to our passage, is the tradition of not marrying siblings on the same day. Again, the idea is that we would not be able to fully fulfill the commandment of “gladdening the bride and groom” if we had to do it for two siblings on the same day, not to mention any jealousy or rivalry they might experience.

One aspect of any spiritual path is learning to be fully present, fully aware of the meaning of the moment. The rabbis also taught ein osin mitzvot habilot habilot, or “do not do commandments tied up in a bundle.” [In other words, do one at a time.] In today’s world of multi-tasking and cell phones this is a challenging lesson to remember!

Whether celebrating, or mourning, or praying, or opening the heart with ritual, the idea is usually the same: focus on what’s happening right now, give it your full attention, and experience that moment as deeply as you can. There will never be another moment like the one that just passed, so don’t distract yourself by “mixing” too many things into it at once. Focus on the most important thing; the rest will come in its time, just as the week of celebrating for Leah was followed by the week of celebrating for Rahel, each in its own time.

(Thanks to R. Brad Artson for his help this week.)

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