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Jacob Talking with Laban

There is an aspect of Lavan’s deception of Yakov that often goes unexamined. I am referring to the role of Leah in this deception – some commentators raise the issue of whether Leah was justified in going along with the plot. While some suggest that she had no choice, it is hard to imagine that she could not have revealed her identity, when she was alone in the tent with Yakov, thereby giving him the choice of how to respond. Rabbinic tradition informs us of exactly the opposite – that Leah acquired a special code from her sister, Rachel, specifically in order to hide her identity from him until it was too late.

The Da’at Zkenim quotes a surprising midrash that speaks to this point. According to this midrash, this is the conversation that might have ensued Yakov’s discovery that the woman he had just married was Leah and not Rachel.

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Yakov said to Leah, “You are a liar, the daughter of a liar – last night, I called you Rachel and you answered me, now I call you Leah and you also answer me!” She said back to him, “Are you a man with no students? Your father called you Esav and you answered him and then he called you Yakov and you also answered him!”

The midrash relates the truly fascinating comparison between Leah’s deception of Yakov and Yakov’s own deception of his father, Yitzchak. In both cases, you have one sibling pretending to be the other. In both cases, the deception is instigated by a parent. In both cases, the deception seems to be for the good of everyone involved, in spite of the emotional anguish it caused its victims. In both cases, the deception appeared to be the only way of accomplishing an important goal. Per the Ramban, Yitzchak was intent on giving the blessing to Esav and no one could have dissuaded him, which caused Rivka to opt for the only method at her disposal, to get the blessing to Yakov. Similarly, Yakov was only interested in marrying Rachel, who, if we follow the story carefully, was less suited to be his wife than Leah. After all, the vast majority of the Jewish people, as well as its religious and political leadership, all come from Leah, and not from Rachel. Finally, in both cases, there was no time to wait – not acting would have been as much a choice as acting.

Returning to the midrash, it would be difficult to say that Leah was simply chiding Yakov and telling him that he got what he deserved – hat since he was a liar, it was only appropriate that he would get a liar for a wife. What Leah was trying to tell Yakov, is that the morality of the two situations was very similar. Since he presumably thought that he was justified in doing what he did, and that the importance of truth was outweighed by other considerations, he should see her deception of him in a similar light. Both situations involved difficult moral decisions, wherein the right choice was not clear. To put it another way, there was no good choice, or at least no perfect one. For Yakov not to act, would have meant allowing Esav to acquire much more power with which to afflict Yakov and his descendants. It would also have meant foregoing the benefits of this blessing to Yakov. Acting involved the deception of Yitzchak and going against his will, as well as causing him tremendous grief. Likewise, had Leah not deceived Yakov, he would never have married her, and the majority of the Jewish people would have never seen the light of day. Acting involved the deception of her new husband, thereby starting her marriage on a note of discord. Indeed, the family life of Yakov would by mired by jealousy and rivalry for almost the entire rest of his life.

By highlighting the difficult of these two decisions, the midrash teaches us an important point. Most decisions do not involve clear choices and that not acting is as much a decision as acting. While not usually the case, there are some singles that have shopping lists of what they are looking for in a spouse – if the man or woman they meet doesn’t have everything on the list, they would rather wait. But this syndrome of waiting for perfection is not only true of singles. To give a triter example from my own life, when I was more involved in the stock market, I would often look for ideal scenarios. I would want to buy or sell a stock at a certain price, and only at that price. Since this did not usually correspond to the real choices I had in front of me, it was counterproductive. By waiting for the stock to go down to a certain price, I often lost opportunities to buy a stock that was not as cheap as I wanted, but still a good deal. In life, as in the stock market, we rarely find ideal situations. 

In French, there’s an expression, “l’enemmi du bien, c’est le mieux”, which means the enemy of good is better. In other words, waiting for the ideal is the best way to lose out on most opportunities that come our way. That is different than saying we should settle for mediocrity. No, we should always seek the best in everything we do. But since most things are not in our control, we have to be ready to deal with the realities as they are, and not as we would like them to be. G-d has given us the wisdom to deal with choices that are not simple. This is true in our social lives, our business lives and in our religious lives, as well. If all you have time for is for one Torah class a week, do not say, ” why bother? — I’ll wait until I retire, when I can really devote serious time to Torah study”. Take the opportunities that you can. We spend far too much of our lives waiting. Like Yakov and Leah, we have to seize opportunities, even if they are not ideal. In the end, it is the mediocre everyday opportunities that add up to create greatness in a person. 

A 9th grade student once complained to me that our Tanakh is not so interesting, compared to the various mythologies of ancient peoples. On the level of adventure and fantasy, there may be some truth to this. But I told him there is a reason for that – the Tanakh is about real life, whereas mythology is all in someone’s imagination. In the world of mythology and fairy tales, we can turn into a prince, marry a fairy princess and live happily ever after. Similarly, in our own fantasy world, we want moral choices to be pristine, we expect to do mitzvot in the ideal situation, where we have all the time, money and inspiration in the world. It is for this reason that we have to learn from the Avot and Imahot, that we live in the real world, where choices are not comfortable and easy. 

We live in a world where choices are often a question of finding the good and not waiting for the better. This means that, if we are constantly looking for the ideal, we may never find it, but if we start doing the possible, we may find that the ideal is just down the road. 

 

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Rabbi Francis Nataf (www.francisnataf.com) is a veteran Tanach educator who has written an acclaimed contemporary commentary on the Torah entitled “Redeeming Relevance.” He teaches Tanach at Midreshet Rachel v'Chaya and is Associate Editor of the Jewish Bible Quarterly. He is also Translations and Research Specialist at Sefaria, where he has authored most of Sefaria's in-house translations, including such classics as Sefer HaChinuch, Shaarei Teshuva, Derech Hashem, Chovat HaTalmidim and many others. He is a prolific writer and his articles on parsha, current events and Jewish thought appear regularly in many Jewish publications such as The Jewish Press, Tradition, Hakira, the Times of Israel, the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Action and Haaretz.