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Parshat Vayetsei 5782

(Reprinted with permission from Rabbi Lew, Manchester England).

Rising and Falling – the ladders in our lives.

Our Sidrah begins with a dream in which a ladder features prominently. 

You may have heard about the breaking story that occurred in the USA this week. A religious woman, married to a devout Sephardic man for over a month, was shocked to discover clues as to her husband true identity. After a bit of detective work, it turned out that the man was actually a Muslim from Lebanon who posed as a religious Jew, infiltrating the community, even tricking his wife.

His motives are still unclear, but he had no intention of being Jewish. The ripple effects this incident is having in their tight knit Sephardic community in New York are tremendous. It boils down to the officiating Rabbi not doing his due diligence in ascertaining the groom’s true identity.

See the story here

Knowing the identity of one’s spouse is one of the key features in this week’s Torah reading. Jacob asks the hand of Rachel in marriage. At the crucial moment, her father arranges for Rachel’s sister Leah to step in instead as the bride – and subsequently to become the wife of Jacob. 

Much ink has been spilled trying to make sense of the Halachic, moral and ethical issues involved – including marrying two sisters, since that is what Jacob ultimately did. The big question is how did Jacob allow himself to be duped?

In fact, Jacob had done due diligence. He was very much aware of the enormity of an appropriate spouse, and he planned accordingly. That it failed to materialise was beyond his control. 

When Jacob was preparing for his marriage to Rachel, he instinctively knew that beneath the veil it could be anyone. He therefore created secret signs with her. 

As Leah was being led to the Chuppah instead of her, Rachel selflessly, incredibly and astonishingly shared the passwords with Leah. This act of compassion and sensitivity earned Rachel the gift and blessing of children. 

“And G-d remembered Rachel”.

[Bereishit 30:22]

Rachel was barren, even as her sister Leah was blessed with many children. Then G-d ‘remembered’ her. Rashi explains that G-d remembered this incredibly selfless act by Rachel, and rewarded her accordingly.

Jacob’s suspicions, and subsequent meticulous planning, is deeply ingrained in Jewish thought and practice. Best illustrated by the story of the ladder: 

A man was once passing through town and arrived at the home of the great Mishnaic sage Rabbi Yehoshua, who received him warmly. He was offered a fine meal and a chance to rest. The sleeping quarters for the guest was in the loft, which was accessed by a ladder.

Once the guest was settled for the night, Rabbi Yehoshua removed the ladder.

In the still of night the guest begin rummaging around for items of value which he intended to abscond with. Alas, at the moment of his escape, he hadn’t anticipated the absence of the ladder. He promptly fell into a heap and injured himself. 

Confronting the thief, the Rabbi remarked that he had removed the ladder as he didn’t trust him. [Tractate Kallah. Chapter 9] 

If he didn’t trust him, why did the Rabbi welcome him in the first instance?

Because Judaism demands that each person be treated with cordiality and  respect. To be nice and pleasant is a key part of a Jew’s approach to life. At the same time, Judaism also urges caution to those with whom we are not familiar.

To be nice, but also to be wise. To respect, but also to suspect. It is a delicate line. 

In case one believes that being suspicious of the stranger is good practice, Rabbi Yehoshua demonstrated that this is not the case. The authentic Jewish way is to be polite and nice. 

This is where the familiar Jewish greeting ‘Sholom Aleichem’ comes in. When two Jews meet, one opens with peace. The word Shalom is deliberate. It is one of the names of G-d, and the Rabbinic sages instituted that the greeting, and subsequent conversation, be conducted in a manner befitting the presence of G-d, who has just been mentioned. 

They based this on an episode with Boaz:

“And behold, Boaz came from Bethlehem, and he said to the reapers, ‘May G‑d be with you!’ And they said to him, ‘G‑d bless you.’”

(Ruth 2:4)

Over 3,000 years ago, people were greeting each other with respect and reverence. 

Jacob’s method and preparation for marriage was correct. He was always respectful, polite and friendly. He was also cautious and vigilant.

What happened in the USA began correctly – with respect, friendship and warmth. It is the next step which was wilfully ignored – with devastating consequences. 

May all our interactions always be accompanied with the extended hand of friendship – and then closely followed by astuteness and wisdom.

Have a great Shabbat!
Keep safe

Much love
Rabbi Rodal

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