Parashat Veyetze: The power of love

The Hebrew word 'ahava' is built on the two-letter root (according to some grammarians) 'hav,' which means the flame of passion as well as the act of giving.

If one ever doubted the power of love to transform individuals and direct the course of history, our weekly portion of Vayetze tells a beautiful story. It is an idyllic tale - a welcome interlude between the murderous tension of Jacob and Esau and the scheming tension of Jacob and Laban. But it is much more than that; it is a firm declaration that the Bible understands and affirms the potency of love; it is a song of love to love itself. Just consider the fact that the young Jacob is forced to leave his parents' ancestral home and wander into a lonely exile because of the lack of love - or at least the lack of loving communication - between Isaac and Rebekah. Whether Rebekah's daring deception - an act which resulted in the destructive sibling hatred between her sons - was evidence of an arranged marriage which could not offer the benefit of a loving and beloved friendship, or whether it was built into the unequal situation of a match between an older, spiritual son of a path-breaking religionist who had just survived a near-sacrifice to his father's God and a child-bride from a deceptive, rapacious family to whom God was an alien concept, is beside the point. In either case, an honest sharing of ideas and decisions arrived at together were virtually precluded. Moreover, the subsequent tensions between Laban and Jacob were caused in no small measure by the lack of trust Jacob had to feel toward his uncle, who deceived him into a loveless marriage with Rachel's elder sister, Leah. Therefore, the romantic love scene between Jacob and Rachel is not merely a welcome respite between stories of scheming deception and sibling rivalry; it is the honest and romantic love that Jacob and Rachel have for each other which enables Jacob to overcome all other obstacles in his life and ultimately emerge Israel - victorious! Chapter 29 of our portion tells the tale. Jacob sets off (29:1) and immediately comes upon a well. Remember that the matchmaker Eliezer met Rebekah - whom he identified as being suitable for Isaac - near a well, and later Moses meets his wife Zipporah near a well; a well is also used as a metaphor for woman and womb (Proverbs 5). Jacob takes in the scene: a large boulder protects the water in the well, a boulder so heavy that all the shepherds must gather in order to share the burden of lifting it. Young Jacob engages in small-talk with the three shepherds who had already assembled, and asks if they know Laban the son of Nahor. In the midst of their answer, they notice Rachel's arrival and exclaim: "…behold, Rachel his daughter comes with the sheep" (Gen. 29:6). We then read how Jacob is so moved by the appearance of Rachel that he manages to do what all the shepherds cannot - he rolls the stone off the well. Picture the moment: Jacob sees Rachel approaching, and what he feels is apparently "love at first sight." He probably looks back quickly to ascertain that she is watching, takes off his jacket, rolls up his sleeves, perhaps takes a second glance in her direction - and then single-handedly removes the boulder. He then triumphantly - but probably with an embarrassed smile - waters Rachel's flock, letting her know that he did it for her! "Then Jacob kissed Rachel, raised his voice and wept" (Gen 29:11). Why did he weep? I once had a student who suggested that he wept because he kissed her before they were married - although the S'forno comments that he tells her in the very next verse that he is her cousin so that she should not think he acted improperly with the kiss. Rashi (ad loc) gives other explanations for his tears: He had arrived empty-handed because his nephew Eliphaz, Esau's son, had pursued him in order to kill him, and he ransomed his life by giving his would-be-assassin all his possessions. From this we learn that to be in love means to want to give tangible gifts as an expression of that love. Indeed, the Hebrew word ahava is built on the two-letter root (according to some grammarians) hav, which means the flame of passion as well as the act of giving. One who doesn't feel a desire to give tangible gifts and provide for his beloved is not really in love! Furthermore, says Rashi, "Jacob saw with the gift of prophecy that he would not enter the grave with her." Most commentaries take this to mean that they would be buried in separate places, he in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, and she in Rachel's tomb on the road to Efrat. I would also take it to mean that the price we pay for loving is eventually having to be separated from our beloved; it is rare that a couple leaves this world together, and the greater the love, the more poignant the pain of the surviving spouse. In the final analysis, however, Jacob's love for Rachel gave him the power and patience to both work and wait for his love; "The seven years [he had to work for Laban to earn the right to marry Rachel] passed as only a few days because of his love for her" (Gen 29:20). He lost his beloved wife at a very young age, but the relationship nonetheless added a steely strength to his initially withdrawn, studious personality; it also gave him his two sons Joseph and Benjamin - the first brought the God of morality to Egypt and became the savior of his people, and the second upon whose land our Temples have stood and will yet stand. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.