Not every comment on a Torah (Bible) portion must take in the whole portion, nor even a theme within it. A comment may be on one verse, one phrase or even a word or two. And sometimes, a theme may emerge from a single word.
In the 1970s, our rabbi in Israel, Rabbi Noah Heisler, told me that a Holocaust survivor once came up to him and illuminated two words in this week's Torah portion. At its beginning, Jacob makes a vow. It includes these phrases, "If G-d will be with me . . . and give me bread to eat and clothes to wear . . . "
The survivor asked Rabbi Heisler:
"Why does Jacob ask for 'bread to eat'? If one has bread, what else is it for but eating? Why doesn't Jacob simply ask for bread? And if one has clothing, what else is it for but wearing? Why does Jacob ask for clothing to wear?'
Rabbi Heisler related the survivor's answer:
"When we were in the camps, often we didn't eat the little bread we had. We might have had a greater need for a boot, a stocking, a tattered shirt. So we traded the bread for clothing. This saved a life. And often, we didn't wear the little clothing we had because we might have had a greater need for food just then. So we traded clothing for a scrap of food.
"Jacob is asking G-d: May I have food and, may I be in a position to eat it. May I have clothing and, may I be in a position to wear it."
This is a moving insight based on what? In Hebrew "to eat" is one word, "to wear" is one word. A mere two words convey a profound message. And so, let me offer three comments on a few words in this week's Torah portion.
Genesis 31:2: "And Jacob saw the face of Laban and behold it was not with him as yesterday and the day before."
Jacob has always had trouble with Laban, the cheat. Jacob is supposed to marry Rachel, but Laban substitutes Leah. Then Laban forces Jacob to work 14 years for his two wives. Thereafter, Laban changes the terms of Jacob's employment 100 times, always to Laban's advantage. Finally, Laban prepares to intensify his oppression of Jacob; as the verse says, "the face of Laban was not with him [Jacob] as before." Laban's body language threatens untold new deceit and disruption in Jacob's life.
I read the verse very differently. (I don't remember whether I heard this from Asher Katz in Santa Fe or whether this is my own reading.) Jacob sees that the face of Laban is not with him [Jacob] as before. Laban does not appear to Jacob to be as bad as he once had. Laban's dishonesty is not so bothersome as it was 20 years earlier, when they first met. The verse records not Jacob's observation of Laban, but of himself. Jacob is saying: Time has worn down my resistance to corruption. The face of evil doesn't look so terrible anymore. The moment I catch myself beginning to make peace with evil, it is time for me to leave here and go back to Canaan, all the wealth I've acquired here notwithstanding.
Ethical compromise, "selling out," creeps up. The moment Jacob notices it in himself, he acts. If only the Germans in the 1930s and the Russians in the 1920s had done the same!
Genesis 31:44-48: "[Laban said:] 'Let us [Laban and Jacob] make a covenant, I and you . . . ' Then Jacob took a stone and raised it up as a monument. And Jacob said to his brethren, 'Gather stones!' So they took stones and made a mound . . . Laban called it Yegar Sahaduta, and Jacob called it Gal Ed. And Laban declared, 'This mound is a witness between me and you today'; therefore he called its name Gal Ed."
My late teacher, Rabbi Ben Zion Bruk, observed:
First Laban attaches his own name to the mound, Yegar Sahaduta. Representatives of falsehood insist that others take everything on their terms. The signs and symbols of falsehood are self-declared; woe to him who resists. But Jacob resists. After Laban says Yegar-Sahaduta, Jacob repeats, Gal Ed. And Laban comes around! ("he called its name Gal Ed").
Rabbi Bruk: The pressures to bend to falsehood are great. Jacob doesn't bend. He teaches, it is necessary to take a stand. This is tough, but in the end the representatives of falsehood come around.
That, in a nutshell, was the relationship between the West and communism a falsehood if there ever was one. It took 70 years, but by not bending to communism the West eventually triumphed.
Genesis 29:7: "[The Haranites tell Jacob], 'Look, the day is still long; it is not yet time to bring the livestock in; water the flock and go on grazing.'"
The midrash says that Jacob is teaching a lesson in business ethics. He is telling the shepherds: If you are employees, you are guilty of theft because it is still the middle of the day. You must go out and guard the sheep. If the flocks are yours (you are self-employed), you are guilty of wasting time.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kuk commented*:
Jacob is conveying to the shepherds an ethical truth he learned from his father Isaac and grandfather Abraham. Immediately upon arriving in the east, Jacob accepts his universal responsibility to teach Torah to the world and who is listening in to all this?
She comes upon the scene with her father Laban's flocks just before the encounter between Jacob and the shepherds of Haran. Now, Rachel is the youngest sister. Wouldn't it make sense for Laban to entrust the oldest daughter, Leah, with the sheep?
Rabbi Kuk introduces a typology, citing Zohar (I:154), the major work of Jewish mysticism: Leah is the "Alma de-Itkasya," the hidden, concealed world. Rachel is the "Alma de-Itgalya," the revealed world.
Rachel goes out into the world: She is the breadwinner, the shepherdess. She steals her father's idols (31:19) because, like Abraham, she teaches faith to the world. Rachel has a "beautiful face and a radiant countenance" (29:17); she is concerned with the outside aspects of her existence, unlike her older sister Leah, whose "thin eyes" (29:17) could be taken to mean that her eyes are sensitive, requiring her to remain inside. When Jacob calls his wives to ask whether the time has come to return to Canaan, it is Rachel who speaks up first (31:14). Rachel, like Jacob, assumes the obligation of universal responsibility.
But Jacob also needs to create a strong spiritual home, a hidden, inner world, for the nation he is to father, and for this the very different Leah is necessary. Indeed, Leah and her maidservant bear most of Jacob's children.
All this, Rabbi Kook teases out of half a verse (29:6): " . . . And behold Rachel, [Laban's] daughter, is coming with the sheep."
* Sparks of Light: Essays on the Weekly Torah Portions Based on the Philosophy of Rav Kuk, edited by Gideon Weitzman (1999), pp. 43-47.