Sign In Forgot Password

Vayetse – Genesis 29:15-30 – Jonathan Bergwerk

A Jewish Response to the Post Truth Society 

I think it’s fascinating to learn how different individuals practice their Judaism. For some, it’s how meticulously they keep to a set of rules. For others, it’s how they give back to society. For many, its celebrating family life cycle events. Over the last few weeks I’ve been studying with others here how some famous Jews led their lives. We discussed my biblical hero – Judah – who turned around his life when confronted with honest feedback on his moral failings. We debated with Spinoza who put his life in danger, championing freedom and tolerance. We marvelled at Disraeli whose Trump-like ambition to climb the greasy pole left him with power, if few friends. Unfortunately none of these characters had a great family life – just like the people in today’s parashah.

Let’s recap their story. Jacob had agreed to work without pay for 7 years for Uncle Laban in order to win the hand of his daughter Rachel. Laban was happy to exploit Jacob, but on their wedding day he replaced the younger Rachel with her older sister, Leah. Jacob willingly agreed to work for Laban for another 7 years to finally get Rachel. Oddly Jacob didn’t protest at the unfairness of this, perhaps because he was pretty embarrassed to wake up in the morning, only to find out he’d slept with the wrong sister – yet hadn’t even noticed at the time. Laban clearly was a fantastic wedding party organiser!

Now who is the hero and who the villain in this story? Laban is traditionally vilified as he tricked Jacob into marrying Leah. Jacob had indeed been duped, but he was also getting his comeuppance for his past actions. Laban justified prioritising the older over the younger daughter, by making a non-too-subtle dig at Jacob, who had usurped the rights of his older brother, Esau. So Laban is simply meting out poetic justice to Jacob.

The idea of like-for-like punishment is very Biblical. The penalty of “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth” originally meant just that – only later was it changed to monetary compensation. And ‘poetic justice’ is so very satisfying; we all cheer when at Purim we hear about Haman being hung on the very gallows he had prepared for Mordechai.

The second paragraph of the shema (p214 of the siddur) is all about reward and punishment. But can we say this prayer with integrity? In reality, we know that bad things unfortunately do happen to good people. Because of this, about 2200 years ago in the time of the Maccabees, Judaism adapted the idea so that the reward comes in the afterlife.

That reminds me of a story. A man dies. He is walking to court to see if he will go to heaven or hell. He’s passed by a big lorry. He can’t get a lift as it’s weighed down by his sins. He’s passed by a small car with his mitzvot which has plenty of room for him. Arriving at the court, he sees his sins being piled on the scales; his mitzvot are heavily outweighed. Suddenly another lorry approaches. It’s full of all the tsores he’s suffered in his life. God says, put them on the side of the scales with his mitzvot. It’s touch and go which way the scales will go and as the last bag goes on, the scales are in perfect balance. The man turns to God – why didn’t you give me more tsores in my life?!

The medieval philosopher Spinoza didn’t think heaven and hell existed. He thought the people who believe God rewards the virtuous and punishes the wicked live their lives in constant fear of eternal damnation. They were slaves not free people. Back in Genesis, it was also only the worldly life that mattered, but here there is justice. There are masses of examples of people being “hoisted with their own petard”, especially our hero Jacob

  • Jacob acquired his brother’s birthright for a bowl of lentils, but today we read that he couldn’t acquire the woman he loved, even after 7 years hard labour.
  • Jacob posed as his brother to trick Isaac; in turn Leah imitated her sister to trick Jacob
  • Jacob deceived Isaac by wearing a goat’s coat to mimic the skin of Esau. Later Jacob would be deceived when his sons used goat’s blood to persuade him Joseph had died.

Jacob was born holding his brother Esau’s heel, and he turned out to be a ‘heel’, meaning an untrustworthy person. When facing ‘tricky’ situations, he was deceitful and cheated others. People who give themselves permission to lie, often find themselves in a world where no one can be trusted. Jacob ended up friendless and lonely. So did Disraeli. It doesn’t bode well for our post-truth society, where fake news and bigotry trump facts.

If the men in our parashah are hopeless, what about the women? Well its true they both got their man, but they are sisters, and this is forbidden in later Jewish law. Verse 30 says  ָ חֵל מֵּ ִל ָח- א -ֵֶ וַי אֵֶַַָגַם” And he [Jacob] loved also Rachel more than Leah.” This is grammatically impossible. You cannot have a sentence that says, “X also loved Y more than Z.” The “also” and the “more than” contradict one another. The author has used broken syntax to indicate a broken relationship. Leah loved Jacob. Jacob loved Rachel. Rachel loved the children she couldn’t (yet) have. No-one loved each other. And despite Jacob loving Rachel more than Leah, it was two of Leah’s sons Judah and Levi, who would become the political and religious leaders of the Jews. Ironically, Jacob’s legacy survives today through the unloved Leah.

Rachel will shortly steal her father’s household idols and trick Laban by hiding them in her menstrual clothes. In the process she will unwittingly cause the naïve Jacob to make a vow and she will therefore die in childbirth. Leah had tricked Jacob into marrying her against his wishes. Her punishment was that she was unloved and demeaned. We even carry on ‘punishing’ her today; despite being the older, in the Amidah we prioritise the Princess Rachel over the browbeaten Leah (p222 of the siddur).

So everyone is guilty of trying to trick another and all end up unhappy. The one I have most sympathy for is Leah. Her controlling father made her marry Jacob under false pretences. Despite providing 6 children, her lying husband emotionally bullied her. She ended up a tragic figure, lonely and unappreciated. Both of the, selfish men in her life lacked integrity and didn’t care about her. Their divisiveness and arrogance created disharmony and distrust. They shattered community values and caused conflict. Judaism rightly rejects these people’s values – whether they lived in the Bible or today.

If Spinoza were alive today, he would agree that we need to stand up and be counted. He argued that the prime purpose of religion is to provide a framework for ethical action, for justice and charity. It is our role to be a light unto the nations on how to improve society and fight for values that matter – like freedom, tolerance and respecting differences.

As for like-for-like punishment, Spinoza’s view was that personal reward and punishment cannot be taken literally, nor can we rely on divine justice. Virtue (doing good) is its own reward and vice its own punishment. And going back to the shema, you can see it is largely written in the plural, perhaps meaning that justice applies to society as a whole. If we pollute the world, then nature will respond. If we eat what we like, we will get obese and the incidence of diabetes will increase. If we create an inequitable society then those who have lost out will react at the ballot box – or on the streets.

The last of my famous Jews, Abraham Joshua Heschel said that the appropriate response to divisiveness and lying, is a religious one of protest. If we don’t do something then our society will suffer. Heschel was an inspiration to many and put into action his idealism by…. Oh dear. My 10 minutes sermon time is up. But luckily you can find out more about him by coming along to shul at 7.45 this coming Wednesday evening. Shabbat Shalom

Jonathan Bergwerk


Tue, 20 October 2020 2 Cheshvan 5781