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Wednesday, 22 November, 2017 - 7:00 pm

Bill received a hospital bill for his surgery, and was astonished to see a $900 charge for the anesthesiologist. He called the doctor’s office to demand an explanation.

"Is this some kind of mistake?" he asked the doctor.

"No, not at all," the doctor said calmly.

"That's awfully costly for just knocking someone out!"

"Not at all," replied the doctor. “I knock you out for free. The $900 is for bringing you back around.”

This week’s Torah portion, Vayetzei, says that Jacob was tricked into marrying Leah. Yearning for her husband’s love, she gave her first four children names representing this hope. In the meantime, Rachel, his first and most beloved choice, was infertile. The Torah relates: And Rachel saw that she had not borne any children to Jacob, and Rachel envied her sister, and she said to Jacob, "Give me children, and if not, I am dead." And Jacob became angry with Rachel, and he said, "Am I instead of God, Who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?"

Jacob’s response seems painfully insensitive and uncharacteristic of their affectionate bond. He was in love with Rachel. He labored for seven years to gain her hand in marriage. The Torah states three times that he loved her; no other marriage in the Torah merits such a description. Many decades later, before his own passing, Jacob told his son Joseph: “When I returned from Padan, Rachel died on me.” He never forgot her and their special, loving relationship. Yet when his beloved life-partner expressed her agony and misery over being childless, instead of empathy, her husband responded with rage.

The pain of a woman yearning to be blessed with a child is one of the deepest pains. Rachel compared it to death. How could Jacob be so insensitive to her plight? This was the woman of his dreams!

Any experienced and loving husband knows that even on a good day, when your wife conveys an emotion about something eating her up, the last thing to do is get angry at her. What she wants from you is an attentive ear and a receptive heart. That itself makes her feel better. This goes double if she is expressing her pain over a real and deep wound. Jacob’s response is baffling and disturbing.

A quite fascinating take on this story was presented by one of the outstanding rabbis of Spanish Jewry, Rabbi Yitzchak Arama (c. 1420-1494), author of Akedat Yitzchak:

The first woman was given two names—Eisha, the woman, which is the feminine version of “Eish,” the man. She was so named because originally the first man and woman were one, like Siamese Twins, and then they were separated into two. Her other name is Chava, Eve, which means “the mother of all life.” Why both names? Because every woman, says the Akeida, contains two aspects. The first is “Eisha,” she is a woman. Every woman is a self-contained human being, just like a man, capable of extraordinary accomplishments in her own right. She can attain profound understanding and wisdom; she can cultivate a life of greatness, goodness, piety and even prophecy—just like any man.

In addition to this primary role, the woman was given something else as well: The role of Chava, the extraordinary ability to conceive, develop life, give birth, raise children, and serve as the progenitor of humanity, the mother of life. If a woman is unable, for whatever reason, to have children, she may not be able to fulfill the role of Chava, the task of motherhood; but in no way does this diminish her primary identity, as a self-contained human being, whose value and identity is completely predicated on her own life and deeds. The Akeida suggests that this is why Jacob was angry with Rachel. He felt that Rachel had succumbed to the notion that her entire value and self-worth came from Chavah, and not from Eisha. By defining herself as “dead” due to her infertility, Jacob felt that she was denying herself her role as a human being who could fulfill her destiny and achieve greatness even if she could not bear biological children.

Sure, for a woman who can bear children, there are few things as rewarding, meaningful and life-enhancing. But, Jacob said, it was unfair for Rachel to strip herself of her value and dignity because she lacked that ability.

But there is another interpretation that touches on the heart of faith and the essence of Jacob’s life story. Jacob was not being insensitive to Rachel; on the contrary, he was yearning to ease her agony and change her destiny. This was not an impulsive outburst of rage, but a contemplative gesture of love and caring.

The portion of Vayetzei opens up with the lonely words: “And Jacob left Beer Sheba and went to Haran. And he encountered the place and lodged there because the sun had set… And he had a dream…”

For the first time in his life—not the last—Jacob was alone. His parents had sent him away from home; his brother craved to kill him. He was still single, on a journey to the unknown, to his uncle Laban, where he would encounter some extraordinary new challenges.

“The sun set…” says the Torah, “and he lay down.” This is more than a physical description. It represents a mental state. Jacob encountered the darkness of night, the uncertainty of life, the fragility of his future. The sun had set for him, and he was unsure when dawn would break. 

In the words of the Midrash: Jacob said to himself: “What?! I will give up hope from my Creator? I will never give up hope! My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth!”

But what does this mean? Did Jacob give up hope? Just because he was destitute and penniless, he fell into such despair? This was the man who would carry on the covenant of Abraham and Isaac—did he really forget about G-d? Also, his words seem repetitive: “What? I will give up hope from my Creator? I will never give up hope!” He should have just said: “I will never give up hope!” Why the question and the answer?

There is a very profound message in this Midrash, says the Chidushei Harim. Hope comes when you give up on hope. It is precisely when you realize that nobody can help you, when your vulnerability is completely exposed, when you realize you have no solutions, nobody to lean on, nothing to rely upon, no way out—that is when you really cry out, “From whence will come my salvation?!” That is when you open yourself up the Divine so you can experience G-d in your life. That is when you can discover that “My salvation comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth!” Real faith emerges when you have nothing left but faith.

Jacob’s response to Rachel was meant to renew her hope. He was reminding her that he was not G-d, and could not help her. However, she should still have faith, and when she turned to G-d for salvation, then He would hear her.

A climber fell off a cliff, and as he tumbled down, he caught hold of a small branch.


A majestic voice boomed through the gorge: "I will help you, my son, but first you must have faith in me."

"Yes, yes, I trust you!" cried the man.

"Let go of the branch," boomed the voice.

There was a long pause, and the man shouted up again, "IS THERE ANYONE ELSE UP THERE I COULD TALK TO?"

Until 31, J.K Rowling was a single mom on welfare. Now, she is a British novelist best known as the author of Harry Potter, the best-selling book series in history, which then became the best-selling movie series in history.

When she was shopping it out, she was so poor she couldn’t afford a computer or even the cost of photocopying the 90,000-word novel, so she manually typed out each version to send to publishers. It was rejected dozens of times until finally Bloomsbury, a small London publisher, gave it a second chance after the CEO’s eight year-old daughter fell in love with it. 

Rowling said, “Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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