“The Great Deception”
by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald
In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeitzei, we learn how Laban deceived Jacob by giving him Leah, his older daughter, to be Jacob’s wife, instead of Rachel, whom Jacob truly loved and wished to marry.
It is a well-known axiom that the Torah operates on the basis of מִדָּה כְּנֶגֶד מִדָּה, measure for measure. G-d metes out equal and proportional punishment to fit the evil deed that was perpetrated. Jacob, of course, had deceived his own father by disguising himself as Esau and stealing his older brother’s blessing. Now, the greatest con-man of the ancient Near East, Jacob’s future father-in-law, Laban, deceives Jacob by switching brides on him on the very night of his betrothal.
The principle of “measure for measure” retribution is found in the book of Genesis on numerous occasions. As was mentioned previously, Jacob deceives his father, Isaac, by masquerading as Esau, placing goat skin on his hands to make him appear hairy like his brother. Joseph’s brothers deceive their father Jacob by dipping Joseph’s coat of many colors into the blood of a goat and presenting it to Jacob, who identifies it as his son’s coat, and deems Joseph dead.
Judah, who suggests that Joseph be sold to the Egyptians, sends Joseph’s coat of many colors, dipped in the blood of a goat, to his father Jacob, to deceive Jacob into thinking that Joseph had been devoured by a wild animal. Judah himself is deceived when he arranges to pay the harlot (in reality, his daughter-in-law, Tamar) with a goat, but she is nowhere to be found. Judah is eventually forced to admit that he is the father of the twin sons that Tamar bears.
Back to the story. After working seven years for Rachel’s hand in marriage, Jacob demands that Laban fulfill the agreement, and that Laban deliver his wife to him.
The Torah reports, in Genesis 29:22, וַיֶּאֱסֹף לָבָן אֶת כָּל אַנְשֵׁי הַמָּקוֹם, וַיַּעַשׂ מִשְׁתֶּה, Laban gathered all the people of the place and made a feast. The Malbim maintains that Laban assembled all the people as a way of reassuring Jacob that he is acting honestly, since there could be no trickery in the presence of so many people.
The Midrash maintains that the reason Laban assembled all the people is because Laban knew that Jacob’s presence among them was the reason that the economy of Haran had improved so remarkably. As soon as Jacob arrived, the drought ended and the wells were now brimming over, due to the merit of Jacob.
Laban therefore gathered all the people together to tell them of his plan to substitute Leah for Rachel, and, in this way, force Jacob to spend another seven years in Haran before he could marry his beloved Rachel.
Laban, the master con-man, devised a clever ruse to trick Jacob into thinking that he was really marrying Rachel. He switched the handmaidens of Rachel and Leah, giving Zilpah, who was really Rachel’s handmaiden to Leah, in order to deceive Jacob into thinking that he was marrying Rachel that night.
The actual moment of deception, is described by scripture, in Genesis 29:23, וַיְהִי בָעֶרֶב, וַיִּקַּח אֶת לֵאָה בִתּוֹ, וַיָּבֵא אֹתָהּ אֵלָיו, וַיָּבֹא אֵלֶיהָ, It was in the evening that he [Laban] took Leah his daughter and brought her to him [Jacob] and he came in onto her.
The word, וַיְהִי, “Vah’y’hee,” (and it came to pass), as in many instances in scripture, indicates that there is trouble ahead. The fact that the verse states, וַיִּקַּח אֶת לֵאָה, that he, Laban, took Leah his daughter, suggests that Laban forced Leah to go through with the deception against her will. The rabbis explain that when Jacob consummated the marriage with Leah, it was in the darkness of the night, as the laws of modesty require, so he did not recognize that it was Leah and not Rachel.
When Jacob awakens in the morning, and discovers that he had been with Leah, he cries out to Laban (Genesis 29:25), “What have you done to me?! Is it not for Rachel that I worked for you? Why have you deceived me?!”
Laban’s response is blunt and powerful, Genesis 29:26, וַיֹּאמֶר לָבָן, לֹא יֵעָשֶׂה כֵן בִּמְקוֹמֵנוּ, לָתֵת הַצְּעִירָה לִפְנֵי הַבְּכִירָה, in our place [Haran] it is not done to give the younger before the firstborn!
The Ma’ah’say Hashem, suggests that Laban uses the Hebrew word בְּכִירָה, meaning “firstborn,” rather than “elder,” as a way of belittling Jacob for deceiving his own brother Esau. “Perhaps in your place such things are done, that the younger takes precedence over the firstborn; that his portion is taken away and given to another, and that the younger is given the status of firstborn. But such things are not done in our place, to give the younger before the firstborn!”
It is fascinating to note that in many instances, deceptions ultimately lead to salvation. Tamar gives birth to twins, Perez and Zerah. Perez becomes the progenitor of King David and ultimately, the Messiah. Joseph is sold by his brothers to Egypt. That deception eventually results in great salvation when Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams and advises Pharaoh how to save millions of people from starvation. While the sale of Joseph leads to the enslavement of the Jewish people in Egypt, it also leads to the redemption from Egypt and the revelation at Mount Sinai.
But what silver lining is there to Laban’s deception of Jacob, by giving him Leah instead of Rachel?
The rabbis in the Midrash ask how was it possible for Jacob not to recognize that the two sisters had been switched and that Jacob was with Leah instead of Rachel?
The Midrash in Eicha Rabba suggests that Rachel had become aware of Laban’s plan to switch her with her sister, and informed Jacob of the planned deception. She gave Jacob a sign by which Jacob would be able, in the darkness of the night, to distinguish between her and her sister, Leah. However, when Rachel saw that Leah had been substituted, she had pity on her sister, and disclosed the secret signal to Leah, so that Jacob would think that Leah was really Rachel. Rachel even hid in the bridal chamber and answered whenever Jacob spoke to her, so that Jacob would not recognize Leah’s voice.
What then is the saving grace of this painful chapter in Rachel’s life? The Midrash Eicha says that when the Temple was destroyed, many hundreds of years later, and the People of Israel were exiled, each of the Patriarchs and Moses begged G-d for forgiveness for their sinful descendants for their sake. Each of the noble ancestors related the suffering that they had personally endured without questioning G-d’s justice, but they failed to sway G-d’s mercy.
When the Matriarch Rachel approached the Al-mighty, she reminded Him that on the night of her long-awaited wedding, she disclosed her secret signal to her sister to spare Leah from humiliation. Begging for G-d’s mercy, she concluded: “And if I, a creature of flesh and blood, formed of dust and ashes, was not envious of my rival and did not expose her to shame and contempt, why should You, a King Who lives eternally and is Merciful, be jealous of vain idolatry, and exile my children? You have let them be slain by the sword, and their enemies have done with them as they please!”
Rachel’s words stirred G-d’s mercy. G-d then called out to Rachel, “Withhold your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears; your deeds shall be rewarded…for there is hope for your future. Your children shall return to their own border!” (Jeremiah 31:15).
May you be blessed.