These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Vayetze: Recognizing the Needs of Others

Posted on December 8, 2016 by Elana Rothenberg

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As part of a diverse community at Pardes, and an even greater multifaceted community within Israel at large, I am constantly intrigued at the different ways others, whom I might otherwise consider so similar to myself, view and interact with the world. At Pardes, coming together as one community each day to learn and exist in a space together is full of possibilities to bring ourselves into the Beit Midrash and create a beautiful community.

This process is not without its challenges of course. Conflicts may seep in based on religious beliefs and observance, cultural background, and even how we relate interpersonally.  How does a community work to recognize our diversity and our differing needs? In Parshat Vayetze, I find a compelling model.

In our Torah Portion this week, Yaakov, our forefather has worked for seven years to marry his love, Rachel. From my read, Rachel is anticipating this marriage as well. However Yaakov is duped into marrying Rachel’s older sister Leah, by Laban, their father. Our text states in Bereishit, chapter 29 verse 25:

And it came to pass in the morning that, behold, it was Leah; and he said to Laban, What have you done to me? Didn’t I serve you in exchange for Rachel? Why have you tricked me?!

Rashi asks what many of us might if we take a moment with this line. What do you mean in the morning it came to pass? Yaakov just spent the night with Leah! Okay maybe there isn’t great lighting.. But how could he not notice that he married Leah after pining after Rachel for seven years?!

Rashi shares an explanation. Yaakov failed to recognize that it was Leah because he had given Rachel secret signs so that they could recognize each other at all times.

When Rachel sees that her sister is being brought to Yaakov for the marriage ceremony, not herself, she thinks “My sister may now be put to shame”— and therefore Rachel quickly transmits these signs to Leah in order that Yaakov will not know what is happening and her sister will not risk public rebuke.

At this point in the story, Rachel is thinking to herself that she has a strong need and desire to marry Yaakov. After seven years of getting to know each other, learning to love each other and growing closer, she feels that this is her next step.

However, right before her eyes, she sees that her sister is potentially about to be discovered and shamed, a stain from which Leah might not recover in this time period. What should she do? Is it possible for Rachel to fulfill both needs? She acknowledges deeply her care and dedication to the dignity of her sister, but does not want to let go of her need for support, love, care and children.

One might think that by telling Leah all of the secrets to the inner workings of her relationship with Yaakov that Rachel is forgoing the future that she imagined for herself. However, this is never how I read the story.

Despite knowing her own needs, Rachel recognizes the need of her sister and acts instinctively. Rachel sees the inherent need for the dignity of her sister and feels as there is no other choice than to help her. She does not forget about the dream life that she has planned with Yaakov for herself.  Instead, she pushes it aside, with the faith that she will still be able to fulfill it for herself somewhere, somehow. Recognizing the need of another does not eliminate her own needs and desires and therefore, the eventual fulfillment of her own deserved necessities is still a legitimate possibility.

The process of learning of a need that is so vital to the identity of another which could be in conflict with a need that is so core to our own identity is a challenging one. When taking a step back, though, Rachel sees the possibilities of how they may exist simultaneously.

I look to Rachel as an example that I must do the work of acknowledging and understanding my own needs as well as those of others. Both of which may at times seemingly be in conflict with each other. The ability for creative, solution oriented thinking is only possible after understanding all the needs at play.

My bracha for each of us, individually and as a community, is the clarity to understand our own needs and hold those in our hearts as we hear, hold and recognize the needs of others.

Elana Rothenberg