The Greatest Achievement
In this week's Parsha, it's time for Jacob to get married, so he sets off to Uncle Laban's house to find a wife. When Jacob arrives and meets his cousin Rachel, he decides that this is the one for him! Jacob is so enthralled with the shidduch ("match"), that he agrees to work for Uncle Laban a full seven years before earning the right to marry Rachel. In fact, the Torah reports that Jacob's excitement was so great that the seven years "seemed to him like only a few days" (Genesis 29:20).
The appointed day finally arrives, and Laban invites the entire town to the wedding festivities. Everyone is celebrating. Everyone except for Rachel's older sister Leah, who has remained single with her fate undecided. Jacob, not known to be naive (recall how he cleverly wrested the birthright away from his brother Esau), suspects that Laban might covertly try to marry off his older daughter Leah that night instead!
Since the bride wears a veil covering her face, Jacob arranges a "secret password" ― in order to guarantee that it will in fact be his beloved Rachel under the Chuppah!
So what happens? Hundreds of guests have arrived. The caterer, band and photographer are all ready and positioned. Jacob stands expectantly under the Chuppah and... here comes the bride! Because she is veiled, nobody knows that Laban had pulled the old switcheroo ― and it's really Leah at the Chuppah!
So what would we expect to happen next? When the bride arrives under the Chuppah, Jacob would turn to her and say, "OK, tell me the secret password." And Leah stands there dumbfounded. The ruse is confirmed! Jacob lifts the veil and reveals Laban's deceit. The crowd gasps. Disgraced, Leah runs from the room crying.
But that's not the way it worked out. Instead, when Leah arrived under the Chuppah, she gave the correct password. Why? Because Rachel told her sister what to say. Rachel knew what a terrible embarrassment Leah would suffer if the ruse were to be revealed at that moment. So in order to spare her sister embarrassment, Rachel was actually willing to give up the husband for whom she'd waited patiently for seven years! (see Talmud, Megillah 13b)
Imagine yourself engaged to be married, but due to circumstances you must schedule the wedding seven years in advance. Finally the great day arrives. Could anything stop you from going through with it? Would you consider giving it all up to spare another human being from humiliation!?
Rachel achieved greatness because she was willing to do just that.
The Torah has built-in laws to safeguard the principle of not embarrassing anyone:
- Offerings brought for serious transgressions are processed in the same location in the Temple as other offerings. The Talmud (Sotah 32b) explains that in this way, onlookers are not able to specifically identify those who are bringing sin offerings (Leviticus 6:18).
- Similarly, when a person confesses his sins (as we do on Yom Kippur), it should be done in a way that is not audible to others.
- In the laws of damages, one person can sue another not only for physical damages, but for emotional distress as well ― and specifically for the pain of embarrassment! (see Maimonides, Laws of Damages 3:1, 3:7)
- Maimonides, in listing the levels of charity, says one of the highest degrees is when neither the giver or the receiver knows each other's identity. This minimizes any embarrassment the poor person may feel.
- In the story of Bilaam and his talking donkey, an angel slays the donkey. Why? So that people wouldn't point to the donkey and say, "That's what caused Bilaam's downfall" ― a continuing source of embarrassment to Bilaam. The Torah even demands sensitivity to an evil person! (Numbers 22:33 with Rashi, Midrash Bamidbar Rabba).
- When an individual is called up to the Torah for an Aliyah, the law is that he should publicly chant the verses himself. However, since many are unable to read properly, the Sages mandated that one person be appointed to read for everyone, in order to avoid embarrassment for those who cannot read for themselves.
- The Talmud goes so far as to say that embarrassing another publicly is comparable to murder. This is because when someone blushes, blood first rushes to the spot, causing the face to turn red, and then the blood drains, causing the face to turn white. "Draining another's blood" is an act which resembles murder. On a deeper level, embarrassment can "kill" a person emotionally.
The following account appears in the Midrash (Genesis Rabba 82:10 and Pesikta Eichah Rabbasi 24):
Why did Jacob bury Rachel alongside the road in Bethlehem, and not in Hebron like the other matriarchs? Because he foresaw that in the future the Jews would pass by Bethlehem on their way to being exiled. Jacob wished that Rachel would sense their anguish and pray for them.
It happened 1,000 years later that the Jews put an idol into the Holy Temple, and God sought to destroy the Temple forever. The souls of each of the forefathers and foremothers pleaded to God to spare the Jews from permanent exile. In exchange for God's promise, they offered all their merits: their faith, their devotion and their self-sacrifice. Abraham tried to prevail over God in the merit of having brought monotheism to the world. But God said that would not suffice. Then Isaac pleaded with God in the merit of his willingness to be sacrificed on Mount Moriah. But that too was rejected as insufficient. Jacob, Moses and others presented their merits. But none would suffice.
Rachel's soul then presented itself before God. "Master of the Universe," she began, "I waited seven years to marry my beloved Jacob. When the time of the wedding finally arrived, my father schemed to switch me with Leah. I realized that she would be put to shame if the scheme were uncovered, so I had compassion and gave her the password. I overcame my own feelings and was not jealous. I allowed a competitor into my home. So if I was able to do it, God, then all the more so You too should not be exacting of the idol ― the competitor in Your home."
Immediately, God's compassion was aroused. He said, "Don't cry over the exile, Rachel, because for your sake I will return the children of Israel in the future to their homeland once again." (see Jeremiah, Chapter 31)
Plain Folk, Great Deeds
In the secular world, it is typically only the "big" achievements that get attention. World leaders, movie stars and business tycoons are splashed on magazine covers and glorified as symbols of power and influence.
But that's not reality. Because if you ask 100 people, "Who was the greatest influence in your life?" chances are none will mention an Olympic gold medallist or the President of the United States. Rather, parents and teachers have molded and shaped who we are. Not because of any dramatic, life-changing discoveries. But because they demonstrated care and compassion, day in and day out. And this is the lesson God is teaching us by accepting Rachel's prayer above all the others.
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the leader of 20th century American Jewry, was picked up by a student to take him to an appointment. The driver helped Rabbi Feinstein into the car, and then closed the door. Upon arriving to his destination, Rabbi Feinstein was greeted by another student who noticed that his hand was crushed and bleeding. "What happened?" he asked. Rabbi Feinstein explained: "The driver closed my hand in the door, but I didn't say anything so not to embarrass him."
In life, we can inherit many things from our ancestors: Medical conditions, hair color, money. In Judaism we say we inherit spiritual DNA as well. When Rachel and others exhibit character beyond the bounds of human expectation, that is ingrained for all eternity. Metaphysically, that genetic coding is bequeathed to each of us, giving us the innate potential to rise to those heights. We possess a great power ― of loyalty, sincerity, and true concern for others. Our task is to actualize that into reality.
Rabbi Shraga Simmons