Rabbi Bernard Fox
“And Yaakov went forth from Beer-Shava, and he went to Haran.” (Beresheit 28:10)
The Chumash is divided into section – parsheyot. Generally, a blank space in the Torah separates parsheyot. The various parsheyot are separated by a blank space. In most cases, the blank space is created by beginning a parasha on a new line. However, in a few cases, a blank space is inserted in the middle of a line. In other words, in such instances, one parasha ends, there is a blank space, and the new parasha begins on the same line. This less-common model is used to separate Parshat VaYaetzai from the preceding Parshat Toldot.
Rabbaynu Yosef ibn Kaspi explains the significance of these two different methods of separating parsheyot. Parsheyot are designed as sections of roughly equal length. Ideally, each parasha should be delineated by a change in subject matter. When a new parasha begins, with a change in the topic, the objective of creating sections of roughly equal length is achieved in the ideal manner. In these instances, the new parasha begins on a new line of the Torah. In some cases, it is impossible to adhere to the ideal. To avoid an overly long parasha, a break must be inserted within a single topic. In this less-common case, the new parasha begins on the same line as the previous parasha. The topic of Parshat VaYaetzai is directly related to the end of Parshat Toldot. For this reason, the new parasha begins and Parshat Toldot ends on the same line.
“And he also married Rachel and he loved Rachel more than Leya. He worked with him for another seven years. Hashem saw that Leya was despised. He made her fertile and Rachel was barren.” (Beresheit 29:30-31)
These passages introduce the rivalry between Rachel and Leya. Each sought to be the mother of Yaakov’s children. These passages are difficult to understand. First, the passages seem to be contradictory. Initially, the Torah tells us that Yaakov preferred Rachel over Leya. Later, the Torah states that Yaakov despised Leya. Second, why did Yaakov dislike Leya? Third, why did the Almighty intervene of Leya’s behalf and cause her to conceive? Finally, how did Leya’s fertility earn her Yaakov’s love and appreciation?
Rabbaynu Yonatan ben Uziel offers a simple answer to the first question. He explains that the Torah does not intend to indicate that Yaakov despised Leya. The term used in the Torah to describe Leya is s’nuah. This term can be translated as “despised”. However, it can also indicate a preference. In this instance, the term s’nuah describes a preference. In other words, the Torah is not telling us that Yaakov hated Leya. It is saying that he favored Rachel over Leya. Nachmanides points out another instance in which the term s’nuah is used in this fashion. The Torah describes a man with two wives. One is loved the second is a s’nuah. The s’nuah has a son and then the beloved wife has a son. The son of the s’nuah is the firstborn and is entitled to inherit a double portion of the father’s possessions. The father may not transfer this right to the son of the preferred wife. Nachmanides points out that in this context the Torah is clearly describing a relative preference. One is favored over the other. The term s’nuah refers to the less favored wife. The term does not seem to indicate a despised wife. This supports Rabbaynu Yonatan ben Uziel’s interpretation of our pasuk.
This interpretation answers the first question. However, it does not answer our other questions. Nachmanides offers another approach to these passages. This approach provides a more comprehensive explanation. He begins with the first question. He comments that Yaakov favored Rachel over Leya. This preference existed even prior to their marriage. However, beyond this innocent partiality, Yaakov actually had negative feelings towards Leya. Lavan had secretly substituted her for Rachel. This deception had required Leya’s complicity. Yaakov felt that Leya had acted dishonestly towards him.
Nachmanides explains that Yaakov was wrong in his assessment of Leya. She recognized Yaakov’s righteousness. She wanted to marry this tzadik. This was her sole motivation for participating in Lavan’s deception. This explains the Almighty’s response to Leya’s plight. Hashem knows the inner motivations of every human being. He recognized that Leya was judged harshly and her sincerity was not appreciated. Hashem responded by granting Leya children and refusing Rachel.
Sforno offers the most comprehensive explanation of the pesukim. He begins with the same approach as Nachmanides. But he explains that Yaakov had a specific theory that explained Leya’s complicity in Lavan’s deception. Yaakov observed that his marriage to Leya was not followed by her conceiving. He suspected that Leya was barren. This would account for her cooperation with Lavan. She was afraid that her barren condition might be discovered. She was desperate to marry before this occurred. Therefore, she followed Lavan’s directions and deceived Yaakov.
Of course, this was not the case. Leya did not marry Yaakov in order to capture a husband. She recognized Yaakov’s unique righteousness. Hashem responded to Leya’s predicament. She had been misjudged. He granted Leya a son. This proved that she had not been barren. Yaakov’s suspicions were disproved. The cause for his negative feelings was removed.
“And he placed a distance of three days between himself and between Yaakov. And Yaakov shepherded remaining sheep of Lavan.” (Beresheit 30:36)
Yaakov works for Lavan as a shepherd. He decides that the time has come to leave Lavan. Lavan realizes that his flocks have flourished under Yaakov’s care. He asks Yaakov to remain as his shepherd. Yaakov can specify his own wage. Yaakov asks Lavan to enter into an unusual arrangement. He will tend Lavans’ flocks in exchange for ownership of all spotted or marked lambs and goats born from this day onward. All other sheep and goats will remain Lavan’s. He further tells Lavan to remove from the flock any sheep or goats which have these markings. This will assure that any marked members of the flock were born subsequent to the agreement and are clearly Yaakov’s.
Yaakov’s deal seems odd. He was left with only solid colored sheep and goats. It was likely that they would produce similarly solid colored offspring. How did Yaakov expect this flock to produce the marked offspring that would be his compensation?
It is true that Yaakov initiated a remarkable program that did result in the flock producing marked lambs and goats. However, Yaakov later explained, to his wives, that this plan only succeeded through Hashem’s intervention. It seems unlikely that Yaakov was relying on this intervention when he entered into the agreement with Lavan!
Gershonides explains that our pasuk provides the answer. Yaakov told Lavan to remove the marked animals from the flock. Yaakov wanted to be certain that Lavan would not claim that marked animals born into the flock were not Yaakov’s. Yaakov expected that Lavan would separate these animals from the flock. Lavan might count them and turn them over to the care of his own sons. The two flocks would still graze in the same general area. They would mingle at times. They would breed together. This process would cause solid colored goats and sheep to give birth to spotted offspring. Yaakov would have his compensation.
Lavan did remove the marked animals and handed them over to his sons. However, Lavan then took a further step. He sent these animals to a new location three-days from the main flock. Yaakov had not suggested or anticipated this step. This forced Yaakov to devise his unusual program designed to cause solid animals to produce marked offspring. Yaakov had not originally assumed he would need to resort to extraordinary means to secure his compensation. Lavan’s subterfuge forced Yaakov to devise this plan.
“I never brought you an animal that had been attacked. I took the blame myself. You made me responsible whether it was stolen in the day or by night.” (Berseheit 31:39)
Yaakov confronts Lavan over his dishonesty. He contrasts Lavan’s ethics with his own. Yaakov served Lavan as a shepherd. He fulfilled his duties diligently. In contrast, Lavan arbitrarily changed Yaakov’s compensation. He also held Yaakov responsible for all losses. This included losses that were beyond the responsibility of a shepherd.
Rabbaynu Avraham ben HaRambam explains that Lavan demanded that Yaakov repay him for animals attacked and killed by wild beasts. This is not a reasonable responsibility. A shepherd can justly be held responsible for protecting his flock from smaller animals. However, in some cases the shepherd cannot be expected to drive off the marauding attackers. Lavan did not distinguish.
Second, the shepherd can be held accountable for an animal stolen during the day. However, he cannot reasonably be expected to prevent theft during the night. Lavan demanded that Yaakov make restitution for all stolen animals.
Yaakov clearly maintained that Lavan had required an inappropriate level of accountability from his shepherd. How did Yaakov determine the appropriate standard for a shepherd’s liability? True, the Torah deals with this issue and establishes clear rules for the conduct and responsibility of the shepherd. But the Torah had not yet been revealed. Furthermore, even if Yaakov was aware of the Torah standards, through prophecy, this would not bind Lavan.
Rabbaynu Avraham ben HaRambam deals with this issue. He explains that the standards for a shepherd’s responsibilities pre-existed the Torah. These standards were generally accepted. Yaakov referred to these standards in critiquing Lavan’s ethics. The Torah did not create these standards. Instead, the Torah provided strict legal definition and codification of the existing standards.
Rabbaynu Avraham explains that this is not the only instance in which the Torah codified an existing practice or custom. The practice of yibum also predates the Torah. This practice applies to a married woman, whose husband died without male offspring. The prevalent practice was to require the wife to marry the brother of the deceased. Any children, resulting from the new union, would be regarded as offspring of the deceased. This practice was incorporated into the Torah as a mitzvah. 
This thesis explains another incident in the Torah. Yehudah’s oldest son married Tamar. He died, without children. Yehudah arranged for Onan, his next to eldest son, to marry Tamar. This is was yibum. According to Rabbaynu Avraham it is not necessary to assume that Yehudah was aware of the Torah requirement. Instead, he was following the practice that already existed.
 Rabbaynu Yosef ibn Kaspi, Mishne Kesef, Part 2, Parshat VaYaetzai.
 Sefer Devarim 21:16-17.
 Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 29:30.
 Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 29:31.
 Sefer Beresheit 31:4-12.
 Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1994), p 187.
 Rabbaynu Avraham ben HaRambam, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 31:39.
 Rabbaynu Avraham ben HaRambam, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 31:39
 Sefer Beresheit 38:6-8.