The Division of the Torah into Parsheyot
The Chumash is divided into sections – parsheyot. Generally, a blank space in the Torah scroll separates parsheyot from one another. In most cases, the blank space is created by beginning a parasha on a new line. However, in a few cases, a new parasha begins in the middle of a line and a blank space is inserted in the middle of a line to separate the parsheyot. 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 VaYetzai from the preceding Parshat Toldot.
Rabbaynu Yosef ibn Kaspi explains the significance of these two different methods of separating parsheyot. He explains that the 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 this ideal manner. In these instances, the new parasha begins on a new line of the Torah. However, in some cases, it is impossible to adhere to this ideal and in order 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. At the end of Parshat Toldot, Yaakov obeys the directive of his parents, Yitzchak and Rivkah, and leaves his home for Haran. Parshat VaYetze begins with a description of his journey to Haran. For this reason, the new parasha begins and Parshat Toldot ends on the same line.
Yaakov’s Disapproval of Leyah
These passages introduce the rivalry between Rachel and Leyah. 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 Leyah. Later, the Torah states that Yaakov despised Leyah. Second, why did Yaakov dislike Leyah? Third, why did Hashem intervene of Leyah’s behalf and cause her to conceive? Finally, how did Leyah’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 Leyah. The term used in the Torah to describe Yaakov’s attitude towards Leyah is that she was s’nuah. This term can be translated as “despised”. However, it can also indicate a relative indifference. In this instance, the term s’nuah is used is this second sense. In other words, the Torah is not telling us that Yaakov hated Leyah. It is saying that he favored Rachel and was relatively indifferent towards Leyah. 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 beloved, the second is a s’nuah. The s’nuah has a son and later, 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 Leyah. This preference existed even prior to their marriage. However, beyond this innocent partiality, Yaakov actually had negative feelings towards Leyah. Lavan had secretly substituted her for Rachel. This deception had required Leyah’s complicity. Yaakov felt that Leyah had acted dishonestly towards him.
Nachmanides explains that Yaakov was wrong in his assessment of Leyah. She recognized Yaakov’s righteousness. She wanted to marry this tzadik. This was her sole motivation for participating in Lavan’s deception. This explains Hashem’s response to Leyah’s plight. Hashem knows the inner motivations of every human being. He recognized that Yaakov had misjudged Leyah and did not recognize her her sincerity. Hashem responded by granting Leyah children and withholding them from Rachel.
Rabbaynu Ovadia 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 Leyah’s complicity in Lavan’s deception. Yaakov observed that his marriage to Leyah was not followed by her conceiving. He suspected that Leyah 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. Leyah did not marry Yaakov in order to capture a husband. She recognized Yaakov’s unique righteousness. Hashem responded to Leyah’s predicament. She had been misjudged. He granted Leyah a son. This proved that she had not been barren. Yaakov’s suspicions were disproved. The cause for his negative feelings was removed.
Rachel and Leyah’s Bargain over the Mandrakes
In these pesukim, Rachel and Leyah argue over the mandrakes collected by Leyah’s son, Reuven. Ultimately, Rachel agrees to exchange her night with Yaakov for the flowers. On the superficial level, this episode depicts Rachel and Leyah as petty individuals. Rachel is willing to exchange the companionship of her husband for a few flowers. However, through more fully understanding this incident, we can appreciate that it actually reflects the piety of Rachel and Leyah. The Torah acknowledges their righteousness in the next few pesukim. Both Rachel and Leyah were rewarded with children.
Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno explains that the exchange between Rachel and Leyah was not over a few flowers. These flowers had a very important significance to Rachel and Leyah. It was widely believed that mandrakes could be used as a fertility drug. Both Rachel and Leyah were determined to serve as mothers of the Tribes of Israel. Each saw, in these flowers, an opportunity to further this aim. Rachel was willing to temporarily give up the companionship of the husband she loved in order to ultimately achieve fertility. Hashem rewarded the endeavors of Rachel and Leyah through granting them the children for which they yearned.
Yaakov and Lavan’s Dispute Over a Shephard’s Responsibilities
At the end of the parasha, Yaakov confronts Lavan over his dishonesty. He contrasts Lavan’s ethics with his own. Yaakov served Lavan as a faithful shepherd. He fulfilled his duties diligently. In contrast, Lavan arbitrarily changed Yaakov’s compensation. He also held Yaakov responsible for all losses to his flocks. This included losses that were beyond the control and 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 employer’s flock from smaller animals. However, the shepherd cannot be expected to drive off the marauding attackers or large beasts. Lavan did not distinguish between losses that were preventable and those that were not preventable by his shepherd. He demanded that Yaakov assume responsibility for all losses to his flocks. Also, the shepherd should be held accountable for an animal stolen during the day. However, he cannot reasonably be expected to prevent theft during the night. It is impossible for the shepherd to guard his employer’s flocks every moment. Nonethless, Lavan demanded that Yaakov make restitution for animals stolen at any time, day or night.
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 even before they were delineated by the Torah. Yaakov referred to these conventional 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 preexisted the Torah and 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.
 Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 30:14.
 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.