Rabbi Bernie Fox

The Transition in Leadership from Yitzchak to Yaakov

And Yaakov kissed Rachel and he raised his voice and cried.  (Sefer Beresheit 29:11)

Yaakov’s arrival to Charan

Yaakov flees from his father’s home to escape the anger of his brother Esav.  He travels to Charan to seek refuge in the home of his mother’s brother, Lavan.  After a long, dangerous journey he arrives at the outskirts of Charan.  He comes to the well shared by the shepherds of the vicinity.  The shepherds have gathered their flocks in the area of the well but have not yet begun to water their flocks.  The opening of the well is covered by a large stone.  Only when all of the shepherds have gathered can they together remove the huge stone and water their flocks.  Yaakov inquires of the gathered shepherds regarding his uncle, Lavan.  They affirm that they know Lavan and tell Yaakov that Lavan’s daughter is approaching with her father’s flock. Yaakov goes to the well, single-handedly rolls off the large stone that covers its opening, and waters Lavan’s flock.  He kisses his cousin Rachel and cries.  He introduces himself and Rachel quickly departs and relates to her father the news of Yaakov’s arrival.

Yaakov’s reaction to meeting Rachel

The commentators offer a number of explanations for Yaakov’s tearful response to his first encounter with Rachel.  Rabbaynu David Kimchi’s (RaDaK) explanation is perhaps the simplest.  He explains that Yaakov’s tears were an expression of his joy evoked by finally rejoining family.  Yaakov had come to the completion of a long, dangerous, and lonely journey.  Finally, he was reunited with family.  He was overcome by a sense of relief and the intensity of his feeling was expressed in his tears.  

Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno rejects RaDaK’s assumption that Yaakov’s tears were an expression of happiness.  He suggests that these tears reflect a sudden and intense sadness.  Yaakov had not considered marriage while living in his father’s home.  Like his father Yitzchak, he rejected the option of marrying a woman from the people of the Land of Cana’an.  His many years spent in his father’s home had postponed entry into marriage and creating a family.  In meeting his cousin – whom he regarded as a suitable partner with whom to build a family – he realized that he would now be able to embark upon this next stage of his life.  Certainly, he rejoiced in the anticipation of building his own family.  However, he also felt a deep sadness over the delay he had endured. His embrace of Rachel expressed his joy.  His tears gave voice to his sadness.

Rashi agrees with Sforno that Yaakov’s tears were an expression of sadness.  He suggests various explanations for Yaakov’s gloom.  The simplest of these explanations is that Yaakov had arrived at Charan virtually destitute.  He had come to Charan to escape his brother but also anticipating that he would marry and build a family.  Now, he was in Charan, safe from his brother.  He had met his cousin Rachel, a wonderful woman who might be the perfect partner.  However, he lacked any means of winning the hand of his bride or for beginning and supporting a family.

And Yaakov loved Rachel and he said: I will work for you for seven years for Rachel, your younger daughter.  (Sefer Beresheit 29:18)

Yaakov’s poverty.

Rashi attributes Yaakov’s tears to his destitution.  The commentators argue with Rashi over whether this is the proper explanation for Yaakov’s gloom.  However, they must accept Rashi’s contention that Yaakov arrived at Charan without financial resources. This conclusion is evident from the passages.

Lavan and Yaakov enter into a business relationship.  Yaakov agrees to take charge of Lavan’s flocks.  They negotiate Yaakov’s compensation.  Yaakov agrees to work for Lavan for seven years in exchange for Rachel’s hand in marriage.  It is apparent from this arrangement that Yaakov did not have the means to secure Lavan’s agreement to the marriage.  Therefore, he was compelled to secure Lavan’s acquiescence through his seven years of service.  In other words, this agreement confirms Rashi’s conclusion that Yaakov came to Charan without significant financial resources.  He had nothing of substance to offer for Rachel other than his labor.  Why did Yaakov arrive at Charan without any resources?  This issue is disputed by the commentators and Sages.

The cause of Yaakov’s poverty

Chizkuni offers the simplest explanation.  Yaakov was forced to leave his father’s home in great haste.  He was fleeing from his brother Esav.  Rabbaynu Yosef Bechor Shur elaborates on this explanation.  In order to escape without Esav’s detection, Yaakov left quickly and quietly.  He had neither the time or option of carefully planning his journey or properly provisioning himself for a new life in Charan.   

Rashi agrees that Yaakov arrived at Charan bereft of any resources.  However, he provides a different explanation of the circumstances.  Yaakov prepared himself for his journey before his departure.  However, Esav sent his son Elifaz in pursuit of Yaakov with orders to kill him.  Elifaz overtook Yaakov.  However, he had a very close relationship with his uncle Yaakov.  He was trapped between his love for his uncle and his obedience to his father’s command.  Yaakov suggested a subterfuge that would allow Elifaz to report to his father that he had fulfilled his mission but allow him to spare Yaakov.  Yaakov gave to Elifaz all of his possessions.  He explained to Elifaz that the destitute person – in a sense – is dead.  Through taking from Yaakov his possessions, Elifaz could report to his father that Yaakov had died at his hands.

The Midrash blames Yitzchak for Yaakov’s poverty

The Midrash offers one of the most interesting comments on Yaakov’s meager resources.  In order to understand the Midrash’s comments it is helpful to consider an earlier incident.  The Torah relates that Avraham sent his servant Eliezer to Charan to select a suitable wife for Yitzchak.  He sent Eliezer on this mission with a caravan of valuables.  RaDak explains that Avraham realized that substantial inducement would be required to persuade a potential bride and her family to agree to a marriage with a man in a foreign land.  Avraham knew that a demonstration of his great wealth would provide Eliezer with the inducement required to complete his mission.  The potential bride and her family would examine the caravan and would be overwhelmed by the wealth it implied.  Their resistance to marriage would be transformed into eager desire for the union.

The Midrash focuses on the contrast between Avraham’s carefully designed strategy and Yitzchak’s directions to Yaakov.  Avraham sent Eliezer on his mission with every conceivable advantage.  Yitzchak sent Yaakov to Charan without any resources.  Eliezer arrived in Charan representing a desirable suitor.  Yaakov arrived destitute, was compelled to explain his poverty, and then work for seven years to secure his chosen wife.  The Midrash concludes that Yaakov was punished for his neglect.  He was deprived of prophecy.

This explanation presents two problems.  First, it faults Yitzchak for his behavior toward Yaakov.  However, it provides no suggestion of why Yitzchak acted with apparent neglect.  Second, it identifies the punishment that Yitzchak received.  However, the punishment seems arbitrary.  The Midrash does offer an explanation of the relationship between the punishment and the sin to which it corresponds.

Perhaps, the Midrash’s comments can be understood if we assume that the punishment does correspond with the sin and then evaluate what sin is implied by the punishment.  In other words, we know that there is a correspondence between Hashem’s punishment and the sin that it addresses.  Therefore, consideration of the punishment provides insight into the sin to which it corresponds.  The Midrash explains that Yitzchak was punished by being deprived of prophecy.  What does this reveal regarding his sin?

Understanding Yitzchak’s motives

On a superficial level, one might suggest that Yitzchak deprived his son of the resources he needed at this time.  Therefore, he was deprived of the gift which was most precious to himself – his prophetic vision.  However, the Midrash may be suggesting a deeper insight into Yitzchak’s behavior.  

The Torah describes the events leading-up to Yaakov’s departure from his father’s home.  Yitzchak had reached old age and sensed that death was approaching.  He summoned his son Esav in order to transmit to him a final blessing.  Yaakov substituted himself for Esav and secured the blessing.  Directly before his departure, Yitzchak summoned Yaakov and bestowed upon him a second blessing.  He appointed him as the guardian of the spiritual legacy that he has inherited from his own father.  The sense communicated by these events is that Yitzchak was withdrawing from his role as humanity’s spiritual guide and pioneer.  He was passing on leadership to the next generation.  Avraham had passed his legacy and role to Yitzchak and now Yitzchak was repeating this process of transmission with his son.  However, there is a significant difference between Avraham’s and Yitzchak’s actions.  The Torah tells us that when Avraham transmitted his role to Yitzchak, he did so unequivocally and without qualification.  He even transferred to Yitzchak all of his worldly possessions.  Yitzchak did not transfer his wealth.  What does this suggest about Yitzchak’s attitude toward the transition?  It suggests some degree of ambivalence.  Yitzchak realized that the time had come for him to step back and relinquish his role to Yaakov.  He responded by transmitting to him the blessings.  However, he did not complete the transition.

Yitzchak’s punishment

As a consequence, Yitzchak was punished.  The punishment perfectly reflects the sin.  Yitzchak could not relinquish his role as spiritual leader of humanity.  As a consequence, the prophetic capacity that was essential to his role was taken from him and bestowed upon Yaakov.  Yaakov leaves his father’s home and immediately he is granted his first prophecy.