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Jacob’s Contribution to Halacha

What if Genesis Explains Jewish Law?

One of the disadvantages of the way in which people read the Torah is that we often fail to see connections that span the entire text – connections that greatly enrich our understanding of what the document is trying to tell us.

I have written, for example, on how fathers become increasingly interested and involved in their children from Abraham to Jacob to Joseph – and, indeed, how the younger generation that was first rootless (Terach and Avraham) increasingly come, with the sons of Jacob, to choose to live with their fathers. Binding the generations together becomes an essential facet of Jewish life, a necessary precondition for a nation designed to survive and thrive for thousands of years.

But this is not just something that happens in Genesis. The connections span the entirety of the Five Books, and there is much we can learn from them.

“One wife loved, and the other wife hated,” describes Jacob and his wives, in 29 Genesis, and Jacob’s resulting favoritism of Joseph over Reuben. The resulting law, forbidding favoring the son of the loved wife over the firstborn son from the hated wife, appears in Deut. 21. The language of the latter echoes the former, and it is clear that we are instructed to make different choices than Jacob did. It is not hard to explain why that is so – favoring Joseph did not lead to domestic tranquility.

Linguistic parallels provide the signposts for when a law given in the Torah is explained by what happened to our forefathers in Genesis. Some of these signposts, such as “Love ye therefore the stranger; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deut. 10:19)” are explicit. Others are more subtle.

For example, the phrase “when the sun sets” is used only a handful of places in the Torah. The first examples talk about times of dread and fear – Avram’s covenant between the parts (Gen. 15), and the night when Jacob, fleeing from his brother, sleeps and dreams of ladders and angels and blessings from G-d (Gen. 28).

Imagine the scene. Jacob flees, alone and afraid. He has no pillow, so he uses a rock. It is a time of uncertainty – so much so that when Jacob wakes, he makes a vow to G-d, trying to ensure that he has food to eat and a garment to wear.

There is an amazing echo in Deuteronomy, when a commandment is expressly given:

Thou shalt surely restore to him the pledge when the sun sets, that he may sleep in his garment, and bless thee; and it shall be righteousness unto thee before the LORD thy God. (Deut. 24:13 – echoed also at Ex. 22-25)

Jacob took G-d’s rock, and used it to sleep – and then he woke, turned the stone upright to anoint it and mark the spot, and then Jacob blessed G-d, the divine presence that provided a rock for a pillow, inspired and comforted Jacob in his sleep, and then soothed his fears and loneliness. The restoration of a man’s pledge-garment by sunset is connected to G-d’s comforting of Jacob when the sun set, and provision of a rock-pillow. And in both cases, the benefactor is blessed by the man who was able to sleep at night.

(There is another story of a rock and the sun setting at Ex. 17:12, but I’ll save that digression for another time.)

There is much more to this story. When the sun sets, something extraordinary happens. The Torah does not say that the sun rises until, many years later, a returning Jacob, wrestles with the angel. So when Jacob leaves, the the world is cast into metaphorical shadow and doubt (similar to the first time in the Torah when it says that the sun sets, when Avram experiences the Covenant between the Parts). Which means that the sun set on Jacob, and there were many dark years until he returned to the land and the sun rose upon him.

What happened in the meantime? Jacob worked for Laban, a man who changed the pay scale many times, played a switcheroo with brides, and was a genuine scoundrel when it came to fulfilling his pledges. Jacob refers to working “for a week” when he meant a full 7 years – and yet Laban refused to compensate him honestly.

In Deuteronomy “the sun sets” is signposted to tell us that

… You shall give the day laborer his hire before the sun sets. (Deut. 24:15)

We learn from Laban’s mistreatment of Jacob that we must pay as agreed. We are command to pay the day-laborer on time, because a day-laborer is depending on that payment in precisely the same way that Jacob was depending on Laban honoring his pledge.

There are many other examples, of course. All of these help us to understand the “why” of the commandments themselves. But they also show us how the Torah was iterated as a result of the interactions and even partnership between man and G-d. The experiences of our forefathers seem to be clearly linked to the commandments that subsequently became part of Jewish Law.

Comments are welcome!

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