There are so many nuanced messages in this week’s piece, but one line jumped out at me due to a personal experience I once had with Rabbi Sacks. My family and I were privileged to know Lord and Lady Sacks from our time serving as the Community Rabbi and Rebbetzin...Read More
All's Fair In Love and Life
This week’s parsha contains the law that if a man has two wives, each giving him a son, and he loves one more than the other, he is not allowed to choose which son to give the double inheritance of the firstborn. He must give it to the actual firstborn, “for he is the first of his father’s strength”. (Devarim 21:17)
This law seems to conflict with a major narrative in the Torah, namely Yaacov and his two wives, Leah and Rachel. Indeed the Torah, by its use of language, makes unmistakable verbal links between the two passages. One is the pair of opposites, ahuva/senua, “loved” and “unloved/hated.” (Bereishit 29:31)
This is precisely the way the Torah describes Rachel and Leah. The word senua (hated) appears only six times in the Torah, twice in the passage above about Leah, four times in our parsha in connection with the law of the rights of the firstborn.
There is an even stronger connection. The unusual phrase “first of his father’s strength” appears only twice in the Torah, here (“for he is the first of his father’s strength”) and in relation to Reuven, Leah’s firstborn: “Reuven, you are my firstborn, my might and the first of my strength, first in rank and first in power” (Bereishit 49:3).
Because of these parallels, the careful reader must hear in the law in our parsha a commentary on Yaacov’s treatment of his own sons. Yet that conduct seems to have been precisely the opposite of what is legislated here. Yaacov did transfer the right of the firstborn from Reuven, his actual firstborn, son of the less-loved Leah, to Yosef, the firstborn of his beloved Rachel.
What makes the Torah unique is that it is a book about both law (the primary meaning of “Torah”) and history. Elsewhere these are quite different genres. There is law, an answer to the question, “What may we or may we not do?” And there is history, an answer to the question, “What happened?” There is no obvious relationship between these two at all.
Not so in Judaism. In many cases, especially in mishpat, civil law, there is a connection between law and history, between what happened and what we should or should not do.
Not all biblical law is like this, but some is. It represents truth learned through experience, justice as it takes shape through the lessons of history. The Torah takes the past as a guide to the future: often positive but sometimes also negative. Bereishit tells us, among other things, that Yaacov’s favoritism toward Rachel over Leah, and Rachel’s firstborn, Yosef, over Leah’s firstborn, Reuven, was a cause of strife within the family. It almost led the brothers to kill Yosef, and it did lead to their selling him as a slave.
Yaacov did what he did as an expression of love. His feeling for Rachel was overwhelming, as it was for Yosef, her elder son. Love is central to Judaism. But love is not enough. There must also be justice and the impartial application of the law. People must feel that law is on the side of fairness. You cannot build a society on love alone. Love unites, but it also divides. It leaves the less-loved feeling abandoned, neglected, disregarded, “hated” and can lead to envy, violence and revenge.
That is what the Torah is telling us when it links the law in our parasha with the story of Yaacov and his sons in Bereishit. It is teaching us that law is not random. It is rooted in the experience of history. Law is itself a tikkun, a way of putting right what went wrong in the past. We must learn to love; but we must also know the limits of love, and the importance of justice-as-fairness in families as in society.
Judaism is the most effective attempt in history to provide the proper balance between the particular and the universal. It is both. It worships the universal God by way of a particular faith. It believes in a universal connection between God and humanity – we are all in God’s image (Beraishit 1:27), and a particular one “my child, my firstborn, Israel” (Shemot 4:22). It believes in a universal covenant with Noah, and a particular one, with Abraham and later the Israelites. So, it believes in the universality of justice and the particularity of love and the importance of both.
When it comes to the relationship between humans, there is an order of priority. First create justice, then express love. For if we let those priorities be reversed, allowing injustice in the name of love, we will divide and destroy families and groups and we will suffer the consequences for a long time.
A seemingly minor law about inheritance is in fact a major statement of Jewish values. I believe that Judaism got it right by placing love at the heart of the religious life – love of God, neighbor and stranger – but at the same time recognizing that without justice, love will not save us. It may even destroy us.
|Life lessons from the parsha: This parsha marks the second time we are commanded to help if we see someone struggling with a fallen ox on the side of the road. The first verse (in Shemot) refers to “the ox of your enemy” and in this week’s parsha it’s written “the ox of your friend”. Why the switch? The word ahava (love) comes from the root “hav” which means “to give.” As we give to a person, we come to love them. Thus, if we help our enemy with his fallen ox, he will become our friend! Learn more in this week’s Parsha Partner. (Courtesy of Partners in Torah)|