Five Rashis a Week, Vayetzei: Death, Fear, and the Company of the Wicked

A project in memory of Baruch Leib Hakohen ben Mordechai Yidel ve-Dobba Chaya

Although I usually find five separate Rashis, three times in this week’s parsha, Rashi references the Talmudic tradition (Nedarim 64b) that four people are considered like they have passed away. Each of Rashi’s comments offers lessons to consider. After we see those, we can discuss Ya’akov’s fear and the impact that evildoers have on the righteous.

The God of Yitzchak

First, in 28;13, Rashi points out that when Hashem appears to Ya’akov in a dream, He refers to Himself (pardon the gendered pronoun) as the God of Yitzchak. This contradicts Scripture’s general practice of refraining from declaring Hashem to be someone’s divinity during their lifetime, based on Iyov 15;15, that Hashem can’t fully trust even the most holy people.

Berachot 29a gives a practical example justifying this hesitance, telling us that Yochanan the High Priest served faithfully and well for eighty years, and then became a Saduccee! The lesson is that the best of us cannot be complacent, cannot allow ourselves to think we are beyond temptation, that our gains in working to improve ourselves are locked in. We should always recognize the possibility of backsliding, fear it, and guard against it.

Death on Earth, the Blind

Yitzchak’s blindness was the difference in his case. Rashi’s explanation of why a blind person is considered as if they are dead is that Yitzchak’s eyes were dimmed, he was imprisoned in the house (he had no way to get around), and his evil inclination stopped.

That makes several assumptions not in the Talmud. He thinks the aspect of blindness that matters is not being able to get around, not being able to participate in the world. Losing one’s sight doesn’t make a person dead, it’s that that leads to their withdrawing from the world. That implies both that any blind person who continues an active life is not whom the Gemara meant, and that anyone who becomes a shut-in, for whatever reason, is.

He also assumes that being a shut-in leads to the cessation of one’s evil inclination, which is not obviously true today.

Whether that’s fully or only partially true, Rashi is reading that Gemara as telling us that part of being alive is interacting with others, partaking of life at large, and that those who are lose that (in this case by blindness, but it seems to apply to anyone no longer involved in life) are less alive in a real sense.

Rashi doesn’t say it, but it seems to me also plausible that this isn’t all or nothing. Partial withdrawing from life might be a partial death.

Poverty as Death

The next place Rashi brings up life circumstances as a kind of death is in 29;11, where Ya’akov meets Rachel and begins to cry. One of the reasons Rashi offers for this reaction is that Ya’akov was embarrassed/upset that he came with nothing. That happened, in this tradition, because Esav sent his son Eliphaz to chase and kill Ya’akov on his way out of town.

Eliphaz, having grown up with Yitzchak as a grandfather, had compassion on his uncle, but felt obligated by his father’s command as well. Ya’akov gave him all his possessions, since a poor person is considered as if they are dead. Eliphaz’s filial allegiance assuaged, he left.

In what sense is Ya’akov dead? He can’t give Rachel gifts, but he finds a wife (four, actually), and works his way back to financial stability, even wealth. My answer is that, while he’s poor, his horizons are much narrowed. All he can do is find a job that includes room and board; had he not found a relative, he might have had to work those seven years just for room and board, not a wife as well. Even with a relative, it’s not until fourteen years of hard labor that he begins to build personal wealth. Until then he is, basically, Lavan’s indentured servant.

It didn’t matter that much to Ya’akov, since he was hiding from Esav anyway. For others, being tied to the search for sustenance is a sort of death, since it restricts our lives to that which was supposed to be easy, freeing us for more important matters. When circumstances coerce a narrowed life, it’s a kind of death as compared to the fullness of life Hashem wanted for us.

Childlessness as Death

In 30;1, Rachel complains to Ya’akov about her barrenness, and says that if she doesn’t have children, מתה אנכי. That can translate as “I will die,” but Rashi sees it as ratifying the idea that one who has no children is (as if they are) dead. In what way? The narrowest way to read it is that we are put here on this earth to procreate (the Mishnah objects to leaving men or women halachically unable to be married, since we are on this world to procreate), so that a person who has failed at that has failed at their central purpose, and is as if they are dead.

There’s much to be said about that (such as the possibility that adoption and/or surrogacy change that); in our times, the most salient point, I think, is that we should not confuse the importance of childbearing with that being the whole of life. It’s not that having children is all we need to be alive, it’s that we’re not alive if we’re not involved in that.

Too often today, people make that the lodestar of their lives,  and if they’ve had children and grandchildren, see their lives as full (some seem satisfied with the physical act of having had children, not even making sure they’re well raised; my point is there’s life beyond even well-raised children and grandchildren).

Death comes in many varieties, Rashi shows us. There’s the death of being forced (or, sadly, sometimes choosing) to withdraw from active life; of being forced (or, sadly, sometimes choosing) to live with financially constrained horizons; and there’s the death of being forced (or, sadly, sometimes choosing) to not do our share to produce the world’s next generations.

A reminder that we should hope for life, not death, in its fullest sense or any of these partial senses.

Ya’akov’s Fear

When Ya’akov wakes from the dream, 28;17, the verse refers to him as being afraid. Years ago, I heard Dr. Avivah Zornberg speak about his worries about his children; I don’t remember exactly what she said and what’s my own additions, but she made me aware of fear as a more prevalent aspect of Ya’akov’s life than of the other Avot.

As Rashi tells us in 28;21, Ya’akov believed that he had to have Hashem’s Name attach to his family from beginning to end, that no blemish would be found among his children. When Yosef disappears, 37;38, Ya’akov rejects all comfort, and Rashi explains, Midrashically, that Ya’akov had been told by Hashem that if none of his children died in his lifetime, he was assured he would not see Gehinnom (loosely, hell or purgatory).

What she brought home to me was the difference in the burden of responsibility Ya’akov felt when raising his children. Their other challenges aside, Avraham and Yitzchak were able to watch one of their sons go in a different direction without it challenging their legacy. While Avraham was concerned with Yishmael’s spiritual welfare, and relieved when he returned to his father’s path, the years he was distant did not call into question Avraham’s contribution to the world. Similarly, Yitzchak might have hoped to include Esav in the nation, but the realization that Hashem had different plans was disappointing, not a tearing down of all he had worked for.

Ya’akov, Rashi seems to show us, walked through life knowing he had to bring together all his sons into one nation, despite their great differences. The disappearance of Yosef (and then Shimon, and the threat to Binyamin) brought more than the pain any parent feels on losing a child. It brought the pain of proof that he had failed at one of his central life tasks.

That would make any of us afraid.

The Company of Evildoers

In 31;3, Hashem tells Ya’akov to return to Canaan, and He will be with him. We might have read that as simple reassurance that Hashem will protect Ya’akov in this new journey and return to his land, but Rashi adds an element.  He says that Hashem is contrasting that to Ya’akov’s current situation where, because of his connection with the impure Lavan, it’s impossible for the Divine Presence to rest on him.

Declaring something impossible for Hashem is always worth pursuing, but we don’t have room here. Instead, I note, first, that Rashi had seen a similar dynamic in 13;14, where Hashem comes to speak to Avraham after Lot had separated from him. Rashi commented that as long as the evildoer was with him, the Divine Speech stayed away.

Second, in 31;24, Lavan tells Ya’akov that Hashem had warned him against speaking ill or good. The ill we understand, but why shouldn’t Lavan speak good (or well) to Ya’akov? Rashi answers that the good of evildoers is bad for the righteous.

It is an element of the interaction between good and evil to which we pay insufficient attention. Rashi doesn’t say Avraham was affected by Lot, or that Lot decreased Avraham’s righteousness; a Rashi in next week’s parsha has Ya’akov explicitly say his adherence to Hashem’s Will was undiminished in Lavan’s home. Yet both Avraham and Ya’akov did suffer a lessening (or withdrawal) of Hashem’s Presence. And what evildoers honestly think of as good, what they might offer as a sincere gift or help, is bad from the perspective of the righteous.

Because the gap between good and evil isn’t only that the evil choose what’s bad—it’s that evil people have such a wrong view of the world, such a misunderstanding, that even what they sincerely think of as good is bad in the truer light. And their presence pushes away the Divine Presence. Rashi is telling us that we have to take into account the places we live and the people with whom we associate, when have a choice, because they will affect us even when they don’t seem to affect us.

We started with blindness and withdrawal from the world as a kind of death, and we close with the recognition that interactions with evildoers aren’t that much better.  It’s a narrow bridge, being involved with the world, but trying to avoid the damage of living and working with those whom Hashem defines as evil.

Ya’akov shows us the attempt to walk that bridge, with as little fear as possible.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.