Ari Sacher

‘Radio Silence’ Parashat Vayetze 5782

Jacob flees from the wrath of his brother, Esav, whose blessing he has just appropriated under false pretences. He hides out in Paddan-Aram at the home of his uncle Lavan. After falling in love with Lavan’s daughter, Rachel, Jacob agrees to work for Lavan for seven years in order to marry her. When Lavan swindles Jacob by switching his older daughter, Leah, for Rachel, Jacob agrees to work for Lavan for an additional seven years. Immediately after Jacob extends his terms of employment, he enters radio silence. Over the next seven years, he speaks only once. Only after his son, Joseph, is born, does he finally break radio silence, informing Lavan that his Aramean foray has come to an end [Bereishit 30:25]: “After Rachel had borne Joseph, Jacob said to Lavan, ‘Let me return to my place and to my land.’” Rabbi Shmuel ben Moshe, known as the Rashbam, who lived in France in the twelfth century, explains that Joseph was born at the very end of Jacob’s second seven-year labour agreement and as the contract with Lavan had concluded, Jacob was now free to leave[1].

Not only is Jacob’s communication blackout unanticipated, his sustained silence is nothing less than bizarre. Jacob loves Rachel more than he does Leah and to compensate for the inequity, G-d blesses only Leah with children. Apparently Jacob does not hide his feelings from Leah because she gives her first three sons names that openly air her troubled relationship with her husband. She calls her first child Reuven, saying [Bereishit 29:32] “G-d has seen (ra’ah) my affliction and now my husband will love me.” She calls her second child Shimon, saying [Bereishit 29:33] “G-d heard (shama) that I was unloved and has given me this [son] also”. She names her third son Levi, saying [Bereishit 29:34] “This time my husband will become attached (yila’veh) to me, for I have borne him three sons.” Leah’s pathos is raw. All she desires is love and affection. Even so, how could Jacob permit his sons to be given names that eternalized his own insensitivity to his wife’s needs? And yet, he says nothing.

After Leah bears Jacob four sons, Rachel concludes that her troubles bearing children are the fault of Jacob. She pleads with him [Bereishit 30:1] “Give me children, or I shall die.” He becomes incensed with her and he retorts[2] [Bereishit 30:2] “Can I take the place of G-d, Who has denied you fruit of the womb?” Rachel orders Jacob to marry her handmaiden, Bilhah, so that Bilhah’s children will become Rachel’s surrogate children. Jacob apparently does nothing other than nod his head because the Torah continues [Bereishit 30:4]: “So [Rachel] gave him her maid, Bilhah, as concubine and Jacob cohabited with her.” Compare Jacob’s response to Rachel’s plan with Abraham’s response to Sarah when she suggests that he take her handmaiden, Hagar, as a wife [Bereishit 16:2-3]: “[Abraham] heeded [Sarah’s] request. So [Sarah]… gave [Hagar] to her husband [Abraham] as a wife”. Whereas Abraham first approves Sarah’s proposal and then marries Hagar, Jacob simply “cohabits” with Bilhah. Abraham is an active participant in Sarah’s plan while Jacob is entirely passive. He says nothing.

When Bilhah bears Rachel two sons, Leah, suspecting that her child-bearing years are behind her, [Bereishit 30:9] “gives her handmaiden, Zilpah, to Jacob as a wife”. Again, Jacob plays the part of silent bystander. When Zilpah bears a child, Leah says [Bereishit 30:11] “Bagad” and then calls her son Gad. Rashi, the most eminent of the medieval commentators, the grandfather of the Rashbam, who lived in France in the eleventh century, proposes three different explanations for the Hebrew word “bagad”. In his third explanation, Rashi proposes that “bagad” should be interpreted literally – “unfaithful” – as if to say “[Jacob] proved faithless to me when [he] married my handmaiden[3]”. And yet, he says nothing.

Rachel sees an opportunity to bear children when Reuven finds mandrakes in the field. Rachel begs Leah for her son’s mandrakes and Leah agrees under the condition that Jacob sleep with her that evening instead of with Rachel. When Jacob returns home from a long day at the office, he is greeted by Leah, who tells him [Bereishit 30:16] “You are to sleep with me, for I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes.” Jacob obediently follows Leah into her tent. He says absolutely nothing.

During his seven years of radio silence, Jacob had numerous opportunities to say something, to object, to steer the ship, and yet he chooses silence. His behavior flies in the face of everything we have come to know about him. This was the same Jacob that conned his brother out of his first-born rites and his blessing, who used genetics to win Lavan’s entire fortune (which was tied up in livestock), and who wrestled with and defeated an unknown assailant in the middle of the night. Jacob is not a man who sits silently on the sidelines as history is made by others. When Jacob is not given what he rightly deserves, he uses all of his resources to take what he needs. Except for those seven years. Why?

We can gain insight if we look at Isaac’s words as he sends Jacob to Paddan-Aram [Bereishit 28:2-4] “Up, go to Paddan-Aram, to the house of Bethuel, your mother’s father, and take a wife there from among the daughters of Lavan, your mother’s brother. May G-d bless you, make you fertile and numerous, so that you become an assembly of peoples. May He grant the blessing of Abraham to you and your offspring, that you may possess the land where you are sojourning, which G-d assigned to Abraham”. Isaac, as Jacob’s Commanding Officer, has defined Jacob’s mission: First Jacob was to relocate to Paddan-Aram. Then he was to marry and raise a family. After building a family, he could then complete his mission by returning to possess the Land of Israel. Understanding Jacob’s mission shines new light on Jacob’s request to leave Paddan-Aram: “Give me leave to go back to my place (mekomi) and to my land (artzi)”. Jacob’s use of the word “land” is clear – he is referring to the Land of Canaan – but what does he mean by his “place”? To answer this question, we must travel forward in time by about three hundred years. Jethro, the father-in-law of Moshe, floors a plan to create courts that will reduce Moshe’s judicial burden. He promises Moshe that if he implements this plan [Shemot 18:23] “all these people will go to their place (mekomo) unwearied”. Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, who served as the Rabbi of Prague in the early seventeenth century, writes in his “Kli Yakar” that a Jew’s “personal place” is in the Land of Israel, his homeland and his destiny. Jacob knows where his mission ends. He also knows when it ends – after he becomes “an assembly of peoples”. When Rachel, the woman he had always intended to marry, bears Jacob her first child, he understands that he has reached this milestone and that he is now ready to possess his homeland.

One of the things we liked the most about living in Australia was the news, or, rather, the lack of it. In Israel, people tune into the news every hour. There is always something afoot: a coalition crisis, rockets from Gaza, violence in Arab towns, and the latest and greatest – collusion on food prices. We found that Australian news spent an inordinate amount of time on the weather and surf conditions. The one time that the Australian news came anywhere close to the ferocity of the Israeli news was when a U.S. Marine accidentally shot an emu during a joint military exercise in northern Queensland. The Australian tranquillity made us jealous. Jacob would not have been jealous. He would have understood that today, we in Israel are on a mission: we are rebuilding our nation and our homeland. Our progress will not be monotonic. We will suffer our fair share of adversity and setbacks. But if we understand that we are working together towards a goal that has been Divinely predicted and ordained, than we can face that adversity with grit. Jacob’s silence was not a sign of his weakness but of his strength. May it be G-d’s Will that our silence be turned into rejoicing [Isaiah 51:3]: “G-d has consoled Zion, consoled its ruins… He has made her wilderness like paradise… Joy and happiness shall abide there, thanksgiving and a voice of song.”

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5782

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Eli bat Ilana, and Geisha bat Sara.

[1] Jacob stays with Lavan for another six years in which he relieves Lavan of his wealth.

[2] This is the only sentence uttered by Jacob during his “silent years”.

[3] One can imagine Jacob being asked as to the source of his sons’ names. “Well, it’s kind of complicated…”

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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