“What’s the Code?” Parashat Vayetze 5776

In Parashat Vayetze the Children of Avraham are upgraded from a “family” to a “nation”. While Avraham and Yitzchak each have only one son with their respective matriarchs, Sarah and Rivka, Yaakov has twelve sons: Leah has six, and Rachel and the two handmaidens have two each. Rachel is the last to bear Yaakov children. After years of being barren and praying for children, Hashem finally grants her wish [Bereishit 30:22]: “Hashem remembered Rachel, and Hashem listened to her, and He opened her womb.”

What was it that Hashem “remembered”? Why did Rachel suddenly become pregnant? Was it something she had done or had some pre-destined time arrived? Rashi addresses our question, explaining that Rachel finally conceived in return for a good deed that she had done. What was this good deed? According to Rashi, “[Hashem] remembered that she gave over the code to her sister [Leah]”. Rashi is referring to a Midrash found in Tractate Megilla [13b] that tells the story of Yaakov and Rachel’s wedding. Yaakov had fallen in love with Rachel from the moment he first saw her. He asks her father, Lavan, for her hand in marriage and Lavan agrees. But first Yaakov must tend Lavan’s sheep for seven years. Yaakov agrees and the years quickly pass. Lavan, an accomplished liar and cheat, swindles Yaakov and instead of giving him Rachel he marries off her sister, Leah. Yaakov does not realize that he has been had and he spends the entire evening believing that he has married Rachel.

The next day Yaakov discovers to his chagrin that he has married the wrong woman [Bereishit 29:25]: “And it came to pass in the morning, and behold [he discovered that] she was Leah! Then [Yaakov] said to Lavan, ‘What have you done to me? Did I not work with you for Rachel? Why have you deceived me?’” Lavan gives Yaakov a phony answer regarding local customs and then he “agrees” to let Yaakov marry Rachel as long as he tends Lavan’s sheep for another seven years. Yaakov agrees and one week later Lavan gives him Rachel’s hand in marriage. How did Yaakov not know that he had married Leah until the next morning? The Talmud explains that Yaakov and Rachel knew that there was a good chance that Lavan would want to trick him in order to get seven additional years of free labour. To forestall such a possibility, they made up a code (simanim). Rachel would give Yaakov the code and he would know that it was her. When Rachel discovered that it was Leah who was being married off to Yaakov, instead of setting up Leah to take the fall, as she had planned, she gave Leah the code in order not to embarrass her. In reward for her actions, Hashem blessed her with a child.

While Rachel’s giving Leah the code is undoubtedly a selfless act, why would Hashem reward Rachel with a child because of something she had done years earlier? Why did she have to wait so long for her reward? My wife, Tova, explained this to me in no uncertain terms. Before Rachel becomes pregnant, Leah’s son, Reuven, finds mandrakes in the field. Mandrakes were known to have some kind of aphrodisiac or fertility-enhancing property Rachel asks of Leah [Bereishit 30:14] “Please give me some of your son’s mandrakes”. Leah’s response is as fierce as it is unexpected. She answers Rachel [Bereishit 30:15] “Is it not enough that you have taken my husband, that [you wish] also to take my son’s mandrakes?” How does Rachel respond? Excuse me? I stole your husband? The only reason he became your husband is because I let it happen! But Rachel says nothing. She swallows her pride. In return for this supreme sacrifice she is blessed with a child. She holds her tongue, even when she could have been forgiven for chastising Leah for her callousness, and so it was a fitting time to reward her for her wedding-day kindness.

While the story of the code is known by pretty much every Jewish child, an intellectually honest adult will admit that it is full of holes. Let’s assume that Leah was wearing a thick veil during the wedding ceremony so that Yaakov could not see her face. Wouldn’t she remove the veil after the ceremony? Even if she took off her veil, say, in the women’s room, outside of Yaakov’s view, so that during the wedding party Yaakov would still not know who he married, wouldn’t the ruse eventually be discovered when they went to consummate the marriage? Halacha gives great credence to a person’s ability to recognize the voice[1] of another person, so even in a dark room Yaakov should have known he was with the wrong woman. One Midrash asserts that Rachel hid under their bed and that she did all the talking, but this is difficult to accept.

Rav Yaakov Back Reischer, writing in the “Iyun Yaakov”, sheds some light on our imbroglio by explaining how Rachel would have used the codes had she wanted to do so: She would have told her father before the wedding that she and Yaakov had a foolproof method to prevent him from substituting Leah in her place. Lavan’s plan would have been thwarted right there, and he would have had to marry off Rachel as intended. She didn’t even need real codes. She only needed the threat of the codes. Yet she chose not to talk to Lavan and he went through with the switch. Why did Rachel let Leah marry Yaakov when her prevention of the wedding would have hurt no-one? The answer to this question can be found in another Midrash, which teaches that Leah was convinced that Rachel was destined to marry Yaakov and that she, Leah, was destined to marry Esav. Just the thought of marrying Esav gave Leah panic attacks. I suggest that Rachel thought that Leah’s fear was logical and that the only way to prevent Leah from marrying Esav was to get her married to Yaakov. Rachel does this by not telling Lavan about the codes.

I know what you’re thinking: What? This is not what we were taught as children! Say what you will, but this explanation fits in very nicely with the Rashi that we quoted earlier. Explaining why Rachel suddenly merited a child, Rashi offers a second answer: “[Rachel] was troubled lest she fall into Esav’s lot if Yaakov divorced her because she had no children. The wicked Esav also got that idea when he heard that she had no children.” Rachel did not use the codes because she wanted to prevent Leah from marrying Esav. When it became possible that she herself might end up marrying Esav, it was time to reward her with a child.

The Rosh HaShanah mussaf amida consists of three parts: Malchuyot, Zichronot, and Shofarot. In Zichronot we ask Hashem to remember our good deeds and to bless us with a good year. We do this by quoting ten verses from the Tanach. One of the verses we quote comes from Parashat Noach [Bereishit 8:1]: “Hashem remembered Noach and all the animals that were with him in the ark, and Hashem caused a wind to pass over the earth and the waters subsided”. One verse that is missing from the ten verses is our verse from Parashat Vayetze: “Hashem remembered Rachel”. Why is Noach in while Rachel is out?

Why did Hashem remember Noach? Why did He stop the rain and give the earth another chance? What did Noach do to deserve being present at the dawn of Earth 2.0? The answer is “nothing”. Many medieval commentators refer to the verse in which Hashem says to Noach [Bereishit 6:18] “I will set up My covenant with you, and you shall come into the ark, you and your sons, and your wife and your sons’ wives with you”. Noach wasn’t saved because of anything he did, but because Hashem, for whatever the reason[2], had chosen to enter into a covenant with him. Why did Hashem remember Rachel? He remembered her because of a superhuman action that she performed, not once, but twice. We cannot be expected to maintain that kind of spiritual level and so we do not mention her deeds. However, Rachel is not left entirely out of the equation. When we ask Hashem for a “good year”, we are asking Him to disregard our misdeeds and to bless us simply because of our lineage. Hashem, while we might not always act like Rachel, we will always remain her children. And as her children, please bless us with a year of health, happiness and peace.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5776

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka, Yechiel ben Shprintza, and Shaul Chaim ben Tziviya

[1] This is called “Teviat eina d’kala”, see Talmud Tractate Gittin [23a].

[2] We discussed in two earlier shiurim this year that while Hashem calls Noach “righteous”, it is not at all clear what Noach did to deserve the title.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five 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", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. 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 2001 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.