Project Genesis

Reuben, Son of Jacob

Question: Our grandson will be named Reuven at his Circumcision on Friday. Please give me some information about Jacob’s son, Reuben. I do not believe there are any other Reubens in the Bible. Is this correct? I graduated from a day school and I do attend Shabbat services every week, so I am looking more for commentary than written text.

Answer: The Rabbis say that the name Reuvain is an acronym for the Hebrew words “Reuh Bain”, which means “see what is between.” In other words, Reuben’s mother Leah named him prophetically saying, “See the difference between my son and my father-in-law’s son.” Her Father-in-Law son, Esau, was jealous of his bother Jacob for taking the rights of the first born. Reuben, on the other hand, was not jealous when Joseph was awarded the rights of the first born by Jacob. (Joseph was Rachel’s first born while Reuben was Leah’s first born. Rachel was Jacob’s primary wife.) This lack of jealousy was displayed when Reuben suggested to his brothers that they shouldn’t kill Joseph and had them temporarily leave him in a pit. This was all part of his attmempt to save him from the brothers. Obviously Leah didn’t know all of this at the time of birth but rather had a prophecy without having a clear understanding at the time of what it would be.

Reuben also switched Jacob’s bed from Bilha’s tent to Leah’s, after Rachel died. The Torah says that he slept with Bilhah, but the Rabbis of the Talmud explain that they didn’t have actual relations. Rather, Reuben’s switching of Jacob’s bed was akin to disturbing his intimate life. The Rabbis say that Reuben wasn’t wrong in what he did. He felt that while Rachel may be more important in the marriage than Leah, Rachel’s maiden Bilhah shouldn’t be. He was defending Leah’s honor. Thus he wasn’t sinful.

Rabbi Meir Goldberg,

Jacob’s Ladder

Question: What is the Rabbinical interpretation of the procession of angels ascending Jacob’s Ladder and other angels then descending the ladder in Jacob’s dream?

Answer: The commentary of Rashi explains that the angels going up were the angels of the land of Israel taking leave of Jacob, while the one’s coming down were the angels of the Diaspora coming to welcome him.

Ramban’s (Nachmanides) commentary explains that G-d was showing him that regular people didn’t have direct divine providence by G-d, rather G-d watches them with angels. So angels were going up as if to tell G-d what is happening here, and coming down to do His will, as it were. G-d however, was on top of this ladder to show that Jacob was so great that G-d would watch him directly without angels in between them.

Rabbi Meir Goldberg

“And Jacob Kissed Rachel”

Question: When Jacob met Rachel by the well, he kissed her and told her who he was (Genesis 29:11-12). I understand that our forefathers kept all of the commandments. How could Jacob be involved in an act that seems so immodest?

Answer: I too was (and to some extent remain) troubled by Jacob’s kiss of Rachel. It seems difficult to reconcile the incongruity of Jacob, our holy forefather, kissing a single young woman—even one destined to be his wife.

I believe there are a number of angles to addressing this question:

Indeed, as you mention, our Sages note that our forefathers kept the entire Torah. However, it seems that there was a fundamental difference in Torah observance between before and after it was given on Mount Sinai. Once the Torah was given to the Jewish people on Mount Sinai, the act became more important than the intent. Meaning, that even if someone today believes with all his might that the best way for him to serve God would be to transgress a commandment, the “act” takes precedence, and thus one may not abrogate even one iota from the Torah—no matter how holy one’s intentions. However, before the Torah was formally given to the Jewish people, the intention, at times, superseded the act. In other words, if a forefather (who, obviously, lived prior to the Sinaitic experience) believed that his mission necessitated the transgression of a commandment, he could use his discretion, albeit sparingly, to violate the law. In reality, it was not a violation of the law, for the intent became the law in such an instance. Thus, it may be understood that Jacob’s kissing of Rachel was in some way part of his Divine service.  (more…)

Rachel and the Idols

Question: A few questions about Genesis, Chapter 31:19 and 31:34: Why did Rachel keep her father’s idols? Why didn’t she throw them away before or after Laban caught up with her family? Was her early death related to this, and the curse that Jacob gave to the one who had the idols? I learned that if a person doesn’t deserve the curse it will never be fulfilled. Why didn’t she tell Jacob about the idols, at least after his curse so Jacob could revoke his words. Jacob was punished here as well by losing Rachel. Why?

Answer: Thank you for your very interesting question. Some parts of it are hard to answer completely. We don’t know very well what these idols were or what their value was; there are a number of opinions. The commentary of Rashi says that Rachel took them to help her father, to pull him away from idol worship. The Midrash says that the idols were eventually buried in the city of Shechem.

One place you might want to look for clues is to study the parallel incident with Rachel’s son Benjamin later. He also was accused of stealing. There also, his peers said that the one found with the stolen object was deserving of death. Now in Benjamin’s case, the object was a divining cup. It could therefore be that Rachel felt she couldn’t just throw the idols away. If they had similar abilities to the cup, Rachel may have felt that the only safe thing to do was to keep them away from her father.

Your point about a curse not being fulfilled unless it is deserved is quite correct.
Our sages say it in the Talmud in Tractate Makos 11a. (See there the contrast with “the curse of a sage”, which is always based on some level of reality.) Indeed, we can see this idea from the two incidents I compared. Benjamin, who was completely innocent, was completely unharmed. On the other hand, Rachel would not have died just for the theft – she had good intentions – but the theft created an opening for Jacob’s curse to take effect.

As you point out, Jacob surely did not want Rachel to die. However, in the Torah words are incredibly powerful, more so the words of someone like our father Jacob. I expect he did find out about what she did, but I don’t know that he could take his words back once they were spoken. Once a thought has become real to the extent of being verbalized (Numbers 20:3 “You must carry out whatever has come out of your mouth“), it is harder to remove its reality.

Best wishes,
Michoel Reach

The Story of Eliezer and Rebecca

Question: In the Torah portion of Chayei Sarah the story of Eliezer and Rivkah (Rebecca) is written twice. What are the differences and why is Eliezer’s name not mentioned?

Answer: Hi! Thank you for these interesting and important questions, which I struggle with as well; I can only offer suggestions.

The story of Eliezer and Rivka isn’t really told twice. Things are described once as they happen, then again when Eliezer reports them to Rivka’s family. The Torah is including the full transcript of Eliezer’s report.

The Torah can’t usually write out every single event that happens. It picks out the very most important points. The Torah has a different way that it usually uses to fill in the details; it’s called the Oral Torah, or the Midrash. The story could have been very brief in the Written Torah, with all the other details left for the Midrash.

G-d chose not to write Eliezer’s story that way. Our sages say, Even the casual conversation of the servants of the Patriarchs are better than the Torah of their children. Apparently these details are very precious. Eliezer was an extremely important person. I expect that is because Abraham was an extremely important person, and Eliezer made himself a central part of Abraham’s life.

As to the differences between the two accounts, you have to look at them one at a time. Some may have to do with Eliezer’s purposes in how best to present things to Rivka’s family. Others might have to do with Eliezer’s own attitude toward things. There are commentaries that discuss various differences.

It is really interesting that Eliezer’s name isn’t mentioned. I’m assuming it has to do with his total commitment to his master’s goals. He is always called either the “servant of Avraham” or “the man” (it’s also interesting to see which one he is called when). Note that he even repeatedly calls G-d himself “Hashem – the G-d of my master Abraham”.

Best wishes,
Michoel Reach

Why Pray for Sodom and Not Isaac?

Question: I just finished reading the Torah portion of Vayera, and I am left with a question about it. We learn that Abraham pleaded for the town of Sodom to great lengths; however, in regards to his own son Isaac, he appears to accept this more willingly, what is the Talmud’s position on this?

Answer: Great Question. In fact many of the commentaries ask the same one.

The common answer is that Sodom was a punishment and Abraham hoped to save them and hoped they would repent through the help of the righteous that remained. They were estranged from the service of G-d and Abraham was trying to bring them closer. 

The binding of Isaac was not a punishment, rather a command from G-d for service and dedication – mercy was not the issue. It was a litmus test to see how dedicated and close Abraham was to G-d.

All the Best, Rabbi Zvi Holland

Lot’s Wife and Salt

Question: Why was Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt? Why salt of all things?

Answer: The classical Midrash commentary teaches that when Lot insisted on serving the visiting angels, his wife did not want to go along with it. She even informed the neighbors that they had guests—an offense to Sodomite law—and that she needed to borrow some salt. Measure for measure she was turned into salt.

All the Best,
Rabbi Azriel Schreiber

Lot Goes to Sodom

Question: If Abraham knew that Sodom was such a bad place why did he allow his nephew Lot to go there? Also why is it that the Torah uses such a phrase as “separate from me” instead of just go that way and I will go this way?
Answer: Lot is a grown man, and does not listen to what his uncle Abraham tells him. When they separate, Avraham says ‘If you go right, I will go left, if you go left I will go right’.

The commentary of Targum Onkelos translates as ‘If you go north I will go south..’. In other words, Abraham, as man of prayer, was standing on the mountain range which runs down the center of Israel. He suggested that they both remain on the mountain – a place which requires prayer for rain and which fosters a close connection to G-d. Lot, however, went east, down from the mountain to Sodom. he wasn’t interested in the closeness with G-d, but rather wanted to have the physical comforts of the plain.

This is the reason that the Torah describes Lot as ‘separating’ from Abraham – he gave up on his relationship with Abraham, and at the same time his relationship with G-d.

Rabbi David Sedley


Abraham’s Circumcision

Question: If Abraham kept all the laws of the Torah and even the one that the Rabbis gave us later why didn’t wasn’t he circumcised until 100 years old?

Answer: You’re asking a really interesting question. There are a number of reasons why Abraham waited. One simple one is that a bris milah (circumcision) can only be done once. If he had done it earlier on his own, it would have been too late to do the mitzvah (commandment) properly when he was commanded.

The truth is, though, that this particular mitzvah doesn’t make sense to do on one’s own. I don’t claim to understand all mitzvos, but many of them have a clear purpose in and of themselves. We do a mitzvah when we don’t steal, but it is also a very good idea in terms of society’s property rights. Not marrying one’s relatives is another mitzvah, but it also serves a very important purpose in framing how a family functions. So Abraham would naturally want to do these mitzvos even before being commanded; they are the “best” thing to do!

The mitzvah of bris milah, though, in addition to other purposes, is also a “bris”, a covenant. This particular mitzvah creates a bond of love between Israel and our G-d. Now, that’s not the kind of thing you can do on your own. For instance, I could offer marriage to my wife, but we’re not married until she agrees and goes ahead with it. So too with bris milah – Abraham couldn’t make a unilateral covenant. He had to wait until he was invited.

Best wishes,
Michoel Reach


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