Sacrificing for the Self-Respect of Another

by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – Novemeber 11, 2010

We read in the beginning of the Torah section of Vayetze, “Jacob departed from Beer-sheva and went towards Haran” (Bereshit 28:10).  Jacob leaves his parents to go to his uncle Lavan, in order to escape his evil brother Esav as well as to find a wife among his uncle’s daughters, as per his parents’ advice.

Along his journey, Jacob is blessed by G-d Who tells him, “You shall spread out powerfully westward, eastward, northward and southward and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and by your offspring” (Bereshit 28:14).  Shortly afterwards, while Jacob is speaking with locals to get directions to his uncle, “Rachel had arrived with the flock belonging to her father [Lavan]” (Bereshit 29:9), Jacob is enraptured by Rachel, and Jacob accompanies her to his uncle.  “And Jacob loved Rachel, and he said [to Lavan], ‘I will work for you seven years for Rachel your younger daughter’” (Bereshit 29:18).

Once Jacob’s seven years of labor are complete, he prepares for Lavan to fulfill his part of the bargain, only to find that his uncle deceives him, making a “switch”, replacing Jacob’s intended with her older sister Leah.  “So he said to Lavan, ‘What is this you have done to me?  Was it not for Rachel that I worked for you?  Why have you deceived me?’ Lavan said, ‘Such is not done in our place, to give the younger before the elder.  Complete the week of this one and we will give you the other one too, for the work which you will perform for me yet another seven years’.  So Jacob did so and he completed the week for her and he gave him Rachel his daughter to him as a wife…and he worked for him yet another seven years” (Bereshit 29:25-30).  After completing his end of the deal, Jacob is deceived by Lavan.  Jacob confronts his uncle and is given some flippant response, after which Jacob agrees to work yet another seven years for the right to Rachel’s hand in marriage.

The question arises as to why Jacob does not argue his case further.  Whatever custom Lavan may have had was not specified at the time of the original agreement.  If he did have such a custom, he must have known of it then and he should not have agreed to giving Rachel from the beginning.  Once Lavan agreed, then “a deal is a deal.”  Jacob could have been magnanimous and agreed to keep Leah, whom he never asked for, but why should he agree to more years of labor?  He already performed the agreed upon labor for Rachel!

An answer to the aforementioned question has been cited in the name of R. David Feinstein.  The reason Jacob agreed to this new proposition by his deceptive uncle was to preserve Leah’s feeling of self-respect.  If Jacob would take Rachel for the original seven years of labor, whereas Leah would just be thrown in as a free bonus, Leah’s self-worth would not be very high – to say the least.  For Rachel, Jacob would have worked seven long years, while Leah would be just an after-thought.

Jacob did not hesitate to stand up to Lavan, as seen especially later when he leaves Lavan and Lavan catches up with him.  Moreover, he has no reason to fear his uncle after being blessed personally by none other than G-d Himself.  Jacob could have pressed his case further, but instead submitted to Lavan in order not to devastate Leah.  Had he stood up for his rights, he would have received Leah as part of a 1 + 1 sale.  That is alright for buying an inanimate object in the supermarket or department store.  It is a whole different matter when dealing with a fellow human being and his or her human emotions.  Jacob could not humiliate Leah by making her the “get one free” wife in a special “buy one, get one free” sale.

R. Feinstein emphasized that we see from here that it is worth giving up seven years of one’s life so that another person not feel humiliated.  How much more so when the stakes are much less, when the cost of preserving another’s self-respect is relatively minor?  So often, we forego another’s feelings when it means even a small sacrifice on our part.  Jacob’s actions should be a lesson for us in respecting others and caring about their feelings.  It is worth sacrificing one’s own comfort and pleasure for the self-respect of another.