The Limits of Love
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The Parsha in a Nutshell
This summary is adapted from this week’s main Covenant & Conversation essay by Rabbi Sacks, available to read in full via the left sidebar (or below, if you are viewing this on your phone)
This week’s parsha contains the law that if a man has two wives, each giving him a son, and he loves one more than the other, he is not allowed to choose which son to give the double inheritance of the firstborn. He must give it to the actual firstborn, “for he is the first of his father’s strength”.
This law seems to conflict with a major narrative in the Torah, namely Yaacov and his two wives, Leah and Rachel. Indeed the Torah, by its use of language, makes unmistakable verbal links between the two passages. One is the pair of opposites, ahuva/senua, “loved” and “unloved/hated.” This is precisely the way the Torah describes Rachel and Leah. The word senua (hated) appears only six times in the Torah, twice in the passage above about Leah, four times in our parsha in connection with the law of the rights of the firstborn.
There is an even stronger connection. The unusual phrase “first of his father’s strength” appears only twice in the Torah, here (“for he is the first of his father’s strength”) and in relation to Reuven, Leah’s firstborn: “Reuven, you are my firstborn, my might and the first of my strength, first in rank and first in power” (Bereishit 49:3).
Because of these parallels, the careful reader must hear in the law in our parsha a commentary on Yaacov’s treatment of his own sons. Yet that conduct seems to have been precisely the opposite of what is legislated here. Yaacov did transfer the right of the firstborn from Reuven, his actual firstborn, son of the less-loved Leah, to Yosef, the firstborn of his beloved Rachel.
What makes the Torah unique is that it is a book about both law (the primary meaning of “Torah”) and history. Elsewhere these are quite different genres. There is law, an answer to the question, “What may we or may we not do?” And there is history, an answer to the question, “What happened?” There is no obvious relationship between these two at all.
Not so in Judaism. In many cases, especially in mishpat, civil law, there is a connection between law and history, between what happened and what we should or should not do.
Not all biblical law is like this, but some is. It represents truth learned through experience, justice as it takes shape through the lessons of history. The Torah takes the past as a guide to the future: often positive but sometimes also negative. Bereishit tells us, among other things, that Yaacov’s favouritism toward Rachel over Leah, and Rachel’s firstborn, Yosef, over Leah’s firstborn, Reuven, was a cause of strife within the family. It almost led the brothers to kill Yosef, and it did lead to their selling him as a slave.
Yaacov did what he did as an expression of love. His feeling for Rachel was overwhelming, as it was for Yosef, her elder son. Love is central to Judaism. But love is not enough. There must also be justice and the impartial application of the law. People must feel that law is on the side of fairness. You cannot build a society on love alone. Love unites, but it also divides. It leaves the less-loved feeling abandoned, neglected, disregarded, “hated” and can lead to envy, violence and revenge.
That is what the Torah is telling us when it links the law in our parasha with the story of Yaacov and his sons in Bereishit. It is teaching us that law is not random. It is rooted in the experience of history. Law is itself a tikkun, a way of putting right what went wrong in the past. We must learn to love; but we must also know the limits of love, and the importance of justice-as-fairness in families as in society.
- What lesson can we learn for our lives from Yaacov and his family?
- Can you think of a time when someone made a decision because of love, yet it was the wrong decision?
- Why is love not enough? What other values do we need in society?
by Rebbetzen Emma Taylor
There are so many nuanced messages in this week’s piece, but one line jumped out at me due to a personal experience I once had with Rabbi Sacks.
My family and I were privileged to know Lord and Lady Sacks from our time serving as the Community Rabbi and Rebbetzen in Western Marble Arch Synagogue and one Shabbat we were on a walk through Regents Park with them, together with Rabbi Lionel and Natalie Rosenfeld. At one point I realised that our eldest son, Yishai, who was 6 at the time, was not walking with us. After the initial panic we noticed that he was in fact walking alongside his ‘friends’, Rabbi Sacks and Rabbi Rosenfeld. After much laughter at the scene, we asked Yishai what he was doing?! He replied that they had been discussing Prime Ministers, and Rabbi Sacks had asked his opinion about the current political climate.
Love unites but it also divides. It leaves the less-loved feeling abandoned, neglected, disregarded, “hated.” In contrast, by including others and showing them that they matter, relationships blossom. In that moment in Regents Park, Yishai felt totally loved and appreciated. In a moment where he could have felt like the ‘third wheel’, he was instead made to feel valued.
Rabbi Sacks embodied this message and understood that to connect and pay attention to one, comes at the expense of possibly ostracising another. Love is needed to bridge gaps within society, yet by giving our love to some it can potentially create deeper divides between others. Therefore, as Rabbi Sacks articulates, law is necessary to ensure that love is targeted and used appropriately, so that the best of love and law can create a society we can be proud of, in perfect harmony.
The new series of Covenant & Conversation: Family Editions features one new voice each week. We hope that this will further illuminate the ideas of Rabbi Sacks and encourage others to continue these conversations with the next generation, as we share the stories and ideas of Rabbi Sacks scholars.
Rebbetzen Emma Taylor is the Mechanechet at Ulpanat Orot High School, a Maayan graduate, and Rebbetezen at Shaarei Shomayim in Toronto, Canada.
A Closer Look
Rebbetzen Taylor now shares some of the deeper ideas she learnt from Rabbi Sacks.
Which quote from Rabbi Sacks this week impacts your worldview?
“Law is not arbitrary. It is rooted in the experience of history. Law is itself a tikkun, a way of putting right what went wrong in the past.”
My desire to study History in University came not only from a love of the subject, but from an understanding of the profound impact history can have on the future. This interest was cemented by walking into Aushwitz and seeing a sign on the wall proclaiming ‘those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.’ History is there as a moral, ethical, and legal guide and if we fail to open our eyes to its lessons, the future is a far bleaker place. Rabbi Sacks’ understanding of this in connection to the parsha is extremely profound in this context.
Which idea in this week’s piece do you think is the most important?
As a mother and educator, loving my children and students comes easily. Yet Rabbi Sacks’ piece this week indicates that love is really not enough. There are times when unconditional love is necessary, yet this must be tempered with an understanding that this is not all society can be founded on. Principles, morals, and law are essential to create a dynamic that is healthy and sustainable. As a child it may be hard to be on the receiving end of this, yet it is important to recognise that this framework is not instead of love but an essential aspect of maintaining a loving family, school community, and society.
A parent who loves a child so much they allow them – while learning to drive – not to stop at a red light, not wanting their precious child to be forced wait, is not showing true love. Boundaries and law are there to protect all of us.
What influence did Rabbi Sacks have on your approach to education?
Rabbi Sacks always valued education as essential to the continuation of Judaism, and gave a sense of pride to those who chose to become educators.
This week Rabbi Sacks emphasises that without education there is no way to pass on our rich Jewish heritage. In a society where the youth are able to explore every subject possible in a deep and intellectual way, it is essential that our Jewish youth are fully aware of what it really means to be a Jew. It is not enough to just watch grandparents and parents perform Jewish rituals, we need to ensure that our Jewish future is secure with young Jews who understand our beautiful, rich heritage and who appreciate how mysterious and profound our legacy is.
As Rabbi Sacks once said, “To defend a country, you need an army. But to defend an identity, you need a school. Judaism is the religion of the book, not the sword.”
Question: What is the most common weekly reference to the laws of shaatnez (not mixing linen and wool together)?
This question has been adapted from Torah IQ by David Woolf, a collection of 1500 Torah riddles, available worldwide on Amazon. For the answer, please head to the Education Companion section (directly below, in grey).
Torah Trivia: this week’s answer
The reference can be found in Eishet Chayil, which is sung every Friday night before Kiddush. This song contains the line, “darshah tzemer u’phishtim” – “she seeks wool and linen” (Mishlei 31:13).
Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer explains that this line alludes to Sarah, who insisted on her son Yitzchak being separated from Yishmael, because she understood the danger of them being together.
Written as an accompaniment to Rabbi Sacks’ weekly Covenant & Conversation essay, the Family Edition is aimed at connecting teenagers with his ideas and thoughts on the parsha.
With thanks to the Schimmel Family for their generous sponsorship of Covenant & Conversation, dedicated in loving memory of Harry (Chaim) Schimmel.
“I have loved the Torah of R’ Chaim Schimmel ever since I first encountered it. It strives to be not just about truth on the surface but also its connection to a deeper truth beneath. Together with Anna, his remarkable wife of 60 years, they built a life dedicated to love of family, community, and Torah. An extraordinary couple who have moved me beyond measure by the example of their lives.” — Rabbi Sacks