By Rabbi Isaac Mann
Parashat Vayeitzei speaks of Jacob’s sojourn in Haran after fleeing from Eretz Canaan (the Land of Canaan) to escape Esau’s wrath. As he comes into Haran, Jacob engages in a dialogue with some of the shepherds of that town who have just arrived at the watering well with their sheep and are waiting for others to come and help them roll off the heavy stone that sits atop the well (Genesis 29:1-8).
The dialogue begins with a greeting of “My brothers, where are you from?” They respond that they are from Haran. He further asks them, “Do you know Laban son (actually grandson) of Nahor .” They respond, “We know him.” Jacob continues with, “Is he OK (more literally: Is he at peace).” Their response: “He’s OK (literally: Peace).” At that point Rachel appears on the scene, but the dialogue continues: “And he [Jacob] says, ‘The day is still long; it is not yet time to gather the flock. Go and water the sheep and then continue to pasture them.’” The shepherds answer, “We cannot [roll off the stone] until all of the flocks [and shepherds] are gathered and then we can roll off the stone and water the sheep.”
This is a rather unusual dialogue for several reasons. First, the detailed exchange itself in which the Torah records the greetings and responses of Jacob and the shepherds to each other seems unnecessary and chit chatty, uncharacteristic of dialogues that we find elsewhere in the Torah. Thus, if we go back to the dialogue between Abrahams’s servant and Rebecca or between him and Rebecca’s family (see Genesis 24:17-52), we don’t find recorded that he asked something along the lines of “How are you” or “How is your family.” Despite the fact that the dialogue is long and detailed, the opening greetings that presumably were exchanged are not mentioned. There is no need for them. The Torah is not some kind of novel in which every utterance in an exchange needs to be recorded. What is recorded is supposed to teach us and instruct us or at least make the narrative more comprehensible.
Second, we ought to be struck by Jacob’s rather bold and even chutzpah’dik (filled with effrontery) complaint to the shepherds that they are at the well too early. He is an outsider who has just arrived from a distant land and has the gall to tell these shepherds whom he doesn’t know how to conduct their shepherding! How could he do so?
This latter question was addressed to some extent by R. Hayyim ibn Attar, an 18th century Sephardic Kabbalist and Biblical commentator, in his widely-quoted work Ohr ha-Hayyim, a commentary on the Torah. His explanation of Jacob’s becoming a “judge” is due to his concern about causing pain or discomfort to the sheep (he also suggests another more complicated explanation).
It seems to me that there is a more obvious solution to this question and one that will also resolve the first one we posed. The Torah is interested in showing us that despite Jacob’s earlier deceptive stance regarding the blessing that Isaac wanted to bestow upon Esau (Genesis 27) and the later instance in which he used extraordinary or supernatural means to enrich himself at the expense of Laban (Genesis 30), Jacob was a very honest man. He could not tolerate cheating one’s employer, as we see from his confrontation with Laban later on in the parashah (31:38-41), in which he describes how hard and diligently he worked for Laban, suffering in the heat of the day and the cold of the night, denying himself sleep, protecting the flock and making up from his own possessions for any sheep that were stolen or lost or devoured. Sure, Jacob could be deceptive when dealing with an Esau, who conveniently claimed the privilege of the firstborn despite having sold it to Jacob, and with a Laban, who was a deceiver par excellence, but with honest and decent people, this patriarch was a most scrupulous man of integrity. Indeed, as the prophet Micah proclaims (7:20) – “Titen emet le’Yaakov” (Ascribe truth unto Jacob).
Thus, Jacob is introduced to us and to the people of Haran as embodying the lofty ideal of honesty in the workplace, a full day of work for a full day of pay, so to speak. But his complaint to the shepherds about their perceived work ethic could not come in a vacuum. Jacob had to first establish a relationship with the men before he could criticize them. Therefore, the Torah purposely records the niceties of their dialogue to show that Jacob embraced them as his “brothers.” He looked upon them as family and accorded them the love and respect that must come before the mussar (ethical teaching) is transmitted. Before he could tell them that what they are doing is wrong, he had to tell them they are like his brothers. In such a case, Jacob’s critique is not one of chutzpah but of care.
This is a lesson that we can all adopt in our efforts to reprove when necessary the actions of those around us. Yes, we must sometimes speak out against what others are doing – but if we want to be heard and to be effective, we must do so in an environment of care and concern and love for our fellow human being. We must acknowledge one as a brother or sister before we offer words of reproach. Or as the Talmud expresses it (B. Sotah 47a): if the [weaker] left hand thrusts away, the [stronger] right hand must draw near. From Jacob we learn that the action of the right hand must come first. Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Isaac Mann is on the rabbinic faculty of AJR. He is the rabbi of the Austrian Shul on the Upper West Side and serves as chaplain at Metropolitan Hospital and Bronx-Lebanon Hospital.