From "Jacob Tells Laban that He Will Work for Rachel," woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1860
From "Jacob Tells Laban that He Will Work for Rachel," woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1860

Refraining from public shaming can save a life, literally

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek.


Genesis 28:10-32:3

The Rabbi of Chelm was watching TV and social media news streams, moaning, sighing, and occasionally crying. You ask, “What’s troubling you?”

The Rabbi of Chelm tells you a story: There was a pair, Yochanan and Lakisha, who were very close. Yochanan discovered Lakisha when Lakisha was living on the edge: He wrestled animals and made his livelihood as a bandit. Yochanan helped him learn and they became partners in life (Lakisha married his sister) and in the yeshiva in Tiberias (250-290 CE). They knew everything about each other.

One day in the public Yeshivah, in the heat of a debate of the purity of metal objects (Bava Metzia 84a), such as swords, knives and spears, Yochanan countered Lakisha with these words: “A thief knows about [the tools of] thievery!”

Lakisha cried out, “How can you say that to me here?” Yochanan responds, “Because I made you who you are today.” In the aftermath, an unrepentant Yochanan became depressed, a humiliated Lakisha became ill and they both died. A woman lost her brother and her husband, and her children lost a father and an uncle. The community of Tiberias lost their greatest teachers. All because of a public shaming.

The Rabbi of Chelm tells you another story, drawn from this week’s Torah portion: You know that Jacob has come to his uncle Laban and encountered his two daughters. The name of the older one was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Jacob fell hard for Rachel and declared to Laban, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.”

At the end of seven years Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife, for my time is fulfilled, that I may cohabit with her.” Laban made a feast and when evening came, he took his daughter, Leah, and brought her to Jacob. When morning came, there was Leah!

Really? Jacob did not know? The people gathered, there was a feast, a woman was brought to a tent, and pow! Jacob should have tossed her out, declared a fraud and shamed Leah in front of her entire community! Who spared Leah the humiliation? Her sister, Rachel.

The Talmud (Megillah 13b) says that Rachel warned Jacob that her father Laban would try to deceive him with Leah. Jacob and Rachel made up secret signs, which she and Jacob would use to identify the veiled bride, making sure that Jacob would know that his bride was Rachel.

In the Talmud (Bava Batra 123a) describes how Rachel spared her sister the shame of being rejected by Jacob on their wedding night:

When Laban’s associates were bringing Leah up to the wedding canopy to marry Jacob, Rachel thought: Now my sister will be humiliated when Jacob discovers that she is the one marrying him. Therefore, Rachel gave the signs to Leah. And this is as it is written: “And it came to pass in the morning that, behold, it was Leah.” This verse is difficult, as by inference, should one derive that until now she was not Leah? Rather, through the signs that Jacob gave to Rachel and that she gave to Leah, he did not know it was she until that moment.

There’s more! The midrash (Tanhuma, Vayetze 6) relates that before the wedding, Jacob sent Rachel many presents. Laban would take these gifts and give them to Leah, and Rachel remained silent.

The wackiest depiction of Rachel’s efforts to protect Leah from the shaming dumped on her by the men in her family is another midrash (Lamentations Rabbah). Here, Rachel enters under Jacob and Leah’s bed on their wedding night. When Jacob spoke with Leah, Rachel would answer him, so that he would not identify Leah’s voice.

The Rabbi of Chelm, versed in the world of foolishness, nevertheless is pained by men in power shaming those with less — all too often, women. And, on this Shabbat, he is inspired by the legendary power of Rachel to protect her sister Leah from shame. She keeps her sister, holds on to her husband, and becomes Rachel Imanu (our matriarch, Rachel).

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan
Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan lives and works in Berkeley, California. He can be reached at [email protected].