The Backstory

The Torah abounds with tales of sibling rivalry that run the gamut—from latent hatred to outright murder. And so, in Vayeitzei, we have a refreshing break asLeah prayed to give birth to a girl we read the account of the sisterly love exhibited between Rachel and Leah. We learn of Rachel’s act of self-sacrifice in favor of her older sister, Leah, when she switched identities under the marriage canopy (and the marital bed) to save Leah from the humiliation of having to marry Jacob’s immoral and depraved older brother, Esau.

Less known is the story where Leah, pregnant with her seventh child, prayed to give birth to a girl and not bear Jacob another son. Leah knew that there were to be Twelve Tribes. When she realized that she was pregnant, Jacob already had 10 sons (six from Leah and two from each of the handmaids, Bilhah and Zilpah). Concerned that if she gave birth to another boy, it would be Jacob’s 11th son, and so, at the very most, Rachel could have only one son to complete the 12 Jacob was destined to have.

To spare Rachel the humiliation of being considered “less than a handmaiden,” each of whom bore Jacob two sons, Leah prayed not to give birth to another boy.

How did these two sisters muster the strength to forbear their deepest desires?

In deceiving Jacob, Rachel could have no assurance that she would ever marry the love of her life. At best, she would have had to share her husband. And in trying to avert an imbalance and emotional devastation to Rachel, Leah essentially gave up the chance to be the mother of another one of the tribes, as well as trying to curry any additional favor with Jacob.

In exercising such powerful restraint for the sake of the other, both sisters teach us the lessons of altruism.

The Kindness of Strangers: Pure Altruism:

Every day, it seems, the news bears tales of horror, acts of violence and evil unleashed by man upon his fellow. It is often the case, however, that there are heroes that emerge in these stories—and not just people trying to save loved ones, but bystanders who risk life and limb to help total strangers. Why?

To the “survival of the fittest” mentality, altruism has to be an embarrassment. That’s why science tries to explain it away as a vestige of a survival tactic when we lived in small groups and tribes of closely related people. Or, as the pundits say, altruism is really ego-based and self-serving; therefore, we do kind acts in the hopes of reciprocity, to elicit the admiration of others or to get brownie points for heaven.

When we move beyond living in a transactional world, when there is no social or self-serving benefit to our actions, we are acting from a feeling of empathy that recognizes our larger sense of connection. Just as our body feels pain when any part of it is suffering, the empathetic person doesn’t merely tolerate or even respect others, but feels personally aligned with them to the point of identifying with their suffering and needs.

And so, the more inclusive of “other” wePure altruism is “other-focused” are, the more extensive is our sense of empathy, which has an impact on how we behave. Pure altruism is “other-focused,” originating from an inner sense of kinship and a desire to ease pain. Empathy is why thousands of “strangers” show up for the funerals of victims of terror in Israel. Or when we read about shocking and sickening accounts, empathy is what causes us to lose another piece of our collective heart.

The First Thanksgiving

In the Talmud, the rabbis note that from the day G‑d created the world, no one bothered to praised Him until Leah, when she gave birth to her fourth son, naming him Yehuda, from the word, hoda’ah, which means, “to thank.” Since names convey spiritual essence, the Jewish people (Yehudim) should realize that gratitude comprises their core component of being. Furthermore, the very existence and makeup of the Twelve Tribes came about through the altruism of two sisters, each motivated by empathy and wanting to ease the suffering of the other.

In Vayeitze, we also read the story of Jacob’s ladder, reaching from earth to heaven. Let us build our own ladders: one side comprising “gratitude” and the other “empathy.” Let the rungs between them be the steps of compassion, connection and kindness. Let us lean our ladders against the right wall, climb the ladder of spiritual success and bring heaven down to earth.