This Sidra contains an account of Jacob’s four marriages, all (according to Rashi) to daughters of Laban. Now this appears to contradict the traditional view that Jacob (together with Abraham and Isaac) kept all the commandments of the Torah despite the fact that G‑d had not yet given them to Israel—out of a combination of personal zealousness and a prophetic knowledge of what the law would be—for marriage to two sisters is later prohibited. Rashi seems to offer no explanation of the difficulty and the Rebbe considers a number of possible solutions, eventually reconciling the apparent contradiction, and drawing out the moral implications of the story.

1. Jacob’s Wives

An important and well-known principle about Rashi’s commentary on the Torah, is that his policy is to answer all the difficulties which are apparent in construing a literal interpretation1 of the verses. And when he cannot find an answer on this level, he will note the difficulty and add, “I do not know” how to resolve it.2 When there is a difficulty which Rashi does not even point out, this is because the answer is obvious, even to a five-year-old (the age when a Jewish child begins to study the Torah3).

It is therefore very strange that we find in this week’s Sidra a puzzling fact, that has preoccupied many commentators, and which Rashi not only does not explain, but appears to take no notice of at all.

We are told that Jacob married both Rachel and Leah, and later Bilhah and Zilpah, all daughters of Laban.4 Now since we have a tradition that the forefathers kept the entire Torah, even though it had not yet been given,5 how can it be that Jacob married four sisters when we are told in Vayikra6: “Thou shall not take a woman to her sister”—that is, one may not marry the sister of one’s wife.

Perhaps we could say that Rashi does not comment on the problem because when the “five-year-old” learns this Sidra, he does not know that Jacob’s act was forbidden (for the law does not appear until Vayikra, and the child has not yet reached that book). However, this will not do, for Rashi does not explain the difficulty even later on.

Alternatively, it is possible that Rashi felt that, amongst the many explanations of the point given in other commentaries, there was one sufficiently obvious that he was not bound to mention it. But this also will not explain his silence, since firstly, there are many disagreements among these other commentators, so the explanation is not obvious; and secondly, they are not explanations of the literal meaning of the text—which is therefore still wanting.

2. Some Explanations

Ramban7 offers the explanation that the forefathers kept the 613 commandments of the Torah only when they lived in Israel, whereas Jacob married the two (four) sisters while he was in Haran. But Rashi could not consistently hold this view, for he says elsewhere of Jacob, “while I stayed with the wicked Laban (i.e., in Haran), I kept the 613 commandments.”8

Another explanation9 is that Jacob was in fact obeying a specific command of G‑d in order to have the 12 sons who would later become the 12 tribes. But though it is clear that G‑d’s explicit command would have overridden the prohibition involved, nonetheless we find no indication in the Torah that G‑d commanded Jacob to take Rachel, Bilhah or Zilpah in marriage. On the contrary, it is clear from the narrative that he married Rachel because he wanted her, from the very outset, to be his wife; and both Bilhah and Zilpah were given to Jacob as wives, by their mistresses10 (they were the handmaids of Rachel and Leah): He did not take them in obedience to a command from G‑d.

3. The Argument From Leniency

There has been intensive speculation as to whether the forefathers, in undertaking to keep the Torah before it has been given, accepted only those rulings which were more stringent than the (then binding) Noachide Laws, or also accepted the rulings which were more lenient. If we follow the second view, and remember that all four sisters must have converted to Judaism before their marriages, and take into account the lenient ruling that “a convert is like a new-born child”11—then it would follow that the wives were no longer considered sisters, since their lineage was affected by their conversion.

However, even this answer is unsatisfactory at the level of literal interpretation.

(a) Before the Giving of the Torah, there is no Biblical evidence that Jews had any other law than the Noachide Code (other than the specifically mentioned obligation of circumcision etc.). So the undertaking of the forefathers was entirely a self-imposed thing, and did not involve their children12 in any obligation. It follows that there was no general legal distinction, before the Giving of the Torah, between Jews as such and the other descendants of Noah. Hence, the whole idea of conversion did not arise.

Nor can we support our point by saying that the voluntary undertaking of the 613 commandments was itself a kind of conversion. For this was a self-imposed stringency and could not have included the lenient ruling that “a convert is like a new-born child.”

(b) Besides which, Rashi, in his commentary on the Torah, never mentions this law; and indeed a literal reading of the Torah inclines one to the contrary view, for G‑d says to Abraham, “You shall come to your fathers in peace.’’13 In other words, even after Abraham’s conversion, Terach is still regarded as his father, to whom he will be joined in death.

(c) Lastly, the prohibition of marrying one’s wife’s sister is not simply because she belongs to the category of those forbidden for the closeness of their relation to the would-be husband; but for the additional psychological reason that it might put enmity and jealousy in place of the natural love between two sisters.14 So even if the law “a convert is like a new-born child” applied before the Giving of the Torah, it would not be relevant in the present instance, for there is still a natural love between two converted sisters,15 which would be endangered by their sharing a husband.

4. Individual and Collective Undertakings

The explanation is that the manner in which Abraham, Isaac and Jacob kept the Torah was one of self-imposed stringency alone (and this is why it was so esteemed by G‑d: “Inasmuch as Abraham harkened to My voice, and kept My charge, My commands, ordinances and laws”16). If so, then clearly if something which they had been commanded conflicted with something they did only from their own zealousness, the former, having G‑d’s authority, would overrule the latter.

This is—at the simple level—why Abraham did not circumcise himself until he was commanded to (when he was 99 years old); for the Noachide Code forbade shedding one’s blood—even when it would not harm one.17 And though circumcision outweighed this prohibition, it could only do so when commanded by G‑d.

Now, besides the Seven Noachide Laws, there were other restraints that the descendants of Noah voluntarily undertook. As Rashi says,18 “the non-Jewish nations had restrained themselves from unchastity (i.e., even in relationships which had not been expressly forbidden to them) as a consequence of the flood (which was a punishment for this sin).” And this explains what Rashi says elsewhere,19 that the Torah mentions the death of Terach, Abraham’s father, before Abraham left his father’s house, even though he left, in fact, before his father died, “so that this matter should not become known to all, in case people should say that Abraham did not show a son’s respect for his father.” Even though respecting one’s parents had not yet been commanded by G‑d,20 nonetheless since the nations had of their own accord undertaken this duty, it had acquired something of the force of law. To the extent that Jacob was punished by G‑d21 for not respecting his parents—simply because of the status which this universal voluntary undertaking had acquired.

It follows that if there were a conflict between the self-imposed stringencies of the Forefathers (as individuals) and the voluntary restraints of the descendants of Noah (en masse), the latter overruled the former.

And one of these restraints that had become universally adopted was that of taking care not to deceive others, as is evidenced by Jacob’s accusation against Laban,22 “Why have you deceived me?” against which Laban takes pains tojustify himself (showing that he agreed that deception was a sin).

Now we can at last see why Jacob married Rachel. For he had promised her that he would marry her, and even gave her signs to prove her identity on their wedding night.23 Not to marry her would have involved deception, and this had a force which overruled his (individual) undertaking not to marry his wife’s sister (in accordance with what G‑d would later command).

5. The Concern Due to Others

One of the morals which this implies is that when a man wishes to take more on himself than G‑d has yet demanded of him, he must first completely satisfy himself that he is not doing so at the expense of others. And indeed, in the case of Abraham, we find that his preciousness in the eyes of G‑d was not primarily that he undertook to keep the whole Torah before it had been given, but rather,24 “I know him (which Rashi translates as ‘I hold him dear’) because he will command his children and his household after him to keep to the way of the L-rd, doing righteousness and justice.”

And the self-imposed task of personal refinement must not be at another’s expense, either materially or spiritually. When a fellow-Jew knows nothing of his religious heritage and needs, as it were, spiritual charity, it is not open to another Jew who is in a position to help him, to say, “Better that I should spend my time perfecting myself.” For he must judge himself honestly and answer the question, "Who am I that these extra refinements in myself are worth depriving another Jew of the very fundamentals of his faith?” And he will then see the truth which underlies Jacob’s marriage to Rachel, that care for others overrides the concern for the self-perfection which goes beyond G‑d’s law.

(Source: Likkutei Sichot, Vol. V pp. 141-8)