And Rochel saw that she had not borne a child to Yaakov, so Rochel became envious of her sister; she said to Yaakov, “Give me children — otherwise I am dead.”
Yaakov’s anger flared up at Rochel, and he said, “Am I in place of G-d Who has withheld from you fruit of the womb?” (Beresheet 30:1–2)
When Rochel Imeinu saw that Leah, her sister, bore four sons to their husband, Yaakov, she became jealous and complained to her spouse. He reacted angrily, as quoted in the verse above. The Midrash reveals that Hashem became incensed with Yaakov for his insensitive reaction to his wife’s sorrow. “Is this the way one answers those in distress? I swear that your children will bow before her son!” And so it was, many years later, when the brothers bowed before the viceroy of Egypt — Yosef, the son of Rochel.
One might ask, “Why the angry response? What would Yaakov be expected to say? After all, he did tell the truth! The gift of children is dependent on the grace of the Alm-ghty!”
Our Rabbis explain that our Patriarch was expected to not make light of the problem and instead to show concern and sympathy for Rachel’s plight. He was being told to change his words in order to console and lift the spirits of his downtrodden spouse.
In Gemara Bava Metzia (84b) the story is told of a time when Rabbeinu Hakadosh (Rebbi) was teaching a lesson and some people passed by, taking a calf to slaughter. The calf broke loose and ran to lean against the robes of Rabbeinu Hakadosh, as if begging for mercy and assistance. Rebbi stood by and coolly said: “Go to your slaughter — it is for this that you were created.”
A man of his stature, the leader of his generation, should have been more compassionate and more selective in his use of words — even to a calf. True, the calf was created to serve as food for the human being — yet a better choice of words was in order. Rebbi suffered a stomach ailment for 13 years due to this blunder.
His remedy came when a maid in his palace was sweeping away a nest of baby rodents from the palace floor. When Rabbeinu Hakadosh instructed her to leave them alone, the servant replied: “The mistress would not like me to leave rodents — even babies — in her palace.”
“I say be gentle — they are babies!” was the quick response. His ailment disappeared. Harshness brought on the illness and kindness healed it.
A contemporary Rosh Yeshivah said: “We have a gemach [organization that supplies people’s needs free of charge — such as a free loan fund, a free bridal gown loan, and other free kindnesses] to borrow whatever is needed; what we need is a gemach that lends an ear!” This organization would listen to other people’s woes. The members would console and advise, even if they were unable to help in a practical sense. This, in essence, was Hashem’s complaint to Yaakov Avinu. “Is this how one should answer the downtrodden?”
The greats knew this important trait. Harav Moshe Feinstein used to give approbation on many sefarim. His approval was written on his stationery, which had his address and phone number in the heading. When he became older and frailer, his wife suggested that he change the number and keep it private. She explained that this was a way to cut down on the volume of calls, particularly during the night, when the Rosh Yeshivah was frequently disturbed and deprived of much needed rest.
“What are you suggesting?” Rav Moshe responded. “That a fellow Jew might need me and I will not be available to hear his plight?” Of course, the stationery remained as always with the Rav’s phone number clearly displayed for all to see.
In an age where e-mail, text messaging and the like are making our interactions with friends and others more and more impersonal, we must refocus on real communication. It is not merely the speed with which your message is conveyed that is important. It is how much of your heart is infused in your reply.
Rabbi Raymond Beyda serves in the Sephardic Community in Brooklyn, N.Y. He lectures to audiences all over the world. He has distributed over 500,000 recorded lessons free of charge. He is author of the book 1 Minute with Yourself: A Minute a Day to Self-Improvement, Sephardic Press, 2008.