Question: When Jacob met Rachel by the well, he kissed her and told her who he was (Genesis 29:11-12). I understand that our forefathers kept all of the commandments. How could Jacob be involved in an act that seems so immodest?
Answer: I too was (and to some extent remain) troubled by Jacob’s kiss of Rachel. It seems difficult to reconcile the incongruity of Jacob, our holy forefather, kissing a single young woman—even one destined to be his wife.
I believe there are a number of angles to addressing this question:
Indeed, as you mention, our Sages note that our forefathers kept the entire Torah. However, it seems that there was a fundamental difference in Torah observance between before and after it was given on Mount Sinai. Once the Torah was given to the Jewish people on Mount Sinai, the act became more important than the intent. Meaning, that even if someone today believes with all his might that the best way for him to serve God would be to transgress a commandment, the “act” takes precedence, and thus one may not abrogate even one iota from the Torah—no matter how holy one’s intentions. However, before the Torah was formally given to the Jewish people, the intention, at times, superseded the act. In other words, if a forefather (who, obviously, lived prior to the Sinaitic experience) believed that his mission necessitated the transgression of a commandment, he could use his discretion, albeit sparingly, to violate the law. In reality, it was not a violation of the law, for the intent became the law in such an instance. Thus, it may be understood that Jacob’s kissing of Rachel was in some way part of his Divine service.
Another point to note is the context of the kiss. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (leader of Frankfurt, Germany Jewish community in the late 19th century) comments that the Torah mentions a number of times, in various phrases surrounding the kiss, that Rachel was Jacob’s kin. The Torah wishes to point out that Jacob’s actions were within the context of the realization that Rachel represented the continuation of his family’s traditions and values. In addition, Jacob sensed the embodiment of his sainted mother, Rebecca’s, persona. The intense emotion engendered by these awarenesses caused Jacob to kiss Rachel. Indeed, notes Rabbi Hirsch, Jacob’s tears should be sufficient proof that his Jacob’s intentions were completely pure.
In a similar vein, I once heard (although I cannot recall from whom) that Jacob cried after kissing Rachel for he understood that later generations would misunderstand his intentions in kissing Rachel.
Rabbi Yoel Spotts