Parashat Vayetze

  • Rav Alex Israel




This week’s shiurim are dedicated by Abe Mezrich




By Rav Alex Israel



            This week, we see Jacob leave home.  He sets out on his journey to Charan and the house of Laban with a dual purpose in mind.  The first reason for his departure is his flight from his brother Esau.  Jacob has stolen the blessings from Esau and in the wake of this incident, we hear Esau threatening to kill Jacob:


"The moment my father dies and we will complete the             mourning period for him, I will kill my brother Jacob; the sooner the better." (27:34)


            Esau is out to get Jacob.  Rebbeca's response is to send Jacob away from the homestead, to give Esau the time and space to calm down a little.  Jacob is a fugitive on the run.


            The second reason for leaving is not an escape.  It is a mission - a quest to find a wife and to set up a family.  Like his father before him, the proposed address for a suitable spouse is the home of his mother Rebbecca and her brother Lavan who has two daughters of marriageable age.  Isaac sends him off with the familiar patriarchal command:


"You shall not take a wife from among the Canaanite             women.  Go to Padan Aram, to the house of Bethuel ... and take a wife there from the daughters of Laban ..." (28:12)


            It would seem that Jacob leaves his worries about Esau behind him at the border and doesn't confront them again until his return to the Land of Canaan (ch. 32).  Our parasha, then, is dominated by Jacob's marriages and the growth of his family.




            This brings us very naturally to Laban's daughters, Rachel and Leah.  Jacob intends on marrying Rachel and finds himself married to both sisters.  It is these two women (and their handmaids) who "build" the House of Israel.  There is tension between them, however, which reaches immense proportions at times.  The Torah is not shy at recording the friction and the pressure, the hatred and the jealousy, which is present in the home of Jacob.  In our study this week, we will try to examine the unique character of each of these Matriarchs.  What were the features that made them special?  And how did this affect the Jewish people in future times?




"When he (Jacob) had stayed with him (Laban) for a month,             Laban said to Jacob, 'Just because you are my kinsman, should you serve me for nothing?  Tell me, what shall your wages be?'  Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the older one was Leah, and the name of the younger was             Rachel.  Leah had sensitive eyes; Rachel was shapely and beautiful.  Jacob loved Rachel; He said, 'I will serve you for seven years for your younger daughter Rachel' ... Jacob served seven years for Rachel and they seemed to him but a few days because of his love for her." (29:16-20)


At the start, we are told of Rachel's beauty and Jacob's love for her.  Jacob - a penniless fugitive - is ready to work for seven years to gain her hand in marriage and his love for her would seem to eclipse any hardship or trouble that his work gave him.  It would not be too much to say that Jacob was besotted by Rachel.




What of Leah?  We are told only of her eyes.  She is contrasted with Rachel.  Rachel's beautiful looks and Leah's soft, sensitive or weak eyes.  The Hebrew adjective used to describe Leah's eyes is the word "rakkot."  It is interpreted in multiple ways by the classic commentators.


The Rashbam reads it as "beautiful and refined."  Apparently, Rachel is beautiful in every way, whereas Leah has only one feature of stunning beauty: her eyes.  Some see this as an underhand insult.  Instead of saying that she was not particularly good-looking, the Torah mentions the redeeming side of her appearance (Hirsch).  The Ralbag suggests that she had a problem with her eyes, an eye disease which affected her otherwise good looks.  But the clear conclusion here is of Leah's mediocre looks as opposed to those of her younger sister.


Rashi brings the most interesting interpretation.  He suggests that Leah's eyes are red and weepy from constant crying.  The tradition in the family was that Rachel will be matched with Jacob whereas "the elder daughter would marry the elder son."  Leah, being the eldest, is set to marry Esau, the other 'eldest.'  Leah is a pious girl.  She cannot think of anything worse than marrying Esau, a hunting man who does not fear God.  She longs to marry Jacob and she has spent her life in tears, bemoaning her personal fate.  Her tears have made her eyes red and soft.


In Rashi's reading, we do not see a contrast between the two sisters.  Rather, both statements can be said to be compliments.  Rachel is beautiful but Leah's tearful eyes testify to her piety.




On the wedding day, unbeknownst to Jacob, Laban replaces Rachel with Leah.  "And in the morning, behold it was Leah!"  (29:25).  Within a week, Jacob marries his rightful bride, Rachel, and commits himself to another seven years of work.  Rachel and Leah are now not just sisters but rival wives.  We are never told explicitly how Leah was switched for Rachel.  Did Leah comply?  Did Rachel cover up for Leah?  (The midrashim suggest both options.)  We can but imagine the frustrated feelings on all sides:


"Jacob waited out the bridal week of the one, and then he (Laban) gave him his daughter Rachel as his wife ... And Jacob cohabited with Rachel also; indeed, he loved Rachel more than Leah." (29:28,30)


Jacob and Rachel are now married, but it is all very different from the way that we had expected.  The powerful love between Jacob and Rachel has been consummated but not in the way that they had anticipated - "Jacob cohabited with Rachel ALSO."  She is the second (Ramban).  Their special moment together has been tarnished.  Instead of becoming the culmination of their love, their togetherness contains elements of frustration and disappointment.  Leah too is thrust into a marriage where she is unwanted, unloved.  Her place would seem like a guest who has overstayed her welcome.




These tensions are demonstrated in the women's desire to produce children for Jacob.


"God saw that Leah was unloved and he opened her womb;             but Rachel was barren.  Leah conceived and bore a son and named him Reuven; for it means: 'The Lord has seen my affliction.'  She said, 'Maybe now my husband will love me.'  She conceived again and bore a son and declared, 'This is because God heard that I was unloved' ... Again she conceived and bore a son and declared, 'This time my husband will become attached to me for I have borne three sons'... She conceived again and bore a son and declared, 'This time I will praise God;' therefore she named him Judah.  Then she stopped having children." (29:31-35)


            Leah is unloved.  The commentators vary in their understanding of the Hebrew "senu'a."  In a literal translation, it means that she was "hated."  Most commentators see her as being "unloved" in comparison to Rachel rather than "hated."  After all, we are told earlier that Jacob "loved Rachel more than Leah" (29:30), indicative of a certain degree of love between Jacob and Leah.


The Ramban does not accept this reading.  He says:


"Leah was hated: After all, she deceived and betrayed her father when he brought her to the wedding, could she not have told Jacob or signaled to him that she was Leah?  And she hid her identity from him the entire night! ... That is why Jacob hated her ... [But] God knew that Leah did it all so that she could marry the righteous Jacob.  That is why He had pity on her."


            The Torah describes Leah as a lonely and unloved woman.  Every child that she bears is accompanied by a heartfelt wish for companionship and love from her husband.  It is clear that for years Leah experiences palpable disdain and coldness from Jacob.  One wonders how Rachel felt towards her.  Only on the birth of her fourth child, do we sense relief in Leah's estrangement?  Her naming of Judah is a song of praise rather than a plea, a desperate prayer.  Apparently, things are changing for the better.  Does Jacob love her now?


            Just one other important observation.  Up to this point we have never been given a word of conversation between Jacob and his wives.  The only words that we hear from Leah are between herself and God.  She seems to pray quietly to herself.  She does not appeal to her husband directly for his attention and love.  She appeals to God and she sits and waits.  As for Rachel, she has not uttered a word.




"When Rachel saw that she had borne Jacob no children, she became envious of her sister; and Rachel said to Jacob, 'Give me children, or I shall die.'  Jacob was incensed at Rachel and said, 'Can I take the place of God, who has denied you fruit of the womb?'  She said, 'Here is my handmaid Bilha.  Consort with her, that she may bear on my knees and that through her I too may have children.'" (30:1-3)


            This is the only recorded dialogue between Jacob and Rachel.  At last, the Torah gives us access to Rachel's feelings and we are told of Rachel's jealousy of her sister.  One might note that Leah is not mentioned by name here and what is brought to the fore is the primary fact of her identity as sister (the older-younger tension would seem to be a familiar theme by now).


            Rachel is jealous of her sister's children.  Maybe it is not the children per se but rather the effect her children are having on Jacob.  Jacob is becoming closer to Leah.  There are strong competitive emotions at work here.  Rachel's statement is extreme.  It is something of an outburst.  "Give me children or I shall die."  Rachel demands not just a child, not one son, but sons, children.  Her language is emotive, aggressive, hysterical.  She DEMANDS that Jacob give her children.


            Jacob's response is stern and possibly a little harsh.  Jacob accuses her as being the source of her own barrenness.  God "has denied you the fruit of the womb."  Jacob's language is interesting.  He talks not of children but the fruit of the womb.  Children are dependent on the womb, they are the fruit of their mother.  Why are you turning to me?  Look at yourself.




            Most commentators understand Rachel's plea to Jacob as a request for him to pray for her to have children.  Rashi's commentary:


"GIVE ME CHILDREN: Is this how your father and mother acted?  Did your father not pray for your mother?

OR I SHALL DIE: From here is the notion that those who have no children are considered as dead.

GOD HAS WITHHELD FROM YOU: You are telling me to act like my father.  I am not in his situation.  My father had no children at all.  I have children. God has prevented YOU from having children."


            Or in the interpretation of the Ibn Ezra:


"AM I IN THE PLACE OF GOD?: Am I the one who decides these things?  It is possible that Jacob prayed but he had not yet been answered."


            These commentators see Jacob's response as denying his ability to change the situation, either because he does not control these events, or because his prayers HAVE been answered.  He has children.  It is Rachel who must pray now!


            Indeed when Rachel eventually has a child, the Torah stresses the role of her prayer:


"God remembered Rachel AND GOD LISTENED TO HER and opened her womb." (30:32)




The Ramban expresses surprise at Jacob's insensitivity:


"Why did Jacob get angry?  Why did he say, 'Am I in the place of God?'  Doesn't God listen to the righteous? ... Don't the righteous pray on the behalf of others? ... In the Midrash they express disapproval: 'Is this how one responds to those who suffer?'"


But he adds a different perspective.


"In truth, she thought that out of his love for her, he would clothe himself in sackcloth and ashes and would pray for her ... Jacob got angry because she spoke in the way of the hysterical, trying to frighten him with threats of death."


            Rachel does not comment on Jacob's rebuke but instead resorts to a practical solution.  She offers her maidservant Bilha as a concubine to Jacob so that her children will be born on Rachel's knees.


            This short episode highlights Rachel's desperation.  She feels that her life will be nothing without children.  She feels that if Jacob really loves her, he should dedicate his entire being to the fulfillment of this need.  Maybe Jacob's anger is aroused by the underlying personal insult contained in her outburst.  You - Jacob - your love is not enough.  I need more.  If I don't have children, I might as well die.  And in the end, Rachel prefers to introduce a third woman into the marriage as long as she can give fulfillment to this passionate need.




            The motifs that we have highlighted here continue to run through the story of Rachel and Leah.  Rachel, despite her apparent preferred status, seems to be continually yearning for something else.  She feels that there is certain something that she lacks.  The story of the mandrakes (see 30:14-16) and her ongoing desire for children highlight this tendency.  Even when she does have a son, he becomes an expression of her ongoing desire when calls him Yosef: "May God add to me another child."  And at her potential moment of fulfillment, with the granting of that prayer and the birth of a second son, she dies.  She dies at the moment of her fulfillment, still unfulfilled.  She calls her second son Ben-Oni, the son of my affliction.


            It is not without a strong sense of irony that Rachel, who expressed true love and an image of perfection, lives and dies with such a tragic sense of longing, desire and yearning.  The beautiful Rachel, who romantically appears with her sheep and who Jacob loves at first sight, remains forever expectant, awaiting fulfillment.  In the words of Rav Adin Steinsaltz, "She is perhaps one of the most poignant expressions of the person who has everything - and yet remains lacking."


            It is ironic that Rachel is eternalized in the picture described by the prophet Jeremiah (31:16-17) as a woman in tears.  She cries for the children of Israel as they are led into exile.  Why does Rachel have this task?  Why is she the crying mother of the exile?  Because she knows the pain of non-fulfillment.  She knows what it is to live a dislocated fractured dream.  She reflects the yearnings of exile.  She understands.


            Leah, on the other hand, begins as the unhappiest of the matriarchs.  She is lonely and unloved.  But it is Leah who becomes the mother of six of Jacob's sons.  It is Leah who is buried in the Cave of Machpela together with Jacob.  In a sense, Leah's quiet desire, her prayers for companionship with Jacob, find their fruition.  Leah, through her children and her quiet dedication, achieves a togetherness with Jacob.


            This difference between the sisters is brought home by their different responses to childbearing.  It is also highlighted by Rachel's longing and Leah's calm commitment for Jacob in the story of the mandrakes.




            Rav Adin Steinsaltz, in his wonderful book, Biblical Images, summarizes the differences between the two relationships:


"Fundamentally, we have here two kinds of love in all            their complexity: a romantic love that draws its sustenance from longing, from separation and distance, from premature death - a love full of expectation, dreams and memories.  On the other hand, we have the love of a faithful woman, the woman who remains beside her husband, works and struggles in the daily round with him, bears him most of his children, and whose love and is constant, stable, and real.  Leah's relationship was without the drama, the elation, and the dejection that characterized his love for Rachel.  In a sense, she was the romantic .. Leah, the mature and faithful wife."




            There is a powerful epilogue to this story with all its tension and rivalry.  Whereas this story is simply a tale of two sisters, two wives, the Bible tends to weave larger patterns with wider historical implications.  The tension between Leah and Rachel continues through their children and the tribes that they found.


            Be it the tension between Joseph (Rachel's firstborn) and Judah (the leader of Leah's tribes) when they face each other over the fate of Benjamin, or later in the Bible, when the kingdom of Judah splits from the Kingdom of Ephraim, the tension and rivalry is always there.


            Interestingly, Rachel's characters are always known for their good looks but are often ephemeral, transient figures.  Be it Joseph, Joshua bin Nun, or King Saul, they are figures with great charisma but no continuation.  Leah's descendants lead us in a direct line to David, the man who put the Nation of Israel on its feet, who established the monarchy and made Israel into a  viable nation state.


            Indeed, in the end of days, we are told of two messiahs.  The Messiah of the son of Joseph is the herald of the redemption who will bring the volatile birthpangs of the Redemption.  He will activate the process but will not give it stability.  That is left to the Messiah - son of David.  It is he - descendant of Leah - who will establish the permanent Kingdom of God.


Shabbat Shalom.