“The Complex Relationship Between Jacob, Rachel and Leah”

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeitzei, Jacob, who has fled from his father’s home in BeerSheba where Esau seeks to kill him, arrives in Charan.

In Charan, Jacob encounters the shepherds, who are watering the flocks at the well. Engaging them in discussion, Jacob asks about his uncle, Laban the son of Nahor. The shepherds, who obviously have no great love for Laban, are curt with Jacob, and tell him of the imminent arrival of Laban’s daughter, Rachel, with her father’s flocks.

Scripture informs us, in Genesis 29:10, that Jacob is deeply moved when beholding the beautiful Rachel, “Va’yeh’hee ka’ah’sher rah’ah Yaakov et Rachael bat Lavan ah’chee ee’moh…vah’yee’gahsh Yaakov va’yah’gel et ha’eh’vehn may’ahl pee ha’b’ayr, v’yahshk et tzohn Lavan ah’chee ee’moh,” And it was, when Jacob saw Rachel, the daughter of Laban, his mother’s brother, and the flock of Laban, his mother’s brother, Jacob came forward and rolled the stone off the mouth of the well, and watered the sheep of Laban, his mother’s brother.

Normally, it would take a unified effort of all the shepherds to roll off the stone. Rachel’s appearance obviously had an empowering effect on Jacob. Scripture tells us that Jacob then kissed Rachel, and raised his voice and wept. Jacob identifies himself as Laban’s nephew, Rebecca’s son, and Rachel runs to tell her father.

Shortly after, Laban offers Jacob a job as a shepherd. Scripture, in Genesis 29:17, describes Laban’s two daughters, telling us that the eyes of Leah, the elder daughter, were “Rakot,” soft and tender, while the younger daughter, Rachel, was very beautiful of form and appearance.

Because of Jacob’s great love for Rachel, he offers to work for her for seven years. Scripture tells us that seven years seemed to Jacob like but a few days, because of Jacob’s love for Rachel.

As is well known, on the wedding night, the wily Laban switches daughters on Jacob. Jacob wakes up in the morning, only to find that he had married Leah instead of Rachel. Out of great love for Rachel, Jacob is prepared to work another seven years for her. Scripture tells us, Genesis 29:30, “Vah’yah’voh gahm el Rachael, va’yeh’eh’hav gahm et Rachael me’Leah, va’yah’vohd ee’moh ohd sheh’vah shah’neem ah’chay’roht,” Jacob had relations with Rachel and loved Rachel even more than Leah, and he [Jacob] worked for him [Laban] yet another seven years. The Torah then informs us that since G-d saw that Leah was unloved, He opened her womb, while Rachel remained barren. Leah gives birth to four sons, and then stops giving birth. In desperation, and envious of her sister, Rachel cries out to Jacob, Genesis 30:1, “Havah lee vah’neem, v’im ah’yin, may’tah ah’no’chee,” Give me a child, or else there is no point in my living! Rachel gives her handmaiden, Bilhah, to her husband, who bears two sons for Jacob. Leah, who had also stopped giving birth, then presents her own maidservant, Zilpah, to Jacob, who also bears two more boys.

Scripture (Genesis 30:14) then relates an intriguing tale about Reuben, who goes out to the field in the days of the wheat harvest, and finds dudaim, and brings them to Leah, his mother. Dudaim, generally translated as mandrakes, were considered to be a fertility drug. Rachel, still without child, approaches her sister Leah, begging her to give her some of Reuben’s dudaim. Leah demurs, saying (Genesis 30:15), “Isn’t it enough that you have taken my husband, now you want to take my son’s dudaim?” Rachel responds by offering Leah the right to lie with Jacob that night in her stead.

As a result of this bargain, Leah conceives and bears a fifth son, and, subsequently, a sixth son. She finally gives birth to a daughter, named Dina. It is only then that G-d remembers Rachel, who bears a son named Joseph.

In his volume featuring Rabbi Soloveitchik’s lessons on the Book of Genesis, David Holtzer records Rabbi Soloveitchik’s fascinating insights into the very complex relationship between Jacob, Rachel and Leah. With his exceptionally perceptive eye, Rabbi Soloveitchik maintains that Leah was not being mean to Rachel when she refused to give her son’s dudaim to her sister. It was a case, says Rabbi Soloveitchik, of a “lonely woman whose love was not reciprocated and felt frustrated.”

Rabbi Soloveitchik, in fact, sees Rachel as the epitome of chessed and self-sacrifice, who regularly gave up her most precious possessions and her elementary rights, in order to make it possible for others to find the happiness that was denied them. That is why Rachel reveals the secret codes that Jacob had given her, when he suspected that Laban would switch wives on him. Rachel, at a great personal price, helps her older sister, because she knows that Leah, who is not as beautiful as she, would, otherwise, have only a slight chance of ever getting married.

Rabbi Soloveitchik cites the amazing Midrash in Eicha Rabba [Lamentations]. The Midrash states that after witnessing the destruction of the Temple, the prophet Jeremiah pleads with G-d not to completely destroy the Jewish people. He even seeks out Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses from their graves, to plead on behalf of the Jewish people. Abraham beseeches the Al-mighty G-d, reminding Him of his preparedness to sacrifice his own child to G-d. When Abraham’s plea is rejected, Isaac reminds G-d of his preparedness to be burnt on the altar like a lamb. This, too, is of no avail. Jacob then reminds G-d how he wrestled with the angel of Esau, in order to save the children of Israel. Moses, the faithful shepherd of Israel for forty long years, recalls that, after all his devotion, he was not permitted to enter the Promised Land.

After all pleas of the great Jewish leaders were rejected, the People of Israel themselves raise their voices, their grief piercing the very heavens. Still, the Al-mighty would not yield.

Suddenly, mother Rachel stood plaintively before G-d, reminding Him of her overwhelming love for Jacob. But when she saw that her father, Laban, was switching her with her sister Leah, Rachel chose to reveal the secret signs that Jacob had given her, to Leah, so that her sister would not be mortified. She even hid in the bridal chamber, so that when Jacob spoke with Leah, Rachel herself replied, so that Leah’s voice would not betray her.

Cried Rachel, “I, a woman, a creature of flesh and blood, of dust and ashes, was not jealous of my rival. Thou O G-d, everlasting King, Thou eternal and merciful Father, why are You jealous of idols and empty vanities? Why have You driven out my children, slain them by the sword, and left them at the mercy of their enemies?”

It was only then, that G-d’s compassion was awakened, and He said, “For your sake, O Rachel, I will lead the children of Israel back to their land.”

Rabbi Soloveitchik suggests that Rachel’s true identity is revealed by the meaning of her Hebrew name–a sheep. The matriarch Rachel, was, in essence, a quiet, mute woman who lived a sacrificial life and died young. Always silent, when she died in childbirth, she was not even buried next to the man whom she loved so deeply. She never merited to see her second son, whom she called Ben Oni, the son of my grief, the son of distress, the son of despair.

Only once do we find Rachel complaining, says Rabbi Soloveitchik, when she reached the point of exhaustion and despair, and like a shriek in the night, she cries out to Jacob, “Give me a child, or else there is no point in my living.” This cry of a pained human being, this shriek of hopelessness and despair, was uttered only once, and never repeated.

By all accounts, Leah becomes a distinguished matriarch. Her firstborn child, Reuben, is the eldest of all the tribes. Simeon is traditionally regarded as the tribe of educators of Israel. The priests, the Levites, are all descendants of Levi. The kings and leaders are the offspring of Judah. The scholars and the leaders of the Sanhendrin come from Issachar, while the wealthy merchants, stem from Zebulun.

In contrast, Rachel becomes the matron of the family. She too gives birth to a firstborn, Joseph, who saves the people from famine, and whose descendants are kings. In fact, the prophet Jeremiah (31:19) refers to all of Israel as, “My beloved son, Ephraim.” The Temple dwells in the portion of Rachel’s son, Benjamin.

The relationship between Jacob, Rachel and Leah is a most complex relationship. Ultimately, it is Rachel who is regarded as the quintessential matriarch of Israel, who cries over her children, and in whose merit the People of Israel are eventually redeemed.

May you be blessed.