Vayetze: Rachel and Reconciliation
By Rachel Marder, 12/10/16
I have a confession to make: I am a feminist. Okay, that part is not the confession. My confession is that I really struggle to connect to our matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. Other female characters in Tanakh, such as Tamar who stands up to her rapist brother Amnon, Deborah, the judge, poet and military hero, Esther, who saves the Jewish people, even the Shunamite woman — check out her fascinating story in 2 Kings — have always seemed to me to exhibit far more depth of character than our imahot. In the text, the imahot are at least named, which is more that can be said of other women in Tanakh (again, see Shunamite woman), but it often seemed to me that they are defined solely by their husbands and their ability or inability to bear children. The central drama of their lives is their children’s and their husband’s adventures and divine encounters. In particular, Rachel, the figure whose name I carry, along with most other Jewish women born in the ‘80s and ‘90s, often struck me as one-dimensional. I didn’t blame her for this — likely she was constructed by men who devoted little space to women’s inner lives and non-male-centered interactions — but I did find it frustrating that she wasn’t a stronger character. However, I realize now that I was not giving Rachel her proper due. She is a character of great substance with much to teach us. Through her struggle with infertility, she conveys the harsh reality of being a woman in the ancient world; forges a direct relationship with God; and offers us a model for reconciliation both with her sister, and with God.
When we first meet Rachel in this week’s parasha, Vayetze, the Biblical narrator immediately pits the two sisters against each other. “Leah had weak eyes; Rachel was shapely and beautiful,” יפת תואר ויפת מראה, (Gen. 29:17). With this initial verse contrasting the sisters’ physical appearance, the narrator is alerting us of what is to come: competition, jealousy, and strife between the two. Like Jacob and Esav, who are described as opposite in nature — Esau was a hunter, while Jacob is an indoor person, Rachel and Leah are also described as opposites.
Jacob loves Rachel and works for 14 years to win her hand in marriage. During this time Lavan tricks Jacob into marrying Leah. Once married, it is now God who fosters resentment between the sisters. “The Lord saw that Leah was unloved or hated, שנואה and he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren” (30:31). Each sister possesses what the other desires: Rachel has her husband’s heart, but is jealous of Leah’s fruitfulness; Leah can have children, but yearns for Jacob’s heart.
Rachel laments to Jacob: “Give me children or I am a dead woman” (30:1). The Reform movement Women’s Torah commentary explains her tragedy: “Rachel equates her inability to give birth with death, implying that her story will never be told if not condensed in the name of a child.” She is protesting not only her barrenness, but a frustration with “the limits that her society sets on female autonomy.” (p.165). She turns to her husband who holds authority over her, but he responds angrily and deflects blame to God. “Can I take the place of God who has denied you fruit of the womb?” (30:2) Jacob asks rhetorically. The Women’s Torah commentary notes, however, that “had Rachel not spoken out her journey would have had no beginning and no fulfillment” (165). When Jacob, according to Rashi, refuses to pray for his wife to get pregnant, she tries another tactic; she gives her handmaid, Bilhah, to Jacob, as a concubine, so that “through her I too may have children” (30:3). Bilhah gives birth to two sons, two points for Rachel, but Leah begins to feel threatened, so she gives her handmaid, Zilpah, to Jacob, who fathers two more sons through her. Rachel then tries medicinal aid to get pregnant, bargaining with Leah for her son Reuven’s mandrakes, known as “love fruit,” apparently an aphrodisiac or fertility aid in the ancient world. Rachel takes three distinct actions to get pregnant: a verbal protest, bringing in a concubine, and eating mandrakes, and God responds to her in turn with three actions: “ויזכר אלקים את רחל, וישמע אליה אלקים ויפתח את רחמה — God remembered Rachel; God heeded her and opened her womb” (30:22). Rachel’s efforts to conceive alert God to her desperation to be known, remembered, and hold a place in history.
Like Jacob, Rachel is a wrestler. She struggles with her sister and with God in her effort to get pregnant, and, like Jacob, she succeeds. When Rachel’s son Naftali is born to Bilhah, she says: “נפתולי אלקים נפתלי עם אחותי וגם יכולתי’’, A fateful contest I waged with my sister, yes and I have prevailed” (30:8). Rachel’s wrestling, like Jacob’s in next week’s parasha, is transformative. She becomes a matriarch in Israel, and will ultimately be remembered as the mother of all of בני ישראל, “weeping for her children who are not” (Jeremiah 31:15) following the Babylonian exile.
Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso writes that Jacob demands a blessing from the angel he wrestles before he lets him go; Rachel too receives a blessing from her adversaries. Leah gives her the mandrakes, and not long after that, God opens her womb. A midrash teaches that the effort to help Rachel conceive was a shared one: “all the wives of Jacob — Leah, Rachel, Zilpah and Bilhah united their prayers with the prayer of Jacob and together they besought God to remove the curse of barrenness from Rachel. On Rosh Hashanah, the day when God sits in judgment upon the inhabitants of the earth, God remembered Rachel and granted her a son” (Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews).
Unlike Jacob and Esav’s bitter conflict, which is seemingly resolved in the text but for the Rabbis continues eternally with Esav fathering an oppressive nation — Rome — the Rabbis recall Rachel and Leah’s relationship as one marked by enduring reconciliation and mutual nurturing. The gemara in Megillah 13b teaches that when Jacob and Rachel decided to wed, Rachel warned Jacob that her trickster father would try to marry him to Leah. So Jacob devises a plan to share simanim, secret signs, with his beloved that only she would recognize so that if Rachel is switched with Leah on the wedding night he will be able to tell. But when Rachel sees that Leah is married off to Jacob she does not want her to be embarrassed that night, so she shares the signs with her so he won’t know that it is Leah. Hence, the Torah says that the next morning, as if Jacob were surprised, “behold it was Leah” (29:25).
Midrash Rabbah Eicha adds an additional poignant detail: Rachel even hid under Leah and Jacob’s marital bed to convey the signs to her sister. Rachel’s concern for her sister is matched by her sister’s concern for Rachel’s infertility in the mandrakes episode. The two sisters model compromise in this interaction; in striking their deal, they each get something they want; Leah gets Jacob for the night and Rachel gets help in her effort to conceive. In contrast, when Jacob strikes a deal with Esav for his birthright, he cheats his brother, and then steals his father Isaac’s blessing.
Rabbi Sasso notes another fascinating difference between sibling pairs Jacob and Esav and Rachel and Leah. Unlike Jacob who had to run away from his brother before they were able to reconcile, Rachel and Leah “build their lives in the same tent. Rachel’s struggle teaches us that reconciliation is not a process apart from other people, but with them, and that we come to better know ourselves through the eyes of another human being. Jacob’s spiritual search demands solitude. Rachel and Leah tell us that it demands engagement” (p.81). We also note that Jacob and Esav’s children do not get along, but Rachel and Leah’s do. They are not without conflict – they do sell Rachel’s son Joseph into slavery — but they also reconcile. And according to a midrash in Eichah Rabbah, Rachel, who was buried along the road to Efrat, greets Leah’s children as they return to the Land of Israel from exile.
Because of Rachel’s kindness toward her sister in sharing the secret signs, she is credited in Eichah Rabbah with convincing God to reconcile with the Jewish people and return them to the land. Rachel says: “I did her a kindness, was not jealous of her, and did not expose her to shame. And if I, a creature of flesh and blood, formed of dust and ashes, was not envious of my rival and did not expose her to shame and contempt, why should You, a King who lives eternally and is merciful, be jealous of idolatry, and exile my children and let them be slain by the sword… Immediately, the mercy of the Holy One blessed be He was stirred, and God said: ‘For your sake, Rachel, I will restore Israel to its place.’” Rachel is peacemaker between God and the Jewish people, and makes national rebuilding possible.
Though initially described as beautiful and shapely, it is actually Rachel’s strong voice, sincerity, and sacred struggle that set her apart. Rachel teaches us to engage closely with others — especially those with whom we struggle — and that a single act of kindness can have far-reaching effects.