INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA
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
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 ..."
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.
RACHEL AND LEAH
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
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.
SISTERS AND WIVES.
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.
CHILDREN AND TENSION
These tensions are demonstrated in the women's desire to produce children for
"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
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.
PRAY FOR ME
Most commentators understand Rachel's plea to Jacob as a request for him
to pray for her to have children.
"GIVE ME CHILDREN: Is this how your father and mother acted? Did your father not pray for your
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
Indeed when Rachel eventually has a child, the Torah stresses the role of
"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
"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
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.
DESIRE AND FULFILLMENT
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.
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.