Parshat Vayetze (Genesis 28:10-32:3)
Yaakov, with his vengeful brother, Esav, on his tail, escapes from his parents’ home and makes his way to his mother’s family in Haran. After an arduous if brief journey, Yaakov arrives at his uncle Lavan’s house in a destitute state. He begins working for his uncle, and with time, he fits right in. He gains his uncle’s favor, and Lavan’s daughters find him quite appealing, as well. He would have to work for seven years to marry each of the daughters, and although he desires Rachel, Lavan has other plans, and Yaakov is tricked into first marrying Leah.
Contrary to what we would have expected – and, in all likelihood, to what Yaakov would have preferred – it is Leah who is blessed with many children; six of the twelve tribes would descend from her: Reuven, Shimon, Levi, Yehuda, Yissachar and Zevulun.
The marriage of Yaakov and Leah, established under false pretenses in the first place, is heart-wrenchingly difficult for Leah, and she expresses her hardship in the names of her children. She names her eldest, Reuven, because “Hashem has seen my affliction”. The name of her second son, Shimon, is derived from “Hashem has seen that I am despised”. When her third son is born, she exclaims, “Now this time my husband will be attached to me, for I have borne him three sons”, on account of which she names the child Levi – a name expressing the resentment and isolation she felt during that time.
However, Leah’s experiences pale in comparison with Rachel’s emotional suffering during that same period of time. The Torah states: “And Rachel saw that she had not borne to Yaakov, and Rachel envied her sister, and she said to Yaakov, ‘Give me children, and if not, I am dead.’”
The frustrated woman’s agony about her inability to conceive is compounded by her jealousy for her sister, who is able to produce a large family. Her emotions peak when she pleads with Yaakov to pray on her behalf, as she cannot endure this horrible state any more.
It isn’t difficult for us to imagine her tortured emotional state, and to empathize with the harsh words she uses to describe her situation. This story taught our rabbis that people who are childless are likened to the dead. Unfortunately, Yaakov has a difficult time accepting the reality of Rachel’s desperation: “And Yaakov became angry with Rachel, saying, “Am I in place of Hashem, Who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?”
Our Sages differ in how they understand what Yaakov says – was his answer to her that she should be directing her complaints to Hashem and not to him? Perhaps his main argument was that under no circumstances may we threaten suicide if we don’t get everything we want from Hashem. Whatever his intent, our Sages criticize Yaakov’s response, saying: “The Holy One, Blessed Be He, said to , ‘Is this the way to respond to a woman in distress? Do you not know that your sons will one day prostrate themselves before ?’”
Yaakov is grossly insensitive. Rachel may have chosen a less than ideal way of expressing her pain, but when we see our spouse in such a dire state, it behooves us to respond with kindness. Yaakov’s criticism begins with “And Yaakov became angry with Rachel.” We should not become angry with someone crying out in pain. It does not matter whether Rachel’s claims are correct – she was expressing distress, and her soul mate should have listened with compassion to that expression of pain. Even when we don’t agree with those who hold different views, we are obliged to listen to their pain.
Usually, violence is associated with physical assault. Our parsha teaches us that an inappropriate verbal response that involves insulting someone else can be equally damaging. Is this how we respond to a woman in distress? This is a universal message: we must always listen to the cries of others.