Parashat Vayetze: Rachel and Leah; Symbiosis and Change
The identities, the differences the unavoidable dynamics and the re-interpretations of two of the matriarchs of the Jewish people affects the meaning of motherhood within the consciousness of the Jewish people.
by Yonat Lemberger, Principal
OTS Oriya High School
In Parashat Vayetze, we encounter two women who are related in a rather unusual way, despite being intrinsically different, and this relationship involves a somewhat impossible symbiosis. An ordinary relationship between two sisters should be one based on having the same parents. Yet in this surrealistic setting, Rachel and Leah also compete for the love of a common husband. They both “fill the void” at the same time. Their essence is tied to two things they have in common – parents and a husband – though it is these common relationships that engender their otherness.
Their identities as women, the contrasts and the unavoidable dynamics between them, produced a relationship which affects the meaning of motherhood within the consciousness of the Jewish people.
Their identities as women go through various transformations, become rather different than they were at first. They starkly contrast in several ways. Their external appearance is different: Rachel had “beautiful features and a beautiful complexion”, while Leah’s eyes were “tender”.
Their personalities differed. Rachel is portrayed as an active person, a trait demonstrated when she met Jacob – “and she ran and told her father” (Genesis 29,9-12), and when she failed to have children, she took the initiative and asked to be “built” through her maidservant, Bilhah. She demonstrates her “go-getter” personality once more when she steals her father’s idols. Rachel knows how to get things done, even if it involves trickery. She trades her husband’s company for Reuven’s dudaim (Jasmine flowers), sneaks away her father’s idols, and even lies to her father. In contrast, Leah is portrayed as passive, submitting herself to hardship: “[With] divine bonds I have been joined to my sister; I have also prevailed.” (Ibid., 30:8).
This contrast is coupled with the fact that Rachel, the beautiful and beloved wife whom Jacob kissed at the opening of the well, could not fulfill her role as a mother. Leah, however, fulfills her role as a mother, yet longs for her husband’s love, failing to ever win it. Jacob loved Rachel at first sight, and the seven years he worked to acquire her as a wife were like “a few days for him, as he loved her so much” (Ibid., 29:20). The text mentions that Jacob loved Rachel more than he loved her sister: “… and he also loved Rachel more than Leah” (Ibid. 29:30). When Leah gave birth to Reuven, she expressed her longing for Jacob’s love in Reuven’s name: “… for now, my husband shall love me” (ibid., 29:32).
The Holy One, Blessed Be He compensated Leah for her miserable state, producing another contrast between the two women: “And Hashem saw that Leah was hated, and He opened her womb, while Rachel was barren” (ibid. 29:31). Leah, the hated wife, merited to have her womb opened, and produced sons for her husband, while Rachel’s womb remained sealed and barren.
The two women were terribly jealous of one another. Each of them was jealous of what the other had. Leah envied Rachel because Jacob loved Rachel more, while Rachel envied Leah because she was able to have children. Jacob also preferred Joseph, Rachel’s son, over all his other sons, and his soul was deeply tied to Benjamin’s.
Consequently, Leah fulfilled the role of the mother, while Rachel played the part of the beloved wife. These two roles are kept separate, and are incapable of coexisting. Rachel died upon giving birth to her second son. She was never able to be a mother to her children, and was buried on the way to Efrata, in Bethlehem. Leah was buried beside her husband, Jacob, in the Cave of the Machpelah.
Once Rachel died, the roles of the two characters reversed; Rachel is now seen as maternal. We read in the Book of Jeremiah that Rachel wept over her children, and could not be consoled, and for that, she would receive a reward: “And there is hope for your future, says Hashem, and the children shall return to their own border” (Jeremiah 31:14-16). Moreover – Leah is now given a more active role in Jewish history, when a Messiah, who is the offspring of David, replaces the Messiah who is an offspring of Joseph. The kingship was taken away from Saul, who was of the tribe of Benjamin, one of Rachel’s sons, and is given to David, who was of the tribe of Judah, one of Leah’s sons.
The Midrash’s approach to these characters is intriguing. In Midrash Rabbah, Rachel is judged harshly, while Leah is praised. Rachel’s death is seen as a punishment for being too active, while Leah’s children are seen as a reward for her righteousness. “And Rachel and Leah answered, and said to him” (Genesis 31:14). “Why did Rachel die first? … Rabbi Yodan says that she spoke before her sister” (Genesis Rabbah, 64:4, chapter 4).
In the Midrash for Lamentations Rabatei Petichta, chapter 21, we find that the turnaround occurred because of a conversation Rachel had with the Holy One, Blessed Be He, which caused Him to change her status into one of a merciful mother. “At that very moment, Rachel, our matriarch, jumped up in front of the Holy One, Blessed Be He, exclaiming “Master of the Universe! It has been revealed to me that Jacob, your servant, loved me profusely, and worked for my father for seven years on my account, and when he completed those seven years, my father decided to give him my sister in my stead, and this troubled me deeply.” In other words, Rachel explains that this occurred because of her father’s connivery, and her argument is accepted.
If we explore Hebrew poetry, we’ll discover that these two characters are portrayed differently there than they are in the text of the Torah. Rachel Bluwstein (“Rachel the Poetess”), who had also deeply desired a child, identified with Rachel, the matriarch. “For her blood flows within me”, she writes, in her poem Will you hear my voice, as a woman yearning for her lover. In contrast to the biblical text, which mentions only Jacob’s love for Rachel, Rachel the Poetess longs for her lover. We would expect this description to refer to Leah, who longed for Jacob, whom she loved.
In her poem Like Rachel, Dahlia Ravikovitch describes Rachel:
All the days of her life tumble within her /
Like an infant seeking to be born /
The love of Jacob devoured her wholly /
Now, as the soul departs /
She has no more desire for all this.
In the poem, Jacob’s love for Rachel is seen as a force that smothers Rachel, and when she dies, she is released from the bonds of love that she may not have wanted in the first place.
The poem concludes on a harsh note: Rachel was abandoned, but she [Dahlia Ravikovitch] wishes to die like her.
They laid her between the stones of the hills /
And did not mourn her /
I wish to die like Rachel.
Meanwhile, Leah’s character becomes beautiful and beloved in Ehud Manor’s song, “I love you, Leah”. Leah’s character, which the biblical text describes as “the one with the tender eyes”, is described here as a woman who is just as beautiful as Rachel: “And your eyes, how beautiful they are, like Rachel’s”.
Moreover, Jacob is portrayed as having loved Leah:
I love you, Leah, I love you, and I’m proud of it /
If I forget you, Leah, my name isn’t Israel.
This description is a complete departure from the biblical narrative on the relationship between Jacob and Rachel. Jacob is described as someone who loved Leah, so much so that if he would ever forget her, his name would be forgotten.
In conclusion, the fascinating characters of these two women have been reinvented in various texts that feature them, from the biblical text to how they are portrayed in Israeli poetry. Thus, commentary becomes an important tool in developing different interpretations of the biblical text.