In this parsha, the Torah describes the process of the building of Yaakov’s extended family. At first glance, this process is characterized by a romantic love story, as the Torah says: “And it was, when Jacob saw Rachel, daughter of Lavan 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 Lavan his mother’s brother. Then Jacob kissed Rachel; and he raised his voice and wept.” (Genesis 29:10-11) This love drives Yaakov to personal commitments, the likes of which we have not seen in the Torah. Yaakov obligates himself to work for seven years in order to marry Rachel: “Jacob loved Rachel, so he said, ‘I will work for you seven years, for Rachel your younger daughter’….So Jacob worked seven years for Rachel and they seemed to him a few days because of his love for her.” (Genesis 29:18, 20) However, this love must withstand the crisis of the breach of trust, when Lavan prepares the switch of Laya for Rachel, a deception in which Rachel participates. But love covers many sins — not only does Yaakov not claim that he no longer wants Rachel, his love for her is so strong that he obligates himself again to continue to work in order to marry her. In fact he loves her even more, as the Torah describes: “ He loved Rachel even more than Laya….” (Genesis 29:30)
This romantic description stands in stark contrast to the challenge the Torah presents in a clear and unequivocal manner. After Laya gives birth to her fourth child, Rachel reacts with feelings of jealousy: “Rachel saw that she had not borne children to Jacob, so Rachel became envious of her sister ….” This jealous outburst leads Rachel to articulate what was in her heart in a harsh manner, full of pain and suffering: “she said to Jacob, ‘Give me children — otherwise I am dead.” (Genesis 30:1) According to most Rishonim, Rachel raises a profound criticism in that Jacob did not pray on her behalf that she be granted children, (Rashi, Genesis 30:1 “Did your father act so towards your mother? Did he not pray on her behalf?” Similarly the Ibn Ezra wrote: “You should pray to God as your father did.”) and that he did not see her suffering that brought her to feelings of hopelessness and to a state of wishing to die.
This claim of Rachel is not just an ethical/religious claim, but also an interpersonal one. Rachel expresses great frustration in the treatment she received from Yaakov, who pays no attention to how wretched she feels in being barren. Rachel cannot understand how Yaakov could not see the pain she was in, how he could forget his love for her — wasn’t she the one who was supposed to be his exclusive wife. Yaakov’s reaction to Rachel’s complaint is particularly surprising, in that he blames Rachel herself for her situation, “Jacob’s anger flared up at Rachel, and he said, ‘Am I instead of God Who has withheld from you fruit of the womb?’” (Genesis 30:2) Many commentaries try to explain this offensive reaction. Rashi comments on this verse: “You say that I should do as my father did. But my circumstance is not the same as my father’s was. My father had no children at all. I, however, have children. He has withheld children from you, not from me.” This explanation of Rashi reveals that underneath the covering of the love of Yaakov for Rachel lurked the disappointment of Rachel’s inability to give birth. Yaakov, who had changed into an extremely pragmatic person, occupied with his flocks and building the family, could not find time for his beloved Rachel. Not only that, but he blamed her for her situation. Yaakov tells Rachel to wake up and look in the mirror and see her reflection, and ask herself in what way was not ok, that God “withheld from her the fruit of the womb”.
Yaakov leaves Rachel alone with her pain and loneliness, a fact that brings her to do something like her grandmother Sarah did, to ask Yaakov to mate with Bilha in order that “I too may be built up through her”. (Genesis 30:3) The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 71:7) criticizes Jacob’s reaction and claims: “The Holy One Blessed Be He said to him, ‘This is the way you answer one who is burdened?’” This Midrash is not only a criticism of the way Yaakov reacted, but also of the content of his words. Even if Yaakov thought that Rachel is the one who must do something, could he not at least pray for her? What happened to the love that caused Yaakov to work so hard in order to marry Rachel? It is possible to say that one of the messages of this story is that sometimes the first love dissipates as it confronts the pressures of time, occupations and the goals that each wants to achieve; that each of one of the couple must keep in mind for what purpose are they working so hard and spending so many hours working. Rachel tries to remind Yaakov of the love of their youth, of his obligations to her and of his concern for her.
However, I would like to suggest a different idea based on the commentary of the Ramban (Genesis 30:1) who claims: “(Rachel), in her jealousy, did not speak properly, and she thought that because of his love for her, Yaakov would fast and wear sackcloth and ashes and pray until she has children so she would not die in her suffering….and because she spoke in the manner of the longings of beloved women to scare him with her death, he became angry…to admonish and shame her. When the Righteous One sees that she cannot rely on the prayers of Yaakov, she goes back and prays for herself. God hears her cries as the verse says, ‘God hearkened to her’(Genesis 30:22).”
Rachel was used to the fact that she received all that she wanted in her life. The expression that Rachel used in confronting Yaakov “Give me children” is reminiscent of the expression that Yaakov used in confronting Lavan: “Give me my wife and I will consort with her.” (Genesis 29:21) Yaakov made a demand to Lavan that he was entitled to marry since he had worked in order to marry Rachel. Similarly, Rachel demands that Yaakov “Give me children” — I deserve it because of who I am, I am entitled to have children from you. Her beauty, her leadership ability (she was a shepherd) and her qualities enabled her to find favor in the eyes of all who met her. She embodied the image that everyone wanted to be her friend and thought that her entire life would be without challenges and difficulties. When Rachel is confronted with such an essential difficulty and challenge, she reacts in accordance with her normal behavior — looking to others to solve her problems. After all, Yaakov was head-over- heels in love with her, and was prepared to work to marry her, — certainly he would be obligated to pray for her! Yaakov, according to the Ramban, exactly because of his love for Rachel, felt that he was obligated to help her in a way that would allow her to cope with her problem by herself, to recognize on her own the the harsh reality: “He has withheld children from you, not from me.” He wants her to act “Here is my maid Bilha, consort with her”, wants her to pray in order that “God will listen to her”. Rachel only partially understood Yaakov’s message — she gives him Bilhah “that I too may be built up through her.” (Genesis 30:3) She calls the child born of this union “Dan” (Judge), because “God has judged me, He has also heard my voice” (Genesis 30:5) Only after she understands that she has not yet been chosen does she pray with greater vigor and greater strength until, “God remembered Rachel; God hearkened to her and He opened her womb.” (Genesis 30:22) Granted that Yaakov had good intentions that achieved its goals, and Rachel was remembered, nevertheless, the Midrash felt a need to criticize the manner of his reaction and the tone that he adopted.
Yaakov and Rachel’s love underwent vicissitudes and challenges which brought to light things between them that required fixing. Yaakov needed to show greater empathy to Rachel’s complaints which stemmed from her pain. Rachel needed to understand that not every problem and challenge in her life would be solved by someone else, because of her charm and good looks. Yaakov built his family together with Rachel and Laya, two totally different personalities. Laya overcame with great difficulty Yaakov’s lack of love for her, creating houses of kingship, priesthood and wisdom. Rachel overcame her nature and worked on improving herself until “God has taken away my disgrace.” (Genesis 30:23) “Like Rachel and like Laya, both of whom built up the House of Israel.” (Ruth 4:11) Two approaches exist in the nation of Israel. There are times when we are loved, accepting our heart’s desires without hard work — like Rachel, and, at times, we have to struggle, to petition, to plead for God to fulfill our requests, which sometimes are not answered completely. The building of Yaakov’s family is symbolic of the Nation of Israel and its relations with God, built upon these two mothers and their natures. Yaakov’s love for Rachel changes but is not replaced, and Laya also finds her place in Jacob’s household. These two approaches have relevance and strength, and these two approaches are tied to the building of the Jewish Nation throughout its ages and history. Ruth, who enters the house of Boaz “like Rachel and Laya” (Roth 4,11) symbolizes these approaches, yet in an opposite way. She was the “other” the stranger “Machlon’s wife” “a Moabite woman”. She had to work hard in order to clear her path to the Nation of Israel, but Boaz’s love for her was “love at first sight” when he saw her gleaning among the sheaves and immediately saw that “you are a worthy woman”. (Ruth 3:11) The educational message is deep: life sometimes is welcoming and sometimes presents great difficulties. Rachel, and Laya and Ruth after them, paved the way for us to be part of the builders of the House of Yaakov and the Jewish nation who are going up on the path to Beit El, the House of God.