Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Va-Yetze 5766/ December 10, 2005

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il

 

 

 

Rachel and Leah –Wife and Mother

 

Dr. Gabriel H. Cohn

 

Department of Bible

 

 

According to an ancient tradition, Rachel and Leah were twins:  “Rachel and Leah turned out to be … twins” (Seder Olam Rabbah 2).   As with Jacob and Esau, so too with Laban’s twins, Leah was called the elder and Rachel the younger, [1] and like Isaac’s twins, so too Rachel and Leah were completely different in their character and way of life. A close look at the biblical text enables us to draw to different images of these two women:  Rachel, active by nature and taking matters in hand, the other, domestic and passive.  Rachel’s presence is felt from the first moment that Jacob meets her; striking in her external appearance, extremely beautiful, she moves freely among the shepherds.   Jacob falls in love with Rachel at first glance (Gen. 29:18) [2] and chooses her to be his wife and companion. 

Rachel, however, does not settle for the role of Jacob’s mate; she wishes also to be the mother of his children, and as she continues to be barren she gives sharp expression to her desire to bear a child.   When her request is not answered, she comes up with the idea to have her maidservant Bilhah brought into Jacob’s household as a wife. Rachel expresses her feelings outright, and Scripture, which generally presents thoughts and feelings obliquely, notes explicitly in this case that she was jealous of her sister (Gen. 30:1).

This jealousy finds expression in the transaction with the mandrakes:  Leah had received a gift of mandrakes from her son, Reuben; this was an expression of a son’s love, so deeply longed for by Rachel. In exchange for the mandrakes of Leah’s son, Rachel offers to let Leah sleep with Jacob that night. [3]   Even the names of the sons that her maidservant Bilhah bore express Rachel’s gnawing agony:   “G-d has vindicated me [Heb. dananni, ‘to judge’]; indeed, He has heeded my plea” (Gen. 30:6); “A fateful contest I waged [Heb. naphtule ... niphtalti, connected with Naphtali] with my sister; yes, and I have prevailed” (Gen. 30:8).   Joseph’s birth also evokes in her a strong, almost egocentric, response:  “G-d has taken away [Heb. asaph] my disgrace...   May the Lord add [Heb. yoseph] another son for me” (Gen. 30:23-24).  So too the name that she gives her younger son, Ben-Oni [meaning “son of my suffering”, hence Benjamin], is tied to Rachel’s personal feelings.

Nonetheless, even though she bore few children, Rachel’s position as Jacob’s confidante continues, and when he consults his wives she is named first (“Jacob had Rachel and Leah called to the field” – 31:4; “Then Rachel and Leah answered him” – 31:14).  When they leave Laban’s house Rachel steals Laban’s idols and acts in her own way to conceal the theft, and in anticipation of his encounter with Esau, Jacob puts “Rachel and Joseph last” (33:2).   Indeed, she remains the beloved wife and an independent-minded woman, full of life and vitality.

In contrast, Leah is a mother figure through and through.  She modestly conceals her feminine charms, so that through her veil one can only see that her eyes are “gentle” [Heb. rakkot, rendered by New JPS translation as “weak”], or beautiful. [4]   She suffers constantly due to Jacob’s greater love for Rachel (“Was it not enough for you to take away my husband, that you would also take my son’s mandrakes?” – 30:15), and hopes that Jacob will be more loving to her because of the children she has borne.  She also gives most of her children names that reflect her aspiration:  “Now my husband will love me”; “This time my husband will become attached to me”; “This time my husband will exalt me” (29:32, 34; 30:20).

It might seem that Leah was concerned with herself, but that is not the case; Leah’s thoughts are on Jacob, and her entire aspiration is for him to be closer to her.  She is not troubled about her own honor and status – a way of thinking that to some extent characterizes Rachel, as finds expression in the names she gives her children – rather, Leah’s thoughts are entirely given over to Jacob.   In all that happens to her she remains passive, from the moment that her father gave her to Jacob (“He took his daughter Leah and brought her to him” – 29:23) until the day of her death.   Even when Leah appears to take action, for example, when she gives her maidservant Zilpah to Jacob, she does so following Rachel’s initiative. [5]

Strangely, over the years the position occupied by these two female figures became reversed:  Rachel came to be viewed as the mother of children, and Leah as Jacob’s wife. The prophet Jeremiah writes about Rachel crying for her children on the high road to Jerusalem (31:14-16):

Thus said the Lord:  A cry is heard in Ramah – wailing, bitter weeping – Rachel weeping for her children.   She refuses to be comforted for her children, who are gone.  Thus said the Lord:  Restrain your voice from weeping, your eyes from shedding tears; for there is a reward for your labor – declares the Lord:  They shall return from the enemy’s land, and there is hope for your future – declares the Lord:  Your children shall return to their country.

Thus the woman who most of her life was Jacob’s beloved, but barren, became the symbol of the mother of the children of Israel.   The word “sons” recurs in this prophecy three times, as the key word of the entire passage.   Many legends as well, describe the children of Israel heading out to exile and pleading that Rachel, the mother figure, help redeem them. [6]   In contrast, Leah, who in the Genesis narrative is the embodiment of the mother figure (with most of the Israelites being from her progeny), is the only one of Jacob’s wives to be buried next to her husband, as were the other matriarchs, and this was done at Jacob’s explicit request. [7]   We must conclude that Leah achieved this status as Jacob’s wife-- a position to which she came, ironically, by chance-- through persistent devotion to her husband her entire life. [8]



[1] “Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the older one was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel” (Gen. 29:16). Jacob had said explicitly to Laban that he was interested in his “younger daughter Rachel” (Gen. 29:18).

[2] The verb a-h-v, to love, occurs three times in the context of Jacob’s relationship with Rachel (29:18, 20, 30).

[3] What an irony of fate:  once more Jacob finds himself in relations with Leah, contrary to what he had intended, but this time at the initiative of Rachel herself.

[4] There are several well-known legends that associate Leah’s weak eyes with her sadness (Bava Batra 123a, also see Rashi on this verse).   Many commentators, however, view the vav before Rachel’s name in verse 17 as conjunctive, not disjunctive, and laud Leah for her beautiful eyes.  For example, Targum Onkelos says that Leah’s eyes were beautiful, Rashbam says they were pretty, etc.  Such an interpretation is far more suitable to the plain sense of the text and the nature of the biblical narrative.

[5] The only exception is when Leah goes out to meet Jacob, after having given her son’s mandrakes to Rachel, and proclaims:  “You are to sleep with me, for I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes” (30:16); but even in this case the initiative for the deal comes from Rachel.

[6] Rachel was the mother of the Messiah, son of Joseph, and she is buried on the high road over which the Judean exiles passed on their way to Babylonia.   Leah, whose progeny includes the Messiah, son of David, is buried in the patriarch’s tomb in the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron, south of Jerusalem.

[7] “Bury me with my fathers in the cave … which is in the field of Machpelah … that Abraham bought…  There Abraham and his wife Sarah were buried; there Isaac and his wife Rebekah were buried; and there I buried Leah” (Gen. 49:29-31).

[8] One could say that Jacob, throughout his life, was tied to the woman who complemented his character.  As a “mild man who stayed in camp” (25:27), he was particularly drawn to Rachel, who, like his mother, was a woman of action and initiative.   Over the years, as Jacob became a man of struggles and battles (Israel, wrestling with G-d), he began to appreciate Leah’s unique qualities, representing the other aspect of life.