We read in Parashat Vayetze of Rachel’s outburst of emotion after watching her sister, Leah, give birth to numerous children while she remained infertile. Rachel approached Yaakov and cried, “Give me children, for if not, [it is as though] I am dead!” (30:1). The Torah then tells that Yaakov reacted angrily to Rachel’s cry of desperation, and retorted, “Am I in the place of God, who has denied you fruit in the womb?”
The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 71) teaches that God criticized Yaakov for his angry reaction to his wife, rhetorically asking the patriarch, “Is this the way to respond to women in distress?” Yaakov’s punishment, the Midrash comments, was that his other sons would one day bow down before Rachel’s son – Yosef – to ask for his forgiveness, and he would then respond, “Do not fear, for am I in God’s place?” (50:19). Yosef used the same phrase in responding to his brothers that Yaakov had used in responding to Rachel – “Am I in God’s place?” – and thus the Midrash associates these two exchanges, asserting that Yaakov was punished for his sensitivity through the difficult exchange that later took place between his children.
One approach we might take in explaining the Midrash’s comment is to suggest that it alerts us to the far-reaching effects of a husband and wife’s relationship upon their children. Strife between parents can, very often, impact upon the children, who are likely to follow their parents’ negative example. The Midrash conveys this message in an especially striking manner, drawing an association between the tense but brief exchange between Yaakov and Rachel, which does not appear to have had any significant long-term impact upon their relationship, and the bitter friction that arose between Yosef and his brothers that yielded devastating consequences. When Yaakov confronted a tense, difficult situation, as his embittered wife was overcome by emotion and irrationally cast upon him the blame for her infertility – “Give me children” – he inappropriately reacted with anger. The Midrash is suggesting to us that one some level, and to some slight degree, this introduced an element of tension in their relationship which ended up impacting upon their children. And when the older brothers were faced with a favored brother who irresponsibly spoke of his dreams of leadership over them, they, too, reacted improperly, resorting to the drastic measure of driving him from the family. The Midrash draws a line from the brief and relatively mild conflict between Yaakov and Rachel, to the devastating conflict between Yosef and his brothers, in order to warn parents of the potential long-term effects of marital strife upon their children. Parents must endeavor to maintain as pleasant and respectful relationship as possible, for several reasons, not the least of which is to accustom and encourage their children to build and maintain healthy and peaceful relationships as they grow older, and not to destroy or strain their relationships through unwarranted anger in difficult and stressful situations.