Yaakov and Rachel

  • Rav Amnon Bazak

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Dedicated in memory of Szore Rivka (Agnes) Reiter-Kitay z"l,
whose yahrzeit will be on the 6th of Kislev.

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  1. The Shepherds

The story of Yaakov’s love for Rachel, which occupies a central place in or parasha, is one of the most well-developed love stories in the Torah. In this shiur, we will focus on the significant early stages of the relationship, as depicted in the parasha.

The Torah devotes a number of verses to the description of Yaakov’s arrival in Charan. This immediately raises the question of why such a detailed description is necessary:

Then Yaakov lifted his feet and went to the land of the people of the east. And he looked, and behold, a well in the field, and lo, there were three flocks of sheep lying by it, for out of that well they watered the flocks, and a great stone was upon the well’s mouth. And there were all the flocks gathered, and they rolled the stone from the well’s mouth, and watered the sheep, and put the stone back upon the well’s mouth in its place. And Yaakov said to them, “My brethren, where are you from?” And they said, “We are of Charan.” And he said to them, “Do you know Lavan, son of Nachor?” And they said, “We know him.” And he said to them, “Is he well?” And they said, “He is well, and behold, Rachel, his daughter, comes with the sheep.” (Bereishit 29:1-6)

The Torah seems to seek to convey the social atmosphere that Yaakov encounters. He finds himself dealing with a group of bored, apathetic, and lazy shepherds. His attempt to start a friendly conversation, “My brethren, where are you from?” meets with a laconic response: “We are of Charan.” They show not the slightest interest in the identity, origin, or welfare of this stranger, not even bothering to ask, “And where are you from? What do you seek here?”

This impression grows stronger as the dialogue continues. Yaakov asks, “Do you know Lavan, son of Nachor?” and all they offer is, “We know [him].” It is surely clear to the shepherds that this question seeks more than just a yes or no response; it invites information about Lavan’s situation and how Yaakov might find him. In their apathy, the shepherds make no attempt to think a step ahead.

Yaakov tries again: “Is he well?” And here the response is a little longer: “[He is] well, and behold, Rachel, his daughter, comes with the sheep.” In a sense, Yaakov has “hit the jackpot” – but the shepherds seem to offer the information that Rachel, Lavan’s daughter, will soon be arriving, simply as a way of getting Yaakov to leave them alone. The implication is that if he has any further questions, he should address them to Rachel.

“And they said to him” – Why do you engage us in such lengthy conversation about him? “Behold, Rachel, his daughter, comes with the sheep” – she is a chatterbox like you! Ask her whatever you want to know. We have no desire to talk so much.” (Hadar Zekenim commentary, Ba’alei ha-Tosafot)

Another aspect of the shepherds’ lethargy soon becomes apparent. It is midday, and they are waiting at the well, doing nothing. Yaakov, whose work ethic is revealed to us later on in the parasha, can no longer contain himself in the face of such irresponsibility and indolence. He addresses the shepherds with a question and a rebuke:

And he said, “Behold, it is still high day; it is not time for the cattle to be gathered together. Water the sheep, and go and feed them!” (29:7)

To which the shepherds respond that they are unable to do so:

And they said, “We cannot, until all the flocks are gathered together, and they roll the stone from the well’s mouth; then we may water the sheep.” (29:8)

Two comments arise with regard to this response. First, it is entirely unsatisfactory, since it offers no explanation for why the shepherds came with the sheep so early, rather than waiting for the time when all the herds would gather and the rock would be rolled off the mouth of the well. Second, it immediately becomes apparent that even the claim itself holds no water. Yaakov, a “plain man dwelling in tents” who has just arrived and is tired from his journey, is able to remove the stone without any particular difficulty.

We can well imagine Yaakov’s thoughts at this stage. He has been sent by his parents to a faraway place where there supposedly awaits a better society, from which he is to choose a wife. But his first encounter with this society is deeply disappointing. He meets idle people who make no effort to be welcoming and who show no dedication to their work. This is the society in which Rachel, Lavan’s daughter, has grown up. Is he really going to find a worthy partner, suited to the path of his fathers, in this place?

  1. The Meeting

And suddenly Rachel arrives. Yaakov sees her and is beside himself:

While he was still speaking with them, Rachel came with her father’s sheep, for she kept them. And it came to pass, when Yaakov saw Rachel, the daughter of Lavan, his mother’s brother, and sheep of Lavan, his mother’s brother, that Yaakov went near, and rolled the stone from the well’s mouth, and watered the flock of Lavan, his mother’s brother. And Yaakov kissed Rachel, and raised his voice, and wept. (29:9-11)

How did Yaakov know that this was Rachel? Why did he kiss her, and why did he weep?

All these questions would appear to have the same answer. The Torah emphasizes three times within one single verse the fact that Lavan is Yaakov’s mother’s brother. This leads us to suggest that Rachel bore a striking resemblance to Rivka, his beloved mother, and he therefore had no difficulty identifying her. In kissing Rachel, Yaakov in fact expresses his longing for Rivka. He recalls her after having suppressed any thought of her throughout his journey, and now he cannot help but weep.

This raises the question of whether the external resemblance between Rachel and Rivka indicates a deeper similarity in their personalities. The verses show a considerable gap in their respective behavior when faced with a similar situation:

And Yaakov told Rachel that he was her father’s brother and that he was Rivka’s son, and she ran and told her father. And it was, when Lavan heard the tidings of Yaakov, his sister’s son, that he ran to meet him, and embraced him, and kissed him, and brought him to his house. And he told Lavan all these things. (29:12-13)

There are two points where we discern the difference between Rachel and Rivka. When Avraham’s servant first meets Rivka, he is shown kindness and devoted hospitality. Rachel, in contrast, says not a word to Yaakov. In addition, the text records that when Rivka hears of the connection between the foreign guest and her family, “The girl ran and told those of her mother’s household these things” (24:28). Rachel, on the other hand, “ran and told her father.” Where is Rachel’s mother? Since no mention is made of her anywhere in the narrative, we must assume that Rachel’s mother has died, such that Lavan, her father, is the central figure in her life. In light of Lavan’s unscrupulous nature, as revealed in the continuation of the story, we can only wonder how the character of Rachel, his daughter, has been molded thus far.

Of course, none of this lessens Yaakov’s love for Rachel in any way:

And Leah’s eyes were weak, but Rachel was beautiful and well-favored. And Yaakov loved Rachel, and said, “I will serve you seven years for Rachel, your younger daughter.” And Lavan said, “It is better that I give her to you, that that I should give her to another man; stay with me.” And Yaakov served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days, for the love he had to her. (29:17-20)

The verses emphasize the connection between Yaakov’s love for Rachel and the fact that she was “beautiful and well-favored.” Here, too, we are reminded that Rivka is likewise described as being “very fair to look upon” (24:16).

Yaakov is so deeply in love with Rachel that the seven years that he works for her seem to him like just a few days. Throughout that time, he dreams of the day when he will finally marry this girl, who reminds him so strongly of his beloved mother.

  1. “And Yaakov’s Anger Burned Against Rachel”

Not surprisingly, when a marriage is based on high hopes and expectations that have no real basis, is it only a matter of time until problems come to the surface. In the case of Yaakov and Rachel, the crisis comes after Leah has borne four sons while Rachel remains childless:

And when Rachel saw that she bore Yaakov no children, Rachel was jealous of her sister, and said, “Give me children (or “sons”) or else I die.” (30:1)

There are two disturbing elements here. First, Rachel’s jealousy of Leah seems to be problematic.[1] Second – and this is the main problem – her demand that Yaakov somehow solve the problem seems quite unjustified. This behavior is far removed from the approach that Rivka had adopted when she herself had been faced with a disturbing problem:

And the children (or “the sons”) struggled together within her, and she said, “If it be so, why am I thus?” And she went to inquire of the Lord. (25:22)

In light of this contrast, it is easier to understand Yaakov’s response to Rachel:

And Yaakov’s anger burned against Rachel, and he said, “Am I in the place of God, Who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?!” (30:2)

Yaakov conveys two messages here. First, the demand should be addressed not to him, but to God. Second, Yaakov already has four sons from Leah. It is Rachel herself from whom God has decided to withhold children.

Although Yaakov is right, Chazal view his response as insensitive. Rachel is not necessarily speaking based on reason, but rather expressing her acute distress:

The Holy One, blessed be He, said to [Yaakov], “Is this how one answers those in anguish?!’” (Bereishit Rabba [Albeck] 71:2)

If we try to understand the harshness of Yaakov’s response, we can only conclude that he, too, is expressing his difficult emotions. He is disappointed in her for not turning to God in prayer, as Rivka had done in her time.

Rachel does not internalize this message right away. She goes on to try to produce offspring in a different way:

And she said, “Behold, my maid, Bilha – go in to her, and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.” (30:3)

Rachel seems to be following in the footsteps of Sara, who sought to bear Avraham children and adopted a similar strategy:

Now Sarai, Avram’s wife, bore him no children, and she had an Egyptian handmaid, whose name was Hagar. And Sarai said to Avram, “Behold, now, the Lord has restrained me from bearing; I pray you, go in to my maid; it may be that I may obtain children by her.” (16:2-3)[2]

However, there are some conspicuous differences between these two matriarchs. First, Sara addresses Avraham with a request, making use (twice) of the expression na (I pray you). What Rachel addresses to Yaakov sounds more like a demand. Second, Sara states explicitly that she is infertile because “the Lord has restrained me from bearing.” Rachel makes no mention of this. Finally, as a function of the two previous points, while Sara is aware that the measure she proposes has no guarantee of success (“It may be that I may obtain children by her”), Rachel confidently declares, “… that I may also have children by her.”

Rachel’s handmaid does in fact bear two sons, but Rachel herself, for the time being, remains childless.

Finally, Rachel tries yet another route to childbearing:

And Reuven went in the days of the wheat harvest, and he found mandrakes in the field, and brought them to his mother Leah. And Rachel said to Leah, “Give me, I pray you, of your son’s mandrakes.” (30:14)

What is the meaning of this request? Seemingly, it relates to the powers of stimulation of fertility that are attributed to this plant.[3] This would explain Leah’s harsh reaction:

And she said to her, “Is it a small matter that you have taken my husband? Would you then take away my son’s mandrakes,[4] too?” (30:15)

In other words, Leah argues, “Not only do you have the love of our husband, but you also want to enlist my help in erasing the only advantage that I have over you – children?!”

Rachel’s response also makes sense in view of this interpretation:

And Rachel said, “Therefore he shall lie with you tonight for your son’s mandrakes.” (ibid)

If the mandrakes are indeed a natural medicine that aids infertility, then Leah will enjoy its benefits first. Indeed, it is ultimately only Leah who achieves a pregnancy at the conclusion of this episode, after praying for it:

And God heard Leah, and she conceived and bore Yaakov a fifth son. (30:17)

Rachel, in the meantime, remains childless.

Only after this entire process does she finally conceive:

And God remembered Rachel, and God heard her, and He opened her womb. And she conceived, and bore a son, and said, “God has taken away my reproach.” And she called his name Yosef, and said, “The Lord shall add to me another son.” (30:22-24)

Here we find that Rachel did eventually turn to God, no longer relying on any other agent. From this point onwards, Rachel prays, both over what has been in the past, in praise to God for removing her reproach, and for what lies in the future – asking for another son.

Rachel undergoes a lengthy process before achieving the awareness that if she seeks deliverance, she must place her trust entirely in God. She finally succeeds in breaking the bonds of the education inculcated in her by Lavan, arriving at complete faith.

Rachel’s path was not a smooth one; she was not fortunate enough to grow up in a home where she could learn what it means to serve God. She underwent a difficult process that required much inner strength – but eventually achieved what she needed to. It would seem that this reflects Yaakov’s perspective, too. He understood that Rachel would not conceive and bear children unless she turned to God, just as Rivka had done previously. Indeed, now that this landmark has been reached, Yaakov understands that the time has come to return home:

And it was, when Rachel had borne Yosef, that Yaakov said to Lavan: “Send me away, that I may go to my own place, and to my country.” (30:25)

So long as Rachel has not yet severed herself from her father’s world, there is no point in returning home, to Yitzchak. Now that Yaakov knows that even in Lavan’s home Rachel has managed to find her way to God, the journey can come to an end.

 

Translated by Kaeren Fish

 

 


[1]  Chazal propose different approaches to this jealousy. Some of the Sages view it in a positive light: “R. Yitzchak said: ‘Let your heart not envy sinners…’ (Mishlei 23:17) – how, then, can the text record that ‘Rachel was jealous’? It teaches us that she was jealous of [Leah’s] good deeds. She said, ‘Were [Leah] not righteous, she would not bear children’” (Bereishit Rabba [Albeck] 71:6).

However, most opinions take a negative view: “But the Sages taught: Four negative traits are attributed to women: they cannot control their appetites, they are eavesdroppers, they are indolent, and they are jealous… Jealousy – as it is written, ‘And Rachel was jealous…’.” (Bereishit Rabba [Albeck] 45:5). “R. Yehoshua of Sakhnin taught in the name of R. Levi: ‘It is written, ‘And [the Lord God] built up’ [the side that he had taken from Adam]: He considered from where to create her. He said, ‘We shall not create her from [Adam’s] head, so that she will not be haughty; nor from the eye, that she should not pry [into other people’s business]… nor from the heart, so that she will not be jealous…’ Nevertheless: ‘You have upturned all My counsel and would have none of My reproof’ (Mishlei 1:25): [God says,] I did not create her from [Adam’s] head – and nevertheless she is haughty… nor from the heart, and nevertheless she is possessive – ‘And Rachel was jealous’….” (Bereishit Rabba [Albeck] 18:2). “’Place me as a seal upon your heart’ (Shir Ha-shirim 8:6) – R. Abahu taught: There were two things that Israel asked of God, and the prophet said of these, ‘You did not ask properly.’ ‘For love is as strong as death’ (ibid.) – [this refers to] Yaakov’s love for Rachel, as it is written, ‘And Yaakov loved Rachel’. ‘Jealousy is cruel as Sheol’ (ibid.) – a reference to Rachel’s jealousy of her sister, as it is written, ‘And Rachel was jealous of her sister.’ How can love survive alongside jealousy?” (Yalkut Shimoni, Shir Ha-shirim 990:3).

[2] The commentaries are divided as to what precise aim the matriarchs had in mind when they gave their handmaids to their husbands. There are two main approaches in this regard. The first views the event of childbirth by the handmaid as a technique that will ultimately lead to a successful pregnancy for the wife herself. The mechanism by which this occurs might be a combined psychological and physiological one. Seforno proposes that the matriarch’s powerful envy with regard to sexual relations between the husband and the handmaid might have the effect of strengthening the reproductive system and thereby facilitating a pregnancy (Seforno, Bereishit 16:2), or, as Rashi proposes, it might be a spiritual reward to the matriarch for setting aside her personal interest and making room for a most undesirable marital situation (Rashi, ad loc.).

The second approach views the birth of a child by the handmaid as a different way of solving the problem of infertility: “She said, ‘If you bear a son from my handmaid, I will consider him as though he were my own son, and he will be like a son to me’” (Radak, ad loc.).

[3]  Ibn Ezra questions how this plant could have anything to do with pregnancy, but it is clear that this was the intention behind Rachel’s request. Radak also views this as the reason for Reuven gathering the duda’im in the first place: “Perhaps Reuven heard a popular theory that mandrakes help a woman to fall pregnant, and since his mother had stopped bearing, he brought some to her.” Seforno, Ralbag, and others adopt a similar view. See R. Pattai and M. Zohari, “Duda’im,” Encyclopedia Mikra’it 2 (Jerusalem 5738), pp. 645-646.

[4]  Leah exaggerates the request, apparently with a view to emphasizing the absurdity of the situation. Rachel had asked only that Leah give her “[some] of” her son’s mandrakes; Leah retorts in response, “Would you then take my son’s mandrakes, too?” – leaving none for herself.