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21.11.2017 11:45    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parashah  genesis  vayetze  

“May the Lord add another son for me”

Jacob’s relationship with his two wives (Rachel and Leah) parallels Elkanah’s relationship to his wives (Hannah and Peninah), as narrated in the book of Samuel.  In both instances the husband (Jacob/Elkanah) favored one of his wives (Rachel/Hannah) over the other (Leah/Peninah), and in both instances the favorite wife was barren, while the other wife was blessed with fertility.  In addition, in both instances the favorite wife suffered greatly on account of her barrenness.

The parallel between the two cases, however, ends here.  Jacob’s personality is altogether different from Elkanah’s, as is Rachel’s personality from Hannah’s.  As a result, both the way in which the couples talk to one another and the course of the story is different in each of the two families.

Jacob and Rachel.  Childless and suffering, Rachel turned to Jacob in anger and despair, as we read:  “Rachel said to Jacob, ‘Give me children, or I shall die’” (Gen. 30:1).  Jacob responded to Rachel, also speaking angrily:  “Jacob was incensed at Rachel, and said, ‘Can I take the place of G‑d, who has denied you fruit of the womb?’” (Gen. 30:2).

Before getting into the content of this interchange, let us first consider its tone.  Instead of being empathetic and understanding of his wife’s suffering due to her barrenness, Jacob was angry (“Jacob was incensed at Rachel”).  However, it would be a mistake to think that Jacob’s anger indicated a lack of love for Rachel.  Nowhere in the entire Bible is there a description of such deep love as that which Jacob felt for Rachel.

When Jacob sought permission from Laban to marry Rachel, he stated a price:  “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel” (Gen. 29:18).  Jacob’s working conditions were extremely hard, as is revealed from his remarks to Laban after twenty years of service:  “Often scorching heat ravaged me by day and frost by night; and sleep fled from my eyes…and you changed my wages time and again” (Gen. 31:40, 42).  How did Jacob respond to this hard labor?  “So Jacob served seven years for Rachel and they seemed to him but a few days because of his love for her” (Gen. 29:20).  All his hard labor was as naught in his eyes because he knew he would win his beloved Rachel.  However, due to the forcefulness of their personalities—both Jacob’s and Rachel’s—the way they spoke to one another was not gentle.

Now what as to the content of this interchange?  What did Rachel mean when she said, “Give me children”?  Clearly Rachel’ barrenness was due to herself, for Jacob had produced son after son with Leah.  That being the case, what was she demanding of her husband?

Rachel expected that Jacob, as one who had a close relationship with the Holy One, blessed be He, would pray for her.  Rachel expected that if Jacob were to pray for her, the miracle for which she longed would occur and she would bear a child.  So what did Jacob answer her?  “Can I take the place of G‑d?”  With these words Jacob meant to convey to Rachel that she did not need his prayers, because he was not the one who determined what will be, rather the Holy One, blessed be He.  Jacob meant to indicate that by her own prayers Rachel herself might attain the Lord’s grace.  Indeed, that is what Rachel did, and successfully so:  “G‑d heeded her and opened her womb” (Gen. 30:22).

Thus Rachel’s prayers were answered, and she gave birth to a son.  The name she chose for him is interesting:  “So she named him Joseph, which is to say, ‘May the Lord add [Yosef] another son for me’” (Gen. 30:24).  Notwithstanding the miracle the Lord had just wrought for her, Rachel did not hesitate to demand another miracle forthwith.  This request, too, was granted, but at a tragic cost, for Rachel died giving birth to Benjamin.

To sum up, Jacob understood Rachel’s hardship, and gave her helpful advice (“pray yourself to the Holy One, blessed be He”), which led to the problem being resolved.  However, due to Jacob’s coarse personality, his advice was given in an ugly tone (“Jacob was incensed at Rachel”).  In addition, while Rachel was blessed with a son, she immediately demanded that the Lord give her another—indicative of Rachel’s strong personality.

Elkanah and Hannah were both very refined, the personality of each being the opposite of Jacob and Rachel.  Elkanah and Hannah talked things over between themselves and with the Holy One, blessed be He, in a gentle manner.  It seems that never would a conversation like that recorded between Jacob and Rachel have taken place between Elkanah and Hannah.  In addition, Hannah evidently would not have demanded of the Lord a second miracle in order to bear another child, as Rachel had.

The story of Elkanah and Hannah is told in detail at the beginning of the book of Samuel.  Elkanah showered Hannah with favors:  “But to Hannah he would give a double-sized portion, for Hannah was his favorite” (I Sam. 1:5).  Nevertheless, Hannah suffered greatly due to her barrenness (“she wept and would not eat,” I Sam. 1:7).

How did Elkanah respond to his wife’s suffering?  “Her husband Elkanah said to her, ‘Hannah, why are you crying and why aren’t you eating?  Why are you so sad?  Am I not more devoted to you than ten sons?’” (I Sam. 1:8).  Elkanah felt for Hannah’s suffering, but his gentle words attested to total lack of understanding of his wife’s misery.  Elkanah’s love was important to Hannah but his words were no consolation to her at all.  She wished to conceive and bear a son whom she could love, hug, and kiss.  Her husband’s love of her could not fill this enormous void.  Elkanah’s words (“why are you crying and why aren’t you eating?  Why are you so sad?”) provide a clear indication that he could not fathom the depths of his wife’s sorrow.

Rachel and Hannah.  After Rachel was blessed with her first son, her immediate reaction was, as we have said, to inform the Holy One, blessed be He, that she expected to be blessed with another son (“May the Lord add another son for me”).  Not so, Hannah.  From a position of weakness and the suffering of a childless woman, Hannah took on a problematic vow:  if the Holy One, blessed be He, would bless her with a son, she would bring the son to grow up in Shiloh, under Eli’s guardianship, far from home.  This promise of Hannah’s meant having her son be far away from her.

A miracle did indeed take place and Hannah gave birth to Samuel.  Very soon she came to understand the fateful significance of her vow.  Nevertheless, when the time came, Hannah upheld her vow and brought her child to the priest, Eli, in Shiloh.  What is more, Hannah sang the Lord’s praises and thanked Him for the miracle He had wrought for her.  The Holy One, blessed be He, had fulfilled His part in response to Hannah’s vow, and therefore she praised Him despite the fact that keeping her vow caused her to send her dearly beloved son away from home.

Hannah returned home without her son, once again to feel the void left by the absence of a son.  Her situation was actually worse than it had been before, for she had lost even the comfort of praying to the Holy One, blessed be He, for a son.  But, as we said, it was not in Hannah’s character to seek another miracle, as Rachel had.

The priest Eli.  Did anyone understand Hannah’s suffering at giving up her son and not being able to pray for another child?  The answer is yes.  The priest Eli understood Hannah’s suffering and appreciated why she could not pray for another child.  Therefore he decided that he would be the one to pray for her; so, in the presence of Hannah and Elkanah, Eli prayed:  “Eli would bless Elkanah and his wife, and say, ‘May the Lord grant you offspring by this woman in place of the loan she made to the Lord’” (I Sam. 2:20).

Eli’s prayer was answered even more impressively than Hannah’s original prayer.  The Holy One, blessed be He, turned Hannah from a barren woman into a fertile one who would bear many children:  “For the Lord took note of Hannah; she conceived and bore three sons and two daughters” (I Sam. 2:21).  However her first-born, Samuel, remained far from home, as it is written, “Young Samuel meanwhile grew up in the service of the Lord” (I Sam. 2:21).

Thus we see that the second miracle which the Holy One, blessed be He, wrought for Hannah (bearing three sons and two daughters) was even greater than the second miracle He wrought for Rachel (giving her another son, but at the cost of her life).  Scripture gives no explanation of this marked difference in the actions of the Holy One, blessed be He, but we can well imagine that the explanation lies in the difference between the responses of Rachel and Hannah to the birth of their first sons, respectively.  Inscrutable are the ways of the Lord.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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