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05.12.2019 17:26    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  genesis  vayetze  

Jacob and Rachel

When Rachel saw that she had borne Jacob no children, she became envious of her sister; and Rachel said to Jacob, “give me children, or I shall die.”  Jacob was incensed at Rachel, and said, “Can I take the place of G‑d, who has denied you fruit of the womb?”  (Gen. 30:1-2)

Jacob’s response is harsh and perplexing:  angrily hurling hurtful words at his beloved wife, Rachel.  Most commentators, in an attempt to resolve this perplexity, took an apologetic approach justifying Jacob’s harsh reproof in view of Rachel’s unbecoming complaint.  Some even put the blame on the injured party herself, on Rachel, viewing her words as showing a mistaken perception of the relationship between man and G‑d!  Therefore, they conclude, Jacob acted properly in reproving her for this.[1]

Homiletic literature and Hassidic stories have also contributed their part in attempting to shield Jacob and justify the hurtful words he said to his wife.  Their efforts, one must admit, have been daringly creative:

“Jacob was incensed at Rachel”—what wrongdoing or sin had Rachel committed in her words to Jacob?  After all, one should not criticize someone for what they say out of their misery!  Rather, our patriarch Jacob, of blessed memory, saw that their love for each other was what prevented her from bearing child, so that Jacob intentionally let up somewhat on the bonds of love.  Then the Lord would heed Rachel’s prayer and open her womb.[2]

Here we have a chapter in the psychology of couples; Jacob’s fury at Rachel and his harsh accusatory words were intended to give a new dimension, a dimension of depth and complexity to their love.  Friction, confrontation, and even conflict between spouses attest to a substantive and true encounter taking place between them; an encounter that has unceasing tension of closeness and distance.  There is no true relationship of couples without its tensions, its confrontations and its differences.  Unceasing attempt to maintain constant harmony makes a relationship sterile.  As the poetess Rivka Miriam said:  “Only through breaking out of line can one engender life.”[3]

With regard to shalom bayit, peaceful relations between man and wife, Rabbi Ki Tov says:

One does call it peace except where one’s views are not the same and there are differences in actions, aspirations, and desires.  When even the love in one’s heart has suffered injury, when contrariness grates, desire rebels, and anger rises, when everything is primed for a quarrel to erupt—then comes the hour of peace.[4]

Now let us get back to the weekly reading.  The Sages had no need of apologetic interpretation.  They stuck to the plain sense of the text and spared Jacob the pain of their criticism.  In their eyes anger is a reprehensible quality, and a person who evinces this quality is considered a sinner:

And Jacob was incensed at Rachel…  The Rabbis of the south said in the name of Rabbi Alexandri, and Rabbana said in the name of Rabbi Aba b. Kahana:  “Should a wise man make answer with windy knowledge [Heb. da`at ru’ah]” (Job. 15:1):  this applies to Abraham, of whom it is written, “And Abraham heeded Sarai’s request” (Gen. 16:2).  “And fill his belly with the east wind” (Job. 15:2):  this applies to Jacob, as it says, “And Jacob was incensed.”  The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him:  ‘Is that a way to answer a woman in distress?  By your life, your children will one day stand [in supplication] before her son.’[5]

Abraham and Jacob both had to face a barren wife, bitterly pouring out her heart to them, but their responses were completely different.  Abraham responded with da`at ru’ah, with sensible appreciation of her state of mind, empathizing with his wife’s hardship, understanding her heart and doing as she bade.  Jacob responded with ru’ah kadim, like the east wind, which is harsh and destructive, and for this the Holy One, blessed be He, took him to task:  “Is that a way to answer a woman in distress?!”

Is that a way to respond to a woman who is suffering bitterly?  It might not be in the man’s hands to give his wife what she demands, and truly it was not up to Jacob to give her sons, for the key to birth is in the hands of the Holy One, blessed be He, and He never handed it to anyone.[6]

But there was something else that Jacob could have given her, namely some placating words and comfort; to be with her in her pain and suffering, and then he would have been greatly alleviating her distress.  The midrash says further that the Lord would yet exact punishment for this unbefitting response, measure for measure:  “By your life, just as you said, ‘Can I take the place of G‑d?’[7] so her son will stand and say to your sons, ‘Am I a substitute for G‑d?’ (Gen. 50:19),” alluding to Genesis 50:15-21:

When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong that we did him!”  So they went this message to Joseph, “Before his death your father left this instruction:  So shall you say to Joseph, ‘Forgive, I urge you, the offense and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly.’  Therefore, please forgive the offense of the servants of the G‑d of your father.”  And Joseph was in tears as they spoke to him.

His brothers went to him themselves, flung themselves before him, and said, “We are prepared to be your slaves.”  But Joseph said to them, “Have no fear!  Am I a substitute for G‑d?  Besides, although you intended me harm, G‑d intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result—the survival of many people.  And so, fear not.  I will sustain you and your children.”  Thus he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.

Joseph knew that Jacob had never commanded them any such thing, but in his wisdom he understood that if his brothers felt the need to invent such a story, that was indicative of their fear of him.  If they dug up memory of the crime they had committed against him twenty-two years earlier, it indicated how much it troubled their hearts.

This understanding of what was transpiring in his brothers’ hearts brought him to tears—“And Joseph was in tears as they spoke to him.”  Joseph’s tears, so it seems, were the outpouring of emotion of someone who feels his fellows sorrow and empathizes with him.[8] Therefore Joseph was quick to allay their fears and calm them, saying, “Am I a substitute for G‑d?”  These same words Jacob had said nastily to Rachel, and now her son Joseph was saying them to his brothers, the sons of Jacob, to reassure and comfort them:  “Thus he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.”

Jacob and Joseph using the same expression makes the contrast between the response of the father and that of the son all the more striking, for “the son’s power is more extensive than the father’s power.”[9]

Translated by Rachel Rowen[

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