What’s in a name?
Most of us grow up hearing a whitewashed version of Rachel and Leah’s relationship. While it might be nice to remain content with stories we learn in gan, the dialogue described between the sisters does not support this notion. Sibling rivalry is rife throughout the narrative of Bereshit. Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Yitzhak, Esau and Yaakov – and yes – Rachel and Leah.
Rachel knew herself to be the desired one, the beloved sister whom Ya’akov desired. But she suffered barrenness, and it explicitly states that Rachel was envious of Leah (ויקנב רחל), upon the birth of Leah’s fourth son. Leah’s own actions belie that she also suffered from envy. Surely Leah was respected, and loved in her own way, as the Rambam states, citing Radak. But Yaakov’s overwhelming love for Rachel was what colored the relationship between the sisters. Regardless of the whitewashing, the posuk specifically states that G-d saw that Leah was hated (שנואה), and compensated her with fertility.
Is this not something relevant and understandable today? How many “blended” families suffer from an underlying basis of jealousy? A man might establish two households, but whatever he gives one will be felt as a lack by the other.
While thoughts and motivations are generally expressed obliquely in the Chumash, Rachel’s jealousy is stated explicitly, as is Leah’s insecurity, and the rivalry is so raw that there is nothing oblique about it.
Let’s look at their very different natures. Rachel, somewhat like Rivka before her, is a bit of a tomboy. She is a shepherdess, normally a job for a young boy, not a girl. She’s found outside the tents more often than in. She’s noted not only as beautiful, but she’s quite a spark– she knows her own mind, takes risks, and even outwits her father by taking his teraphim (his household idols). Leah, on the other hand, is described as having soft or tender eyes (ועיני לאה רכות). This is often interpreted as having “weak eyes,” but it could also indicate that she was modest. Leah is shy, demure, her eyes are down-turned. Both while young, and later, she is rarely seen outside the tents. She is the very model of motherhood, while Rachel breaks the mold. The two sisters could not be more different – and both envied the other’s gifts.
Their rivalry is not settled in their lifetimes. There is no doubt that Yaakov treated Rachel as his primary wife and confidante. When Yaakov is uncertain of the outcome of his encounter with Esau, he protects Rachel and Yosef by putting them last. Whenever both are mentioned, Rachel is always referred to first, although Leah is the elder.
The names that they give their sons is evidence of their ongoing rivalry, indeed their agony. Leah continuously hopes that the fact of bearing children will endear her to her husband. “Reuven – ‘see – a son’: perhaps now my husband will love me for what I have given him. This does not happen, and she notes it while naming Shimon – Because G-d knows that I am still unloved, he has given me this one also. And Levi – Maybe now my husband will become attached to me. And the fourth son – Judah – Thankfulness: at least my husband can thank me for providing him with sons.
This raw emotion, the producing of a child in order to gain esteem in a husband’s eyes, is as relevant today as it was then. Any woman today can understand Leah’s heartache: If you won’t love me for myself, at least love me for what I can provide you with.
Rachel, envying Leah’s fertility, turns upon Yaakov, beseeching him to provide her with sons. In this, Rachel has gone to far – she has actually involved her husband in the rivalry. Eventually she, like Sarah before her, will give her husband access to her maid in order to at least have a child that she could partly claim to be her own, naming him Dan (judgement): G-d has vindicated me, judging me worthy of having at least this son by proxy. And then her maid produces Naphtali (to prevail) – a son who enabled Rachel to prevail in her rivalry with her sister.
Turning the tables on her sister, Leah then says – you want to see children by proxy – I can do that too. And thus Leah’s maid, Zilpah, produces Gad and Asher – good luck and fortune. For G-d has made her husband fortunate. He now has more sons.
The rivalry does not lesson with age. When Rachel requests the Leah share her “dudaim” – perhaps a flower or fruit of particular loveliness, Leah turns on her. “You took my husband’s love, and thought nothing of it. Now you even want the gift my firstborn son brought me.” In this one instance Leah actually goes out to meet Ya’akov, unsummoned, outside of the tents, to tell him that she has purchased his attention for the night. This is a public announcement: “You owe me attention. I am your first wife, and I want you to acknowledge it. I want everyone to see it.” And here Rachel concedes, not knowing that she is, in fact conceding the right to be buried next to Yaakov.
Leah will be rewarded with two more children, Zebulun (abide – as she wishes her husband to live with her) and Dinah, before Rachel finally is able to conceive Yosef. Yosef, which means ‘to add’, because G-d has finally agreed to add Rachel’s own child to Yaakov’s family. Yosef, Rachel’s first-born, is destined to be Yaakov’s treasured favorite. Rachel will die on the way from Beit-el to Ephrat, giving birth to the last of Yaakov’s sons, whom she names Ben-Oni – the son of my mourning. Yaakov renames the child Benyamin – the son of my advanced years. Rachel will be buried, by herself, on the road to Ephrath. In However, it is Rachel who will be remembered as the mother of the Jewish people, though she bore only two sons. Leah will be remembered as Yaakov’s wife, continuously devoted to him, buried next to her husband in the Ma’arat HaMachpelah.
Chazal ask in Pirkei Avot: “Who is a rich man? One who is content with his lot.” What can we learn from Rachel and Leah’s rivalry? This is not something that comes easily – neither to men nor to women. It’s not in our natures. To be content with one’s lot is something one works on throughout one’s life. In order to reap the reward of spiritual wealth, we must accept our lot, and appreciate it as G-d given.