The Weekly Commentary of JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning
Rabbi Melissa Crespy
Genesis 28:10 - 32:3
December 6, 2003 11 Kislev 5764
A parashah of deep passion, Va-Yetze often tears me apart while reading it. In it, Jacob falls in love, is deceived by his uncle/ father-in-law, marries two sisters, takes two concubines, and becomes father to eleven sons and one daughter! Though destined to become our third Patriarch, Jacob in these 20 years of his life lives with pain and deception, and causes deep pain, at the very least, to his two wives—Rachel and Leah. Jacob grows through these experiences—the Jacob we meet at the beginning of Va-Yetze is not the Jacob we know at the end of the parashah—but his life and the lives of his wives, concubines and children are forever scarred by the rivalries and jealousies embedded in this parashah. Though most of our lives are not as dramatic as Jacob's, we have much to learn from his actions (and inactions) on how we can treat our spouses and loved ones.
One disturbing incident in the parashah sends the commentators scurrying to their pens. Rachel, the wife whom Jacob loves and desires in the first place, is barren. In a society where bearing children is a woman's mark of distinction and worth, this is a particularly cruel fate. Rachel watches her sister give birth to son after son, and can no longer bear the pain. She cries out to Jacob: "Give me children, or I shall die." (Genesis 30:1) Jacob is "incensed" at Rachel and says: "Can I take the place of God, who has denied you fruit of the womb?" (30:2) The rabbis of the Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 71:7), sensitive to Rachel's pain, tell us: "Said the Holy One, blessed be God, to Jacob: 'Is that a way to answer a woman in distress? By your life, your children will one day stand [in supplication] before her son [Joseph], (who will answer them, 'Am I in the place of God?' (Genesis 50:19)) These rabbis are not only comparing identical wording in the Torah, but they are stating that just as Jacob judged Rachel harshly for crying out in pain, so, too, will Rachel's son be in the position to judge Jacob's other sons harshly - but he [Joseph] will show compassion and spare their lives.
Radak, a 13th century commentator, seems to sense in Jacob a deep feeling of frustration. He says: "Jacob said to Rachel, It is God, not I, Who has stopped you; ask Him to give you sons. I have given you what is necessary for me to give you; I sleep with you, and what can I do if you are barren because of God's will?" In this commentary, Radak tries to understand Jacob's anger in the verse as coming from his frustration at not being able to do anything more for the wife whom he loves. From Leah's reaction in the parashah, we get the sense that Jacob is spending more time in Rachel's bed than anyone else's: why then can't Jacob get Rachel pregnant? Though phrased in a way that might be construed as "blaming the victim", perhaps Jacob's anger at Rachel really is anger at his inability to produce a child for her and make her happy.
Sforno, a 16th century commentator, suggests that perhaps Jacob's anger stems from his disappointment that his love is not enough to satisfy Rachel, that Rachel's primary passion is to be a mother, not just a wife.
And back to the midrash, Rachel says to Jacob, didn't your father Isaac pray for your mother Rebecca, so that she would be blessed with children? (Genesis Rabbah 71:7) You may not be God, and you may not be empowered to give me a child by just sharing my bed, but you can pray for me, you can pray along with me! Your anger may be from your sense of frustration, but there is something more you can do for me. You can add your prayers to mine, and ask God for a child for us. Your father did it for your mother so that you might be born. The least you can do is pray for me, cry along with me—and perhaps God will hear both of our prayers.
Rachel's infertility, Jacob's anger and the commentators' words help us understand the complexity of our ancestors' lives. But perhaps more importantly, they can give us insight into ourselves—what motivates us to action, what causes us to stand by immobile; where our anger comes from—and how we might direct it in a better way; and how we can try to understand the pain our loved ones feel—and be better partners for them in their time of desperate need.