Between Rachel and Jeremiah

Vayetzei By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Nov 24, 2001 / 5762 | Torah Commentary | Gender

According to our parashah, the world turns on the principle of measure for measure. Our misdeeds are repaid in kind. A noble end can never be justified by ignoble means. The deception that Jacob worked on his sightless father to strip his older brother of the blessing and status of the first–born son is now wrought on him by his uncle. In Laban, Jacob has met his match; if anything, a rival who exceeds him in gall and cunning.

The Torah stresses the romantic bond that quickly joins Jacob and Rachel. From the first, he is captivated by her beauty and readily agrees to work as an indentured servant for seven years to pay off the bride–price, the mohar. In his consuming love for Rachel, Jacob barely notices the passage of time. Yet on the day of his wedding, he is to be trumped by the very stricture he defied and in the very manner he deployed. The bride for whom he toiled is not Rachel but her sister. The anguish in Jacob’s voice when he confronts Laban the morning after recalls the pathos of Esau’s consternation (27:36): “What is this you have done to me? I was in your service for Rachel! Why did you deceive me?” Laban responds coldly that social mores are immutable: “It is not the practice in our place to marry off the younger before the older” (29:25–26).

This reprimand to Jacob is unforgiving. The chosen line of Abraham may be destined to run through him, but a worthy cause is not to be sullied by unworthy tactics. Injustice to those whom history will pass by evokes the Torah’s sympathies. Though unfavored by God, they are not removed from God’s ken or compassion.

The voice not heard in this moral tale is that of Rachel. We yearn for a glimpse of her reaction to the disappointment that must have engulfed her. The silence attracted at least two midrashim of which I know, but they are noteworthy and connected. The latter, indeed, is almost modern in its empathy for Rachel’s deportment depicted at length and the impact attributed to it. The multivocal character of rabbinic literature is not without an occasional feminine voice.

The first midrash imagines Jacob and Rachel in cahoots. He asks her directly to marry him and she happily agrees. But she adds that her father is two-faced and not easily bested. Jacob assures her that he is Laban’s equal. When he then asks Rachel what might prompt Laban to deceive him, she tells him of her older sister, Leah, who has to be married off first. To avoid being duped, Jacob gives Rachel several signs by which to identify herself on their wedding night. But as the day approaches and Leah is designated to precede her, Rachel is overcome by remorse. She wants to spare her sister from being humiliated and thus informs her of the signs so that Jacob does not realize till morning that he had been deceived. Hence the Torah states, “When morning came, there was Leah” (29:25), implying that daylight revealed what the night had concealed. And it was for this extraordinary act of self–transcendence that Rachel was destined to be the progenitor of Israel’s first king, Saul, a descendant equal to her in modesty, for “He (God) does not withdraw His eyes from the righteous” (Job 36:7; BT Megillah 13b).

The second and more remarkable midrash (brought to my attention first by my daughter, a student of midrash) turns on a different scriptural verse. In a soaring

prophecy of consolation, the prophet Jeremiah, a witness to the Temple’s destruction in 586 BCE, imagines Rachel rising from her grave to bewail the deportation of her children into exile:

Thus said the Lord:
A cry is heard in Ramah –
Wailing, bitter weeping –
Rachel weeping for her children.
She refuses to be comforted
For her children, who are gone.
Thus said the Lord:
Restrain your voice from weeping,
Your eyes from shedding tears;
For there is a reward for your labor
– declares the Lord;
They shall return from the enemy’s land.
And there is hope for your future
– declares the Lord:
Your children shall return to their country.
(Jeremiah 31:15–17)

The midrash, which seeks to contextualize this brave vision of redemption, builds on God’s responsiveness to Rachel’s tears. As the midrash recounts the scene, Rachel is but the last in a line of ancestors pleading with God to reverse the fate of Israel.

Israel stands indicted by the Torah and the twenty–two letters of the Hebrew alphabet for sins without number. In turn, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses weigh in one at a time with a rehearsal of their supreme acts of self–sacrifice for God’s benefit. But to no avail. God remains unmoved by the evidence of their selfless loyalty. Their merits, either individually or collectively, cannot offset Israel’s accumulated guilt. As Moses slips from pleading into rebuke, Rachel intercedes:

Lord of the Universe. You know that
Jacob loved me passionately and toiled
for my father to get me for seven years.
When the term was up and the time of
my marriage had come, my father urged
to substitute my sister for me. I was
chagrined to learn of the scheme and told
Jacob. I also gave him signs that he
would be able to distinguish between me
and my sister so that my father would
fail. But I soon consoled myself and
reined in my desire. I did not want my
sister to suffer any shame. That evening
when they switched us, I revealed to my
sister the signs I had given to Jacob. He
should think that she was I. Moreover,
I hid beneath the bed on which Jacob
lay with my sister. She was silent when he
talked and I responded for her, for her
voice would have given her away. In
short, I acted toward my sister with
compassion rather than jealousy. I would
not have her be shamed.

Now I, who am mere flesh and blood,
dust and ashes, did not envy my nemesis
nor humiliate her. You, in contrast, are the
one eternal and merciful King. Why should
You be jealous of idolatry which is without
substance and have my children exiled,
allowing them to be killed by the sword
and plundered by their enemies at will?”
This time, God was overcome by compassion
and said, “Rachel, for your sake will I
restore Israel to its land.” This is the
deeper meaning of the verses from Jeremiah.
(Eikhah Rabbah, petihta 24; my translation)

While in plot this later midrash is but an expansion of the former (both have Rachel abandon her initial designs to frustrate Laban’s plan), its rhetorical flourish borders on the lascivious and blasphemous. In order to embarrass God for being wrathful without reason, Rachel goes into intimate detail to depict not only her compassion but her self–control in a situation full of provocation. She ends up changing God’s mind because she alone succeeds in making light of God’s offense at idolatry. Monotheism is not a matter for machismo. God’s honor cannot be jeopardized by idolatry. This, I submit, is a rebuke that comes from a feminine perspective made possible by a literary genre that grants the freedom to challenge venerable pieties.

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Va-yetzei are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.