Rachel the Victim, Rachel the Hero

Vayetzei By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Dec 6, 2003 / 5764 | Torah Commentary

In this week’s parashah Jacob gets his just desserts. He meets his master in the art of deception. As Jacob had denied his brother Esau the blessing to which his birthright entitled him, so, too, he is now denied the hand of Rachel, the younger daughter of Laban his uncle, with whom he is madly in love and for whom he has worked seven hard years. The counterpoint is exquisite. By substituting Leah for Rachel on Rachel’s wedding night, Laban exacts divine retribution at a moment of peak anticipation in a way that is no less intense than what Jacob did to Esau Along the way, Laban demonstratively reaffirms the sanctity of primogeniture.

Interestingly, the midrashic background construed by the Rabbis over time to deepen this starkly potent emotional foreground, focuses not on the frustration of Jacob, but on the feelings of Rachel. Her innocence in a drama not of her making heightens the poignancy of her fate.

The Talmud’s attention (BT Megillah 13b). is caught by a misstatement made by Jacob when he first meets Rachel at the well. He introduces himself as “her father’s kinsman,” literally “her father’s brother” (29:12). But, in truth, Jacob was Laban’s nephew and Rachel’s cousin. To explain the inaccuracy, the Talmud imagines a conversation entirely in consonance with their fist encounter which was clearly a case of love at first sight. Jacob asks Rachel to marry him outright and she agrees on the spot, with one cautionary note: “My father is a cunning man and you won’t prevail against him.” It is in reference to this description that Jacob declaims that “in cunningness I am his brother.” By shifting the context, the midrash preserves the truthfulness of the verse. In Jacob, Laban would meet his match. But Rachel is uneasy about the morality of this posture. Are the righteous permitted to act deceitfully? Jacob assures her that even God does so when necessary, by citing II Samuel 22:27: “With the pure You (David says of God) act in purity, but with the perverse You are wily”.

Jacob then inquires as to why Rachel suspects her father. “I have an older sister and he will never marry me before her.” To avoid being tricked, Jacob gives Rachel a bevy of signs by which he can recognize her in the dark of night. But when the moment of truth comes, Rachel, moved by the prospect of Leah’s humiliation, shares with her the signs concocted by Jacob. That, in fact, is the full import of the cryptic verse in the story: “When morning came, there was Leah!” (29:25) The words explode with Jacob’s surprise. Rachel’s compassion has spared Leah disgrace. It was only in broad daylight that Jacob realized the extent of Laban’s unscrupulousness. Yet, God would reward Rachel for her act of self-abnegation. Her latter-day royal descendants, Saul and Esther (ISamuel 10:16; Esther 2:20), would exhibit the same noble trait .

We should be careful about exaggerating the modernity of the sensibility that finds expression in this reading. What intrigues the Talmud is not the violence done to the autonomy of the individual, but rather, the ability of an aggrieved individual to reach beyond her own pain to alleviate the plight of another. Neither her longing for Jacob, nor her fury at Laban, could shatter Rachel’s loyalty to her sister and competitor. Virtue took precedence over happiness.

A later midrash vastly expands the nobility of Rachel’s self-transcendence by intensifying the anguish she endured. In its empathy for Rachel and its imaginative power, the midrash has no peer. It appears in the collection of midrashic homilies in the book of Lamentations, Eikhah Rabbah(petihta 24, Buber, pp. 23 ff.), which broods boldly about the destruction of the Temple and about Israel’s unendingly cruel fate. The authors of our composite homily conjure up a picture of God sunk in inconsolable grief; “Woe is me, what has befallen my house? My children, where are you? My priests, where are you? My loved ones, where are you? What can I possibly do for you? I warned you, but you failed to return in contrition.”

In despair, God instructs Jeremiah to bring forth Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses from the grave, “They know how to weep… Woe betide a king who succeeded in his youth but failed in his old age.” When Abraham arrives, he is dumbstruck by the carnage. As the Torah and letters of the Hebrew alphabet step forward in turn to testify against Israel, he silences each one. Graphically, the patriarchs and Moses recount their own superhuman sacrifices in the service of God and Israel to no avail. Suddenly, Rachel rushes in to confront a God torn between sorrow and sternness. Unlike the earlier advocates, she does not wait to be summoned.

Rachel depicts her own travail: “Jacob loved me with unusual passion. He worked for seven years to get my hand. But as the time for the marriage neared, my father decided to substitute my sister, a plan I bitterly resented when I learned of it. I informed my husband and gave him signs that he could use to distinguish between us in order to frustrate my father’s design.” Thus far the speech is familiar, though amplified.

For effect, however, the author now adds an embellishment that unhinges the mind. “After a while, I consoled myself and endured my desires. I decided to save my sister from being exposed when they came to exchange us. Not only did I reveal to her all the signs I had given my husband… but I crawled under the bed on which he lay with my sister and talked with her. Throughout, she remained silent. Time and again, I responded for her so that he would not recognize her voice.” (That is, the body felt like Leah’s but the voice was Rachel’s! A play on Genesis 27:22) “I treated her with utmost kindness, keeping all envy at bay. I would not let her be humiliated. Since I, who am a mere mortal of dust and ashes, was neither jealous of my nemesis, nor shamed by her, how can You, God, who are sovereign for eternity and full of compassion, be roused to envy idolatry which is without substance and exile my children to be killed by the sword and abused by their enemies at will?”

Of all the words spoken in this extensive drama, only Rachel’s moved God to relent. Overcome with feelings of remorse, God promises to restore Israel to its land, which is why Jeremiah in his soaring prophecy of consolation, envisions Rachel rising from the grave to weep for the survivors of Jerusalem as they trudge into exile. Her tears elicit from God the gentle assurance of national restoration: “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” (Jeremiah 31:16).

Rarely have the building-blocks of Scripture been reassembled with greater daring. The most tragic figure in all the Bible is refashioned as Israel’s most powerful advocate. Stripped of her beloved spouse at her wedding, and then compelled to share him with her sister for life, destined to witness her sister give birth to seven children before finally bearing one of her own, only to die prematurely while delivering her second son, Rachel appears as the undeserving victim of forces beyond her control. Yet, in tandem, the authors of our two midrashim endow her with the most inalienable of human freedoms: to choose the attitude with which to confront her fate. Her self-denial poses a challenge worthy of humbling God.

Shabbat shalom,

Ismar Schorsch

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.