Parshat Vayetze begins with Jacob on the run, trying on the one hand to escape from his vengeful brother Esau, while on the other hand trying to heed to his parents’ request and find an appropriate mate. He heads east, in the direction of his mother’s home. There, in the field, he finds the object of his search:
Then Jacob went on his journey, and came to the land of the people of the east. And he looked, and saw a well in the field, and, lo, there were three flocks of sheep lying by it, for from that well they watered the flocks; and a great stone was upon the well’s mouth. And there were all the flocks gathered; and they rolled the stone from the well’s mouth, and watered the sheep, and put the stone again upon the well’s mouth in his place. And Jacob said to them, “My brothers, where are your from?” And they said, “Of Haran are we.” And he said to them, “Know you Laban the son of Nahor?” And they said, “We know him.” And he said to them, “Is he well?” And they said, “He is well; and, behold, Rachel his daughter comes with the sheep…” And it came to pass, when Jacob saw Rachel the daughter of Laban his mother’s brother, and the sheep of Laban his mother’s brother, that Jacob went near, and rolled the stone from the well’s mouth, and watered the flock of Laban his mother’s brother. And Jacob kissed Rachel, and lifted up his voice, and wept. (Genesis 29:1-6,10-11)
It all seems too simple: Jacob travels, and immediately finds a well and the woman of his dreams. Perhaps we should not be surprised; Jacob had surely heard the tale of his grandfather’s servant who traveled far and with great devotion, and found a worthy match for his father in almost no time at all also at a well.
This theme of a well as a place to meet one’s mate is later replicated in the story of Moses.1
However the story does not end here, this is not simply a case of “love at first sight” and the subsequent requisite “they all lived happily ever after.” Jacob is now in exile. Life becomes more complicated. Apparently, different rules govern exile.
Why did the plan need to include the marriage of Jacob to two women?
The twist in this week’s Torah portion is that while Abraham had one primary partner, and Isaac one wife, for some reason the Divine plan dictated that Jacob’s domestic life be far more intricate. Why did the plan need to include the marriage of Jacob to two women?
This question is compounded exponentially when we realize that these women were, in fact, sisters. Additionally, Jacob for his part, was unaware of this plan, and his first marriage takes place under the strangest of circumstances, the product of treachery, against his will, and without his knowledge.
And it came to pass that in the morning, behold, it was Leah, and he said to Laban, “What is this that you have done to me? Did not I serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?”(Genesis 29:25)
Instead of finding himself married to the woman of his dreams, Jacob is instead wed to her sister. One would have thought that Jacob would have objected to this arrangement but for some reason Jacob goes along with the plan.
But Jacob has a serious moral argument against Laban — namely, how can Laban renege on his agreement to provide Rachel as the bride? The moral outrage directed toward Laban is clear. Laban’s response is enigmatic:
And Laban said: “It must not be so done in our country, to give the younger before the firstborn.” (Genesis 29:26)
It is unclear whether or not Laban himself believes what he says, or if this, too, is simply a case of deception. Perhaps this is an instance of moral subjectivity, whereby Laban actually does believe the words he utters. In either case, Laban is a known liar, as Jacob will come to learn first-hand over the next few years.
The stronger question is directed toward Leah. How can this woman expect to stay married to Jacob under these conditions? The courtship was non-existent, the union one which lacked love, the relationship built on deceit.
The words of the Midrash provide an explanation for her actions, though not a justification:
Said he [Jacob] to her [Leah]: “You are a deceiver and the daughter of a deceiver!” “Is there a teacher without pupils?” she retorted. “Did not your father call you Esau, and you answered him! So did you too call me and I answered you!” (Midrash Rabbah – Bereishit 70:19)
Leah responds that her actions were no different than Jacob’s. On a moral level, they are a good match, each guilty of deception at a critical juncture in their lives. However, this answer is unsatisfying. Perhaps this was Leah’s excuse, but again, why would Jacob wish to remain with her?
Why would Jacob wish to remain with Leah after her deception?
The Midrash needs to be probed beyond the simplistic reading. Leah was not merely “making excuses.” She was explaining the Divine Plan. When Jacob takes the blessing from Esau, he must dress up as Esau. This is no mere technicality, necessary to wrest the blessing from his father. Rather, in order for the Divine blessing to come to fruition, Jacob needed to “become” Esau. There needed to be a merger between the hands of Esau and the voice of Jacob. The implication of this merger was that an aspect of Esau would now continue to live in Jacob.
And Leah’s eyes were weak (Genesis 29: 17). Rabbi Johanan’s amora translated this before him: And Leah’s eyes were [naturally] weak. Said he to him, “Your mother’s eyes were weak! But what does weak mean? That they had grown weak through weeping, for [people used to say]: ‘This was the arrangement; the elder daughter [Leah] is for the elder son [Esau], and the younger daughter [Rachel] for the younger son [Jacob].’ She used to weep and pray, ‘May it be Thy will that I do not fall to the lot of that wicked man.'” Rabbi Huna said: “Great is prayer, that it annulled the decree. and she even took precedence over her sister.” (Midrash Rabbah – Bereishit 70:16)
Esau was destined to marry Leah, while Rachel was destined to marry Jacob. By deceiving his father, Jacob becomes Esau, and must fulfill Esau’s spiritual role. Part of this role is the union with Leah. Leah explains to Jacob that their marriage is the direct result of his own actions, and ultimately is part of Rebecca’s instructions, and the Divine Plan.
This idea may be borne out by a passage in the Zohar. The Torah states that when Jacob came in from the field in the evening he was greeted by Leah, with whom “he” was intimate that night:
The Ariz’al stresses that Jacob has two identities: Jacob and Israel. This is an idea with which we are familiar from the biblical text. The Ariz’al explains that Jacob was married to Rachel while “he” who is identified with is Israel was married to Leah. This is not a case of schizophrenia; rather, Jacob embodies two missions which need to come to fruition. These missions are represented by Leah and Rachel.
RACHEL, THE PRIMARY WIFE
Of the two, Rachel is considered the primary wife of Jacob:
Rabbi Eleazar further remarked: “Since Jacob had to find his wife by the well, why did he not meet there Leah, who was to be the mother of so many tribes? The answer is that it was not the will of God that Leah should be espoused to Jacob openly, and in fact he married her without his knowledge, as it is written: And it came to pass in the morning that, behold, it was Leah. It was also in order to rivet his eye and heart on the beauty of Rachel, so that he should establish his principal abode with her.” (Zohar, Bereishit, Section 1, Page 153a)
The marriage to Leah was part of the Divine Plan, but it was part of a secretive plan. Nonetheless, the Zohar teaches that the primary spouse of Jacob was Rachel.
As there is an identification between Jacob and Esau the mystical sources point to a similar identification between Rachel and Leah. Many aspects of this concept are extremely esoteric and beyond the scope of this work. We will nonetheless attempt to describe at least some aspects of this relationship.
The mystical classic Leshem relates that Rachel and Leah actually represent one soul.
Rav Shlomo Elyashiv, is his mystical classic Leshem, relates that Rachel and Leah actually represent one soul. Had it not been for the sin of the Tree of Knowledge, these two aspects would have remained merged, or to use the mystical imagery, there would have been no separation between the upper and lower worlds:
“And as for me, when I came from Paddan, Rachel died unto me in the land of Canaan.” (Genesis 48:7). Rachel thus died there, and her place was filled by this lower world, which assumed its rightful place in a completed house. But as long as Rachel was alive the lower world could not be made perfected through them. If it is asked why Leah did not die at the same time, the answer is that the house was in the lower world, and from it all were to be brought to full self-realization, but it was not in the upper world. This was the reason that Leah did not die at that time.
Moreover, all that concerned Leah is kept under a veil, as she typified the upper world, which is veiled and undisclosed; and this is another reason why Leah’s death is not divulged like that of Rachel. It is in accordance, too, with this difference between the upper and the lower worlds that Leah was buried away from sight in the cave of Machpelah; whereas Rachel was buried by the open road. Hence it is that all blessings are from two worlds, the disclosed and the undisclosed, though the whole originates from the upper world. (Zohar, Bereishit, Section 1, Page 158a)
As we have seen, Rachel is the main wife. In mystical literature she represents the Divine Presence, the Shechina. At the point when the twelfth son is born — Benjamin — the Divine Presence shifts from her to the community of Israel. At that very point, she dies in childbirth, and is buried to wait on the road for generations of Israel to be carried into exile, so that she may pray for them and insure that the Shechina does not abandon her children.
So he fled with all that he had. For as soon as Benjamin was born, the Shechina attached Itself to the company of the tribes and dwelled with them. And Jacob, through his knowledge of the mystic symbolism, was aware that as soon as the twelve tribes should be complete that Rachel would die and the Shechina would take possession of the house.
Our tradition tells us that the lower world was assigned to Jacob in the same way as it was later to Moses, but this could not be accomplished until there were the full twelve tribes in the house to whom the Shechina would be attached. It was then that Rachel was removed, and the Shechina became the foundation of the house. Assuredly, He sets in her place the foundation of the house. (Psalms 113:9). (Zohar, Bereishit, Section 1, Page 158b)
The relationship between Rachel and Leah will enable us to understand another concept taught in midrashic literature. There is an opinion that Rachel and Leah were pregnant at the same time; one was carrying a male embryo who would later go by the name Joseph, while the other carried a female to be named Dina. According to the midrash, Rachel was pregnant with Dina, but prayer and Divine intervention caused the fetuses to be switched!
And afterwards she [Leah] bore a daughter (Genesis 30: 21). We learned: “If, for instance, one’s wife is pregnant and he prays, ‘May it be Thy will that my wife bears a son,’ it is a vain prayer. The School of Rabbi Yannai said: “This was taught of one who is actually about to give birth.” Rabbi Yehuda ben Pazzi said: “Even when she is actually about to give birth [the sex] can be changed, as it is written, ‘O house of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter?’ said the Lord. ‘Behold, as the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel.'” (Jeremiah 18:6) (Just as a potter can break a cruse after he has made it and make something else, so can I do likewise even at the hour of birth).” An objection was raised: “But it is written, And afterwards she bore a daughter.” Rabbi Abba replied: “Actually she was created a male, but she was turned into a female through Rachel’s prayers when she said, The Lord add to me another son (Genesis 30:24).” Said Rabbi Hanina ben Pazzi: “The matriarchs were prophetesses, and Rachel was of the matriarchs. It is not written, The Lord add to me other sons, but another son. She said: ‘He is yet destined to beget one more; may it be from me!'” Rabbi Hanina said: “All the matriarchs assembled and prayed: ‘We have sufficient males; let her [Rachel] be remembered.'” (Midrash Rabbah – Bereishit 72:6)
UNITY OF JEWISH WOMEN
Aside from the miraculous nature of this description, we are struck by the unity among the matriarchs; all as one pray for this switch. Instead of the murderous jealousy which characterizes the relationship between Jacob and Esau, here we find Jacob’s wives working in unison for a common cause.
Even in instances when we might think there was enmity between the two, the Midrash stresses the love and respect:
And when Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister. (Genesis 30:1) Rabbi Isaac observed, “It is written, Let not thy heart envy sinners (Proverbs 23: 17), yet you say, Rachel envied her sister! This, however, teaches that she envied her good deeds, reasoning: ‘Were she not righteous, would she have borne children?'” (Midrash Rabbah – Bereishit 71,6)
The relationship between Rachel and Leah had another implication as well. We have a tradition that Amalek, the descendent of Esau who represents the worst enemy of the Jews, will only fall to a descendant of Rachel.
And it came to pass, when Rachel had borne Yosef (Genesis 30:25). As soon as Esau’s adversary [Joseph] was born, Jacob said to Laban: “Send me away, that I may go to my own land, and to my country.” For Rabbi Pinchas said in the name of Rabbi Samuel ben Nachman: “It is a tradition that Esau will fall at the hands of none other than Rachel’s descendants, as it is written, Surely the youngest of the flock shall drag them away (Jeremiah 49:20). And why does he call them The youngest of the flock? Because they were of the youngest of the tribes.” (Midrash Rabbah – Bereishit 73:7)
THE SELF-SACRIFICE OF TIMNA
Esau, the man who was to be married to Leah, married instead a daughter of Ishmael and produced a son named Eliphaz who in turn married a woman Timna; it is from the union of that Amalek descended.
What is the purpose of [writing], And Lotan’s sister was Timna? Timna was a royal princess … Desiring to become a proselyte, she went to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but they did not accept her. So she went and became a concubine to Eliphaz the son of Esau, saying, “I had rather be a servant to this people than a mistress of another nation.” From her Amalek was descended who afflicted Israel. Why so? Because they should not have repulsed her. (Sanhedrin 99b)
Rav Yonatan Eibeshitz in his work Ya’arot Dvash (Volume 1 Drasha 12) explains that the power to defeat Amalek comes from Rachel, who was to be the only wife of Jacob and became instead secondary, to the point of not even being buried with her husband. If the power of Amalek emanated from the self-sacrifice of Timna, the power to defeat Amalek must emanate from the same source.
At Leah’s moment of need, Rachel took action to assure that her sister not be humiliated at the altar, and she heroically “shared” her husband with her sister. When Rachel was desperate to have another son, it was her sister Leah’s prayers that brought about the miraculous switch. These two sisters, linked spiritually from time immemorial, created the people known as Israel. The power of their deeds did more than create the Jewish Nation; their actions serve as a beacon and shield against all types of adversaries to this very day.