It is the perfect recipe for a family disaster.
Parashat V’yetzei, recounts Jacob’s 20-year stint living with his uncle Laban, acquiring two wives (Leah and Rachel) and two maidservants (Bilha and Zilpah) who collectively bring him 11 of his 12 sons (the tribes of Israel).
I haven’t done a close reading of the story in years and before looking into it, I figured I already knew the important things – that Jacob was tricked into marrying Leah, and then stuck around as an indentured servant so he could eventually marry Rachel (who he really loved). What I don’t remember is Jacob’s insincerity towards Rachel in the moment when she herself is frustrated with the fact that she is barren, “Give me children or I shall die” she tells him, to which he responds, “Can I take the place of God who has denied you fruit of the womb?”
I had also completely forgotten the detail of Jacob’s feelings towards Leah. I remember them as lukewarm. The text however reveals her situation as an important part of the story, “The Lord saw that Leah was unloved and He opened her womb” (Genesis 29:31). Not only is the Hebrew much stronger than “unloved” (s’nuah can mean “hated”), but furthermore, God specifically gives Leah children because of this fact.
And so this tale very quickly becomes one of two sisters postured against each other, married to the same man, whose affection they jockey for by having his children.
I was also intrigued by the etymological significance of all the names of Jacob’s sons. They reflect this very rivalry. One example is when Naphtali is born to Bilha (Rachel’s maidservant). Rachel says, “I have prevailed” (the Hebrew root of Naphtali is Patal – a contest) – meaning, she is “part of the contest” of having children.
Putting aside all of the problematic elements brought out by a close reading of this story, I am thinking about how front-and-center the issue of infertility is here. Brought into focus for me was the raw quality of human emotion that arises with the desire for children. It can inspire the darker inclinations within us as it did with Leah and Rachel.
For me, the silver lining is that we should all have the courage of acceptance in our most challenging moments and find ways to still be loving to those around us. If not, that is when the structure of our lives has the potential to descend into unhealthy territory.
One of my best friends has been trying to get pregnant for at least two years now. She has done things like change her diet (in fact I’m on the same gluten-free diet thanks to her as well) and she has traveled to Israel to see specialists. Luckily with my friend, she has a wonderfully loving and supportive husband – and with more empathy than Jacob in this week’s Parsha. When I’m over their house for Shabbat dinners (with gluten free bread of course for H’motzi), there is only love and laughter, even as they give me updates on this current journey of theirs as a couple.
Behavior like this should be an inspiration to us all.
Matt Check is director of JCP’s Hebrew School Project and JCP YOUTH.