"RACHEL IS CRYING OVER HER CHILDREN..."
Perhaps one of the most intriguing characters in Bereishit is that of Rachel. Posthumously venerated as a national heroine, most notably for her weeping for the Jews as they are exiled from Israel (see Yirmiyahu 31:15), she is nevertheless a very complex individual to decipher. I want to focus this week on one particularly troubling element of the Rachel-narrative in hopes of bringing it to light at least a tiny bit.
The first two verses of chapter 30 of Bereishit present a tense and emotional argument between Yaakov and Rachel. Rachel, having seen her sister give birth to four children while she remains barren, confronts her husband and demands "give me children, and if not I will die." Yaakov, angered by her demand, responds "Am I in place of the Lord (Elokim) who has withheld children from you?" In response to Yaakov's rebuke, Rachel adopts the practice of her barren predecessor Sarah, and gives her maidservant, Bilhah, to Yaakov, saying that "she will give birth on my knees and I will be built up through her."
Most of the commentaries deal with two aspects of this story. The first is what Rachel was really demanding. Clearly she knew that it was Hashem, and not her husband, that decided whether or not a woman would be able to conceive!? The second main issue that is dealt with is how to justify Yaakov's response. Many commentators note that Rachel was demanding that Yaakov pray for her, as his father Yitzchak did for his childless mother Rivka, and Yaakov's response was that he was different because he already had children and it was only Rachel who was being denied offspring.
I want to expand the issue a bit. Rachel's frustration is certainly understandable. She was supposed to have been Yaakov's only wife, and now, not only did she have to share him, but the "wrong" wife was having children while she was not! Any potential pre-existing sibling rivalry could only have served to make matters worse. The question in my mind is more on the reaction of Yaakov, and on two fronts. The first problem is that Rachel was clearly a woman in distress. Netziv notes that children bring both a sense of joy and fulfillment to woman's life, as well as providing someone to care for her in her old age. Rachel was lacking all of this and was clearly distraught, and yet Yaakov's reaction is to become angered by her "ridiculous" demands. Was there no sense of compassion in our forefather? Did he really turn a blind eye to the pain of his wife?
Beyond that, there is the problem that a thorough reading of the text gives to us. Until this point in the story, the Torah has almost gone out of its way to tell us about the deep love that Yaakov felt for Rachel. He rushed to kissed her the moment he first laid eyes on her, he agreed to work seven years to gain her hand in marriage, and he agreed to work another seven years for her after being tricked the first time. In the previous chapter, we are told that the days that he worked seemed like no time at all out of his love for her (29:27) and that Yaakov loved Rachel more than he loved Leah (29:30). Suddenly, all of those emotions seem to be gone, evaporated in the elation of becoming a father four times over, albeit with a different woman. How can this be? How can such a dramatic shift have occurred?
The answer that I would like to suggest requires two elements of background information. The first comes from the end of the section of the births of the tribes. We are told (30:25) that after Rachel gave birth to Yoseif, Yaakov decided that it was time to leave Lavan's house and return to his family in Israel. Why did he choose this time to go? If anything, I can think of three other times when it would have been perhaps more logical for Yaakov to leave. The first time would be after he felt that he had built up a family. When would that be? His father had two sons, and his grandfather, Avraham had eight. Either one of those numbers might have served as a signal that he was now a "family man" and able to go back out into the world. Waiting until son number eleven seems a bit random. The second possibility plays off of the Midrashim that state that Yaakov and his wives all knew that he would have twelve sons (see, for example,Rashi on 30:21). That being the case, why did he not wait until all twelve were born? Finally, if we want to suggest that he was waiting for Rachel to give birth, as she truly was his favorite wife, then the children born to Bilhah should have satisfied this requirement, as Rachel considered them to be her own (she was the one who named them). What is so significant about the birth of Yoseif that it inspires Yaakov to attempt to close up shop and head out on the road again?
The second point that must be noted is the two names of Hashem that occur throughout Sefer Bereishit (this is a huge topic which could constitute several volumes, but I will try to briefly present it here). The first name is "Shem Elokim," a name that refers to Hashem's attribute of justice and His role as the God of nature. The second name is what we will call "Shem Havaya" (the tetragrammaton or ineffable four-letter name, whichever you prefer), which refers to Hashem's attribute of mercy and His position as the God of history. Which one of these names is used in each story is often crucial to understanding the events that occur, and I would like to suggest that they play a role here.
First, the dry run-through. When Leah's first four children are born, she names them using the Shem Havaya (29:32,33,35). After that, all children are named with references to Elokim (e.g. "Elokim has judged me and has heard my voice and has given me a son" - 30:6). The one exception to this rule is at the end, when Rachel refers first to Elokim and then to Shem Havaya when naming Yoseif. What is the significance of this? Is there any?
I would like to suggest that the usage of the various names of Hashem holds the key to our initial question. When Leah gives birth to her first four sons, she is overcome by an awareness that they represent the fact that Hashem has seen her suffering as the unloved wife and has taken steps to rectify her situation. By contrast, Rachel sees a different aspect of Hashem at work here. After she makes her demand of Yaakov, he responds by asking if she expects that he is in place of Elokim - the God of justice. After that, she names Bilhah's children using the Shem Elokim. What is the significance of this? Rachel was seeming working with a concept of what was "fair" and "unfair" (or just and unjust) in the world. It did not seem to be correct to her that the woman who was Yaakov's wife due only to trickery should be bearing his children! Where was the "just" God of Yaakov and his fathers? Yaakov thus answers her on these grounds - that he can do nothing about divine justice. In this light, the views of the commentators can perhaps be given a second look. In a just world, Yaakov had nothing to pray for - he had children already and it was only Rachel who needed to appeal to the Divine sense of justice!
However, I think that there is one more piece to the puzzle. I still find it difficult to say that Yaakov was merely dealing with Rachel with a cold sense of justice. The Torah gives us plenty of clues to the fact that Yaakov was a passionate and compassionate individual, and thus we still must explain that missing element in his behavior. I would like to offer the notion that Yaakov realized what his mission was, and that mission was to create Hashem's chosen nation. He was aware that He had been chosen, as had his father before him, and that Eisav and Yishmael had been left out of the picture. He knew that Hashem's nation would have to be properly established from the outset, or else it would stand no chance of survival. Yaakov was aware of the fact that a nation based solely on a recognition of Hashem as a God of Justice would be one that would be able to relate to Hashem only out of fear -avodah mi-yirah - but not out of love - avodah me-ahava. To attain that second level, there had to be a recognition of Hashem as a God who is involved intimately with his people, serving as the cause of not only their successes, but their failures as well.
Given this, when Rachel demanded children from Yaakov, he realized that she had yet to come to the appreciation that it was Shem Havaya - the intimate God of history - that was controlling who gave birth and who did not. She still saw things only in terms of just and unjust, and for that Yaakov became enraged. However, his reaction was not due to a loss of love for her (as seen by his favoring Yoseif and Binyamin later on, she clearly remained the favorite wife), but perhaps it was as a result of his love for her. For Yaakov, Rachel was his main wife, and if she failed to understand their Divine mission, then it was certainly doomed to failure. As such, perhaps we can see his response as less of a derisive rebuke and as more of a push for her to realize on her own that her barrenness was planned and intentional. If this is true, then the birth of Yoseif becomes the perfect time for Yaakov to leave Lavan's house, Only at that point, when Rachel recognized the Shem Havaya, the God that was controlling her destiny and that of her offspring, did Yaakov feel that his family had been set on the correct path of serving Hashem and was able to move on to face its next challenges.
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