Tuesday, January 13, 2015

On the Trail of Blessings: Two Sisters for Two Brothers

[This is installment 6 1/2 of the series. Begin the trail here.]

The Torah tells us that Leah's eyes were “soft” (29:17) and this was caused by incessant crying. Leah was depressed because she was destined – doomed – to marry Eisav.

Everybody said, “Rivka has two boys and Lavan has two girls. The older girl is for the older boy and the younger girl is for the younger boy.” (Rashi ad loc. from Baba Basra 123a)

Given this understanding of her destiny, Leah's barbed words to Rachel make no sense. When Rachel asks Leah for the jasmine that Reuven found, Leah retorts, “You have almost taken my husband; you’re also going to take my son's jasmine?!” (30:15). But if Leah was supposed to marry Eisav, then Leah is the intruder here! Leah is guilty of taking Rachel’s husband, not the other way around! How could Leah have the chutzpah to accuse Rachel of taking her husband, when she is herself guilty of that very crime?

Based on what we have learned, the answer is clear. Leah was correct about her destiny: Eisav’s mission as firstborn includes the arranged marriage to his firstborn cousin. However, when Yaakov stole his brother’s blessings, Yaakov usurped the mission of the firstborn – and that includes Eisav’s wife to be! If Yaakov is now the firstborn, then Leah is no longer Eisav's wife, Leah is Yaakov's wife.

When Yaakov awoke in the morning and discovered that he had been tricked into marrying Leah, he rebuked her.

“Trickster, daughter of a trickster! How could you respond when I called ‘Rachel’ last night?”
“Can there be a teacher without students?” Leah replied. “When your father called for Eisav, didn’t you respond?” (Bereishis Rabba 70:19)

Leah wasn’t being snarky; she was stating a profound truth. This is what she was saying to Yaakov: “You used trickery to pose as Eisav and take the blessings of the firstborn – and that act turned you into my fiancé. So why can't I follow your lead and use trickery to fulfill our destiny?” (cf. Nachshoni).

However, none of this solves our problem with Leah's attack on Rachel. Even if it is true that Yaakov is now supposed to marry Leah, that doesn't give Leah an exclusive claim. Yaakov and Rachel were destined for each other from birth. The two wives are not mutually exclusive; Yaakov can, and does, marry both sisters. To return to our question, how can Leah accuse Rachel of taking her husband?

The answer is that Leah has a different perspective. Leah thinks that when Yaakov took Eisav’s blessings, Yaakov transformed into Eisav – and left his old self behind. The original Yaakov, the man that was to be Rachel’s husband, no longer exists.

It sounds strange, but the facts on the ground do seem to support Leah point of view. She is the one building the nation, child after child. Rachel is barren. Rachel tried to get Yaakov to pray for her, just as Yitzchok prayed for Rivka (30:1; Rashi ad loc.), but that didn't work. She tried Sarah’s tactic of giving her maidservant to her husband (30:3; Rashi ad loc.), but that didn't work either. Leah saw all this and concluded the obvious: maybe once upon a time Rachel was supposed to be Yaakov’s wife, but now that Yaakov has taken on Eisav’s role, Rachel is no longer meant to be the mother of the Jews. The old Yaakov is gone and Rachel has no place with the new Yaakov.


“God remembered Rachel. God listened to her and opened her womb…” (30:22). What exactly did God remember about Rachel that led Him to bless her with a child? According to the Midrash, there were actually two different divine memories that served Rachel here. Firstly, Hashem remembered that when Lavan deviously put Leah under the chupah, Rachel gave her sister the secret signs she had arranged with Yaakov so as to save Leah from embarrassment. Second, Hashem remembered that Rachel was worried that if she didn't produce a child, Yaakov would divorce her and she would end up as the wife of Eisav. Indeed, this is exactly what Eisav was planning. Hashem was “moved” by Rachel’s distress and blessed her with a child (Rashi ad loc.). 

Rachel’s distress was so intense, she even named her child for it. When her son is born, Rachel says, “God has gathered in my humiliation” (30:23). Rashi explains, “I was humiliated by my barrenness; people said that I was destined for the wicked Eisav.” It wasn't just empty gossip; Rachel and Eisav took the idea seriously.

This is all very strange. The thought that Yaakov would divorce his beloved Rachel sounds like paranoia, and the idea that Eisav would travel to Charan to marry Yaakov’s barren ex-wife is downright bizarre. Moreover, by what right could Eisav marry Rachel against her will?

The answer is inescapable. When Yaakov became firstborn, his old self didn't disappear. It transferred over to Eisav! For why should Yaakov take all? Even if he has acquired the status of the firstborn, it does not follow that Eisav is out of the family. Eisav remains a son of Yitzchok and is certainly entitled to a piece of the inheritance and all the rights that come with it.

Unsurprisingly, Eisav also thinks this way. After his parents send his brother to Charan to find a wife from within the family, Eisav does the same, marrying the daughter of Yishmael (28:29). Eisav thinks he lost the berachos because of his Canaanite wives (26:34); to his mind, all he needs to do is to marry a cousin and he will receive his inheritance (Rashbam ad loc.). In contrast, despite Avraham’s insistence that Yitzchok marry a relative (24:3-4), Yishmael had no qualms about marrying an outsider (cf. 21:21). The difference is that Yishmael knew that he was out. Eisav felt he was still in.

As we have learned, the original plan for the twin sons of Yitzchok was for them to build the nation together. Selling the birthright and stealing the berachos may switch things around, but Eisav remains a family member. If Yaakov takes Leah, then Eisav should take Rachel – and the proof is Rachel’s inability to have a child with Yaakov. If Rachel doesn't conceive, Yaakov will have no choice but to divorce his beloved wife and hand her over to her rightful husband, his brother Eisav.

It turns out that the two things Hashem remembered about Rachel are one and the same. By giving the signs to her sister and enabling the marriage of Yaakov to Leah, Rachel validated Yaakov’s acquisition of Eisav’s destiny and jeopardized her own shidduch in the process. With the birth of Reuven, Yaakov’s hold on the birthright, and Leah, is consummated and there’s no turning back. Terrified by the implications of her own righteousness, Rachael’s destiny is now in limbo; she may now belong to Eisav. Hashem thought about all of this and, to our great relief, Hashem grants Rachel a child.


It was not only Rachel’s righteousness that inspired divine compassion. Leah was also a key player.

“Afterwards, she bore a daughter, and she named her Dina” (30:21). The word “Dina” literally translates, “her judgment,” but unlike every other child, no explanation is given for the choice of the name. Rashi quotes the Midrash:

Our sages explained [the name]. [When she conceived,] Leah judged the matter herself. “If this is a boy, my sister Rachel won’t even be like the maidservants.” She prayed for her and it turned into a girl.

It was known to Yaakov’s wives that the Jewish people were destined to be made up of twelve tribes (Rashi to 29:34). Leah already had six sons, Bilha had two and Zilpa had two. That leaves only two remaining unborn sons. When Leah conceived, she realized that if she has a boy, Rachel could, at best, be the mother of only a single tribe. Rachel would then be inferior to Bilha and Zilpa. Leah prayed and the fetus in her womb was changed from a boy into a girl.

We should appreciate the significance of Leah’s prayer. Rachel was barren and there was no reason to think she could ever have a child with Yaakov. Everyone assumed she was destined for Eisav. That may have indeed been Rachel’s sorry fate, but Leah fought against it. With the power of her prayers, Leah gifted Rachel with Yosef. By doing so, Leah sacrificed her exclusive claim on Yaakov and granted her sister a place in the pantheon of imahos.

Rachel is often extolled for being mevater and surrendering her husband to Leah, but Leah’s self-sacrifice is no less extraordinary, for she too sacrificed her relationship with husband in defense of her sister’s honor. 

Leah’s prayer resurrected the original Yaakov. Now Yaakov is the undisputed father of the nation and the sole recipient of all the varied and challenging blessings of Avraham and Yitzchok. This is why Yaakov waited for the birth of Yosef before he returned to Israel to face Eisav (cf. 30:25). Yosef’s birth makes it a fait accompli. All the imahos are accounted for. Rachel is in, Eisav is out, and Yaakov takes all. All the mothers, all the children, all the blessings are his.

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