The twinned relationship of Leah and Rachel

This sense of deep loyalty and connection finds its way into an extremely erotic and startling narrative

'Two sisters,' Finnish National Gallery (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
'Two sisters,' Finnish National Gallery
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
This week’s Torah portion, Vayetze, is a fascinating examination of human relationships – between men and women, fathers and daughters, husbands and wives. It is filled with so much intense emotion from intense love, to jealousy, anger, hope and despair, all familiar to the modern reader.
The book of Genesis is filled with the inherent tension built into sibling relationships, from Cain and Abel to Yitzhak and Ishmael and most importantly, Esau and Jacob, twins emerging from the same womb already locked in struggle from birth onward. Leah and Rachel are not the first female pair to find themselves in conflict. Hagar and Sarai, in one of the previous stories, already reflect a complex interplay between two women grappling for primacy in the household of Abraham. But in that story, Sarai as chief wife and mother of Isaac, is ultimately able to prevail by sending Hagar and her son away. Rachel and Leah are unique among all of the stories in that they remain together in the same household married to the same man until Rachel dies tragically in childbirth. Unlike Ishmael and Esau, who go on to father their own separate tribes, both Rachel and Leah and their respective handmaidens birth the tribes that make up one nation, the children of Yisrael, all united under the umbrella of Jacob.

Midrashic interpretation intertwines the narrative of Esau and Jacob’s birth with Leah and Rachel, by describing them as twins – a neat mirror to the Jacob-Esau twinship. Another midrash sets up the parallel between Jacob’s deception of his father with Laban’s deception of Jacob. In one rabbinic narrative, Leah herself tells Jacob, when he awakens to find that she is his bride, that he cannot possibly protest her deception since he was complicit with the deception toward his father.
One of the main differences between rabbinic interpretation of the brothers and the sisters is that Esau is vilified and turned into a wicked idolator, murder and adulterer. There is no room for nuance. Jacob emerges as the unquestionable hero regardless of how much more complex (and interesting!) the actual Biblical narrative is presented. Even the tender reunion between the brothers in next week’s Torah portion, when the Biblical text describes how Esau rushed to kiss his brother and cry on his neck is subverted so that Esau is described as trying to bite his brother in vengeance. In the midrash, an angel thwarts his attempts however, turning Jacob’s neck to marble so that Esau cries are not of tender forgiveness but of pain, both physical and emotional for being thwarted in his intention to harm his brother.
 In our stories about the sisters, the midrash is far more forgiving and understanding of the tensions in the story, developing narratives that suggest cooperation, concern and compassion despite the complexity. This is reinforced by the biblical text itself, which presents an undercurrent of familial loyalty, connecting the sisters to one another in a touching scene that appears at the end of the Torah portion. When Jacob consults with them about the ongoing discrimination he suffers under their father’s employment and God’s call for him to return to Canaan, without hesitation, Rachel and Leah agree to leave their father’s home to protect their integrated household.
Two midrashim really highlight this sense of sisterhood between the women. In one, Leah, who knows that the tribe of Jacob will be made up of 12 sons, prays that her seventh pregnancy result in a girl so that Rachel will contribute two sons, in line with the handmaidens who have each borne two sons to Jacob. In another, the three fertile women of the household beseech God on the behalf of Rachel, asking that her womb finally be opened. God answers these prayers of female fellowship and Rachel is finally able to contribute the two final sons to the tribe. Despite all of the jealousy, pain and conflict, the midrash rightfully recognizes the innate sense of connection between the women and their sense of sisterhood.
This sense of deep loyalty and connection finds its way into an extremely erotic and startling narrative. We find ourselves literally under the bed of Jacob and Leah as they consummate their marriage. Before going further, it is worth noting that in the earlier part of the midrash, a host of biblical characters including Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Moses, and Jeremiah have come before God, along with heaven and earth and the letters of the alphabet, to plead for compassion on behalf of the nation whom He has turned against and exiled. God has rebuffed all attempts to subdue His anger.
The last one to appear, and the only woman in the midrash, is Rachel, who rebukes God for unleashing destruction and exile against her children because of unwarranted jealousy over idol worship. She reminds God of what happened on that seminal evening when her father put Leah in her stead under the wedding canopy. Not only did she give her sister the signs that were meant to identify her to her husband, but she lay underneath the bed all night long and responded verbally for Leah while the marriage was being consummated. She reminds God that she was able to push past her very justifiable human emotions of jealousy and personal pain, giving up her rights to this first encounter of intimacy with Jacob, to protect her sister from humiliation and degradation. “And if I, a creature of flesh and blood, formed of dust and ashes, was not envious of my rival and did not expose her to shame and contempt, shy should You, a King who lives eternally and are merciful, be jealous of idolatry in which there is no reality and exile my children and let them be slain by the sword and their enemies have done with them as they wished!” (Eichah Rabbah Proem 24)
It is this singular female voice, together with her act of utter and selfless devotion, that moves God to promise for her sake, to restore Israel to their place.
The writer teaches contemporary Halacha at the Matan Advanced Talmud Institute. She also teaches Talmud at Pardes along with courses on Sexuality and Sanctity in the Jewish tradition.