Parshat Vayetze – What to say and how to say it

"In this deep pain, Rachel erred in her words to Jacob and said a sentence that was both mistaken and perhaps even dangerous."

Torah scroll (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Torah scroll
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In this week’s portion, we read a sad story, perhaps the saddest one in the Torah. This is the story of Jacob and his two wives – Rachel and Leah. Why did Jacob marry these two sisters? The Torah describes the development of this story in detail. Jacob wanted to marry Rachel. He loved her and was prepared to work for seven years to earn the right of living by her side.
But Rachel had an older sister, Leah, and a tricky scoundrel of a father, Laban.
After seven years of labor, when it was time for Jacob and Rachel to consummate their love, Laban the swindler decided to give Leah to Jacob in place of Rachel. Under cover of darkness, since in those days homes were not lit at night, Jacob mistakenly married Leah. It was only in the morning that he discovered what had been done to him, and at that point it was too late.
Jacob decided that he was not giving up on his love for Rachel and that he would marry her as well. With incredible nerve, his cheating father-in-law demanded that he work another seven years to get Rachel, and Jacob did so and married Rachel.
When a story begins like that, we can only imagine what kind of home this will be and what the results will be of a forced marriage to Leah alongside Jacob’s burning love for Rachel.
And if that wasn’t enough, the Torah tells us that Leah gives birth to a boy, and then to another, while Rachel is barren, watching her older sister raise a whole tribe of children. Leah gave birth to four boys and a girl while Rachel was still unable to bear children.
Are there words to describe Rachel’s pain and suffering? At this point we get to the part of the story that does not need words to describe further because it cannot be read without feeling deep sorrow. This is the conversation between Jacob and Rachel: “And Rachel saw that she had not borne [any children] to Jacob, and Rachel envied her sister, and she said to Jacob, ‘Give me children, and if not, I am dead.’ And Jacob became angry with Rachel, and he said, ‘Am I instead of God, Who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?’” Genesis 30, 1-2) We still remember Jacob and Rachel’s love. He worked for his father-in-law for 14 years to win Rachel, and now where have we gotten to? Our sages expressed this clearly when they described God’s rebuke of Jacob: “And the Holy One Blessed be He said to him: And is that how you answer someone in distress?” (Bereishit Raba 71, 7).
Why, indeed, did Jacob react that way to Rachel’s words? Rachel was suffering. Of this there is no doubt. Her jealousy of her sister was so burning that she herself said that she had lost any will to live if she could not bear children. But in this deep pain, Rachel erred in her words to Jacob and said a sentence that was both mistaken and perhaps even dangerous. She turned to Jacob and demanded: “Give me children.” But could Jacob give her children? He loved her, and would surely do anything in his power to help her. What was behind this unusual demand? The answer to this question lies in understanding the situation. If we think that Rachel turned to Jacob as a loving and beloved husband, we are mistaken. Here, Rachel turned to Jacob as a righteous man, as a man who has the power – so Rachel thought – to change reality and help her in extraordinary ways. Her words now sound completely different. She is not pouring her heart out to Jacob her husband, but rather is searching for salvation from Jacob the righteous.
This is why Jacob responds so harshly: “Am I instead of God?” – If you think that any man has the power to give you children, then you are sorely mistaken! There is only one address for this, and that is God. He is the only one who can help, and He is the only one you should lean on. A righteous person can bless and pray, but cannot give you children! Jacob was obviously correct in his words but God rebuked him anyway. Even if the content of his words was true, he should have taken into consideration that he is standing before a woman who is in pain, in agony, whose jealousy and distress are overwhelming.
One must never speak harshly to a person in such a state. Jacob should have corrected Rachel, but not in that way. If Rachel erred in “what” she said, Jacob failed in “how” he said it.
Even when speaking the truth, one must know how to say it.
Shabbat shalom!
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.