Parshat VaYetze is one of only two sedrot in the Torah which have no breaks – stumot or petuchot – within them. On the most basic level, we can infer from this that the entire narrative in this week’s parsha, from Yaakov’s flight from his brother’s wrath at the beginning, to his flight from Lavan’s wrath and return to Eretz Yisrael, are all linked together. (For an interesting look at the parallels between the different parts of the story, see Iyunim B’Parshat HaShavua by Rabbi Elchanan Samet). This fact creates a different perspective when looking at a given aspect of the story. Rather than relating to a group of passukim as a discrete unit, we must remain cognizant of its position within the entire story.
I would like to focus on the passukim (29:31- 30:24) which describe the birth of Yaakov’s sons, the reaction of Rachel to her continued childlessness even as her sister, Leah, is blessed with children, and the continuing competition between Leah and Rachel. In light of our opening observation, it is very easy to see how these passukim are connected to the previous piece of the story. The Torah tells us that Hashem sees that Leah was hated, and therefore he opened her womb even as Rachel was barren. Each of her first three children receive names which reflect Leah’s difficult relationship with her husband, while only the fourth (Yehuda) reflects contentment with her lot. At the same time Rachel becomes increasingly frustrated with her lack of children and demands that Yaakov do something. Yaakov’s seemingly brusque response has an apparently sobering effect on Rachel, and she opts to give her maidservant to Yaakov as a wife in order that she (Rachel) too will be a partner in Yaakov’s growing family. The names that Rachel chooses also reflect her anxiety and sense of competition with her sister. Leah’s decision to give her maidservant to Yaakov is only the next step in this spiraling competition (see the Ramban, who struggles to explain why Leah would offer her maid servant to Yaakov), and the names she now chooses are reflective of her sense of confidence as the mother of the lion’s share of Yaakov’s children. But this confidence is not secure, as we see in the next sequence of children. First, we see her bitter response to Rachel’s request that Leah share with her the flowers (dudaim) that Reuven had gathered. Is the fact that you have taken my husband not sufficient, she asks? And even after the birth of her sixth son, Zevulun, we see the name chosen reflects a hope that finally now Yaakov will see her as his primary wife and companion. Finally, the birth of Yosef seems not to assuage Rachel’s own unhappiness but rather to increase it. “Hashem has gathered up my shame” (that people will no longer speak disparagingly of her due to her childlessness, see the Ramban), “Hashem should add another son for me”.
Even before we see how the various midrashim and commentators approach this story, we can not help but be struck by the pathos that the simple pshat of the narrative brings forth. One sister, scorned and despised, for whom bearing of children becomes a vehicle to try and win her husband’s love and affection. And the other sister, despite the love that she receives, views herself as inadequate precisely because she is incapable of bearing children.
What is striking is that side by side with those commentaries (and a Gemara, as we will see in a moment), which view the story in a less harsh light than we have drawn here there are many prominent commentators who insist on hewing to the simple pshat in the passukim.
Let us begin by examining the hatred that prompted HaShem to open Leah’s womb. The Gemara in Baba Batra (123) implies that unlike our reading of the passukim, Leah’s childbearing comes not as consolation for the hatred that Yaakov bears toward her, but rather as a reward for the scorn that Leah had toward Esav and his values. According to this reading, Leah is no longer the object of the hatred, but rather the bearer of it. Because she sacrificed herself rather than allowing an arranged marriage to Esav, a union she could not countenance because of her revulsion for who Esav was and what he stood for, she was rewarded with children.
The Ohr HaChaim also attempts to explain away the hatred, focussing on the fact that the passuk says that Hashem noted the hatred, not Leah. From this he suggests that Yaakov in fact hid his true feelings from Leah so that she did not perceive the hatred. The difficulty with both these approaches is that Leah herself chooses the name Shimon as a reflection of the hatred that Yaakov had toward her (see passuk 33). (The Maharsha raises this question on the Gemara, and the Ohr HaChaim addresses it as well. Interestingly, at least as far as the Gemara is concerned, this passuk need not be problematic. There is no reason that we can not adopt both approaches. The hatred that Yaakov felt might have been real, but the children came not as a consolation prize but as a reward for Leah’s resolute rejection of Esav’s values and behavior.)
A second approach to soften the simple pshat of the passuk is advanced by the Ralbag, Radak, and suggested as one possibility by the Ramban. This approach suggests that the hatred mentioned by the passuk was relative. When contrasted to the love that Yaakov felt toward Rachel it is as if Leah was hated. But this was only true in relative terms. In absolute terms Yaakov loved Leah. He just loved Rachel more, a state of affairs which made Leah feel despised. Of course, the question that we raised from the naming of Shimon is no longer applicable. Leah’s naming reflects her subjective feeling, not the reality of the situation.
There is, however, a significant school that accepts the Pshat, most prominently the Midrash (Breishit Rabba 71), which suggests that Yaakov wished to divorce Leah, and it was only the birth of her children which forestalled that action. The Ramban quotes this Midrash, and gives no indication as to whether his preference is for this approach or the one previously referred to. The Abarbanel also adopts this approach.
Similarly, the question of Rachel’s reaction and whether or not she truly was jealous of Leah is a matter of debate. Rashi is quick to point out that Rachel was only jealous of Leah’s deeds that had enabled Leah to be rewarded with children while Rachel remained childless. The Ramban (and the Ralbag) are equally adamant that, k’pshuto, Rachel was jealous of Leah and thus she came to Yaakov with demands that he give her children.
If we return to our original observation, that we need to view the story as an organic whole, then the insistence of (primarily) the Ramban to read the passukim k’pshutam is clear. It is unimaginable, that just as Sarah’s well intentioned offer to have Avraham marry Hagar caused strain in her household, so, too, was Rachel and Leah’s decision to “share” Yaakov destined to create strains between them. The willingness of the Imahot to sacrifice their happiness in favor of the responsibility to build Klal Yisrael represented enormous self-sacrifice. That those sacrifices were real and engendered clashes, pain and heartache, need not reduce the enormity of their deeds or the respect and debt that we owe them. Rather it only increases the awe with which we view them, and the relevancy of their actions to our lives.