How Rachel Got Her Groove Back
By Rav Uri C. Cohen
The Torah does not usually reveal the motivations of its characters. It is left for us, the readers, to extrapolate, interpolate, or just plain speculate. The more a suggested motivation fits with what we know about a character, the more convincing it is.
Take the teraphim. In fact, Rachel does. As she and the rest of the family sneak away from Lavan, she secretly steals his household icons, called teraphim (Bereishit 31:19). Why? It doesn’t say. With a sense of impending doom, we read that Yaakov, blissfully ignorant of the theft, proclaims that anyone who stole the teraphim should die (31:32). Tragically, Rachel indeed dies early (35:19). We never do find out her motivation for stealing the teraphim. What could it be?
Each of the answers to this question is based on the scant evidence we have, whether from Tanakh or other sources, of the purposes of teraphim. Here are a few examples. Teraphim are idols, and Rachel wants to separate Lavan from idol-worship.<1> Teraphim are tools of divination, and Rachel is trying to make sure Lavan can’t divine where the family has fled.<2> Teraphim are symbolic of inheritance, and Rachel would like Yaakov to be considered Lavan’s heir.<3> Teraphim are taken on a long trip, and Rachel is simply following Mesopotamian custom.<4>
The limitation of all those answers is that they do not relate to Rachel’s personality at all. A different approach, presented independently by Prof. Moshe Greenberg and Rabbi David Silber, works backwards from Rachel and suggests that teraphim are for fertility.<5> As Greenberg points out, the only other woman in Tanakh who is described as owning teraphim is Michal (Shmuel Alef 19:13), who never has children (Shmuel Bet 6:23).<6> That may be enough evidence to argue that Rachel’s motivation in stealing teraphim is for fertility as well.
This answer resonates because one of the main themes of Rachel’s story is her desperation for children. She is so jealous of her sister Leah’s fecundity that she screams at Yaakov, “Give me children or I’ll die!” (Bereishit 30:1).<7> To make matters more poignant, a late midrash presents Rachel as terrified that her childlessness will cause Yaakov to divorce her.<8> She becomes so fixated on technical solutions that, in order to get Leah’s fertility-aiding duda’im (mandrakes), Rachel swaps her a conjugal visit from Yaakov (30:15). In other words, the fertility that Rachel thinks will improve her relationship with Yaakov takes higher priority than the relationship itself.
Ironically, the result of the duda’im story is that not only does Rachel not become pregnant, but Leah does. One acharon theorizes that this is a punishment for Rachel’s missing the point. Instead of relying on segulot, charms to improve one’s luck, Rachel should have davened directly to Hashem.<9> Similarly, perhaps one reason that the teraphim do not bring Rachel a child is because she is so confident that they’ll work, she rationalizes stealing them. Today, unfortunately, sometimes well-meaning frum friends and relatives of infertile people miss the point as well, and pressure them to perform endless segulot even when it makes them miserable. (I have heard many such stories.)<10>
One could defend Rachel and say that fertility aids in Biblical times were considered the equivalent of today’s artificial reproductive technologies such as IVF — simply the hishtadlut that one should put in while also davening to Hashem. If that were the case, the text should have mentioned Rachel’s tefillot. If anything, according to the Ramban, the implication of “Give me children or I’ll die!” is that she expects Yaakov to daven for her instead. That explains his indignant retort (30:2), “Am I instead of Hashem, Who has withheld fruit of the womb from you?!” Yaakov means that she shouldn’t rely on him, because even tzaddikim cannot guarantee anything with their tefillot.<11> Rather, she should daven herself. Judy Klitsner develops the Ramban’s approach:
At first, Rachel waits, and expects her husband to pray as Isaac did, on behalf of his wife. When this does not happen, she turns sharply toward him and demands action. Yet here the response is different from that of their forebears: Jacob turns back to her in anger and says, “You are addressing your remarks to the wrong party. I am not an intermediary between you and God, and you don’t need one. Only God can respond to your plight, and you are fully capable of reaching out to Him on your own.” It is this response, giving another the means for self-help, which has been traditionally seen as the highest form of charity. Jacob’s response is the ultimate expression of love and caring, in which he gives her a decisive push in the direction of spiritual self-sufficiency. Rachel understands the message, and does ultimately pray on her own behalf.<12>
Where do we see that Rachel starts davening? The Ramban thinks it is hinted at when, subsequent to this dialogue, the Torah says (30:22), “Elokim remembered Rachel, and Elokim listened to her.”<13> In other words, Hashem responds immediately to Rachel’s tefillah.<14> As soon as Rachel shifts her emphasis — from getting herself the segulot of duda’im and teraphim to giving herself in tefillah — Hashem grants her what she truly wants: children. Of course, sometimes the answer to our tefillot is “No.” Nevertheless, tefillot and ma’asim tovim are where we should place our priority.<15> Perhaps this shift –- how Rachel got her groove back — is the lesson we should learn from her.
1. Bereishit Rabbah 74:5: “Her intention was only l’shem shamayim. She said: How can I go and just leave the old man to be messed up (bekilkuleih)?” Rashi paraphrases this on 31:21.
2. Ibn Ezra: “It seems likely that her father Lavan knew mazalot (divination, literally astrology), and she was afraid that her father would gaze at mazalot to know which way they fled.”
3. H. H. Rowley, The Servant of the Lord and Other Essays on the Old Testament (London: Lutterworth, 1952), p. 302: “It has been conjectured that Laban had no sons at the time of Jacob’s marriage to Leah, but that he subsequently became the father of sons, who were therefore now superior in legal standing to Jacob. By carrying off the teraphim, however, Rachel preserved for Jacob the chief title to Laban’s estate.” As cited in Moshe Greenberg, “Another Look at Rachel’s Theft of the Teraphim,” Journal of Biblical Literature 81:3 (Sept. 1962), p. 240. Greenberg also quotes (p. 241) a related suggestion from Cyrus H. Gordon, The World of the Old Testament (Garden City: Doubleday, 1958), p. 129: “Since they were bound for Canaan and were leaving Mesopotamia for good, it is not likely that the gods conveyed valuable property rights. The possession of the gods may rather have betokened clan leadership and spiritual power to an extent that made possessing them of paramount importance.” Greenberg himself goes to great length to reject this entire approach.
4. William Whiston (1667-1752), in the notes on his translation of Flavius Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews, Book XVIII, Chapter 9, Note 36: “This custom of the Mesopotamians to carry their household gods along with them wherever they traveled is as old as the days of Jacob, when Rachel his wife did the same.” Available at http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Antiquities_of_the_Jews/Book_XVIII The main contemporary scholar who agrees with this approach is Greenberg, Ibid., p. 246.
5. Devora Steinmetz, From Father to Son: Kinship, Conflict, and Continuity in Genesis (Louisville: Westminster Press/John Knox Press, 1991), p. 181: “Rachel’s secrecy about the theft suggests that this may be another strategy to gain ascendancy over her sister. David Silber has suggested that Rachel takes the teraphim in an attempt to become pregnant again. Her excuse for not rising for Laban –- ‘for the way of women is upon me’ (31:35) is relevant in this context.” (Rabbi Silber, who is married to Dr. Steinmetz, is the founder of the Drisha Institute.)
6. Greenberg, p. 247: “Rachel’s particular concern to have the teraphim may be illuminated by the fact that, in common with the one other biblical woman whom we know to have had teraphim — Michal, wife of David (I Sam 9:13; cf. II Sam 6:23) — Rachel was anxious for children (cf. her desperate rivalry with Leah in Gen. 30).” Compare Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, “Alai Hayu Kulana,” BiSdeh Hemed, #1, 5759: “What the two women have in common is of course the problem of infertility. Based on this, we might be able to assume that teraphim were considered especially effective in bringing conception.” Available at http://www.daat.ac.il/DAAT/kitveyet/sde_chem/kulana.htm
7. Cf. Dr. Hershey H. Friedman, “Humor in the Hebrew Bible,” Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, Vol. 13:3 (Sept. 2000): “The tragic irony of this statement is that Rachel subsequently died in childbirth giving birth to Benjamin.” Available at http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/economic/friedman/bibhumor.htm
8. Sefer HaYashar, p. 144: “Rachel davened to Hashem at that time, saying: Hashem Elokim, remember me, because now my husband will divorce me because I haven’t given birth to any children for him. Now, Hashem Elokim, please listen to my plea to You, see my suffering, and give me children like one of the maidservants, so I won’t hear my shame anymore.” I found this source quoted in Dr. Yael Levine, “HaAkrut BaAggadah,” Teudah, Vol. 13 (1997), p. 105. For more on Sefer HaYashar, which is presumably referring to Rachel’s tefillah mentioned at the end of this dvar torah, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sefer_haYashar_(midrash)
9. Rabbi Chaim Avraham Mirandah, Yad Ne’eman (Salonika, 1808), p. 54. As cited in Rabbi Yehoshua Zev Zond, Birkat Banim: BeInyanei Poriyut URefuah BeHalakhah (Jerusalem, 1994), p. 10.
10. See, for example, the poem “Faith or Folly?” by S.I., in ATIME Newsletter #42 (Chanukah 5765), pp. 7-8. Available at http://www.atime.org/images/Chanukah5765.pdf
11. Ramban on 30:1: “The p’shat is that Rachel told Yaakov to give her children. In truth, what she meant was that he should daven for her –- at the very least, daven for her until he had given her children. If not, she would kill herself. In her jealousy, she spoke improperly. She thought that in his love for her, Yaakov would fast, wear sackcloth and ashes, and daven until she had children, so that she wouldn’t die in her pain. Yaakov got angry, because the tefillot of tzaddikim are not in their control to be heard and answered no matter what.”
12. Judy Klitsner, “Childlessness and Prayer in the Bible,” The Pardes Reader (Jerusalem: Pardes, 1997), p. 55.
13. Ramban on 30:1: “When the tzadeket saw that she couldn’t rely on the tefillah of Yaakov, she turned to davening for herself, to the One Who hears prayer. This is the meaning of ‘Elokim listened to her’ (30:22).”
14. Midrash HaGadol, pp. 534-535, on Bereishit 30:22: “When she heard all these words from Yaakov, she dedicated herself to tefillah and said, ‘Remember me, Hashem, when You show favor to Your people’ (Tehillim 106:4). Immediately, Hashem heard her tefillah and gave her a book of remembrance in which it is written, ‘Elokim remembered Rachel’ (Bereishit 30:22).” As cited by Dr. Levine, Ibid., p. 127.
15. In his masterpiece on helping people (Ahavat Chessed, section 2, chapter 5), the Chafetz Chaim cites Bava Batra 9b (“Whoever is in the habit of doing tzedakah will merit children who have wisdom, wealth, etc.”) and comments wryly that he’s surprised at people who spend their money and effort on segulot to have children; it would be better to follow the segulah from Chazal of being involved with tzedakah. Not only does it often work, but even if (God forbid) a person never has children, the acts of tzedakah will remain his or her “offspring.” I thank Rabbi Zond, Ibid., p. 7 for this reference. For other Torah sources consoling childless people, see my article, “Childless or Childfree?” Le’ela, Issue 52 (December 2001), pp. 43-50. Available at http://www.nishmat.net/article.php?id=122