Parshat Vayetze depicts the complex and emotional love story of Jacob and Rachel. Jacob worked seven years as a shepherd under the auspices of his uncle Laban. When, after seven years he was not allowed to marry Rachel as was promised him, but instead married Leah, her older sister, he then worked another seven years in order to finally marry Rachel. The years proved to be difficult work, and his uncle, Laban, was a tough and untrustworthy boss. And yet our tradition teaches us that to Jacob, the years of work in order to marry his beloved, Rachel, seemed like just a few days. It would seem to be a true story of love between Rachel and Jacob.
And yet even after they unite in marriage, Jacob and Rachel’s troubles continue. Rachel is unable to conceive. She is devastated. The subject of Rachel’s infertility is painful and poignant and speaks to us as contemporary individuals as much as it did for those in the ancient world. Rachel so desperately wants to have a child. She cannot figure out why it is that she does not have one. And Jacob, her true love, is unable to comfort her. The pain of infertility is a timeless subject with contemporary relevance. Today the pain is the same.
Rachel asks Jacob (chapter 30: v.1-2) to “Give me children.” Jacob’s response seems too harsh. He angrily replies: “Am I a surrogate for God, who has withheld from you?” Rachel seems to be in extraordinary spiritual pain, and Jacob seems completely unatuned to it. This is not the way that someone who purports to love someone else responds to her pain.
When hard times fall on a person, we humans have trouble explaining just why some people have such problems when others do not. A common response is to blame the person, to suggest that perhaps they, themselves, have done something to merit their pain. That is how Rashi explains Rachel’s infertility. He believes that Rachel is jealous of Leah, who must be more righteous than she. According to Rashi, Rachel also accuses Jacob of not being righteous enough to pray effectively on her behalf. The pain of infertility has caused these two friends and lovers to work against one another, both accusing the other of not being righteous or prayerful enough. Pain and loss will often do that. Jacob is unduly harsh in the way he responds. The love-relationship is very tender. And when it comes to this intense pain, words can be stinging.
Rachel is so bereft that she indeed feels as if she will die if she does not have children. Perhaps it is true that others in her community will regard her as “dead” if she is unable to become a mother. This attitude persists today, as people often look at childless women of a certain age as not being whole, as not having fulfilled their life’s purpose as mothers.
Perhaps Jacob is also miffed that Rachel is not satisfied, merely by marrying Jacob, but that her passion is to be a mother, not just a wife. It reminds us of Elkanah’s response to his wife Hannah, who is also unable to conceive. “Am I not more devoted to you than ten sons?” (1 Samuel, 1:8). We read Elkanah’s bewildered response each year as our Haftarah portion on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. These feelings of anger on the part of a husband towards his bereft wife are common in cases of infertility. The pain and loss divides them, drives them against one another in anger and confusion about just how strong is the foundation of love for one another that began their marriage.
Ramban offers us a different perspective on this matter. Perhaps Jacob is so angry because Rachel has unrealistic expectations of just how much he can do to change their infertility. It seems that although Jacob has prayed, perhaps Rachel would never be fully satisfied until he put on sackcloth and ashes and prayed and fasted continuously as if he were mourning, until Rachel conceived. Rachel, in her desperation, feels justified that this behavior is appropriate for her husband. Yet, Jacob becomes angry. He has prayed, but it is up to God, not him, to grant Rachel children. Jacob lashes out at Rachel and reminds her that he, actually, already has children – with Leah and with Bilhah, Rachel’s concubine! It is only Rachel who has not conceived! What a deep and personal sting for Rachel, that her husband turns their pain back onto Rachel and will not share it with her.
We wonder: can one ever fully feel the pain of another? The anger and isolation between Rachel and Jacob remind us just how much the disappointment and loss can isolate us and drive us apart from our loved ones. These issues are very real to us in every generation. It is much easier to lash out at one another instead of attempting to connect and support each other time and again. Our ancestors were plagued with disappointment and loss, as are we. It is the nature of being human. Torah gives us a glimpse, firsthand, of just how painful our words can be, even to those we love.
We may never fully feel or fully understand the pain that another person feels. Yet we can strive to support them, to take them at their word, and over and over let our feelings of anger pass by us. Only then will we be able to come back to one another with consolation and comfort. May this be our task as individuals and as a Jewish community.
Written by Rabbi Andrea Steinberger, rabbi at the Hillel at the University of Wisconsin.
Additional commentaries and text studies on Parshat Vayeytze at MyJewishLearning.com.