By Rabbi Deborah Reichmann
Special to WJW
This week’s Torah portion is Vayetze, Genesis 28:10 – 32:3.
This week’s parshah tells of Jacob’s flight from Beersheva, his dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven, his arrival in Haran and meeting with his uncle Laban. It includes Jacob’s deal to marry Rachel after seven years of labor — and subsequent deception resulting in his marriage to Leah, and an additional seven years of labor.
The parshah goes on to tell of the birth of 11 sons and one daughter to Jacob. And ends with Jacob finally leaving Haran (in secret, to avoid the further swindling from his father-in-law). That’s a lot of family interaction.
Family relations in the Torah are not straightforward narratives. Brothers are shown to support each other (Moses and Aaron) and to murder one another (Cain and Abel). Brothers can cheat, lie, deceive, plot, beg for and receive mercy.
What about sisters? Here, too, we have a mixed bag. But in this parshah, sisterhood comes out ahead.
The Torah limits the narrative of Jacob’s two marriages to a few verses: Jacob serves his seven years of labor for Rachel. Laban sets a wedding feast, but sends Leah to Jacob instead of Rachel. Upon finding out about this deceit, Jacob confronts Laban and promises another seven years of labor so he can marry Rachel. As far as the Torah text goes, we know nothing about the sisters’ point of view. But a midrash fills in some of the details.
In Megillah 13b, Rachel, knowing that her father is deceitful, warns Jacob. The two developed a set of signs to distinguish Rachel from Leah. But, when the wedding night arrived, Rachel was more concerned with her sister’s feelings and shared the signs with her so that she would not be embarrassed. And so Jacob was unaware that he had married Leah until morning.
Why would Rachel, who went through all the trouble to warn Jacob and make a plan, not go through with it? It makes no sense. Except it does. The embarrassment that Rachel is saving Leah from is not a momentary discomfort. If Leah were spurned on her marriage night, that shame would prevent her from marrying another. She would be relegated to one of the least desirable female roles: unmarried woman — shamed, unmarried woman. Rachel weighed her own happiness (knowing it would probably only be delayed) to guarantee that her sister would have some sort of future.
Rachel’s selflessness stands in stark contrast to both her father’s avarice and Jacob’s ambition. In a world where women were undervalued and lacked agency, Rachel nonetheless comprehended the situation and managed to get the best possible result.
Mind you, it wasn’t a great result. Leah suffered throughout her marriage knowing she wasn’t loved. But the alternative would have been worse. The Torah teaches a nuanced lesson here. Rachel engages in two deceptions: the first in collaborating with Jacob to counter Laban’s likelihood of treachery and then in allowing Jacob to be deceived anyway. She could have done nothing and achieved the same result.
In teaching us that Rachel had a hand in Leah’s marriage to Jacob, we learn that selflessness, compassion and empathy are paramount. Sisterhood and sisterly love outweighed romantic love or filial devotion. In today’s world, any reminder that kindness and compassion are the most enduring lessons of the Torah is a good reminder. Now that we’ve been reminded, let’s act that way.
Rabbi Deborah Reichmann is rabbi and Jewish spiritual leader of Interfaith Families Project.