Love's Labor Lost - and Found

Reflections on a biblical saga of romance, genetics and contract law.

This week's Torah portion is Vayetze - Genesis 28:10 to 32:3 - and it tells a riveting story from which we can learn a lot about our forefathers as human beings, on the major role the Almighty played in their daily life, about contract law and labor relations in those days, and also about genetics and even romance.

The heart of the matter is matters of heart, one of the greatest love stories of all times: of Jacob's wooing and winning of Rachel. It has kept Torah commentators busy for centuries and fired the imaginations of writers like Thomas Mann ("Joseph and His Brothers") and Meir Shalev (who devoted a chapter to it in his first book "The Bible Now," in Hebrew, and made it a leading motif of his third novel, titled in English "The Loves of Judith").

At first glance, Jacob is a political refugee seeking asylum in Haran from the wrath of his brother, Esau, and a foreign worker who is being taken advantage of by his employer, who also happens to be his uncle, Laban. Jacob may have been a plain man, but he was not a simpleton. When he falls asleep en route to Haran, using a stone as his pillow, he dreams that God promises him a magnificent future for his progeny. He wakes up and offers God a deal, then and there: "If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat ... So that I come again to my father's house in peace; then shall the Lord be my God." Jacob has a sort of a reputation as a crook and a swindler: He cheated Esau out of his birthright (buying it from a very hungry man, although he was aware that a birthright cannot be bought or sold), and then, on his mother's instructions he cheats him out of Isaac's blessing. Unpleasant as it may sound, cheating runs in this family: Jacob inherited it from his mother, and Rachel took it from her father (by the end of the portion, she steals her father's gods, and sits on them, claiming that she cannot rise as "the custom of woman is upon me").

One of the Midrashim [biblical commentaries] has Rachel warning Jacob that her father, Laban, will try to cheat him. Jacob tries to avoid this, telling her father that he is willing to work seven years especially "for Rachel thy younger daughter." Which just goes to show that any contract becomes invalid when one of the parties is determined to cheat.

And so, as we all know, after seven years of hard labor, Jacob went to bed with Rachel - or so he thought. He ended up spending the night instead with Rachel's sister Leah, which was pleasurable for both, presumably, but also laden with tension: Jacob, trembling with anticipation and pent-up lust; Leah, according to the Midrashim, promised to Esau but unhappy about marrying him, and therefore of "tender eyes" from crying, knowing that she is not the one yearned for by the man who now caressed her, mad with desire; and Rachel, who knows that until Leah, the elder daughter, is safely married off, she cannot be married herself, participating in the scheme and even instructing Leah how best to fool Jacob (as if it is a problem to fool a man who wants sex desperately after seven years of abstinence).

The morning after was unpleasant, to say the least: Behold, it was Leah. According to the Midrashim, when Jacob expressed his disappointment, Leah scolded him that he got what he deserved, cheating on Isaac in order to get Esau's blessing; that is why she "was hated" by Jacob subsequently.

Jacob's dozen

I conducted a random survey, asking people how many years Jacob had to work for Laban until he got Rachel as a wife. The standard, shot-from-the-hip answer was 14 years - and indeed that was the price exacted by Laban: the first seven that "seemed unto him but a few days, for the love he had to her," and then another seven. But according to the portion of the week, when Jacob confronted Laban, the latter made the excuse that he had to marry the elder daughter off first, and then offered to "fulfill her week, and we will give thee this also for the service which thou shalt serve with me yet seven other years." So, seven days after the first wedding to Leah, Jacob gets Rachel, and we go on to chapter 30, presumably describing the next seven years, during which Jacob sired 12 children (11 male, one female) with four women.

Which brings us to the subject of genetics: Abraham and Sarah had a fertility problem, but evidently the trouble was with Sarah, as Abraham fathered Ishmael with Hagar; Rivka was barren until God hearkened to her prayers; and we do not have information about Isaac's fertility situation. Yet now, Rachel is barren as well. Someone as suspicious by nature as Jacob, and someone who knows a lot about genetics (that is how he later cheats Laban out of his flock), would begin to think that a fertility problem runs in the males of the family. Either that, or God was trying to deliver a message.

Anyway, the fact that Jacob got the fertile Leah exonerated him on the count of having any trouble between the sheets, so when Rachel pleaded with him "give me children or else I die," he refers her to God brusquely, with a typical male lack of consideration for a woman's feelings.

Above all this hovers a story, a sort of allegory, about couplehood: Jacob is marrying the woman of his dreams. His expectations are so high and idealistic as to be unattainable. The morning after, he finds out that the woman who spent the night with him is not the one he expected to be with. It is not her fault: She is what she is, and was. But when he gets the one he wants, she cannot bear him children. Again, it is not her fault. He has to learn to face reality, not only his dreams. There are other people involved. They are also entitled to their own dreams, and will have to learn to wake up in the morning.

So, the portion seems to be telling us, being a couple is coming to terms with life, seeing what's there and working on it. It is tough labor - not only for 14 years, but for life. And only if you work at it, will it be worth it. A labor of life, and love.