Rachel's Voice / Parashat Vayetzeh

Rachel's courageous act, motivated by love and pity for her sister Leah, is compared to the relationship between God and his people following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem: God should not act out of jealousy.

A disturbing symmetry can be discerned between Rebecca’s actions in last week’s Torah reading and Laban’s in this week’s reading. Whereas Rebecca helps Jacob to supersede his brother Esau in acquiring the blessing of their father Isaac, Laban helps Leah to supersede her sister Rachel so as to become Jacob’s bride instead of her. Rebecca and Laban, both of whom are the children of Bethuel, act the same way: What Rebecca does in Canaan is a mirror image of what Laban does in Paddan-Aram.

Jacob, who profited from Rebecca’s fraudulent act, now becomes the victim of Laban’s deceit, and finds himself in his father’s shoes as a person who has been cheated and betrayed and who has been forced to become party to a deal that cannot be revoked. It is safe to assume that Jacob understands precisely the feelings of Leah, the sister who was supposed to be passed over with Rachel’s prospective marriage to their cousin from Canaan, and who now finds she herself being wed to him. That is perhaps why Jacob voices no objections having been tricked, but agrees to work an additional seven years in order to marry Rachel.

The Isaac-Esau-Jacob triangle parallels the Jacob-Rachel-Leah triangle. The darkness of the wedding night allows for a “replay” of what happened when
Jacob robbed Esau of their father’s blessing. Like the blind Isaac, Jacob cannot see, although the reason in his case is the lack of illumination. Just as Isaac loves Esau, Jacob loves Rachel, and, just as Isaac in the end receives Jacob, Jacob in the end receives Leah.

We heard Esau’s monologue in last week’s Torah portion. Betrayed and deeply hurt, he screams out in his pain and interprets his entire life as a series of repeated blows from his brother: “And he said: ‘Is not he rightly named Jacob? for he hath supplanted me these two times: he took away my birthright; and, behold, now he hath taken away my blessing’” (Genesis 27:36).

In contrast, we do not hear the voice of Rachel. The Torah doesn’t even say whether Jacob’s undying love for Rachel is reciprocated. The following midrash, however, fills in the blanks and elaborates on Rachel’s story by providing her with a monologue. In addition, the midrash adds a surprising twist to her story.

One by one, the nation’s ancestors stand before God, according to this midrash, pleading with him to reverse the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and to return his exiled children to Canaan. The last ancestor to speak is Rachel, who succeeds in this mission: “Then Rachel stood before God, saying to him, ‘Master of the Universe, you know that Jacob your servant loved me very much, that he worked seven years for my father in order to wed me and that, when the seven years were over and the time came for him to marry me, my father decided that Leah would replace me as Jacob’s bride. When I learned of my father’s plan, I was very saddened. I informed my prospective husband of the plot and gave him a secret sign that would enable him to distinguish between me and my sister in the darkness of the wedding night and which would thus prevent my father from replacing me with Leah. However, I soon regretted my action and decided to bridle my passion for Jacob. Taking pity on my sister, I was determined that she should not be humiliated. In the evening, when my sister Leah was substituted for me as Jacob’s bride, I transmitted to her the sign I had given Jacob, so that he would think that he was marrying me.

“Furthermore, I hid under the bridal bed on which Jacob was lying with my sister. He spoke to her, but she said nothing; instead, I replied on her behalf, so that he would think that she was the one who was talking to him. I acted kindly toward her; I felt no jealousy toward her and I saved her from embarrassment. I, a creature of flesh and blood, a creature of dust and ash, felt no jealousy toward my rival and did not expose her to shame and humiliation. Why then were you, Master of the Universe, a king who lives forever and who is full of compassion, jealous of idolatry, which has no substance, and why did you exile my children, who were killed by the blade of a sword and whose enemies treated them with absolute cruelty?’ On hearing these words, God’s heart was immediately filled with pity and he said, ‘For Rachel’s sake, I will restore Israel to its rightful place’” (Lamentations Rabbah, Petichta: 24).

Up to now, the reader would have thought that Laban was the only deceptive person in the wedding story, and that both Rachel and Jacob were the victims of his deception. According to the above midrash, however, Rachel also practices deception. After finding out about the plot to have her sister replace her as Jacob’s bride, she seeks to thwart it by giving a secret sign to Jacob so that he can distinguish between her and Leah. It is then that Laban retreats from center stage, and Rachel alone who will call the shots.

In the midrash, her courageous act, motivated by love and pity for her sister, is compared to the relationship between God and his people following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Just as Rachel did not display jealousy toward Leah but instead helped her, similarly, God should not act out of jealousy. Rachel’s monologue persuades him to declare that he will restore the Jewish people to their land.

According to this midrash, Rachel is neither innocent nor passive, as one might think about her after reading the narrative in Genesis. She knows of Laban’s deception and of his plan to replace her with Leah and even informs Jacob of her father’s scheme. The secret sign that Rachel and Jacob decide upon, in order to enable him to distinguish between her and Leah on the wedding night, symbolizes the pact between two lovers who seek to thwart the scheme devised by one of their parents. However, Rachel passes on the secret sign to Leah.

This is a moment when identities are changed: Rachel conveys to Leah the key that will enable Leah to become Rachel. That key serves Leah as the equivalent of Rachel’s disguise of goat’s skin, as it were, with her smell and the feel of her skin.

In the wake of the twist in the midrashic version of the story, the symmetry between the tale of Jacob’s wedding and the episode of the theft of Isaac’s blessing vanishes and new symmetries are created. Isaac had signs that led him to believe that Jacob in disguise was actually Esau: voice, smell and touch. Although the “voice is the voice of Jacob, ... the hands are the hands of Esau” (Gen. 27:22), and Isaac is persuaded that the son standing at his bedside is, in fact, Esau.

In the case of the wedding, however, the situation is reversed. Rachel gives her voice to Leah and, although the hands are Leah’s, the voice is Rachel’s. Whereas, in the blessing narrative, the voice indicates the true identity of the son standing beside Isaac’s bed, in the wedding narrative, the voice is that of the big deceiver, whose innocent voice traps her lover.

In the midrash, Rachel expresses her active and certainly far from innocent character. Her action can be seen as a preview of what she does when she steals Laban’s terafim (household idols) later on in this week’s reading. The midrash reveals that she is a true member of Bethuel’s family, who knows how to aim for a long-range target and how to strive for it using blatant lies and half-truths.

The height of the reversal that Rachel effects can be found at the end of her monologue, when she tells God how he should treat his children, the Jewish people. Instead of being jealous of Leah, Rachel forgives her and allows her to take her place and be Jacob’s bride. By the same token, according to Rachel, God should not be jealous of the idolatry to which his children have turned and should instead forgive them and restore them to their land.

However, the comparison is invalid: Jacob does not know that he is with Leah, but in contrast, the Children of Israel knowingly choose to worship idols, though they are totally useless. Rachel’s words give the impression that God is not zealous vis-a-vis Israel and is instead jealous of idolatry, resenting the fact that his children have chosen to worship idols and not him. In Rachel’s monologue, God and idolatry become two women who are rivals for a man’s love namely, the Children of Israel’s love. According to Rachel, God should show compassion by forgiving idolatry and by waiving the idea of punishing his people.

Rachel’s monologue opens the door to an amazing polytheistic synthesis in which God could hide under the bed on which Israel and idolatry are lying, talk to Israel instead of to idolatry and, perhaps later on, even live together with idolatry and barter with it for the right to have access to their mutual husband’s body. The comparison between Rachel and God creates a stunning theological potential, but the real wonder in this circuitous argument is that it does the trick: God agrees with Rachel. For her sake, he is prepared to bring back his children from their exile.