You can’t always get what you want.
From the moment Jacob meets his beautiful cousin Rachel in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei (“And he went”), he wants to marry her. He and his uncle Lavan agree on a bride-price: seven years of free labor. But on the wedding night seven years later, Lavan switches brides, and Jacob wakes up to find himself married to Rachel’s older sister, Leah. A week later Lavan gives him Rachel as his second wife—after he promises to work another seven years.
Jacob only wanted Rachel, but he accepts Leah and double the number of years of servitude. It is only realistic, when he is far from home and Lavan rules the household.
The two sisters are not happy with their joint marriage. Rachel knows Jacob is in love with her, but she longs for children. Leah bears Jacob’s children, but she longs for his love. Each woman envies the other.
When Leah names her first three sons, she explains each name in terms of her yearning for Jacob’s affection.1 She finally gives up hoping for her husband’s love when she has her fourth son.
And she conceived again, and she bore a son, and she said: “This time odeh God.” Therefore she called his name Yehudah. Then she stopped giving birth. (Genesis/Bereishit 29:35)
odeh (אוֹדֶה) = I will thank, I will praise.
Yehudah = (Judah in English) Yah = an alternate form of the four-letter personal name of God + odeh.
Her gratitude does not last, however. Jacob stops coming to her bed because Rachel starts insisting on exclusive conjugal rights. The Torah confirms this when Leah’s oldest son brings her fertility herbs (probably mandrakes, with their suggestive and hallucinogenic roots). Rachel asks for some, and Leah protests:
“Is it such a trifle to take away my husband? And now to take also my son’s duda-im!” (Genesis/Bereishit 30:15)
duda-im (דּוּדָאִים) = an unknown plant believed to increase fertility. The word sounds like dodim (דּוֹדִים) = lovers.
After Leah complains, Rachel decides to compromise.
Then Rachel said: “All right, he will lie down with you tonight in exchange for your son’s duda-im.” (Genesis 30:14-15)
Rachel now accepts that she cannot get everything she wants. She decides that bearing a child is more important than denying her sister sex. So she trades a night with Jacob for the duda-im. And Jacob does what he is told.
Leah has no illusions that her husband will fall in love with her. She knows she cannot get everything she wants. But she settles for sex and children, which are both rewarding for her.
Rachel eventually does become pregnant, and gives birth to Joseph. But she is greedy; when she names Joseph, she says she wants another pregnancy.2 She gets it in next week’s Torah portion, and she dies in childbirth. Jacob, who only wanted Rachel in the first place, mourns her and complains about her death for the rest of his life.
The only one of these three characters who achieves a long life of contentment is Leah, who learns how to be grateful for what she has.
In our modern western society, we still can’t get everything we want. We still have to make choices, and think of realistic alternatives.
Yet I believe we can all get at least part of what we want, like Jacob, Leah, and Rachel. May we all be grateful when we get one thing we want, and keep looking for new paths to a satisfying life.
- Leah names her first son Reuben (Re-uvein, רְאוּבֵן) “because God saw (ra-ah, רָאָה) my wretchedness (ani, עָנִי), so that now my husband will love me” (Genesis 29:32). She names her second son Simeon (Shimon, שִׁמעוֹן) “because God heard (shama, שָׁמַע) that I was hated” (Genesis 29:33). She names her third son Levi (Levi, לֵוִי), saying “this time my husband will become attached (yilaveh, יִלָּוֶה) to me” (Genesis 29:34).
- So she called his name Joseph (Yoseif, יוֹסֵף), saying: “May God add (yoseif, יוֹסֵף) another son for me.” (Genesis 30:24).