Vayeitzei: Satisfaction

November 6, 2013 at 1:20 pm | Posted in Vayeitzei | 1 Comment

You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you might get what you need for a satisfying life.

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 pragmatically accepts Leah and double the number of years of servitude. What else can he do, when he is far from home and Lavan rules the household?

The two sisters are not happy with this arrangement. 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. 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 I will praise God. Therefore she called his name Yehudah. Then she stopped giving birth. (Genesis/Bereishit 29:35)

Yehudah = Yah = God + odeh  = I praise (Judah in English).

Why does Leah stop getting pregnant? Not because of menopause; later in the story she bears three more children. Not because she thinks four sons are enough; she soon arranges for her servant Zilpah to marry Jacob so she can adopt Zilpah’s babies.

The reason is that Jacob stops coming to her bed, because Rachel makes him stay away. The Torah confirms this when Leah’s oldest son brings her fertility herbs, and Rachel asks for some. 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 = an unknown plant believed to increase fertility. The word sounds like dodim = lovemaking.

Apparently after Jacob gave Leah four children, Rachel was fed up and insisted on exclusive conjugal rights. Her next demand on Jacob got a different reaction.

And Rachel saw that she had not borne a child for Jacob, and Rachel was envious of her sister. And she said to Jacob: Give me sons! For if not, I am dead! (Genesis 30:1)

Most commentary takes Rachel’s exclamation seriously. After all, one subtext in much of the Hebrew Bible is that a woman’s purpose in life is motherhood. But I doubt that Rachel really wants to die if she cannot have sons. I think she is merely carried away with her own emotional drama.

Jacob has heard life-or-death language before; it runs in the family. In last week’s Torah portion, Jacob’s brother Esau comes home famished and Jacob offers him lentil stew in exchange for his birthright. Esau says: Hey, I am going to die, so why do I need a birthright? (Genesis 25:32).  Their mother, Rebecca, says: If Jacob takes a wife from the women of Cheit like these … why should I live? (Genesis 27:46)

When Rachel makes a similarly dramatic announcement, Jacob snaps.

Then Jacob’s anger flared up against Rachel, and he said: Am I instead of God, who withheld from you the fruit of the womb? (Genesis 30:2)

Rachel’s demand is indeed irrational. Jacob can “come in” to her, but he has no power to make her fertile. Traditional commentary faults Jacob for being unsympathetic. But I wonder if Jacob’s cold anger is just what Rachel needs to stop and face reality. It seems to work, because in the next verse Rachel decides on adoption.

Then she said: Here is my servant Bilhah. Come in to her, and she will bear a child upon my knees, and through her I, too, will be built up. (Genesis 30:3)

Placing a newborn upon one’s knees was the usual ritual of adoption in the ancient Middle East. Bilhah has two children, and Rachel adopts both of them. Then Leah gives Jacob her own female servant, Zilpah, and adopts Zilpah’s two sons.

Now Jacob has four wives, Leah has six children, and Rachel has two—as well as Jacob’s continued devotion. But she still wants sons from her own body.

When Rachel asks for the duda-im and Leah complains, Is it such a trifle to take away my husband? 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 from her own body is more important than denying her sister sex. So she lets Jacob sleep with Leah in exchange for the fertility drug. 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. 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 when to strive, and when to be grateful for what she has.

In our modern western society, adults have more autonomy than in the Torah; if a father-figure or boss like Lavan tricks us, we can sue him. Yet we still can’t get everything we want; we still have to make choices, and think of alternatives.

Yet I believe we can all get at least part of what we want, like Leah, Rachel, and Jacob. I think the keys are to be realistic, to be grateful when you do get something you want, and to keep looking for new paths to a satisfying life.

May we all make good choices, and learn how to find contentment.

1 Comment »

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  1. Nice!

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