Vayeitzei: Unrequited Love

Falling in love can lead to years of unhappiness.

Sometimes an infatuation is gradually replaced by a mature love, one with sincere affection and respect. But sometimes infatuated lovers remain desperate to own the objects of their affection.

When Jacob arrives at his uncle’s house in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei (“and he went”), he falls in love at first sight with his cousin Rachel. Rachel’s sister, Leah, falls in love with him. And both Jacob and Leah suffer for years.


Jacob travels from his home in Beir-sheva to his uncle’s house in Charan on the orders of both of his parents. His mother, Rebecca, tells him to flee and stay in Charan until his brother, Esau, no longer wants to kill him. His father, Isaac, tells him to go and marry one of his cousins.1

He leaves without anything to give his uncle Lavan for a bride-price. Isaac would not have sent him off to find a wife without providing him with gold, silver, and pack animals. But Jacob, motivated by fear and guilt, rushes off on foot with nothing but his staff.2 (See my post Vayeitzei: Father Figures.)

Outside the city of Charan, Jacob meets some shepherds beside a well with a giant stone covering its mouth. When he asks why they do not water their flocks and move on, they reply that they are not able to move the stone by themselves, so they always wait until the other shepherds arrive. While they are talking, a girl approaches with a flock, and the men tell Jacob she is Rachel, one of Lavan’s daughters.

And it happened when Jacob saw Rachel, his uncle Lavan’s daughter, and his uncle Lavan’s flock: Jacob stepped forward and rolled the stone off the top of the mouth of the well, and he watered his uncle Lavan’s flock. (Genesis/Bereishit 29:10)

Jacob is so electrified by a close look at Rachel that he rolls off the stone by himself in a surge of superhuman energy.

The Meeting of Jacob and Rebecca, by William Dyce, 1853, detail

Then Jacob kissed Rachel, and he lifted his voice and wept. And Jacob told Rachel that was her father’s kinsman and Rebecca’s son. And she ran and told her father. (Genesis 29:11-12)

Lavan welcomes his nephew as a member of the family, and Jacob works for him like a son rather than a prospective son-in-law; after all, he has brought no bride-price. At the end of a month, Lavan asks Jacob:

“Is it because you are my kinsman that you serve me for nothing? Tell me what your wages shall be.” (Genesis 29:15)

Lavan sounds generous, but later he cheats his nephew twice in order to make him stay longer.3 I believe Lavan offers to pay Jacob wages only in order to make sure he does not find a job elsewhere. Jacob is unusually skilled at animal husbandry, and Lavan wants his flocks to continue increasing.4

And Lavan had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. And Leah’s eyes were soft, but Rachel—she had a beautiful shape and a beautiful appearance. Vaye-ehav, Jacob: Rachel. So he said: “I will serve you seven years for Rachel, your younger daughter.” (Genesis 29:16-18)

vaye-ehav (וַיֶּאֳהַב) = and he loved, liked, was fond of, was charmed by. (A form of the verb ahav, אָהַב = loved.)

And Jacob served for Rachel seven years, and they were like a few days in his eyes, be-ahavato for her. (Genesis 29:20)

be-ahavato (בְּאַהֲבָתוֹ) = because of his love. (Another form of the verb ahav.)

Seven years is a long engagement, especially when the two people are living in the same house but are not allowed to share a bed. According to one line of commentary, Jacob had to wait seven years for Rachel to reach puberty.5 However, if Rachel were about eight years old, she would probably not be in charge of a whole flock. Furthermore, there are no indications in the book of Genesis that Jacob is a pedophile attracted to small children.

In see my post Vayeitzei: Father Figures I speculated that Jacob volunteers for such a long period of service because he feels guilty and unworthy. His choice of seven years of labor might also indicate that he sets an exaggerated value on the object of his infatuation.6

Then Jacob said to Lavan: “Bring my wife, because the time is completed, and I will come in to her.” And Lavan gathered all the people of the place, and he made a drinking-feast. And when it was evening, then he took his daughter Leah and brought her to him, and he came in to her. (Genesis 29:21-23)

Jacob was drunk; it was dark; Leah was wearing a veil.7

In the morning, Jacob protests that Lavan deceived him and gave him the wrong daughter. His uncle, and now his father-in-law, proposes:

“Complete this week [with Leah], and I will give you that one also for the service—if you serve with me another seven years.” (Genesis 29:27)

Jacob agrees, partly because he is guilty about deceiving his own father by pretending to be his brother Esau, and partly because he is still in love with Rachel.

And he came in to Rachel also, vaye-ehav Rachel even more than Leah. (Genesis 29:30)

He likes Leah, but he cannot be satisfied unless he also gets the woman he fell in love with. Therefore he spends fourteen years working for someone else without acquiring any wealth of his own.


Lavan masterminds Leah’s masquerade as Rachel on what was supposed to be the wedding night of Rachel and Jacob. But Leah does it, and Rachel either cooperates or is restrained from appearing at the critical moment.  It is possible that neither of them dares to disobey their father.  But Leah has another motive for her imposture: she is in love with Jacob.

We know this because when she names her first three sons, she explains each name in terms of her longing for Jacob to love her in return.

And Leah conceived and she bore a son, and she called his name Reuvein because “I said that God ra-ah my suffering, since now my husband will love me.” (Genesis 29:32)

ra-ah (רָאָה) = he saw.

Reuvein (רְאוּבֵן) = “Reuben” in English. Ra-u, רָאוּ = they saw (a form of the verb ra-ah) + bein, בֵּן = son.

Leah names her second son Shime-on,שִׁמְעוֹן (“Simeon” in English), claiming that God “heard” (shama,שָׁמַע) that she was hated. She names her third son Leivi, לֵוִי (“Levi” or “Levite” in English). Although the name Leivi is probably a loan-word for a religious functionary from the Minaeans in the southern Arabian peninsula, Leah assigns it a folk etymology as she hopes her husband “will become attached” (yilaveh, יִלָּוֶה) to her.

When her fourth son is born, Leah says “This time I will thank God,” and names him Yehudah, יְהוּדָה (“Judah” in English), referring to the verb yodeh, יוֹדֶה = “willthank, will praise”. Then she has to wait for another pregnancy, because Rachel decides to make Jacob stay away from Leah’s bed. We can deduce this from a scene in which Reuben brings his mother some mandrakes8 he found, and Rachel asks for them.

“But she [Leah] said to her: “Was it a trifle you took away my husband? And now to take also my son’s mandrakes!” And Rachel said: “All right, he can lie with you tonight in return for your son’s mandrakes.” When Jacob came in from the field in the evening, then Leah went out to meet him, and she said to him: “To me you will come, because I paid your hire with my son’s mandrakes.” And he lay with her that night. (Genesis 30:15-16)

Leah wants her husband to fall in love with her, but she settles for sex. She has three more children, and retains her position as one of Jacob’s wives.


The book of Genesis never says that Rachel loves Jacob, only that she blames him for her childlessness,9 and is so jealous of her sister’s fertility that she orders him to stay away from Leah’s bed. The besotted man obeys her. At her command, he also lies with her female slave, Bilhah, so that Rachel can adopt Bilhah’s children. Leah then uses her own female slave, Zilpah, for the same purpose. The competition between the two sisters continues until Rachel bears a child of her own, her son Joseph.

The three of them make peace only after Jacob has worked for Lavan for another six years—this time in order to build up his own flocks. Then, after twenty years of unhappy marriage, he takes both his wives out into a field and tells them that God wants him to leave Lavan and return to Canaan.

And Rachel and Leah answered, and they said to him: “Do we still have a portion of inheritance from our father’s house? … Now do everything that God said to you!” (Genesis 31:14, 16)

The two sisters stop competing. They choose to spend the rest of their lives with each other and their now-rich husband, rather than with their friends and relatives in Charan. The book of Genesis reports no further conflict among Jacob, Leah, and Rachel. At last, twenty years after the three of them met, they achieve a peaceful partnership.

May everyone who falls in love find contentment sooner than Jacob and his wives.

  1. Genesis 27:41-28:2. In the previous Torah portion, Toledot, Jacob cheated Esau out of his inheritance as the firstborn and then out of their father’s blessing.
  2. Genesis 32:11.
  3. Lavan cheats Jacob by replacing his bride in Genesis 29:23-27, and by removing his spotted goats and dark sheep from the flock in Genesis 30:30:27-36.
  4. Lavan recognizes Jacob’s skill in Genesis 30:27.
  5. E.g. Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, Tur HaArokh, circa 1300 C.E., translated by Rabbi Eliyahu Munk in
  6. “Perhaps he wanted to demonstrate that he considered Rachel worth more than the maximum servitude that a Hebrew servant serves with his master (Exodus 21,2).” (18th-century Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar, Or Hachayim, translation in
  7. In Genesis 24:65, Rebecca puts on a veil before her wedding night with Isaac.
  8. The Hebrew word translated as “mandrakes” is dudaim (דוּדָאִים). Mandrake roots are hallucinogenic and narcotic, and are often forked like human legs. The first Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, translated dudaim as mandragoras.
  9. Genesis 30:1.

One thought on “Vayeitzei: Unrequited Love

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s