In a moment of incredible frustration Rachel demands of Jacob: “Give me sons or I die!” His response is one of great anger. Of the many commentators who attempt to explain his fury, the explanation of Rabbi Isaac Arama (15th century) is notable. Commenting on the creation, Arama explains the substantive difference between “Isha-woman“ and “Chava-Eve.” The former is indicative of those things of the woman shares with the man: knowledge, understanding and good deeds, like those of the Matriarchs, while “Eve” refers to the ability to bear children. Arama explains that a woman who does not have children is prevented from the fulfilling her secondary (literally, “small”) purpose but like a man who does not have children, her legacy is her good deeds. Therefore, Jacob was angry at Rachel because he wanted to teach her that the true purpose of any person, man or woman, is doing good deeds.
Even if Arama understood Jacob’s intentions correctly, fury was not a suitable response. Truth spoken in anger will neither console nor educate. Be that as it may, their exchange is hardly surprising because neither of them came from families that knew how to clarify issues through direct conversation. Jacob is in Haran because his parents did not know how to discuss transmission of their inheritance, and Laban made sure that his daughters began married life with a major failure of communications.
“When morning came, it was Leah!” Like many readers, the rabbis were puzzled about how Jacob could not have known, but avoid what I think is the simplest explanation: he was drunk. It’s easy to imagine trickster Laban and his cronies encouraging the groom to drink one toast after another so he truly would not know with whom he was sleeping. It works, ask Lot. Apparently, the rabbis did not want to disgrace a Patriarch by pulling him down to the level of Lot, but we should also pay attention to the fact that of all possible solutions, they chose one that depicts Rachel as someone who does deeds ofחסד - ḥesed, loving kindness:
[As the Israelites were being exiled by Nebuchadnezzar] Rachel spoke before the Holy Blessed One: “Ruler of the World, remember that Jacob loved me greatly, and worked for me for seven years. But when that time was up my father chose to give him Leah in my place. This distressed me greatly, so I told Jacob and gave him a sign, so he could distinguish between us. But then I had pity on my sister and I taught her the sign.” (Lamentations Rabbah).
Paying a high personal price, Rachel chooses to protect the honor of her sister Leah and responds with ḥesed, thereby sowing seeds of ḥesed that will grow not only for her own future but also for her descendants. The midrash continues:
The mercy of God was stirred by Rachel’s argument, and God said: “For your sake, Rachel, I will restore the house of Israel to its place, as it is written, ‘Restrain your voice from weeping, Your eyes from shedding tears; For there is a reward for your labor, declares the Lord, they shall return to their borders.’” (Jeremiah 31).
Leah’s immediate response is not known, but through the explanations she gives for the names of her sons, we can glimpse her emotions. Four sons in four verses, each representing a stage in her development. After the birth of her eldest son, Rueben, Leah does not hide that she considers him a path to the heart of Jacob: “Now my husband will love me.” After the births of Shimon and Levy, the focus remains on her pain and relationship with Jacob.
Only when Leah’s fourth son was born do we see a major change: “’This time I will praise the Lord.’ Therefore she named him Yehuda-Judah” (derived from a root meaning “thank”). Although she is still unloved, Leah now expresses gratitude for what she does have. “Who is rich? One who happy with his lot” (Pirkei Avot). After Judah is born there is a break, perhaps a sign that Leah has learned something important: gratitude. As Jews, descendants of Leah and Judah, we are called on to follow in her footsteps and say (in the Amida prayer) “Grateful are we (Modim anachnu),” placing gratitude first, and being thankful for what we have without denying what we lack.
Moreover, from true gratitude yields a desire to repay, either to the person from whom you received the favor or more generally. It will take some time, but Leah does eventually see Rachel’s pain and react accordingly. On the verse “Afterwards, she bore him a daughter” the Talmudic Rabbi Yosef asks to what prior event does the word “after” refer. Rav answers that Leah knew that there would be 12 tribes and she already had six sons. Bilhah and Zilpah had two each, but Rachel had only one. Therefore, if Leah were carrying another son, her sister Rachel’s status would forever remain lower than that of the handmaids. Therefore, she prayed to give birth to a daughter and the gender of her fetus was immediately changed. Although this section of the Talmud explicitly prohibits praying for changing the gender of an unborn child, a miracle is done for Leah, because her concern was for Rachel, rather than for herself.
Rachel and Leah are jealous of each other. Each desires what her sister has, but at key moments they respond to each other with ḥesed. With ḥesed they built the family of Jacob and the nation of Israel. Therefore, when the elders of Bethlehem bless Ruth that she be “like Rachel and Leah, both of whom built up the House of Israel,” they are referring to more than her ability to bear children, because the house of Israel is also build by acts of ḥesed.
In the first blessing of the Amida we describe God as remembering the ḥesed of our ancestors, without any specifying details. Whether or not we mention Rachel and Leah by name in this prayer, it is worth recalling the ḥesed that built the house of Israel.
But prayer is not enough.
Facing a world full of violence and pain, suffering and fear we are called upon to be grateful for what we have and contribute to making the world a better place through acts of ḥesed, acts of giving, sometimes even those that exact a price from us. We have no choice because the world is built on loving kindness (Psalm 89:3).