Family Baggage

You’re standing at the baggage claim area watching the conveyor belt go round and round.  One by one, suitcases are lifted off the belt by your fellow travellers while you look longingly for your pieces.  But alas, they are nowhere to be seen!  Everyone else has disappeared and you are left there watching the empty conveyor belt continue along on its endless journey to nowhere.  A rush of emotions begins to overwhelm you.  Why your bag?  Did the fellow at the check-in counter not like the look of you?  Maybe they recognized your Jewish-sounding name and they were anti-Semitic?  And so they purposefully “forgot” to send your bags onto the plane!

Parshat Vayetzei tells the story of Yaakov and his complicated relationship with his two wives, Rachel and Leah: “Lavan had two daughters: the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel.  Leah’s eyes were weak; but Rachel was of beautiful form and fair to look upon.  And Yaakov loved Rachel; and he said: I will serve you seven years for Rachel your younger daughter.”

Rashi explains that Leah’s weak eyes were because everyone said that she was destined to marry Esav while Rachel would marry Yaakov.  She cried and prayed to Hashem that she wouldn’t marry the wicked brother.

Yaakov worked for seven years to marry Rachel, whom he loved.  But then he was deceived by his father-in-law Lavan, and first was given Leah in marriage.  Only afterwards did he marry Rachel.

Rachel is initially barren while Leah is blessed with child after child.  The Torah states that after each child, she hopes that Yaakov would now accept her as his wife and even names her children alluding to it. ‘For sure now he will love me as his wife since I gave birth to his children’.

We know that our patriarchs and matriarchs were holy and every intention they had was for the sake of Hashem. But a simple reading of the parsha paints a very different picture.  They seem to be like any human being, with feelings of betrayal, jealousy, lust.  The Torah could have skipped all the emotions so that we would never doubt that they were holy.  But everything in the Torah is there for a reason.   What lesson must we learn?

Leah was a righteous young lady.  Why would Yaakov have hesitated for even a moment to father his children from her?  Why, even once he married her, was he standoffish in the relationship?  How could he treat his wife like that?

Our Sages explain that Yaakov didn’t want to marry Leah because then Esav would have another issue against him.  Not only had he taken the birthright away, not only had he taken the blessings away, but now he had taken his wife as well?!  He couldn’t begin to imagine how Esav would feel once he found out.

He felt guilty being with Leah because he loved his brother.  It wasn’t his fault, he reasoned to himself.  After all, he was tricked into marrying her.  And so he tried not to be with her. Yaakov, the man of truth somehow found himself in all these deceptive situations in life.  He didn’t want to be seen as a deceiver.  And yet, at the same time, he felt bad for Leah.  Much as he felt guilty about his fraternal relationship, he did not want to hurt Leah either, by leaving her out to dry.  Could he bring himself to love her?  Every time he tried to, he was overcome by feelings of guilt.

Knowing that she was originally meant to marry Esav, Leah felt her husband’s pain.  She recognized that Yaakov felt guilty and was therefore reserved and hesitant to be with her.  But she also knew that the decree was lifted and that she was truly meant to marry Yaakov. And so when she was giving birth and naming their children, she was really saying to him ‘It’s okay to love me.  I know how you feel, but we have Hashem’s blessing!’

After Leah had been blessed with multiple children, barren Rachel challenges Yaakov to give her children.  Yaakov responds, “Am I G-d, that I have withheld the fruit of the womb from you?”  What was she thinking?  Clearly it was her problem, not his!  The answer is that Rachel realized that until Yaakov would start loving her sister, Leah, she would be barren.  Ultimately, it was his problem.  Hashem opened Leah’s womb so that Yaakov would open his heart to her.  Finally, Rachel and Leah devised a plan to change how Yaakov felt . Leah shared her special fertility flowers with her sister, and Yaakov learned the care and love that siblings have innately for one another.  At that moment, he was able to come to terms with his own sibling relationship, repair his marriage with Leah, and turn the key to open Rachel’s womb.

Any ordinary spouse would have taken Yaakov’s distance personally.  Not Leah.  She realized very quickly that she was not the problem; they were distant because he felt insecure.  His insecurities, his baggage, predated their relationship.  And so she hoped and prayed that he could come to terms with his own emotions and finally love her.  Ultimately, with the help of her sister, she helped him conquer his insecurities.

When we perceive people as distant in a relationship – whether a spouse, a child, a sibling, or a friend – our initial reaction is to take it personally.  But that makes just about as much sense as taking your lost baggage personally!  Nobody hates you.  Nobody acted inappropriately towards you because of the way you look or the name on your passport.  It’s utterly ridiculous to take baggage issues personally.

And it’s the same with relationships.  Sometimes there are baggage issues, don’t take it personally.  If someone appears distant, you need to ask yourself what is going through their mind.  Why would they be acting that way?  If you know that you didn’t do anything wrong, then maybe their distance is a sign that they have some personal baggage or issue.  They need your help.  You might be tempted to react to their mood by returning their coldness.  Don’t.  Chances are, they need you now more than ever.  Don’t ever give up on a good relationship.  When you see your spouse or child or sibling acting strangely, reach out to them and help them through it.  That’s what relationships are truly about.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbanit Batya

About the Author
Rabbanit Batya Friedman is the senior rebbetzin of Hamsptead Suburb Garden Synagogue in London, UK. She was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. She received her Bachelor of Science in Mathematics from Brooklyn College and her MBA from the University of Alberta. She previously served the community in Edmonton, AB Canada.
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