On the 50th anniversary of the Mary Tyler Moore Show pilot, we recall the show that put a spotlight on the BFF relationship. Remember beautiful Mary, jealous Rhoda; conventional Mary, quirky Rhoda; beloved Mary, rejected Rhoda. In fact, you find a similar pairing in the more recent sitcom, Grace and Frankie.
If you wondered whether there are classic archetypes at play when we watch a beautiful protagonist and her artistic, less polished, out-of-the-box sidekick, I would tell you ‘yes’. Turns out we can learn a lot about ourselves and our friends if we better unpack these prototypes. Who are they? And, further, who are they within us? Jewish wisdom provides interesting insights.
Rabbi YY Jacobson notes that each Torah personality we read about represents an individual that lived but also a timeless characteristic that exists within every human personality. In the case of two sisters who are destined to become wives of the patriarch, Jacob, these two represent two very different distinct aspects of the human psyche.
Rachel & Leah: Conscious and Unconscious
Leah, the elder sister, corresponds to the unconscious and deeply internal aspects of self, those aspects that necessarily defy expression in words. Jacob was tricked into marrying Leah. She was the rejected wife, deeply sensitive and perceptive, she suffered the ills of the world more acutely, was more subject to tears.
The Torah describes her as having weak or dim eyes. Commentators note that she looked with deep intensity. She had that look of deep apperception, she saw to the core of situations and people. As a result, Leah suffered more, she took things to heart.
Rachel, in contrast, was the woman Jacob wanted to marry. The name Rachel derives from the Hebrew word that corresponds to Ewe, a female sheep. Rachel was docile, peaceful, unperturbed. She was beautiful but not complicated. Rachel’s gift was expression and mastery of the practical, predictable world. Socially gifted, a character that we easily understand, she is the master of pleasantries and fits in any environment, qualifies for any job, effortlessly masters the tasks the world would have her do. Rachel, we get.
The complicated, brooding Leah, always thinking, always analyzing, lives in a higher dimension. Constantly processing abstractions and values, she doesn’t fit into our everyday paradigm. Society is more apt to reject Leah. And to celebrate Rachel.
In the Jewish vernacular, Rachel represents speech and Leah represents thought. Rachel is the master of the ‘Revealed world’, the social and concrete world, the stuff of everyday life. Leah is in touch with the ‘Hidden world’, a higher world. She is unconventional, the artist, the musician, the muse. And Leah only finds a home in the revealed world when she partners with Rachel. Hence the prototypical BFF partnership!
It’s no coincidence that the Mary Tyler Moore Show centered around a pretty, personable, pleasant Mary Richards. It’s no coincidence that Mary produced the news. The Mary in each of us is the speaker, the one who can explain, the one with the basic comprehension of that which is everyday and matter-of-fact. That show presented the Rachel prototype and introduced us to Leah.
Rhoda: brilliantly witty, rough around the edges, blurting out that which most would never think to say, coming up with ingenious insights and subject to constant rejection (“Hello. I’m the other person in the room.”).
Long-suffering, Rhoda has a difficult time in the revealed world. Everything goes wrong! She doesn’t find an easy home here! Or as Rhoda puts it, on the one day when Mary is in a funk and Rhoda is doing well:
You’re having a lousy streak. I happen to be having a terrific streak. Soon the world will be back to normal. Tomorrow you will meet a crown head of Europe and marry. I will have a fat attack, eat 3,000 peanut butter cups, and die.
When Rhoda graduates to her own show, she becomes the Rachel character and her sister, Brenda, is the new Leah, self-deprecating, consistently rejected.
On the other hand, our Leah character is always unabashedly herself. She doesn’t succumb to social pressure. Leah represents the zone of internality. Such characters never lose the pulse of their own unique originality.
In contrast, the sages teach, the Rachel character can fall into exile, lose her voice, succumb to social pressure. In the Torah, Rachel represents the Shechina, the aspect of Divinity that has been exiled from this world. So the Rachel’s of this world have their own problems. Too often, they lose their voice and stray from their truth, often in the context of relationship. They partly find themselves, though, in their pairing with Leah.
And so you have the prototypes: the zany creative and the beautiful ingénue. Each the master of their own domain. The two archetypes work marvelously as a team.
Look around. You’ll often see this BFF pairing in the world at large. With every successful partnership, the two domains of the world, the hidden and the revealed, are better bridged. The Mary/Grace character is the master of competence and social convention. The Rhoda/Frankie character brings flavor, insight and novelty into the moment. Rachel is order. Leah has her finger on the pulse of that which is unknown, ephemeral or otherworldly. Leah is ‘out there’, but her perspective is fresh, interesting and important.
The Rachel and Leah Within
Life is full of complexities; for the Rachel’s and Leah’s in the world; also for the ones we each find, within. The inner Rachel has mastered social mores but sometimes fails to access her own inner truth. The inner Leah houses your idiosyncrasies and aspects of self that are inaccessible, sometimes only channeled through art, poetry or via dreams at night. Rachel is your Sun. Leah is your Moon.
Our first reaction to Leah, whether the one within or the one in the world at large, is rejection. Rabbi Jacobson points out that we hate that which we don’t understand. When someone or something is too deep, too incomprehensible, our first response is to deny it or delegitimize it. The inner Leah hosts aspects of the world that are unintelligible, confusing, even overwhelming.
And yet, we must divine down more complex aspects of reality . . . and ourselves. If we will sit with the Leah dimension, reject the urge to turn away, we will befriend imminent aspects of reality (and self) that will expand our lives and our paradigms. We will be better for it.
In fact, the more you integrate your own Leah, the more you can partner with the Leah dimension of your spouse. As Jordan Peterson would say, we have to master the domain of the familiar, but also extend a tendril into the unknown. We have to open to aspects of self and world that don’t make sense. We have to figure them out. And escort them in to our lives.
You only really get to marry Rachel – and have a life characterized by acceptance – when you marry Leah – first. And so you watch Mary and Rhoda or Frankie and Grace to get a whiff how one might achieve such an inter-inclusion. Watching the social dance between these two archetypes helps us architect and bring together the two prototypes we harbor within.
Long live our BFF’s, connecting us to a landscape that is variable and complex, showing us how the other half lives and bringing us into deeper resonance . . . with ourselves!
Poizner, Annette (2020). “Knock, Knock”: The Kabbalah of Comedy (The How, Why & What of Funny). Toronto: People of the Books, Ink.
Poizner, Annette (2020) Kabbalah Café: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Minds. Toronto: People of the Books, Ink.
I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program wherein associates earn a small fee by linking to Amazon.com.