The Torah uses a harsh word to describe Jacob’s feelings for his first wife, Leah: that she was hated. Alarmed by this language, some commentaries suggest that “hated” does not mean Leah was actually hated, just loved less that her sister, Rachel. In whatever way we choose to understand it, this was not a healthy family situation, and no doubt it impacted upon the day-to-day life of our matriarchs in a variety of ways.
In this week’s Torah portion, we read about one such tense moment in the Jacob-Leah-Rachel triangle:
Once, at the time of the wheat harvest, Reuben came upon some mandrakes in the field and brought them to his mother Leah. Rachel said to Leah, “Please give me some of your son’s mandrakes.”
But she said to her, “Was it not enough for you to take away my husband, that you would also take my son’s mandrakes?” Rachel replied, “I promise, he shall lie with you tonight, in return for your son’s mandrakes.”
When Jacob came home from the field in the evening, Leah went out to meet him and said, “You are to sleep with me, for I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes.” And he lay with her that night. (Gen. 30:14-16)
Commentators analyzing this back and forth barter seem to take one side or the other.
For Rashi, this story illustrates Rachel’s desperate state. Feeling empty, having not yet born a child to her husband Jacob, she begs for some of the mandrakes, the fertility fruits gathered in from the field by Reuven. Desperate to have a child, focused only on the hope to conceive, she brashly sells her husband to her sister for the promise that the mandrakes will make her fertile, exchanging a night with Jacob like a commodity on the market. Leah takes the deal, and in turn lets Jacob know that he belongs to her that night, informing him that evening upon his return from the field that he has been traded for a basket of fruit. Rashi (quoting Midrash Rabbah Bereshit 72) scolds Rachel at this point, claiming that as a consequence of her disrespect, treating a night with her husband like a bargaining chip, Rachel was destined to forfeit spending eternity with him; she would not be buried In Hebron next to Jacob as a punishment for this grave misdeed. Rachel’s desperation had led her to act impulsively.
Sforno, however, reads the story from the opposite perspective. He claims that it was Leah who was desperate, frightened, and even angry. Although she had given birth to several sons, it had been a long time since the previous pregnancy, and she feared that she was no longer fertile. She accuses Rachel of being insensitive. Once Leah had married Jacob, how dare Rachel agree to be his second wife and create this abiding tension that now that plagues their lives. And now she wants the mandrakes in an effort to make Jacob love her even more, and Leah even less? For that reason, she asked her son Reuven to bring the mandrakes, and for the same reason she jumped at the opportunity to lie with Jacob that night. Leah was desperate to be loved.
These two readings of the narrative tell two very different stories, having in common the understanding at we are witnessing an interaction between sisters and co-wives that bespeaks the pain, tension, dysfunction of their marriages.
Based upon a teaching on Tisha B’av by Rabbi David Fohrman, I offer here a third story, one that takes a very different look at our narrative.
You see, Rachel is not desperate for love, and Leah is quite satisfied with her place as the proud mother of four sons to Jacob. What still lingers, though, is an unresolved moment in history, a painful, unforgettable night when, against their will, they were forced by their father Laban to deceive Jacob. That night is etched deeply as a bitter memory for all three of them. Jacob was duped, Rachel and Leah were forced to be complicit in their father’s manipulative deception. They have never again talked about that night, buried it far away and tried to move on.
And yet, an innocent request by Rachel for a few mandrakes strikes a raw nerve and Leah lashes out, allows her deepest feelings of resentment to rise to the surface and be projected upon her sister, who was also a victim of their father’s devious scheme.
Rachel immediately understands what is going on here; she too, haunted by that dark memory of long ago, seizes the opportunity to repair the damage. The opening worlds of her response, “I promise,” reflect the gravity of what she is about to propose. It is almost as if she turns to calm her sister, saying:
I know the pain you are feeling. Every time you sleep with Jacob, you play back the despicable feelings of having spent your wedding night pretending to be me. Lying as you lay that first night with your new husband, dreading the break of day when the truth would come out and this man, who had made love to you that night will look at you in disgust, full of resentment, confusion, and distrust. I can only imagine how that pain is with you always, and please believe me, my sister, for years I have been trying to find a way to relieve you of that burden. Every time Jacob showers me with love, and you are nearby, I see the look on your face, and it hurts me deeply as well.
But listen closely, as I have an idea of how we bring this mutual anguish to an end.
Tonight, lets undo that wedding night once and for all. Tonight, like that unforgettable night when Jacob was supposed to sleep with me and consummate our wedding, tonight too, Jacob will sleep with you instead of me– but not through trickery, not through deception – tonight he will sleep with you as you tell him that you love him, you desire him, and you that you have acquired this privilege from me, not despite me. You will be together not in the shadow of my wrath, but with my heartfelt blessing and approval. Jacob will be with you tonight without any quilt, without hiding or worrying about my feelings. And you will be with him disabused of that of and age-old deception that has haunted us, amidst a brand-new kindling of excitement, love and desire.
Let’s replay that wedding night – this time on our terms, not someone else’s.
We tend to read our biblical narratives in a one-dimensional way, focused on one character at a time, and one set of experiences at a time. Maybe this reading creates a dialogue between the two sisters, a third story born out of reading the text as a shared experience accompanied by a common desire to move on.
Isn’t that the way things really are in life?