Sisterly love, a model for divine mercy
The interaction between Rachel and Leah, the two sisters who became Yaakov’s wives was not simple. Yaakov fell in love with the younger of the two, Rachel, and intended to take her as his wife. The girls’ father, Lavan, however, deceived him and unbeknownst to Yaakov, he betrothed Leah instead. Only later was Yaakov able to take Rachel as a wife as well. Rachel, of course, was Yaakov’s favored wife and so, in order to even the playing field, God gave Leah the ability to bear children while Rachel remained childless. As time went on, Leah gave birth to six male children and Bilhah and Zilpah, Yaakov’s wives’ servants, each gave birth to two boys each. This situation obviously caused friction between the two sisters.
The Torah now sets the stage for a monumental change in this situation:
And last (v’akhar), Leah gave birth to a daughter and she called her name Dinah. And now, God remembered Rachel and He (God) heeded her and opened her womb. (Genesis 30:21-22)
The juxtaposition of these two verses and the key words, noted here in bold print, inspired a number of midrashic retellings of this story. I have chosen one with an interesting human message to share. This midrash opens with the halakhic question of whether it is permissible to pray for a child of a particular gender of a fetus. This midrash takes a position which contradicts the Mishnah, using the story of the birth of Dinah to justify its position. Here, I will not focus on the provocative question of whether praying for a child of a particular gender constitutes a “prayer in vain”. Our focus, instead, will be on the relationship between Leah and Rachel:
Our rabbis taught: If one’s wife was pregnant, is it proper to pray, ‘May it be [Your] (God’s) will that my wife give birth to a boy? Thus, our rabbis taught – If one’s wife is pregnant and the father prays: May it be [Your] will that my wife give birth to a boy, this is to be considered a prayer in vain. (Mishnah Berakhot 9:3) Rabbi Huna in the name of Rabbi Yossi says: Even though we teach that if one’s wife is pregnant and one says may it be [Your] will that my wife gave birth to a boy that it is a prayer in vain, this is not so; rather even up until the time that she sits on the birthing stool, one can pray that she gives birth to a boy, since it is not difficult for the Holy One Blessed be He to make females male and males female.
This is made explicit by the words of [the prophet] Yermiyahu (Jeremiah): “So, I (Yermiyahu) went down to the house of the potter, and found him working at the wheel. And if the vessel he was making was spoiled, as happens to clay in the potter’s hands, he would make it into another vessel, such as the potter saw fit to make.” (Jeremiah 18:3-4) What is it the Holy One Blessed be He saying to Yermiyahu: “Like this potter, am I not able to make you, O house of Israel? said the Lord” (Jeremiah 18:6)
And so you find with Leah, after she gave birth to six boys that she saw in a prophecy that in the future twelve tribes would come forth from Yaakov, and since she (Leah) had already given birth to six boys and was pregnant with a seventh child; and the two slave woman had given birth to two boys each, Leah challenged the Holy One Blessed be He and said [to him]: Master of the World, twelve tribes will in the future come forth from Yaakov, behold, six have already come from me and a seventh is on the way; and from the slave women there are already two each, if my child is a boy, my sister Rachel will not even [have the same status] as the slave women. Immediately, the Holy One Blessed be He heard her (Leah’s) prayer and changed the fetus in her womb from a boy to a girl, as it says: And last, she bore a daughter and named her Dinah (Genesis 30:21) …
Why was the child called Dinah? Because Leah acted righteously in her judgment before the Holy One Blessed be He [in showing her concern for the welfare of her sister]. The Holy One Blessed be He said to her: You are a merciful one, so, too, I will act mercifully toward her (Rachel). Immediately, And God remembered Rachel. (Genesis 30:22) (adapted from Tanhuma Vayetze 8)
This fantastically colorful story, built upon certain idiosyncrasies in the text of the Torah, comes to teach two significant lessons. Its author finds it extraordinarily important to preserve Rachel’s dignity. This important matriarch must not be left in a subservient position which would deny her esteem and status. In addition, and perhaps the midrash’s essential message focuses on Leah praying for her sister’s wellbeing. Leah’s deed is considered so virtuous that God Himself models His own behavior after that of Leah.