By Debbi K. Levy
May I call you that? I realize I am introducing myself across time and space and I would only want to address you in a way that would convey my humility and respect for you.
Time and time again I read from Genesis to learn more about you. I feel your subtle, and not so subtle, wisdom lifted from the verses, and often I imagine a conversation I wish I could have with you. I appreciate your spoken word in the Torah when so many feminine voices remain shrouded in mystery. Your voice is the most potent for me, and I would like to tell you why.
We read in Genesis 29:20, “So Jacob served seven years for Rachel and they seemed to him but a few days because of his love for her.”
Jacob’s longing for you is one of the most passionate love stories ever told. Before we learn of Jacob’s willingness to serve your father, Laban, to be with you, the Torah tells us, “Jacob loved Rachel.” But just when we students of the Bible get comfortable with a proclaimed, natural love affair, we learn that you are to remain in the wings as Laban tricks Jacob and replaces you as the bride with your sister Leah.
Although my heart goes out to Leah, for she, too, is manipulated, I somehow visualize your devastation. I sense that you, too, believed your father’s agreement with Jacob, and that you were nowhere to be found at the celebration banquet lest Jacob discover it was not you under the bridal veil. I wonder if you had comforting companionship as you remained secluded. I contemplate your circumstances more often than you know, and deeply empathize with the way you were treated.
After Leah’s wedding week, we learn, Jacob promises an additional seven years of work for your father to join with you as his wife. Genesis 29:30 says, “And Jacob cohabited with Rachel also; indeed, he loved Rachel more than Leah.”
How did you survive the travesty of your sibling relationship with Leah without it becoming irreparably damaged? How could you find joy or peace in the sharing of your husband, your beloved?
As the verses in Genesis further explain, we take in that you are unable to become pregnant, and in your own words of despair to Jacob you proclaim, “Give me children or I shall die.”
Less than compassionate, an incensed Jacob scolds you that he, himself, could not take the place of God, who apparently has denied you the fruit of your womb. And in an ever-complicated solution to remaining childless, you offer Jacob the opportunity to cohabit with your maidservant, Bilhah, that she may make you a mother at last.
I can’t read the next verses swiftly here, even though I am impatient to learn the outcome as if I don’t already know it.
Leah is blessed again and again with children, but not with the love of a husband, your husband, and she, like you, offers Jacob the marital bed of her maid, Zilpah. Two sons are born to Zilpah.
We can now delve into the tension of your relationship with Leah, and it feels downright sad when you ask Leah for some of her son’s mandrakes and Leah’s sharp reply points to the pain she endures.
“Was it not enough for you to take away my husband, that you would also take my son’s mandrakes?”
But somehow, Rachel, I feel I know you. I conclude you asked for those mandrakes so that you could use an excuse to share your husband with Leah, even though it caused you, yourself, pain. I don’t think you desperately needed those mandrakes. I think the emptiness in Leah’s life was a space your efforts could temporarily fill.
Soon after, it is proclaimed that God remembered you and opened your womb, and you brought your son Joseph into the world. I find myself feeling so relieved and happy for you here. I imagine you finally holding your baby in your arms and embracing a wholeness among other mothers. I further imagine Jacob gazing at the son that he certainly longed for most.
Shortly after the birth of Joseph, you left your father’s house because of Jacob’s insistence to return to his own father, Isaac, in the land of Canaan. You journeyed forth with your family, and Leah was an integral part of that, a large, caravaning family with one husband and two wives, not to mention the children of Bilhah and Zilpah. So I ask you, Rachel, “How did you manage from day to day and continue to be a matriarch? How did you not resist the urge to sever ties with Leah, or give way to natural feelings of jealousy or possessiveness? What gave you comfort?” I comb through the words written in the Torah once more, hoping the white space in between the black letters will testify.
Genesis 32:1-2 says, “Looking up, Jacob saw Esau coming, accompanied by 400 men. He divided the children among Leah, Rachel and the two maids, putting the maids and their children first, Leah and her children next and Rachel and Joseph last.”
There was no randomness in this grid of the souls with the closest proximity to Jacob’s heart as he, in anxiety, approached his estranged brother, Esau. I see you bowing low in your introduction to Esau in this same grid, the last and most vulnerable one to Jacob, the woman with words we rarely get to hear in our ancestral recordings, “Jacob loved Rachel.” You were radiant in that moment of meeting Esau. I can feel it deeply in my own bones, Rachel.
In my world here in 5783, families can be complicated too. Marriages can be fractured by death, divorce and annulment. Lovers can, and do, unite in second and even third marriages, depending on circumstances. Yet our marriage bonds, like yours, even in these times of blended families, can and do offer a joy to the bride and groom that feels unparalleled. Perhaps we can feel a sacred glimmer of the way you felt bowing low to greet Esau, in the very last place, right before Jacob himself.
I learn from you, Rachel; you are celebrated in Torah as the matriarch who modeled leading your caravan of family members. Each of them assembled all at once, in love. May I, too, lead my large, sacredly-assembled blended family with the same grace I learn from you. Amen.
Debbi K. Levy is a mindfulness, meditation and yoga instructor who teaches through a Jewish lens in Dallas.