Yom Shishi, 19 Iyyar 5779
Friday, 24 May 2019
Parashat Vayeitzei 2013

Parashat Vayeitzei
Rabbi Leah Jordan

8 November 2013

Parshat Vayeitze is essentially the account of the adult maturation of three characters: Jacob and the two sisters, Leah and Rachel. On the one hand, we have Jacob’s evolution from adolescent shyster to mature, grown man, beginning with his escape from tricking his brother Esau (and his famous dream while fleeing of the angels on the ladder), through his many years of toil under Laban, his marriage to first one daughter and then the other, and finally his departure and return home. On the other hand, we have the turmoil that Leah and Rachel are thrown into by Jacob's unlooked-for arrival, their marriages and sibling rivalry, which largely plays out through a competition over bearing children, and their eventual reconciliation on departing the land of their birth with Jacob. More often, we focus on Jacob’s story as the protagonist of the piece. I want to focus on the sisters instead.
Both sisters have their sorrows, Leah because Rachel is clearly the love of Jacob’s life, and Rachel because she struggles to bear children in the face of her sister Leah’s easy fertility. And although the sisters fight for most of their early adult lives together, our tradition remembers them not for this but as the quintessential ‘builders of the House of Israel’ together. In the Book of Ruth, when she enters Boaz’s house on their marriage day (an important marriage, as they are King David’s grandparents) "all the people at the gate and the elders answered…'May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, both of whom built up the House of Israel!'" (4:11) Ruth's marriage, which produced a legacy of kings, is praised here as akin to the legacy of Rachel and Leah. At first, this seems to conveniently sidestep how both sisters at first fought their fate—to be married to the same man, forced to compete for his love and attention through the begetting of children. For many years, in fact, Jacob's presence—and the fulfilment of their matriarchal duties, in having children—reduces the sisters to bitter opposition. And yet we know that from this rivalry they both "built up the house of Israel," which recalls instead the eventual peace made between them.
Sibling rivalry is, one might say, a Genesis meta-theme, but usually played out between sons, not daughters: Cain and Abel, Noah's sons, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and later even Rachel and Leah's sons, Joseph and his brothers. The sisters' competition is in one sense simply one more variation on this theme. According to Rashi, Leah and Rachel were never intended to both marry Jacob; Esau and Leah were in fact meant to marry, but Jacob botched that when he severed his relationship with Esau, leaving the two sisters with only one man between them. Thus, with biblical irony, one sibling rivalry is begot of another.
In the end, however, somehow the sisters' do succeed in finding one voice together. After many years, when at last Jacob tells them of his intention to leave the land of their birth, they do something striking. They make their response to him in chorus, together. (Genesis 31:14) They speak in one voice. They have somehow come to resolution. How come? Why now?
The biblical text tends toward silence in regards to emotion, speaking often only of acts, and in that context, the sisters' act here, their response as one to Jacob, speaks loudly—at full volume. At first, it is difficult to imagine what could have brought such bitter rivalry to an end, for Leah will remain the more disfavoured one and Rachel will continue to have difficulty bearing children (and will eventually die in childbirth, giving birth to her second son, Benjamin). Thus the seeds of their discontent will remain throughout their lives. But perhaps one can imagine their new position: two women who have never yet left their family house or their native land, now setting out on a lifelong journey away from all of these things, from all that they have ever known. They have grown up. They are no longer the girls whom Jacob met beside the well, that favourite romantic watering hole in the Torah for the young and carefree and single. One can well imagine that, looking out on this next great adventure, when Jacob informs them of their impending departure, as the vast distance stretches out before them, they are suddenly struck perhaps (just perhaps) by their inarguable connection, as sisters, as childhood companions, even as fellow wives. And thus the Torah tells us, "Rachel and Leah answered him, saying…" Unlike many of the Torah's other sibling rivalries, they in the end do seem to reconcile and become one another’s keepers and build up the House of Israel together.