The Virtue of the Matriarchs: An Example of Love for Others
It is written, “Rachel saw that she had not borne children to Jacob, so Rachel became envious of her sister. She said to Jacob, ‘Give me children – otherwise I am dead.’ Jacob’s anger flared up at Rachel, and he said, ‘Am I instead of G-d, Who has withheld from you fruit of the womb?’ ” (Genesis 30:1-2). Rashi comments: “[Rachel] was envious of [Leah’s] good deeds. She thought, ‘Were she not more righteous than I, she would not merit bearing children.’ ”
It is written, “G-d remembered Rachel; G-d hearkened to her and He opened her womb” (v.22). On this, Rashi comments, “He remembered that she gave her signs to her sister, and that she was concerned lest she fall to Esau’s lot should Yaakov divorce her because she had no children. This also entered the mind of the wicked Esau when he heard that she had no children.”
We need to answer all the questions confronting us:
1. Rachel was afraid that Jacob would repudiate her because she had no children. Yet in that case, why would Esau marry her, for he thought of doing so when he learned that she had no children? Why would Esau marry a sterile woman, and why was Rachel afraid that this would happen?
2. How could Rachel, who was so righteous, think that Jacob would send her away because she had no children? It is explicitly stated that she sacrificed herself for her sister Leah by giving her signs of recognition [signs that demonstrated to Jacob that the signaler was Rachel]. Is it conceivable that Jacob would send away a woman as righteous as this, one who had transmitted her signs of recognition to her sister in order to save her from marrying the wicked Esau? The Torah tells us that the eyes of Leah were tender (Genesis 29:17), for she cried tremendously. “She heard people saying: ‘…The elder to the elder [Leah to Esau] and the younger to the younger [Rachel to Jacob].’ …And she wept until her eyelids sagged” (Bava Batra 123a). Why would Jacob think of sending away a woman as righteous as Rachel, whom he so greatly loved?
3. Why did Rachel tell Jacob, “Otherwise I am dead”?
4. Why is not having children compared to death? The Sages have said, “A man who is childless is accounted as dead” (Nedarim 64b). Yet why did Rachel use this very same argument when she asked Jacob to give her children? What is the meaning of this expression?
5. Furthermore, how could Rachel have put herself in danger when she gave her sister Leah the signs of recognition? Jacob could have cursed her, and she could have possibly been wedded to Esau if Jacob refused to marry her for having deceived him.
6. Even if Leah heard people gossiping and saying that she would be wedded to Esau, why was this so bad that she cried about it? She could have lived an honorable and comfortable life with Esau, and moreover she could have brought him back to the right path. What harm is there in that?
7. Above all, how could Leah have understood “the elder to the elder” to mean “Leah to Esau”? We know that Esau had sold his birthright to Jacob (Genesis 25:33), and therefore Jacob was considered as the firstborn.
This entire account comes to teach us marvels about the sublime traits of our Matriarchs.
By carefully reflecting upon the motives of the Matriarchs and their way of serving G-d, we realize that they did not take their own personal interests into account. Rather, they only considered the wellbeing of others, even if that meant putting themselves in danger and risking their own lives. They only thought about the good of other people through helping, supporting, encouraging, and comforting them. How did they do this?
Rachel was grieved to see her sister shedding so many tears at the thought of having to marry Esau. She therefore decided to give her place with Jacob to her sister Leah, her rival, and she risked being rejected by Jacob afterwards and falling into Esau’s hands. This is because Jacob could have been so upset with Rachel’s deception that he would refuse to marry her.
Despite this risk, Rachel acted without taking her own interests into account, acting only so Leah would stop crying. She gave up, in favor of her sister, the notion of becoming Jacob’s wife, even though this could force Rachel to live miserably for the rest of her life in the home of a crook and a thief, the accursed Esau. However Rachel accepted this risk for the love of Heaven, since she definitely did not spurn her right to live with Jacob. Rather, her only intention above all else was the good of others. The Sages say, “Jacob sent wedding gifts to Rachel, but Laban gave them to Leah” (Tanhuma Vayeitzei 6). Rachel saw these gifts in Leah’s hands but kept quiet, for she saw how happy Leah was. All this clearly shows us how noble and upright Rachel was.
Jacob noticed this as well, and he was astonished at Rachel’s many virtues. Instead of getting upset or rejecting her for having resorted to such a ruse, he felt even more love for her. This was not because she was beautiful of form and appearance (Genesis 29:17), for “Charm is deceptive and beauty is naught; a G-d-fearing woman is the one to be praised” (Proverbs 31:30). Rather, it was because Jacob knew just how good her heart and how sensitive her soul were, as well as how generous she was. Concerning Rachel, the Sages said that she hid under the marriage bed. Thus when Jacob spoke, it was Rachel who answered so that he would not hear Leah’s voice (Eichah Rabba, Proem 24).
Rachel’s goodness of heart and her spirit of sacrifice for her sister are indeed amazing. When she heard Jacob speaking to her sister and asking her many questions while performing the first commandment of the Torah (to be fruitful and multiply in complete holiness and purity) – precisely on this, their wedding night, at the start of their married life together – instead of protecting her right of keeping her signs of recognition to herself (meant to protect Jacob from being deceived), she kept quiet and controlled herself, transmitting these signs on behalf of her sister. By doing so, she potentially deprived herself of a happy future. It seems possible that Rachel would have preferred not to have transmitted these signs to Leah. Yet Rachel knew just how much her sister would be shamed if Jacob sent her away and she had to marry Esau, as the rumor had said. She responded for Leah and transmitted the signs to him, acting in this way only so that her sister would not be put to shame and suffer, for Rachel only desired her good.
Despite all this, we must ask why Rachel sacrificed herself for her sister by putting herself in danger. Did she have to be victimized on account of her sister? Why did Leah cry as a result of not wanting to marry Esau? As we said earlier, would she not have lived an easy life?
Precisely because Rachel saw that Leah did not stop lamenting her fate, she understood that Leah preferred a life of poverty and exile, one of suffering and restriction with a truly righteous man, rather than a life of ease and comfort in this world with a wicked one. It was because of this that she wept. She cried to the extent that her beauty began to fade, for “Leah was just as beautiful as Rachel in shape and beauty, and it was only because her eyelids sagged that her sight weakened” (Tanhuma Vayeitzei 12). Rachel thought that she had to do something for someone as virtuous as her sister.
Here we see the greatness and nobility of Leah. She preferred to live in poverty, given that it be with a righteous man, than in luxury with a wicked one. We also see the greatness and nobility of Rachel, who understood just how meritorious her sister was, to the point that she was willing to give up her place and perpetual happiness for her.
However G-d, “the searcher of hearts and minds…the righteous G-d” (Psalms 7:10) probed Rachel’s feelings and thoughts. He perceived Rachel’s kindheartedness for her sister, and He augmented Jacob’s love and compassion for her. Thus Jacob loved and respected her even more than before. Instead of accusing her of having deceived him, Jacob accused Laban by saying, “Was it not for Rachel that I worked for you? Why have you deceived me?” (Genesis 29:25). He was angry with Laban for having tricked him into marrying Leah, as well as for having forced Leah to accept Esau against her will – if Rachel in her goodness had not saved her from such a fate. This is why Jacob loved Rachel even more, to the point of serving Laban for seven more years.