Rachel and Leah’s Shared Anger

The theft of the birthright is a story about women's potential to use and craft language.


Reprinted with permission from
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary
, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

In Genesis 31, Jacob calls his wives Rachel and Leah out to the field and confidentially expresses his desire to return to Canaan. Vataan Rachel v’Leah (31:14): Rachel and Leah respond in one voice–as indicated by the singular verb form–expressing a shared anger against their father and a willingness to leave Haran. Jacob then gets up, places his wives and sons on camels, carries off his cattle and other property, and departs.
urj women's commentary

At first, Jacob appears as the central actor in this narrative. Everything is said and done in relation to him, stated in masculine possessive terms. In 31:19, however, Rachel seizes the opportunity afforded by Laban’s going off to shear his sheep to steal her her father’s t’rafim. Until this point, Rachel and Leah followed a course initiated by Jacob and his concerns. Here, however, Rachel initiates and plots her own destiny. So much so that in the next verse Jacob is seen as following Rachel’s lead: Rachel stole the t’rafim (v. 19) and Jacob “stole the mind (literally: heart) of Laban the Aramean” (v. 20).

Jacob re-assumes center stage in the narrative when Laban overtakes him on his journey and the two men begin to air their respective grievances. But from the moment Rachel steals the t’rafim, Jacob ceases to control the action or facts. It is in a condition of ironic ignorance that Jacob makes his rash pronouncement v. 32): “But the one with whom you find your gods shall not live.” (Compare Jephthah‘s vow in Judges 11:30 to sacrifice the first to come out to meet him, a vow that leads him to sacrifice his daughter.)

Several midrashic sources contend that Jacob’s death sentence for the theft of Laban’s t’rafim is borne out in Rachel’s tragic death after giving birth to Benjamin (for example, Bereishit Rabbah 74.32). According to a plain reading of Genesis 31, however, Rachel emerges from the episode victorious and unscathed. After all, Jacob’s curse is conditioned upon Laban actually finding the t’rafim in someone’s possession–something that Laban never accomplishes.

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Wendy Zierler is Associate Professor of Modern Jewish Literature and Feminist Studies at Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. She is the author of And Rachel Stole the Idols: The Emergence of Modern Hebrew Women's Writing (2004) and of the feminist commentary included in My People's Passover Haggadah (2008).

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