Complicated Relationships

The emotional struggles of our ancestors can help guide us today.

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Provided by the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative rabbinical seminary and university of Jewish studies.

I cannot read Parashat Vayetze dispassionately. The struggle between two sisters for the love of the same man, the back and forth attempt to win his affections by bearing more and more children, and the visible jealousy and pain that each one of them experiences leaves me feeling angry every time I read the story.

Particularly galling is Jacob's reaction to Rachel—the wife whom he loves deeply—when she cannot become pregnant. She has seen her sister Leah bear Jacob three sons (presumably within three years), and can no longer take the pain of being the barren wife. "Give me children, or I shall die" she says to Jacob (Genesis 30:1). And the Torah records his response:"Jacob was incensed at Rachel, and said, "Can I take the place of God ("hatahat elohim anokhi"), who has denied you fruit of the womb?"

The Midrash Rebukes Jacob

two brides fighting over groomMidrash Rabbah (71:7), avoiding any of the apologies later commentators will make, cuts to the chase when it comments: "Said the Holy One, Blessed be God, to him [Jacob]: "Is that a way to answer a woman in distress? By your life, your children will one day stand in supplication before her son [Joseph], who will answer them, 'Am I a substitute for God (hatahatelohim ani)'" (Genesis 50:19)?

The midrash is acutely sensitive to Rachel's feelings here,and to Jacob's cruelty in answering her as he did. Yes, she overstated, but her comment reflected how terribly pained and unworthy she felt by not being able to bear children. Jacob just dug the knife in deeper by saying that God had denied her the ability to produce children. The midrash responds that an insensitive comment like this one will not go unpunished, and it doesn't. In the not too distant future, Jacob's other sons are at the mercy of Rachel's son Joseph,where they hear language very close to the cruel words Jacob had spoken. As a rabbinic dictum teaches: "Midah k'neged midah" (one unkind deed will be paid back by another).

Defending Jacob's Response

But, human beings, as we know, are complex creatures. And of the numerous stories that point out human complexity in the Bible, the stories in the book of Genesis are particularly poignant. While the midrash hones in on Rachel's pain, the medieval commentator Radak (Rabbi David Kimhi) points out Jacob's frustration. Speaking in Jacob's voice, Radak says: "It's God who denied you, and not I who denied you. Ask that He give you children, because I give you what I am able to give you when I sleep with you. What can I do if you are barren? From God you should request that He open up your womb as He did for your sister. Please—from Him."

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Rabbi Melissa Crespy

Melissa Crespy is the rabbi at the Lakeland Hills Jewish Center in Ringwood, New Jersey.