Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Vayetze Genesis 28:10-32:3
Efrat, Israel - The personalities of the Bible are depicted in all of their complexities, in the multi-colored and often frenzied emotions of love, jealousy, majestic pride and angry revenge. Let us examine in depth one of the matriarchs of our nation, Mother Leah, who suffers the pain of requited love. There is a great lesson to be learned from how she deals with the searing hurt of rejection - and the seeds sown by that rejection upon the next generation.
Our story must begin in the magnificent love-at-first-sight affair between Jacob and Rachel, when the itinerant relative single-handedly removes a heavy stone from the well- which usually required the concerted effort of all the shepherds together in order to impress the approaching Rachel (Genesis 29:10). He agrees to work for her father Laban in order to procure her hand in marriage, "And Jacob worked for the sake of Rachel for seven years, and they seemed in his eyes as but several days because of his love for her" (Genesis 29:20). But alas, the deceptive Laban substituted the beautiful of stature, beautiful of appearance Rachel for less comely, weak-eyed elder sister Leah. Jacob agrees to the marriage of both sisters, obligating himself to work yet an additional seven years for Rachel. "But he loved Rachel more than Leah And when G-d saw that Leah was hated, He opened her womb, whereas Rachel was barren" (Genesis 29:31).
And so the stage is set, with the beloved wife Rachel and her "hated" rival Leah. In a very poignant and subtle manner, the Bible describes the silent heroism of Leah: "And Leah conceived and gave birth to a son; she called his name Reuven (Literally: See-a son), because she said, 'because G-d has seen into my affliction; perhaps now my husband will love me'" (Genesis 29:32). The usage of the ablative form, "into or through my affliction" rather than simply "my affliction" (be'onyi and not et onyi) suggests that Leah did not wear her pain on her sleeves; much the opposite, she only sobbed into her pillow at night -probably every night that she was rejected in favor of the more beautiful Rachel. This nuance is clearly perceived by Targum, who renders the phrase in his Aramaic translation, 'since my shame has been revealed before G-d' before G-d, but not before no one else! This image is reinforced by the very next verse: "And she (Leah) conceived again and bore a son. And she said, "because G-d heard that I was hated, so He gave me also this (one); and she called his name Shim-on (literally, He hears on, affliction - Genesis 29:33). The world may see a radiantly smiling mother of sons, but G-d hears her cries of hurt and rejection. The truth of her feelings are underscored by the fact that she and not her husband names her two eldest sons; it seems as though Jacob couldn't have cared less - since they were not born to his beloved Rachel!
Leah succeeding in transmitting her heroic and majestic "suffering-in-silence" pride to her first-born son Reuven. After all, Reuven - the biological first-born son of Jacob - must suffer the indignity of knowing that he is rejected by his father in favor of the much younger Joseph, first-born to Rachel: "And Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons, and he made him a coat of many colors", (Genesis 37:3). Reuven is truly his mother Leah's son. When the other brothers are about to cast Joseph into a pit, Reuven represses his understandable jealousy and plays the role of the responsible, eldest brother - even though doing so went counter to his own self-interest. "And Reuven heard, and he saved him (Joseph) from their hands& Let us not smite a soul& Do not shed blood." (Genesis 37:21, 22).
Despite the truth of what we have written, there are always disastrous results when a son feels rejected especially when the rightful heir is pushed aside through no fault of his own. We have even seen in the previous generation how Jacob himself stoops down to the level of deceiving his father and pretending to be Esau - in order to feel, if only for a brief period of hours, the love and acceptance Esau felt from his father Isaac. Indeed, Jacob spends the next 22 years in Labanland acting more like Esau than Esau - always in search of his father's acceptance.
In fact, towards the conclusion of the five books of Moses, the Torah enunciates three legal situations which adumbrate and reverberate with the story of Jacob and Reuven. First comes the case of the beautiful captive, a Gentile woman with whom an Israelite soldier in the thick of battle falls in love. If all the Biblical suggestions to attempt to break up the relationship fail, the Torah reluctantly permits the unlikely couple to marry (Deuteronomy 21: 10-14). The Bible then describes a situation in which a man has two wives, "one who is beloved and the other who is hated." Our Scripture forbids the man from "favoring the son of the beloved wife over the son of the hated wife who is the legitimate first-born" (Deuteronomy 21:15-17). And finally the Bible describes the tragedy of a stubborn and rebellious son (Deuteronomy 21:18-21).
These three incidents especially as they are juxtaposed together, are ominously reminiscent of Jacob and Reuven. Jacob, through no fault of his own, is duped by a scheming father-in-law into an inappropriate marriage with a woman he doesn't love much as the Gentile captive woman is an inappropriate life's partner for the Israelite, and in civilian life the early infatuation often turns to hate. Father Jacob therefore is saddled with two wives, one whom he loves and one whom he hates, and he does favor the son of the beloved wife - Joseph - over the son of the hated wife who is his rightful first-born, Reuven. And Reuven does commit a stubborn and rebellious act - perhaps the inescapable result of a mismatch which leads to a rejected first-born. "And Reuven went and slept with Bilhah, the secondary wife of his father. And Isaac heard; and the sons of Jacob were twelve" (Genesis 35:22).
The precise transgression of Reuven is unclear. According to the Rabbinic commentary, after the death of Rachel, he moves his father's couch from Bilhah's tent to Leah's tent. Whatever the deed, it was a forbidden violation of his father's personal life. Jacob apparently understands that he shares in Reuven's guilt; he did not treat this first-born son properly, and is now hearing ' through his sin ' his cry to be his father's continuing heir, or at least his desire to remove disgrace from his mother. Israel hears about the incidence, decides to remain silent (there is an open space in the parchment of every Torah Scroll at this juncture in the text), and thereby retains the unity of the family. So does the sacred torah reveal between its lines the complexity of husband-wife, father-son relationship.