One of the more fascinating family relationships in the Torah surrounds that of Yaakov with his wives, and that of the wives themselves with one another. The following discussion of parsha Vayetze is aimed at opening conversations and not to diminish the status that the fathers and mothers of the Jewish people in our eyes. Viewing the lives of the patriarchs and matriarchs as authentic human experiences should be a source of inspiration and instruction.
That Yaakov ends up having four wives at the same time is an anomaly. While Avraham had Sarah and Hagar at the same time (and took Keturah as a wife when he was a widower living alone) is something he did not want or initially agree to, but only accepted at his wife’s insistence, after ten years in Canaan (and an unknown amount of time they were married prior to coming to Canaan), and Sarah’s embracing her barrenness.
Yitzchak only had Rivkah in his life.
Yaakov intended to only have Rachel in his life. That he married Leah was a result of Lavan’s trickery. His keeping her as a wife (though he had every right to divorce her) was likely the result of his own honesty and kindness towards Leah. And, like Hagar to Avraham, Bilhah and Zilpah became his wives at his wives’ insistence.
But even in that arena, we need to raise an eyebrow about Leah’s role. There is ample evidence in the Torah that a new nation begins with 12 children. It is a theme in the family of Nachor, in Yishmael’s family, and in the Eisav/Seir union. When Leah had her initial children, she had four, one right after the other, seemingly with no trouble or difficulty. Though they married a week apart, during that same time, Rachel had no children, causing her to “become jealous of her sister.” Seeing her situation, wanting children, she brought Bilhah into the mix, hoping “I will build from her” (or perhaps “I will have sons through her”?).
Do the math. There are now three wives – assuming Yaakov is to start a nation with 12 children, and assuming Bilhah is there to help Rachel, should it happen that Rachel is actually blessed to have children, and since Leah already has her 4 children, an even split would leave Bilhah to have 4 and Rachel to have 4. Especially since Leah has already had children, there is no need for Zilpah to be brought into the mix. Besides, even if Rachel or Bilhah is not blessed to have 4 children each, everyone knows Leah is not infertile! Why would she need an equivalent to Bilhah to be brought into the family? Could it possibly be the competitive nature of Yaakov’s wives, each wanting to produce the highest number of children?
In his book “Ki Karov Eilekha,” Rabbi Yaakov Medan makes the plausible suggestion that Rachel may have seen herself, in all of this family mixup, as a wife Yaakov wanted for her beauty (the Torah emphasizes her looks) but not to bear children. A similar notion is ascribed to the failed relationships of Yehuda’s sons with Tamar, and is also at least partly the motivation behind Chana’s concerns in the book of Shmuel I, when her own co-wife Peninah has 10 children to Chana’s zero. And it’s not that this is a competition or that score is being kept, but clearly childbirth plays no factor in changing a woman’s looks when childbirth has never taken place. Hence the notion “this one is for childbearing, and this one is for beauty.”
Rabbi Medan brings plenty of proofs for why Yaakov’s love for Rachel was much deeper than skin-deep, and that of course Yaakov had no such notions of wanted Rachel to never have children – he wanted to have children with Rachel, and he clearly favored the children Rachel eventually bore. But he also suggests that two sisters competing for the love of the same man is not an ingredient for a healthy relationship in general. Look at the meanings of the names Rachel and Leah give to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, and you’ll find a hint of animus towards one another in their each now having “more children” than they had before.
Rabbi Medan even suggests that Rachel was hoping for Bilhah’s presence and children to bring about both a personal hormonal change which could come from caring for Bilhah’s children, as well as further attention from her husband, who will hang around her more , simply to be around his newest babies.
While these options and possibilities are all intriguing and, of course, guided by G-d’s hand as spelled out in the Torah, the realities of Rachel and Leah and Yaakov are far removed from where we are today. Perhaps we can learn from their struggles, their prayers, the ways they did look out for each other, while questioning the ways in which they may not have been so thoughtful.
In our time, with our communities having accepted bans on polygamy (Ashkenazim for over 1,000 years, and most Sefardim through living in Western Societies), the fear Rabbi Medan ascribes to Rachel is a non-issue. Most people who marry want to build families, and hopefully that is the thought process guiding people in the pursuit of love, companionship, and marriage at a younger age. Childbirth certainly impacts some aspects of the body, but time and other life choices do as well (for both men and women), and the hope is that none of these factors play a role in diminishing the love and respect spouses have for one another.
Infertility with no children and infertility even after having a child is a struggle too many face. Whether the flowers Rachel wanted were understood to be medicinal or aphrodisiacal, clearly if we include Rabbi Medan’s suggestions, she sought additional help so she might achieve her desired outcome. Our Sages teach that Rachel was inspired to prayer by both her husband and her sister.
The struggle to become a parent is so real for so many people. Hopefully Rachel’s options (prayer, medicine, companionship, aphrodisiac, natural hormone changes, etc.) can serve as an inspiration for those who grasp at whatever options and possibilities are out there, hoping that something will work. Rachel’s own life was tragically cut short, which is not what is wished for anyone. But in her absence, Rachel’s presence serves as what is perhaps the true blessing, and the strength, of the greatest Jewish mothers.
“Rachel cries for her children,” the prophet Yirmiyahu states. She cries for ALL of her children who are in exile, for her living children who are surviving in exile and for the unborn children — and for the parents of the unborn children — that they should not have to suffer the way she did. May her prayers be answered, and may those looking to end the painful cycle be blessed with the children they desire, soon in the near future. With G-d’s help. Amen.