In this portion we have the story of Jacob falling in love with Rachel but accidentally marrying her sister Leah. Laban their father, a roguish miser, exploits Jacob for his own gain. His daughters represent external as opposed to intrinsic value, and Jacob is the one to pay. We have seen several examples of brothers who rival one another, but this is the first story of a rivalry between sisters. There is no doubt in the text that Leah and Rachel compete with one another for both Jacob’s love, and the honour of bearing his children, but their relationship is more complicated than that. There is a Talmudic midrash that suggests that Jacob, wisely untrusting of Laban, gave Rachel tokens so that he would know her. Rachel, fearing Leah’s shame at her younger sister’s marriage, gave the tokens to her. In our tradition we have the love between sisters, despite their differences, as central to our story.
Jacob does not succumb forever to Laban’s trickery. He learns how to work the land and the flock, thus highlighting the Jewish ethics of labour and closeness to the land. These are skills Laban never has, and when Jacob leaves he therefore takes his riches with him. Rachel also does not allow her father to go unpunished. She steals his teraphim (idols) before they depart. It is notable that, despite the common perception that Judaism is the first monotheistic religion (and the belief by many that it has always been thus), it is clear that our matriarchs (and others) believed in these idols and the power of the gods they represent.
I always find it fascinating when the Torah includes details that run contrary to both our mainstream ideas of Judaism, and other aspects of the Torah itself. Although idolatry is expressly condemned in other places in the text, we see here that Judaism has changed significantly over time. In fact, change is the only constant in Judaism, as elsewhere. When we alter, adapt, or amend Jewish culture to make it relevant for our lives, what we are doing is, paradoxically, both traditional and new.
The incident with the teraphim carries very negative consequences. Jacob, not knowing that Rachel stole the idols, tells Laban that anyone who took them is to be cursed. Jewish scholars have attributed Rachel’s early death (and consequent burial away from the other matriarchs and patriarchs) to the fulfillment of Jacob’s curse. Later prophetic literature will discuss Rachel, her death in childbirth while wandering, and her tears. Her tears become emblematic of the generations of Israelites – they are many but theirs is a difficult road. She is a symbol of the wandering that has come to characterize Jews; she is buried away from home as are so many of her descendants. Her death, if it is indeed related to Jacob’s curse, is related to her defiance. Yet rather than see her defiance as negative, the text upholds her as a woman who knows her rights (and that of her husband and family) and acts to protect them. She uses what she has as a wife and a woman in order to protect what is hers. She is fierce, and for that reason, she is beloved by Jacob. Although the Jewish tradition has not always taken this view of its matriarchs, the text is clear.
Rachel is connected with Rebecca and Sarah (all are barren, all are brave, all define themselves as mothers with a sense of pride and power). These women are not passive; they act to produce the children and future they think is right.