Female Siblings – Leah and Rachel

Female Siblings – Leah and Rachel in Vayeitzei: Genesis 28:10 – 32:3

by

Howard Adelman

This is the seventh Torah reading of the Jewish calendar year. On the seventh day we rest. What about the seventh week? However, “no rest for the wicked,” as the saying goes. And I have not been resting the last two days. The blogs are piling up. Somehow, I have been blocked from sending out any bulk mailing, even though I do so in small batches. Hence, the tedious method used of one at a time until I get to the source of the problem.

This morning, I will also cheat and borrow a great deal from my daughter who happens also to be called Rachel. Rachel Adelman is an Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible in the rabbinical program at Hebrew College in Boston. Her most recent book was, The Female Ruse — Women’s Deception and Divine Sanction in the Hebrew Bible (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2015). She is also a poet. With her permission, I begin my commentary this week with her poem on Leah and Rachel. This is the signal that I will not be dealing with the usual topics in this portion of the Torah, such as Jacob’s dream, his wrestling with the angel and his encounter with God, his relations with Laban, the birth of his sons nor, finally, his departure from Haran and return to the land in which Abraham and Isaac had settled.

Sisters Entwined

She is the crimson cord, I the blue.
Leah-of-the-weak-eyes stole my bed that night,
wrapped round his sinewy thighs like a wick.
No candle light but the faceless flame of love-making.

I am the blue thread, she the red.
After a night in my tent, I trip down to the River to bathe
away the life-seed. Monthly, the death-void
washes away in the stream, crimson diluted in blue.

She is the red cord, I the blue.
Leah, despised—roots throttled in desire, stunted as a bonsai.
I, barren—a leafless tree exposed against the sky.
Leah fruitful but bent, I beautiful and shapely, ever slim, ever empty.

I am the blue of water and sky, she, red of the earth.
At dusk, I cross the River Jabbok, wending through Gilead.
A clay-woman, a dibbuk, assails me, thrusts me to the ground.
We wrestle in the dust until daybreak.

She is the red thread, I the blue.
Intertwined, she torques my elbow behind my back.
How to break the torturous embrace? The dying embryos? The flaccid breast?
Will maidservant-stand-ins or mandrakes do?

Both caught in the stranglehold of desire—
sisters and mothers, rivals and lovers—for the same
man-hire: Jacob. Our hearts tripped up
by the heel-wrestler, Ya‘aqov: she for love, I for child.

I pray: O God, untangle me from her.
Or let the entwined wicks ignite the light of flame as in Havdalah
that I might discern between the crimson
her and the blue-hue of me and You.

Then God remembered Rachel, and God heard her and opened her womb. (Gen. 30:22)

When I read this poem, I personally cannot help but think of the United States where recently red and blue states seem to have developed into an eternal wrestling match for power. The north-south divide has been displaced. The conflict between the coastal states on both the eastern and western seaboards of the United States and the interior heartland is usually cast in terms of a masculine metaphor about power to make sense of the controversial results of the last election. The struggle is usually represented in terms of rivalry and male metaphors.

I sketched that male rivalry in relationship to birth order in reflecting on the relationship of Esau and Jacob. I contrasted a character who was adventurous, more impetuous and “instinct” driven, even when his academic achievements were higher, and, ironically given his propensity for risk-taking, more conscientious, more dutiful and more respectful of paternal authority, versus a more cautious, more cerebral and more conniving younger sibling who had better developed communication and social skills. Admittedly, the analogy is a stretch, but insightful nevertheless.

The Torah offers three different tales of male sibling rivalry – Cain versus Abel, Ishmael versus Isaac and Esau versus Jacob before introducing female siblings. In the latter, the emphasis is on circumstances rather than inherent character differences even though Leah and Rachel are radically different in their personalities. In comparing sororal rather than fraternal relations, the latter is characterized primarily by rivalry in which the connection between the two brothers in each set was suborned to the implications for a permanent and eons-long divide. In contrast, the Leah-Rachel relationship emphasizes how the two are intertwined rather than separated, how their rivalry is suborned in a larger unity. I contrast feminine sibling “rivalry” with masculine ones and end by exploring the insights into current American politics through a feminist rather than masculine male metaphor.

However, whereas there is a bounty of scientific research on fraternal sibling rivalry, research on sororal relationships is hard to find. Further, in scientific discussions of sisters, however sparse, there is far greater emphasis on sororal or sister solidarity rather than rivalry. Even in this case, where the sisters are married to the same man and where one usually finds an expression of conjugal authority by the older over the younger, this is not the emphasis of this story. In such cases of competition for the favour of a male, cooperation and solidarity still usually trump competition. In other cases at an extreme, when you compare families where all children are female with families where all children are males, female-children families achieve higher incomes on a gross family level – 25-40% higher – than all male children households. This may have implications on theories of competition and capitalism, but that is not the subject today. I begin today, not with science, but with poetry and with that which is indicated by the text and its account of the tension between Leah and Rachel.

If female birth order effects were similar to male birth order personality characteristics, we might expect Leah to be both more conscientious and dutiful while also more adventurous than Rachel and Rachel more agreeable and possessing more social skills while, at the same time, being much more of a non-conformist. We shall not find this to be the case. Further, older sisters are more likely to praise and teach their younger female siblings than is the case in males. Whereas one can expect aggression and dominance from the older male and conniving and a greater sense of initiative and independence from the younger brother, the issue of solidarity emerges as primary in the case of sisters. This is generally true even in polygamous marriages where a man is married to two sisters. Inclusiveness and family cohesion become the dominant norms rather than rivalry. This results in a greater clustering of feeling and affection, even among the step children. However, the discussion of the relationships between all of Jacob’s children of his two wives and two concubines belongs to a separate though related analysis.

In the poem above, Rachel is portrayed as engaged in a wrestling match with her sister, with Rachel deprecating Leah-of-the-weak-eyes who “stole” Rachel’s bed on the first wedding night. The poem appears to be about rivalry. But this is not an ordinary wrestling, but one which is much more akin to Jacob wrestling with God than his rivalry with Esau. So the thread, cord or wick (petl in Hebrew becomes a central metaphor in divine wrestling – elohim niphtalti). In my daughter’s poem, there are two cords like two DNA strands, one blue and one red, that intertwine and tie together though they also divide the two matriarchs. For Rachel is jealous that her sister’s thread and superiority in delivering progeny ties Jacob and her sister together more than the love that unites Rachel and Jacob. In the former, there may be “no candle light but the faceless flame of love-making.” The roots may be “throttled in desire,” but the result is “stunted like a bonsai.” Rachel’s sister’s thread is red, signifying the ability to give birth, whereas Rachel for years remained barren, her life-seed washed down the stream at each menstrual period.

In contrast, the fire of Jacob’s passion is almost totally directed towards Rachel. Yet it is Rachel who burns with jealousy, not simply at her sister’s sexual involvement with Jacob, but mostly at her sister’s ability to give birth even though Rachel is by far the more comely. “Leah fruitful but bent, I beautiful and shapely, ever slim, ever empty.” But the rivalry exists within a context stressing cohesion rather than competition. The latter exhibits itself in both sexual rivalry and deep concern about progeny. However, though Rachel may pray to be disentangled from her sister, her prayer is not answered. The two remain eternally intertwined.

Both caught in the stranglehold of desire—
sisters and mothers, rivals and lovers—for the same
man-hire: Jacob. Our hearts tripped up
by the heel-wrestler, Ya‘aqov: she for love, I for child.

So the portrait focuses on Leah’s jealousy over sex and Rachel’s jealousy about having children. But the dominant desire is not the expression of the rivalry, but the desire to set it aside, to untangle Rachel and Leah and to have sister solidarity trump sister rivalry. For Leah and Rachel initially seem complicit in the initial tricking of Jacob. Rachel recognizes the right of her older sister to marry and have children. And Leah prays that her younger sister will have children. How different is this from the relationship of the brothers thus far depicted! Further, Leah and Rachel bring very different characteristics to the marriage and their dialectical connection says a great deal about the desire for cohesion trumping rivalry.

As Rashi says when he connects the meaning of Leah’s name with the tiredness the Egyptians experience in the famine, Leah of the tired or weak eyes is exhausted. Egyptians worked with little to feed them. Leah cannot feed off Jacob’s love, for that love seems directed entirely to Rachel. But Leah is conscientious, wakes up even before dawn to work at her spinning wheel and make the thread to bind Jacob to her in contrast with Rachel’s natural endowments. Leah is a hard worker, giving and not demanding and dedicated to the well-being of her progeny. She is the mother of Jews as a stiff-necked people, as a people which stands up for its rights even in the face of rejection. She refuses dejection. She is serious and hard working and her rewards will come in her fruitfulness, in what comes out of her rather than in what she takes in. For she gives her virginity to Jacob, not as a sacrifice to love, for hers was a faceless flame of love-making, but as a sacrifice to ensuring the continuity of life. That is what it means to be stiff-necked.

Leah is the salt of the earth or, as my daughter described it avoiding clichés, “red of the earth.” Rachel, in contrast, is the water and the sky. Leah names her first three children, Reuben, Shmuel and Levi, for all three send a message that Leah not only has a right to be married, a right to have children, but even a right to be loved by Jacob for who she is rather than her natural physical endowments. Reuben means, “behold a son,” a triumphal declaration, but the name also comes from ra’ah, my affliction. Reuben was cursed by his father for sleeping with his concubine, Bilah.

In the case of the second-born son, non-Jews rarely name their children Shmu’el or Simeon and usually use its translation as Samuel. For Samuel is the second-born and means either the name of God or “God has heard,” שם האלוהים, shem Elohim. But Shmuel also means that the “Lord heard (shama) that I was unloved.” (Genesis 29:33) Her third son was named Levi. She hoped that finally “my husband will become attached (yillaweh) to me. (Genesis 29:34) Only with the birth of her fourth son, Judah, does Leah come into her own and leave behind her fantasy-driven desire with respect to Jacob. She ignores Jacob and names her son Judah because “this time I will praise (odeh) the Lord.” (Genesis 29:35)

But what about Rachel? Does she exhibit the conniving and the supposedly feminine traits of trickery to achieve mastery and control over the domestic holdings? Not at all. Rachel is giving, suspends having the fruits of her love for her sister. She is the epitome of chesed, of a giving nature. Rachel means sheep because Rachel obeys and follows the larger collective ethos rather than pursuing exclusively her own rights and position. While Leah makes the wool and thread to weave into garments, it is Rachel who sheds her wool to empower her older sister. She gives up the immediate satisfaction of her rights so that Leah can express hers.

The relationship of Leah and Rachel is so opposite to that of Esau and Jacob. Further, whereas Jews are the children of Jacob and not of Esau, and that gives a basic character to the Jewish people, Jews are also the children of both Leah and Rachel and embody determination and commitment combined with chesed, self-sacrifice and service. At the same time, the two strands of personality DNA remain in tension. We inherit that tension in actual power terms. Moses is a descendent of Leah who leads the Israelites from slavery into freedom and to the borders of the Promised Land. Joshua, his military commander and descendent of Rachel, is the calculating strategist who leads the conquest. King Saul descends from Rachel, but David ascends the throne to displace the heirs of Rachel for David’s predecessors trace their lineage to Leah.

We have different leaders for different times, the embodiment of care and responsibility and service to the other and the embodiment of self-interest and survival with weak eyes towards any visionary goal. But it is the children of those weak, tired and tender eyes focussed on determination and self-will, on self-survival and self-interest, that lead the people to the Promised Land. However, one only crosses into that land with concern for the other, with differentiating between strangers with whom one can live and enemies whom one must destroy. In contrast, it is the descendants of Leah who view all outsiders as enemies. After all, Esau, who, according to the Midrash, was to be Leah’s husband, married two Hittite women. In contrast, Jacob was committed to marrying his own and preserving the blood line, but not by rejecting the other, but by including the other, the children of his concubines, within the fold.

In the United States, the rivalry between the red states and the blue, is one between the heartland left behind and the coastland facing outward across the seas on either side of the continent, between those who wallow in nostalgia and long for a leader who comes from the coast but faces inward and backwards in history, versus a leader who, though born on an outer island, comes from the heartland, but faces outward. Red and blue express the value differences between those who embody the vision of a unitary nation versus those who express and respect the values of difference and diversity. The former focus on physical survival and are still of the earth while the latter are of the air and the water, combining innovation with a love of change and focused on what can be versus what has been. Obama marched into the future with eyes aglow, not the tired and weary eyes of Donald Trump, who enters office fantasizing about “being great again.” In this historical dialectical dance, the givers, who are generous in their love and look outward, will also have to look inward and listen to the pain of their sister’s children who constitute the heartland of America.

With the help of Alex Zisman

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