December 7, 2000
Parashat Vayetze (Genesis 28:10-32:3)
Every marriage has painful moments. Even the most loving marriages do. This fact of life is confirmed by the opening of chapter 30.
There is only one marriage in the entirety of the Bible that is explicitly described as being based on romantic love. This is the marriage of Jacob and Rachel. Upon first sight of Rachel, Jacob is inspired to single-handedly roll the capstone off the mouth of the well, so that he can provide water for her flock. After that, he kisses her, and cries (what a real man!).
Jacob loved Rachel -- so says Genesis 29:18. He loved her so much that the seven years of labor he endured in order to win her hand "seemed to him but a few days in his love for her." But even such a marriage, the Torah purposefully reveals, has its share of conflict and pain.
By the beginning of chapter 30, Rachel's sister Leah has already borne four children to Jacob, while Rachel has borne none. Anguished, pained and tormented by the fear that Jacob would stop loving her (or worse), Rachel finally cries out, "Give me children, Jacob. If not, I die." To our alarm, Jacob does not respond with the words of soothing reassurance that we would anticipate. He responds instead with anger. "Do you think I am God?," he fires back. "It is God who has denied you fertility."
We, the readers, are left to feel Rachel's searing pain, as her beloved's words enter her heart as daggers. She had cried out for his love. She received his wrath.
The Midrash imagines God's reaction to Jacob's words. "Thus you speak to the oppressed?!" In a word, God is shocked.
Jacob was not a bad husband. He was a good husband. His love and concern for Rachel persisted throughout their life together, and he never fully recovered from the profound grief he felt at her untimely death. But this was a bad moment -- a really bad moment in a good marriage. But "come and learn" from it, the Torah says. Ask and think.
Perhaps Jacob, though he chose to suffer in silence, was just as worried and just as frustrated as Rachel. And the effect of her scream was to release all the tension that until now he had kept penned up inside himself. Or perhaps, after having actually worked not seven, but 14 years to secure her hand, he was enraged by Rachel's implicit threat to somehow bring about her own death were she not to conceive. These explanations or others we could imagine, can all open new windows of self-awareness for us. For each of us has become inappropriately angry at a loved one.
And if we were to take just one step back from the details of Jacob and Rachel's particular situation, and try to extract a broader teaching from it, that teaching would go to the core of what entering the covenant of marriage means. The great Talmudic sage Rav, perhaps inspired by this story, taught that the central mitzvah of marriage is that most famous of mitzvot, the one that reads, "Love your friend as yourself."
Rav understood that sometimes we forget why we got married to begin with. There are times at which we mistakenly think that we got married primarily in order to receive. Before marriage we had felt incomplete. We had unsatisfied emotional needs. But now, we have someone who makes that all better, who gives us what we lacked. Rav reminds us of our error. We did not marry primarily in order to receive, but primarily in order to give. It was the giving that generated the love. And in marrying the person who we loved giving to, we acquired the best realistic chance we'd ever have to actually, literally fulfill that mitzvah -- to truly love someone else as ourselves. When Rachel cried out in distress and despair, Jacob needed to be a giver. He needed to be a lover. He needed to see it as the moment for which he had married Rachel to begin with. It was the moment that he could give her what no one else on earth could the reassurance that he loved her still and forever. From his misstep, first Rav, and then we, are enlightened.
Every marriage has painful moments. The Torah wants us to know this. And through giving we have more power than we think to ease the pain of those moments. And the Torah wants us to know that too.
Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi of B'nai David Judea in Los Angeles.