Jacob’s family has more than its share of discord and dysfunction. Due to Laban’s deception, Jacob ends up marrying two sisters, Leah and Rachel; this unwanted love triangle leaves all of them heartbroken.
Comparisons and competitions pull them apart. Like any family, there are imbalances. Jacob prefers Rachel. Leah has children, while Rachel does not. These differences stoke the flames of jealousy.
Each one of them pursues what the other has. Rachel wants children like Leah. Leah wants Jacob’s companionship. Jacob wants Rachel’s attention. All three are disappointed.
Leah’s frustration with Jacob’s attitude is expressed in the names she gives her first three children. She calls her firstborn Reuben, because “the Lord has seen my misery. Surely my husband will love me now.” She continues this theme with her next two children, Simon and Levi, whose names mean “because the Lord heard that I am hated, he gave me this child too, ” and “now, at last, my husband will become attached to me, because I have borne him three sons” (Genesis 29:31-35).
Rachel, who is infertile, becomes jealous of her sister. In desperation, she lashes out at Jacob and says, “Give me children, or I will die!” (Ge. 30:1). She then asks Jacob to have children with their maidservant Bilhah; they will be considered Rachel’s foster children. Rachel names Bilhah’s first child Dan, because “God has vindicated me; he has listened to my plea and given me a son.” The reference to “vindication,” the Radak explains, is because of Rachel’s competition with her sister Leah; with this child, God is leveling the playing field. Similarly, Rachel names Bilhah’s second child Naftali, because “I have had a great struggle with my sister, and I have won” (Gen. 30:6-8).
Unquestionably, Jacob experiences the greatest disappointment. He had worked hard for seven years to marry the woman he loved, and then his father-in-law (and uncle) cheats him, and switches wives on him. Disappointment has a direct correlation to the size of one’s dreams; and for Jacob, his best-laid plans go awry, leaving him with seven more years of labor and a pair of marriages crippled by sibling rivalry.
This is just an outline of how Jacob, Leah and Rachel found their dreams undone. But behind it all is an even greater disappointment: the failure of destiny.
Jacob arrives in Padan Aram with otherworldly expectations, because the backstory to his own journey foreshadows what will happen. His grandfather Abraham, when looking for a proper wife for his son Isaac, sent his servant Eliezer back to Padan Aram, to find a wife from his own family. Divine inspiration leads Eliezer to find Rebecca standing outside the well; after that, Jacob’s uncle Laban runs out to warmly welcome Eliezer into his home.
And so it happens with Jacob. First, his mother sends him to Laban’s house and tells him to marry Laban’s daughter. On the way, God appears in a dream and tells Jacob that He will watch over him. When Jacob arrives in Padan Aram, the local shepherds tell him that Laban’s daughter is approaching the well; Jacob sees Rachel, and is immediately overcome by feelings of love. Then, as if on cue, Jacob’s uncle Laban runs out, welcoming him warmly. Jacob certainly knew his parents’ marriage story; and as he sees it replay in his own life, Jacob must imagine that he is about to meet his destiny. Jacob assumes that his match with Rachel was made in heaven, and truly “bashert.”
Then everything falls apart. Destiny fails Jacob; and undoubtedly, Rachel and Leah, who knew the family stories, feel exactly the same way. Jacob carried this pain in his heart his entire life. When Pharaoh asks him how old he is, Jacob responds: “few and unpleasant have been the years of my life” (47:9).
Disappointment is very much a part of our daily lives. Our reach always exceeds our grasp; disappointment is a by-product of ambition. Much like this narrative, all marriages are prone to dissatisfaction, due to popular beliefs regarding “soulmates” and finding “love at first sight.” The question each of us must answer is: How do we respond to disappointment?
Disappointment is very much a part of our daily lives. Our reach always exceeds our grasp; disappointment is a by-product of ambition.
For the Jewish people, this question is existential. How long can one people endure exile? How many times will the Messiah stumble on his way to redemption?
If Abraham is tested regarding his faith in God, Jacob and his family face a different test: the test of overcoming disappointment.
Leah and Rachel lead the way, and offer two responses to overcoming disappointment. Leah ultimately reconciles herself to the shortcomings of her situation. When she has a fourth son, she names him Judah and exclaims “this time I will give thanks to God” (29:25).
The Talmud remarks: “from the day the Holy One, Blessed be He, created the world, no one thanked the Holy One, Blessed be He, until Leah came and thanked Him.” Centuries of commentaries have been astonished by the statement; is it possible that the spiritual giants who lived before Leah never thanked God?
I believe the answer lies in this: Leah was thanking God for His kindness, despite her own continuing dissatisfaction. Until this point, Leah hoped that having a child would bring Jacob closer to her. But now, after three prior children, Leah knew nothing would change; she would still be the neglected, inferior wife. Yet even with this disappointment in her heart, she found a way to appreciate the blessing she did have. Leah thanked God even while being rejected, and she was the first to offer gratitude while nursing a broken heart.
Contentment is one of the great lessons of Judaism. In a Mishnah that holds a great deal of affinity to Stoic philosophy, Ben Zoma tells us that “who is wealthy? One who is happy with their lot.” To reconcile with reality and accept that one’s dreams may never be actualized is difficult; to take joy in what one has left is no simple task. True contentment requires acceptance.
Leah’s sister and co-wife Rachel takes a very different path. She refuses to let go of her dreams, and grasps at any solutions for her infertility. She is not content to accept a flawed and broken reality.
The Midrash sees Rachel as a key to Jewish history. It explains that Rachel is buried on the road out of Israel, so she would be of assistance to her children. “When the Jews are exiled and pass by her tomb … Rachel will emerge from her grave and weep and beg mercy for them … and the Holy One, blessed be He, answers her, ‘There is reward for your work,’ says the Lord… ‘and the children shall return to their own border.’” Rachel’s unending hope becomes the foundation of redemption; she cries for those whose dreams are shattered, and God hears her voice. Rachel remains committed to her destiny against all odds and ultimately brings her children back home.
Rachel and Leah bring opposite responses to disappointment. One is pragmatic, accepting reality for what it is, and finding contentment within the blessings that remain. The other is romantic, and refuses to let go of the great dream of destiny. Paradoxically, the Jewish people have always done both. We have built homes in exile and put down roots, but at the same time, have always held on to our vision for the future.
I knew a woman named Rose, who was a survivor of the Holocaust. At the end of the war, she was an inmate in Auschwitz; during that time, one Friday night she managed to smuggle a makeshift candle into the barracks, to light for Shabbat.
After the war, Rose moved to Canada and built a family and a business together with her husband. A few years later, on a trip to Israel, they went out to eat at a restaurant. As the waitress approached their table, she looked up at Rose’s face, and collapsed on the floor.
When they revived the waitress, she explained that she too was a survivor, and had been in the same barracks as Rose. One day, this woman learned that everyone else in her family had been murdered by the Nazis. Despondent, she was planning to take her own life by running into the barbed wire fence.
But that night, as she returned to the barracks, she saw the women gathered around the Shabbat candle that Rose had lit. It was at that moment she decided that she would survive, no matter what.
Even in the most difficult times, one must accept the gifts life gives us, even if it is just a flimsy candle; but as we hold that gift, we must see within it the dreams of a better future. Disappointment may spring eternal, but the search for hope can start with just one candle.
Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York.