When the Sisters Struggle God, Why is This Torah Little Noticed?

This week’s Torah portion, called “Yayetzei, And he [Jacob] went forth” focuses on Jacob’s sojourn in the home of his uncle Laban, his marriages to his cousins Leah and Rachel and their handmaidens Bilhah and Zilpah, and the competition between them for his love and for bearing his children.

Laban tricks Jacob by giving him Leah as his first wife when he had promised him Rachel, the younger sister – and when Jacob complains, he answers: “ Such is not done in our place, giving away the younger before the firstborn”  -- directly challenging Jacob for stealing his older brother’s birthright.

Leah had many children and Rachel none. So Rachel, perhaps recalling the story of Jacob’s grandmother Sarah and her handmaid Hagar, said to Jacob,

“Here is my slave-girl Bilhah; come in to her, so that she may give birth upon my knees, so that I too may be built-up-with-sons through her.” (Everett Fox transl, The Five Books of Moses (Schocken, 1995).

Through Bilhah she had two sons. The first she said was a proof of justice and she named the boy Dan, Justice. Though we do not know what sex with Jacob was like, we know that as a slave-girl she had no choice. Is this a hint that justice must be born from the suffering of slaves, as happened later in Egypt from the suffering of an enslaved people and may be able to happen in our own country now only through the suffering of a people long enslaved?

Of the second son she said, “A struggle of God have I struggled with my sister; yes, I have prevailed! So she called his name: Naftali/My Struggle.”

This line (Gen. 30: 8) is a pre-echo of a story we will read next week, far more famous, in which Jacob in the midst of a struggle with his brother Esau wrestles with God’s Own Self, “prevails,” and finds his own name changed to Yisrael, Godwrestler. The presence of the pre-echo is no accident. What is Torah trying to teach us?

First, that two women can also have a “struggle of God,” not only two men. Perhaps that is precisely why there is little effort to connect it with the later story. There are two levels of dismissal of the story. One is old-fashioned: grave and pompous men dismiss it because, after all, it is merely a women's story. The second is by more clever, more modern men and women: See, biblical women are so disempowered that the only power they have is to struggle over children. Dismissal in the mask of feminism. But think! The woman in this story says it is a God-struggle to struggle over children! Is she right? Children are the future! 

The verse is a Banner, waving, waving, “Pay attention!” And perhaps we really should pay attention to the teaching that a struggle over children, a struggle over the future, is a Godstruggle. Indeed, the struggle between Leah’s children and Rachel’s turns out to be momentous for the future, cast as the struggle between Joseph (a true child of Rachel) and his half-brothers.

For our own generation, what could be more a God-struggle than the future of our children as Earth reels in pain, croaking, “I can’t breathe”? As we know now, we are pouring so much CO2 into the planet that all its trees and grasses cannot breathe it in and transmute it to oxygen. So it suffocates and scorches us: our Earth can’t breathe, God’s Name can’t breathe, our grandchildren won’t be able to breathe.

As the very last words of the very last of the classical Prophets say, “I [YHWH, the InterBreath of Life] will send you Elijah the Prophet to turn the hearts of the parents to the children and the hearts of the children to the parents, lest I come not as the Breath of Life, not even as the Wind of Change, but as the Hurricane of Disaster to smite Earth with utter destruction!” (Malachi 3: 23-24).

O You Who still Breathe life, give us the love to struggle with You as Rachel did for the sake of our children!


Jewish and Interfaith Topics: 

Torah Portions: