The opening words of this portion, "and Jacob left," set a narrative in motion that begins with Jacob's flight from his brother Esau's fury at having been robbed of his birthright. Jacob's trickery is matched by his father-in-law Laban, who ensures that his daughter Leah is married before her younger sister, Rachel, for whom Jacob works for seven years.
The portion concludes with a scheme that enables Jacob, aided by his wife Rachel, to set out with his now considerable family and possessions. The reconciliation between Laban and Jacob that ends the portion serves as a powerful healing to Jacob's escape.
This portion reveals the parallel journeys of Jacob and the four women who become his traveling companions. Professor Rachel Havrelock teaches that "Rachel and Jacob figure as doubles. ... Each of them works as a shepherd, flees from home, steals a father's legacy, contends with sibling and God alike, tricks others and is in turn tricked, and bargains for the blessing of having children. [Such] stories ... illustrate the distinct but intersecting male and female journey cycles that characterize Genesis 12-35."
Havrelock considers Rachel and Leah, and their handmaidens Bilhah and Zilpah, as essential players. Like their male counterparts, "the matriarchal heroines also wander across external terrain. However, their journey toward intimacy with God takes place in the internal terrain of the body. ... The subtext of the female journey cycle indicates that its success requires intimacy not only between a man and a woman but also between a woman and God."
When Jacob meets Rachel at the well, we read what may be the Bible's best description of "love at first sight." When Jacob sees Rachel, he rolls the stone off the well's mouth and kisses her, even cries. Perhaps Jacob also removed the blockage from his heart, dislodging the weight of having tricked his twin brother. Meeting Rachel gives him hope that he can find a way to move on.
Jacob's journey is explicit; the journeys of Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah are more subtle; we must read between the lines. Like Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Leah were raised together. But did they ever imagine they would marry the same man? The text describes how they seem to compete with one another for Jacob's affection.
Both classical and modern midrashim interpret the connection between the sisters as deep love, compassion and sibling rivalry. The 12 children with whom Jacob sets out from Laban's household represent the shared strength and cooperation of four strong women whose collaboration ensures the next generation.
One reflection of the matriarchs' intimacy with God is the names they choose for the children they bear. The 11 sons, after whom the first 11 tribes of Israel are named, are each given names that reflect their mothers' spiritual state. Leah's first born, Reuben, is called, "God saw my plight," a pun on "See, a son!" Her next three sons also bear names that can be interpreted as Leah's reflections on her changing relationship with God.
When Rachel can't bear a child, Bilhah becomes her surrogate. Bilhah's silence is reflected in Rachel's naming of the two sons Bilhah bears. Zilpah, Leah's handmaiden, serves as Leah's surrogate, bearing two more sons, both named by Leah. Then Leah bears three more sons and one daughter, Dinah. Finally, "God remembered Rachel"; careful biblical readers hear the echo of Sarah's long-awaited pregnancy. Rachel names her son Joseph, playing on "God has taken away my shame." In her moment of triumph, Rachel, like every mother in history, looks to the future with hope
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as rabbi for the East District of the Union for Reform Judaism. Email her at: slelwell.@urj.org .