יום ראשון, 21 בינואר 2018

Sibling Tension – Rachel and Leah

Leora Londy-Barash, Rabbinical Student at Hebrew Union College, Jerusalem

Leah Conceives a Son to Win the Love of Her Husband from Rachel

Sibling rivalry can be one of the great dividers in a family dynamic.  The source of the tension is usually correlated with siblings trying to outshine one other, but can also be due to outside parties stirring the pot.  In the Biblical narrative of the sisters, Rachel and Leah, they were pulled apart by tension created by their father, Lavan; tension surrounding the love or lack thereof by their shared husband; and tension regarding fertility and womb envy.  They were used as pawns in power-plays between different parties and were never given the true opportunity to grow a sisterly bond.

In the essay, "Envy between Women," by Marie Maguire, she defines and compares the words jealousy and envy.  "Jealously is the fear that a rival will take something away, usually the affections of a third person.  The crucial difference is that envy occurs between two people, whereas jealousy involves real or imagined rivalry or competition among at least three people…Envy involves a fantasy of possessing of destroying the coveted object and is therefore a desperate attempt to protect the self from painful feelings of personal inadequacy."[1]   Rachel and Leah, find themselves stuck between these two dimensions of envy and jealousy.  Leah is plagued by jealously and is terrified that she will never be loved or given love.  Rachel is struck with envy towards her sister's womb and tries to "protect herself from feelings of personal inadequacy." [2] 
Their father Lavan promises Rachel to Jacob, the man who loves her, after seven years of work.  After seven years, Lavan pulls "a fast one" on Jacob and gives Leah, the older and less desirable of the sisters, to Jacob and makes Jacob work for another seven years to win over Rachel.  This scenario is poisonous.  Rachel, Jacob's fiancée, must live in proximity to her future husband and brother-in-law.  Leah must live with the notion that she was the unwanted prize.  And Jacob is found somewhat silent in this unhealthy family relationship.  From the get-go, they are forced into a love triangle with no clear way out.
When Rachel finally marries Jacob, it is only Leah who is initially able to become pregnant.  Rachel's empty womb is indicative of her valor and of the gift that she will be given by God when her womb is full.  But the more that Rachel weeps for her empty womb, the same cries can be echoed into Leah's empty-feeling heart.  She wants love, attention, and to feel that she has value.  A woman's value is in her ability to bare children and that she does, but a full pregnant belly does not make up for being neglected by her husband, and being an afterthought for her father's gain.
The human aspects of this story of heart-wrenching and compelling, but what is most riveting is God's involvement and inflammation of this dynamic.  In Genesis 29:31 it is written, "The Lord saw that Leah was unloved and he opened her womb' but Rachel was barren." and in next verse 29:32, Leah says, "The Lord has seen my affliction and now my husband will love me."  God in this scenario is like the father that Lavan couldn't be.  He sees Leah's pain and acknowledges the disparity in the love triangle that he was a part of creating.
A similar dynamic can be seen in Genesis 30:22-23, "Then God remembers Rachel; God heeded her and opened her womb.  She conceived and bore a son, and said, "God has taken away my disgrace."  This narrative creates a deep divide between these two sisters.  When one is successful, the other seems to have to struggle.  It cannot be good for them both at the same time.
Joan Ross-Burstall adds [3] "Jacob's name is linked to his partiality to Rachel and his distance from Leah.  God's name is linked to his partiality to Leah.  What God does for Leah, God does not do for Rachel.  In this way, the narrator brings God and Leah into partnership."  Both women are in alliance; Leah seemingly with God who has blessed her with her ability to multiply and Rachel with Jacob who cherishes her.  This dynamic, however shifts and rotates.  
However, Alice Ogden Bellis offers another look at this relationship. [4] Bellis suggests that the sisters experience discontent together and when they are angry, they tend to direct that anger on Jacob or at God, not each other.  There is jealousy but not hatred.  Each one fear that the other is getting the better end of the deal, but both sisters want to make their husband happy, receive respect and be loved.  When Zevulun in born, Leah says in Genesis 30:20, "Now my husband will honor me."
They are seen unifying even further in Genesis 31:14-16, Rachel and Leah come together regarding inheritance.  They are a unified unit.  It says, "I am the God of Beth-El, where you anointed a pillar and where you made a vow to Me.  Now, arise and leave this land and return to your native land.  Then Rachel and Leah answered him, 'Have we still a share in the inheritance of our father's house?  Surely he regards us as outsiders, now that he has sold us and has used up our purchase price.  Truly, all the wealth that God has taken away from our father belongs to us and to our children.  Now then, do just as God has told you."  Rachel and Leah are a solid unit towards Jacob and encourage him to distance themselves from their father.
From a pastoral perspective, this group is so deeply troubled, but there is something that ties them all together.  They are family, both legally and through blood.  They are eternally connected to one another and even if they don't function as a cohesive family unit, the paradigm shifts are dynamic causing further pain but also further reconciliation.  This is a story of difficult family ties, that model the complexities of family relationships but also the strength and power that can be found in this family circuit.

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{1] M. Lawrence, "Envy between women, from Psychology with Women", Macmillan Publishers Limited 1997 p. 64-75
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ross-Burstall, Joan, "Leah and Rachel: A Tale of Two Sisters", Word and World, 14, no. 2 (1994): 164
[4] Odgen, Alice, "A sister is Forever Friend: Reflections on the story of Rachel and Leah", Journal of Religious Thought, Washington, Vol. 55/56, Iss, 2/1 (Spring-Fall 1999): 109-115

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