Torah Explorer – Parshat Vayetze
Friday, December 2, 2022
He loves me; He loves me not
Long ago, in 2 distant lands (suburban St. Louis and south suburban Chicago), a young man became a Bar Mitzvah on Parshat Vayetze, this week’s Torah portion. 6 years later, a young woman became a Bat Mitzvah on the same Parsha, Vayetze. About 15 years later, that young man and young woman got married. They quoted this Parsha on both their wedding invitation and their Ketubah (a Jewish bill of marriage). The words quoted are as follows:
וַיַּעֲבֹ֧ד יַעֲקֹ֛ב בְּרָחֵ֖ל שֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֑ים וַיִּהְי֤וּ בְעֵינָיו֙ כְּיָמִ֣ים אֲחָדִ֔ים בְּאַהֲבָת֖וֹ אֹתָֽהּ׃ וַיֶּאֱהַ֥ב יַעֲקֹ֖ב אֶת־רָחֵ֑ל:
Jacob loved Rachel; So, Jacob served seven years for Rachel and they seemed to him but a few days because of his love for her. (Gen. 29:18,20)
The young man and woman were, of course, my husband Barry and me. Barry happens to be named Ya’acov. My given Jewish name is Raizel, which is close to Rachel. So, we quoted this text. We spent the year of our engagement on opposite sides of the Atlantic, with Barry studying to be a rabbi in Jerusalem, and me studying to be a cantor at JTS in NYC. That year apart seemed like the seven years Jacob spent working for the right to marry Rachel! The poetic “few days” in the Torah text is explained by Nahum Sarna, “The harshness of seven years’ arduous toil is mitigated by the ardor of (Jacob’s) love for Rachel, which ultimately makes the sacrifice worthwhile.” (JPS Torah Commentary, p. 204)
What is curious here, and worth exploring is the idea of romantic love in the Torah, and in the Bible as well. One of the 5 Megillot, the Song of Songs, is filled with rather intimate and suggestive love poetry, perhaps between two people. The rabbis’ response and interpretation is that the two individuals are actually God and B’nai Yisrael, the Jewish people, who share a deep and intimate bond. In the text of the Parsha, and even two weeks ago in Parshat Chayei Sarah, the patriarchs experience passion and love for their mates, first Isaac for Rebekah (Gen. 24:67), and then Jacob for Rachel (Gen. 29:18). In ancient times, most marriages were arranged and had to do more with business and financial transactions than passion or chemistry. In the Etz Hayim commentary, Jacob’s love for Rachel is a rare commodity: “This is an unusual instance of romantic love in a world where marriage was typically an economic arrangement between two families.” (p. 171)
As the story continues, we know too well what happens to Jacob on his wedding night, that he marries Leah and not Rachel. After an angry outburst, Jacob is reminded by uncle Laban: “It is not the practice in our place to marry off the younger before the older.” (Gen. 29:26) Sadly for Leah, even in the years to come when she produces numerous offspring for Jacob (6 sons and 1 daughter), Jacob’s affection for and attention to Rachel will be first and foremost. In a poignant moment in the story, “The Lord saw that Leah was unloved and He opened her womb, but Rachel was barren.” (Gen. 29:31) Leah is not blessed with Jacob’s love and adoration, but she is fertile in ways her sister might only dream of. In the wisdom of the Etz Hayim commentary: “We can only imagine the complicated relationship between the sisters, bound to each other by family ties but competing for the love of the same man. One sister had his love but was infertile, the other had his children but longed for his love. Each diminished the value of what she was blessed with and focused on what she lacked.” (p. 173-4) Such is the nature of sibling rivalry, and the complexity of love in marriage, especially one man married to two sisters. Jacob loved Rachel. . .In these three short words, we might understand both the sentiments and the difficulties of the relationships of our ancestors, their joys and their anguish, their intimacy and their agony as they navigated the very rocky terrain of both ancient Israel and marriage.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IycbUvchA2M – Noam Katz – Ufaratzta (Gen. 28:14)
You shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south.
Cantor Carol Chesler