Commentary for Vayishlach

10 Dec

It used to be that one of the most dangerous things a woman could do was give birth. Thankfully, great strides have been made in science and medicine that have monumentally reduced the rate of maternal mortality over the past hundred and fifty years, but for most of human history, it was a very real danger. Given this, it seems surprising that in the entire Bible, which covers thousands of years, there are only two recorded cases of maternal mortality. The first is that of our matriarch Rachel, which occurs in this week’s parshah.

The dynamics of Rachel‘s marriage to Jacob and Jacob’s marriage to Rachel’s sister Leah were very unfortunate. Jacob loved Rachel and had worked out a deal with his uncle Lavan, the girls’ father, in which he agreed to work for Lavan for seven years in exchange for Rachel’s hand in marriage. On the day of the wedding, Lavan pulled a switcheroo, replacing Rachel for her older sister Leah, whose face was concealed under a veil. When Jacob confronted Lavan over this, Lavan cited a local custom that the older daughter must always be married off first, which he had conveniently forgotten to mention to Jacob at any point in the past seven years. So great was Jacob’s love for Rachel, though, that he agreed to work another seven years in exchange for her hand in marriage. Even upon discovering that she was barren while Leah was fertile, Jacob still spent most of his time with Rachel causing Leah to often feel ignored.

This dynamic would come to define the relationship between the three of them. Even though she was the wife Jacob had never wanted, Leah was the one who was able to bear children to carry on the legacy of the Jewish People, and yet Jacob still spent most of his time with Rachel. Leah’s feelings are made clear to us through the names of her children, especially the first three, as detailed in Gen. 29:32-34. The eldest, Reuven, is so named by Leah because it derives from the phrase “Ra’ah Adonai b’onyi” – “’the Lord has seen my affliction’ (and now my husband will love me) (Gen. 29:32),” but the name itself literally means “look! A son!”

Rachel, for her part, takes no joy in the attention she receives from her husband, or really from anything else in life because all she thinks about is the fact that she is barren while her sister is fertile. Years later, when Jacob already has ten sons, God finally answers Rachel’s prayers and blesses her and Jacob with a son. Rachel declares, “God has taken away my disgrace” of childlessness, and then names this long awaited child “Joseph,” meaning “may the Lord add another son for me (Gen. 30:24).” God grants this as well, and when a midwife tells her to “have no fear, it is another son for you (Gen. 35:17),” to which Rachel responds by naming the child “Ben-Oni,” meaning “the son of my affliction.” Even after God answers her prayers for a child twice, Rachel still sees herself as suffering from an “affliction.” Her family lives comfortably, she has all of her husband’s love, one healthy child, and now a second one as well, but Rachel ignores all of the good that God has done for her, and as a result, God uses the danger of childbirth to end her life. Jacob then gives the child the much more positive name Benjamin, meaning “son of the right,” which was a symbol of strength and success.

Interestingly, the other case of maternal mortality occurs under very similar and yet opposite circumstances. The fourth chapter of the first book of Samuel starts off with the Israelites suffering a grave defeat at the hands of the Philistines, after which the Israelites decide to bring the Ark of the Covenant along with them into battle, hoping that it will give them a better chance to win next time. It doesn’t work, and not only do the Israelites lose, but the Ark is captured by Philistines as well.

Among the casualties of this battle are Chofni and Pinchas, the sons of Eli the High Priest. When Eli hears the terrible news of both the capture of the Ark and the death of his sons, he dies of shock. The next person informed of this news is Pinchas’ wife, who is in labor. Her attendants tell her “fear not, for you have borne a son (I Sam. 4:20).” Rather than take comfort in this miracle of childbirth and having a child to carry on her family’s legacy, “she did not take it to heart. She called the boy ‘Iy Chavod’ (“there is no glory”) meaning ‘Glory has been exiled from Israel because the Ark of God has been captured and because of [the deaths of] her father-in-law and her husband (I Sam. 4:20-21).” She, too, then dies in childbirth.

While Rachel was only interested in bearing children and paid no attention to all of the other good God had done for her, Pinchas’ wife was so affected by the tragedy around her that she did not notice the blessing God had given her when it was almost literally right in front of her nose. We all suffer many hardships in our lives, and it can feel overwhelming, but if we are to get through those hardships, it is essential to remember all of the goodness in our lives so that the hardships do not consume us.

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