There is something about the nature of mankind that causes people to have trouble coexisting. Slavery, the practice of subjecting a person on the basis of inferiority, is one of the earliest, most despicable examples of this inability to coexist. But inequality did not end when slavery was abolished, as racism and other forms of discrimination unfortunately are still prevalent. In this week’s Parasha, Yaakov had difficulty balancing his relationship with his two wives who should have been equal, but, in reality, were treated quite differently.
After fleeing from Eisav’s wrath, Yaakov went to his uncle Lavan’s house to seek refuge, and he met his first cousin Rachel, with whom he fell in love. Yaakov asked Lavan to give him Rachel’s hand in marriage, and while Lavan orally consented, he tricked Yaakov by underhandedly giving Leah to him instead, a switch that Yaakov did not realize until the morning after the marriage. When he recognized the betrayal, Yaakov demanded Rachel’s hand in marriage. Lavan agreed, and Yaakov was wed to Rachel eight days later.
Unfortunately, Rachel and Leah’s relationship became wrought with strife as they both fought for their husband’s affections. The first Pasuk after Yaakov is married to Leah and Rachel states, “VaYeAhav Gam Et Rachel MiLeah,” “And [Yaakov] loved Rachel more than Leah” (Bereishit 29:30). As soon as Yaakov was married, he treated his wives unequally. Hashem instantly responded to this injustice by giving Leah sons while withholding children from Rachel, as the Pasuk relates, “VaYar Hashem Ki Senuah Leah VaYiftach Et Rachmah VeRachel Akarah,” “And Hashem saw that Leah was hated, and He opened her womb, and Rachel was barren” (29:31). However, Hashem’s gift to Leah did little to alleviate the tension in the household, as evidenced by the names of Leah’s sons. Leah called her first son Reuven, because “Raah Hashem BeOnyi Ki Atah YeEhevani Ishi,” “Hashem saw my affliction and now my husband will love me” (31:32). This Pasuk clearly demonstrates Yaakov’s lack of love for Leah and Leah’s great desire to be loved by Yaakov. Yet when Leah’s next son was born, she named him similarly, indicating that not only did she not receive the love she hoped for, but also she gave up on the idea of being loved by Yaakov. She named the second son Shimon because “Shamah Hashem Ki Senuah Anochi,” “Hashem has heard that I am hated” (29:33). Yaakov still didn’t love Leah, and Leah didn’t express any expectation of love from Yaakov. The status quo between Leah and Yaakov remained the same through the birth of her third son Levi, as he was named as such because, “Atah HaPaam Yilaveh Ishi Eilai Ki Yaladti Lo Sheloshah Vanim,” “Now my husband will be joined to me, because I have borne him three sons” (29:34). Leah fully expected, after delivering her third son, to be accepted as an equal into the household, but it is important to note that she makes no mention of being loved here as she did at Reuven’s naming. By this point, she had given up entirely on the idea that Yaakov would love her, and she wished only to be treated equally. But even this desire was not realized, as evidenced by her choice to name her fourth son Yehudah, because “HaPaam Odeh Et Hashem,” “This time I will praise Hashem” (29:35). After her fourth son, Leah already had given up hope that she would even be accepted into Yaakov’s household as an equal, and therefore named her son after HaKadosh Baruch Hu instead of some form of desire to join with Yaakov. Things hit rock-bottom for Leah after the birth of Yehudah, causing her to take a break from having children.
Leah remained dormant until the incident of the Dudaim, when Reuven went out and collected Dudaim for Leah, whereupon Rachel asked Leah if she could have some of the Dudaim. Leah responded, “You took my husband, now will you take my Dudaim?” Rachel replied that, “In exchange for your Dudaim, you can sleep with Yaakov tonight” (30:15). This interaction signifies a change between Rachel and Leah, as this is the first time the Torah records a discussion between the two. They have begun to communicate and repair the dysfunction within their family, as Leah finally tells Rachel her feelings about her exclusion from the family and Rachel responds with sympathy. Soon after, Leah bears two children; the second of these two sons, Zevulun, is given his name because “Now my husband will dwell with me” (30:20). A change of the emotions between Leah, Rachel, and Yaakov clearly occurred, leading to more equality between them all, as Leah effectively was readmitted into the family. Such kindness and harmony was duly repaid, as Rachel immediately was granted the ability to have a son.
This story teaches us the importance of equality. All people, regardless of their status in life, deserve equal respect. Yaakov learned this lesson the hard way, as there was a great deal of internal strife within his household, exemplified by the names Leah gave her first four sons. As soon as the situation was rectified and everybody was treated equally, Rachel, the superior wife, was given what she perpetually had desired: a son. May we all merit the ability to treat others equally and give them the respect they deserve, unifying Am Yisrael and hopefully bringing the Geulah speedily in our days.