Parashat VaYeitzei records the following dramatic Pasuk: “VaTeire Rachel Ki Lo Yaledah LeYa’akov VaTekanei Rachel BaAchotah VaTomer El Ya’akov Havah Li Vanim VeIm Ayin Meitah Anochi, “And when Rachel saw that she bore Ya’akov no children, Rachel envied her sister; and she said to Ya’akov: ‘Give me children, or else I die’” (BeReishit 301:1). The first part of the Pasuk makes sense – she was jealous of her sister because she had no children. However, the latter half, in which she considers herself to be dead, creates a challenge. It would have made more sense if Rachel said that there is no purpose for her to be alive, but to consider herself dead seems to make little sense.
In order to resolve this question we must delve into the question raised regarding Chazal’s assertion that the Avot observed the entire Torah. Of course, the question that emerges is how could Ya’akov Avinu have married two sisters, which is explicitly prohibited in the Torah (if both sisters are alive)? My great-great-grandfather Rav Ephraim Conterman (who served as a Rav In New Orleans for many decades) answers based on a principle articulated in the Gemara (Bava Kama 89a) that if you are commanded to do something and do it, the reward is greater than if you voluntarily fulfill a commandment. A suggested reason for this is that Mitzvot are supposed to challenge you. If you are commanded to do a Mitzvah and you do it, you get a greater reward because you overcame your Yeitzer HaRa and performed the Mitzvah anyway. If you do fulfill a Mitzvah voluntarily, you don’t get as great of a reward because you didn’t overcome your Yeitzer HaRa in this action. The Avot weren’t commanded to observe Mitzvot, so all of the good deeds that they performed during their lifetimes didn’t have the maximum reward.
Before Torah times, the Avot were not obligated to abide by negative commandments when their reasons did not apply This can possibly help us answer our questions. The Or HaChayim states that a man can’t marry two sisters because a rivalry can be caused. Ya’akov knew that he wanted to marry two sisters, but he knew that there would be no rivalry between them because they were righteous people. Rachel and Leah knew that they loved each other, and that they’d never be jealous of one another. Moreover, Chazal teach that Rachel presented Leah with the secret identification code on her wedding night to avoid Leah’s mortification on that night. Since the prohibition of marrying two sisters was not yet an official Mitzvah yet, and Ya’akov Avinu knew that the reason behind the prohibition (jealousy would be caused) didn’t apply to him, Ya’akov went ahead and married Leah and Rachel.
Returning to our question regarding Rachel considering herself to be dead, Chazal state that a Rasha is considered dead, even during his or her lifetime. What Rachel is expressing in this Pasuk is that she is jealous of her sister. Her jealousy is causing Ya’akov to sin, and Rachel is taking responsibility and deeming herself a Rasha, thereby declaring herself dead. We learn from this that we should always be responsible for our actions and try our hardest to not drag anyone down.