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A Guiding Hand

By: Mrs Leora Bednarsh

Parshat VaYetze records the creation of Yaakov's family – his marriages to Leah and Rachel, and the births of 11 sons and one daughter.  There are two stories that interrupt the listing of the births of the children.  After the first four sons of Leah are born and named, we are told of the difficult conversation between Yaakov and Rachel in which Rachel demands that Yaakov provide her with a child or else she is as good as dead, and Yaakov refuses to take responsibility.  The story then continues with the next four sons born to Yaakov  from the two maidservants, Bilha and Zilpa.  The story is again interrupted with the tale of the mandrakes, which Reuven had picked for his mother, Leah, and for which Rachel traded a night with Yaakov.  The story of the children then resumes with the birth of remaining two sons and daughter of Leah, and then finally with the birth of Yosef to Rachel.

Both interruptions show Rachel taking aggressive action in order to further her endeavor to become a mother.  First she turns to Yaakov and demands from him to provide her with a child, and he responds with the words, "Am I in place of G-d"?  Yaakov tries to get Rachel to see that G-d's intervention is what is crucial for bringing a child into the world.  But Rachel doesn't understand that message, and rather than turning to G-d, she takes a surrogate, giving her maidservant to Yaakov.

But what does the second story, that of the mandrakes, add to the building of Yaakov's family?

Reuven brings the mandrakes for his mother, and Rachel sees the close relationship between mother and child, is overtaken with jealousy, and wants in on it.  She too wants a son who will bring her flowers.  And perhaps Rachel also wants the mandrakes in order to improve her chances of getting pregnant, since they were thought to increase fertility.  However, in her move towards using natural means to get pregnant, she gives up on a night with her husband, and her sister, Leah, in exchange for the mandrakes, receives another two children. 

Leah, throughout the story, is always aware of G-d's role in the creation of the family of Yaakov.  She relates to Hashem in the naming of each of the children.  "Hashem saw my affliction", "Hashem heard that I was hated", etc.  Rachel, on the other hand, takes an active, human role, which is proper if it serves to complement the hand of G-d, not to replace it.  It takes a long time before she recognizes Hashem's hand in the process of procreation.  She initially turns to Yaakov to resolve the problem for her, then to a surrogate and then to a medical/superstitious intervention, which would be fine if it did not involve denigrating the inherent value of a night with her husband, and if it didn't leave G-d out of the picture.  Rather than expedite her endeavor to become pregnant, it seems to have delayed it significantly, and the midrash suggests it cost her two tribes, which could have been hers but instead, through the exchange of the mandrakes, go to Leah.

When Rachel finally does give birth to Yosef, she recognizes that a child is only from Hashem, as expressed in her naming of Yosef, beseeching Hashem to grant her another child.

After the birth of Yosef, Yaakov finally separates from Lavan and returns to Canaan.  At this point, all of the characters recognize Hashem's hand guiding them.  The story of the birth of Yaakov's children is one in which all of the characters express, at some point, awareness of Hashem's hand in the process.  This awareness comes naturally to some, like Leah, and needs to be learned by others, like Rachel, and is a crucial awareness in the building of the nation of Israel.

Shabbat Shalom.




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