It is perhaps the greatest act of selflessness in Biblical lore 1. As Rachel stands ready to marry Yaakov, something they have been pining for seven long years, Lavan has a different plan: [29:22-25]
Lavan gathered all the local people and he made a [wedding] feast. When it was evening, he took Leah, his daughter, and brought her to him [Yaakov]. When it was morning, behold it was Leah!
On that last line, the midrash comments:
But, during the night she was not Leah? For Yaakov had given Rachel [certain] signs and when Rachel saw that Leah was being brought to him she thought: “My sister may now be humiliated,” [whereupon] she readily transmitted those signs to her.
Rachel sacrifices it all to spare sister Leah shame. Remarkably, the midrash portrays not even a whiff of Rachel’ internal dilemma; giving one the sense that this moment was long in the planning. The magnitude and echoes of Rachel’s personal heroism is perhaps best encompassed through a classic midrash based on Yirmiyahu [31:15-16]
Thus says Hashem, A voice is heard in Ramah, Lamentation and bitter weeping Rachel is weeping for her children; refusing to be comforted for her children .. Thus says Hashem, Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears; For your work will be rewarded,” declares Hashem, And they will return from the land of the enemy.
Contemplating the connection between Rachel and the First Temple destruction, the midrash [Pesichta Eicha Rabah 24] paints Yirmiyahu, post the Temple’s demise, [at Hashem’s behest] imploring the giants of our past to do something. He wakes up Avraham Yitchak, Yaakov and Moshe who fight mightily, beckoning their personal heroism as a defense of the Jewish people. They are valiant battles – but Hashem rejects them all. Mama Rachel then speaks:
“If I, a mere mortal, was prepared not to humiliate my sister and was willing to take a rival into my home, how could You, the eternal, compassionate God, be jealous of idols which have no true existence, that were brought into Your home)? Will You cause my children to be exiled on this account?”…Immediately Hashem fills up with mercy: for you Rachel I shall return Yisrael back to their place.
To understand the magnitude of Rachel’s act, simply consider that Rachel didn’t just passively spare Leah shame. She actively handed the signs over even though…
- Rachel waited for seven years for her Yaakov!
- Rachel gave up her husband without knowing at the time she would ever marry him.
- Rachel gave up her portion as the mother of Klal Yisrael [without ever knowing she might get some back].
- Rachel exposed herself to the real possibility of having to marry Eisav.
Incredible! But all is not well – for this grand act of Rachel’s mesiras hasimanin (giving away the signs) narrative – an absolutely given fact in Talmudic and Midrashic literature raises troubling questions in light of the simple text. Herein, the questions:
1. First, the enigmatic story of the dudaim, those unnamed flowers that Reuven brings to his mother, Leah. Rachel wants some and asks. Note Leah’s reaction [Bereishis, 30:15]
Leah said to her, “Isn’t it enough that you took my husband? Would you also take my son’s dudaim flowers?”
Consider our midrash and then think about Leah’s reaction. Is it not unbelievably audacious? MY HUSBAND! One is almost tempted to yell out, but Leah – How dare you! And yet we see in Rachel’s reaction not even a hint of censure; a reaction of heroic proportions.
Rachel said, “Therefore, he shall be with you tonight in exchange for your son’s dudaim flowers.”
We shall yet return to this point.
2. Our midrash tells us what happened until the wedding night, but what of the morning after – Was Yaakov really bound to this marriage? Why would Yaakov not simply divorce Leah? A difficult midrash has Yaakov castigating Leah for her deeds. Leah responds that she learned deception from Yaakov – the Rebbe of deception. Even as the midrash raises more questions than answers, one point that clearly emerges from the midrash is Leah’s role in this whole episode:
For even as Rachel heroically hands the signs to Leah, we might rightfully ask how Leah could possibly have accepted them?!!. Did she not know that she was taking away Yaakov from Rachel and Rachel from Yaakov?
It is highly unlikely to imagine that Leah was merely Lavan’s passive pawn, nor is it fathomable that Leah, primary matriarch of Klal Yisrael, would be so motivated by her self-interest to not marry Eisav that she would willingly accomplice duplicity.
3. Moving to Lavan, we find that Yaakov registers a protest to Lavan: [29:25-26]
What have you done to me? Did I not work with you for Rachel? Why did you deceive me?
It is not done so in our place, to give the younger [daughter in marriage] before the firstborn.
It is a classic dialogue. Lavan’s lips smack of incredible cynicism. Hey Yaakov, in our part of town, we let the older go first, not like people from YOUR home. Lavan the duplicitous, sounds [as his name implies], so white. Yaakov is timid. One wonders why. Perhaps even more significantly, at the end of a rough twenty years filled with Lavan’s abuse of power, Yaakov in front of his family, finally lets loose [31:36-42].
Yaakov was angry and he argued with Lavan. Yaakov replied and said to Lavan, “What is my crime? What sin did I commit that you were in such hot pursuit of me?…These twenty years that I was with you, your ewes and she-goats never miscarried…You demanded compensation from my hand whether [an animal] was stolen from me by day or whether it was stolen from me by night. I was consumed by the burning heat by day and ice at night. My sleep was taken from my eyes. These twenty years that I have been in your house, I served you fourteen years for your two daughters, and six years for your sheep, but you changed my wages ten times.
And yet – he omits the greatest injustice of them all: Lavan’s Rachel-Leah swap is omitted. Again one wonders why.
4. Years later, the siblings get into the picture. Reuven disrespects Yaakov [according to the midrash] by moving his bed from Bilhah’s [Rachel’s maidservant] to Leah’s. Of course this pales in comparison to the incredible resentment and beyond, that Leah’s children shower upon Yosef. Where is the regard for Rachel’s incredible mesirus nefesh, that opened the door to Leah in the first place?
5. Our question tour concludes by quoting a beautiful piece of Talmud [Megillah 13b]
Because of Rachels tznius [transmitting the signs], Shaul HaMelech was descended from her. And because of Shaul’s tznius, Esther and Mordechai were descended from him.
The Talmudic language is troubling. Shaul and Esther were modest insofar as they kept important secrets [Shaul did not immediately divulge his anointment as King while Esther famously did not reveal her Jewish identity.] Rachel’s grand act of giving away the signs was in fact a revelation! Would it not have been more precise to label Rachel’s actions as chesed or sacrifice?
In sum we have posed seven basic questions:
- How could Leah have accused Rachel of taking her husband?
- How could Leah have allowed Rachel to give her Yaakov?
- Why did Yaakov not protest to Leah or divorce her?
- Why did Yaakov not protest to Lavan more vigorously?
- Why did Yaakov omit this colossal in his recap to Lavan?
- Why do the children not act deferentially to Rachel?
- Why does the gemara call Rachel’s grand act tznius as opposed to chessed or mesirut nefesh?
Rav Shalom Schwadron records a remarkable one sentence answer that resolves all our questions: Leah never knew! Rabbi Avraham Willig’s approach is based upon this premise 2.
Consider the notion that only three people knew of the impending Yaakov-Rachel marriage: Lavan, Yaakov and Rachel. Lavan negotiated privately with Yaakov. He then celebrated publicly with the townspeople at the Leah-Yaakov wedding. Were he to reveal his duplicity, it would make him look like the cheater he really was. Yaakov and Rachel of course anticipated Lavan’s wily ways – a point the midrash makes; of course this was the whole basis for establishing the sign system. Now follow the logic. As surely as Rachel considered that Lavan would dupe Yaakov, she contemplated how unbelievably embarrassing this may end up for Leah [to be replaced in front of a whole town!]. Leah is unknowing, and is very likely being told by Lavan that she is the intended bride 3. Given these realities, Rachel responds – but first a word from a classic Rambam who speaks of eight levels among tzedaka givers; we skip to the top two:
What is the highest of the high? To find someone a job without the recipient even knowing that it was a gift. The recipient achieves self-sufficiency without losing honor. This was Rachel’s goal: to transmit the signs without divulging the plan – to get Leah in the know without her really knowing the whole story 4. And what were those signs? To Da’as Zekeinim, they were the 3 mitzvos of the home: nidah, challah and candlelighting. Thus Rachel taught Leah [perhaps in explicit preparation for her upcoming marriage] the three primary mitzvos of the home. Some time later, Yaakov, in the yichud room, gave his wife-to-be a bechina [test] – which of course Leah passes with flying colors – not even knowing that these were the signs.
The next morning, Yaakov realizes what has transpired. He too does not want to embarrass Leah. Thus, he cannot vigorously protest Lavan’s assertion. Privately, he raises the issue. Lavan responds smugly and self-righteously. For Yaakov, there is no use continuing. Too much protestation may publicize the matter and bring Leah unending embarrassment – forever the second-string wife; Besides, of what purpose is protest – as the matter is a fait accompli 5. Later on, when he unloads on Lavan, in the presence of his wives and children, he certainly cannot raise the matter. Thus the issue for Yaakov is now a matter of acceptance.
Since Leah does not know the whole background, she only sees Rachel, the second wife, gaining a degree of favored status – culminating in her dudaim comment [you already took MY husband]. Leah’s children of course see the same thing; thus their response.
Far from being a one time act of sacrifice. Rachel’s greatness is her ongoing refusal to divulge- a grand act of continuous hidden love. That ongoing every-waking-moment-of-her-life hidden love that Rachel shows for her sister is all the more remarkable given that she must brook bizyonos, having to with Leah’s upset and the children’s perceived slight.
It was this claim that was the winner in appealing to Hashem as the Jews needed mercy following the destruction of their Temple. Whereas Avraham evoked the ten tests and Yitzchak his willingness to be bound and Moshe his unbelievable tenacity and faithfulness, these grand acts were all recognized as such.
Rachel however says to Hashem: my act of hidden love for my sister came even as I suffered disgrace. Hashem – can’t you do the same for your people?
May Hashem reveal his infinite acts of hidden love to all His people – the beautiful Jews and Gentiles who wait faithfully for a world of open love and an end to evil.
Good Shabbos, Asher Brander
3 Especially according to the midrash that indicates that Lavan would redirect all of Yaakov’s presents that he sent during the seven years to Leah! The midrash praises Rachel’s and her son Binyamin’s silence [the latter for not revealing mechiras Yosef]
4 Two questions still need to be addressed: If Rachel knew that Leah would be embarrassed, and she would have to transmit the signs – why did she accept the signs from Yaakov in the first place? Once Rachel agreed to Yaakov’s sign system – how could she violate Yaakov’s will? Iy”h, we shall relate to these issues in a more expanded edition of this article.
Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.