Parashat VaYeitzei

By Jill G. Hackell

In Parashat VaYeitzei we read, “When Rachel saw that she had borne Jacob no children, she became envious of her sister; and Rachel said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die!” Jacob was incensed at Rachel, and said, “Can I take the place of God, who has denied you fruit of the womb?” Rachel cries out from the depths of her anguish, and her husband, who loves her, is angry, and hurtful to her. What is going on here, and what can we learn from this interaction?

Some commentators, over the centuries, have sought to exonerate Jacob for his reaction, placing blame on Rachel; others, more in keeping with our modern sensibilities, have rebuked Jacob for his insensitivity.

Rashi tells us Rachel wasn’t literally asking Jacob to give her a child – she was asking him to pray for her to become pregnant, just as his father, Isaac, had prayed for Rebekah to conceive. (Bereshit 25:21) Nonetheless, Radak tells us that Jacob was angry because Rachel’s request was inappropriate. She asked Jacob for a child, which only God could give; she should have been more clear that she was only asking for Jacob to pray for her. Ramban [Nachmanides] also admonishes Rachel. It wasn’t Jacob’s fault she couldn’t bear children – he’d already fathered several children through Leah – it was Rachel who could not conceive. Thus, praying for children would be an attempt to manipulate God by asking for a miracle – making the barren fruitful. Clearly, Ramban thinks this is too much to ask.

In the Akadat Yitzhak, Rachel is blamed once again, but in a curiously feminist way. The 15th century author of this work, R. Yitzchak Arama, points out that woman is both isha (partner to ish, the man), and hava (Eve, mother of life). By saying that she would die if she didn’t have children, Rachel was discounting her role as a life-partner to the man, separate from her childbearing responsibilities. That’s why Jacob was angry.

On the other hand, the Rabbis comes down clearly on Rachel’s side, saying to Jacob, “Is that how you answer a woman who is oppressed by her barrenness?…” (Bereshit Rabba). This, the oldest of these commentaries, comes the closest, I think, to the lessons that we can learn today from this interaction between husband and wife.

So let’s look, now, with a modern lens.

Rachel, barren and jealous of Leah, was so anguished, she burst out with, “Give me children, or I shall die!” Jacob heard this as an accusation, a criticism of his manhood. So he responded from where he was, angrily, defensively. He could not hear Rachel’s cry for help inside her lament. He could hear only blame.

And how hurtful to Rachel Jacob’s response must have been! Instead of loving support, what she heard was that Jacob thought her infertility is her fault. Her self-esteem, already low, fell even further. And now she knew she could not even talk to Jacob about her feelings. At the time the two of them most needed each other, they have raised a barrier between them.

Let’s look at another couple in this situation – Hannah and Elkanah. Hannah barren and envious, also cried out in anguish. “Why are you so sad,” her husband asks. “Am I not more devoted to you than ten sons?” (I Samuel 1:8). Surely, this was more sensitive than Jacob’s response. But still, it comes from Elkanah’s place – “this is what I can provide for you.” By failing to recognize Hannah’s reality, her feeling of failure for being unable to bear children, he actually invalidates that feeling. The message that she will hear may not be, “it’s okay, I love you” but rather – “you have no right to be so upset about this little thing when you have a husband who loves you so much.” So, she too, will not feel heard and validated.

What we can learn from a careful analysis of these interactions is how to support those we care about, by becoming a good listener. When someone we love confides to us that they are in pain, they need a safe, supportive place to vent their pent-up feelings. We should not feel that we are being challenged to solve their problem. This taps into our own insecurities, and makes it all about us. What our loved ones need to know is that we love them, that we recognize that they are in pain, and that we do not belittle or question that pain, which is so real to the person that is suffering. We need to learn to truly listen.


Jill G. Hackell is a rabbinical student at The Academy for Jewish Religion.