Canadian activist Nellie McClung said that almost 100 years ago. But Rachel taught it first, 3,000 years ago.
It’s easy to miss Rachel’s story, because it’s so intertwined with Leah’s and Jacob’s stories. She was their wife and sister who died too soon. But if you read Torah carefully, you see that Rachel’s story stands alone. She a powerful woman, who challenged social convention, and was deeply respected for it.
Each time the names Rachel and Leah appear in a single sentence, the Torah lists Rachel’s name first. It does this even though Rachel is the younger sister and the second wife. Our traditional listing of the Imahot (the mothers of the Jewish people) follows the Torah: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah.
The prophet Jeremiah names Rachel alone as the mother of the Jewish people (Jer. 31:15). Midrash Lamentations Rabbah develops Jeremiah’s view. Long after her death, Rachel intercedes with God on behalf of the Jewish people. She asks that God rise at least to her spiritual level and stop being jealous of idols that have no reality. He should relent and bring her children home from exile.
Rachel is a true spiritual heir to Abraham, her great-great-great-uncle. Midrash teaches that Abraham, the founder of Judaism, grows up in a world that worships science. People find the deepest meanings in the regularity of the clockwork universe. They worship the movements of the sun, moon, stars, and planets because they give human life stability. Time is fixed, and temporal factors determine everything about your life. Astrology is destiny, and so is birth order.
Abraham sees beyond the physical universe to a spiritual reality. For Abraham, sun, moon, and stars only hint at the existence of a deeper energy. This energy exists outside convention, science, and time. An individual can connect with this energy, with God, as we call it. So, when Avraham met God, he looked into himself. He assessed what was possible, challenged complacency, and took a risk. Abraham literally left his place of birth.
Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph also left their places of birth—but in a less literal way. They all lived in a society that awarded leadership to firstborn sons. None of them was a firstborn son, but each one became a spiritual leader. Each one struggled to overcome the birth order barrier.
Rachel also leaves her place of birth to challenge the tyranny of birth order. She pours her life energy into finding, developing, and living her true self. Her life, like Abraham’s life, testifies to the existence of a God who is beyond the boundaries of social reality and scientific reality.
Hear Rachel’s story in a new way:
Jacob loves Rachel. So, he makes a deal with Rachel’s dad to work seven years in exchange for the right to marry her. Thus, it looks as though Rachel is going to take on the adult responsibilities of marriage before her older sister Leah. But at the very last minute, Rachel’s father Laban asserts a conventional rule that the older daughter must marry first. So, he tricks Jacob into marrying Leah. Laban does allow Rachel to marry Jacob a week later. But he extorts seven more years of work from Jacob for the privilege.
In the Torah’s symbol system, Laban represents the conventional, mechanical worldview. He does everything he can to put Leah in the position of first wife, a position due her by right of the birth order. But he lacks the spiritual perception to discern the true spirit of his daughter Rachel.
Despite the birth order and the marriage order, Rachel functions as the first wife and the head of household. Torah doesn’t give us a daily log of the family’s life, but every story includes a detail about Rachel’s role. Rachel speaks her mind outright to her husband. She maintains Jacob’s marital schedule and decides with whom he spends each night. When there is a formal family meeting, Rachel speaks before Leah does. And after Rachel dies, the family relationships fall apart.
Midrash Bereisheet Rabbah uses a pun to illustrate Rachel’s role in the family. Torah says that Rachel was akarah. Translated literally, this means that she as yet had no children. But the word akarah is from the same word as the root ikar, the “heart of the matter,” or the “most essential point.” Ikar is a masculine noun, and akarah looks like the feminine version of the noun. Thus, Torah is telling us that Rachel was the head of the household and the heart of the family. That was her ikar, her true essence.
Torah is realistic about the cost of seeking your own true self. A person who upsets the social order upsets real people. The interpersonal wounds run deep. Healing takes long-term inner work. Not until many years after her father’s trick does Rachel say, “With holy wrestling have I wrestled with my sister, and I have prevailed.” Right after this, she and sister cooperate.
Jacob learns from Rachel about this inner work. Years later, he uses almost the same language to talk about his own healing. He, too, has to wrestle with God and human beings and prevail. Only then is he able to reconcile with his brother.
After Rachel and Leah reconcile, they blame their father Laban for mistreating both of them. He treats them like strangers, they say, using the word nochriyot, those who are not recognized. They both understand now that he does not recognize their inner lives. As they move out of his household, Rachel cannot resist one final dig at him. She takes her father’s terafim, the statues on his home altar, and hides them in her saddlebags. When he comes looking frantically for them, she says she cannot get up, for “the way of women is upon me.”
Literally, she means, “I am menstruating.” But symbolically she means, “The way of women is powerful. Never underestimate the power of a woman again!”
Scholarly source: Ilana Pardes, Countertraditions in the Bible