What would a therapist tell Jacob and Rachel? When I look at commentary, I find the first one calling it the greatest love story ever, and the second – worst love story ever. Which way is it? Yes…
We know their romantic meeting at “the well”, the same place where his grandfather’s servant found his mom. One must wonder: Was there only one well? Did they all just know where to go?? Or perhaps water throughout these stories is symbolic of something else??
Jacob arrives to see the flocks and shepherds all wait to roll the stone which covers the well’s opening, supposedly so no one takes more water than deserving. In a familiar fashion, they too use the extra time to play “Jewish geography”: “He asked: ‘brothers, where are you from?” and they said, from Charan. He said: do you know Lavan the son of Nachor? They said, ‘we know’.”
As they speak, Rachel approaches with her “father’s flock”. Upon seeing her, Jacob draws near and rolls that giant stone and waters “the flock of Lavan, his mother’s brother”. A few verses later we’re told that he loved her (Genesis 29:1-18). In fact, he loves her so much that he is willing to work for her 7 years. And when tricked to marry her sister, another 7 years. And those endless hours of hard labor, all seem to him “as a few days in his love for her”.
In Hollywood it should have ended right there: a beautiful golden sunset on the horizon reflecting on the river, palm trees swaying in the light afternoon breeze. Slowly, with a knowing gaze, they walk up the path hand in hand up the path to tell her family, and… cut.
But the Torah is not Hollywood and soon after, things start going wrong. Living with her deceitful father, Jacob ends up with four wives, three of whom give him children. Those three do their part in building the family, cooperatively, quietly, as required, but Rachel is barren. How would they deal with it? In a similar situation, angels came to visit his grandparents, after grandma already went (ore than) the extra mile, giving Abraham her handmaid. His father prayed for his mom. What will happen here? Is Jacob too worn down by labor and family life to notice his beloved wife? Has she turned from the cheerful independent girl he seems to be at the well, to a nagging, needy, bitter woman?
She tries to talk to Jacob, but he doesn’t offer a prayer nor comfort, like Elkana will offer many years later to Hannah, his beloved wife who is also barren and watches her competition bear one child after another. But Jacob turns his back and goes to spend the night with Rachel’s maidservant, who gives him more of the desired sons.
He still loves her, as we see in this week’s reading, putting her and Joseph, the son she meanwhile bore to him, in the back when they meet Esau and his men presumably to protect them (33:1-7). And yet, when Easu asks, ‘who are all these’, she is included with all in Jacob’s reply, “I have plenty”.
Rachel dies on the road, while giving birth to her second son. She names him Ben-Oni, which can mean both ‘son of my grief’ and ‘son of my strength (also ‘rightful claim)’. Jacob is quick to change the baby’s name to Binyamin (Benjamin), thus confirming the positive meaning of the name his mother gave him. This is done right before she died. Because he was disrespectful and couldn’t wait? Because with her last breath she gave him a nod that it’s ok for him to do so? Yes.
Jacob buries Rachel on the road, though they are only about 10 miles from the Cave of Machpela, the family’s burial plot where all other couples were interned. Yes, you might say, in those days it took awhile to travel 10 miles, and yet, years later, Jacob’s sons will carry him all the way from Egypt to be laid to rest, by the way, next to Leah, her sister who was originally married to him by “mistake” and through a lie. Rachel will be later credited with watching over the Children of Israel in their journeys from and back to the Land. Touchy legends and poems will be composed by prophets and modern singers, but the bottom line is that in spite of their amazing love, they end up apart. Did he love her “too much”, so much that it all just “blew up”? And how did she feel about him? She wanted to bear his child, but did she love him too?? At that first meeting, Jacob “kisses Rachel, and bursts out crying”, so out of order! Could he feel right then and there, that in spite of it all, this will “not work”?
We often say that the Torah is a “guide book”, a “how to” book, a manual that provides guidance about life. We’re told what to do about food; about family, parents, sibling, children; about division of time, shabbat and holidays; there are countless laws and instructions regarding bodily functions, agriculture, labor… about so many things! So what about love? What about love?
But maybe love is like G-d. At best we can see G-d in our past but not in our future. It is likewise full of future, promise, and life, and yet equally unpredictable, unfathomable and unknown. And so it remains.