Mirrors of Our Lives:
Reflections of Women in Tanach
By Rebbetzin Holly Pavlov

Rebbetzin Holly Pavlov, popular lecturer & Director of She'arim College for Jewish Women presents a powerful portrait of our Jewish matriarchs' exemplary lives & how they uplift & inspire us.

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The Destiny of Rachel

The wisdom of the Torah is infinite, spanning from esoteric and mystical knowledge about the essence of creation to practical, everyday, "how-to" information. The latter type of wisdom is particularly evident when we read about the problems and struggles of our ancestors, the great matriarchs and patriarchs of Israel. One source of unhappiness experienced by our ancestors was their initial inability to have children. Their words and actions in response to this unhappiness are terse in the Torah, but they have deep ramifications which can be internalized by modern readers and can enable us to handle our personal difficulties.

When bad things happened to good people, our ancestors did not shrug their shoulders and say, "Things happen because they happen." Instead, they probed deeply into their situations, attempting to understand God's message to them, and then sought solutions. This is especially evident in the story of Rachel.

Yaakov worked seven years for Rachel, but he loved her so much, it seemed like no more than a few days. Finally Yaakov said to [her father] Lavan, "The time is up. Give me my bride and let me marry her." [Lavan] invited all the local people and made a wedding feast. In the evening, he took his daughter Leah and brought her to [Yaakov], who consummated the marriage with her....(Bereishis 29:20-23)

Rachel and Yaakov knew that Lavan was a deceiver who wouldn't hesitate to substitute Rachel's sister Leah for Rachel at the wedding. Therefore, Rachel and Yaakov devised a password to exchange with each other under the chuppah (wedding canopy). When Rachel saw that her father was indeed going to substitute Leah, she imagined Leah's embarrassment should Yaakov refuse to go through with the ceremony. Leah would be shamed and humiliated before all the townspeople. Out of compassion for her sister, Rachel sacrificed her own happiness and told Leah the secret password. (Bava Basra 123a).

Rachel did an amazingly kind thing - she allowed her sister to marry her betrothed on her own wedding night. Soon afterwards, Rachel was also married to Yaakov. However, whereas Leah bore child after child, Rachel was barren.

And Rachel saw that she had not borne children to Yaakov, so Rachel became envious of her sister. She said to Yaakov, "Give me children - otherwise I will die." Yaakov's anger flared at Rachel, and he said, "Am I instead of God who has withheld from you fruit of the womb?" She said, "Here is my maid, Bilhah. Consort with her so that she may bear upon my knees and I, too, may be built up through her." (Bereishis 30:1-3)

The Torah says that Rachel "became envious" of her sister. This is puzzling because had Rachel been the jealous type, she would not have allowed Leah to take her place under the chuppah. Furthermore, jealousy is forbidden by Torah law. How could our righteous matriarch have been jealous? This passage presents additional difficulties:

  1. Why did Rachel ask Yaakov for children, as if this were totally in his control? Surely Rachel knew that having children was up to God, not Yaakov.
  2. Why did Rachel say she would die if she didn't have children? Isn't this drastic? Does life have no meaning without children?
  3. Why did Yaakov become angry at Rachel? We would expect Yaakov, a righteous man who himself had suffered greatly, to understand and participate in his wife's pain, to feel empathy. Yet instead he became angry at her.
  4. Rachel's response to Yaakov's anger was to give him her maidservant, Bilhah, so that Yaakov could consort with her, "that she may bear upon my knees and I too may be built up through her." This is a strange response to Yaakov's anger, especially for someone who was just described as envious.

As so often happens, the Torah's recounting of biblical conversations cannot be understood without a working knowledge of Jewish philosophy and the Oral Torah. What at first glance appears to be puzzling or unkind language turns out to have a deep and eternal message for us all.


Rachel stated that if she didn't have children, she would die. When a person prefers death to continuing his life as it is, that person is experiencing something extreme and tragic; he is suffering. What is suffering actually about?

There are two world views about suffering. The first view is that suffering is sent to a person by God as a means of pushing him away, of punishing him. It is a manifestation of God distancing Himself from the sinner. Therefore, the person suffers not only the pain, but the distance from God as well.

This is not the Jewish point of view. The Hebrew word for suffering is yissurim, which connotes both chastisement and teaching. It implies that there is a purpose to suffering, a lesson to be learned, an indication that growth must take place. Yissurim also includes smaller disappointments, including everyday struggles and obstacles. Our Sages say that suffering can consist of a minor incident, for instance, when you put your hand in your pocket and expect to find a couple of coins, but instead find only one (Arachin 16b). Disappointment and unfulfilled expectations are a form of suffering, yissurim. These yissurim, large and small, come to teach us and to help us become better people.

The Jewish view is that suffering comes to a person because God is expressing His desire to bring him closer. The suffering is a revelation of God's presence and love, and an expression of His desire to forge a deeper connection. The person who is suffering acquires depth from his pain and distress, and if, in his anguish, he turns to God, he builds a stronger spiritual connection. The suffering thereby becomes a ladder to perfection and proximity to God.

A person's reaction to suffering will depend on his world view. If he believes God is pushing him away and punishing him, he will feel lonely and discouraged and will find no answers. The suffering will be intensified by the pain of the perceived rejection by God.

If a person believes that suffering is something sent by God as a means of bringing him closer to Him, that the suffering is for his own good, and that the suffering is a message of love, he will feel encouraged. He will understand that suffering in this world has a purpose and there will be some acquisition for his pain.

We spend much of our lives acquiring possessions. Some possessions come to us as gifts, but in order to obtain certain other possessions we must expend effort and hard work. Our appreciation of the acquisition will depend on whether or not we earned it, and if so, how hard we had to work to get it. Generally speaking, an acquisition that was obtained through our labor will be more valued than one received as a gift (Rav Chaim Goldvicht, Asufas Ma'arachos, Yissurim B'Maaseh HaKinyan).

A gift obligates the receiver to the giver. There are always strings attached, even if not verbalized, and, therefore, a gift received doesn't bring with it a true sense of ownership. On the other hand, a possession accrued through hard work is not only valued more, but it also truly "belongs" to us. This applies to nontangible acquisitions as well - to truly "own" spiritual acquisitions, one must work hard for them. Just as physical acquisitions must be paid for, so must spiritual acquisitions. The value of a material possession is stated on the price tag; the more valuable the item, the more money must be paid for it. So, too, the more valuable a spiritual "item" is, the more one must pay for it. The payment for these acquisitions is obviously not money - instead it is suffering, yissurim.

Our Sages teach that there are three spiritual acquisitions that are so valuable that they can be acquired only through suffering. "Israel is acquired through suffering, Torah is acquired through suffering, the World to Come is acquired through suffering" (Berachos 8b). There is a huge price tag because these three "items" have a value beyond our imagination.

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