Vayetse (Genesis –  28:10 --32:2)

Vayetse (Genesis 28:10 –32:2):

Rivalry, Fertility and Infertility, and Surrogacy

“Give me children or I shall die” (Genesis 30:1).

A D’var Torah by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

This parasha is a veritable soap opera of a chapter. It revolves around familial intrigue, trickery, and competition, initially between twin brothers for the birthright (both material and spiritual) that, in the biblical world, belonged rightfully to Esau, the elder son, a hunter rooted in the physical world. Although Esau was the firstborn son from Rebecca’s womb, Jacob, the more reflective younger son, is better suited to become the spiritual carrier of Jewish precepts into the next generation.

In the midst of this male battle for leadership supremacy, another kind of rivalry emerges: that of two women, Leah and Rachel (again a story of rivalry between the older and the younger), as these sisters compete in the realm of fertility, infertility, and surrogacy – and even romantic love. Both sisters sequentially become Jacob’s wives, but not in the order usually accepted in biblical times (birth order is a frequent theme in the Torah). Customarily, the older sister marries first, but not in this story, in which the trickster, Jacob — smitten with Rachel from the moment he glimpses her at her father’s well – is himself deceived by Rachel’s father, Laban (who is also Jacob’s uncle) into marrying the veiled older sister, Leah, instead. Yes, it’s complicated. This biblical deception is the reason’s why the groom lifts the bride’s veil before they finalize their vows, even in contemporary ceremonies, to ascertain that he is getting the right bride!

In his 2014 book, The Lost Matriarch, author Jerry Rabow explores the relationship between the two sisters [1]. He suggests the possibility that, with compassion for her older sister, it is actually an empathetic Rachel who arranges the deceptive marriage to Jacob, so that Leah will not be humiliated in the eyes of her community. However, it is Rachel’s father (also Jacob’s uncle), Laban, who is the chief deceiver here. He requires Jacob to work seven years tending his flocks in order to gain the hand of Rachel. But then Laban switches sisters in the marriage ceremony, and Jacob must work another seven years in order to gain his first love as his bride. (Spoiler alert: Jacob is permitted to marry Rachel after he has completed the first week of his seven-year travail – but he still has to work out the full time.)

So then Jacob has two wives to satisfy, no small commitment in biblical times when a woman’s chief role is to procreate – to bear, tend, and cook for lots of children. Indeed, the plight of barren women is a recurrent theme in the Hebrew Bible. Leah proves to be very fertile, while, for an unbearably long time, Rachel is unable to conceive. But as Leah, who has her own reason to despair, initially produces four sons (Reuven, Shimon, Levi, and Yehudah), she names the first three to reflect her hope that each of their births will induce Jacob to love her.

Rabbi Ilana Grinblatt, who teaches Midrash (the traditional body of stories that imaginatively emerged to fill in the gaps in the Torah), wrote compassionately about these four sons in a Torah commentary posted by the Board of Rabbis of Southern California:

“Leah longed for her husband’s Jacob love so desperately that she named her first three sons after that desire. She named her first son Reuven -which means ‘see son” because she said, ‘God has seen my suffering and now my husband will love me.’ Leah named her second son Shimon which means ‘hear-suffering’ because she said, “God has heard that I am hated.” She named her third son Levi which means “join me” and said, “Now my husband will be attached to me. Yet, when she had her fourth son she said, “Hapa’am” – this time, I will thank God, and so she named him Yehudah which means ‘thank God’ ”[2].

“The Bible made Leah a Matriarch, but it took Midrash to make her a heroine,” comments Jerry Rabow [3]. He also comments extensively, but from a less flattering, male point of view, on the names that Leah bestows upon her children who have no choice in the matter.

Meanwhile, Rachel remains childless, weeping for her children, as the broken notes of the shofar’s call are said to symbolize. Driven by despair –“Give me children or I shall die” (Genesis 30:1) —  she enlists the help of a surrogate, her handmaid, Bilhah, and implores Jacob to impregnate Bilhah, with the consequent birth of Dan and Naphtali [4].

Not to be one-upped by Rachel, Leah, who by this time had thought she was finished with child-bearing, enlists her own handmaid, Zilpah, and, through Zilpah’s surrogacy with Jacob, another two sons, Gad and Asher, are born.

An early version of enhancing fertility with medicinal drugs occurs when Leah solicits Rachel to give her some of the mandrake roots (believed to assist conception) that Rachel has managed to obtain, and Rachel complies. Thus Leah is enabled to add to her family through her own procreative ability, and before she is finished, although she has given up trying to get Jacob to love her, she has given birth to two more sons, Isaacher and Zebulun. Eventually, Leah also gives birth to a lone daughter, Dinah, destined to bring dishonor to her family.

As for Rachel, with the help of the mandrake roots, she is finally able to conceive in great joy, and Joseph, is born. He is destined to be sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, but will eventually rise to become the right hand man of the Pharaoh of Egypt, but we don’t know that yet. Sadly, Rachel dies in childbirth with her second son, Benjamin, who will be much loved by his grieving father. Eventually, but much later, all the brothers – and their father – will be reunited.

Or as the title of a very popular 1970s television sitcom told its audience, “It’s All in the Family.” But Genesis told such fascinating, complicated stories of family relationships first. To be continued….

[1] Jerry Rabow, The Lost Matriarch: Finding Leah in the Bible and the Midrash (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2014).

[2] Rabbi Ilana Grinblatt, “Vayatze,” Board of Rabbis of Southern California Torah commentary, 2017 (

[3] Rabow, 187.

[4] My 2008 book, Cryokid: Drawing a New Map, details assisted reproduction in contemporary times, but surrogacy through concubines was already an accepted fact of life in biblical times. Cryokid is available on It was a finalist in the 2009 Indie Next Gen Awards of Excellence.

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2017. All rights reserved.