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.
Jacob worked seven years for Rachel, but he loved her so much, it seemed like no more than a few days. Finally Jacob 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 [Jacob], who consummated the marriage with her..." (Genesis 29:20-23)
Rachel and Jacob knew that Lavan was a deceiver who wouldn't hesitate to substitute Rachel's sister Leah for Rachel at the wedding. Therefore, Rachel and Jacob 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 Jacob 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. (Talmud - Baba Batra 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 Jacob. However, whereas Leah bore child after child, Rachel was barren.
"And Rachel saw that she had not borne children to Jacob, so Rachel became envious of her sister. She said to Jacob, 'Give me children -- otherwise I will die.' Jacob'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.'" (Genesis 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:
- Why did Rachel ask Jacob for children, as if this were totally in his control? Surely Rachel knew that having children was up to God, not Jacob.
- Why did Rachel say she would die if she didn't have children? Isn't this drastic? Does life have no meaning without children?
- Why did Jacob become angry at Rachel? We would expect Jacob, 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.
- Rachel's response to Jacob's anger was to give him her maidservant, Bilhah, so that Jacob 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 Jacob'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 (Talmud - Arachin 16b).
Disappointment and unfulfilled expectations are a form of suffering. 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. (Rabbi Chaim Goldvicht)
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 non-tangible 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.
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" (Talmud - Brachot 8b). There is a huge price tag because these three "items" have a value beyond our imagination.
FATE & DESTINY
There is a difference between the idea of fate and the idea of destiny. Fate means that whatever happens is random: it happens because it happens. You happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Coincidence. Bad luck. The luck of the draw. This is not a Jewish concept.
Destiny, a very future-oriented idea, is a Jewish concept. Destiny means that God creates a situation specifically for each person. Therefore, each person receives whatever he needs, including whatever trials he needs, to grow and perfect his character and his service of God. Absolutely nothing is random; there is always a reason behind what happens.
Human beings have a limited vision of the world, and because of this, there is no way we will ever understand God. We don't and can't always understand why God sends us a specific form of pain, although if we examine ourselves carefully, it is sometimes possible to gain insight into His reasons.
What we do know for certain is that our suffering contains within it potential growth, and that we can build something out of our pain and distress, thus using suffering for spiritual growth. We can't understand God's plan, but we can understand that our lives are in the hands of Heaven, and that what happens to us is part of our destiny, a destiny carefully and lovingly mapped out for us by God Himself.
So although we may not have control over our destiny, we do have control over our perception of our suffering, and we can make the decision to build from it.
Fate would say to Rachel: "Too bad, you were born barren, no children, luck of the draw. Learn to live with it." Destiny said to her, "God created this problem for you for a reason. God wants you to come closer to Him. What can you do with your suffering? How can you fill the vacuum created by your lack of a child? God wants you to talk to Him -- what spiritual ladder will you climb?"
THE JEALOUSY OF RACHELM
The Torah tells us that "Rachel became envious of her sister." Says Rashi: "She envied her good deeds. She said, 'Were she not more righteous than I, she would not have merited sons.'"
God forbids us to be jealous. The definition of jealousy is wanting something that belongs to someone else. This is forbidden because everything a person has in this world comes from God. God gives each person exactly what he needs to maximize his potential.
Every day we say, "You open Your hand and satisfy the desire of every living creature" (Psalms 145:16), confirming that, in fact, God does give each being what he needs. If someone is dissatisfied with his lot and wants that which belongs to his neighbor, he is in effect saying, "God did not distribute things properly. God makes errors. God's benevolence is off-kilter. I know better who should get what."
This is not to say that we can't desire something similar to that which our neighbor has. This type of urge makes society progress, because it causes people to strive to be better and to have better lives. Therefore, if a person lives in a house with a leaky roof and drafty windows, and he sees that his neighbor has a warm, cozy house with a solid roof and secure windows, he might be motivated to repair his house because he desires comfort similar to that which his neighbor enjoys. But it would be forbidden for him to sit in his cold house feeling angry that his neighbor has a better house, thinking, "Why does so-and-so deserve such a great house while I've been given this dump? It's not fair! I should have that nice house, not he."
In short, we are forbidden to be jealous, but we may allow ourselves to be motivated by what others have. However, the Torah does not say that Rachel was motivated by Leah; we read that Rachel was envious of her sister.
There is one exception to the jealousy rule: We are allowed to be jealous of the Torah and mitzvot of others. "The jealousy of those who learn Torah increases wisdom in the world" (Talmud - Baba Batra 21a). Whereas it is forbidden to be jealous of the material possessions of another, we are allowed to be jealous of another person's spiritual acquisitions, his learning and mitzvot. When a person feels jealousy, this emotion causes him to experience a more intense desire for the object of his jealousy. If that object is Torah and mitzvot, the desire has merit because it will ultimately bring more Torah and learning into the world.
Why should one type of desire provoked by jealousy have merit and the other be forbidden? The difference is that we have no control over what God gives us, but what we give to God is within our control. Material blessings are directed from God above to the world below. Human beings have no control over this type of blessing for it is God's domain. It is His decision to bestow on us or deny us as He so wills.
On the other hand, we have total control over spiritual acquisitions; if our desire is to do more mitzvot and acquire more learning, we have the free will to achieve it. Moreover, we have control over our reactions, our beliefs, our speech, and our intention to act. Our Sages express this difference in the saying, "Everything is in the hands of Heaven, except the fear of Heaven" (Talmud - Brachot 33b). What we have in terms of material or physical blessing is dependent upon God; how we react -- our emotional response -- is within our control.
It makes sense that we are allowed to feel jealous of another's Torah, mitzvot, and spirituality. These things are totally within our domain, and if this type of jealousy motivates a person to learn more Torah, to be more spiritual, to strengthen his relationship with God, this is productive jealousy.
Rashi states that Rachel envied her sister's good deeds. This is permissible jealousy. In her pain, Rachel looked to her sister Leah. Pain creates a vacuum, a vacuum that must be filled. Rachel may not have known why God sent her this pain, but she knew it was part of her destiny. She knew it had a purpose and had to be used to attain spiritual growth. So Rachel looked to Leah's spiritual accomplishments, so that she could imitate her to fill the hole in her heart and to strengthen her relationship with God...
We never completely understand why God sends us pain and suffering. This is true on a personal level as well as on a national level. We have been in exile for about 2,000 years, and we have experienced suffering as a people and as individuals. Nevertheless, we are God's beloved people and we must not forget that our pain comes to us from our God for our good. We must learn to see our disappointments as opportunities to grow spiritually, to become deeper people, to draw closer to God.
How we fill the vacuum created by our lacks, by our distress, by our pain, is completely in our hands. May we, like Rachel, use our misfortunes wisely, and merit, as she did, to come close to God. And may Rachel's tears cease to flow, when her "children will return to their border" (Jeremiah 31:14-16).
Excerpted with permission from
"Mirrors of Our Lives"
Published by Targum Press.