Rachel is one of our four matriarchs — one of the four models that tradition gives us from which our identity is constituted. We can find her story, or hints around it, in B’reshit (Genesis) 29–35.
The biblical story tells us about a beautiful woman named Rachel. She is the daughter of a tricky man. She falls in love with someone who is in search of a wife and then stoically gives her place to her older sister, so that it is her sister who marries first and is not humiliated by the fact of being unmarried while being the firstborn. Rachel is depicted as the “good girl.”
However, being the “good girl” did not bring her the benefits that would be expected.
For most of the story, Rachel is barren. She must resort to different strategies to conceive or have children, including by using the womb of her servant, Bilhah, like Sarah did before her. She even negotiates with her sister one night with Jacob, their husband, in exchange for the mandrakes that were supposed to be magical to conceive (B’reishit 30:14-15).
When she finally manages to conceive, she dies during the birth of her second child. Jacob decides to bury her “on the way” and to not move her to the family grave where he and Leah are ultimately buried. Rachel, the beloved wife, is exiled from the clan in her resting place.
Texts throughout history have identified Rachel with compassion and unconditional generosity. She is named as the paradigm of motherhood.
However, I want to talk about the other Rachel, the “good girl,” the one who gives everything of herself and only receives frustration and pain as a reward. The one who gets angry, rebels and negotiates, to finally feel victorious — even if it is on her own terms.
The biblical text, without midrash or male interpretation, presents us with an independent young woman, master of her thoughts and her rebellion, and who, despite being deceived again and again, keeps her head high and finds a way to defend her place and her desire.
In Rachel's first appearance in the story, we learn about her occupation, and not of her beauty. She is presented as the one who takes care of her father's flock, a task that could have been carried out by the sons of Laban (who appear later in the text). She is introduced by describing her abilities and not her appearance, a typical way of describing women.
The Torah does not specifically indicate that Rachel agreed to the trick set up by her father and sister, and tells us of her anger at not being able to conceive. (“Give me children, or I am dead,” she says in B’reishit 30:1). It also tells us about her defiant attitude in stealing Laban's idols, as well as her tenacity in negotiating with Leah regarding Jacob’s love.
The reflection that comes to my mind when reading the story of Rachel, our matriarch, is that from the beginning of time, girls have been educated to be “good”, pleasing, and obedient — even at the cost of their own physical and emotional well-being, their needs and desires. Does this seem familiar?
We are brought up to be compliant and to be socially generous, and we are seldom allowed to express our feelings honestly, without being branded as insolent, rebellious, too “masculine” or aggressive. And the supposed reward rarely comes close to meeting the cost.
Today's invitation is to take the two models provided by Rachel, and integrate them into an alternative image of what womanhood can look like.
We can learn from her that it is possible for all girls and women to be kind, generous, compassionate — and at the same time raise our voices in the face of injustices, both for the sake of others and ourselves. We can stand up for what we believe in and what we want, without ceasing to be loving, generous, kind, and compassionate.
Rachel’s story teaches us that we are good, inherently. We don’t have to be obedient, compliant, or submissive to be good — we just need to be honest with ourselves and with those around us.
At The Well uplifts many approaches to Jewish practice. Our community draws on ancient Jewish wisdom, sometimes adapting longstanding practices to more deeply support the well-being of women and nonbinary people. See this article’s sources below. We believe Torah (sacred teachings) are always unfolding to help answer the needs of the present moment.
B’reishit (Genesis) 29–35, accessed via Sefaria.org