They were sisters but also rivals—married to the same man, competing for his affection and for the privilege of bearing his children. In this week’s Parshah, Jacob meets Rachel, loves her, and works for her father Laban for seven years to earn her hand in marriage. Laban then tricks Jacob and gives him Leah in Rachel’s stead—whereupon Jacob agrees to work another seven years for Rachel.

At firstAt first glance, Leah seems like the underdog glance, Leah seems like the underdog in this scenario. Leah is described in the Torah as having “weak eyes”1—eyes weakened by weeping. Throughout her youth, people would say, “Laban has two daughters and his sister Rebecca has two sons. The older daughter, Leah, will marry the older son, Esau, and Rachel, the younger one, will marry Jacob.”2 Leah does not want to marry the wicked Esau, and she prays endlessly to be spared this fate. But although she merits to marry Jacob, it is Rachel whom Jacob loves and desires. Leah is the unwanted wife, thrust upon Jacob against his will. And, apparently, she never ceases to feel this way. With the birth of each of her children, she expresses the hope that finally, this time, her husband will love her.

But Rachel is no less deserving of sympathy. While Leah is giving birth to child after child, Rachel remains childless. When she finally expresses her bitterness to Jacob, saying, “Give me children! If not, I am dead,”3 his response is less than sympathetic. He gets angry and says, “Am I instead of G‑d, Who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?”4

The Or Hachaim explains that Jacob’s anger was not at her complaint but at her choice of words. He feared that Rachel had brought a curse upon herself by saying, “I am dead.”5

Indeed, the final blow comes when Rachel dies while giving birth to her youngest son, Benjamin, and does not even receive the dignity of a burial in the Cave of Machpelah, where her beloved Jacob is to be buried. Instead, she is buried alone on the side of the road in Bethlehem.

Reading this story, I can’t help but wonder—why did it have to be this way? Why did the mothers of the Jewish people have to pay such a high personal price to bring forth the 12 tribes?

The relationship between G‑d and the Jewish people is often likened to a marital bond. Rachel and Leah, in their relationship with Jacob, each exemplify a different aspect of our relationship with G‑d.6

Leah’s relationship with Jacob is complex, marred by feelings of rejection and alienation. This parallels the conflicted relationship of a ba’al teshuvah, returnee, with G‑d. The ba’al teshuvah has not always been perfect. There was a sinful past, there was distance from G‑d that had to be overcome. We see this form of service reflected in Leah’s children. Reuben, Leah’s firstborn son, sins by mixing into his father’s marital arrangement, and spends the rest of his life repenting for this misdeed. All of Leah’s sons sin when they sell their brother Joseph into slavery. Leah’s eyes, weak with weeping, reflect the constant self-reproach that characterizes the work of the ba’al teshuvah.

In contrast, Rachel’s relationship with Jacob is straightforward. She never has reason to doubt his love. She is the one he desires; she is the one for whom he serves Laban for fourteen years. Rachel is described as having “beautiful features and a beautiful complexion”7—her external appearance reflects her internal state of grace and perfection. Rachel’s relationship represents the service of a tzadik, whose relationship with G‑d is whole and unblemished. This is reflected in her children, Joseph and Benjamin, as well. Joseph remains righteous despite being sold into slavery in Egypt. Benjamin, as the youngest of the brothers, is the only one who has no part in the sale of Joseph.

Yet, despite their perfect relationship with G‑d, tzadikim still struggle. Their battles are not internal but external: Rachel and her childlessness, Joseph and his brothers’ jealousy.

Throughout our lives, we are given challenges to confront. Sometimes we battle internal enemies such as depression, lack of confidence, or rejection. Or our battles may be external—illness,Our struggles are uniquely ours infertility, financial woes. Sometimes our conflicts are a combination of the two. Our struggles are uniquely ours—the divine portion we were given, custom-made to fulfill our soul’s mission in this world.

Some of us may identify strongly with Leah, with the feelings of rejection and alienation. We look on enviously at those with more Rachel-like qualities, the ones who seem so effortlessly talented and put-together, the ones to whom everyone is drawn because of their beauty and charm. But we don’t know the struggles of the Rachels among us. Perhaps they show a beautiful face to the world while hiding the sorrows that lurk deep within.

This is why I find the tale of two sisters so meaningful and empowering. Whatever our struggle in life, it was meant to be this way and no other. Something positive will come out of the endless battle with self, with hurt feelings, with hopelessness and dejection. Both of the sisters were destined to be foremothers of the Jewish people, and each filled a unique role that could not have been filled by the other.

In Rachel’s short life filled with sorrow, she merited to give birth to two exemplary sons. And her burial at the side of the road reflected her true inner desire to comfort her children in future generations when they were led out of Israel into exile.

In spite of her pain, Leah’s loyalty to Jacob and her desire to bear his children never ceased. She named her firstborn son Reuben, saying, “The L‑rd has seen my affliction, for now my husband will love me.”8 Similarly, when G‑d reflects on the Jewish people, He will see how we remained loyal to Him despite the constant stress of exile, and how we continuously endeavor to bear Him spiritual “children”—our mitzvahs, good deeds. Then “my husband will love me”—G‑d’s love for us will be openly expressed, with the coming of the Redemption with our righteous Moshiach.