When Rachel saw that she had borne no children to Jacob, Rachel became envious of her sister and said to Jacob, “Give me children or else I die.” Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel and he said, “Can I take the place of G‑d?” (Genesis 30:1-2).

It is perhaps the Nachmanides who best sums up the response of all of us to Jacob’s words when he writes, “I am astonished.” Apparently, it is not only humanity that is shocked by this conversation. According to the commentators, G‑d Himself asks, “Is this the way to answer the troubled?”

And yet, we know that there is something to be learned from the words of our forefathers and mothers. Yet what can we possibly learn from this exchange? No one who has ever experienced the pain of being childless needs this story to understand the intensity of such a longing, and no Is this the way to answer the troubled? one who is blessed with a house full of children is really going to get what it feels like to be barren after reading these words. And as for Jacob’s reply . . .

The commentator known as the Akeidat Yitzchak (Isaac Arama, a Talmudic scholar who lived in Spain at the time of the Expulsion) sheds light on the story of Rachel and Jacob based on the account of the creation of the first man and woman, Adam and Chava (Eve).

Adam and Chava were originally created as one being, male and female joined back to back, sort of like Siamese twins. After blessing them to “be fruitful and multiply,” G‑d states “It is not good that man be alone,” meaning, that man and woman can not really compliment one another in the best possible way when joined together too closely. It is necessary that G‑d separate them, allowing a face-to-face relationship. So He places the man/woman in a deep slumber, separates one side, closes over the cut and builds the removed side into the first woman by adding an extra measure of bina, understanding.

When G‑d wakes Adam from his sleep and brings the woman to him, he proclaims her isha and after she gives birth he proclaims her Chava. Of what significance are these titles? When G‑d brings all of the earth’s animals before Adam to be named, it is taught that he named them through the power of prophecy, that he was able to see their spiritual essence. Indeed, it is taught that the world was built using the letters of the Hebrew language and that the Hebrew name of each part of creation is composed of those letters used in its construction and reveals the essential nature of the thing itself, because the essence is bound up with the Hebrew letters with which it was formed. Significantly, only human beings are given two pairs of names.

The first name given to woman, isha, is related to the name given to man, ish. This reveals that a woman, like a man, must develop her spiritual and intellectual potential to the fullest. Other exegetes have pointed out that the difference between ish and isha is the use of a yud for ish and hey for isha. The hey is a more developed letter and, in fact, the yud represents that first burst of undirected intellectual energy or insight whereas the hei represents the ability to develop that energy/insight in meaningful and practical ways.

The words ish and isha both contain the word aish, Hebrew for “fire.” Just as the flames of a fire constantly reach upwards, so, too, the essence of the ish/isha role is that we direct ourselves upwards, always striving for greater heights in our spiritual growth, ever seeking a deeper connection with our Source.

A woman must develop her spiritual and intellectual potential to the fullest

A woman must cultivate a relationship with her Creator and use her mind to its fullest capacity. Only then, asserts the Akeidat Yitzchak, can a woman fulfill her second role as Chava, “mother of all life,” a role which crowns the role of isha.

It is important to note two details in this commentary. First, he emphasizes (or rather, in his commentary Jacob emphasizes) the need for a fully developed isha to preceed Chava. Bear in mind: In those days, there was an obvious connection between the physical and the spiritual, and this in no way implies that women today who are infertile are lacking in their relationship with the Divine, nor that all mothers today are perfect. The relevance for us today is clearly in its insight into the mother-child relationship, into the power of a mother to convey the warmth and the light of Torah, of Shabbat, of bath time, of sunsets, and of every detail of Jewish life.

Yet the Akeidat Yitzchak seems to suggest even more—that how a mother works on herself prior to birth is bound up with bringing the soul of a child into this world. By giving your child the best you that can possibly be, you empower him or her to be the best that he can be—starting with the spiritual journey he makes into this world. And once here, it is on her intellectual abilities and practical savvy that a child will most heavily depend.

The second detail which is interesting to note, and which sheds light on what makes a marriage a Jewish marriage, is that the Akeidat Yitzchak places the role of wife within the isha role. What he is suggesting is a relationship which is both intellectually and spiritually charged, a relationship of two equals striving together towards the same higher goal. It is a relationship which calls to mind a line from the blessings traditionally recited at a Jewish wedding, “these two loving friends.”

Parenthood, then, which is truly the most beautiful, most important, and most challenging role two people could ever undertake, is ideally meant to crown two people mature in their relationship with G‑d and with one another.

We can learn a great deal about ourselves—and the role of a Jewish woman—from the exchange between Jacob and Rachel. Stated more gently, every woman has a vibrant contribution to make to this world whether married or single, whether blessed with children or still waiting. And every mother has more to give her children, spiritually and intellectually, than she’s ever imagined.