One theme in Vayeitzei is couplehood. Jacob’s relationships with Rachel and Leah differ fundamentally from one another. Rachel is Jacob’s beloved; Leah the mother of his children. The tragedy of the story is that each wife wants what her sister has; Rachel yearns for children, while Leah pines for Jacob’s love: “And when Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and she said to Jacob, ‘Give me children, or else I die’” (Genesis 30:1). But even when Rachel gives birth to a son, she does not feel fulfilled. Instead, as Joseph’s name signifies, she can only gaze into the future, hoping for a second son: “And she called his name Joseph, saying, ‘The L‑rd add to me another son’” (Genesis 30:24). The fulfillment of that wish comes at the price of her life: “And it came to pass, as her soul was departing – for she died – that she called his name Ben-oni” (Genesis 35:18).

Leah’s story is a mirror image of Rachel’s, a fact evident in the names she gives her own children:

And Leah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Reuben, for she said, “Because the L‑rd has looked upon my affliction; for now my husband will love me.” …And she conceived again and bore a son, and said, “Now this time will my husband be joined to me, because I have borne him three sons.” Therefore his name was called Levi…. And Leah said, “G‑d has endowed me with a good dowry; now will my husband dwell with me, because I have borne him six sons.” And she called his name Zebulun. (Genesis 29:32, 34; 30:20)

Ultimately, Rachel and Leah attain only in death the things they yearn for in life: Leah is buried alongside Jacob in the Cave of the Patriarchs, while Rachel is considered the mother of Israel, buried on the way to Ephrath so that when her children go into exile she can pray for them (Genesis Rabbah 82:10):

So says the L‑rd: A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are not. So says the L‑rd: Refrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears; for your work shall be rewarded, says the L‑rd; and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. And there is hope for your future, says the L‑rd; and the children shall return to their own border. (Jeremiah 31:14–16)

Self-Actualization Through Couplehood

The twin expressions of couplehood – the loving relationship and the child-rearing partnership – highlight two human aspects that relate to the essence of the connection between a man and a woman. The first Creation story describes a relationship whose purpose is procreation: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth” (Genesis 1:28), while the second portrays the intimate relationship as a value in itself: “It is not good that the man should be alone…and [he] shall cleave to his wife, and they shall be one flesh” (Genesis 2:18, 24).

The stories of Rachel and Leah are a testament to the tragedy inherent in relationships that only contain one of the two elements. This explains the blessing given to Ruth and Boaz by the crowd at their wedding: “May the Lord make the woman that is coming into your house like Rachel and like Leah, both of whom built the house of Israel” (Ruth 4:11). The community wishes upon the couple a relationship that combines both aspects. As my students have pointed out to me, the blessing is indeed fulfilled in Ruth: she is loved by Boaz and her offspring includes King David (her great-grandson). A relationship encompassing both elements generates a state of oneness, in which each element deepens the other and fuses with it: on one hand, the outward-facing, creative life partnership – birthing and raising children – generates a profound intimacy between the partners; on the other, just as children enrich the love between the partners, so the parents’ love contributes to their children. There is no greater gift for a child than to grow up with parents who love each other.

Couplehood: Traveling an Inner World

Aspirations for a life of meaning are challenged more than anything else by the difficulty of maintaining a loving, growing relationship. We all long for a relationship in which we can experience our love as a power that unites us as one flesh, as one vision. Love is the key to go beyond ourselves. The yearning, in a romantic relationship, is for two to become one. Physical intimacy fulfills one aspect of the yearning; a second is actualized through having and raising children. Yet, many couples are plagued by the feeling that they are emotionally incapable of attaining the significant intimacy that they aspire to.

Hedy Schleifer, a couples’ therapist and expert in the Imago method, highlights a misconception underlying the power struggles that prevent couples from deepening their relationships: both partners know that, as a couple, “we are one,” but sometimes each partner mistakenly thinks, “that one is me.” Just as ego can form a barrier between the individual and G‑d, a false model of couplehood can drive a wedge between two partners in a relationship. The capacity to maintain a relationship that is supportive, respectful, and conducive to growth depends on recognition of the fact that, as a couple, “we are two.” If I am to grow in the relationship, I must accept and learn my partner’s language and visit their inner world, thus building our “one” out of the meeting of our two worlds. Schleifer teaches us that in order to create a common space that facilitates a true encounter, both partners must learn to diminish themselves and recognize the existence of the other: another whose purpose is not to serve or enlighten me; another who exists independently; another who is whole. A couple that experiences such a complete relationship, where ego does not come between the partners, can transpose that model to the relationship with G‑d. When we make room, the focus is no longer on us alone or on G‑d alone, but rather on the meeting between us; we open ourselves fully to the recognition that “surely the L‑rd is in this place, and I knew.”