‘God help the mister…’
(Genesis 29 12:30)
One of the rituals which I really enjoy at the Jewish wedding is the bedeken ceremony. Before the bride and groom come to the chuppah (marriage canopy) they have a private moment (sometimes with family or friends) where the groom checks that it is the correct woman under the veil. I appreciate being a part of this quiet and intimate moment between bride and groom, before they are surrounded by their community. Whenever I officiate at that ritual there is always a giggle when I ask the groom to check that it is the correct bride. There is something almost ridiculous about assuming that a veil could completely hide the identity of a person, and lead to a mistaken marriage.
The origin most often cited for this wonderful ritual is this week’s Torah Portion, when our Patriarch Jacob managed to make the mistake of marrying the wrong woman.
The love between Jacob and Rachel is beautiful in the way that it is described. After seeing her at the well, we read that he ‘kissed Rachel and lifted up his voice and wept’ (Gen. 29:11). There was a powerful connection between the two of them from the very beginning. And after striking the deal with Laban to work for seven years, to earn Rachel’s hand in marriage, we read ‘Jacob served seven years for Rachel and they seemed to him but a few days, because of the love he had for her’ (Gen. 29:20).
Everything appears to be pointing towards the happy ending of Jacob and Rachel marrying and beginning a family together, when Laban intervenes, and on the night of the marriage brings the older sister Leah to Jacob, tricking him into marrying the wrong woman. Somehow the veil was thick enough because Jacob only realised his mistake the following morning, when he challenged Laban: ‘why did you deceive me?’ (Gen. 29:25).
In terms of Jacob this may seem to be an appropriate punishment. After all, Jacob is the same person who tricked his father into believing he was his brother Esau, and thus fraudulently gained his father’s blessing. He pretended to be his sibling to gain the blessing, and now he has been tricked into marrying the wrong sibling. It is also worth considering that Rebecca, who was the orchestrator of Isaac’s deception, as she told Jacob ‘your curse, my son, be upon me’ (Gen. 27:13) is Laban’s sister; these two siblings seem quite similar in their willingness to deceive others.
With Esau and Jacob we saw competition between siblings, with Laban and Rebecca we saw siblings who were willing to deceive those around them, but with Leah and Rachel we have a completely different model of the sibling relationship.
Rachel had found the man of her dreams, Jacob was the man she wanted to marry, ‘she ran and told her father’ (Gen. 29:12) after meeting him. And Jacob reciprocated in his love for her. The text does not tell us what happened between Rachel and Leah when Laban came to them and told them that it would be inappropriate for the younger sister to marry before her elder. We have no account of Rachel breaking down in tears, we read nowhere of the sisters arguing with their father; all we have is the fact that Laban ‘took his daughter Leah and brought her to him [Jacob]’ (Gen. 29:23).
For Leah to have been able to deceive Jacob until the morning, so that he thought he had married Rachel, a veil would not have been sufficient (as bedeken always proves). She must have been able to behave in the same way as her sister; she would have needed to know secrets about the relationship and their interactions. Rachel must have been complicit in helping Leah to trick Jacob. Rachel was willing to lose the man she loved to save Leah the embarrassment of seeing her younger sister get married first.
For most of the book of Genesis we have very challenging sibling relationships, beginning with Cain and Abel. But here, when we have sisters, we see a different way for siblings to treat each other. We see a love between siblings which is absent elsewhere. Leah and Rachel do not fall into the trap of sibling rivalry; they offer a model of sisterly love.
Rabbi Danny Burkeman
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.