In parshat Vayeitzei, Leah does something very atypical. After giving birth to four of Yaakov’s children, she presents her maidservant to her husband in order to have even more children. Wives are not generally in favor of their husbands cohabiting with other women, to say the least. But yet Leah is not only open to the idea, she in fact is the one who suggests it! Why did she do this?
Leah was not alone in this line of reasoning, as Rachel did it first:
When Rachel saw that she had borne Jacob no children, she became envious of her sister; and Rachel said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die.” Jacob was incensed at Rachel, and said, “Can I take the place of God, who has denied you fruit of the womb?” She said, “Here is my maid Bilhah. Consort with her, that she may bear on my knees and that through her I too may have children.” (Bereishit 30:1-3)
However Rachel’s actions are much more understandable. She was barren. She saw that Yaakov was having children with her sister Leah and wanted to also provide children to Yaakov. But she couldn't, so she provided a surrogate, her maidservant.
Leah already had children, so why did she also provide a surrogate?
Ibn Shuaib, quoting the Ramban, suggests that Leah knew that Yaakov would have 12 sons. Rachel knew it also. Therefore, each wanted to have a part in the establishment of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. But not just a small part, they wanted to be involved as much as possible. Each mother wanted as many of the tribes as possible to come from her actions. Therefore, even though Leah already had four sons, she gave Yaakov her maidservant because of her devotion to the future of the Jewish people.
The lesson that we can draw from this explanation is twofold. First, the tension between Leah and Rachel over the births of their children, or lack thereof, was not about their own personal wants and desires. It wasn’t a petty sibling rivalry or competition for the love of their husband. It was about building the Jewish people. Each wanted a share in the Twelve Tribes.
Additionally, Leah was willing to “share her husband” and thereby potentially detract from her own relationship with him, for this noble cause. She was committed to the prophecy despite any personal hardship it entailed.
Ibn Shuaib adds an additional layer to this whole story. How did Rachel and Leah know that there would be Twelve Tribes of Israel. He suggests that Yaakov told them. And how did Yaakov know?
He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. (Berseishit 28:11)
Commenting on this verse, the Midrash says that there were 12 stones that Yaakov placed under his head. When he awoke in the morning, those 12 stones had merged into one great stone, and Yaakov took this as a prophetic message that he would have 12 sons.
As such, when Yaakov traveled to Charan to meet his destiny he already knew in the back of his mind that he would be the father of 12 tribes. This could explain why he did not protest when Lavan switched Leah for Rachel. Yaakov realized that in order to have 12 children he might need more than one wife. And this may be why Rachel did not protest either. She too knew that there would be more to the story than just her sister taking her place!
Rabbi Joshua ibn Shuaib (1280-1340) was a Spanish Torah Commentator and Kabbalist. He was a student of the famed Rashba, and teacher of Rabbi Menachem ben Aaron Ibn Zerach. Ibn Shuaib quotes extensively from the latter part of Tanach as a means of expressing the core values of each Torah Parsha. He seamlessly weaves together the rationalist interpretations of Rambam and the mystical interpretations of Ramban into his own commentary on the Torah.