In her book, Wrestling with Angels, Naomi Rosenblatt comments that Rachel and Leah find themselves in an untenable situation, set against each other by their manipulative father, Laban. Each is tormented by what she lacks and her sister possesses. “One is beautiful, the other homely. One is fertile, the other barren. One is the archetypal mother, the other the perennial lover. Each is miserable because she covets what the other possesses. Neither feels whole. Neither can appreciate her unique attributes because each is so focused on the other’s perceived advantages.”
The relationship between two sisters, bound by familial ties, but competing for the love of the same man must have been fraught with tension. (After the Torah was given on Mt. Sinai, the marrying of two sisters was forbidden.) Yet the Midrash says that although Jacob and Rachel had devised a code to prevent the deceitful Laban from substituting Leah for Rachel on their wedding night, Rachel compassionately disclosed it to Leah to spare her sister from shame. The Midrash also suggests that Rachel was jealous of Leah’s righteousness, assuming that the gift of children was because Leah was more righteous than she, as opposed to being envious of the children per se.
The Midrash also tells of all the wives of Jacob: Leah, Rachel, Zilpah and Bilhah uniting their prayers with those of Jacob, to remove the curse of barrenness from Rachel.
A modern commentary, Praise Her Works: Conversations with Biblical Women, edited by Penina Adelman* gives an imaginary voice to Rachel addressing Leah, as she is dying in child-birth, “My dear sister Leah, how often we fought and were jealous of each other. You lusted after a love that was not for you, and I lusted after sons I could not have…My sister, the two of us were barren, you from love and I from children…Believe me, I wanted the two of us to be loved and to love each other and to give birth to sons and daughters but fate did not want it this way…Will you forgive me, my sister, for the harsh words I said in anger and weakness? Doesn’t your blood course through my veins? How can I hate you?…So be certain that there is a reward for all you have done, that kings are going to come from you, my very own sister, great kings.”
And in a Midrash on Lamentations (Eicha Rabba 24) Rachel challenges God over the destruction of the Temples, saying that just as she (mere flesh and blood) overcame her jealousy of Leah and was compassionate to her, saving her from shame, and enabling her to marry Jacob before she did, so an all-merciful God should be able to overcome His jealousy of inanimate foreign idols, because of which He destroyed the Temples and left His people to the mercy of their enemies! And God replies that in her merit He will restore His people to their place!
* Chapter 5, Rachel, is by Irit Koren