Torah Study

Rachel and Leah - The Desire for Greatness

We learn from Rachel and Leah that the only way to achieve greatness is to aspire to it and to act upon these aspirations

Rachel and Leah - The Desire for Greatness

“And G-d remembered Rachel, and G-d listened to her and opened her womb. And she became pregnant and bore a son, and she said, ‘G-d has gathered in my disgrace.’ And she called his name Yosef, saying, ‘May HaShem add to me another son.’”

After many years of barrenness, Rachel Imeinu finally merits a son. She reacts to this joyous event by asking for another child. This response seems somewhat surprising. It appears analogous to when parents give a child a gift, and the child asks for another one instead of thanking them! However, it seems that Rachel desired more children in order to play a greater role in building Klal Yisrael. In this sense, she resembles one who has just completed a certain amount of Torah study and asks HaShem to help him study more; such a request expresses not ingratitude, but a desire for spiritual growth.

This idea can help us understand another difficult passage. After Leah gave birth to four sons in quick succession, the Torah tells us that Rachel was jealous. Rashi explains that Rachel envied Leah’s good deeds, for surely in their merit she had been granted so many children. Based on this reasoning, Rachel should have sought to improve her own actions. Instead, she requested that Yaakov Avinu pray for her to have children. Why? Perhaps Leah’s enviable “good deeds” included her intense desire and efforts to bear children and thereby build the Jewish people. Consequently, Rachel strove to emulate her sister by requesting that a great tzaddik, Yaakov Avinu, pray for her to have children – this action in and of itself represented an improvement of her own deeds.

One verse earlier, we learn more about the power of our matriarchs’ desire to build Klal Yisrael. After Leah bore four sons, the Torah tells us that she stopped giving birth. Nonetheless she did not stop trying to have more children. She was even willing to give her son’s mandrakes to her sister in exchange for an extra opportunity to conceive. After these intensive efforts, the Torah states: “And HaShem heard Leah, and she became pregnant and bore Yaakov a fifth son.” The commentaries note that there is no mention of Leah’s praying for more children, so what exactly did HaShem hear? Rashi explains that “hearing” here refers to perceiving: “HaShem perceived that Leah desired and strove to create more tribes, and as a result of that desire He granted her another child.” We learn from here that HaShem responds to an intense desire for spiritual accomplishment that is accompanied by great effort, even when a person does not pray.

These examples demonstrate the importance of developing an intense desire for spiritual growth. Without such a desire, a person cannot achieve anything of great significance in the spiritual realm. The following story exemplifies the power of spiritual aspirations:

There was once a meeting of many gedolim and the descendants of their predecessors, including the Chafetz Chaim, ztzl. Rav Yechezkel Sarna, ztzl, the great rosh yeshivah of Chevron, surprised everyone by saying that one person had done more for Klal Yisrael than all those present and their illustrious ancestors. Moreover, this person had never learned a single daf of Gemara. And he confidently asserted that once he revealed who it was, everyone would agree.

Who was this great person? Sarah Shenirer. This seemingly ordinary woman had lived at a time where there was no formal Torah education for Jewish girls. Consequently, young women from observant families were leaving Torah in great numbers, Torah scholars could not find suitable shidduchim, and Yiddishkeit was in great danger. Mrs. Shenirer recognized the threat and founded the first Torah school system for girls, Bais Yaakov. She faced great opposition. However, guided by gedolim such as the Chafetz Chaim and Gerrer Rebbe, she succeeded beyond her wildest expectations and effectively assured the future of Torah observance. How had she merited this achievement? Rav Sarna explained that she had cried for the Jewish girls being lost to Klal Yisrael. Her pain at this churban and her determination to stop it galvanized her to take action. HaShem apparently “heard” her intense desire to improve the situation, and she received great siyata diShmaya in all her efforts.

A Jew can be observant yet live on “automatic pilot,” keeping mitzvos without desiring spiritual greatness. We learn from the Imahos that the only way to achieve greatness is to aspire to it and to act upon these aspirations. May we all emulate the great women and attain true greatness.

From the book "Beacons of Light"

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