The David Petraeus scandal, where a national hero betrays a solid, devoted, soul mate of a wife to be with a young hot thing who gets his blood pumping seems as old as time itself. In earlier times a general or king would usually have two women to being with to fulfill two very different needs. The pedigreed wife for children and to rule as a consort – and recall that Petraeus married the daughter of the Superintendent of West Point – and a mistress for passion and excitement. But Petraeus had to resign because our society does not tolerate unfaithfulness. It expects men who are accomplished in their public life to be equally accomplished in marriage by finding find both dimensions in one woman, namely their wives.
The Biblical story of Jacob and his two wives, Rachel and Leah (which we read in last week’s portion) provides insight into what men search for and the tragedy of not orchestrating disparate needs into one indivisible woman.
When Jacob first meets Rachel, he seeks to impress her by moving a giant stone, then kisses her, and breaks into tears. He then offers Laban, her father, seven years of work in return for Rachel’s hand in marriage. The years pass by so quickly that ‘they appeared in his eyes as if they were just days.’
Jacob’s love for Rachel is one of deep passion and yearning. It is love as covetousness, lust, and desire. It is the fieriest kind of romantic love. It is also the most tragic. Romantic, passionate, lustful love that is balanced by partnership and intimacy nearly always ends badly. Either because the fires die down, or because the fire burns so brightly that it consumes both participants. Fiery, lustful love rarely ends up with a happily ever after. Jacob feels in his bones that his passion for Rachel must end disastrously. Thus, he is drawn to kiss her, but he immediately weeps. He recognizes that in this imperfect world, perfect love is impossible to attain. He wants Rachel to be his soul mate, but he intuits that he will never fully possess her is destined to lose her.
By contrast, he experiences none of the same passion for Leah. When he is fooled into marrying her, he accepts Leah as a partner and eventually the mother of his children. But his yearning is for Rachel. Leah feels hated and names the first of her three children after her experiences of rejection from Jacob. Reuben is for the God ‘who saw my affliction and granted me a son.’ Simeon is for the God ‘who saw that I am hated.’ Levi is the son whose birth ‘will bring my husband closer to me.’ Only with the fourth son, Judah, which means ‘praise to God,’ do we begin to see a name that gives the child an intrinsic identity rather than one that relates instead to the relationship of his father to his mother.
Leah longs for Jacob the way that Jacob longs for Rachel. But for Jacob, Leah represents a maternal, practical partner with whom he shares a life but has no passionate connection. It reflects, arguably, the way Petraeus viewed his own loyal wife. They have intimacy but no intensity. They have a family but no fervor or fire. He loves her but does not long for her. He does not want bad things to happen to her. He wishes to protect her but she is not the delight of his soul.
Yet Jacobs knows in his heart that Leah, rather than Rachel, is destined to be his soul mate. (No doubt Petraeus knew in his heart as well he was always destined to return to his wife, if she would accept him back). She is destined to bear most of his children, share his life, and share eternity with him by being buried at his side. Leah represents stability and order. She will be Jacob’s anchor. She is his permanence. The woman who tethers him to family. Yet he will never make peace with love that is only functional and not romantic, stable but not passionate.
Rachel is playful, girlish, and evinces, at times, immaturity that is often characteristic of women whom men desire mightily. She can also be callous about Jacob’s love for her, so confident is she in the of his desire. When Reuben brings flowers for his mother Leah, Rachel strikes a deal with Leah to exchange the flowers for a conjugal night with Jacob. What Leah longs for, Rachel treats as mere currency. Unlike Jacob who understands intuitively the tragic nature of passionate, romantic love, Rachel thinks they have endless time to be together. One night will make no difference. But Jacob knows the clock is ticking.
Women like Leah ultimately both triumph and suffer. They triumph because in their stability they end up gaining the commitment of men who build families and lives with them. But they suffer because they never feel the passionate desire of their husbands. They never really feel wanted. They never truly feel special. And a woman wants to be lusted after even more than she wants to be loved.
But it is the amalgamation of both types of love that is meant to characterize the successful marriage. Not a man in a relationship with two women, but a man and woman whose marriage incorporates both dimensions. Husbands and wives are meant to have passion and practicality, fire and firmness, lust and love, desire and durability. Rachel and Leah are meant to be one.
The Jewish laws that will follow with the giving of the Torah at Sinai will prescribe half of the month devoted to passion and sexual fire, and half of the month devoted to soulfulness and intimacy. The orchestration of the two is what makes a marriage whole. We are meant to be lovers and best friends, paramours and soul mates, people who ache for each other but settle down with one another to create a life of stability and permanence. Our wives should be our mistresses and our companions, our excitement and our anchor. We never wish to lose our lust, but we also need to accompany lust with love.
It was Jacob’s inability to value both dimensions that lead to many problems in the life of his own family. Jacob seems scarred from his childhood. His father favored Esau, so from his earliest age he tasted rejection. Later, he will repeat many of these mistakes in favoring Joseph, creating even more dysfunction and sibling rivalry among his own children than he experienced with Esau. Likewise, he favors one wife and one type of love. He struggles to appreciate the stability of Leah and gravitates exclusively toward the drama of Rachel. With Rachel he fights and argues. She accuses Jacob of being responsible for her not falling pregnant. He fires back that he is not God and is not responsible for her infertility. But dramatic relationships are addictive and Rachel is the drug of choice. But in favoring Rachel so exclusively Jacob risks becomes emotionally monolithic, never quite mastering the art of relationships. He is, interestingly, far better at adversarial relationships than intimate ones. He outmaneuvers the wily Esau to take his blessing as well as his immoral and cunning father-in-law Laban. He wrestles with an angel and defeats him. He has learned from an early age to survive on his wits.
Like many a man who has experienced insufficient love in his childhood, Jacob finds intimacy challenging. Love for him is more of a high than a deep sharing of self. He seeks the deep thrill of love that comes from a woman of passionate nature like Rachel rather than a woman of deep emotion like Leah. Jacob gravitates to the romantic love of the poets rather than the practical love of real life.
But, whatever man’s plans, God often intends something different. Jacob lusts for Rachel but his future is with Leah.
We men of the modern era can draw the appropriate lesson.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach