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Rachel and Leah: Being Sisters

This condensed version of the Girls in Trouble curriculum, a project by Alicia Jo Rabins, is based on Alicia’s art-pop song cycle of the same name, and follows individual women through their stories in the Torah. In each lesson, students are encouraged to engage with both the Torah text and Alicia’s songs, to consider the story’s relevance to their own lives, and to generate their own creative interpretations. This curriculum brings Biblical women to life, demonstrating the power of these often under-studied stories, and highlighting the ways in which they can help us navigate our own complicated lives.

Overview

Enduring Understandings

  • Although Rachel and Leah have much in common as sisters, their experiences also differ widely; they move through the world differently, and are treated differently by the people around them.
  • Sisterhood is powerful, but also complex.
  • Creating art about women in Torah continues the millennia-old tradition of interpretation, while bringing female characters to the center of the process.

Essential Questions

  • Why is Rachel and Leah’s story important?
  • What does it mean to be a sibling? How is this relationship similar to, and different from, a friendship?
  • How does Alicia’s song contribute to our understanding of Rachel and Leah’s story?

Notes to Teacher

We encourage you to make this curriculum your own. For instance, if there isn’t time during your class period to have students sketch out their own creative interpretations, you can either leave this part out or treat it as an extension activity.

We also encourage you to include as much hevruta (partner) study as possible. If you are new to hevruta study, you can think of it as discussion between two partners who can help each other learn by challenging each other’s first impressions. Breaking the group into pairs and having them read texts out loud, rather than silently, is an essential part of hevruta study.

Lastly, when studying the Torah text, we find it helpful to have students identify every problem, difficulty, or moment of confusion they can find in the text, as if they were on a scavenger hunt. This opens up the door to midrash, the Jewish tradition of creative Torah interpretation, which imagines answers to those questions.

Introductory Essay(s)

"DNA O Sister": Explanation of a Musical Midrash

by Alicia Jo Rabins

What does it mean to be a sister, to be these sisters? Rachel and Leah are made from the same genetic material, they share a family, they both seem to suffer beneath their father’s household (and leave as soon as they get a chance), and love the same man; yet they move through the world so differently, and are treated differently by the people around them.

Many of my songs are based directly on Torah texts, but in a few cases, I’m so moved or inspired or shocked by a rabbinic interpretation of a story that I write a song about the commentary, rather than the original text. This is one of those cases. In Genesis 29, Jacob and Rachel are to be married, but her father instead places his older daughter Leah beneath the bridal veil, tricking Jacob into marrying the wrong sister. This song is based on these midrashim, specifically Midrash 1-3 in this Study Guide.

In these rabbinic re-imaginings of the Biblical story, Rachel is not a victim. She foresees her father’s trick and arranges with Jacob a series of “simanim,” or signs, to whisper from beneath the veil, ensuring that he marries the right sister.  But, just before the wedding, Rachel realizes this would result in terrible public humiliation for her older sister, Leah, so Rachel betrays her beloved and gives Leah the passwords. According to some versions, she even lies beneath the marriage bed that night making noises, so Jacob will recognize her voice and consummate the marriage with Leah.

I find it tremendously moving that the rabbis, faced with a story that seems to pit one sister against each other, instead imagine them conspiring to protect each other. And I appreciate their granting Rachel - who elsewhere in the Torah shows herself to be tough and resourceful, but is rather meek in this story - a good deal of agency. In the Torah, Rachel is simply swapped for Leah, with both sisters passive; but the rabbis’ interpretations grant her a series of powerful actions. She anticipates Lavan’s deception and arranges passwords with Jacob; then she betrays Jacob and whispers the passwords to Leah. What a switch, from a seemingly silent Rachel to a double agent Rachel!

In “DNA O Sister,” I retell the above midrashim in Rachel’s voice. This song also contains a hint of the passwords Rachel gives Leah. According to the midrash, these are the traditional commandments given to women: making challah in the proper way, observing menstruation laws, and lighting Sabbath candles. (You can read more about that in my notes on midrash 3, above.) This ancient idea of “women’s commandments” is troubling from a progressive perspective, as it removes women from the sphere of mainstream Jewish observance and sequesters them in the body and the home. And yet how poetic and vivid are the three elemental objects this midrash imagines Rachel whispering into her sister’s ear: fire, blood and bread.

Like fire, blood and bread, the sister relationship is elemental. “DNA O Sister” is a love song from one sister to another. That love continues as their relationship changes, through the power struggles, the elation and despair, the closeness and distance.

As the oldest of three sisters myself, I also read this story through my own personal experience of the mysteries and beauties and challenges of sisterhood. And so this story about Rachel and Leah is also a love song to my own sisters, honoring our own complex, powerful and beautiful sisterhood.

Note: the phrase “Half You Half Me,” drawn from this song, is the title of Girls in Trouble’s second album. In the context of Rachel and Leah, this phrase is based on thinking about the genetic and emotional aspects of biological sisterhood and how extreme closeness is also tied to the need to differentiate. But on a larger level, “Half You Half Me” also encapsulates the process of midrash-making I enter when writing a Girls in Trouble song. I am looking for that place where an ancient character’s life intersects with my own, and when I write and sing these songs, I often feel I am singing half as the character, half as myself. 

Lesson Plan

Intro

  • Invite participants to introduce themselves, and to share what comes to mind when they think of the word, “sister.”

Core Text

  • Introduce hevruta, divide class, pass out “core text” sheets
  • Hevrutas read core text to each other and explore discussion questions
  • Come back together to discuss what arose in hevruta. Begin by inviting students to share their most interesting questions and listing them on the board. Explain that finding unanswered questions in the text is the starting point of midrash; ask students to refrain from answering questions unless the questions address the basic plot of the story.

Song

  • Listen to “DNA O Sister” with lyrics
  • Discuss questions as a group

Create Your Own Midrash

  • Time for individual brainstorming/freewriting/drawing with “Ideas to Jump-Start Your own Creative Interpretations”
  • If time, opportunity to share creative responses. Students should resist the temptation to critique others’ responses.
  • Share students’ midrashim by adding them to the Gallery of Biblical Women on the Girls in Trouble website

Document Studies

Song Recording

Song Recording

DNA O Sister

Full image
Audio recording of Alicia Jo Rabins' song, "DNA O Sister."

Biblical text with discussion questions

Biblical text with discussion questions

Biblical Text

Chapter 29

1 [Verse 1-8 describes Jacob journeying east to find a well covered by a large rock. He speaks with local shepherds, establishing that his uncle Laban lives here, and that Laban’s daughter Rachel is approaching with her sheep.]

9 While he was still speaking with them, Rachel came with her father's flock; for she was a shepherdess. 10 And when Jacob saw Rachel, the daughter of his uncle Laban, and the flock of his uncle Laban, Jacob went up and rolled the stone off the mouth of the well, and watered the flock of his uncle Laban. 11 Then Jacob kissed Rachel, and broke into tears. 12 Jacob told Rachel that he was her father's kinsman, that he was Rebekah's son; and she ran and told her father. 13 On hearing the news of his sister's son Jacob, Laban ran to greet him; he embraced him and kissed him, and took him into his house. He told Laban all that had happened, 14 and Laban said to him, "You are truly my bone and flesh."

When he had stayed with him a month's time, 15 Laban said to Jacob, "Just because you are a kinsman, should you serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?" 16 Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the older one was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. 17 Leah had weak eyes (lit., “soft eyes”); Rachel was shapely and beautiful. 18 Jacob loved Rachel; so he answered, "I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel." 19 Laban said, "Better that I give her to you than that I should give her to an outsider. Stay with me." 20 So Jacob served seven years for Rachel and they seemed to him but a few days because of his love for her.21 Then Jacob said to Laban, "Give me my wife, for my time is fulfilled, that I may cohabit with her." 22 And Laban gathered all the people of the place and made a feast. 23 When evening came, he took his daughter Leah and brought her to him; and he cohabited with her. — 24 Laban had given his maidservant Zilpah to his daughter Leah as her maid. — 25 When morning came, there was Leah! So he said to Laban, "What is this you have done to me? I was in your service for Rachel! Why did you deceive me?" 26 Laban said, "It is not the practice in our place to marry off the younger before the older. 27 Wait until the bridal week of this one is over and we will give you that one too, provided you serve me another seven years." 28 Jacob did so; he waited out the bridal week of the one, and then he gave him his daughter Rachel as wife. — 29 Laban had given his maidservant Bilhah to his daughter Rachel as her maid. — 30 And Jacob cohabited with Rachel also; indeed, he loved Rachel more than Leah. And he served him another seven years.

31 God saw that Leah was hated and God opened her womb; but Rachel was barren. 32 Leah conceived and bore a son, and named him Reuben; for she declared, "It means: 'God has seen my affliction'; it also means: 'Now my husband will love me."' 33 She conceived again and bore a son, and declared, "This is because God heard that I am hated and has given me this one also"; so she named him Simeon. 34 Again she conceived and bore a son and declared, "This time my husband will become attached to me, for I have borne him three sons." Therefore he was named Levi. 35 She conceived again and bore a son, and declared, "This time I will praise God." Therefore she named him Judah. Then she stopped bearing.

Chapter 30

1 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." 2 Jacob was incensed at Rachel, and said, "Can I take the place of God, who has denied you fruit of the womb?" 3 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." 4 So she gave him her maid Bilhah as concubine, and Jacob cohabited with her. 5 Bilhah conceived and bore Jacob a son. 6 And Rachel said, "God has vindicated me; indeed, God has heeded my plea and given me a son." Therefore she named him Dan. 7Rachel's maid Bilhah conceived again and bore Jacob a second son. 8 And Rachel said, "A fateful contest I waged with my sister; yes, and I have prevailed." So she named him Naphtali.

9 When Leah saw that she had stopped bearing, she took her maid Zilpah and gave her to Jacob as concubine. 10 And when Leah's maid Zilpah bore Jacob a son, 11Leah said, "What luck!" So she named him Gad. 12 When Leah's maid Zilpah bore Jacob a second son, 13 Leah declared, "What fortune!" meaning, "Women will deem me fortunate." So she named him Asher.

14 Once, at the time of the wheat harvest, Reuben came upon some mandrakes in the field and brought them to his mother Leah. Rachel said to Leah, "Please give me some of your son's mandrakes." 15 But she said to her, "Was it not enough for you to take away my husband, that you would also take my son's mandrakes?" Rachel replied, "I promise, he shall lie with you tonight, in return for your son's mandrakes." 16 When Jacob came home from the field in the evening, Leah went out to meet him and said, "You are to sleep with me, for I have hired you with my son's mandrakes." And he lay with her that night. 17 God heeded Leah, and she conceived and bore him a fifth son. 18 And Leah said, "God has given me my reward for having given my maid to my husband." So she named him Issachar. 19 When Leah conceived again and bore Jacob a sixth son, 20 Leah said, "God has given me a choice gift; this time my husband will exalt me, for I have borne him six sons." So she named him Zebulun. 21 Last, she bore him a daughter, and named her Dinah. 22 Now God remembered Rachel; God heeded her and opened her womb. 23 She conceived and bore a son, and said, "God has taken away my disgrace." 24 So she named him Joseph, which is to say, "May God add another son for me."

25 After Rachel had borne Joseph, Jacob said to Laban, "Give me leave to go back to my own homeland. 26 Give me my wives and my children, for whom I have served you, that I may go; for well you know what services I have rendered you." [Verses 27-42 tell the story of Jacob using breeding techniques to outsmart Laban and leave with a large herd of very healthy animals.] 43So the man grew exceedingly prosperous, and came to own large flocks, maidservants and menservants, camels and donkeys.

Chapter 35

16 They set out from Bethel; but when they were still some distance short of Ephrath, Rachel was in childbirth, and she had hard labor. 17 When her labor was at its hardest, the midwife said to her, "Have no fear, for it is another boy for you." 18 But as she breathed her last — for she was dying — she named him Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin. Thus Rachel died. She was buried on the road to Ephrath — now Bethlehem. 20Over her grave Jacob set up a pillar; it is the pillar at Rachel's grave to this day. 21 Israel journeyed on, and pitched his tent beyond Migdal-eder.

22 While Israel stayed in that land, Reuben went and lay with Bilhah, his father's concubine; and Israel found out. Now the sons of Jacob were twelve in number. 23 The sons of Leah: Reuben — Jacob's first-born — Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun. 24 The sons of Rachel: Joseph and Benjamin. 25 The sons of Bilhah, Rachel's maid: Dan and Naphtali. 26 And the sons of Zilpah, Leah's maid: Gad and Asher. These are the sons of Jacob who were born to him in Paddan-aram.

Questions for discussion

  1. What problems or questions do you find in this text?
  2. Which moments in this text seem most interesting or dramatic to you?
  3. What is your favorite moment in this story?

Song lyrics with discussion questions

Song lyrics with discussion questions

DNA O Sister

a song in Rachel’s voice, by Alicia Jo Rabins/Girls in Trouble

DNA O sister I am half you half me
in between the molecules I feel it when you breathe
late at night when all the house goes silent in their sleep
I will give you everything I promised him I’d keep

Older and younger and hunter and thief
which one is you, and which one is me
silver and water and petal and leaf

Some sisters stay home and some sisters leave
some sisters get what the other ones need
some sisters blossom and some sisters bleed

Both of us are braided through with candles blood and bread
both of us were born with all these visions in our head
you would always promise me that one day we’d be free
late at night I’m leaving and I’m taking you with me

Questions for Discussion

  1. This song imagines Rachel singing to Leah. How does it portray Rachel’s feelings towards her sister?
  2. Treasure hunt: how many elements of the Biblical and Midrashic text can you find in this song?
  3. What emotions does this song evoke for you? In the music? In the lyrics?

Footnoted song lyrics

Footnoted song lyrics

“DNA O Sister”, annotated

a song in Rachel’s voice, by Alicia Jo Rabins/Girls in Trouble

DNA O sister I am half you half me1
in between the molecules I feel it when you breathe2
late at night when all the house goes silent in their sleep
I will give you everything I promised him I’d keep3

Older and younger and hunter and thief4
which one is you, and which one is me
silver and water and petal and leaf5

Some sisters stay home and some sisters leave6
some sisters get what the other ones need7
some sisters blossom and some sisters bleed8

Both of us are braided9 through with candles blood and bread10
both of us were born with all these visions in our head11
you would always promise me that one day we’d be free12
late at night I’m leaving and I’m taking you with me13

1 In the context of Rachel and Leah, this phrase is based on thinking about the genetic and emotional aspects of biological sisterhood and how extreme closeness is also tied to the need to differentiate. It is also the title of the album on which this song appears, because “Half You Half Me” encapsulates the process of midrash-making I enter when writing a Girls in Trouble song - and perhaps the process of midrash-making in general - where an ancient character’s life intersects with my own. 

2 This line refers to the genetic closeness of biological sisters - the DNA molecules, their similarities, and their differences - as well as the possibility of extreme empathy towards one with such similar life experience.

3 In the midrashic interpretation, Rachel gives Leah everything she promised Jacob she’d keep - the passwords they had arranged to whisper under the veil, and by extension, their entire marriage.

4 “Hunter” refers to Jacob’s older brother Esau, in Genesis 25:27: “When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors; but Jacob was a mild man who stayed in camp.”

“Thief” is from Genesis 27:35: “Your brother [Jacob] came with guile and took away your blessing.”

This verse plays on the relationship between the two sisters and the relationship between Jacob and Esau, another pair of siblings where the younger has more power than the older, and deceit plays a major role in their relationship. I was inspired by a midrash which pointed out this parallel: “In the morning when he found out that he had been tricked by Leah, and he complained to her, she responded that she had learned from him to do this: when Isaac had asked him if he was his firstborn son Esau, he had answered in the affirmative. This is when Jacob began to hate Leah as we learn in Genesis 29:31: “And God saw that Leah was hated, and God opened her womb”.

--Daat Zkenim (Torah commentary from the 13th century)

5 “Silver and water” is (broadly) inspired by the elemental forces at play in this story, as well as the silver of a dowry, and the water from the well at the beginning of the story. “Petal and leaf” are biology metaphors, drawing again on the theme of DNA, family trees, reproduction, and genetic relationships.

6 I imagine Rachel as more of a go-getter, and Leah more of a homebody - perhaps because the Biblical story begins with Rachel appearing alone at the well. At this moment in the song, I imagine Rachel planning to escape her father by marrying Jacob, and at first telling herself that it is natural that Leah will be left behind with their rather unsavory father.

7 According to a literal reading of the Torah story, Rachel seems (rather unfairly) to get both the love and the beauty in the family. “Leah had weak eyes (lit., “soft eyes”); Rachel was shapely and beautiful” (Genesis 29:17)

8 This foreshadows the fact that Leah will have no trouble conceiving (“blossom”) but Rachel will struggle with infertility and bleed each month. The power dynamic flips in this line, as it does in the story.

9 The braid metaphor refers to the braided challah (see next note) as well as the image of a havdalah candle (not, strictly, part of the three simanim, but certainly related through both fire and Shabbat) - and finally, the structure of the DNA spiral that makes up our bodies and is a central metaphor in this song.

10 This refers to Midrash 3 above: “During the entire night Leah had pretended to be Rachel, using the three simanim (signs) that Rachel had given her: niddah [Jewish laws around menstruation], challah, and lighting of candles on Friday night, as Jacob had given them to Rachel.”--Daat Zkenim. See the Teacher’s notes above for more information on this midrash.

11 I imagine a version of the story in which despite their differences and tensions, both sisters grew up together in a difficult household - based on the actions of Laban in this story - and had rich inner lives, which they whispered about to each other, although these inner lives were likely invisible to everyone around them.

12 I imagine that Leah, as the older sister, felt the need to protect Rachel from their father who (based on later actions in this story) did not have their best interests at heart.

13 Here I dramatize Jacob, Rachel and Leah’s finally leaving the home of Lavan in Genesis 14:13-21. I imagine that (staying with the midrashic interpretation of the story) Rachel is aware that she has helped Leah escape with her. After all, if she hadn’t given Leah the passwords, Leah might still be at home, unmarried and alone with Lavan. Perhaps that was even in her mind earlier, as she decided to give Leah the passwords.

In general, I am fascinated by the shifting power dynamic between Rachel and Leah. Their relationship reflects a power flip that happens over and over in the Torah, where the older sibling is supposed to be more powerful, but the younger prevails. In this song, I imagine that when Rachel and Leah were young, Leah probably was more capable simply because she was older; and I imagine her feeling protective over her younger sister. But as young adults, Rachel turns out to be beautiful and beloved, while Leah is unloved, and therefore less powerful. However, the power flips again after the marriage, when Leah is able to birth male children one after the other, a source of power and pride in the world of the Torah, while Rachel struggles with infertility.

The end of the song gestures towards the loyalty and allegiance that can sometimes develop later in life between siblings who have a difficult relationship in youth. In the end of “Half You Half Me,” Rachel orchestrates their escape from their father’s house - and makes sure to bring Leah. I imagine a triumphant ending as the two sisters leave their father’s house together, still family, still imperfect, but choosing to build the next generation of their family together.  

Ideas to Jump-Start Your own Creative Interpretations

Ideas to Jump-Start Your own Creative Interpretations

Some Ideas to Jump-start Your Own Creative Interpretations

Try one of these:

Visual

  • Draw Leah and Rachel (realistic, stick figures, or abstract) - how do you imagine them to be similar and different?
  • Sketch the wedding scene. How do you imagine it looked? Where was Rachel?

Music

  • Write a love song from Rachel to Jacob, Leah to Jacob, or Jacob to either sister
  • Create a “mixtape” of songs that relate to this story. What would be the soundtrack of Rachel and Jacob’s relationship? Leah and Jacob’s? Leah and Rachel’s?

Movement

  • Choreograph a re-enactment of the wedding ceremony. This could be silent, or done with background music. How does Leah move; what does Rachel do; what does Jacob do when he lifts the veil? This could be one person playing multiple parts, or created by a group.
  • In chavruta: have one person play Rachel, and the other Leah, in a wordless conversation between the two sisters. How would each sister express her feelings towards the other through movement? Would the characters respond to each other, or ignore each other? Multiple chavrutas could work on this separately, then come back together to present, noticing similarities and differences among the groups.

Writing

  • Write a letter from Rachel to Jacob explaining why you chose to give the passwords to Leah
  • Write a letter from Leah to Rachel, expressing Leah’s feelings about her sister, at one of the following moments:
    • as a teenager, before Jacob comes to town
    • the day after the Leah and Jacob’s wedding;
    • a few years into the marriage, when Leah has many children and Rachel none;
    • soon after Rachel’s death
    • Summarize Rachel or Leah’s story in six words

    Or use one of these verses as a jumping-off point and write, draw, dance or sing about it:

    Then Jacob kissed Rachel, and broke into tears. (29:11)

    Leah had weak eyes (lit., “soft eyes”); Rachel was shapely and beautiful. (29:17)

    So Jacob served seven years for Rachel and they seemed to him but a few days because of his love for her. (29:20)

    When evening came, [Laban] took his daughter Leah and brought her to [Jacob]; and [Jacob] cohabited with her…When morning came, there was Leah! (29:23 & 25)

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Cover Art for "Rachel and Leah: Being Sisters"
Full image
Cover art by Uri Berkowitz for "Rachel and Leah: Being Sisters," a lesson plan from the "Girls in Trouble" curriculum by Alicia Jo Rabins.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Rachel and Leah: Being Sisters." (Viewed on December 17, 2017) <https://jwa.org/teach/girlsintrouble/rachel-and-leah-being-sisters>.

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