Posts Tagged ‘Genesis’

Rachel and Leah: Rivals into Allies?

November 13, 2021

It was my turn this Shabbat to deliver a d’var Torah (commentary) after the group discussion in Temple Sinai’s weekly Torah study class. This week’s portion, Vayetzei, covers Genesis 28:10 to 32:3, but the class discussion focused only on the final third. So I chose to center my presentation on an earlier section, the rivalry between Rachel and Leah. Here it is.

Like many of the parshot in Genesis, a lot happens during Vayetzei. Jacob sets out from his family’s home in Beersheva, both to flee the anger of Esau and to find a wife from among his mother Rebecca’s family. Lying down to sleep on a rock, he dreams of a ladder or ramp to heaven with angels going up and down. In his dream, God stands beside him and blesses him, saying his descendants shall spread out to the four corners of the earth and all the families of the earth will be blessed by them. 

Jacob wakes and names the site Beth-el, House of God, which is located about ten miles north of Jerusalem, near what today is the Palestinian city of Ramallah on the West Bank. 

Jacob continues on to Haran, which is quite a long journey, up through Syria into what is today Turkey. He meets his cousin Rachel at a well, much as Abraham’s servant found Isaac’s future wife Rebecca at a well. Rachel’s father Laban agrees to let him marry Rachel if he works unpaid for seven years; then on the wedding night, Laban tricks him by substituting Rachel’s older sister Leah—a parallel with how Jacob tricked his own father by pretending to be Esau. Laban requires Jacob to work without pay for another seven years in order to marry Rachel too. 

The Torah then enters into an extended section on the two sisters’ childbearing—or lack of childbearing. Eventually Jacob decides to return home, and there is an episode of one trickster tricking another trickster, with Jacob slyly arranging to get possession of many of Laban’s sheep and goats. That gets us up to the portion of Vayetzei that we read together today in class. 

But I’m going to return to that long section about childbearing and the relationship between Leah and Rachel. 

Rachel and Leah, as imagined by 19th century English poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. (It looks a little more like a romanticized Renaissance England than the ancient Middle East, don’t you think?)

The Torah tells us that Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah. “And God saw that Leah was unloved and he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren.” Leah conceives and bears one son—Reuben—then another, and another, and another— four sons in a row while Rachel can’t get pregnant. 

Both of these sisters are in deep emotional pain. 

Infertility is certainly traumatic, especially in a society like the ancient middle east where women were valued only as mothers of sons.  “Give me children, or I shall die,” Rachel pleads to Jacob in a dramatic statement of how crucial childbearing was to her.

But I felt an even deeper identification with Leah. She was married, presumably without any say in the matter, to a man who didn’t love her. When her first son is born she chooses the name Reuben, saying “It means the Lord has seen my affliction. It also means, ‘ Now my husband will love me.” But it doesn’t help. Whenher second son comes, shge says, “The Lord heard that I was unloved and has given me this one also.” And it doesn’t help. And then the third. She says, “This time my husband will become attached to me for I have borne him three sons.” And it still didn’t help.

She is doing everything in her power to win Jacob’s love —everything possible to fulfill the role expected of her, to provide healthy male heirs, everything that anyone in her world would ask of her—and it still doesn’t help. 

I imagine this desperate young woman, getting her hopes up over and over—this time it will work! this time it really will!—and each time it doesn’t. Haven’t we all been there at some time, trying so hard and yet knocked down over and over again? 

Perhaps when we were in our teens, infatuated with some boy or girl, convinced that If I wear my new red miniskirt, they’ll notice me! If I bake chocolate chip cookies, they’ll notice me! If I help them with their math homework, they’ll notice me! Trying over and over, so sincerely, and of course they don’t notice.

Or perhaps at work, trying to get a promotion: If I stay until 6 pm each night, they’ll notice me! If I turn in the most thorough report ever, they’ll notice me! If I learn to play golf, they’ll notice me! Trying over and over, playing by all the rules, and of course they don’t notice. Because you’re female, or Black, or you’ll never be one of the “old boys,” or whatever…. 

In those modern scenarios, the advice is clear: Leave. Find a new crush, find a new job. But Leah, as a wife in the ancient Middle East, had no option of leaving. And the stakes for her were so much higher than a junior-high crush or a promotion. This was pregnancy and childbirth—nine months of pregnancy, hours or days of labor, things that in those days truly risked death. But none of it made Jacob love her.

So the competition went on, dragging in other parties like a world war. After Leah’s fourth son, Rachel still can’t conceive and so gives her servant—her handmaid— Bilhah to Jacob as a concubine. 

(Just an aside: The Torah has Rachel saying to Jacob, “Here is my maid Bilhah. Consort with her, that she may bear on my knees and that through her I too may have children.” Some commenters including Robert Alter say that “bearing on my knees” refers to an ancient practice of placing children on someone’s knees as a ritual of adoption. But writer Margaret Atwood chose to take this literally in her patriarchal dystopia of The Handmaid’s Tale—this is the source for the horrible practice of the handmaid literally giving birth between the knees of the patriarch’s wife.)

But back to Rachel and Leah and their childbearing competition. Leah is ahead, 4 to nothing. But then Rachel’s servant Bilhah bears two sons by Jacob, and Rachel says “A fateful contest I waged with my sister, and I have prevailed.” You can imagine her doing an ancient Mesopatamian fist punch in the air. 

So Leah then gives Jacob her servant Zilpah, who bears two sons. This is starting to sound like the US-Soviet arms race. It parallels the sibling rivalry between Jacob and Esau, yet in some ways it is more intense and painful because both siblings were so aware of it—two women living side by side  in the same family compound for 20 years, with close-up, unavoidable views of each other’s ongoing victories and failings. 

It’s horrible to think of these two sisters in a permanent state of war. Some of the commentators seemed to think so too: There are midrashim that weave stories of empathy and solidarity between Leah and Rachel. 

One midrash from the Talmud says that Rachel knew in advance of Laban’s wedding-night trick, warned Jacob, and he came up with a way to defeat Laban’s scheme.

Jacob gave Rachel signs [so that he would be able to recognize her on their wedding night].

When Leah was brought under the wedding canopy, Rachel thought: “Now my sister will be shamed [when Jacob discovers the fraud and does not marry her].” She gave the signs to Leah.  (BT Bava Batra 123a).

According to the Rabbis, Laban would not have succeeded in deceiving Jacob without Rachel’s involvement. Rachel had to choose between her love for Jacob and her compassion for her sister, and she decided in favor of the latter. The most extreme description of Rachel’s act of self-sacrifice appears in Lam. Rabbah, according to which Rachel entered under Jacob and Leah’s bed on their wedding night. When Jacob spoke with Leah, Rachel would answer him, so that he would not identify Leah’s voice (Lam. Rabbah [ed. Vilna] petihtah 24).

I would like to think that, alongside the pain of infertility or being the second-choice wife, there was also empathy and solidarity between the sisters. Like the rest of the Torah, this parshah was written by men, from stories handed down by men, and this reproductive arms race may be their outsider’s view of what was going on within the family tent while the men were away with the flocks. 

Let’s look at what happens next, after Bilhah and Zilpah have each birthed two sons and the total son count is up to eight. Reuben, Leah’s oldest son, brings her some mandrakes that he finds in the field. (Mandrakes, having a root that is bizarrely shaped like a human figure, have been imagined in many cultures to bring fertility.)

Mandrake root / Photo by Jenny Laird

Rachel asks Leah for some of the mandrakes, hoping to cure her infertility. Leah at first refuses, saying, “Was it not enough for you to take away my husband, that you would also take my son’s mandrakes?” But then Rachel promises that Leah can sleep with Jacob that evening in exchange for the mandrakes, and Leah agrees. 

Leah goes out to meet Jacob that evening and tells him. “You are to sleep with me, for I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes.”

This is a truly shocking moment. Leah is in command for once—unlike her own wedding night, she has the power here. She is commanding Jacob to sleep with her. And not just commanding him, she is saying that she hired him, like you would hire a prostitute, like you would hire an ox to plow a field.

Perhaps her grief all those years was not just at being unloved—it was at being powerless, manipulated by her father in order to get more work out of Jacob, unable to choose her own fate. Here for once she is able to take fate into her own hands and turn the tables. Jacob in effect becomes a sex object here. 

It’s not pretty, but perhaps it was satisfying or even restorative for Leah. Perhaps Rachel wanted to give her this gift of momentary power. 

We don’t know. What we do know is that, three sons later, when Jacob is ready to leave Haran, the two sisters respond in unison.

“Then Rachel and Leah answered him, saying, ‘Have we still a share in the inheritance of our father’s house? Surely he regards us as outsiders, now that he has sold us and has used up our purchase price. Truly, all the wealth that God has taken away fronm our father belongs to us and to our children. Now then, do just what God as told you.”

In current slang, we might say there’s no daylight between the two sisters here. No rivalry, no disagreement. They have long been done with their father’s manipulation and are ready to leave—together—for Jacob’s promised land.

Dreams and Stories: Parshat Vayeishev

December 14, 2020

This past weekend it was my turn to deliver the D’var Torah (commentary on Torah, like a sermon) at Temple Sinai’s Zoom Shabbat service. The weekly Torah portion covered Genesis 37:1−40:23. Here’s what I wrote.

This week we begin the saga of Joseph, whose brothers bitterly called him “the master of dreams.” This will be a drash about dreams and the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. 

But this week also happens to be Chanukah, which gives us the opportunity to compare two very different set of brothers in Jewish history. 

The Maccabees were five brothers—sons of a Jewish priest—who with their father led a revolt against the Greek rulers of Judaea in the second century BCE; the success of their revolt is commemorated by Chanukah. We don’t have details about how those Maccabee brothers got along with each other. But to win a guerrilla war against such a powerful establishment they would have had to work together very well, to communicate with each other—in short to be unified.  

Joseph and his 11 brothers are a different matter. 

Rather than standing behind his father, one son, Reuben, sleeps with his father’s concubine. The sons identify themselves in factions based on their four different mothers—for instance, one verse tells us how Joseph worked as a helper “to the sons of his father’s wives Bilhah and Zilpah.” And the brothers are in conflict with Joseph from the very start of the story, partly due to Jacob favoring Joseph.

“And when [Joseph’s] brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him so that they could not speak a friendly word to him.”

The brothers hate Joseph so much they decide to kill him—then with a slight change in plans sell him into slavery—and lie to their father about his fate.

Given a choice, of course we would all want our children to be Maccabee siblings rather than Joseph’s siblings. 

So this is another way to think about the Chanukah miracle—not just the oil burning miraculously for eight days, not just feisty farmers miraculously defeating an imperial power—but five siblings who miraculously manage to respect each other and work together and learn from each other. 

In the unhappier story of Joseph, one of the things that turns his brothers against him are two dreams that he recounts to them—one where they’re all gathering wheat, and the brothers’ sheaves bow down to Joseph’s sheaves, and the other where the sun, moon, and eleven stars bow down to him. 

“His brothers answered, ‘Do you mean to reign over us? Do you mean to rule over us?’ And they hated him even more for his talk about his dreams.”

Dreams are perplexing. From the beginning of humankind, we’ve been mystified and terrified and inspired by dreams, and have struggled to understand where they come from and what they mean. 

One of the oldest ways of making sense of dreams is to view them as direct messages from a supernatural being. We see that earlier in the Torah, when we are told that God came to King Abimelech in a dream and ordered him not to marry Sarah. 

Another approach is to view dreams as portents of the future—not as direct as Abimelech’s “phone call” from God, but something that, if interpreted properly, lets you know in advance what will happen. Joseph does this kind of interpreting in Egypt when he says that Pharoah’s dream of seven fat cows followed by seven gaunt cows is a prediction of good harvests followed by famine. 

More than a century ago, Freud suggested that dreams are the upwelling of uncomfortable or taboo thoughts that we shut out from our conscious minds. 

Neuroscientists today would give us an explanation based on brain circuitry. Our Aunt Sadie might say bad dreams are a result of too many latkes and sufganiot. The Talmud suggests that a dream is 1/60th of a prophecy…. and these are just some of the different ways that people have to tried make sense of the phenomenon of dreaming. 

I’d like to go in a slightly different direction. Let’s set aside the biological or mystical reasons Joseph had those dreams, and not worry about whether they came from God or from a latke overdose. 

Let’s think about Joseph’s dreams as stories. And let’s look at the function that those dreams—or stories—played within his already-conflicted family.

Here we have a family riven by power inequity. As the late-in-life child of Jacob’s favorite wife Rachel, Joseph came into the world with an advantage over his brothers. He was Jacob’s favorite from the start, even though the others were older. Jacob showed his favoritism with the gift of that famous, beautiful, many-colored coat. You might say Joseph was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. You might say he was born with privilege.

His brothers didn’t like that. Joseph must surely have been aware of their resentment.

And so—here we are getting away from text and into speculation, but bear with me—perhaps these stories of the sheaves and the stars were intended to justify his privilege

Perhaps Joseph shared those dreams of the bowing sheaves and stars to explain why he deserved his special status within the family:

“See? Dad was right to give me that coat—Dad is right to single me out—because I’m special! These dreams say so, and dreams don’t lie!” 

Even if Joseph didn’t intend it that way, that could easily have been the message that his brothers took from those dreams. 

The dreams were stories that filled a function—rightly or wrongly—of justifying Joseph’s status as the privileged, favorite child. 

The dreams provided a rationale for injustice in the small, intimate world of Jacob’s family.

Similarly, societies create stories to rationalize their injustices. This can happen through scientific and historic myth-making—for instance, when 19th century white male scientists claimed that women and black people were naturally inferior because they supposedly had smaller skull sizes. 

Today we live in a society that, like Joseph’s family, is riven by power inequity. Whatever metric you choose—money, housing, healthy food, good medical care, job options, a sense of physical safety, connections to people who run our institutions—some people have a lot and others have very little. 

The people who have a lot often tell stories that explain why they deserve it. Like Joseph’s dream, their stories paint their privilege as part of the natural order—logical, unarguable, even just.

“I came up with a better idea.” “I’m smarter than those other guys.” “I worked my butt off, and they’re just plain lazy.” “I pulled myself up by my bootstraps.” 

Parts of those stories may be true. But there’s usually more to it than that.

Most of us in this Zoom service benefit from some kind of privilege. You don’t have to be Bill Gates or live in a mansion to benefit from privilege. We can be powerful in one facet of our lives, yet vulnerable in other facets. 

For instance, as a white person I feel a sense of physical safety around police officers that many people of color wouldn’t feel. That’s privilege. Yet as a woman, I feel vulnerable walking past a construction site of cat-calling men. Powerful in one area; not so powerful in the other. 

As a child, I grew up with immense class and race privilege that I took for granted. I never noticed it because it seemed so normal to me. I had a father who earned enough money that my mother could stay home and give us huge amounts of attention. A public school that was wealthy enough to have an orchestra and lend us violins to take home! Streets that were safe and stores that welcomed our teenage browsing, even if we didn’t buy anything. Relatives who were lawyers and doctors and so made the question for me not IF I would go to college but WHERE I would go to college….

Put that all together, and I grew up with a sense that the world valued me and was safe for me. A belief that I could go out into that world and use my voice and take risks and succeed.  

That all seemed as natural as air to me, just as Jacob’s preferential love must have seemed as natural as air to Joseph.

And yet so many people don’t have all or even a part of that.

In telling the story of our own successes, honesty requires us to acknowledge our privilege—the places where we’ve benefitted from an uneven playing field. 

Jewish ethics then requires us to seek ways to even out that playing field. 

I invite you to take a minute now to think about your own life. In what ways, are you privileged? 

Have you benefited from advantages of economic class, race, gender, sexual orientation? From being part of a religious or ethnic majority? From birth order? From other kinds of privilege? 

Now consider the stories that you use to explain your own successes—to yourself, and also to others.  How honest are your stories? Do they acknowledge the role of privilege as well as personal initiative? Do your stories provide room for other people to succeed too? 

Do your stories build other people up or tear them down?

Imagine, for a moment, if Joseph had dreamed a different dream and told his brothers a different story. Say it was a story that instead of aggrandizing his own success, showed how he was connected with his brothers. That acknowledged his privilege, but showed how he could use it to elevate all of them. Perhaps:

I dreamed that twelve sheaves of wheat stood in a circle, side by side. One sheaf was taller since those stalks had received a lot more water. Its height attracted the notice of the king’s steward, who bought all twelve sheaves for a very high price and had them milled into flour for the most exquisite cakes—cakes whose recipes have been passed down through 4000 years of history.

With such a story, Joseph might not have ended up in a pit. He and his siblings might have been a family of Maccabees after all. 

Shabbat shalom.