Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Vayetze (Torah)

“In a dream, in a vision of the night” (Job 33:15)

This parshah begins a series of four successive Torah portions, each one of which opens with a vision, a dream, or an incident somewhere in the hazy realm between reality and dream. Jacob‘s laying his head down to sleep on top of a rock at Bethel and seeing the vision of the angels; his struggle with the mysterious figure at the River Yabbok; Joseph’s dreams; and even Pharaoh’s dreams, which catalyzed Joseph’s release from the dungeon and his ascent to greatness.

What is going on here? Maimonides’ description, at the end of the Guide to the Perplexed, of the various different levels of prophecy, comes to mind: that besides those singular individuals, of whom Moses is the prime and possibly exclusive example, who speak with God “face to face,” there are lower levels of divine communication with man, through dreams and visions—particularly when his mundane, pragmatic, action-oriented day-time consciousness is asleep.

Thus the patriarchs, following Abraham, are seen as visionaries. The common denominator of theses four visions may be that they mark important motifs in Jewish history: the promise of the Land and, according to some midrashim, a vision of the whole sweep of future Jewish history, including subjugation to the “four kingdoms”; the ongoing conflict with Esau and the nations of the world; and the exile in Egypt, which is the necessary prelude to the Exodus and the revelation at Sinai, for which the dreams of Joseph and Pharaoh are the catalyst.

The dreams and visions punctuate the other Torah narratives, which describe real-life events. The late Lubavitcher Rebbe used to emphasize that the title scene of each portion in some sense sets the tone for the whole. Here, the dominant theme seems to be the movement from the first patriarch, Abraham, “the lover of God,” to that of the other patriarchs as visionary prophets. (Although this is already foreshadowed by Abraham at the Brit bein Habetarim, the Covenant of the Pieces, where he is made to fall asleep and the whole mysterious business of God passing by with a torch between the pieces of the slaughtered animals occurs while he is asleep. Or again, Adam, on whom a deep sleep is cast while Eve is created from his rib: suggestive of an equation of the emergence of the feminine with the unconscious; Jung’s theory of the animus and anima, the opposite-sexed counterpart present in each individuals’ unconscious, also comes to mind here).

The Setting

At times it seems that the Torah can be read as a drama, each weekly portion representing a new scene, with its own stage setting, cast of characters, internal dramatic development, and even its own sights, sounds and smells. Vayetze begins with the symbolic crossing over out of the Land of Israel (even though the place we know as Bethel is in its very heartland); the rest of the parshah is set on Lavan’s “turf,” the fertile land east of Eretz Yisrael, somewhere in what is today Syria, in the northern end of the Fertile Crescent. One is overpowered here by the feeling of fecundity which seems to emerge from its dark, rich soil. So we read here of matings and birthings—of people, of flock, as if the fertility of the land spills over into the animal and human worlds. Leah and Rachel’s rivalry to bear Yaakov’s children; the teen-age Reuven’s awareness of the aphrodisiac powers of the mandrake fruit which he plucks for his mother; Yaakov’s manipulation of the sticks at the troughs where his flocks mated; Rachel’s frank reference to her own menstruation (which seems like an excuse, possibly untrue, intended to conceal her culpability in the theft of the teraphim), the like of which I do not offhand recall anywhere else in Tanakh; all these give the feeling that one is dealing here with a world overflowing with fertility and sexuality. Perhaps because these are the concrete problems of the real world with which Yakov needs to deal…

Portrait of the Patriarch as a Young Man

The account of Yaakov’s life may be read as what the Germans call a Bildungsroman: the story of the development and maturation of a single character over a lifetime, the significant changes he undergoes, and through it all his discovery of the meaning of a life truly and well lived. Avraham faced ten tests in the realm of religious faith; to my mind, Yaakov may be described as facing trials in the area of human relations, learning to deal with a variety of interpersonal difficulties. At the beginning, Yaakov seems like a double of his father, with all of the problematic nature of Yitzhak’s character: playing out with Esau the same initial pattern as did Yitzhak with Ishmael. He stays at home when his brother goes out; he hides behind his mother’s apron strings, and has to be pushed by her into bold and dangerous action. During this phase, his main ways of coping with life getting what he wants are either through deceit and underhandedness, or flight—the typical refuges of the weak. He is not strong enough to confront Esau head on, “man to man.” Once deceit no longer works, he flees to Padan Aram. Again, his mother explains this to his father in a more palatable way, telling a plausible half truth—not that his life is in danger through fratricide, but that she’s worried he might marry a shikse (non-Jewish girl). We again see the conspiracy between mother and son vs. the world of masculine authority, concealing unpleasant facts from father—and in the process perhaps giving the lad the message that adult men are irrelevant fools who can be put off by lies when convenient; hardly an inspiring model for emulation!

The changes really begin when he leaves home. At the home of Lavan, he needs to deal with issues of deceit and underhandedness from the other end of the stick: he confronts a character who uses dishonesty and formal legalistic loopholes, not as the perhaps justifiable refuge of the weak, but as a life tactic of pure wickedness and selfishness. Yaakov starts as “the bright young man,” subservient to Lavan; by the end, he is able to hold his own against him as an equal, as a substantial baalebos (householder) with property and wives and children.

He also has to deal with the world of women —a polygamous household of wives and concubines vie for his attentions and jockey with one another for position. In this setting, one gets the feeling that he is a far cry from the dependent, passive Yizhak seeking to be mothered by Rivkah. One only needs to look at his initial romantic encounter with Rachel to know that he is a very different type. By the time he leaves Lavan, you feel that he is the master of the house, and is definitely in control -- of his household and extended family, and of his relations with his father in-law, which are of necessity correct but cold, and protective of his vital interests.

The climax comes in Parshat Vayishalah, with the renewed meeting with Esau— but on that, next week.

VAYETZE: Some Afterthoughts

On Shabbat Vayetze I was privileged to read the Torah portion in my synagogue. The process of preparing the reading, coupled with the attention to the words one must give when reading the Torah publicly, and not merely listening passively to the reading, made me aware of numerous nuances and turns of phrase I’d never noticed before. Since they say a good question is at least as valuable as a clever answer (and probably more definitely valid), I would like to (belatedly) share some of these with my readers:

1. Following the vision of the ladder and the angels, and God’s promise to him, Yaakov awakens, to express his sense of being overwhelmed by the Divine Presence in this place (Gen 28:16); two verses later, it states that he work up early in the morning and made a vow to God (v. 18). It’s interesting that he fell asleep again after such an overwhelming epiphany; secondly, what is the reason for the difference between the words used for awakening on the two occasions: va-yikatz and vayashkem? (And, re our theme this year, what light, if any, does this shed on the use of the phrase hekitzoti ki yismekehni in Psalm 3:6, which we studied on Toldot?).

2. My friend Shmuel Hoyland noted that both Abraham and Jacob are told that their seed will inherit the four corners of the land. But, whereas in Lekh lekha (Gen 13:14) the sequence is north–south–east–west, in Vayetze (28:14) it is west-east–north-south. why? One explanation is that it depended which away he was facing. Assuming that in the former case Abraham was facing the plain of the Jordan valley which had just been allotted to Lot, while at Beth-el Jacob was facing north, the direction in which he was traveling, the sequence relative to the body is the same: left-right-front-back.

Or: in the former case he was concerned with the inheritance of Eretz Yisrael, whose north-south axis is the longer one, while in the latter he speaks of his descendants, and their dispersion throughout the world, along the axis of the “Great Sea,” i.e., the Mediterranean, which runs east-west.

3. In 30:14-16, Yaakov’s sexual services are traded off by his two wives as if he were a prize stud bull—a passage that seems rather strange, at least to our own sensibility. Moreover, they also decide that he will sleep with their respective maidservants (30:3-4, 9), and he doesn’t seem to have much say in the matter. In general, what was his relationship with Rachel? To be sure, it started as a great romantic love, that enabled him to work seven long years while feeling as if they were but a few days (29:30)—although, reading closely, we hear of Yaakov’s great love, but not of her reciprocation of this feeling; in actual life, she was embittered by her barrenness. Almost the only recorded words spoken between them are the bitter recriminations she hurls against him, “give me a child or I shall die” (30:1-2).

Shortly thereafter she is willing to forfeit a night with him in exchange for the dudaim. What were these and how were they understood? Variously translated as “mandrake” or “love-fruit,” it seems to have been a plant attributed with quasi-magical powers, whether to assure fertility or to win back lost love. But whatever it was botanically, and whatever its function (aphrodisiac or fertility?), I see it as an example of what Marxist philosophers call “reification”—the substitution of an inanimate object for real, living human relations or fulfillments. (Marxists, of course, use the term mostly to describe the alienation inherent in a social order based upon money.)

4. The lengthy passage about animal husbandry (30:28-43; 31:8-12): I’ve commented about this in the past, but every time I read it I’m struck again by the scene. Both by Laban’s hypocrisy, and by the contrast between the machinations of Jacob as described in 30:28-43, which are clearly based on a belief in the efficacy of pre-natal influence (the females seeing striped stocks of wood at the moment of conception), and the vision he describes later when recounting the story to his wives in 31:8-12, in which he sees that the he-goats mounting the nannies were all speckled or spotted—i.e., straightforward genetic inheritance. Many years ago I read an article in Tradition that related this dispute to the controversy between Soviet & Western genetics, viz. the role of environment and conditioning vs. inheritance; i.e., nurture vs. nature, or Lysenko vs. Mendelian genetics.

5. I mentioned last week that, at the beginning of the parshah, Jacob was fleeing from his brother Esau (hence the choice of Psalm 3 as the psalm for Vayetze), even though that word is not used at all in 28:10-22. But it is actually at the end of the parsha that one is struck by the repeated use of the term boreah, “flee”—four times in the space of a handful of verses, in 31:20, 21, 22, 27—in the context of Laban’s interpretation of Jacob’s actions. What does this show us about the relationship between Jacob and Laban, and what does it illustrate about Laban’s hypocrisy: a man who presents a benevolent face, as if all that concerned him was his daughters’ and grandchildren’s welfare, and that had he known he would have brought a whole band to celebrate their departure! The original Kozak nigzal (“the Cossack who complains about being robbed”)!

This picture is in no way exaggerated, but is very true to life. I know of at least one person, a client who has repeatedly cheated me in business matters, who acts as if she is my best friend and confidant until the moment when I expect to be paid for the work I’ve done, at which point she claims not to understand why I am “inexplicably” angry at her, berating her “for no reason,” etc.

6. I noticed the use of the term “my brothers” by Jacob, in 31:46, 54. Clearly, it cannot refer to Esau. It can only refer to his comrades, his friends and supporters there in Padan Aram; but who could these be other than his own sons? Even the oldest among them was barely bar mitzvah age at that point—we hardly encounter here the tall, strong strapping young men who assist him later on.

7. In 31:44-54, at the end, Laban and Yaakov set up a border defining the “turf’ of each and perform a ceremony of peace–making, at which they lay down double markers to designate the “boundary” between their respective turfs: a single stone referred to as a matzevah, and a heap of stones called a gal. Why are both needed? Also interesting here is the reference by the two to different gods, invoking syncretistic religious terminology: Lavan invokes “the God of Nahor and the God of Abraham” while Jacob calls upon “the Fear of his father Isaac” (31:53). Was this the first interfaith prayer session ever? Note Yaakov’s cautious use of language here.

A Tale of Two Women

One of the focii of this week’s parsha is the story of the two sisters who are also rival wives of the same man, and their competition for the love of that man, both through a “race” to bear more children, and other means. There are many important lessons to be learned about human psychology from this chapter. If one were cynical, one could say that here, as in the previous portion, we find a portrait of a dysfunctional family, albeit of a very different coloration. There, in the home of Yitzhak and Rivkah and their two sons, one could almost imagine oneself in a Strindberg or Chekhov play, with the walls closing in on the small, private world of the principles and the stark drama of the emotions pulling them in different ways. Here, the stage is filled with life and fecundity; we can imagine the numerous sons of the various mothers, in a few years growing into strapping, energetic, rough and ready young men, rough-clothed in shepherd’s tunics, breathing in the brisk air of the Transjordanian steppes.

But that is not my subject today. Rav J. B. Soloveitchik once spoke of the two sisters as typifying different aspects of the feminine. Rachel is a tragic, almost sacrificial figure, whose very name means “lamb,” the archetypal sacrificial animal. According to the midrash, she exhibits self-abnegating nobility by giving her sister/rival the secret signs she had arranged with Yaakov, so that she, Leah, will not be shamed on her wedding night. But she is also the object of romantic love, being more beautiful and more beloved than her sister. But somehow, I imagine her beauty, not as the rosy-checked, robust beauty of a peasant girl, but as touched with melancholy, like a certain type of Eastern European Jewish beauty.

Paradoxically, though she is better loved than her Leah, she has a less fulfilled life: she has only two children, the first only after a long wait, and the second who causes her death in childbirth. Her life cut short, she is depicted by the prophet Jeremiah and by Midrash as longing, from her grave, for her children’s and step-children’s return from exile. Her life seems to be overshadowed by the question as to whether she has the simple strength and animal vitality to “make it” in life; she seems like an ancient prototype of those romantic heroines who swoon and fade away on their sick-beds at an early age, whose very vulnerability causes men to want to protect from the roughness and ravages of everyday life.

Leah, by contrast, is the exemplary baalebuste: efficient, well-organized, a devoted and good mother and home-maker, who takes easily to bearing and raising children, with the broad shoulders and physical stamina to run a large household. Withal, she does not excite her husband’s deepest passions, although he no doubt respects and admires her for her practical talents; she does not have the mysterious, soulful beauty of her sister; she is not ugly, but perhaps plain-looking, with “weak” eyes. Her name, “Leah,” elicits the idea of tiredness, or even exhaustion, after performing the multi-faceted practical task of life.

These two women are reflected, according to the Rav, in their respective sons, who at a later stage compete for the leadership of the clan of Jacob/Israel en-route to becoming the Jewish people: the practical, down-to-earth, convivial Judah, and the dreamy, narcissistic, somewhat aloof, excessively “pure” Joseph. Interestingly, this contrast may be seen as being foreshadowed earlier on, in Parashat Bereshit, in the two wives of Lemekh: Adah and Tzillah. Rashi (at Gen 4:19; based upon Gen. Rab. 23.2) states rather bluntly, that “one was for intercourse and one for reproduction”—that is, one was to intended to fulfill the erotic-romantic needs of her husband, and the other to be the mother of his children. Putting aside for the moment that both of them are described in the very next verses as bearing two children, this remark reflects a very real, and contemporary, problem—the divorce of sex from the broader social context of family, community, etc., as if it is a pleasure that can be enjoyed in isolation from “real” life. To put it in rather vulgar terms: woman as Madonna or as whore.

It occurred to me that, while on the literal level the Torah is clearly speaking here of two real women, on an allegorical level the two may be read as archetypes, reflecting a certain duality (or even multiplicity?) in the expectations, wishes and fantasies that men bring to their encounters with women. (And in today’s society, in which women are often as active as men in selecting a partner, the same duality holds in the opposite direction: viz. the romantic a/o emotionally sensitive man vs. the conventional roles of man as professional success, breadwinner, etc. ) All this creates much confusion, conflict and frustration in both personal and public life. The desired path, clearly, is integration, rather than bifurcation and constant discontent.

More on the Tale of Two Women

The Book of Genesis is known for its profound family stories and its portrayals, using a minimum of words, of human relations. In the first half of the book, we encounter three pairs of brothers between whom there is intense rivalry and antagonism: usually resolved with either the threat or the reality of violence, followed by the exile and flight of one or another. It is thus with Cain and Abel, with Isaac and Ishmael, and with Esau and Jacob. In Parshat Vayetze, for the first and possibly only time in the Bible, we have a tale of two sisters and their complex, bitter–sweet relations. (The only other sisters I can think of in the people are the five daughters of Zelophehad [Num 27:1-11; 36], who act in concert for their common interest; the mythic Ohalah and Ohalivah, symbols for the twin kingdoms of Judah and Israel in Ezekiel 23; and Ruth and Orpah—but the latter is a pale, insignificant figure who drops off early in the story, serving only as a foil to the main figure.)

Of course, the relations of Laban’s two daughters, Leah and Rachel, are colored from the beginning by the fact that they must struggle for the love of the same man—a situation that is proscribed after the giving of the Torah, during their common lifetime. (Interesting, in this respect our PM resembles the Patriarch Jacob– albeit he married them serially and not simultaneously.)

Our story may be divided into three episodes or sections. First, the marriage. Jacob thought he was marrying Rachel and was given Leah instead, with the rather lame excuse that “it is not done in our place, to give the younger before the older” (Gen 29:26). Leah, in danger of being left as an unattractive old maid with “weak eyes,” overshadowed by an attractive and vivacious younger sister, was married off first by her father in compensation. She herself is portrayed as passive in the whole process. It is interesting that a popular midrash states that Rachel, notwithstanding the rivalry with her sister, acted in collusion with her to prevent her being found out on her wedding night, disclosing the secret signs that Jacob had given her. This selfless act seems characteristically feminine. One could say that women’s lives oscillate between competition with other women for available attractive men, and sisterly solidarity against the world of masculinity, with its power and control of the great world, but its obtuseness to the subtleties of the emotions and intimate familial life.

The second “episode,” which in reality extends over many years, is that of childbearing. In essence, the process of childbirth becomes a kind of competition between the two to produce more children for Jacob. God Himself, seeing that Leah through no fault of her own was “hated,” or at least “unloved,” blesses her with fertility while Rachel remains barren. Each child born is given a name indicative of its mother’s hopes that now her husband will love her. The maidservants, given to each of them by their father as assistants, are also enlisted in this competition, serving as kind of ”surrogate wombs” for their respective mistresses. Thus, when Bilhah bears a child “on behalf of” Rachel, the latter names him Naphtali because, “I have had terrific struggles (naftulei elohim niftalti) with my sister, and I have overcome” (30:8).

Along the way, we have the incident of the dudaim. Leah’s eldest son, by now nearly an adolescent, finds some of these “love fruits” (mandrakes?) in the field, brings them to his mother, and Rahel asks for them. In the only direct conversation between the two sisters recorded in these chapters, their bitter rivalry for love of the same man becomes explicit. Leah says: ”You have taken my husband; now you want my dudaim as well?! (30:14-15). In face of this anger, she decides to pay something in exchange: the privilege of sleeping with Jacob that night (a symbol of sexuality in exchange for actual sex?).

What were these dudaim? It was doubtless a rather rare and hence valuable fruit or plant, considered a highly potent erotic charm—perhaps an aphrodisiac, a charm for winning love, or a cure for barrenness. Some say it was reminiscent in shape of a a miniature human being, or perhaps of a phallus. The very name, which is a hapyx-legomena, is suggestive of love. The noun dod means a “dear one,” and is used to designate both a lover and an uncle. In the plural, it refers to love, and unlike ahavah, which denotes the whole gamut of emotions, from erotic or romantic love, through platonic love, parental love, or love between man and God, it specifically denotes erotic love. It is a Song of Songs word, appearing in that book over thirty times in its various forms. In several places, it is used to refer to physical love–making in most explicit terms: “there I will give you my love” (Cant 7:13); or even of grossly carnal, illicit love, as of the two sisters Ohalah and Ohalivah in Ezek 23:17 {mishkav dodim}, or of the seductive temptress, the classical “bad woman” in Proverbs 7:18, who speaks of “having our fill of love” (narveh dodim). In light of all these usages, there was surely a keen sense of irony at play when Rav Soloveitchik entitled his eulogy to his uncle, Rev Velvel of Brisk, Mah dodekh mi-dod (”What is your beloved/uncle among all the beloved/uncles?”—Cant 5:9-10).

But to return from my digression into the philology of the erotic: In the third section, the account of the various childbirths is concluded, and the Torah turns to a different kind of fecundity: Jacob’s experiments in animal husbandry, to increase the quantity and quality of his flock. Once this is accomplished, after another six years have passed, God instructs him to leave Lavan (31:3ff.), and he calls his two wives to him, “to the field, to the flock” to tell them of his frustrations with their father, his employer. They answer in unison, “Are we not considered as strangers,” etc. (vv. 14-16). In other words, they act together, sharing their husbands harsh critique of their father, in declaring that they have both made their lives irrevocably with their (shared) husband, for good or for bad, wherever he may take them.

The incident of the theft of the teraphim, and Rachel’s use of menstruation (real or feigned) to prevent Laban from searching under the camel saddle on which she was sitting, is interesting and more than a little puzzling, but concerns Rachel as an individual and sheds no further light on the relationship between the two. Interestingly, the two sisters are generally silent in other matters. Rachel dies on the way back to Eretz Yisrael, in Beth-lehem (almost certainly not Bethlehem of Judah, where her alleged tomb is located, but somewhere in the Ephraimite hill-country north of Jerusalem). Unlike Sarah or Rivkah, Leah does not comment to Jacob about any of the problems or decisions he encounters later in life, least of all the conflict among their sons, and between her sons and Joseph—not as a confidante, nor to give unsolicited advice, and certainly not as an initiator, as Rebekka was in extracting the blessing from the blind and feeble Isaac.


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