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Torah Sparks

Parashat Vayetze
November 29, 2014 – 7 Kislev 5775

Annual (Genesis 28:10 - 32:3): Etz Hayim p. 166; Hertz p. 106
Triennial: Genesis 30:14 - 31:16): Etz Hayim p. 176; Hertz p. 111
Haftarah (Hosea 12:13 – 14:10): Etz Hayim, p. 189; Hertz p. 118

Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, SC

Fleeing from his angry brother, Jacob falls asleep and dreams of a ladder with angels ascending and descending, and God promising Jacob the blessings of his ancestors. Inspired, Jacob names the place Beth-El and continues to Haran. Jacob falls in love with Rachel, and her father, Laban, agrees to let them marry if Jacob works for him for seven years. But Jacob is tricked into marrying Rachel’s older sister, Leah, and only marries Rachel once he agrees to work another seven years.

Jacob favors Rachel, but she is barren; Leah bears Jacob several sons. Jacob also has sons with Rachel’s and Leah’s handmaidens. Finally, Rachel gives birth to Joseph; after years of sibling rivalry, Jacob has 11 sons and one daughter.

Jacob seeks independence from Laban after serving him for 20 years. Laban uses nefarious means to stand in Jacob’s way, but they eventually reach an agreement.

Theme #1: Love Potion #9

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.” 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.” (Genesis 30:14-15)

After knowing next to nothing about Leah and Rachel's sibling rivalry, we find that their frustrations finally boil to the surface.

Rachel desired what her sister had -- both Leah’s fertility and the very close relationship she had with her firstborn. Maybe she means: “Please give me some of your son’s mandrakes -- your son’s love and affection.” Whatever Rachel desires, we know how important it is to her as well as to her sister, when Leah exclaims: “Was it not enough for you to have taken my husband, that you would also take my son’s mandrakes?” Rachel’s desire for the mandrakes is seen to be as crucial in Leah’s eyes as her winning Jacob’s affection. -- Norman J. Cohen, Self, Struggle & Change

The plant is used especially, as in our biblical narrative, as an aphrodisiac and as an antidote to barrenness. It is thus mentioned, for example, by the Greek comic dramatist Alexis, and Aphrodite, the goddess of love, was sometimes styled, “Our Lady of the Mandrake.” The Hebrew word rendered “mandrake” is indeed connected with a verbal root meaning “to love” and has its English counterpart in the popular term, “love-apple.” … In Germany and some other parts of Europe it was customary to place mandrakes under a bridal bed. -- Theodor H. Gaster

Each of Jacob’s sons came to be celebrated as the eponymous ancestor of a tribe. Yet all the allusions in the present account are personal, not tribal, in marked contrast with the analogous poetic passages. This implies a distinctive tradition. Moreover, we find here a hint of agricultural pursuits, as opposed the prevailing pastoral background in other sections; this would accord with the indicated locale in Central Mesopotamia. -- E.A. Speiser, Genesis

Questions for Discussion:

Cohen delves into the personal desires of both Leah and Rachel. To what extent are their desires based on jealousy? To what extent are they based on a desire to feel close to another person, be it their husband or a child of their very own? Should it matter why Leah and Rachel feel the way they feel? Is it not enough that they are asking for their own very human needs to be met? How do we evaluate the “merit” of other peoples’ desires?

To Gaster, Leah wants the mandrakes in no small part because she seeks love, as the Hebrew word for mandrake clearly implies. How does the love that Leah desires compare to the love that Jacob feels toward Rachel? Is it possible for one kind of love to be more or less pure than another kind? Is it possible that Leah does not necessarily need Jacob to love her more than he loves Rachel, and would be satisfied if Jacob loves her the same amount? How can one quantify the level of love that one feels?

Speiser explains that the agricultural element in these stories reflect an agrarian mindset unique in the Ancient Near East. How important is it for us to see that the Torah as unique? Is it helpful to see the Torah in the context of the time it was written? How would our understanding of the text change if we ignored Ancient Near Eastern parallels?

Theme #2: “Morning, Joe!”

Now God remembered Rachel; God heeded her and opened her womb. She conceived and bore a son, and said, “God has taken away my disgrace.” So she named him Joseph, which is to say, “May the Lord add another son for me.” (Genesis 30:22-24)

Finally a mother, Rachel exclaims her relief of bearing a son -- and immediately hopes for more children.

Rachel's first child, born of her womb, is Joseph. One explanation of the name comes from the verb “gather, take away”; the other from “to add,” and thus directs one’s attention in advance to Rachel’s other son, who will be born much later, to Benjamin. -- Gerhard von Rad, Genesis

With the announcement about Joseph, the birth narrative is completed. It opens and closes with the use of the divine name YHVH. -- The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, Commentary by Nahum Sarna

[Rachel said,] for I became a disgrace because I was barren, and [people] would say about me that I would ascend to the portion of Esau. -- Rashi on 30:23

Questions for Discussion:

Von Rad explains that Joseph’s name means two different things at the same time. What other words (Hebrew or English) have dueling meanings? How does the dichotomy of Joseph’s name symbolize the mixed feelings found throughout the Torah portion? Does Rachel inspire mixed feelings from those who read her story, or are they mainly positive or negative ones? Is it possible that while she feels happy finally to have a child of her own yet, simultaneously, she is still frustrated that Leah has so many more children?

Sarna’s observation allows us to see that God’s presence bookends the stories of the births of Jacob’s children (other than that of Benjamin). How do we allow God to bookend our lives? What rituals enable us to do so?

Rashi understands Rachel to be ashamed of her prior barrenness, fearing that she would have among the worst reputations possible. When is it healthy to have a concern for our reputation? When is it not? Do we bear responsibility for clarifying a negative reputation when it is undeserved? Do we have a similar responsibility when a reputation becomes positive? How worried should we be about what other people think of us?

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