One of our rabbinic traditions (Vayikra Rabbah 7:3) stipulates that a child’s biblical education should begin with the book of Leviticus: “Let the pure ones learn about purity” is the thinking behind this. Most modern Jews frown in amazement when they hear of this, and wonder whether Leviticus, with all of its laws dealing with sacrificial offerings and other priestly issues, is really the place to start? Most people will say children should begin their study with the book of Genesis.
We’re not now reading Leviticus and so need not deal with this question regarding that book. But if we consider Genesis, which we are reading, do we really think that it is a good place to begin educating our young ones?
Let’s take a look at what we’ve covered over the last few months, about half-way through the first book of the Torah: One man kills his own brother, another man almost kills his own son. One mother drives away her husband’s son, born to him from another woman, while another mother favors one son and her husband favors the other. Husbands present their wives as their sisters to other, more powerful men who, they suspect, want to sleep with their wives. And of course, there is plenty of sibling rivalry: Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob. And now, this Shabbat, we reach a new level with two sisters, Leah and Rachel, both married to Jacob, each wife trying increasingly harder to win her husband’s heart through giving him more sons.
The text goes back and forth, first with Leah giving birth to Reuven, Shimon and Levi. Then Rachel, who finds herself unable to conceive, gives her handmaiden Bilhah to her Jacob. Bilhah gives birth to Dan and Naftali only to be “outdone” by Leah, who has herself ceased to give birth so gives Jacob her handmaiden Zilpah, who in turn gives birth to Gad and Asher. At this point the text lets us take a breath (all of the above action occurs in just 18 verses of the Torah) from the “battle” of the wives with the following account:
Once, at the time of the wheat harvest, Reuven 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.”
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.God heeded Leah, and she conceived and bore him a fifth son and Leah said, “God has given me my reward for having given my maid to my husband,” so she named him Issachar.
What exactly is going on here? Dudaim—or, as often translated in English, mandrakes—are some sort of plant product assumed to possess aphrodisiac or fertility powers. According to my teacher Yair Zackovitch, Reuven is essentially trying to establish for himself the role of first born by stepping in and helping his own mother in this rather strange competition by enabling her to give birth again. But then, with Rachel stepping in – whether out of naïveté or insensitivity to her sister’s feelings – the dudaim, based on the Hebrew word for “love” become a tool that brings about anything but love. When Rachel makes the deal with Leah, some of the dudaim in return for an extra turn at intimate relations with Jacob, Rachel essentially takes love out of the picture. She says, “I promise, he shall lie with you tonight.” The Hebrew word here is from the root ShKh”V and as Prof David Lieber has pointed out, when this root is used “in Genesis with a sexual nuance, it never connotes a relationship of marital love but one that takes place under unsavory circumstances” (Etz Chaim Commentary p. 176). And while Leah says to Jacob, “You are to sleep with me,” the Torah uses the word tavo, which Robert Alter explains, is a word “ordinarily used for intercourse with a woman the man has not previously enjoyed.” Alter says this word choice “is a strong indication that Jacob has been sexually boycotting Leah” (The Five Books of Moses, p. 160).
I’m not sure exactly which age restriction might appear on the screen before showing this narrative on TV or at a movie theatre. In any case, telling these stories to little children certainly presents a challenge.
Some people like to say that the Bible is not afraid of presenting its heroes as they were in real life, “warts and all,” to show us that no one is perfect. But, as Zackovitch taught us, the Bible is far more complex and nuanced than that. There is an ongoing theme, not only of sibling rivalry, but of general familial dysfunction, that is used to help explain the reality of society when this literature was given its final form. The tribes of Israel were not united, and it made sense to these authors, and apparently to those who heard and eventually read their stories, that this pattern might be the explanation. It was, if you will, in their DNA to fight and argue with each other. It seems that long before Freud, people understood just how central sexual relations were to in developing our personal identities and that long before Jung, the idea of collective consciousness was well understood.
However, to our contemporary eyes, these ancient stories might less explain or justify a present situation than they serve as a mirror for us to see our own lives and relationships. Almost all of us at least at some stage of life are confronted with dysfunction in our relationships with those around us. But we don’t always see it; it’s too close. Stepping outside of our daily lives, reading and studying the wisdom of the Torah – whether in the stories of Genesis, or the laws of Leviticus – is, and has been for at least 2000 years, the way we strive to overcome our inadequacies and improve our lives.