The Emergence of Praise

Vayetzei By :  Julia Andelman Director of Community Engagement Posted On Dec 9, 2016 / 5777 | Main Commentary | Gender
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Our parashah begins with Jacob’s profound, life-changing encounter with divinity: his dream of the ladder; his vision of God promising that his descendants will multiply and be blessed; and his vow that “if God remains with me…the Lord shall be my God” (Gen. 28:20-21). But our parashah includes another profound, life-changing moment of connecting to God—a less famous one—experienced by Leah. After giving birth to three sons and naming each of them in accordance with aspects of her life experience, Leah gives birth again and says hapa’am odeh et Adonai (Gen. 29:35)—this time I will praise/thank/acknowledge the Lord—and names her son Judah (Yehudah, from odeh).

To guess at what Leah might mean, we must examine the larger context of her life. We encounter Leah as the older, unwanted sister with “weak eyes,” contrasted with Rachel’s beauty (Gen. 29:16-18). Jacob loves Rachel and serves her father Laban to earn her hand, only to be deceived at his wedding: Laban brings him Leah instead. They consummate the marriage and Jacob realizes only the next morning whom he has married. His displeasure is clear: “What is this you have done to me?!” he says to Laban (Gen. 29:25). Jacob marries Rachel a week later and serves another seven years in exchange.

So Jacob gets what he wanted—but let us consider how this event must have affected Leah. Her new husband’s response to her would have been horrifying to any bride. “What is this you have done to me?!” Mah zot asita li? As if marrying her is some kind of terrible punishment. These words harken back to two similarly distressing episodes in the book of Genesis. When Abram passes off his wife Sarai as his sister, Pharaoh takes her into his palace but then discovers the truth, saying to Abram, Mah zot asita li? (12:18) When Isaac does the same with Rebecca in Gerar, she escapes molestation only because the Philistine king Avimelekh realizes who she is—saying to Isaac, Mah zot asita lanu, What have you done to us? (26:10) In all three stories, the women are silent, passed between men as objects, without a shred of agency. The narratives focus on the men—whom they own, what they do with them, whom they think they are entitled to, whom they do and don’t desire—while the wishes of the women they handle are deemed irrelevant.

With her lot in life defined by men—first her father, then her husband—it seems that Leah comes to measure her self-worth in terms of what benefit Jacob is able to derive from her. This is evident in the few lines that the Torah records of her speech (11 total)—most of which are said to no one in particular, emphasizing her isolation. Many of her statements involve naming her children based on etymologies of pitiful desperation: “Now my husband will love me” (Gen. 29:32); “The Lord heard that I was unloved” (29:33); “This time my husband will become attached to me” (29:34); “This time my husband will exalt me” (30:20). Two other lines involve competition with Rachel for an evening of conjugal rights with Jacob (30:15-16). Almost everything we know of Leah involves her trying to gain her husband’s favor by bearing children. After he dismisses her so callously the morning after their wedding, she becomes single-mindedly focused on this futile goal. Finding a loving husband, or living happily on her own, are not options in her world. Her value and her choices are determined by the men who lay claim to her.

(An additional layer of female subjugation is on display with Leah and Rachel’s handmaidens, Zilpah and Bilhah—a further indication of the inability of women to determine their own fates in this social context. Laban gives Zilpah and Bilhah to his daughters as property, and their new owners decide when to hand them over to act as surrogates with their husband. They have no voice, literally—neither of them utters one word that is recorded by the Torah. Leah and Rachel name the children that Zilpah and Bilhah bear. Although they are the mothers of four of the tribes, their names do not appear in the list of matriarchs.)

Even after the humiliation of her childbearing years is over, Leah is permanently consigned to second-class status in Jacob’s eyes. When he faces his brother Esau and fears retribution for having deceitfully stolen their father’s blessing, Jacob prepares his company for a possible attack—putting Zilpah and Bilhah and their children first, then Leah and her children, then Rachel and her children last (Gen. 33:2). Each group will serve as a human shield for the group behind them if necessary. Leah’s lower status is clear. Not even her death is recorded by the Torah; we learn only after the fact that she was buried in the Cave of Makhpelah, in the family plot next Jacob (Gen. 49:29-31). One wonders if she even would have been accorded this honor had  Rachel not died on the journey and been buried by the side of the road.

Leah serves as an archetype of the compromised status of women in biblical times. She is an object, unloved, de-prioritized, with a highly circumscribed role—bearing children, irrespective of whether her husband cares about her physical or emotional wellbeing—and even when she fulfills that role, she remains unvalued by those most important to her. Her lack of agency seems to pervade all aspects of her life. When her daughter Dinah becomes sexually involved with Shekhem (either through rape or consent, depending on the interpretation) and Leah’s three oldest sons brutally slaughter the men of Shekhem in revenge, the Torah records no reaction on Leah’s part, either to the alleged assault or to the murders (Gen. 34). It is as if she knows that there is no point to her saying anything, because it won’t make a difference—or, worse, that her subjugation runs so deep that her own feelings about these events don’t even register in her own mind and heart.

In crucial ways, women have come a very long way since then. As we saw when a lewd recorded exchange surfaced during the recent presidential campaign, making light of the objectification of women cost a successful television personality his high-profile new job as co-host of NBC’s Today Show. And yet, bragging about sexual assault did not stop his interlocutor—the one boasting in such aggressive yet cavalier terms—from winning the election a mere month later. After the recording came to light, writer Kelly Oxford invited women to share via Twitter their stories of sexual assault; more than a million women responded, and over 27 million people engaged in the social media movement spawned by the hashtag #notokay. For the many women who came out of the woodwork to share their stories, and for the countless others who chose to keep their stories secret, it felt like a critical consciousness-raising moment across the country—a long-awaited recognition of what they had suffered. The election result, then, was experienced by many victims of sexual assault and sexual harassment as a distressing national stamp of approval on—or at least an indifference to—what happened to them.

Queen Vashti of the Purim story is brought to mind: a woman who dares to take a stand against her husband’s demands on her body cannot be tolerated, cannot be allowed to serve as a role model for other women. The fact of male dominance and female subservience must be re-asserted. Vashti is replaced by Esther—who must pray, fast, and strategize just to get an audience with her husband on a life or death matter—and it is affirmed from the highest levels of government that the rights to women’s bodies belong to men.

Our foremother Leah reminds us, in our current historical moment, of how far we have yet to go. But in spite of everything, there is a redemptive moment in her story—an indication that, even just briefly, something emerges as being more important to her than the Sisyphean project of trying to gain Jacob’s affection. This is the moment when she gives birth to her fourth child and names him Judah—a name that has nothing to do with her husband but that is inspired, rather, by Leah’s own relationship to God. Hapa’am odeh et Adonai—this time I will thank the Lord. It is a name of gratitude, of spirituality—a name that asserts the value of her son’s life as something more than a marital pawn; that declares the import of her own feelings in her life’s story; that acknowledges the presence of divine blessing.

We can’t know why her fourth child evokes this unexpected psychological breakthrough for Leah. Rashi and others understand it as an acknowledgement that she has borne more than her “share” of children (i.e. three), and so any child beyond that is a cause for gratitude. But the conception and birth of a child are never guaranteed, and every child is a cause for gratitude, so this explanation is unconvincing to many. Perhaps, after trying and failing three times to win Jacob’s love through procreation, she is suddenly able to realize that the birth of a child may have another, higher meaning. She is able to see Judah not for his potential utility vis-à-vis her husband, but as a gift from God in and of himself—and as a cause for joy in her own life, independent of Jacob.

Admittedly, this transcendence is short-lived. After Judah’s birth, Bilhah begins to bear children as Rachel’s surrogate, and Leah descends quickly back into the fray of the childbearing competition, with Zilpah as her surrogate. Yet this moment of connecting to the deeper meaning of having a child, free from the weight of her husband’s indifference to her, seems to have a lasting effect—even beyond the span of Leah’s own life. When Jacob blesses his sons from his deathbed at the end of the book of Genesis, Judah’s blessing begins Yehudah, atah yodukha ahekha—Judah, your brothers will praise you (Gen. 49:8). The word yodukha is derived from the same root as odeh, the key word in Leah’s powerful statement, as is Judah’s name.

Moses, when blessing the tribe of Judah at the end of the Torah, says “Hear, O Lord, the voice of Judah” (Deut. 33:7). A special relationship with God seems to have come into being with Leah’s utterance upon Judah’s birth: a place of blessing, value, and praise. King David—traditionally considered to be the author of the Psalms, the Bible’s greatest collection of praises of God—was of the tribe of Judah. And, according to the tradition, the Messiah will ultimately be as well.

The sense of transcendent blessing that accompanies Judah’s birth remains with him into adulthood and continues on with his descendants. The moment in which Leah emerges from her subjugation to acknowledge the presence of God in her life, even temporarily, changes the course of Jewish history.

In a time of fear for women and other disadvantaged populations globally, we pray for moments of spirituality to occur even in the midst of darkness and oppression. Just as God saw that Leah was unloved and came to her aid (Gen. 29:31), may God remember all those who are abandoned or oppressed by the social structures around them, and may they and their children ultimately find a life of agency and blessing.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee (z”l) and Harold Hassenfeld (z”l).