With an open mind

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Sermons and Thoughts

Reading our Sacred Texts with Open Eyes

13 November 2021
Rabbi Lea Mühlstein
Sermon Parashat Vayeitzei

You can watch a recording of this sermon on our YouTube channel.

Jewish Women’s Aid, the UK charity established to support Jewish women and children affected by domestic and sexual violence, has selected this Shabbat to call upon synagogues to draw attention to their important work. Sadly, it is all to easy to identify a connection between our portion for this week and the work of JWA.

In Parashat Vayeitzei, we read about Jacob’s marriage to two sisters – Leah and Rachel. As the modern Israeli Bible scholar Dr Liora Ravid notes: “Each lacked something that her sister had and that something embittered her life.” Rachel, the wife that Jacob truly desired, is long denied the gift of childbirth. Leah, on the other hand, is given to Jacob against his will and even though the text does not suggest that she had any say in that matter whatsoever, Jacob punishes her for the deceit of his father-in-law.

While later tradition viewed Jacob with mercy, the book of Genesis depicts him as a harsh man who took out his anger on the woman who bore him seven healthy children. As Dr. Ravid further observes: “In reality, if Jacob enjoyed one hour of happiness in his life, it was thanks to Leah – and yet we have preferred to forget his severe treatment of her. Now our feeble memory will have to confront the testimony of the biblical author, who says that because ungrateful Jacob loved Rachel, he avenged his bitterness on a good woman.” The Torah clearly states whose side God was on (Gen 29:31):

The ETERNAL ONE saw that Leah was hated and he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren.

Undoubtedly, the spurned Leah longed for some of the love her husband lavished on her sister. She had good reason to envy the beautiful, beloved Rachel – and the opposite is even more true. Hated as she was, Leah bore many children, so her position in Jacob’s home was firm. Rachel, by contrast, disappointed him. Jacob performed hard labour in order to purchase a woman whose price was beyond his means, only to discover that she could not bear him children and so his anger also turned against Rachel as we read at the beginning of the next chapter (Gen 30:1-2):

1 When Rachel saw that she had borne Jacob no children, she became envious of her sister; and Rachel said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die.” 2 Jacob was incensed at Rachel, and said, “Can I take the place of God, who has denied you fruit of the womb?”

And we learn more about Jacob’s relationship with his wives, when Leah names her son Reuven explaining that he was called by that name because the Eternal has discerned her humiliation, for now her husband will love her. (Gen. 29:32)

The term used in Hebrew, ‘onyi is derived from the root ע.נ.ה. which has several usages in the Bible including “physical abuse” and, as we will see in the story of Dinah in next week’s Torah portion, has the additional meaning, which has disappeared in modern Hebrew – “rape.”

So taking a closer look at just these few verses, we realise that the large number of children born in short succession easily serve to detract us from the fact that the women in our story are clearly living in a situation, which we would today describe as abusive. And that’s before we have drawn any attention to the two women who did not even achieve the status of wife, the concubines Bilhah and Zilpah.

Even if we read these stories in their historical context – Leah, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah lived in a world in which multiple women divided one husband among them – the Biblical author clearly indicates to the reader that the situation of the wives was not just another example of polygamy.

We must not close our eyes to the fact that Leah, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah are portrayed as experiencing domestic abuse from their husband and, sadly also from each other. Yes, the Bible did not call it such but as Dr Ravid stresses: “we cannot deny that in naming her firstborn son, Leah used a term that in biblical language means rape, physical abuse, disgrace, and humiliation.”

Sadly, as we know all too well, domestic abuse and violence against women is not something that only happened in centuries past but is a reality that women face to this day all over the world and in every community. Jewish Women’s Aid sees the terrible effects of abuse every day through supporting 150 women and girls every month. And JWA highlights the particular challenges of the Jewish community, which is so family-oriented, in acknowledging that there are women among us who have been mentally or physically mistreated or forced to do something sexually, by their Jewish partner. It’s hard to think of harassment taking place in the corridors of our schools. The fact is that it happens, and we need to do more collectively to prevent and confront this behaviour.

So on this Shabbat we express our gratitude for the important work that Jewish Women’s Aid does and we show our commitment to that work by reading our sacred texts with open eyes, even when it is painful.

But rather than responding with despair, let us find inspiration in our sacred texts. In the famous dream depicted at the beginning of our portion, Jacob has a vision of a staircase connecting heaven and earth. And with that story, our Torah portion challenges us to dream big dreams. The Torah teaches us that if we are committed, we can build staircases that allow us to reach the gate of heaven.  As Theodor Herzl put it: “If you will it, it is no dream.”

Let us dream of a world where endemic violence against women has truly been eliminated. And let us pledge to do our part to ensure that this world does not have to remain a dream.

Ken yehi ratzon – May this be God’s will.