Shabbat VaYetze: Give Me Children Or I Will Die

This week’s parashah finds Jacob leaving home, going to a new community and creating family there. The resonance is obvious here for so many of us, for whom it is natural to expect to create our families and our future in a place different from the one in which we grew up. For Jacob, a short sojourn turns into a generation, during which he marries not one but two women, sisters who are his cousins – his mother Rivkah is sister to their father Laban.
The sisters are close – ancient midrash tells us that they supported each other when the men in their lives were not interested in their well-being, to the point that when Jacob and Laban arranged for Jacob to marry Rachel out of the normal order of things (she is the younger sister), Rachel actually cooperated in an intricate  and intimate deception that resulted in Leah being married to Jacob. (Rachel followed before long.) The Torah demonstrates by way of this narrative that the two sisters have a strong and trusting relationship.
Our text, from the second year of the Triennial Cycle of Torah readings, begins on a less happy note: the two sisters are locked in the “baby wars.” Leah is easily having one strapping baby son after another: Re’uven, Shimon, Levi and Yehudah, in quick succession. Meanwhile Rachel has yet to be pregnant, and, distraught. she confronts Jacob: Give me children or I will die. (Gen. 30.1) Jacob’s response is angry: Am I G*d, to make you fertile when you’re not?
It’s hard to withstand the ancient hard-wiring that moves many women of child-bearing age, to tears, and more, if they are unable to have the children they long for. A famous story about King Solomon describes a woman swapping her dead child for that of her friend in the night; in our narrative, Rachel gives her attendant Bilhah to Jacob as a surrogate. In our own day, entire lives are subsumed by the effort to have a child.
As we see in the parashah, marriages suffer as a result, and also the relationships we have with those we perceive as happier than we in the baby context. And in the intensity of the self-absorbed focus that grows into a monster, one sees Rachel’s cry for what it is. Ironically for a book that demonstrates the power of women over and over again, Rachel is depicted as a woman of no worth if she cannot have children.
For many of us who do not give birth to children, either because we cannot or because we did not, this is a troubling message, and not only because it demeans women, turning anyone with a uterus into a single-issue soul. Jewish tradition clearly expects of all of us that we help to raise the next generation; the Shema is incumbent upon us all, not only women and not only those parents who raise children. You shall teach them to your children is meant for the entire extended community – there was no such thing as the unique torture of the nuclear family, with no relatives to share the raising and tending, then. All Jews help to raise the next generation of Jews, which is why paying taxes for a neighborhood school, or supporting universal health insurance for children, is an obligation and a privilege even when we ourselves do not have children.
For some of us, a traditional way to express our lives would be to humbly recognize that it is not G*d’s will that we bear children in our bodies. To let that single fact define our lives as a life-ending disaster would be an insult to the richness of each human life and the undiscovered country we each inhabit, in our homes and on our ways. Each life is always a gift, every day, and the people we are privileged to spend it with are a delight. On this Shabbat may we each speak to the Rachel in our hearts or in our lives with gentleness and understanding, and with encouragement as well, that a wider focus is possible on all that is being born, and all that we can help to nurture and thrive.
…and finally: on this Thanksgiving weekend, observed by so many as an welcome equalizer of all faiths and orientations, it’s important for us to hold two conflicting truths in mind: while yes, for some of us this holiday is a rare opportunity to join in the general celebration, for others it is a yearly reminder of their exclusion from American-ness. On this Thanksgiving, while we complain about all the food, consider how you can support those among the First Nations of this land who have to worry about their food: Food As Economic Development Among First Nations

Shabbat VaYetze: Backyard Mitzvot Will Change the World

This is the parashah of the “baby wars”. Leah and Rakhel, sisters and also wives of Yakov, strive against each other to bear more children. In the triennial system in which we are reading Year Two, Rakhel’s dramatic declaration and Yakov’s reply reveal the intensity:

וַתֵּרֶא רָחֵל כִּי לֹא יָלְדָה לְיַעֲקֹב וַתְּקַנֵּא רָחֵל בַּאֲחֹתָהּ וַתֹּאמֶר אֶל-יַעֲקֹב הָבָה-לִּי בָנִים וְאִם-אַיִן מֵתָה אָנֹכִי.

And when Rakhel saw that she bore Yakov no children, Rakhel envied her sister; and she said unto Yakov: ‘Give me children, or else I die.’

וַיִּחַר-אַף יַעֲקֹב בְּרָחֵל וַיֹּאמֶר הֲתַחַת אֱלֹהִים אָנֹכִי אֲשֶׁר-מָנַע מִמֵּךְ פְּרִי-בָטֶן.

Yakov’s anger was kindled against Rakhel; and he said: ‘Am I in God’s stead, who has blocked you from fruit of the womb?’ (Bereshit 30.1-2)

Rakhel brings her servant companion into the battle on her side, so that any children she bears will be counted as Rakhel’s; Leah then does the same. The four women live in a system in which they are judged by their ability to bring children into the world – most specifically male children.

They are caught in this contest, in which they are judged by their ability to have a child. Rather than make common cause against it, asserting many other ways in which a human being who happens to be a woman is precious, necessary and valuable, they let the system define them. They turn against each other rather than work together to change what they can, and refuse to give in where they cannot effect change.

Their challenge is also ours. Human nature has not changed all that much in the several thousand years since this story was first told. It is striking and significant that our ancestors, telling a patriarchal story, devoted so many of the sacred words of the Torah to the struggles of Leah and Rakhel to live meaningful lives. As in much of the Torah, we are not told the right answer to the story; we are given this human story, with all its familiar human emotional difficulties, so that we can work out the right answer.

Their challenge is also ours and it belongs to those who function as men in our society as well as to those who are women, in terms of our roles and how they are valued. Can we in our day do better than these two, who were siblings before they were Yakov’s wives? Can we, of whatever and all genders, look beyond the way in which we are currently valued as a result of our gender (and of course other factors)? Can we see the ways in which the way we value ourselves leads us to compete with each other to our own detriment?

The women of the Torah are not powerless. The story of Tamar, or of Rivkah, or Naomi and Ruth, clearly indicate that. The difficulty is in reaching beyond the strong walls of assumptions, of learned mistrust, of personal vulnerability underneath it all.

In these days of fear for our own safety, may we learn from this story not to let our society assign our value – and not to trust it to assign any one else’s. You and I must accept the results of this election, but we must never ever accept injustice, inequality, or indecency. 

Can you see the larger forces that push us away from each other? Can you see our power if we refuse to be pushed?

As we seek to find our path through this present wilderness, don’t worry about challenging these great forces head on. Ancient Jewish wisdom bids us begin in our own backyards, for this is the only way that the great forces of society will ever change.

Here is a list of ten Backyard Mitzvot for you to consider for this week:

1. Write or call your representative in Congress and express your opposition to any attempt to roll back equal rights for LGBTQ people, to create a registry for Muslim Americans, to cutting 22 million Americans off health insurance, to reduce access to contraception and cancer screenings, and to nominations of people who are unqualified or bigoted.

2. Make Shabbat intential downtime for you. Set your kavanah (intention) to commemorate this upcoming fourth anniversary of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary. After Shabbat, look up Moms Demand Action to see what you can do to help.

3. If you’re in Portland Oregon, come on Sunday December 11 to the Japanese American HIstorical Plaza at 4pm for Vision & Vigilance Candlelight Vigil: Protesting Muslim Registry.

4. Put your money where your mouth is. Contribute regularly to groups that promote equal rights, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, the ACLU, and our Portland chapter of SURJ (Show Up for Racial Justice).

5. Don’t let it slide when a friend makes degrading comments about anyone. Kindly but firmly ask them not to make those kinds of remarks around you.

6. Consider joining the Women’s March on Washington the day after the inauguration. 

7. Volunteer as an escort for patients at our local Planned Parenthood who must endure the verbal assaults of protesters in order to receive medical services.

8. Donate canned goods or send a check or bring clothes – to the Arc, to the Oregon Food Bank, to the North East Emergency Food Pantry.

9. Give books to the Books Through Bars program, which provides reading materials to incarcerated people.

10. Mark your calendar now to join us in marching in the Gay Pride parade next June.

Yours is not to complete the work, yet neither are you exempt from doing your part. – Pirke Avot