Parashat Vayeitzei 5778

Rabbi Richard Jacobi, 24 November 2017

The Trouble With Men

In my Access to Judaism class last week, we discussed the importance of the social reform enacted by Rabbeinu Gershom, who enacted a prohibition of polygamy. Previously, the Mishnah and Talmud had allowed a man up to four wives (provided that he could keep all of them fed, clothed and sexually satisfied). The limit of four probably derives from this week’s Torah portion, wherein Jacob accumulates four mothers to his children, though tradition has only listed two as full wives, namely Leah – the older sister and the one Jacob is deceived into marrying first – and Rachel.

So much of this portion’s narrative speaks of the dominant role of the men, which forces the women to use what few tools of power they have in subversive ways to resist the abuses of power. In that sense, this Torah portion is a sadly timeless narrative. While so much has been transformed in the four millennia since these stories originated, the misuse and abuse of power by men remains as obvious a problem as it ever was. While I wish the campaigns of #MeToo will succeed where legislative and educational interventions have failed, I fear they will become yesterday’s news and not enough will have altered in reality.

It is sad that it has been necessary for the United Nations General Assembly to designate 25th November as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. It is even sadder that one woman in three will experience extreme sexual or physical violence in their lives, and that’s just one of many abhorrent facts. Jewish Women’s Aid have asked that this Shabbat, all synagogues should focus on this issue, and we in Liberal Judaism are very supportive of this campaign and of JWA’s brave and important work within the UK Jewish community (see http://www.jwa.org.uk).

Jacob leaves home at the start of the parasha, and travels to where his uncle, Laban, and his family lives. When he first sees Rachel, he kisses her and lifts up his voice, crying loudly. The Women’s Commentary wryly notes: “One cannot help but wonder about Rachel’s response to the stranger who kisses her, weeps, and then declares that he is her cousin.”

Yet, we never find out Rachel’s response in the Torah. We go on to read of how Laban tricks Jacob into marrying Leah before he can also marry Rachel. We read of God seeing Leah as disfavoured, and so making her fertile while Rachel wasn’t. With God portrayed as a third masculine actor in these scenes, both Rachel and Leah, and later, Bilhah and Zilpah (the two handmaidens) are pawns in a larger game.

However, towards the end of the parasha, Rachel steals her father’s t’rafim – his household gods – symbols of his power, leadership and inheritance rights. Here again, the Women’s Commentary teaches us: “The Torah includes a number of trickster stories, showing how marginalized (sic!) men and women outwit the powerful in order to survive or safeguard justice.”

This Shabbat, may we all add a prayer for the ending of violence against women and commit to work towards a society in which the marginalised (often women) do not have to outwit the powerful (often men) at their own game. Instead, we must aim and work for a society where law and behaviour align to ensure that power is well used, so enabling all people to contribute and succeed according to their merits. Let’s make this true where we have influence – in our families, our synagogues, our workplaces, our social clubs and groups – and from there, greater change might follow.

NOTE: Why 25th November? On this day in 1960, the President of the Dominican Republic had three sisters, Patria, Minerva and Maria Teresa Reyes, assassinated because of their opposition to his dictatorship. The UN General Assembly appointed this day in their memory as the first of sixteen days of activism against gender violence leading up to the Global Day for Human Rights on 10th December. Many Liberal Synagogues will also mark Human Rights Shabbat on 8th – 9th December 2017.

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