Rabbi Alexandra Wright, 25 May 2018
‘On the day that Moses finished setting up the Tabernacle, he anointed and consecrated it and all its furnishings, as well as the altar and its utensils. When he had anointed and consecrated them, the chieftains of Israel, the heads of ancestral houses, namely the chieftains of the tribes, those who were in charge of enrolment, drew near and brought their offering before the Eternal One: six covered wagons and twelve oxen, a cart for every two chieftains and an ox for each one’ (Numbers 7:1-3).
From the sublime invocation of God’s favour, tenderness and peace spoken by Aaron and his sons to the people of Israel, words that connect us to one of the most ancient of rituals in Jewish observance – the three-fold Priestly Blessing, ‘May God bless you and keep you,’ the Torah here reminds us that the service of the Sanctuary requires what, in contemporary terms, we would call compliance, the maintenance of the administrative records, listing the gifts that are brought for use in the Mishkan. The spiritual role of Aaron, in his linen garments, with his two remaining sons next to him, enveloped in clouds of glory, lifting their hands to ask God’s blessing on the people, is juxtaposed in this parashah with the more prosaic lists of the offerings, handed over to the Levites and other groups for safekeeping and use.
In a separate role from his brother and nephews, Moses puts the last touches to the Tabernacle, anointing it and consecrating it, moving from the altar to its furnishings, checking each and every one of the utensils and vessels, detailing those gifts from the chieftains of Israel, the heads of the ancestral houses. In addition to gifts of silver and gold to be used as vessels for meal and other offerings, six draught carts and twelve oxen are brought for the purpose of carrying the dismantled Tabernacle, each cart to be drawn by two oxen to manage its heavy load.
A midrash on a verse from the Song of Songs, suggests the symbolism of these six covered wagons of our parasha. Six wagons, they say, to correspond to the six firmaments (excluding the seventh which is where the Sovereign abides and which is ‘crown property’ and therefore not counted with the rest). Six, corresponding to the six earths plus one ‘which is a favourite among the generations’ (Leviticus Rabbah 29:11), each of the seven reflecting different aspects of the world. Six, corresponding to the six orders of the Mishnah; to the six days of creation and six, corresponding to the six matriarchs (Song of Songs Rabbah VI,4:2).
But we know, surely of only four matriarchs: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah! The midrash makes the remarkable addition of Bilhah and Zilpah, the maidservants given to Rachel and Leah by their father Laban. Not only did they serve their mistresses, but they were also the mothers to four of Jacob’s children: Zilpah gave birth to Asher and Gad, while Bilhah was the mother of Dan and Naphtali.
Siddur Lev Chadash, our Liberal prayer book, was one of the first of the modern Siddurim to introduce the four matriarchs into the first blessing of the Amidah, known as Avot (‘Ancestors’). After nearly twenty-five years of invoking their names, the blessing trips off the tongue with ease. The editors of the brand new draft Siddur Shirah Chadashah have, obviously, asked the question, as perhaps the authors of the midrash implied, why are the two other wives of Jacob not included in the list of matriarchs?
Are not the maidservants as worthy of being labelled the matriarchs as the other four? They cohabit with Jacob and their sons are no less the forebears of four of the tribal clans as Leah’s and Rachel’s. But there is a question around the motherhood of these four boys. Clearly Bilhah is the biological mother of Dan and Naphtali who are born after Rachel offers her slave to Jacob, but the text suggests that Bilhah is no more than a surrogate, through whom Rachel becomes a mother:
‘But she [Rachel] said, ‘Here is my maid Bilhah; couple with her and let her give birth on my knees, so that I too may have a son, through her’ (Genesis 30:3).
Both Dan and Naphtali are named by Rachel and similarly, after Leah ceases to bear children, she gives her maid, Zilpah ‘to Jacob as a wife.’ It is Leah who names these boys, Gad and Asher, and attributes her fortune and happiness (the meaning of these names) to the arrival of two additional sons.
In the story of Ruth, the blurring of those boundaries of motherhood appears even more clearly after the birth of Obed to Ruth and Boaz. ‘A son is born to Naomi’, sing a chorus of women who bless not Ruth, but Naomi on the arrival of this child. Has Ruth, the Moabite stranger, the widowed daughter-in-law of Naomi, simply become another surrogate in the Bible for the elderly Naomi who can no longer conceive?
Like Ruth, we must ask whether Bilhah and Zilpah are also foreigners, imported as slaves to serve, first Laban and then his daughters. Were they forced into relations with Jacob, handmaidens of the ancient world, acting only as sexual partners in order to become surrogates?
There is little in the text that tells us much about Bilhah and Zilpah apart from their passivity in relation to Laban, Jacob, Leah and Rachel. They are ‘given’ to Laban’s daughters, they are ‘coupled’ with Jacob and ‘give birth on [Rachel’s] knees so that [she] too may have a son through her [Bilhah]’.
Later on, after the death of Rachel, Reuben, Jacob’s firstborn sleeps with Bilhah – an account that is told in a mere one verse, Jacob hearing of the offence, but doing nothing to rebuke his son or protect his wife/concubine (Genesis 35:22), as he did nothing to protect his daughter, Dinah after she was violated by Shechem.
It is these stories of Bilhah and Zilpah and the meaning of their names and the names of their sons that inspired this poem to sit alongside the first blessing of the Amidah, Avot. It is a way of including Bilhah, the root of whose name means ‘to be troubled’ or ‘weak in intellect’, and Zilpah whose name means something like ‘perfumed water.’ The names of their sons also seems to reflect their possible destinies: Bilhah’s children are named Dan (‘judgement’) and Naphtali (‘strife’), while Zilpah’s children are called Gad (‘fortune’) and Asher (‘happiness’).
Laban gave me to his daughter Rachel;
My sister Zilpah to his daughter Leah.
We were six mothers:
‘Six covered wagons’
Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Leah, Zilpah and Bilhah.
My sister Zilpah came first,
Sweet as perfume from aloes and myrrh,
A mother in Israel to happiness and fortune.
I was last, troubled and weak,
Mother of judgement and strife,
Dishonoured by Leah’s firstborn.
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