Rochel Imeinu: The Voice of the Alienated
Where does our Torah portion appear in the Harry Potter series?
The Hogwarts have a greenhouse in which they learn about a magical plant the mandrake. In the Harry Potter version, the mandrake looks like a human and when it is plucked from the ground it emits a scream that can be fatal.
According to many commentators this same flower, the magical mandrake flower also appears in our portion.
After Leah has given birth to four children, while her sister Rachel has none, the Torah tells us that Reuven brought home to his mother, Leah, flowers that he had found in the field. When Rachel sees the flowers she asks Leah for them. Leah responds by saying, “Isn’t it sufficient that you have taken my husband and now you also want my son’s flowers?” Rachel responds by saying that in exchange for these flowers Jacob can sleep in Leah’s tent that evening (30:14-17).
The Torah calls these flowers, dudaim.
There is a wide variety of interpretation amongst our medieval commentators about how to understand the term dudaim.
Rashi in his commentary to chumash understands that the dudaim are jasmine, a fragrant and beautiful flower (30:14). Elsewhere Rashi identifies dudaim as violets (Rashi to Berachot 43b; and Shabbat 50b).
Ramban favors this approach as he says that the reason Rachel wanted these dudaim is simply because they smelled very nice (30:14).
Rashbam and Chezkuni both argue that the dudaim are figs, which would mean Rachel just wanted to eat the dudaim (30:14). This is similar to Josephus who understands that the dudaim are a fruit that Rachel desired to eat (Antiquities, 1:19:8).
In contrast, Radak, Ibn Ezra, and Seforno maintain that the dudaim were mandrakes and that Rachel wanted the dudaim because it was believed that the dudaim had special magical and medicinal powers that could help with fertility.
What is the mandrake plant that these commentators are referring to?
It is an extremely rare plant known as Mandragora Officanarum. It has purple flowers and produces yellow fruit. It also has a root that has a very unusual appearance in that the root of the plant resembles the form of a human being. The plant also produces oils, which are highly sought after.
The plant is associated with magical qualities and it was believed to be extremely dangerous. Writing in the first century, Josephus writes a report which sounds like it is the basis for a scene from Harry Potter: “It is certain death to those that touch it, unless any one take and hang the root itself down from his hand, and so carry it away. It may also be taken another way, without danger, which is this: they dig a trench quite round about it, till the hidden part of the root be very small, they then tie a dog to it, and when the dog tries hard to follow him that tied him, this root is easily plucked up, but the dog dies immediately, as if it were instead of the man that would take the plant away; nor after this need any one be afraid of taking it into their hands” (The Jewish War 7:6:3.)
One more thing about the plant: it is a narcotic with hallucinogenic qualities. The active ingredient in the mandrake root is hyoscine which is a drug that produces hallucinations.
(I found a website for an Israeli company that sells dudaim oil from especially potent mandrakes found exclusively in Israel. This website recommends these mandrakes strictly for “spiritual purposes” (http://dudaim.com/faq/). On their website it listed testimonials of many women who used their oil and got pregnant. I was curious about this and so I called them up and tried to order it. They said that they unfortunately don’t sell it anymore since it is extremely rare to find.)
Back to Rachel and Leah.
So Rachel wanted Leah’s dudaim and she thus bought them from Leah in exchange for a night with her husband.
How do we feel about this behavior on the part of our matriarchs?
Our sages praise Leah lavishly for this and criticize Rachel severely.
Rashi writes that because Rachel acted in this instance in a disrespectful manner to Jacob, as a result she did not merit to be buried next to him in Ma’arat Hamachpelah (14:15). She not only traded away one night with Jacob, she also traded away an eternity by his side.
Another proof cited by our rabbis for the righteousness of Leah’s behavior as opposed to Rachel’s is that the Torah rewards Leah’s behavior by immediately telling us that she gives birth to two more sons, Yisachar and Zevulun, whereas Rachel needs to wait even longer before giving birth to Joseph.
As it says in Bereishit Rabbah (72:3):
"Rabbi Eliezer taught: This one lost and the other one lost; this one gained and the other one gained. Leah lost the mandrakes but gained two tribes and the birthright; Rachel gained mandrakes but lost both tribes and the birthright.”
But maybe there is another way to look at this whole story. Maybe Rachel really deserves more sympathy from us.
Lets try to look at this story from Rachel’s perspective.
After all we know that Rachel was feeling rejected by God. She had watched her co-wives give birth to eight sons while she was still childless. She probably felt rejected. Earlier in the story (even before the maids Bilhah and Zilpah had given birth to any children) we know that she was so upset that she wanted to die, as the text says she complains to Jacob: “Give me children or else I will die, ve-im ayin meitah anokhi” (30:1).
And she probably felt rejected by Jacob as well, since Jacob responds to her pleas with anger by saying, “Am in place of God? He is the one holding you back from having a child” (30:2). In doing this Jacob is in effect pouring salt on Rachel’s wounds by telling her that her inability to conceive is entirely her fault.
So Rachel feels rejected by God and rejected by her husband. Is it any wonder that in the darkness of her emotions she turned to narcotics and to magic? When she sees the mandrake she thinks that this potion represents the cure to her problems; maybe it could make her fertile or maybe it could allow her to feel good. She was desperate and so she made a trade for a mandrake. But can we really blame her? She was all alone and isolated even from God and so she was ready to try anything.
Maybe instead of blaming Rachel we should be sensitizing ourselves to her pain, empathizing with her plight, and recognizing that even a great and strong and righteous woman like Rachel went through some extraordinarily dark periods in her life.
In the end Rachel is heard by God. God does hear her prayers and God does open up her womb (30:22). After Rachel gives birth to her first child the Torah says, “And she called this child Joseph because God has gathered away my humiliation, asaf elokim et cherpati (30:23).”
Rachel was humiliated. These are strong words and should cause us to weep for the humiliation of Rachel.
Precisely because she knew what it was like to feel humiliated, it is Rachel more than any other of our matriarchs or patriarchs who is seen as the one most sensitive to our own humiliation and to our own distress.
The prophet Jeremiah tells us that Rachel continuously cries for her children; she refuses to be comforted as long as her children are in pain (Jeremiah 31:14).
Rashi in our portion tells us that Rachel is not buried in Ma’arat Hamachpelah because of the fact that she sinned by trading for the mandrakes. But elsewhere Rashi tells us that there is another reason why she is not buried there.
The other reason according to Rashi is that Rachel is buried on the road to Babylon. Jacob knew that one day his descendants would be exiled and would be humiliated. They would be led as slaves down that very road to Babylon. At that point when they were feeling all alone and humiliated, they would pass by the grave of Rachel. Rachel would arise from her grave and cry for her children. She would demand mercy on their behalf. (See Rashi to Bereishit 48:7)
According to this explanation of Rashi, Rachel is not being punished, but rather she is being elevated. She is our hero and our spokesperson; she is the only one who truly understands what it means to feel rejected. In our moments of darkness, we are so grateful for our mother Rachel’s embrace and love.
Let us look to Rachel as our role model. Rachel reminds us of two essential principles. First, as a spiritual community we must be sensitive to the plight of those who feel alienated from religion. Second, it is often those who feel most alienated spiritually that can respond and be leaders for all of us in understanding how to advocate on behalf of the alienated.
When we see someone who is alienated from our religion and from our spiritual source we should acknowledge that all of us on some level have contributed to that person’s feeling of alienation. We should not view this person as an outcast from our community but as a descendant of Rochel Imeinu. This alienated person should be validated and embraced.
Rochel Imeinu was also once alienated and humiliated, but she went on to become the champion of our people.
As a person, as a Jew, and as a rabbi, it is extraordinarily painful for me to hear stories of people being alienated from our faith.
One time I was walking home from shul on Rosh Hashanah and a neighbor ran out to greet me. I see this man every Shabbat walking home from shul. But this time he had a present for me. He gave me a sculpture of his childhood rebbe: a sculpture of a man with a beard and tallis and Tefillin. I didn’t know our neighbor was Jewish, let alone that he went to Yeshiva. I invited him to join us for services. He said, “I cant go back. All I remember are the beatings that I used to endure.” I break down when I hear stories like that.
And I break down when I sit with women from our shul who tell me that ever since this mikvah scandal they also feel alienated from our faith. They tell me that women in our community are going to the mikvah with tears rolling down their cheeks and that some are literally having anxiety attacks as they fear the prospect of returning to a mikvah.
These are holy people who have been alienated. But the story of Rochel Imeinu reminds us that those feelings of alienation do not make you a bad Jew. No way. Just the opposite. It makes you a sensitive Jew. It gives you the ability to lead us and guide us all. It gives you the ability to sensitize us to the pain of others.
If you are feeling alienated then I want you to hear the message of our parasha loud and clear: We need you with all of your feelings of alienation. We need you in our community. We need you to be our emissaries; our link to Roche Imeinu. We need you to help us be sensitive to others. We need you to be our Rochel Imeinu.
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