Walking in Torah through Feminist Eyes - Part I

Note: The Torah portion known as Vayeitzei, includes Gen 31:19 contains a word the meaning of which scholars continue to puzzle over, "teraphaim." That is one of two mysteries we ponder in this piece. The other is that Torah reveals Jacob to have one daughter, Dina, yet Gen.14:15 speaks of Jacob's "sons and daughters."

In Part one the authors, Rabbis Goldie Milgram and Judy Kummer offer an interpretative story, a midrash about this text. In Part Two they translate and review the major classical commentaries on the story to reveal how they entered this study. In Part three they offer a feminist study guide for this portion suitable for a class or Rosh Hodesh group. Photo credit: Joan Roth

Our brothers had become jealous. I heard them muttering "Jacob has taken all that was our father's, and from what was our father’s he has made [himself] profoundly wealthy." (Gen. 31:1) Father, too, had grown more hostile by the day. Now Jacob's labor built his own enterprise with determination. We sisters knew it was time to get our man away, too many mature males in one household often leads to struggle and the potential for violence between them.

So we weren't surprised when Jacob called us into the field, with none but the sheep to overhear us. In the way of our people he said "I've had a vision.. .God spoke to me saying: 'Arise and leave this land and return to your native land."' (31:13)

At last. My sister Leah and I had long prayed to our family deity, the God of Nahor, and Jacob's family deity, the God of Isaac, to help us leave this house. We had suffered such shame in the community for remaining too long on our father's lands. At last we were to see with our own eyes the wealthy family Jacob had described and join in their fabled destiny. Out from under our father's scheming domination, we were finally to become matriarchs in a household of our own.

So often sisters in conflict, we had no difficulty responding to Jacob in one voice regarding Laban: "Surely, he views us as outsiders, now that he has sold us and used up our purchase price. Truly all the wealth that God has taken away from our father belongs to us and to our children. Now then, do just as God has told you." (31:14-16)

We had packed as lightly as we could, not that we could travel any faster than the sheep. I had cast my eyes about for something of my mother to take with me. Of course, the teraphim. Jacob would die if he knew.

Fearing a confrontation with our father and brothers, we left while they were far afield shearing sheep. It was ten days before they caught up to us.

When father appeared, he was angrier than I'd ever seen him. He stormed at Jacob, saying things like "What do you mean by keeping me in the dark Why did you flee in secrecy? You did not even let me kiss my sons and daughters good-bye!" (31:26-28) Suddenly, I felt ashamed. My father seemed genuinely heart-broken. But then the Laban we all knew resurfaced. "Very well," he said to Jacob, "You had to leave because you were longing for your father's house, but why did you steal my gods?" (Verse 30)

He had come for them. I backed into the shadows of the tent. Who would have thought he would so value my mother's teraphim? Jacob answered the secrecy charge with the obvious: "I was afraid you would take your daughters from me by force. Out of his ignorance, he then added: "Anyone with whom you find your gods shall not remain alive." (verses 31-33) I almost gasped aloud.

In the way of women I felt powerless, trapped. I retreated quietly to my tent as father set off on his search. In a daze I sat down hard upon my camel cushion. Then it came to me, almost as though they had spoken aloud: "b'derech nashim (31:35)- in the way of women" Quickly I tucked the teraphim into the camel bag under me. And so I waited.

He arrived at my tent last. Father rifled through my belongings, his fury and frustration mounting. As he approached my corner of the tent, I drew a deep breath and silently called on the teraphim for strength from beyond myself. Tracing their image through the fabric of the cushion I declared in the manner of my people: "Excuse me for not getting up, but the way of women is upon me."

Just like back at home, he moved past me without looking up, almost as if I were no longer there. My stomach lurched at his nearness, recalling my arms clipped back and his hand across my mouth as he told me of his plan to substitute Leah at the wedding, forcing our compliance by threatening to tell Jacob how truly close Laban and his daughters had been.

Seven more years. My beloved, deceived, incredulous Jacob pledged seven more years of service for me, thus taking me also to wife when my sister's bridal week ended. (Verses 28-30) And Father never touched us again. It was domination of Jacob that became his next obsession.

Father wheeled and left the tent. Even while counting on it, I couldn't believe his disregard for my presence. I could hear the years of self-righteous anger boiling over in Jacob as he finally found his voice. The wind brought snatches of his ranting into my tent: "These twenty years I have spent in your service, your ewes and she-goats never miscarried, nor did I feast on rams from your flock That which was torn by beasts... .I myself made good the loss.. scorching heat ravaged me by day and frost by night.. .I served you fourteen years for your two daughters, and six years for your flocks... had not the God of my father... been with me, you would have sent me away empty-handed.. God gave judgment last night." (Verses 38-42)

I looked up toward the hills from where my help would come. We would have our own household, put an end to living in my family's culture of deception. Outside, talk of a treaty had begun. Father retrieved his pride by voicing concern for our welfare, committing Jacob to take no additional wives (31:50).

In the way of women, I caressed the new life growing heavier by day in my womb.* I heard Dinah's dear voice drawing near my tent in song, always restless. This journey will benefit her so. I shifted upon the teraphim, and a sense of disquiet pervaded my soul. Was it about her future, or about mine, or was it regarding the baby? My smile of triumph faded.

*Gen 46:15 "All the souls of his [Jacob’s] sons and daughters were thirty and three."

Commentators' Note: We have drawn upon an upcoming verse in the final line. Why does it say Jacob's daughters! We only know of one daughter, Dinah. Here we have perhaps a record of what later was a miscarried daughter, or was she pregnant with Benjamin? He is born at her death in Gen 35: 16-18. Either make better intertextual sense than the usual interpretation of b'derech nashim as referring to ritual impurity conferred by menstruation. The weeks just after a birth or miscarriage confer impurity, or, simply the end stages of pregnancy would be a reason not to cause her to get up.