Vayeitzei - What Are We Supposed to Learn?
Different people approach the Bible with different needs. Some read the book in order to learn the history of our people (reading the Bible as historical fact can be problematic and often leads to blind zealotry). Others read the Bible as allegory, in order to better understand the world around them. My person favorite perspective is to read the Torah as an expression of the worldview of my ancestors; I get to see how they saw the meaning of life, and I can use that learning to better craft my own search for meaning.
One of the most popular strategies for understanding the Biblical text comes into focus in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei. Jacob, having fled his brother’s wrath and wound up in the house of his uncle, Laban, is given two wives, Leah and Rachel. Rachel is the more-beloved wife, while Leah has an easier time conceiving children. Genesis 30 is a long and detailed description of an “arms race,” with the sister-wives competing to see who could give Jacob the most sons. In all, the two women and their two handmaids are responsible for bringing 12 sons into the world, a number that has significant meaning for the future.
You see, the Torah was not written in real-time. The book was received by its readers who were already living in the Israelite world, who already understood the dynamics of the tribal landscape. Which is to say that the reality of 12 tribes of Israel was an inarguable fact to the first readers of the text. Thus, the story of the baby-making competition is a way of placing the 12 tribes into the historical timeline, establishing where these distinctions come from and placing them in the history of the larger community. At a time when tribal group identity was so important to the division of land and responsibilities, there needed to be enough backstory in order to validate the realities of daily life. Thus, this story is introduced in order to better understand the social construction that existed in the modern day.
This is hardly the only example of this kind of ex-post-facto literary invention. Next week, we will read about Jacob having his name changed, in order to place the name “Israel” in the story. (Otherwise, where do we get this idea that the three patriarchs culminate as ‘the children of Israel’?) In Exodus, we read the story of the Israelites painting their doorposts with blood, likely attempting to give a textual basis for an already practiced tradition. It is hard to see all of the examples of this kind of retroactive exposition without living in the context of the time at which the Torah was being disseminated, but the function of the text is clear: if we can place our practices and rituals in the context of our ancient wisdom, we will have a far easier time maintaining those traditions.
We have strong evidence that this style of group education works. After all, there are many practices that we still participate in today, thousands of years after the traditions were introduced. Clearly, there is an advantage to codifying the system of activity in order to better transmit it to the future. But what I love about this particular section from this week’s portion is that it reminds us that we need to critically assess the ways in which we take the stories at face value. We are invited to ask over and over again, “what is this trying to teach us? Why is this included in the story of our people?” There are so many plot holes and empty spaces in the Torah narrative, so when we get extreme detail like this babypalooza, we can better understand how the writers of antiquity were trying to convey their experience of the world around them.