Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A Thought on the Parasha

Yehudah, Yosef, and Religious Zionism
Rabbi Dov Linzer

“What is Chanukah?” asks the gemara (Tractate Shabbat, 21b). The answer it gives is well known: the miracle of the oil that burned for eight days. But this answer, says Maharal (Hidushei Aggadot, ad loc.), makes no sense! First of all, since when do we have holidays to celebrate miracles? Holidays celebrate days of national-religious significance – exodus, revelation, salvation – not miracles for their own sake. Moreover, the al ha’nissim prayer, the single way we mention Chanukah in the liturgy, makes no mention of the miracle of oil, but rather focuses on the victory against the Seleucid-Greeks and the rededication of the Temple. What then, asks Maharal, is the point of the miracle of oil? An examination of our parasha will be helpful in answering this question.

Parashat Miketz presents us with two very different personalities – Yosef and Yehudah. Yosef is known by the Rabbis as Yosef Ha’Tzaddik, Yosef the Righteous. Why a tzaddik? Because he is always thinking and talking about God. When he refuses Potiphar’s wife, he says to her that he cannot sleep with her for it would be sinning before God. More to the point is the verse stating that “his master saw that God was with him, and all that he did, God brought success at his hands” (Breishit, 39:3). Considering that his master certainly did not believe in God, the Rabbis ask, how did he see that God was with Yosef? It is because “the name of God was regularly on his lips.” His master would say, “Yosef, great job!” And Yosef would respond, “Baruch HaShem.” His master would say, “Yosef, good work today,” and Yosef would say, “Baruch HaShem.” “Baruch HaShem. Baruch Hashem,” that was Yosef’s response.

Yosef sees God working through him; he sees God in all things. It is for this reason that Yosef is so captivated by his dreams. Not because they augur his future greatness but because they are a message from God. If God is communicating, how could you not be enraptured? This is also why Yosef tells Pharaoh in this week’s parasha, as he told the wine steward and baker earlier, that the interpretations of the dreams are not from him but from God. When I interpret a dream, he says, it is really just God who is working through me.

There is tremendous religious power in this approach – to be always seeing God in the world and crediting God for one’s good fortune and accomplishments. This approach allows Yosef to console his brothers and tell them, “Behold you did not send me here, but God” (45:8). But seeing God controlling everything is not always a good thing. It was good to console the brothers, but was Yosef correct in what he said, are the brothers really blameless? However much Yosef’s descent into Egypt was part of the divine plan, this does not exonerate the brothers.  God must be given credit, but one cannot relinquish one’s own, or another’s, responsibility as a result. 

Yehudah is the opposite of Yosef. Yehudah never talks about God. Yehudah is all about personal responsibility. He had the courage to stand up and say, “I did it,” and admit that it was he who slept with Tamar. It is he who is able to convince his father to let Binyamin go down to Egypt because he is ready to put himself on the line: “I will be surety for him; of my hand shall you require him” (43:9). If something goes wrong it doesn’t matter who was at fault or who was to blame, Yehudah takes the responsibility on himself: “If I bring him not unto you, and set him before you, then I will bear the blame to you forever.” Thus, at the fateful moment, it is again Yehudah who steps forward and who is willing to sacrifice himself and his freedom to allow Binyamin to go free. The turning point of the entire story is this moment – when the man who takes personal responsibility confronts the man who sees all his actions as directed by God. And it was Yehudah who was triumphant. It was up to him to act, he acted, and God’s plan was realized. God works through us when we take responsibility for our own actions.

Yosef is indeed a tzaddik, but I wouldn’t want a tzaddik running my business. I would want Yehudah as my CEO. And I would want Yehudah as my political leader. Indeed, it is Yehudah from whom the kingly Davidic line descends. But I am not sure I would want Yehudah as my spiritual leader. A spiritual leader needs to be both a Yehudah and a Yosef: a person who will say, “Baruch Hashem; it is all from God” and at the same time say, “The buck stops here.”

This takes us back to Maharal’s question: Why focus on the oil? Because, says Maharal, if we only spoke about the miracle of the military victory and the dedication of the Temple, we might come to think that it was all our doing. We might fail to see God’s hidden hand. The visible miracle of the oil allowed the people to see the hidden miracle of the war, that the victory was both theirs and God’s.

At the time of the Maccabees there were those who were in the Yosef camp. According to Maccabees I, the Pietists refused to take up arms and fight the Greeks, refusing even to defend themselves on Shabbat. “If God wants to save us,” one can imagine they reasoned, “then let God bring about a miracle.” The Maccabees rejected this. “It is up to us,” they said. “We must do what is necessary, and this is what God wants.” The Maccabees embodied the fusing of Yehudah and Yosef. They were the miracle of the war and the miracle of the oil.

This synthesis is actually part of the al ha’nissim prayer itself. Although only speaking of the military victory, the prayer mentions not the victory of the Hasmoneans, but the victory of God. Ravta et riveinu, danta et dineinu. You, God, fought our battles, came to our defense. This was the war that we fought and the miracle that You, God, brought about.

This message is very much the message of Religious Zionism. There are some religious Jews who reject Zionism. If they are not anti-state, they are at least apathetic to the state. It holds for them no religious meaning. “If God wanted to bring about a new State of Israel,” they say, “then we would have seen visible miracles.” They are the Pietists of old. They are the Yosefs.

Thank God for the secular Zionists, for the Yehudahs of the last generations. It is because of them that we have the miracle that is the State of Israel. And yet they built the state driven by a nationalist vision, not a religious one. For them, the state is no miracle. Their song on Chanukah is Nes Lo Kara Lanu, “A Miracle did not Occur to Us.” We did it. They are Yehudah without Yosef.

In fact, one of the popular Chanukah songs sung by religious Jews everywhere is actually a song of the secular Zionists, Mi yimalel gevurot Yisrael. “Who will speak of the valorous acts of Israel?” says the song. Of course, the Biblical verse is, “Who will speak of the valorous acts of God?” (Tehillim, 106:2). It is the gibor, the song continues, the courageous one, not God, who is the redeemer who arises in each generation. Makabi moshiya u’fodeh, it is a Maccabee – not God – who saved us and redeemed us. It is we who have done it in the past, and it is for us to do it now. Mi Yimalel is the song of Yehudah and Yehudah alone.

It was left for the Religious Zionists to take their share of the responsibility in building the State of Israel, and to bring to their actions a vision that all that was happening was from God. It was for them to bring both Yehudah and Yosef together: “Behold, I will take the stick of Yosef… and will put them with the stick of Yehudah, and make them one stick, and they shall be one in mine hand” (Yechezkel, 37:19).

This Chanukah, I will continue to sing Mi Yimalel because, as religious people, we need to be reminded again and again of our obligation to be a Yehudah. But I will sing with renewed emphasis the al ha’nissim, thanking God for the victory of the war, the victory of the Hasmoneans that was the victory of God, and for the miracles that God has done bayamim ha’hem, in those days, and also so very much bi’zman ha’zeh.

Shabbat Shalom and Chanukah Samayech!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A Thought on the Parasha

A Tikkun for Yaakov

Three of Yaakov’s sons play a major role in the stories of Yosef and his brothers: Yosef, Reuven, and Yehudah.  Each one of these presents a type of a tikkun for Yaakov.  It starts with Yosef.

“These are the generations of Yaakov: Yosef.” This is the Midrash’s reading of Breishit, 37:2, a verse that in its simple sense narrates the events that occurred to Yaakov’s children. By putting the period after the word “Yosef,” however, the Midrash suggests a different reading, namely that Yosef is the continuation of Yaakov:

Just as Yaakov was born circumcised, so was Yosef born circumcised…

Just as this one’s brother hated him, so this one’s brothers hated him, just as this one’s brother wanted to kill him, so this one’s brothers wanted to kill him…

This one was stolen from twice [“I would repay it… stolen by day or stolen by night” (31:39)], and this one was stolen from twice [“For I have certainly been stolen, gunov gunavti, from the land of the Hebrews” (40:15)]…

This one was made great by virtue of a dream, and this one was made great by virtue of a dream.

(Breishit Rabbah 84:6)

These parallels are indeed striking, but when we look a little closer, we see that significant differences exist within them.

Let’s start with the first comparison: Both Yaakov and Yosef were born without a foreskin. This, of course, is not in the Biblical verses, but the Midrash understands the verse stating that Yaakov was an ish tam, a perfect man, as indicating that he was physically perfect – born with no foreskin.  It is also worth noting that Yaakov is the only one of the avot that we are not told that he underwent circumcision, perhaps an indicator that he was born without a foreskin.  And Yosef is assumed to have been born likewise.

What does being born circumcised signify? It could indicate someone on a particularly high spiritual level, but should we then infer that Avraham, Yitzchak, Moshe, and all others who required circumcision were on a lower spiritual plane than Yaakov or Yosef? Rather, it is not a question of what level one is at but how one has achieved that level. In one’s religious striving, does one engage evil, opposing forces and eventually gain mastery over them, or does one avoid the engagement altogether? In the Midrashic mindset, to be born circumcised is to live a life (or at least to start a life) sheltered from the forces of evil in a protected bubble of purity.

This was certainly the case for Yosef. He lived in his own pure world, unable to tolerate the bad deeds of his brothers but oblivious to what his reporting was doing to breed their enmity against him. He was enraptured by his dreams, by these messages from God, but deaf to his brothers’ reactions to his free sharing of these visions. He innocently went to visit his brothers when they were with the sheep, with no clue as to the danger he was putting himself in.  This lack of relating to the real world explains how he became a person constantly acted upon – sent to his brothers, stripped, cast in the pit, sold to Egypt, seduced, accused, and cast into prison – a passive person showing almost no initiative of his own. He lived in a world that God controlled, and thus it was meaningless for him to try to direct the events of his life. He certainly had personal fortitude – he had the strength to resist the temptation of Potiphar’s wife – but he lacked the initiative to engage the real world unless forced to do so.

Here is where Yaakov is different. It is true that he was removed from the world in the sense that he preferred to avoid conflict. However, he was not oblivious to what was going on in the world, and he was certainly interested in worldly concerns. He very much wanted Esav’s right of the first born; he wanted the blessing; he wanted to succeed with Lavan’s sheep. But he was not prepared to fight or to argue with Esav or Lavan outright to achieve his goals. Rather, he chose to work around them to get to where he was going.

This isn’t non-engagement; it is non-direct engagement. Sometimes this way leads to deceit. Sometimes it also leads to sacrificing one’s financial interests. Consider the other point of comparison in the Midrash: Yosef is stolen twice, and Yaakov is stolen from twice. Yosef himself was taken and unjustly acted upon, first by his brothers and then by Potiphar. Yaakov, in contrast, was not himself stolen. It was Lavan’s sheep that were stolen, and Yaakov chose to pay Lavan for them regardless of whether the loss was his fault or not. He would rather pay Lavan than fight with him about who was right.

This difference plays out in the other parallels as well. Yosef’s brothers hated him because of the ways he acted as a result of being oblivious to what was going on in the world. Yaakov’s brother hated him because of actions that came from being very aware of the ways of the world, scheming to get what he wanted while keeping his hands clean. Yosef became great due to a dream that he did nothing to realize, that he allowed God to bring about in its due time. Yaakov became great due to a dream, but he acted to ensure its fulfillment by making a deal with God and then reminding God of it when he needed to see it realized.

Yosef’s path is undoubtedly the more pure one. But it is not possible for most of us to remove ourselves from this world. Nor is it necessarily wise. Yosef was blessed that God protected him from his brother’s revenge and from the dungeon of Potiphar. It would be foolish for us to imagine that we could act with such obliviousness to real world consequences with similar impunity. So while Yosef might represent a partial tikkun to Yaakov’s approach, it remains only partial. The true tikkun is to find a way to engage the world in a straightforward and direct manner.

Yaakov himself made this shift when he fought the mysterious man without running away or looking for some less direct way to fight. The man smote him on the curve of his thigh, at the sciatic nerve, exactly in the location of the genitals. The wounding of this area was a symbolic circumcision. In confronting his adversary, Yaakov was transforming from a person born without a foreskin to becoming a mahul – a person who could deal with challenges directly and have the strength to overcome them.

In Yaakov and Yosef, the Torah presents us with two models of a personality that desires to remain tamim – disengaged, or engaged but avoiding conflict. The ideal lies elsewhere. And it is thus that we are presented with two other personalities, two brothers who do step up to the plate when problems arise: Reuven and Yehudah.

Both Reuven and Yehudah acted to save Yosef when the brothers were prepared to kill him. Reuven confronted them directly, convincing them to cast Yosef in the pit. He reasoned that the best he could do was persuade the brothers to let Yosef die indirectly, and then to find some way to retrieve Yosef from the pit. This might have been the perfect plan. It required some lack of honesty, but really, how honest must one be when dealing with potential murders? At least he was willing to address them head on. His problem, however, was lack of follow-through. Reuven is more than ready to rush in to save the day, but he is impetuous: “Turbulent as water, you will not excel” (49:4). He needs to slow down, to plan the next steps, and to see the plan through to the end. This trait continues to be a problem when it comes time to convince Yaakov to send Binyamin down to Egypt, as we will see in the next parasha.

Yehudah is the true tikkun of Yaakov. Yehudah confronts the problem and sees it through to the end, at least to the greatest degree possible. He convinced the brothers not to let Yosef die but to sell him. He can’t control the situation beyond that, but at least he is able to ensure that Yosef’s life is saved. Perhaps he could have achieved more; perhaps more courage was needed. That will emerge in the following story with Tamar, where he is also prepared to step up and do the right thing even if it requires great courage in admitting past wrongs. But even now, his approach is the correct one – confront the problem head on, have a plan, see it through. It is this trait that will ensure that the brothers can return to Egypt with Binyamin, and it is this that, coupled with tremendous courage, will ensure Binyamin’s release.

There are many ways to deal with our challenges. The goal is not to avoid confronting them as part of a misguided attempt to remain pure. True, Yosef is only a partial tikkun of Yaakov. The true model for us must be the one that began with Yaakov’s own struggle with the mysterious man and which was fully realized in the person of Yehudah. It is the model of engagement and of courage. It is the model of a leader.

Shabbat Shalom!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A Thought on the Parasha

VaYishlakh – My Name is Yaakov

“And Yaakov was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day” (Breishit, 32:24). Who was this man? The most common explanation is that it was an angel, the “Heavenly prince of Esav,” and that this wrestling represented Yaakov’s struggle against his external adversaries and anticipated the momentous encounter he would soon have with the earthly Esav.

It is possible to suggest another interpretation. While Yaakov had to struggle against many outside forces throughout his life, perhaps his greatest struggle was internal. Even for those inclined to have an idealized view of the Avot, the character of Yaakov presents major challenges. He takes advantage of Esav at a moment of weakness to buy the birthright, and he misrepresents himself to his father to take the blessing intended for Esav. He even seems to bargain with God: “If God is with me… and gives me bread to eat and clothes to wear… then this stone… shall be a house of God” (28:20–21). And in his dealings with Lavan, Yaakov seems to be using every scheme and loophole to maximize his profit. In short, what we have seen up until now is that Yaakov has lived up to his name: “This is why he is called Yaakov, for he has schemed against me these two times” (27:36).

Yaakov’s greatest challenge, then, is not what is outside of him, but what is inside. He has to grapple with those qualities in himself that lead him to taking the easy way around things, to avoiding conflict and scheming to get his way rather than to tackling his problems head-on, with honesty and integrity.

This internal struggle and the resulting transformation have, in fact, already begun. By the end of his stay with Lavan, we hear that his shepherding was done with great self-sacrifice. As he tells Lavan with full confidence: “That which was torn of beasts I brought not unto you; I bore the loss of it… In the day the drought consumed me, and the frost by night; and my sleep departed from mine eyes” (31:38–40). This is a model of honesty, integrity, and work ethic that most of us could only hope to live up to.

Yaakov was thus a paragon of virtue in matters of money (itself no small feat), and perhaps he only employed his devices with the sheep to counteract Lavan’s double-dealing. But how will he react when he encounters Esav, when what is at stake is not just money but relating to Esav and owning up to his misdeeds of the past? It would be very tempting for Yaakov at this moment to convince himself that he acted correctly those many years ago, to continue thinking positively about himself, and to continue feeling entitled to his father’s blessing. Just consider how often we engage in similar self-deception, digging in our heels to convince ourselves that we are in the right so that we don’t have to confront our own past shortcomings and sins.

It is at this critical juncture that Yaakov is left alone, not just physically but existentially, alone with his own thoughts, his own character, and his own complex personality. He must grapple with the different parts within himself, his tendency to scheme and his desire for integrity and honesty. Will he be the same Yaakov, will he continue to deceive not just others but even himself? Or is he able to embrace the harshest honesty – honesty with oneself?

Significantly, at this moment of struggle Yaakov is asked – or he asks himself – who he is: “And he said to him, What is your name?” In sharp contrast to the past, he does not claim to be Esav; he does not engage in deceit, lying to himself about who he is. Instead, he answers simply and honestly: “And he said, Yaakov.” He is able to come to terms with those less-than-ideal parts of himself, the Yaakov/ekev/deceiver within. By not denying this part of himself, by accepting it and being prepared to deal with it, he is ironically now able to become someone else: “No longer will Yaakov be your name, but Israel.”

The Rabbis tell us that Yaakov went back to retrieve the pachim ketanim, the small vessels that he had left behind. These represent the small vessels that are within us, those easily ignored unpleasant pieces that are a part of us. When we want to move forward in life, it is easier to gloss over our small shortcomings. Paying attention to those will just hold us back, we say to ourselves. But we ignore them at our own peril. As the saying goes: Wherever you go, there you are. We can never escape who we are, and if we try to ignore those problematic personality traits, they will undoubtedly resurface, probably at the worst times, at times when we are under the greatest pressure. Yaakov’s greatness was his realization that in order to go forward, he first had to go back. He had to confront himself and struggle with himself, owning who he was and what his shortcomings – his pachim ketanim – were so that he could then grow and truly change.

Yaakov was victorious in his struggle in the end, but it was not a victory in the simple sense of the word. He did not destroy those vessels; he did not eradicate those parts of his personality. How could he? They were part of him. Rather – “you fought… and you were able” – he found a way to control this part of himself. He became able to dictate how these character traits would be expressed rather than letting them dictate his actions. This is the name of Yisrael, not that you conquered or destroyed your demons but sarita – from the word sar, to be a master – that you have gained mastery over them. He is now someone new, a Yisrael. And yet, as the later verses make clear, he remains a Yaakov. He is a Yaakov who now knows who he is and thus a Yaakov who has mastery, a Yaakov who is a Yisrael.

We all have our shortcomings. No matter how far we have come, if we do not engage in this Yaakovian self-grappling, if we do not go back for those pachim ketanim, we risk having these blow up on us at a later time. This, in the end, is the goal of therapy: to learn to recognize those undesirable parts of oneself, to be able to predict when they may be triggered, to moderate these traits, and most importantly, to choose to act differently. The goal is integration, not eradication.

It is true that there are some vessels that we should not go back for. Some things about us may never change, and we need to learn to make peace with those parts of ourselves. To quote the serenity prayer of Alcoholics Anonymous: “God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, Courage to change the things which should be changed, and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” Yaakov’s greatness was first recognizing that the vessels were there. But his second greatness was knowing that this was something that he could deal with and he could change. 

Most of us, I imagine, too readily put things in the “cannot be changed” category and give ourselves a pass on doing the work that needs to be done within. Recognizing those things that can be changed, going back for those pachim ketanim, however, can be truly transformative.

Yaakov’s struggle was a heroic one, one that is crucial but that we often shirk from undertaking. It can be painful and make us feel vulnerable.  Perhaps we are afraid that we, like Yaakov, will emerge from it limping, wounded, and weaker than when we started.  This may indeed be a stage in the process, but it is necessary so that we, also like Yaakov, can emerge whole, can be a complete self: “And Yaakov arrived complete to the city of Shechem.” (33:18).

For religious leaders, to engage in such a process is all the more necessary. The demand to see oneself as a representative of the mesorah and a model of ethical probity often makes it hard for a religious leader to be honest about his or her own shortcomings. But such self-deception is a recipe for disaster. Such leaders risk either convincing themselves of their own infallibility or, conversely, allowing the “guilty” knowledge that they have these less-than-ideal personality traits to eat away at them until these traits seek a form of release, often in ways that are both destructive to oneself and destructive to others. Both for their own health and for the religious and spiritual health of the community, it is necessary that our religious leaders engage in the struggle of Yaakov. We will only have true leaders of Klal Yisrael, leaders entitled to the name Yisrael, when they are also able to struggle honestly with themselves and say: “My name is Yaakov.”

Shabbat Shalom!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A Thought on the Parasha

Torat Imekha

Rabbi Dov Linzer

In the Torah story of Avraham’s servant and his interaction with Rivka, her brother, and her mother, we saw that Padan Aram was a society with an unusual family structure. As a matrilineal society, households were comprised of the children of the same mother, and the head of the household was the oldest brother, perhaps at times working in conjunction with the matriarch. Although initially on a more subtle level, we encounter these differing societal realities again this week when Yaakov flees to Padan Aram to escape Esav and to seek a wife.

When Yaakov first encounters Rachel, it is Lavan, her father, who is the head of the family. This may suggest that the normal patriarchal configuration was operating, but this is not necessarily the case. Let us not forget that Lavan was the head of the family from the time that Rivka had been living there. Also, it is possible that Lavan’s wife had died and that Rachel and Leah had no older brothers, thus leaving Lavan as head of the household (cf. Rashi, 29:12 and 30:27).

The significant evidence pointing to the matrilineal structure is the repeated reference to Lavan as Yaakov’s mother’s brother and, conversely, to Yaakov as Lavan’s sister’s son. This is repeated three times in one verse (29:10) and five to six times in verses 10–13, as well as the earlier references in 28:2 and 5. Consider what this means in a matrilineal society – as Lavan’s sister, Rivka is considered part of the family of which he is the head. Her children, then, are ultimately part of his family. Yaakov is thus a quasi-son to Lavan. Hence, Lavan’s declaration, “Behold you are my flesh and bones.”

We now also understand the force of Lavan’s claim when he catches up with Yaakov, fleeing to return to Canaan: “The daughters are my daughters and the sons are my sons and the flocks are my flocks; all that you see is mine” (31:43). This claim seems totally baseless until we realize that, from the matrilineal perspective, Yaakov was a member of his household, and thus, Yaakov’s children and his wealth were, ultimately, all Lavan’s.

It is also worth noting the frequent occurrence of the word “brother” in this parasha when referring to Lavan’s relationship with Yaakov, Lavan’s family members, and Yaakov’s family members (see 29:12, 15; 31:23, 25, 32, 37, 46, 54). This is a strong indicator that the family was organized more laterally than vertically, that is, through the brother rather than through father.

All of this helps us to understand the events surrounding Yaakov’s decision to return to his ancestral home. Once he realizes that it is time to leave, he calls Rachel and Leah out to the field to solicit their opinion (31:4). This is, in itself, unusual. While Avraham listened to Sarah and Yitzchak listened to Rivkah when they spoke up, this is our first example of a husband soliciting his wife’s (or wives’) opinion. Of course, given the role of women in this society, this makes sense. What also makes sense, as we have seen, is the difficulty that he faces in extracting himself from Padan Aram. Here he is part of his wives’ household and part of Lavan’s household as his nephew. Thus he is not in a position to bring them back with him to Canaan, his – the husband’s – country.

The response of Rachel and Leah, perhaps the most puzzling part of this narrative, can now also be explained:

And Rachel and Leah answered and said unto him, “Is there yet any portion or inheritance for us in our father's house? Are we not counted of him strangers for he has sold us, and has quite devoured also our money?”  (31:14-15).

We may first note that Rachel and Leah are outraged that it is clear that they will be denied a portion in their father’s estate. They are obviously working on the assumption that they are fundamentally entitled to a portion of the inheritance. But why is this so? It was not until hundreds of years later, when the daughters of Tzlafchad complained to Moshe, that daughters were sometimes (in the absence of sons) considered heirs to their father’s estate. Clearly, in Padan Aram, things were different and daughters would inherit, not only sons.

They are also outraged that Lavan has sold them. What Lavan has done, they are saying, in receiving the fourteen years of labor from Yaakov, was not to marry them off, but to sell them for a price, to treat them as mere property. Again we may again ask – what is so unusual about this? The Torah, in many places refers to a mohar that was given from the groom to the father of the bride as a means of effecting the marriage with this woman (see Shemot 22:15-16). This was a large sum of money (50 shekel, see Devarim 22:29) and is understood by many scholars as a bride price, that is, a purchase price paid to the father. Assuming this is the correct meaning of the institution of mohar and that it was the norm, why are they so offended with having been treated this way?

The answer again lies in the different nature of their society. Such might very well be the practice in patriarchal societies, where women did not have a say and could be treated at times like property. This however was not the case here. Remember that Rivkah was asked her opinion about whether she wanted to marry Yitzchak. Also remember that, while Avraham’s servant did give gifts to Rivkah’s mother and brother, he did not give them a bride price. Thus, to ask for and receive a bride price was decidedly against the norms of their society, and they rightly objected to this treatment.

This then brings us to the last part of their statement. What did they mean when they said that Lavan had devoured their money? How is this different than stating that he had sold them? The answer lies in understanding that the mohar could function in two ways. In some societies it was undoubtedly a bride price, whereas in others it may have functioned as a proto-ketuvah, money held for the sake of the wife, money on which she could live in case her husband died or divorced her. In fact, Rashi understands this to be the general meaning of mohar in the Torah (Shemot, 22:15), and although that is debatable (Ramban, ad. loc.), it certainly served for the Rabbis as a model for the Rabbinic ketuvah (whose value was set at 200 zuz, the equivalent of the Biblical 50 shekel). In fact, the Yerushalmi (Ketuvot, 8:11) explains that the ketuvah was originally given up front to the father to hold onto, in escrow, for the bride, and only at a later stage did it become an outstanding debt of the husband to the wife.

It is possible, then, that the work that Yaakov did for Lavan was not seen initially by Rachel and Leah as a purchase of them. Perhaps it was a proto-ketuvah mohar; perhaps it would be banked for them for their future benefit. What made it clear that this was not the case was what Lavan had done with the money: he used it for himself! If that’s what he did, then it is clear that this was not ketuvah money but rather a purchase price. In fact, the JPS translation phrases it exactly this way: “… that he has sold us and used up our purchase price.” We know that he has sold us because he pocketed the money.

This explanation also clarifies the meaning of the word nachriyot, usually translated as “strangers.” The word nachri, however, has another meaning, “foreigner.” What they are saying is clear: Our father, Lavan, is treating us like foreigners, like we are from a different country, from a society which is patriarchal, from a society in which we have no rights. This is evident from the fact that he has sold us, the type of thing done to daughters in a patriarchal society. Given that, he will likewise disinherit us, again applying to us the rules that govern women in a foreign, patriarchal society.

If this is how things stand, Rachel and Leah are saying to Yaakov, then the wealth that you have earned is yours, and you are free to return to your land. You and your property are not, in this patriarchal figuring, a part of Lavan’s household. And as for us, if we are anyway being treated as members of a patriarchal society, then there is nothing keeping us here; we might as well go with you to the land of Canaan.”

So begins Yaakov’s return to Canaan. And while Yaakov was returning to a very different type of society than Padan Aram, an interesting hybridization was beginning. For the exact rights that Rachel and Leah felt robbed of – the right to inherit, the right to a ketuvah, and the right to participate in marriage instead of being sold into it – would ultimately become a part of the halakhic system, a part of our mesorah, a mesoret avot and a mesoret imahot, a tradition of our fathers and a tradition of our mothers.

Shabbat Shalom!