This week’s parasha is the first ever episode of Sister Wives in the universe. Ok, so, I’ve never actually seen that show, but from what I know about television and the way women are portrayed in the media, I assume it’s really melodramatic and centers on the women’s insecurities and jealousies, and generally plays up an idea that women are crazy, obsessed with “their man” and always willing to stab each other in the back. In case you weren’t sure, this is not a fully accurate portrayal of women. However, the picture we get of Sister Wives Rachel, Leah, Zilpah, and Bilhah is not much different. Rachel and Leah, Jacob’s real wives, are sisters, and beside them there are two handmaidens Jacob takes as secondary wives. There is one – one! – very nice ancient rabbinic midrash that shows love and care between the sisters: Jacob, knowing that Laban is a trickster, gives Rachel some sort of token, so that when she comes to him in her wedding veil, he will know for sure that it is her. When Rachel sees that Laban is taking Leah to marry Jacob, and the Midrash gives no indication that Rachel was really in on this trick, rather than being angry or jealous, she is concerned that Jacob will publicly shame her sister. So, she gives the token to her sister, so that Jacob would still think that it is Rachel under the veil, and Leah may be spared some humiliation. However, other than this Midrash, most of the text and traditional commentaries show that the image of women in media have not changed much in the last couple thousand years.
I know last week I spoke about looking at the text for what it is, and not necessarily accepting the ancient rabbis’ interpretations at face value, but sometimes the text, as it is, is uncomfortable. But we learn from Rabbi Ben Bag-Bag, who seems quite wise in spite of his silly name, “Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it. Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it. Don't turn from it, for nothing is better than it.” And of course, the “it” here, is the Torah. The Torah teaches everything, if we know how to look at it, and there are no parts of the Torah without value, no matter how obscure the value may seem at first glance.
One value learned in this Torah portion is how multi-faceted people can be. The women are shown to have seemingly petty jealousies with one another over a man, but this is a world where a woman’s status was determined by how many sons she could give to her husband. Rachel and Leah seem to have clear moments of cleverness, bargaining with each other, making deals about Jacob without his input, negotiating their fates with each other and with G-d. This is actually one of the closest things to feminism the Torah will show us. Many women in the Torah are very one-dimensional, but in this parasha, they are the stars. Meanwhile, Jacob the trickster learns what it is like to be tricked. After pretending to be Esau, he now has to deal with the fallout of Leah pretending to be Rachel. We see him grow up a little. It turns out, tricky Jacob who lied and stole to get a blessing and birthright from his father, actually does have a great work ethic. He takes great care of Laban’s sheep and goats, works hard for many years, and is a successful man. Although he clearly doesn’t love Leah, he seems to do right by her, and that’s how a lot of marriages were back then. So we see that even our patriarchs and matriarchs, the righteous ones, were not perfect. We all have moments where we are good, smart, hard-working, and loving people. But we also do all have moments were we are jealous, irrational, sneaky liars. This is life. Although at first glance it might be frustrating that our supposed role models of the Bible are not perfect, it’s also kind of comforting. We don’t have some ridiculous standard to hold ourselves up to. We just have to be the best we can be. G-d trusted Jacob to become Israel despite the fact that he was a sneaky liar, and G-d trusted Rachel, Leah, Bilhah, and Zilpah to raise the twelve tribes of Israel despite being jealous and petty. Who knows what G-d may trust in us?