Parasha / E-Letter

Parashat VaYetze: Moving Forward in Solidarity & Commitment

1 Comment 22 November 2017

To many, Leah’s story is shrouded in sadness. In this week’s commentary to Parashat VaYetze, Rabbi Gail Diamond shows us what we can learn from Leah about spiritual activism and solidarity work.

 

olive harvest

RHR volunteers sort olives with Palestinians from Deir al Hatab as they accompany them to harvest in areas prone to threats and violence from extremist settlers

By Rabbi Gail Diamond

Yes, how many times must a man look up
Before he can really see the sky?
Yes, how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
—Bob Dylan, Blowin’ in the Wind

This week’s Torah portion (Parashat VaYetzeh) could be called “Leah and Rachel’s portion” as this is the one portion of the Torah in which the two sisters figure heavily. Yet in the opening scenes of the portion, through their marriages to Jacob, the sisters do not speak and have no part in the limited dialogue that takes place. Though the events of their marriages clearly have a huge impact on their lives, it is their male family members, Jacob and Laban, who discuss and control these events.

When Leah and Rachel do begin to speak, it is in the context of childbearing. Here, through naming their children, they voice their perspective on their situation and give voice to their own theology, their understanding of God and God’s role in their lives.

While it is tempting to contrast the two sisters and their different perspectives through the names they give, I want instead to take a deeper look at the names given by Leah, for in themselves they detail a theology of presence and a model for how we might live our lives as religious social activists.

Leah’s first son she names Reuven, for she declares, “God has seen her affliction.” The notion that God takes notice of us is at the heart of religious belief, expressing our belief that God is present with us. As a spiritual model for us, seeing focuses on our ability to see others, and the events taking place around us is the starting point for any change we make in the world. First, we must see and take notice of what is happening.

Dante's Vision of Rachel and Leah – Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1899

Dante’s Vision of Rachel and Leah – Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1899

Leah names her second son Shimon, saying, “This is because the Lord heard that I was unloved.” The ability to hear and listen is the true basis of all relationship. As the famous saying goes, we were given two ears and only one tongue, so that we might listen twice as much as we speak. The Israelites were redeemed from Egypt when God heard their cry. So must we strive to hear those around us who are in distress, and those whom we wish to work with. We cannot help and we cannot collaborate if we cannot listen and hear.

Leah’s third son Levi is named from the root lelavot, to accompany. When she gives birth she says, “This time my husband will accompany me.” Accompaniment is a spiritual task. The book of Isaiah describes foreigners who accompany or attach themselves to God (Isaiah 56:6), who shall be welcome in God’s house. As social activists, we choose the people and causes we will accompany, sometimes throughout our lifetimes. Like seeing and hearing, our presence through accompaniment makes God present to others.

Leah names her fourth son Judah, from the root meaning “to thank.” The rabbis note the uniqueness of her choice.

Babylonian Talmud Berachot 7b:

Rabbi Yohanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai, from the day that the Holy Blessed One created His world, there was not a person who thanked the Holy Blessed One until Leah came and thanked Him, as it is said, “This time I will thank HaShem.”

According to Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 71:5, Leah made thanking her métier, and all her descendants did the same:

As descendants of Judah, David and Daniel (all mentioned in this Midrash), we are to be known as people who express gratitude.

These four spiritual teachings from Leah – of seeing others, of hearing others, of accompanying others, and of giving thanks, can form the basis for a life of spiritual activism. Action based on these four attributes is grounded action – action that begins with observing what is around us and contributing our presence and “good eye” to our surroundings. From this place we can move forward with others, in solidarity and commitment.

Rabbi Gail Diamond. Photo by Stephen Ide.Rabbi Gail Diamond is a member of Rabbis for Human Rights. She is a freelance translator and editor. She graduated from RRC and served as a congregational rabbi before making aliyah in 2001. She was previously an educator and administrator at the Conservative Yeshiva.  She lives with her family in Tzur Hadassah.

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