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Rachel and Leah : Frenemies
Were Leah and Rachel enemies or, as sisters can sometimes be, "frenemies"?
Before the Covid Era, if I might call it that, there were details of my daily routine which I did not even notice, let alone appreciate, as I busily rushed from one errand to another. I did not take the time to stop and consider how each season contains the seeds of the next, and what a beautiful journey each day really is. In the past year and a half of enforced slowdown, I have come to appreciate the majestic artistry of the everyday, as well as to delve more into those Biblical stories which I thought I knew, such as the “baby wars “ between Leah and Rachel.
Rachel's journey from petulant child bride to beautiful but jealous wife to cooperation with her sister and finally, to becoming the mother of Joseph and Benjamin, and the ancestor of King David -all that- is honored in a bridal headdress style kippah I made in the past year. Based upon re-reading the Biblical narrative, the commentaries in the Etz Chayim Chumash and those in The Women’s Torah Commentary, edited by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, and the extended midrash which is The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, I have come to a different understanding of Rachel and her relationship with her sister, Leah. If you have walked in Rachel’s footsteps, I hope you will feel her transcendent journey in the headdress kippah which I created to honor her.*
Leah, sister-wife, friend and enemy, or “frenemy” in slang, was not necessarily less beautiful, or less of anything, for that matter. Jacob certainly had no problem in finding Leah attractive, especially when, as we read in B’reysheet, ch.30, she saunters out to greet Jacob in the field as he was returning from work. Saucily, she tells him,
”Come to me, for surely I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes”, and, as we are told, Jacob laid with her that night (no protest thereJ)**
She was competing for Jacob’s heart, not his, um, attention.
As I learned from Rabbi Howard Stecker of Temple Israel in Great Neck, she does indeed feel at one point that she has succeeded in claiming Jacob’s love, as she says,
“This time, I will praise the Lord”.
Leah and her sister do seem to come to terms with each other, at least in the matter of packing up the household and running away from Laban, and in the matter of the theft of his household gods. If you haven’t read, or don’t remember, that scene in The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, do treat yourself and savor each word.
I can personally attest to the ability of rival sisters to cooperate, and even come to appreciate each other. My own twin daughters fought continuously for what seemed like years, until they found some common interests. Perhaps this is how enmity can be laid to rest: by appreciating each other’s qualities and by participating together in an important task, or even a hobby. The longest journey, it is often said, begins with the first and hardest step, as Bilbo Baggins says in the Lord of the Rings movie,
“It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
And that is the sentiment we acknowledge when we wish someone “n’sia tova” a good journey, and more so, when they recite the “birkat gomel” upon their safe return. As we journey through this continuing “new normal”, may we come to appreciate all the kindnesses, great and small, which are shown to us and those that we are given an opportunity to bestow upon others.
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