Thursday, 12 Dec 2019

Written by Deborah Blausten

Who knows 4?

I know 4…

4 are the mothers

And 3 are the fathers and 2 are the tablets that Moses brought…

Echad Mi Yodea- Passover song

If our siddurim and popular passover songs are to be believed then there are 4 biblical matriachs- Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel. However the genealogy towards the end of this week’s Torah portion is a reminder that there was a time in the Jewish past when all of the mothers of Jacob’s children were recalled in the family tree. Rachel and Leah’s handmaids, Bilhah and Zilpah, gave birth to 4 of Jacob’s 12 sons, serving as what the bible scholar Wil Gafney describes as ‘womb-slaves’ to a warring pair of sisters who each sought to triumph over the other by bearing children for Jacob through them.

Vayishlach contains a single line of text that involves Bilhah, and Jacob and Leah’s first born son . Its a line of text that according to the Talmud in Megillah 25a, which refers to it as ‘The Incident with Reuben’, is not supposed to be translated during a public reading. Other verses which fall into this category include the story of the golden calf, the killing of Amnon after he rapes David’s Daughter, and the story of Judah and Tamar from Genesis.

The line in question is Genesis 35:22:


וַיְהִ֗י בִּשְׁכֹּ֤ן יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ בָּאָ֣רֶץ הַהִ֔וא וַיֵּ֣לֶךְ רְאוּבֵ֔ן וַיִּשְׁכַּ֕ב֙ אֶת־בִּלְהָ֖ה֙ פִּילֶ֣גֶשׁ אָבִ֑֔יו וַיִּשְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵֽל (פ) וַיִּֽהְי֥וּ בְנֵֽי־יַעֲקֹ֖ב שְׁנֵ֥ים עָשָֽׂר׃

While Israel stayed in that land, Reuben went and lay with Bilhah, his fathers concubine; and Israel heard. (פ) Now the sons of Jacob were twelve in number.

Even without the Talmud’s signposting, the text contains details that suggests there is more going on in the verse than initially meets the eye. The first indicator is a letter pey in brackets in the middle of the sentence. This symbol indicates the beginning of a new open portion, represented in a scroll by beginning a new line within the text. Though there is a portion break, it isn’t accompanied by a break between verses as would be expected. In fact, its right in the middle of a verse. The masoretes who divided the continuous text into sections thus created a literal empty space within the narrative, perhaps indicating that there is more text within the verse that once belonged in that gap.

The strange portion break isn’t the only indicator that something isn’t quite right in this verse because the cantillation mark Etnachta (a small wishbone shape) also appears twice in Genesis 35:22. This is unusual because Etnachta is a sign that ordinarily only occurs once, and it separates a verse into two halves. In this case where it appears twice, it has the effect of making it seem like there is a missing second half of a verse that follows the statement that Reuben lay with Bilhah, and thus a missing prelude to the words va’yishma Yisrael, ‘and Israel heard’.

Noting these peculiarities in the text leads me to question what it is about the incident with Reuben that means this verse cannot be translated during a public reading when the masoretic markings appear to be drawing attention to the verse rather than suggesting it is skimmed over.

What did Reuben do? According to a literal reading of the text, what he did was to rape Bilhah.

Although the verse is most commonly translated as ‘he lay with’, if that was the case then the text would read va’yishkav im Bilhah. Instead, it reads et Bilhah, which puts Bilhah into a passive mode, suggesting that the lying was done to her rather than with her. Though the rabbis of the Talmud spend much time suggesting that Reuben simply ruffled the bedsheets, Jacob’s reaction later in Genesis in removing from Reuben the special blessings of the first born son cement the seriousness of Reuben’s actions. Why can’t it be read? Because it casts Reuben in a terrible light, its embarrassing, and it reflects a wider tendency to look aside when confronted by such abuses.

What’s missing in the text of Genesis is any sense of what Bilhah experiences in this moment. She has been used first as a slave by Laban, then by Rachel, then handed as a womb-slave to Jacob, and now raped by his son. She is consistently and repeatedly violated, and apparently has no agency over her body at all. Bilhah doesn’t speak in the text that we have, but I want to suggest there is an opportunity for us to find Bilhah’s voice in the verse and create a piece of modern midrash, one that might mean we too as readers are not complicit in the further confining Bilhah to the world of her trauma.

The first Etnachta in the verse falls immediately after her rape. It means that it appears there is a missing second part to the verse.

What if we were to imagine what came next…

While Israel stayed in that land, Reuben went and he raped Bilhah, his fathers concubine; and she fought back. She called out

 and Israel heard, and he punished Reuben for that which he had done. (פ)

 Unstable as water, you shall excel no longer… You brought disgrace” (Genesis 49:4)

Jacob’s punishment of Reuben gives us as readers a sense of what va’yishma Yisrael in our parasha might mean. It offers the opportunity to imagine that perhaps Bilhah wasn’t, as is the case for so many who fall victim to this kind of repeated abuse, a perpetual victim.

Many conversations about recognising the role of Bilhah and Zilpah revolve around recognising them as matriarchs. This is a start, but what it doesn’t do is help us to find their voices, humanise their experience, and ensure that we don’t overlook what they endured.

I am particularly taken by the possibilities for us as inheritors of Jacob’s title to explore what ‘va’yishma Yisrael’ might mean in our society. In the midrash above I imagine it as Jacob’s sensitivity to the cry of another, particularly one whose oppression he was once complicit in. For us too, va’yishma Yisrael can be a call to confront the violations and transgressions within our own communities that we too once overlooked, and to act, as Jacob did, to ensure that those responsible are held to account.

Deborah Blausten LBC student rabbi

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.