Sermon: That Jacob didn’t know it was Leah – and what this tells us about gender in Judaism and our world
Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 3 December 2022
Va’y’hi va-boker – v’hineih hi leah
It was morning, and behold, it was Leah!
But how was this possible?
How can it possibly have been the case that Jacob, in love with one sister, did not realise that he had spent the night with the other?
We’d like to think that, surely, he would notice. After all, he loved Rachel, spent 7 years working to earn the right to marry her… to then not even recognise that it wasn’t her?
The commentators are equally troubled by this. They give a variety of possible explanations.
They suggest that it was dark so he couldn’t see with whom he was lying; that the tradition in such an encounter was not to speak – so he couldn’t hear that it was not Rachel’s voice but Leah’s.
A midrash – a rabbinic telling of the story – tells us that he did notice, of course he did, but that Rachel and Leah had colluded. Motivated by concern for her sister, Rachel shared with Leah things that only she and Jacob would know. So, when Jacob suspected, he was reassured.
Others suggest – rather more prosaically – that Jacob was just very drunk. In our portion, it tells us that Lavan held a mishteh: often translated as a feast, but, technically, a drinking party, from the Hebrew root meaning to drink. Normally this would be accompanied by food, but here, according to some commentators, there was only wine. Lavan’s intent was to get Jacob so drunk that he would not know which sister was which.
But there is a more straightforward, and more challenging, explanation. An explanation that means the story would have made immediate sense to those living in ancient times as they heard and re-told the story.
Most likely, Jacob didn’t know that it was Leah not Rachel that night because, in truth, he didn’t really know either of them at all.
His encounters with Rachel had been superficial. There was no courtship as such. He was infatuated with her on first encounter because of her beauty; but thereafter his dealings had only been with their father, Lavan.
Look again at our portion.
When Lavan asks Jacob what his wages should be for working for him, Jacob’s answer is ‘Rachel’. There is no account of her voice, of her being asked for her consent. Rachel is ‘wages’.
When he has served his seven years, Jacob states that it is time for his marriage to Rachel to take place. And to whom does he say this? Not to Rachel but to her father.
Lavan holds a wedding feast for Jacob – but there is no suggestion that Rachel is present.
And when Va’y’hi va-boker – v’hineih hi leah – ‘it was morning, and behold it was Leah’ – to whom does Jacob speak? ‘Va’yomer el lavan, ‘ma zot asitah li’ – ‘He said to Lavan, ‘What is this that you have done to me’. According to midrash, Jacob may speak in that moment to Leah, but in Torah his discussion does not include her at all.
In this explanation, Rachel, and Leah, are not actors, not complicit in the deception as midrash suggests. Rather they are pawns of Lavan. And sadly, that is their relationship with Jacob, too. Rachel and Leah, as women, do not belong in the public sphere but are held at arm’s length from where the real dealings take place. They do not control their own fate, do not have their own conversations; they are chattel, the property of their father, transferred to the property of their husband.
At this point there might be a temptation for us to say, ‘OK. This is an ancient text, describing ancient ways.
It’s a bit uncomfortable that we just made a 13-year-old boy read this, but it’s not really anything to do with us.’
But in truth, this kind of power structure is not unknown to us, too.
Many of us are currently enjoying a World Cup taking place in a country where remnants of the kind of power structure found in our portion remain very much in place. To be a woman in Qatar is certainly more free than in some other parts of the world – yet aspects of it would not be unfamiliar to Rachel and Leah.
Qatari law includes male guardianship, in which women – regardless of age or marital status – are required to obtain male guardian permission to exercise many of their basic rights. At marriage, guardianship transfers from father to husband, which exposes women to an officially sanctioned structure of coercion and control. A woman’s husband can take out a travel ban which prevents her from leaving the country at any age.
But, thanks FIFA, let’s just enjoy the football…
And before we feel too smug, remnants of this power structure remain in our Jewish lives as well. A variety of classical Jewish practices, particularly around marriage, reflect this very model.
Any woman in this room who had an Orthodox Jewish wedding, whether they know it or not, wanted to or not, underwent what is known as kinyan: the transfer of the bride from her father’s domain to her husband’s domain by an act of financial transfer. The act of giving a ring while reciting a set formula is in essence an act of acquisition – ‘by this ring you are set aside for me’.
This is why, in an Orthodox wedding it is not possible for the bride to give the groom a ring too, or to speak in any way in that moment, for that would annul the acquisition. It is also why in Masorti weddings, in which the bride is permitted to give a ring and to speak, they cannot say the traditional formula back to their new husband – because this is an act of acquisition and in halachah women cannot purchase men, only the other way round.
This is just the most obvious example – many of our marriage rituals – including outside of the Jewish world – reflect this power model: A father ‘giving away’ his daughter used to mean just that.
As a result, many modern couples are revaluing, redefining the meaning of traditional rituals. In Progressive weddings, a ring exchange with the same formula is a requirement. It’s non-optional, because we are categorically not doing kinyan. Meanwhile many young people are now eschewing the forms of classical Jewish marriage entirely, instead designing new ceremonies without the underlying issues, ceremonies of equality such as ‘brit ahavah’ – forming a covenant of love.
On this Jewish Women’s Aid Shabbat, it is important also to recognise that there many – too many – homes and communities in which power of this sort –physical and psychological – is still wielded by men over women according to more informal structures. Jewish Women’s Aid exists because that is true in Jewish homes too. In fact, there are specific ways in which Jewish tradition – as exercised in parts of the Jewish community – enables coercion and control of women by men. In parts of the Jewish world in which religious divorce can only be granted by men, and in which the public domain remains the sphere of men, women are unable to rely on figures of power to support them when they raise issues of domestic abuse. They are truly the modern day heirs of Rachel and Leah.
Va’y’hi va-boker – v’hineih hi leah
It was morning, and behold, it was Leah!
We can really understand this moment in our narrative only if we understand the gender power structure that underpins it. Read our portion closely and we see that Rachel and Leah are not actors, not authors of their own story, but the property of Lavan – and, then, of Jacob, too.
This is not a value judgement on them – just a reality of that society, the system which their story reflects.
But it is a value judgement on us that this system remains in aspects of modern Jewish practice, and in countries and homes around the world.
So, as we read our portion, we should recognise in it our responsibility, the demand that it makes of us: to build a Judaism, a society and a wider world in which genuine equality – not just of opportunity but of power – is a reality. A world in which coercion and control of women by men is a thing of the past, and in which marriage is not something done to you, but the choice of two equals to join their lives together.