Book ‘finds’ Leah, the lost matriarch
The Lost Matriarch: Finding Leah in the Bible and Midrash by Jerry Rabow, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia;
ISBN 978-0-8276-1207-5 ©2014, $22.95, p. 193, plus Index and several appendices
By Fred Reiss, Ed.D.
WINCHESTER, California–Tradition maintains that each word of the Five Books of Moses contains multiple interpretations. Bible stories such as Noah and the flood, Joseph and his multicolored coat, and Moses at the burning bush are considered the literal level, peshat. A deeper understanding is called derash, from which we get the word midrash, meaning creative homily and interpretation, and derasha, or sermon. It is at the level of derash that Jerry Rabow, in his book The Lost Matriarch, seeks to gain a thoughtful understanding of Jacob’s first wife Leah, whom he calls “The Lost Matriarch of Israel,” and why she plays second fiddle, so to speak, to her sister Rachel.
Rabow poignantly notes that the first of the Five Books of Moses, the Book of Genesis, literally begs us to compare biblical personas. For example, Noah is silent in the face of the destruction of all humanity, but curses his son Ham for “seeing him naked.” Abraham fights with God to save Sodom and Gomorrah for the sake of five worthy citizens, but says nothing when told he is to kill his only son.
Arguably, the Book of Genesis reserves it largest set of comparisons for the patriarch Jacob and his extended family. On one hand, Jacob swindles his brother Esau out of his birthright in a weak moment of hunger, and with the knowledge and aid of Rebecca, tricks his blind father into giving him the blessing of the first born, which also rightfully belongs to Esau. On the other hand, Jacob’s uncle Laban tricks Jacob. After working seven years to marry Rachel, he substitutes her sister Leah at the wedding ceremony and then requiring seven more years in exchange for Rachel becoming his bride.
Rabow asks how is it that Jacob spent the wedding night with his bride Rachel who was, in fact, Leah, and not know it? What part did each of them play in fooling Jacob? Surely both of them knew what was going on, why did they do it? Jacob, angry at the deceit demands a reason from his father-in-law. Laban informs Jacob that it is not the community’s custom to give the younger daughter in marriage before the older one. Jacob served Laban for seven year and after all this time did he not know of this custom? Rabow employs rabbinic and scholarly exegesis, both ancient and modern, to relay how the Jewish sages tried to explain away the deceitful behavior of Laban, Rachel and Leah.
Jacob is now married to two sisters, Rachel, whom he loves, and who the Bible describes as beautiful and lovely in form, and Leah, biblically portrayed as having “weak eyes.” What does the Bible mean? Was she blind? Ugly? Again, Rabow calls on the midrashim, which often disagree with each other, to present fair assessments and biblical significances.
Rabow also looks at Leah’s likely state of mind as she competes with her sister to give birth to sons, inferring the answer by exploring how the naming of her sons differs from how Rachel chose names for her sons, and examining potential meanings in Leah’s trade of her mandrakes (a plant used in both medicine and magic) to Rachel in exchange for sleeping privileges with Jacob.
He discusses the rabbinic explanations, both rational and mystical, behind the Bible’s telling of the birth of Leah’s daughter Dinah, rather than another son. Rabow then investigates if Dinah’s story is one of rape and revenge, or lust and longing. He wants to find out why Jacob and Leah are silent in this matter, and how the rabbis feel about Simeon and Levi deceptive behavior at the bargaining table.
When Jacob and his family flee Laban, Rachel steals his teraphim, house-hold gods. Laban follows and demands the return of his idols. Jacob, who does not know that Rachel has them, claims that no one in his party has them, and puts a death curse on the person who took the idols. Later, Rachel dies giving birth to Benjamin on the road to Bethlehem. What was Jacob thinking? Did he later learn about Rachel and the teraphim? How did he feel? The Bible is silent, but not the midrash, which Rabow calls on to depict the dramatic tension.
In addition to examining motives and methods, feelings and aspirations, Rabow compares who Jacob, Rachel, and Leah were at the beginning of their story with who they became at the end. The Lost Matriarch is a thorough examination of the story of Leah who seeks love from a husband who does want her by competing with her sister for the birth of sons.
Rachel gives birth to two sons; Leah four. Rachel is buried in a roadside grave; Leah is buried with Jacob and the other patriarchal families in the tomb of Machpelah in Hebron. Rachel’s son Joseph saves the local population during an extended drought, but Leah’s son Judah becomes the tribe of the kings and the messiah. So who won? Rabow has an interesting opinion. If, indeed, Leah is lost to the Jewish people, then I for one believe that she can be found in Rabow’s book The Lost Matriarch.
Dr. Fred Reiss is a retired public and Hebrew school teacher and administrator. He is the author of The Standard Guide to the Jewish and Civil Calendars; Ancient Secrets of Creation: Sepher Yetzira, the Book that Started Kabbalah, Revealed; and a fiction book, Reclaiming the Messiah.