“Who Knows Twelve?” Parashat Vayetze 5777

“Who knows twelve?

I know twelve! Twelve are the Tribes of Yis-ra-el.

And one is Hashem…”

These are the words to one of my favourite songs, sung at the end of the Pesach Seder. Yaakov had twelve sons and these sons became the core of the nascent Am Yisrael. The thing is that sometimes it almost seems as if it was predetermined that Yaakov would have twelve tribes. When Yaakov runs away from home to seek refuge in Haran, he takes [Bereishit 28:11] “from the stones of the place and he placed them around his head”. The Midrash in Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer posits that Yaakov specifically put twelve rocks around his head as a symbol of the twelve tribes that he would one day lead. Later on [Bereishit 30:21], after Leah has given birth to six boys, she becomes pregnant with a girl who she names Dina. Rashi, quoting the Talmud in Tractate Berachot [60a], explains that “[While she was pregnant] Leah pronounced judgment (din) upon herself. [She reasoned:] If this [fetus] is a male, my sister Rachel will not be [esteemed even] as one of the handmaids. So she prayed over him and he was turned into a female[1]”.

Leah somehow knew that Yaakov would have exactly twelve sons. She already had six and each of the handmaidens, Bilha and Zilpa, already had two apiece. If Leah were to have a seventh son then Rachel would be left with only one son, reducing her contribution to the twelve tribes to less than that of the handmaidens. How did Leah know for certain that Yaakov would only sire twelve sons? One answer could be that Leah was a prophetess. However, the Talmud in Tractate Megilla [14b] lists seven prophetesses and Leah does not appear on that list, and the Torah never alludes to Leah or Rachel having any kind of prophetic powers.

In order to get to the bottom of this we’re going to set the Midrash aside for the moment, and we’ll try to analyse the verses in the Torah according to their most simple meaning. More than anything in the world, Rachel wants a child. She tells Yaakov [Bereishit 30:1] “Give me children, if not I am dead”. Yaakov, seeing that Leah has already bore him four children, understands that he is not at fault and he tells Rachel [Bereishit 30:2] “Am I instead of Hashem, Who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” While the extent of Yaakov’s tact is debateable, his conclusion is not and Rachel takes the next step: she gives Yaakov her handmaiden, Bilha, as a concubine. If and when Bilha has a child, then Rachel will assist in the child’s rearing[2].

Rachel learnt about this option from Sarah. When Sarah became convinced that she would never have a child, she gave Avraham her handmaiden, Hagar, as a wife. Alas, things do not turn out as planned. Hagar becomes pregnant and [Bereishit 16:4] “[Sarah] became lessened in [Hagar’s] eyes”. Sarah complains about this to Avraham who essentially tells her to do whatever she wants. Sarah vents and [Bereishit 16:6] “mistreats” Hagar, whose response is to run away. Rabbi Aryeh Levine asks how Sarah could be so vindictive as to make Hagar’s life miserable, when Hagar’s only sin was to become pregnant when Sarah could not. Rabbi Levine answers that Sarah did not treat Hagar any differently after she became pregnant. Hagar felt that this was an affront to her honour[3]. After all, she was carrying in her womb the child that Sarah could never have, the child who was destined to become the future of the Semitic people. When Hagar did not receive the respect she felt that she deserved, she ran away.

After Rachel gives Bilha over to Yaakov, the Torah segues to the “Mandrake Incident”. Reuven finds mandrakes in the field and he gives them to his mother, Leah. Rachel, believing that mandrakes have some kind of reproductive powers, asks Leah for some of her son’s mandrakes. Leah’s response is nothing less than brutal [Bereishit 30:15]: “Is it not enough that you take my husband, but you also want my son’s mandrakes”? My husband? Recall that Yaakov had never intended on marrying Leah. He had fallen madly in love with Rachel the moment they met. The only reason he married Leah was because her father, Lavan, pulled the old “Switch the Bride Trick”. Leah telling Rachel that Yaakov was her husband was perhaps the most callous remark in the entire Torah.

The Talmud in Tractate Yevamot [79a] teaches that Jews have three innate characteristics: they are rachmanim (merciful), bayshanim (have a sense of shame) and gomlei chasadim (perform acts of kindness). These traits are the hallmarks of Judaism. They are burnt into our national DNA. The Rambam rules [Hilchot Issurei Bi’ah 19:17] that “a person who is arrogant, is cruel, does not like people, and does not perform acts of kindness is suspected of not being Jewish”. I propose that these three traits originated with Rachel. From the outset, Rachel showed kindness to Leah by not informing Yaakov of Lavan’s trickery. She could have stopped the wedding had she desired but she chose Leah’s honour over her own. Rachel shows that she is merciful by her treatment of Bilha. The Torah does not mention any “mistreatment”. Referring back to Sarah and Hagar, either Bilha had a smaller ego than Hagar or that Rachel gave Bilha the extra honour that Sarah was unwilling to give to Hagar. Finally, Rachel showed that she had a sense of shame when Leah accuses her of stealing her husband and Rachel remains silent. She could have returned fire and shamed Leah, telling her that it was she who had stolen her husband. But she does not. When Leah sees Rachel exhibit what will become the three hallmarks of the Jewish people, she knows that Rachel must eventually bear Yaakov at least one child. Not because Leah was familiar with the Talmud in Tractate Yevamot. She only knew that a nation that came from Rachel would be a nation that she wanted to be a part of.

Immediately after the Mandrake Incident, Leah becomes pregnant for a seventh time. Rashi and the Talmud in Tractate Berachot assert that Leah somehow knew that Yaakov would have twelve sons[4] and so she prayed for her male fetus to become female. But what if Leah didn’t know how many sons Yaakov would eventually have? An amazing Midrash Tanchuma offers an alternate direction: “Why did [Leah] name her child Dina? Because the righteous Leah stood in judgement (din) before Hashem and prayed for her sister, Rachel. Hashem told her, ‘You are merciful, and so I, too, will have mercy upon her’. And immediately Rachel became pregnant”. Rachel became pregnant because of mercy: Leah’s mercy, Hashem’s mercy, and most of all because of her own mercy. The mercy that was so clearly seen in Rachel’s behaviour would serve as the biological source of the mercy that lies at the heart of the Jewish national persona. Rachel’s having a child was inevitable. Further, it can be argued that as Rachel was merciful to her handmaiden, Bilha, it is only fair that she have no fewer children than Bilha, which brings us back to the Talmud in Tractate Berachot.

Hashem blessed Rachel with a child because of who she was. By doing so Hashem has blessed Am Yisrael by making us who we are.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5777

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka, Yechiel ben Shprintza, and Shaul ben Tzvia.

[1] Leah’s capability to turn a male fetus into a female fetus was an overt miracle. The gender of a child is determined immediately upon fertilization. Human fetuses do not naturally change sex in utero.

[2] Contrary to the modern use of surrogate mothers who are discarded after birth, Rachel had no intention of taking Bilha’s children from her. Her plan is that [Bereishit 30:3] “[Bilha] will bear [children] on my knees, so that I, too, will be built up from her”.

[3] Interesting factoid: According the Midrash, Hagar came from Egyptian royalty.

[4] It is a common occurrence that two Midrashim clash. It is fairly likely that the author of the Midrash that asserts that Leah knew that Yaakov would have twelve sons disagreed with the author of the Midrash that did not include Leah in the list of prophetesses.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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