The immense power of Jewish women has been documented from time immemorial, but there is one cataclysmic episode in the Torah that, to the best of my knowledge, has never been utilized as a prime example of exemplifying the absolute necessity of the presence of the woman/mother in Jewish history.
Before that episode is brought to bear, let us examine some prior history, as the Torah, in its inimitable wisdom, uses the iconic mother/heroines Sarah and Rivkah to delineate the incalculable preeminent position of women in the Jewish home.
Sarah, with her gifts of prophecy, not only knew that Yishmael was a mortal threat to Yitzchak’s existence, but also knew that as the son of an Egyptian woman, he could never identify as a Jew. Long before Ezra, she anticipated the necessity of matrilineal lineage, casting Yishmael out and making it clear to Avraham that only her son, only the son of a Jewish woman, could continue the line of the Jewish people.
As difficult as that action was for Sarah to take, the fact remains that Sarah was not rejecting her own son; Yishmael was Hagar’s, and thus the pain Sarah may have felt at Avraham’s own suffering at the loss of his son was not compounded by Yishmael being her own child.
Sarah’s difficulty may seem severe, but it pales next to Rivkah’s, as Rivkah had to reject her own son in order to preserve Jewish lineage. It is no accident that the episode in which Rivkah advises Yaakov to trick his father immediately follows the passage in which Eisav chooses wives from outside the Jewish people. Rivkah well knows that Eisav’s betrayal makes him unfit for preserving the Jewish line, and thus even though Eisav is her own son, she has the courage to reject him and make certain that Yaakov is chosen to become the progenitor of the Jewish people.
Yet even Rivkah’s test pales next to the unsung heroine of the Jewish people, Leah. The cataclysmic episode referred to above revolves around this utterly selfless woman who rarely gets enough credit for her critical part in the genesis of the Jewish people.
Just as it was Yaakov’s mission to keep his family together, to ensure that all of his children stayed Jews, it was Leah’s as well. Not only did she have to raise six sons of her own, but six others who weren’t hers; not only did she have to supervise the children of Zilpah and Bilhah, she had to raise the sons of her deceased sister, Rachel.
It is this dynamic – the raising of sons not her own and keeping them Jews –that elucidates the power of Leah and the crucial necessity of the Jewish woman in the home more clearly than any other instance in the Torah.
For centuries, the question has been asked: How could the sons of Yaakov have behaved so brutally toward Yosef, throwing him into the pit, selling him as a slave, letting their father believe his precious son was dead? Many explanations have been offered, including the thought that Yosef had threatened the preeminence of Yehuda with his dreams of supremacy, but the question remains: How could the sons act in such a way while their father was alive?
The answer is simple and instructive.
The brothers, led by Leah’s sons, were not disinclined to act in the fashion they did even though Yaakov was alive. His presence had little or no effect in dissuading them from their brutality.
The one whose presence was needed was Leah, their mother.
And Leah was dead.
According to Seder Olam Rabbah, Leah did not live over 45 years, which means she died the same year Yosef was sold. Rachel had died eight years before.
How do we know Leah died before her sons sold Yosef? Because in Bereishis 37:35, the Torah states, “Vayakumu chol banav v’chol b’nosav l’nachamo” – “And all his sons and all his daughters arose to comfort him.”
There is no mention of Leah, for she was already niftar.
Now it finally makes sense. Why did the brothers treat Yosef so brutally? Why did they wait as long as they did to sell Yosef? It was because their mother was no longer there to say to them, “Treat your brother/cousin with respect. Behave yourselves. I know you are angry, but remember we are all one family.”
It is the very absence of Leah in which we realize the tremendous power and centrality of the mother in the Jewish home. Had she been present, the incident with Yosef may never have occurred, and the whole history of the Jewish people may have been different.
Yes, Sarah’s test was difficult; yes, Rivkah’s superseded Sarah’s, but only Leah – the unsung heroine, the woman enjoined with keeping her massive family on the straight and narrow – managed to keep Yaakov’s fractious family together as long as Hashem gave her life. When she was gone, everything came asunder.
The Torah’s emphasizes Rachel’s beauty, but in Leah we see a deeper beauty – in essence, the true beauty of the Jewish people. In Shmuel Bet, 1:19, David laments the death of Shaul and Yehonatan, crying, “Hatzvi Yisrael al bamosecha.” The word “tzvi” is variously translated as beauty, honor, or precious, implying the words’ synonymity. The closeness of “tzvi” to “tzaddik” can be seen in Yishiyahu 24:16, when Yishiyahu states, “Miknaf haaretz z’miros shaman t’zvi latzaddik” – “From the edge of the earth we have heard songs ‘Glory to the righteous.’ ”
Thus beauty and honor are quite closely related to righteousness. This concept goes to the heart of being a Jew. For Jews, unlike for others, true beauty is found in righteousness – and only righteousness.
And Leah, with her heroic struggle to raise 12 sons, six of whom were not hers, and knit them into one Jewish family after her sister had died, exemplifies the kind of selfless righteousness that is the essence of who we are as a people. Hers was the kind of exalted beauty that the Jewish woman and mother offers the world as a beacon in the murky darkness of immorality and violence; hers was the presence that inspired her sons to behave as just men, and her absence left a void that precipitated cataclysmic events.
It is the presence of the Jewish mother, with her selfless role in engendering harmony and peace, that is the fiercely burning flame within the holy light of the Jewish people.David Shapiro