Torah Reading for Week of November 18-24, 2012
“A mandrake by any other name…”
By Rabbi Lori Schneide Shapiro, ‘10
Love is our greatest life journey. Our love for ourselves requires that we integrate all of the attributes of our being into a whole. Our love for our life-partner challenges us to transcend our own identities. Our love for our children teaches us to go beyond our own selfish desires. And the Ancient-Near-Eastern Israelite concept of love through G-d is perhaps the most mysterious and transcendent love of all.
The novella of Jacob and his sons contains some of the greatest, most complicated love stories of all time — there are multiple wives, tribes of sons, concubines, maidservants, extra-marital affairs and sibling rivalries. There are lustful romances, revenges, temptations, illicit affairs, dissemblings, betrayals and soul-mates. Looming over all of these refractions of desire, like a magnet — a hidden force, and driving all of these stories from the ancient scribe, is the force of human’s desire to know love at its most pure. Perhaps, this quest is the greatest inspiration for our departures, journeys and wanderings.
The symbol of love in this week’s parsha is most vividly portrayed by a coveted flower. Genesis 30:14 begins the story of the Dudaim, (or, “mandrakes” as Ramban clarifies): “Reuven went out in the days of the wheat harvest and returned with some mandrakes from the field.” As we know, the wheat harvest is also the time that will later become Shavuot, the holiday of revelation, when a collective experience of theophany reveals the hidden truth of the Israelite G-d. After Reuven gives the mandrakes to his mother, Leah, protestations arise from Rachel: “Please give me some of your son’s dudaim!” Leah’s response expresses her fatigue towards her sister’s portion: “Was your taking my husband insignificant? And now, to take even my son’s dudaim!” It is here that Rachel brokers a trade — Reuven’s dudaim for a night with Jacob.
Why are these mandrakes so coveted? Mandrakes, or Mandragora officinarum, grow wildly in fields. They are known for their medicinal use in the ancient world. But perhaps, more curiously, it is their root structure that has captured the Torah scribe’s imagination. For the mandrake, at its root, resembles two human forms, back to back. It is from their physical form, coupled with their healing properties, that establishes the mandrake as an ancient aphrodisiac. Additionally, the Hebrew word Dudaim resembles the Hebrew for Dodim, or lovers. Rachel and Leah’s exchange is, at face value, a commercial transaction – one Dood for one Dodah. However, the symbolic message is clear: both Leah and Rachel desire intimacy with Jacob, and long for the spiritual fruits of this union — children.
And yet, is there more to this exchange than just a routine love triangle? There are many such geometric relationships in this week’s Torah portion — Laban with Jacob and the wives, Jacob with Laban and the flock, and, always, for Jacob, the shadow of his brother Esau. And now — Leah and Rachel. What are we to make of these inversive relationships?
Perhaps the mandrake is more than a mandrake. According to the Ramban, “Dudaim are plants that increase a man’s desire for women, and the word dudaim is derived from the expression “A time of love” (Ezekiel 16:8). Perhaps the mandrake, a known aphrodisiac, is just a catalyst for our characters who are truly desirous of a more ultimate knowledge — that of the deepest knowledge of love of all — the knowledge of the love of G-d.
Indeed, Rachel, Leah, Laban, Esau, Reuven, Jacob and his maidservants seem preoccupied by something driving their passions. Are they merely rivalrous and petty? Or, are they just the most raw, ancient examples of the extent to which the spiritual hunger can drive us? There is a great power to love. It inspires us to “go out” — to leave ourselves. Love elevates the average human’s being to the level of the poet, the shaman, the mystic. Love is the universal empowerment of all humans to know something greater than ourselves. And perhaps, it is this love that Torah is directing us towards.
This week’s Torah portion, Vayetze, directs us towards a transcendent journey. In contrast to Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham, who was commanded Lech Lecha (Go Forth!), Jacob does not “go” on his journey — he “Goes Out” — to seek himself, his wholeness, his love story, his descendents, and ultimately, the Israelite destiny.
Plato states in The Symposium: “So ancient is the desire of one another which is implanted in us, reuniting our original nature, seeking to make one of two, and to heal the state of man.”
In contrast, our ancient patriarch, Jacob, is a Jewish love warrior. His conquests — as individual, sibling, lover of many, and seeker — provides our template for the Jewish origin of love. As an individual, he seems, at first, more of a polyamorist than a Platonist in the subject of love. The web of his family system seems entangled in a collective love-healing, the seeds of which plant the future of the People of Israel — a people seeking to transcend Plato’s notion of love (that of an individual journey), and supplanting this Platonic origin of love with the example of Jacob — who, in his transformation, will become Israel. Jacob’s journey is that of one man going out to meet himself; and in the purest form of “Vayetze” — he achieves something much greater. Jacob’s “going out” — an individual journey of Identity and Self — ostensibly leads to the collective redemption of all of Israel.
Indeed, the descendents of Jacob, the Twelve Tribes of Israel, experience not a going out, but an Exodus: “Yetziat Mitzrayim”. In their Exodus from Egypt, the Israelites don’t just “go out,” but are “brought out,” collectively, in order to experience the greatest love of all: the love of G-d. A love that connects all of humanity, heals our wounds, and fills the brokenness within so that we can experience a world of Oneness, and ultimately, return to our state of connectivity. Plato’s symposium suggests that we seek to find our soul-mate to become whole again; but the ancient Israelite stories of Jacob remind us that it is not only our physical partner that we cleave to, but our Godly One. For, we are far more like the mandrake — interconnected through an unseen root system that awakens our desire for and our pursuit of Divine Love.