Random Musing Before Shabbat–Vayeitzei 5773–Mandrakes and More

Some of the musings I have written on this parasha are among my favorites. While there is a new musing here for you to read this year, I did want to take this opportunity to (somewhat self-promotionally) recommend that you take the time to read through some of my previous musings on this parasha, listed and linked at the end. In fact, I’m so excited to have you read them, I’m going you to give you the list right here up front.

Vayeitze 5772 – Stumbling on Smooth Paths
Vayeitzei 5771 – Luz is No Loser
Vayeitzei 5769 – Going Down and Loving It!
Vayeitzei 5768 – Encounters
Vayeitzei 5767-Hapax On All Your Hapaxes
Vayetze 5766-Pakhad HaShem? `
Vayetze 5765-Cows and Cranberries
Vayetze 5764-Terms and Conditions
Vayetze 5763-Now and Then
Vayetze 5762-Change in Perspective
Vayetze 5760-Taking G”d’s Place

On now on to this year’s musing.

Mandrakes. Mandragora autumnalis, a plant that is found commonly in the Mediterranean region, including the middle east. Pretty purple blossoms, small round fruits that turn from green to yellow to orange as they ripen. Deep taproots that sometimes (but not always) split and bear a small resemblance to the human torso. There is not a single part of the plant that is not considered poisonous to humans. It is chock full of alkaloids. It can cause hallucinations, hypnotic effects, and even coma.

Those of you familiar with the Harry Potter books and movies know of the many folk legends that have arisen about the plant (though JK Rowling took the legendary plant’s nature a bit to the extreme, the basic legend about the plants screaming when pulled from the soil is authentic folklore.)

Despite the apparent dangers, it has a long history of use as an aphrodisiac, as attested to in this parasha. Though the etymology is uncertain, the plant’s Hebrew name seems to illustrate this connection in the similarity of the word for beloved, דּוֹד dod, and the plant, דּוּדַי  dudai (all the various words from the דוד dalet-vav-dalet root, including David, Dod, Dudai, etc.are related, if somewhat tenuously, in their meanings.)

After Reuven, Shimon, Levi and Yehudah, Leah had stopped bearing children. Her sister Rachel, in her frustrated barren-ness had given Yaakov her handmaiden (or, to be more direct, her servant/slave) through whom Yaakov fathered Dan and Naftali. So following Rachel’s example, Leah gave Yaakov her handmaiden (servant/slave) through which he fathered Gad and Asher.

Then things get weird for a bit. Scholars of literary bent suggest that the story of the mandrakes found in verses 14-16 is a simple diversion, meant to break the narrative and create a little tension. Perhaps.

One is nevertheless forced to ask what prompted Reuven to be on the lookout for mandrakes and bring them to his mother Leah? (For purposes of this musing, I’ll step over all the obvious Freudian inferences, but I leave you to mull those over.) Though the text doesn’t say it outright, the inference is that it is lack of filial duty on the part of Yaakov. Yaakov didn’t seem to have any problem with his sexual prowess, or ability to father children. The elephant in the room here is that everyone knew that Yaakov loved Rachel more than Leah. Perhaps Reuven was trying to make his mother happy by providing her with the opportunity for some, as Dr. Ruth Westheimer would put it “good sex!” It has to be noted, however, that mandrakes were touted not just as an aphrodisiac, but as a cure for being barren-so it was more than sex that interested Leah – it was the chance to give Yaakov more sons. Probably. Or maybe not.

So what happens? Rachel asks Leah if she can have some of the mandrakes (which also begs the question of how Rachel knew that Reuven had brought mandrakes to Leah. Ponder that one for a bit. Lots of plausible answers, nevertheless an unanswered question. Whenever Torah has an unanswered question, I wonder why there is an unanswered question? Immediately after, I wonder if that, perhaps is the point: to make me wonder. ) Leah sharply answers her sister that she has already stolen her husband. So Rachel makes a bargain with her sister: she will insure that Yaakov has sex with Leah that evening if she can have some of the mandrakes. Boy, there’s healthy family and sexual relationships…not.

Leah’s fortunes turn – and she bears two more sons to Yaakov – Yissakhar and Z’vulun. Then, as Torah notes almost in an afterthought, she bears him a daughter, Dinah.  Only after that is Rachel’s womb opened by G”d and she is able to bear Joseph.

The text seems to tell us that the mandrakes did not help Rachel – only G”d could do that. (Yet it is not as clear as to how useful the mandrakes were for Leah. She got her chances to bear two more sons and a daughter – but was it because of the mandrakes that she used on her husband, or simply because of the persuasive powers of her sister?)

As I pondered this, I also began to think about the complicated nature of the relationships presented here. One man. Two wives. Two concubines. (Perhaps more concubines, we can’t be sure.) One wife beloved, the other less (or unloved altogether?) Add to the mix rivalries, real or perceived, and things get even more complicated. What about how Leah and Rachel felt? Did they love Yaakov? Can we impose our modern sensibilities and understandings about romantic and sexual love upon these biblical tales?

I think we do our ancestors a disservice if we try and write it all off by saying that in those times, procreation, and specifically bearing male children, was the only important thing. It can be difficult to be unsure of either the romantic or sexual feelings of your spouse or partner. Imagine Rachel wondering if Yaakov still loves her despite her inability to bear him children? Surely Leah wondered if Yaakov loved her, or even if he desired her. Was procreation all that Yitzchak was thinking about when he met Rivkah? Was that all that Yaakov cared about when he served Laban for his two daughters? I somehow doubt it. Love, in some form, and not just desire, was surely part of the equation. Romance and romantic love are not the sole purview of later generations.

So what can we learn, what can we take away from the tale of the mandrakes, indeed from the entirety of Yaakov’s relationship with his wives? Mandrakes, or their modern equivalences, may not be the answer. Relationships, romantic and sexual, are too complex to be dependent solely on medicines, drugs, aphrodisiacs, et al. What makes relationships work? What made relationships work for our ancestors? What makes them work for us? The answers might not be so different. One answer, and the one that speaks to me loudest, is finding/putting G”d in the relationship.

Yes, I know it’s very Buberian of me, but I do believe that G”d is found in our relationships one to another. I believe this is true for deep romantic relationships and even true for more superficial, even purely sexual ones. Sex, even when not for procreation, is still G”dly. What could be more G”dly than such intimate sharing, even if it is just sharing of bodily and physical pleasures? Both romantic relationships and physical ones are fully capable of being fully I-You (person as Human) rather than I-It (person as Object). Yes, some physical relationships may be purely I-It. By the same token, some romantic relationships may also be purely I-It. Being purely romantic or sexual is not necessarily the determinant factor in whether the participants are treating and seeing each other as human beings or objects.

(We do have the complication of Yaakov’’s relationships with his concubines, and specifically, Zilpah and Bilhah, with whom he fathered children, with them acting in place of his wives. I have a very difficult time finding anything other than an I-It relationship there, both between Yaakov and his concubines, as well and Rachel, Leah and their handmaiden/slaves. I am, and will always be, troubled by the knowledge that some of our tribal ancestors were the result of this sort of non-G”dly relationship-though I understand that some might see these relationships as entirely G”dly because they served G”d’s purposes.)

Mandrakes and other stimulants, drugs and aphrodisiacs might be seen as getting in the way of true I-You relationships. When mandrakes, or any aphrodisiac, are used surreptitiously, it ought to be suspect  Nevertheless, I can imagine situations in which such things are useful enhancements and not impairments.  Please don’t misunderstand me: using an aphrodisiac, or a drug in order to take advantage of another human being is wrong. No ifs, and, or buts. Intent matters.Both partners should be aware when enhancements are being used to improve the physical (or romantic) nature of the relationship. Nevertheless, like the rabbis of the Talmud who liked to explore all the possibilities, there are all sorts of situations we can stipulate. Some of them are even presented to us in the Torah. Lot’s daughters plying him with wine in order to have him father children by them – entirely wrong, or mitigated by their belief that they might be the last people left in the world? Torah is replete with morally and ethically cloudy situations.

The text doesn’t tell us if either Rachel or Leah used the mandrakes on Yaakov as an aphrodisiac. It does seem to imply that this sort of human superstition/interference plays no part or has no impact on the outcome. That is up to G”d, we are led to believe. (It is clear that mandrakes do have some chemical and hormonal compounds in them that could affect human responses, sexual and otherwise, so it’s not entirely ineffectual.  Like many magical or superstitious beliefs, it is not without foundation.) I might suggest to the author(s) of Torah that there was a missed opportunity here to state unequivocally that, when it comes to things like barren women, magic and superstition are worthless – it is all up to G”d. However, sometimes subtlety can be more effective. It’s up to us to reach this conclusion from the way the Torah relates the tales. 

Mandrakes are part of a much larger set of things that can be used for enhancing relationships, romantic and physical. In addition to drugs, stimulants, aphrodisiacs, toys, and more, sometimes words alone are enough. The use of them does not preclude a true human-to-human relationship, and does not preclude the finding/locating of G”d in that relationship. For this to be true, it must be a relationship between two human beings, and not one human being and another thought of as purely object – whether object of love, desire, physical pleasure, etc. I strongly believe that what makes any relationship, romantic or sexual, good, or perhaps better, stronger, deeper, is if one can find/place G”d in that relationship.

This gets even more complicated because romantic and physical relationships are often entwined, and the things that satisfy the romantic aspects and the sexual aspects are often different, and even, at times, at odds with one another. A certain amount of selfishness is sometimes needed. It’s that old yetzer tov/yezter ra thing. Good relationships seek balance between them. Where do we find that balance, or at least where do we go to help us seek that balance? The answer is, I think, simple and complex at the same time. The answer is the G”d of our understanding.

Where was G”d in the relationship between Yaakov, Rachel and Leah? Was G”d in Yaakov, Rachel, and Leah’s relationships with Zilpah and Bilhah? Does the interest in using mandrakes on the part of Leah or Rachel diminish G”d’s part or presence in those relationships? Even more difficult to consider – does their use of Zilpah and Bilhah as surrogates diminish G”d’s part or presence in their relationships to each other and to their servants?

I pray that we all find the a way to get the love, sex, balance and more that we need in our lives. More importantly, I pray that we all find the way to find/place G”d in all our relationships, one human being to another – to those special to us, as well as to the stranger.  May this be G”d’s will. May this be our will.

Shabbat Shalom,

Adrian
©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this parasha (same list as at the beginning)

Vayeitze 5772 – Stumbling on Smooth Paths
Vayeitzei 5771 – Luz is No Loser
Vayeitzei 5769 – Going Down and Loving It!
Vayeitzei 5768 – Encounters
Vayeitzei 5767-Hapax On All Your Hapaxes
Vayetze 5766-Pakhad HaShem?
Vayetze 5765-Cows and Cranberries
Vayetze 5764-Terms and Conditions
Vayetze 5763-Now and Then
Vayetze 5762-Change in Perspective
Vayetze 5760-Taking G”d’s Place

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About migdalorguy

Jewish Educator & Musician, Technology Nerd and all around nice Renaissance guy
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