Rabbi David Walk
This week's Torah reading has the most mystical and enigmatic stories, perhaps in the whole Bible, and they're packed together in just one parsha. Our section begins with the greatest motif in our entire Bible, Jacob's Ladder. I've written about that symbol numerous times, and it inspires me every year with the idea that we are connected to the spiritual realm, and can ascend towards it. Near the end of the reading is a story which I've never understood. While shepherding for his father-in-law, Lavan, Ya'akov devises these machinations for insuring that the sheep will produce the color and pattern of sheep which were his agreed upon compensation. I've read supposedly scientific attempts to explain the business with the placing of stripped sticks in their watering troughs (it raised the water temperature and affected their ovulations), but it still sounds like voodoo to me. However, this year the story I'd like to discuss is yet another weird vignette in this week's parsha, namely Reuvain and his dudaim.
The story itself sounds pretty straightforward, and here it goes: Reuvein went out in the days of the wheat harvest, and he found dudaim in the field and brought them to Leah, his mother, and Rachel said to Leah, "Now give me some of your son's dudaim." And she said to her, "Is it a small matter that you have taken my husband, and that you wish also to take my son's dudaim?" So Rachel said, "Therefore, he shall sleep with you tonight as payment for your son's dudaim." When Jacob came from the field in the evening, and Leah came forth toward him, and she said, "You shall come to me, because I have hired you with my son's dudaim," and he slept with her on that night. And God hearkened to Leah, and she conceived and bore Jacob a fifth son (Genesis 30:14-17). First of all, that fifth son which Leah conceived was Yissachar, whose name means payment. Was this payment for the dudaim? And isn't it a little bit of chutzpa for Leah to claim that Rachel stole Ya'akov from her? Wasn't it the other way round? And isn't there a certain familiarity of this story? Again our sainted ancestors are trading in precious prerogatives for seemingly trifling commodities. This is almost a replay of Ya'akov buying the birthright with a bowl of soup.
But what the heck are dudaim? If you haven't asked that question yet, you haven't been paying attention.
Dudaim are generally considered to be the mandrake plant (Mandragora officinarum). The mandrake root has been used in primitive medicine for thousands of years and is thought to have fertility attributes. Based on that, the story has a poignant irony. Rachel, who hasn't conceived, is desperate for the fertility plant and gives up her conjugal rights to acquire them from Leah. However, Leah, who also seems to have become infertile (see verse 29:35, 'then she stopped bearing'), becomes pregnant without the benefit of the plant. In any case, no fertility benefits have been proven for the mandrake, but it does have hallucinogenic attributes. So, it may not make you pregnant, but you may not care anymore.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 99b) suggests that these plants were fragrant and had an incense type affect. Perhaps they set the mood, as in I'm in the mood for love. In Kabala, the dudaim represent love and, generally, mystics see all sorts of symbolic meaning in the fact that the plant's roots look like two human forms bonding. This brings me to the word dudaim itself. The root of this root's name is the same as the Hebrew word for beloved, as in ani l'dodi (I am for my beloved). The plant's very name seems to say that it's a love plant. But I think something deeper and, perhaps, darker is being hinted.
Our Biblical heroes are confusing things for emotions. This idea was expounded by the great psychologist Erich Fromm (1900-1980) in his 1976 work called To Have or To Be. Many people confuse their possessions with their personalities. This is a problem which is often exploited by marketing experts. The commercials which claim that you'll be happy and have successful relationships with extraordinarily beautiful people if you just buy our cars, are a bit far fetched. But people buy into this fantasy. The dudaim represent a variation on this theme. Rachel is thinking that she can get Ya'akov back with these plants, and that's ridiculous. She has never lost him in the first place; he has and always will, love her deeply.
Dr. Fromm claimed in an interview, right after the book's publication, that very few people can resist the need to possess things for presumed status. He even felt that he himself succumbed to this desire on occasion. Our problem with this story is that we expect our illustrious forebears to be above these foibles which afflict us, and we suppose them to be like the Sister Teresa's or Dr. Schweitzer's who (theoretically, in truth they have desires, too) are listed as beings existing on a plane above petty materialism. I believe that this really is a problem, because if these wonderful men and women really did live their lives on the level of angels, it wouldn't be worthwhile reading their stories. I can't be inspired by the exploits of angels. I find motivation when I read about history's greats who overcame the exact same issues which plague me. Those accomplishments stimulate us to emulation of our beloved ancestors. Greatness is the result of battling against the odds, not merely succeeding on raw talent.
For me one the most important reasons for reading and rereading the stories in the book of Genesis is to learn from the experiences of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. We learn as much or more from their mistakes as from their triumphs. If we really assume that they made no mistakes, I'm not interested in reading about them. They become irrelevant to my life. I love our Matriarchs and Patriarchs for their humanity, warts and all.
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