Judaism: Majestic Maidservant
Rabbanit Shira SmilesShira Smiles is a sought-after international lecturer, popular seminary teacher and experienced curriculum developer. A well-respected former Los Angeles teacher, she now lives in Israel, where she teaches at Darchei Bina Seminary and leads a number of women's study groups. Shira also trains Torah teachers in special workshops all over the world.
Lecture summarized by Channie Koplowitz Stein
Parshat Vayetzeh records the birth of eleven of the twelve tribes that are the ancestors of all of Bnei Yisroel. First Leah gives birth to four sons. Then Bilhah, Rachel’s maidservant, gives birth to two sons, followed by Zilpah, Leah’s maidservant, giving birth to two more sons. Leah then bears to two more sons, and finally Rachel giving birth to her first son, Yoseph. Although it is obvious that the tribes were born from four wives of Yaakov, only Rachel and Leah are listed among the four matriarchs of Bnei Yisroel, along with Sarah and Rivka. The obvious question is why Bilhah and Zilpah are not included in the traditional count of our Matriarchs raising the count to six?
The simplest answer is that Bilhah and Zilpah married Yaakov and became mothers through the intercession of their mistresses, Rachel and Leah, who were each eager to have as great a share as possible in creating the nation that would become God’s Chosen People. But there is much more that can be learned about both Rachel and Leah and about the Maidservants that shows the worthiness of all to be instrumental in this great endeavor.
Perhaps the best place to start our discussion is with the dialogue between Rachel and Yaakov. Leah had already borne Yaakov four sons, and Rachel cannot understand why she has remained barren. Heartbroken, she approaches Yaakov and demands, “Give me children. Otherwise I am dead.” Yaakov, already the father of four, replies, “Am I instead of God Who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” At that point, Rachel gives Bilhah to Yaakov as a wife, and Hashem blesses them with two sons. When Leah saw that she herself had stopped conceiving, she, too, gave her maidservant to Yaakov as a wife, and Zilpah, too, bore Yaakov two sons. Leah then bears two more sons and Rachel bears one at this point.
The Midrash and our commentators fill in many of the gaps in the dialogue as well as in the sequence of events in this narrative. After all, what in Yaakov’s response was the catalyst for Rachel giving her maidservant to Yaakov? Our first clue comes as Rachel echoes the words of Yaakov’s grandmother, Sarah, who gave her maidservant Hagar to Avraham as a wife. Sarah said, “Perhaps I will be built up through her,” and Rachel says,“Perhaps I too will be built up through her.”
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in discussing Sarah’s words notes that building can refer to a physical edifice or to building in time when one action forms the basis for another. A son (ben) is a brick (lev[b]en) in the structure of generations. Rachel learned from Sarah’s action that one can put a brick, a child, in place of the time edifice upon which future generations can be built. Sarah served as an example to Rachel, who now hoped to be “built up” by raising her maidservant’s son as her own. Rachel hoped that in this merit, she would bear her own biological son, as Sarah had done two generations earlier.
She also understood, as Chana would understand generations later, that she could not rely on the merit of her husband, writes Rav Dovid Hofstedter in Derash Dovid, but would have to put in her own hishtadlus, effort, and her own prayer.
We now have a partial understanding of the dynamics within the Yaakov household. But we can shed further light by examining Rachel’s response to the birth of Bilhah’s son. Not only does she name him Dan, for God has judged her, but she also adds, “He has also heard my voice and has given me a son.” So Dan was the result not only of nature taking its course after the marriage of Yaakov and Bilhah, but also of the prayers of Rachel on Bilhah’s behalf, points out Rabbi Schrage Grossbard in Daas Schrage. Now, both Rachel and Leah prayed for their maidservants to have children. Subsequently, not only did their maidservants have children, but they had children of their own as well.
The Sifsei Chaim points out that one must pray, but one must also put in his own effort to achieve results. When Yaakov told Rachel, Am I instead of God Who has withheld from thee the fruit of the womb,” he was urging her to do something just as his grandmother had done. So Rachel took action and emulated Sarah’s action; Rachel gave her maidservant to Yaakov as a wife. What the Sifsei Chaim is saying is that Hashem constructed the world so that we put in our own effort to get results. That doesn’t mean we stop praying, for while we must put in our own effort, the ultimate result is in the hands of Hakodosh Boruch Hu.
When Rachel was to conceive, Hashem both remembered her actions and efforts, and heard her prayers. Similarly, our faith too must strike a balance between effort and prayer. We must not get so caught up in our own efforts, whether it’s earning a living, struggling with health issues, or any other part of life that we forget to pray and ask Hashem to make our efforts successful.
If everything depends on God, why did God add man’s effort into the equation? Rabbi Mattisyahu Solomon discusses this question at some length in With Hearts Full of Faith. First, says Rabbi Solomon, we must understand that God chooses to work through nature and not through miracles. Should man be relieved of all effort, everything accomplished in this world would seem miraculous. The purpose of our efforts is to make us worthy to receive God’s blessings. Nevertheless, our faith must lie staunchly in Hakodosh Boruch Hu and not in our own efforts. Our “business meeting” with Hakodosh Boruch Hu for morning prayers must remain more important than our business meeting with a potential client. Our efforts must be viewed as our obligation rather than as a condition for success.
This was the greatness of our matriarchs, writes Rabbi Reuven Fein in Bein Hamishpatayim. They understood the power of prayer. Leah especially understood the power of prayer from when she saw her destiny changed through her prayers, for she had prayed and cried not to marry the evil Esau, and through her prayers, she merited marrying the righteous Yaakov. Her prayers enabled her to be the mother of a full half of the tribes of Israel. So while each matriarch did her hishtadlus and gave her maidservants to Yaakov, their focus remained praying that both their maidservants and they themselves bear Yaakov’s children.
Rav Eliyahu Yedid brings a completely different perspective to our original question. He sees each matriarch and her maidservants as two side of one coin. Rachel was the dominant side of the complete persona while Bilhah was the hidden side. Similarly, writes Rabbi Yedid, Leah was the dominant side and Zilpah was the hidden side. As such, when recalling Rachel and Leah, we are in effect also recalling their unnamed maidservants who represent the more hidden aspects of their personalities.
This idea is supported by the writings of Rabbi Yehudah Adari in Nashim BeTanach Beaspaklariat Chazal. Rabbi Adari analyzes the names of the maidservants to highlight the connection between maidservant and mistress. Bilhah, he writes, is derived from behalah, alarm and panic that she felt at her mistress’s childlessness. Zilpah, too, is derived from zolof, for her eyes were wet from tears she shed at the prospect that her mistress would be married to the evil Esau. In other words, when we talk of Rachel and Leah as our Matriarchs, Bilhah and Zilpah are automatically subsumed within those names.
Turning now from the power of prayer to the power of character improvement, we will again begin by analyzing the dialogue between Yaakov and Rachel. First, when Rachel demands that Yaakov give her children, Rachel seems to be in a jealous rage. First, let us understand as Rabbi Baiyfuswrites in Yalkut Lekach Yosef that there are different kinds of jealousy. Citing Rabbi Mordechai Ezrachi, he notes that negative jealousy focuses on my being entitled to have what someone else has, while positive jealousy focuses on my shortcomings and how I can make myself more worthy of receiving blessings. This latter jealousy acts as a catalyst toward self improvement, and this was the jealousy that Rachel felt.
If we now move back to the dialogue, we find even greater significance between the lines. Lev Tahor offers a fascinating yet logical interpretation of this dialogue. When Rachel approaches Yaakov demanding children, she is approaching ( on her exalted level) with a touch of arrogance as akeret habayit, as the mainstay of the household. Although her sister was an equal wife to Yaakov, Rachel still treated her with this touch of arrogance.
Yaakov’s response, then, was, “Look within yourself, not to me, for the merit of having children.” Rachel sought to follow Sarah’s lead to merit children, but, unlike Sarah, Rachel already had a co-wife in the household. It was then that Rachel realized that while Sarah treated Hagar with the full respect her husband’s wife was entitled to, she had been treating Leah somewhat haughtily, and she vowed to change her attitude. To reinforce this resolve, she put an additional wife into the household and determined to treat both Leah and Bilhah with the utmost respect.
This change in behavior, of working to correct her touch of arrogance, adds the Yalkut Lekach Tov, together with her having given Leah the signs to marry Yaakov, would then give wings to her prayers and allow them to enter heaven, for, writes Rabbi Wolbe, building oneself up, building one’s character, involves first breaking down the negative.
Leah, too, had the twofold goal, to be an essential building block in the House of Yisroel and to perfect her own character. Therefore, she too brought her maidservant into the house. Then, when she gave birth to Issachar, she thanked Hashem for this reward He gave her for her selflessness in also giving her maidservant as a wife to Yaakov. Both she and Rachel raised the children of the maidservants as their own, reminds us Rabbi Gamliel Horowitz in Tiv Hatorah.
This brings us to another understanding of the greatness of our founding Mothers. Just as the world was built on chessed, loving kindness, so too was the House of Israel. In other words, both prayer and character development are integral components of Judaism. We’ve already discussed the power of prayer of our Matriarchs and how they worked on creating a humble nature. Now let us focus on their acts of loving kindness beyond raising the children of the maidservants as their own.
Rabbi Dov Yaffe, in Leovdecha B’Emet reminds us of the Medrash that when Leah conceived her seventh child, she prayed that it be a girl, resulting in the birth of Dinah. Why did Leah suddenly want a girl? Our Patriarchs and Matriarchs knew by Divine Inspiration (as did the entire line of generations going back to Shem) that God’s chosen nation would consist of twelve tribes. She herself had already given birth to six of those tribes, and each of the maidservants had given birth to two sons. If she would now bear a seventh son to Yaakov, Rachel would bear only one of the sons who would be counted among the Tribes of Israel. Rachel would then have fewer tribes to her name than the maidservants. That Leah could not do to her sister; she could not leave Rachel with a touch of humiliation, just as Rachel herself could not leave Leah humiliated under the bridal canopy, and so divulged the secret signs to Leah so Yaakov would marry her.
Both Rachel and Leah understood that the bar for the nation they were founding with their husband was set very high, and it could only be attained through mutual respect, sensitivity to others, and loving kindness.
But good character was also a hallmark of the maidservants. They exemplified humility. Even after they married Yaakov, they remained in their own eyes shefachot (maidservants) – from mishpacha (family), writes Ktav Hakabalah. These were not your typical maids, but were a significant part of the fabric of the family, adds Rav Gilead Messing in Veat Alit al Kulanah. Their main responsibility was not keeping the household running physically, but rather to be equal partners in the spiritual development of this special family. Their will was to nullify themselves to their mistresses and thereby become instrumental in building this family, and so they welcomed being given to Yaakov as wives. They did not want personal recognition; they were content to be the reflected glory of their mistresses. Their contribution to our nation, continues Rabbi Messing, is to be models of self nullification, they to the will of their mistresses and all of Bnei Yisroel to the will of Hakodosh Boruch Hu.
As proof of the importance and greatness of the maidservants, Rabbi Messing cites the Zohar in which it is written that after the death of Rachel and Leah, the cloud representing God’s Presence moved and hovered over the tent of Bilhah. Certainly she and her cohort Zilpah were great women to merit such an honor.
The gifts of the maidservants remain with us even if we do not identify Bilhah and Zilpah by name as our additional two mothers. That is as they would have wanted it, for our nation was founded on faith and prayer to our God in heaven, and on self nullification to His will. We built and continue to build our individual and national character in our ability to be sensitive to others rather than on personal self interest.
All of our Matriarchs were worthy models for us to emulate, the four that we name regularly and the two that bask in their reflected glory.
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