The Mandrakes and the Horoscope
Rabbi Chaim Navon is a Ra’M (senior rabbinical teacher) at Midreshet Lindenbaum
What was the first fertility treatment ever in Jewish history? Well, it was probably the Mandrake plant, or duda’im, to use the Biblical term. The Torah describes the tense atmosphere that prevailed between Leah and Rachel because of the duda’im that Reuven brought from the field. As expounded upon by the exegetes, it appears that the popular belief back then was that the duda’im could help heal infertility, which explains why Rachel, who was barren, coveted them to such an extent.
Ultimately, it was Leah who was blessed with another son and not Rachel. The Torah teaches us a profound lesson through this story. When Leah gives birth to her fifth son following the abovementioned events, she gives a moral explanation: “God has given me my reward for I have given my handmaid to my husband.” (Bereishit 30, 18). Moral actions lead to reward – the realization of one’s dreams.
The Biblical protagonists, who yearn for their wishes to be fulfilled, add another dimension to that of moral action: they turn to God in prayer and beg Him to fulfill their wishes. The portion of Vayetze opens with the Yaakov’s vow-prayer. Yaakov turns to God in this fashion: ” If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and clothing to put on…” (ibid. 28, 20)
Similarly, when Rachel turns to Yaakov with the words – “Give me children” (ibid. 30, 1), our Sages explain that she begged Yaakov to pray to God on her behalf. Clearly, prayer was an integral part of our Patriarchs’ lives.
Anselm of Canterbury, an 11th Century clergyman and philosopher, succeeded in formulating the wittiest philosophical proof for God’s existence. His proof, which later became known as The Ontological Argument is of interest to philosophers to this day. Prior to his formulating his Ontological Argument, Anselm prayed to God for three whole days, crying to Him and beseeching Him to help him find proof of God’s existence. The 19th Century Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, ridiculed Anselm: Does a bridegroom who embraces his bride need proof of her existence? Similarly, does a person who prays to his God need proof of His existence?
Prayer is, first and foremost, an intimate encounter between Man and God. As for content, prayer is all about entreating for something. However, the core essence of prayer is the very act of turning to God, whereas the content is only secondary. In many instances, our Sages referred to the person engaged in prayer as one standing before God. The Rambam viewed their words as a direct psychological instruction to the one praying: “His [a person engaged in prayer] heart should be directed upwards, as if he were standing in heaven.” (Laws of Prayer 5, 4)
In direct contrast to our Patriarchs – who were well familiar with the merits of prayer and its redeeming properties – the Torah makes mention of the relatives from Charan. When Lavan admits to Yaakov that his prosperity was in merit of Yaakov, his son-in-law, he phrases it thus: “I have learned by divination that the Lord has blessed me for thy sake” (Bereshit 30, 27). This verse gives us a peek into Lavan’s strange spiritual world. He “learned by divination” means he turned to sorcery, and in so doing – discovered that God had blessed him because of Yaakov. Let’s translate this into contemporary talk: I read my horoscope for this week, and discovered God will bless me financially. One can scoff at Lavan for being so primitive; however, even our own newspapers give more coverage to astrological nonsense than they do to the weekly Torah portion.
Rachel steals her father’s idols (ibid. 31, 19), and our Sages explain that she did so in order to wean her father off his addiction to cheap mania. However, this action backfires and, instead, Lavan chases Yaakov, driven by his belief – “Why have you stolen my gods?” (ibid. 30) – hardly aware of the inherent paradox created by his own actions: What kind of God can be stolen?
At the end of our portion, the two branches of the family split up officially. They erect a pillar of stones between them, marking the territory belonging to each family. They talk different languages: Yaakov speaks in Hebrew; Lavan uses Aramaic. Their spiritual worlds are different as well. “The God of Avraham”, to whom we pray, is juxtaposed to “the God of Nachor” (Bereishit 31, 53), representing mania and sorcery. This is the point in time when the worshippers of God finally break away from the idol worshippers and each go their separate ways.