Identifying the Mandrake

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Reuben went and found mandrakes in the field and brought them to his mother Leah. — The Septuagint translated דוּדָאִים as μανδραγορῶν (mandragoron), which became Latinized as mandragoras, hence “mandrake.”  As a plant, mandrakes are related to the potato family that spreads large spinach-shaped leaves in a rosette pattern. Its root resembles a human figure, and the ancient regarded it as an aphrodisiac and enhancer of fertility if used in small quantities. The Mandrake (Slandraffora officinalis) is of the family Solanaceae (to which the Potato belongs), and has a very peculiar appearance that grows in the early spring.

The ancients viewed mandrakes as “love-apples.” The Hebrew words for ‘beloved’ or ‘loved one’ דּוֹד (cf. Song 1:16) and for mandrake דּוּדַי (dûday) both share the same root. (Kimchi). Some scholars contend that mandrakes are uncommon in Mesopotamia, but they may have been present then. In any event, Rachel and Leah believed that the plant could medicinally assist their fertility.  Ramban suggests that mandrakes might have been used to perfume her bed (see Prov. 7:17). It seems more likely Rachel and Leah believed in the magical properties of this plant and hoped it would help her get pregnant.

Mandrakes grow low, like lettuce, which its leaves resemble, except that they are dark green. Its dark-green, oblong, wrinkled leaves form a rosette. Its small plum-sized yellow-red fruits resembling tomatoes or small oranges have an unusual smell and taste (Song of Sol. 7:13) and may have been used medicinally as a narcotic or stimulant. Even in modern times, many third-world peoples still view the mandrake as having the ability to make an infertile woman fertile. [1]


Superstitions Regarding Mandrakes

The 18th-century biblical naturalist Tristram noted that the Mandrake has been the subject of many strange superstitions. Most of the Mediterranean world considered mandrakes as man-like plants, where some primitive societies believed that one could hear it scream when somebody pulled them from the earth. They observed that it resembled the shape of a man and that it shrieked and groaned when dug up; that the usual mode of procuring it was by tying a dog to the plant, whose struggles tore it up, but that the plant’s shrieks killed the dog! Sir James Frazier records a similar legend, “Man grows under the gallows tree from the bodily droppings of a hanged man. It is a plant with broad leaves and yellow fruit. But there is great danger in digging it up, for while it is being uprooted, it moans and shrieks so horribly that the digger dies on the spot.” [2]

Rachel said to Leah, “Please give me some of your son’s mandrakes.” — It is interesting to note  this is the first recorded conversation having took place between the two sisters. Each possessed what the other had. Rachel was envious of her sister’s children, while Leah was desirous of Jacob’s love for Rachel. It would seem that neither woman communicated much with the other, much less commiserate over their mutual misery. Their bottled-up feelings now come out into the open, as each comes to see the face of the Other miserable and anguished. Each sister looked at the Other as though  they were looking at a mirror.

Leah Confronts Rachel with a Personal Revelation

30:15. But she said to her, “Is it a small matter that you have taken away my husband?” — This is surprising disclosure is a sad commentary about Leah’s and Jacob’s marital life. As mentioned earlier, Leah’s recent infertility may have been more the result of neglect rather than nature.  After the birth of her first four children, Leah thus became effectively ‘infertile.’ As G. Wenham observes, “Suspension of conjugal rights can, according to the usual interpretation of Exodus 21:10, be grounds for divorce.”  Even if Jacob wasn’t contemplating divorce, from Leah’s point of view, she felt as if her husband emotionally divorced her. This would explain Leah’s explosive reaction when Rachel asked for her son’s mandrakes. She minces no words. There’s nothing polite about her demeanor, she wanted to be more than just a housekeeper, Leah wanted Jacob to value her as a wife.

Would you take away my son’s mandrakes also? — To increase his love for you at my emotional expense? Rachel has no answer to Leah’s sharp and disarming question, for she can now see perhaps the justice in Leah’s anguished complaint for the first time. Perhaps they remembered what their relationship was like before Jacob came to town. Maybe the bonds of sisterhood could still be salvaged. Rachel may have realized that despite their rivalry, her sister proved to be loyal and devoted to Jacob throughout their marriage.  Despite it all, Leah was holding on to every bit of personal dignity she could muster.

Rachel said, “Then he may lie with you tonight for your son’s mandrakes.” — Rachel held to certain folk remedies rather than direct her attention in soulful communication with the Divine.

30:16. When Jacob came from the field in the evening, Leah went out to meet him, and said, “You must come in to me . . .” —  Leah did not wait for Jacob to return to Rachel’s tent, for it would have been inappropriate for Leah to ask Jacob to leave Rachel’s tent to enter her own.[3] It is also possible that Leah feared that Rachel might change her mind and possibly postpone it for another evening. Not wishing to take any chances of having Jacob reject her with another lame excuse, she forces Jacob to live up to his husbandly duties. The tender-eyed Leah behaved aggressively toward her mate. This may have been the first time Leah ever acted and spoke so boldly to her husband. Perhaps she felt she had little to lose. Jacob found this new assertive persona of Leah much more attractive. Leah became more extroverted, while Rachel became more introverted and reflective.

[1]  Frazier continues: “In modern times the high value set on the mandrake as a potent charm, especially useful for its power of fertilizing barren women, has given rise to a trade in counterfeit mandrakes carved in human form out of bryony and other roots. The use of substitutes for the mandrake was all the more necessary in northern countries, because the plant grows wild only in lands about the Mediterranean, including Syria, Cilicia, Crete, Sicily, Spain, and North Africa” (p. 378.) Some places in Europe, witches were believed to use it in their potions to cure fertility (ibid., 384-485).

[2] James Frazier, Folklore in the OT, Vol. 2, 384-385.

[3] Kimchi’s Genesis Commentary.

Rachel’s Inward Struggle

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Introduction: Rachel could not stand that God blessed Leah and not her with children. It never occurred to Rachel that God took pity on Leah because she had to endure her husband’s rejection, not to mention her sister’s continuous wrath and contempt.  Because of her vanity, Rachel could not stand sharing center stage with Leah, a woman she regarded inferior to herself.  With the arrival of four children,  Leah grew in stature and in respect. Rachel might have taken her childlessness as a heavenly cue to start developing her inner spiritual life, but she was stubborn and manipulative like Jacob. Rachel began to raise the ante in a high-stakes game of upmanship that would only result in fracturing the family more than it already was. Though there were many errors in judgment in the sister’s competition with one another, the paradox is that God brought good out of their pettiness and jealousy. Despite the players’ motivations, the blessing God promised Abraham that his offspring would increase and multiply became realized.

30:1. When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister. —  In a society that defined a woman’s worth by her ability to bear children, the ancients considered the barren woman a social disgrace to the husband, for people often considered the barren wife as a concubine instead of the mistress of her husband’s house. Rachel’s infertility probably caused her to withdraw from her friends, family, and even husband—thus separating herself from a network of significant people who could provide valuable healing and emotional support.

 . . . and she said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die!” – Did Rachel express a death wish? Could Rachel have been threatening suicide? When a person suffering from severe depression gives his significant other a verbal clue, the message must be taken seriously. Most suicidal persons do talk about suicide before acting. Her threat was in reality, a desperate plea for help. Rachel accused Jacob of being blasé toward her pain and distress. She felt that if her husband really loved her, he would make more of an effort to intercede on her behalf, and at the very least, try to buoy her spirit. Instead of support, all she received was criticism and shame.

There is something paradoxical about Rachel’s words here: she feels she will die if she has no children, but ultimately, she will die because she will eventually give birth to Benjamin.

n Alternatively: The Tanakh describes several women as, “barren.” The list includes Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Hannah.  It is significant that Rebekah, Rachel’s mother-in-law, remained barren for twenty years. Yet, she did not let her barrenness diminish her self-esteem or spiritual relation with God. Circumstantially, Rachel, and Hannah shared much in common. Like Rachel, Hannah had too had to co-exist with a competitive co-wife who was very proud to show her children off, but only at the emotional expense of Hannah. Unlike Rachel, Hannah learned to channel her pain directly to God through prayer and faith. Hannah was as submissive as Rachel was defiant. Earlier, the biblical narrator described Rachel’s outer beauty; she lacked an interior dimension. As a result, Rachel looked turned to only external remedies for her sad situation.  She feels alienated not only from her sister Leah but also from God. She did not realize that God’s blessing might prove elusive until she eventually learned to step outside the walls of self-pity that imprisoned her.

30:2. Jacob became very angry with Rachel . . . — Jacob was upset at Rachel for being so despondent. As much as Jacob loved Rachel, he couldn’t just watch her act so smugly toward her sister who reverently acknowledged God’s gifts. Rachel acted like one who was completely oblivious to the workings of Providence. She viewed her life as if everything were a product of chance.

Jacob’s Unsympathetic Response to Rachel

“Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” — Unlike Abraham (Gen. 16:5), Jacob felt little sympathy for his anxious wife. The medieval Jewish commentaries raise an essential question: Did Jacob pray for his wife, Rachel? Unlike his father, Isaac, Jacob never offered a sacrifice on behalf of his beloved (See notes to Gen. 25:21). The biblical narrator remained silent on this issue, revealing something.  This led Rashi to argue that Jacob did not pray for her. He did not have to, for he already had children:

You say that I should do as my father did. But the fact is, the conditions are different. My father had no children at all, I, however, have children; God has withheld children from you and not from me.[1]

The Midrashic literature discusses Jacob’s cavalier response, the Midrash wondered:  How could Jacob speak to a woman tortured by childlessness? The insensitivity Jacob showed would someday come to haunt him through his children.[2] Ramban finds the Midrashic explanation too difficult to accept. For him, it was inconceivable that Jacob would not pray for his wife since it is the way of the righteous to pray for even unfamiliar women.

Ibn Ezra and Keter Torah adopt a similar approach. It seems more likely that Jacob did pray on behalf of his wife, but it was to no avail, for the proper time did not yet arrive. Perhaps Rachel felt that Jacob did not pray hard enough! Perhaps Jacob felt that he did not have to overextend himself on her behalf since he had children.  Philo argues that Rachel was guilty because she attributed god-like power to her husband instead of God.[3] Rachel failed to recognize God alone as the ultimate Source of life and not man.[4]

Some say Jacob wanted Rachel to take some responsibility for her own condition. Perhaps if she prayed to God as her sister did, God would answer her too.  Jacob got angry at Rachel not putting her faith and trust in God. This was clearly a situation where only her faith in God could help her. All human attempts to manipulate God’s blessing through mechanical means would not help Rachel. Once Rachel began to turn inwardly to God as her Source, her childless situation eventually changed for the better.

[1] Gen Rabba 71.

[2] The Midrashic literature criticizes Jacob’s lack of empathy, “Is this how you comfort a grief-stricken heart? As you live, someday when your children will stand before the son of Rachel, and he will use the same words thou hast but now used, saying, ‘Am I in the place of the Lord ?’“ Jerusalem Targum Gen. 30. 1-2, Tanhuma (Buber) I, 156, and BR 71. 6.

[3] Allegorical Interpretations, 3:182.

[4] There is a statement in the Talmud that also bears this truth out: R. Johanan said: Three keys the Holy Blessed One has retained in His own hands and not entrusted to the hand of any messenger, namely, the key of rain, the key of childbirth, and the key of the revival of the dead. (Ta’anit 2b)

Examining Pascal’s Wager

The seventeenth-century French philosopher, mathematician, and physicist Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) devised a clever way an agnostic or non-believer might consider thinking about faith. Pascal argued that, while it’s impossible to prove whether or not God exists through reason alone. The next best thing is to live your life as if God exists, which He certainly does! If we live as though God exists and discover that God truly exists, we win eternal bliss in heaven. However, if we make the wager that God does not exist, and He does, Pascal points out that we will spend all eternity in damnation.

But what if we are not sure? If we live as though God exists, and He does indeed exist, we will have gained eternal life. If He doesn’t exist, we have lost nothing. On the other hand, if we live as though God does not exist and He really does exist, we have gained hell and punishment and have lost heaven and bliss. Pascal claims that when you consider the odds, clearly the rational choice to live as if God exists is the better of the possible choices. The relative paybacks that come with believing are greater than the payback or risks of not believing in God. Perhaps when we living as if we have faith, someday we might eventually come to have faith. [i]

Critiquing Pascal’s Wager

Pascal’s argument has little appeal to Jews. Jewish tradition has long taught, “Don’t be like servants who minister to their superior with the ulterior motive of receiving a reward. Rather, be like servants who minister their superior gratuitously. And let the fear of Heaven be upon you” (Avoth 1:3). When we worship God to receive a reward, we are no longer serving God, but ourselves. There is a name for that, it is called, “idolatry.” Rabbinic thought would certainly concur with the early 20th-century psychologist William James, who candidly noted, “Those who engaged in such egotistic reasoning might be among the first that God would exclude from heaven.” Elihu asks Job, “If you are righteous, what do you give him, or what does he receive from your hand?” (Job 35:7).

Christopher Hitchens argues that the wager makes a mockery of the idea of God. How are you going to venerate God as the greatest possible being to exist, and who can read your thoughts and judge them, and then turn around and say God isn’t smart enough to see through false beliefs made “just in case?” It is “religious hucksterism.” It’s a sly way of saying, “Hey, come on over to my shop, I have a special price just for you, but come in through the side door.” It assumes God is a moron. If this wager were a real possibility for eternal salvation, then it’s all the more reason not to believe in the God it represents. Richard Dawkins’ counter-argument also makes more sense:

There is something distinctly odd about the argument, however. Believing is not something you can decide to do as a matter of policy. At least, it is not something I can decide to do as an act of will. I can decide to go to church and I can decide to recite the Nicene Creed, and I can decide to swear on a stack of bibles that I believe every word inside them. But none of that can make me actually believe it if I don’t. Pascal’s Wager could only ever be an argument for feigning belief in God. And the God that you claim to believe in had better not be of the omniscient kind or he’d see through the deception.

But why, in any case, do we so readily accept the idea that the one thing you must do if you want to please God is believe in him? What’s so special about believing? Isn’t it just as likely that God would reward kindness, or generosity, or humility? Or sincerity? What if God is a scientist who regards honest seeking after truth as the supreme virtue? Indeed, wouldn’t the designer of the universe have to be a scientist?

Bertrand Russell was asked what he would say if he died and found himself confronted by God, demanding to know why Russell had not believed in him. ‘Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence,’ was Russell’s (I almost said immortal) reply. Mightn’t God respect Russell for his courageous skepticism (let alone for the courageous pacifism that landed him in prison in the First World War) far more than he would respect Pascal for his cowardly bet-hedging? And, while we cannot know which way God would jump, we don’t need to know in order to refute Pascal’s Wager. We are talking about a bet, remember, and Pascal wasn’t claiming that his wager enjoyed anything but very long odds. Would you bet on God’s valuing dishonestly faked belief (or even honest belief) over honest skepticism?[ii]

It is utterly preposterous and theologically scandalous to suggest that God may choose to reward honest disbelief and punish blind or feigned faith. Scriptures makes this point clear: “For the LORD, your God, is the God of gods, the LORD of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who has no favorites, accepts no bribes” (Deut. 10:16).  In other words, we are not doing God any favors by believing in His existence. This is precisely the kind of dross R. Abraham Isaac Kook warned us about in the previous section that needs to be purged from the religious consciousness of the believer.

[i]Blaise Pascal Pensées (“Thoughts”) No. 233.

[ii] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (London: Bantam Press, 2006), p. 104.

Young Martin Buber’s Epiphany

As professional clergy, we tend to think robotically and uncritically about our faith. In some ways, atheists speak like biblical prophets; they challenge us to ask and demand we articulate what we ought to believe in in clear terms. I enjoy reading books and articles written by atheists. Whereas many theistic people like myself are willing to take a leap of faith, I have found atheists also take a leap of faith—they assume there is no God, nor is there an objective meaning or purpose to the universe. They assume we are living in the realm of the absurd and that we must live heroically and accept the fact that life has no intrinsic meaning (Camus, Sartre).

As a young teenager learning about Jewish philosophy, I wanted to answer my agnostic friends’ questions and convince them why they ought to believe in God. But I have learned over the decades that most folks are not merely interested in having a theological debate; they are searching for an spiritually deep and relevant answer.

Questions about God’s Reality or Presence are real and existential in nature for those who have suffered through the coronavirus. Glib theological answers will not satisfy a searching soul. People are looking for something more. The great 20th century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber recalls that shortly before World War I, a young man came to see after he had experienced a morning of mystical ecstasy. Buber was friendly and attentive; he answered his youthful visitor. However, in human communication, sometimes it is not always the question that is expressed that matters, but rather it is the silent question that a person cannot express, or does not know how to articulate.

For this reason, Buber realized that he was not entirely “present” to the young man in spirit, who died in battle shortly after.   When he heard about the news, Buber felt dissatisfied with how he interacted with the man, who came to him for spiritual guidance.[i] Buber learned that being emotionally present to someone seeking guidance is what he failed to do. The presence of a concerned and listening heart—not discursive philosophical repartee, is what the young man really needed. Buber’s realization soon led to the formulation of his most significant spiritual work, “I and Thou.”

For ministers of all faiths, the story about Martin Buber offers a valuable lesson about the power of listening. Not every question people ask about God is necessarily intellectual in nature. When people feel as though they have reached the end of their earthly journey, they need an answer that is pastoral and healing in spirit.

There is a charming Sufi tale that illustrates this point. “Once there was a man whose marriage was in trouble sought his advice, the Sufi Master said, “You must learn to listen to your wife.” The man took this advice to heart and returned after a month to say he had learned to listen to every word his wife was saying.

Said the Master with a smile, “Now go home and listen to every word she isn’t saying.”

In the art of communication, we must learn to listen to the unarticulated need and question.

[i] Martin Buber and Maurice Friedman (ed.), Martin Buber and the Human Sciences (Albany, NY:  State University of New York Press, 1996), p. 8.

The Holiness of Atheism

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) was an Orthodox rabbi, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine. He was also a mystic and scholar; his receptivity to the sciences helped him articulate a philosophy of Judaism that proved compelling. When his followers asked him about atheism, he refused to consider it as a depraved cultural force. Even atheism possesses a spark of holiness because it challenges the religious status quo to purge itself of its dross. Atheism can serve to help people abandon ideas about God that are unhealthy, “Atheism has a temporary legitimacy, for it is needed to purge away the aberrations that attached themselves to religious faith because of a deficiency in perception and in the divine service.” He adds further:

Atheism arises as a pained outcry to liberate man from this narrow and alien pit, to raise him from the darkness . . . Atheism has a temporary legitimacy, for it is needed to purge away the aberrations that attached themselves to religious faith because of a deficiency in perception and in the divine service. This is its sole function in existence—to remove the particular images from the speculations concerning Him who is the essence of all life and the source of all thought . . . [Its purpose is to] uproot the dross that separates man from the truly divine light, and in the ruins wrought by atheism will the higher knowledge of God erect her Temple. To cleanse the air of the arrogant and evil aberration of focusing thought on the divine essence—a preoccupation that leads to idolatry—a thoroughgoing atheism arises, in itself no better than the former but opposed to it in absolute terms . . .

The violence of atheism will cleanse away the dross that accumulated in the lower levels of religious faith, and thereby will the heavens be cleared and the shining light of the higher faith will become visible, which is the song of the world and the truth of the world. Whoever recognizes the essence of atheism from this perspective embraces the positive element in it and traces it back to its origin in holiness. He glimpses the awesome splendor in the ice-like formations upon the celestial horizon (Cf. Ezekiel 1:22).[i]

According to Hasidic tradition, R. Jacob Isaac of Pzhysha, known as the “Holy Jew” once taught his disciples that there is nothing on earth without its good aspect; there are “holy sparks” of divinity in everything waiting to be revealed. A clever student asks, “What good is there in atheism?” He answered, “When it comes to man’s social duties and obligations, he should behave as if he were an atheist, assuming God does not exist to help the poor and the needy, so that if he did not help them, they would remain impoverished. “Faith is a virtue when applied to one’s own life. It is wrong to have it on behalf of others, there is yet something of value in Atheism, for even the believer has to be a small doubter when called upon to alleviate human suffering.” [xviii]

For those who question or struggle with faith, Maimonides has long taught that we must first determine what God is not before we can know what God is. Modern theologians call this the via negativa, the path of negation. By emancipating ourselves of God’s childish perceptions that we have inherited. Atheism challenges believers to let go of their immature perceptions. In the words of Hamlet,

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,

Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Hamlet (1.5.167-8)

In the end, what matters is that people of all backgrounds and creeds work together—theists, agnostic, and atheists- can work toward the common good.

[i] A. I. Kook, B. Z. Bokser, (Trans.) Abraham Isaac Kook~: The Lights of Penitence, The Moral Principles, Lights of Holiness, Essays, Letters, and Poems. (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1978), pp. 264-265.