This week’s portion, Vayehi, contains the last chapters of Genesis. It’s the end of the beginning. It’s been a long 12 portions since the world was created.
The epic saga comes to a close with Jacob’s blessing his grandsons, the fathers of the 12 tribes; then Jacob’s death; and finally the death of Joseph. Vayehi is all about fathers and sons and grandfathers, blessings and vows and deaths and mourning. Strangely, though, there are hardly any mothers or daughters; the only mention of the matriarchs here is the location of their graves, and Jacob’s sadness over Rachel’s death.
I couldn’t help but feel a little shortchanged on behalf of my foremothers. Genesis is full of brave, resourceful women keeping the family alive, talking directly to God, hustling, giving birth, raising the next generation, making things right when their men mess up. Why do they suddenly disappear in the final chapters? Maybe that’s not surprising for an ancient patriarchal society, but it felt strange to me.
But just when I was beginning to think women were totally invisible in this portion, I read the incredible blessing Jacob gives his descendants:
The God of your father who helps you,
And Shaddai who blesses you
With blessings of heaven above,
Blessings of the deep that couches below,
Blessings of the breast and womb.
WHOA. Blessings of the breast and womb? Sounds more like a line I would expect to find in a 1970s feminist haggadah, rather than the mouth of our forefather Jacob. Not bad for an ancient patriarchal society! I had to know more about this Shaddai.
As it turns out, no one knows exactly what Shaddai means, except that it’s one of the many Jewish names for God.
Some people argue that Shaddai is from “shadad,” destruction–a way of thinking about the aspect of God that has to do with powerful devastation, even death.
But others point out that Shaddai sounds very similar to “Shadayim,” or breasts–so maybe it’s more about the life-giving, nourishing aspect of God. Which sure sounds like what Jacob is talking about here, these blessings of the breast and womb.
So, how can Shaddai contain both these meanings–creation and destruction, nourishment and violence? And why are the women in this portion so removed that only their graves are spoken of, while a patriarch invokes this powerful feminine image? Why these strange juxtapositions of life and death at the end of the beginning of the Torah?
Thinking about these questions, I remembered the strange feeling I had in my first few moments as a mother, right after Sylvie was born.
As I expected, I felt a crazy heart-bursting joy holding this perfect creature to my breast.
But what I didn’t expect, as she began to nurse, was to feel closer to death than ever before. I understood my body as a vessel that had helped another being cross the line between nonexistence and existence. I had physically carried her from one side to another. I was aware of her strength, and of mine. I was aware of her fragility, and of mine.
Holding her in those early days, I felt I could taste the space between life and death. The blessings of the womb and the breast. The blood, the milk. The creation and the destruction. The beginning of the end, the end of the beginning.
It was bittersweet.
To read the previous posts in our Torah MOMentary series, click here.