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Parashat Vayeitzei - She is a Shepherdess


While it is certainly true that the culture of patriarchy is rampant in the texts of the Torah, and that immense damage has been done because of this dynamic, it is also true that the most important driving force of the mythic narrative of Torah is, from start to finish, women. It has been noticed by no small number of modern commentators that Rivkah is one of the most robust, confident, and fleshed-out characters in Torah. And, so too is her niece, Rahel. Yet, while Rivkah exhibits her will in direct and emphatic ways (watch my video on Parashat Toldot), Rahel's manner is less demanding albeit also, at times, deceptive in her own ways.


When we look at the most well known Biblical "heroes," (I put it in quotes because none of them are actually heroic, they are actually deeply problematic and troubled figures) many of them are shepherds: Avraham, Yitzhak, Yaakov, Moshe, David. There are many more shepherds mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, but these are perhaps the most famous. The shepherding of Avraham and Yitzhak is implied, but never explicitly mentioned. Yaakov is, likewise, never explicitly named as a shepherd, although his activities with his father-in-law's flocks is written of extensively in this Torah portion. Moshe is referred to as shepherding his father-in-law's flocks, and so too David is referred to as engaging in the act of shepherding. Both Moshe and David are referred as engaging in the activity, meaning that the Torah applies the verb of "shepherding" to their character, but there is only one figure in Hebrew bible that receives the epithet itself, and that is Rahel.


To set the scene, Yaakov is traveling from his parent's home in the Land of Israel back to the land of his mother's origin - the same as that of his grandfather Avraham. When he arrives there, he first encounters three flocks waiting near an open well with their shepherds. He begins speak with the shepherds present, informing them of who he is and for whom he is looking.


The Torah states (Gen. 29:9):

עוֹדֶ֖נּוּ מְדַבֵּ֣ר עִמָּ֑ם וְרָחֵ֣ל ׀ בָּ֗אָה עִם־הַצֹּאן֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר לְאָבִ֔יהָ כִּ֥י רֹעָ֖ה הִֽוא׃
While he was still speaking with them; Rahel came with the flock which had been her father's, for she is a shepherdess.

What is the distinction between being identified with an action and the activity being one's identity? For Moshe and David, when they are not in the act of shepherding then they are not shepherds. However, for Rahel, her identity as a shepherd in bound up in her very sense of self. The question for us, then, becomes: when do our actions define our identity, and when do our identities define our actions? David and Moshe, for example, shepherd because the moment demands it; Rahel, on the other hand, *is* a shepherd. She is not defined by her actions, rather her actions are defined by who she is. Her name itself means 'ewe,' further emphasizing her identity.


Rahel teaches us the value of striving to have our actions in the world be an outgrowth of our deepest sense of self, rather than allowing ourselves to be defined by the necessity of action in the moment.

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