What's Meaningful About Niddah? (Part 1) | Meaningful Judaism Podcast

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Meaningful Judaism | Season 1 | Episode 3

What's Meaningful About Niddah? (Part 1)

What is the meaning of the ‘niddah’ law? Why does the Torah require husbands and wives to separate when the wife has her period? The laws in Vayikra describe the “whats” of niddah but not the “why.” Why would God want to keep husbands and wives apart from one another? And what does menstruation have to do with it?

In This Episode

What is the meaning of the ‘niddah’ law? Why does the Torah require husbands and wives to separate when the wife has her period? The laws in Vayikra describe the “whats” of niddah but not the “why.” Why would God want to keep husbands and wives apart from one another? And what does menstruation have to do with it?

And those are just the easy questions! In this episode, guest host and scholar Beth Lesch respectfully yet candidly raises questions about the challenges of observing these laws. In conversation with Yoetzet Halacha Adina Blaustein and fellow scholar Tikva Hecht, Beth shares her own personal and intellectual struggles with niddah, using them as a springboard for a deep dive into the Torah text in search of the meaning of niddah. What she discovers has the power to transform not only how we experience this mitzvah, but how we understand what marriage is all about.

This is Part 1 of 2.

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Imu Shalev (introduction): Welcome to Meaningful Judaism, where we try to answer why we do what we do in Jewish Life. So many of our practices can feel like they’re just...there. We do them, but we’re not connected to them, we don’t feel their meaning. In this podcast, we search for that meaning by diving deep into the Torah text. Meaningful Judaism is a project of Aleph Beta Labs, and I’m your host, Imu Shalev.

This week, our topic is niddah — specifically, the law that husbands and wives can't be intimate during the wife's period. And I'm the wrong person to do this, so I'm handing it over to someone who is much better suited to explore this topic: Aleph Beta scholar Beth Lesch. This episode is a 2-parter, and it's really amazing, delightful; it’s surprising, and it’s profound, and I'm really, really excited for you all to hear it. Just a head's up that, in this episode, Beth will be speaking fairly directly about some sensitive topics related to niddah, to marriage, and to intimacy. Sometimes we use words many of you may not be used to hearing in a Torah podcast, and we’re aiming to do that with dignity and with respect. But if that’s something that you're particularly sensitive to, I just wanted to give you a head’s up.

Alright, without further ado, here’s Beth.

Beth Lesch: Hi. I'm Beth Lesch, and I'm joined here by my wonderful colleague, Adina Blaustein who, in addition to being the content production manager at Aleph Beta, also happens to be a Yoetzet Halacha, which means she educates and counsels women in her community on issues relating to niddah

Adina, I want to kick things off by sharing a story that illustrates one aspect of niddah that I really struggle with.

Adina Blaustein: I'm just amazed you only have one issue.

Beth: Yes, we're going to start with one issue. We'll see where we end up. So I've been happily married, thank God, for 10 — actually 10 and a half years. I can still remember this one incident, when I was newly married. I had a friend from college staying with us. We were eating breakfast, just the two of us. I think my husband was out of the house, working. And my friend said to me, “Why do you have two beds in your bedroom?” Just like that, very respectful. She was just curious.

Adina: If you're new to the laws of niddah, then for sure you'd wonder, why would a happily married couple need two separate beds? Like, is this a 1950s TV show? Is this I Love Lucy? It's so strange. 

Beth: Exactly, right. Her question really caught me off guard. 

Adina: So, what did you say? 

Beth: I don't remember, exactly. I think I probably muttered something about, you know, laws of family purity. But I just remember feeling really uncomfortable and trying to change the subject quickly. I was not super keen to start explaining how, according to Jewish law, husband and wife are forbidden from having physical relations when the wife has her period. And so, during that time of the month, my husband and I sleep in separate beds.

Adina: It's so interesting, Beth, because I know you, and I know that you are usually very open to answering just about any question having to do with Torah Jewish law. 

Beth: Totally. My friends ask me about Jewish stuff all the time. Usually I embrace these questions, and I remember reflecting on it afterwards and asking myself, why did this question make me so uncomfortable?

Adina: So if I may, I wonder if it's because the bedroom is such a personal and intimate space. Honestly, even if you did have a regular, you know, queen size or king size bed, it's off-putting for someone else to poke their head into a married couple's bedroom and start asking questions about it.

Beth: I think that is part of it, but I don't think that's what was really at the core of what was bothering me. I think it's that I realized that I didn't have a great answer. I mean, I could have given a very technical explanation and said, “Oh, well, there's a law from the Torah that couples separate when the wife gets her period, so during that time, we sleep in separate beds.” But my friend was asking for more than that. At least, I felt she was probing for the “why.” Why would the Torah want married couples to separate at all? What's wrong, in the Torah’s eyes, with being together during this time?

And if she wasn't hungering for the “why,” I started to realize that I was. I'm not the first person to ask this question. I know there are answers that are offered. If you stick “torah niddah why” into Google, you will get hits, but I hadn't encountered an answer that felt really satisfying.

Adina: Yeah, I'll be honest, I teach brides all the time and it's hard for me as well. The closest thing the Gamara gives to an explanation for all of these laws is a line in Masechet Niddah, quoted in the name of Rebbi Meir, and I'll paraphrase a lot. Basically, he says, “Well, absence makes the heart grow fonder. That's why the Torah has these laws.”

Beth: Right. When you say “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” you're alluding to this idea that intimacy in a marriage can get stale over the long-term. So if the couple has this practice of “now we're together, now we're apart,” there’s an opportunity to rekindle their sense of desire. So, yes, I did learn that, and I even think there's a real wisdom to that idea. And yet something about that idea didn't totally sit well with me, either. And in reflecting on it, I realized why. It smacked of apologetics, to me, I’m saying. It felt like, “Oh, I know that the laws of niddah might seem kind of uncomfortable or outdated or primitive. But don't worry, this isn't a weird, arcane law. It doesn't imply that menstruation is dirty or makes you spiritually inferior. Niddah is totally in sync with modern values. There's nothing uncomfortable here. You can feel good about it.”

Adina: I hear that. 

Beth: And what made me really suspicious is that the Torah itself doesn't talk about any of that stuff. There's no pasuk, there’s no verse that says, “Vayomer Hashem el Moshe, God says to Moshe, ‘Husbands and wives should observe a period of separation every month in order that their marital bond will be strong like on the day of their wedding.’” There's nothing like that. When the Torah introduces this law in Vayikra 18, the verse says: וְאֶל־אִשָּׁה בְּנִדַּת טֻמְאָתָהּ לֹא תִקְרַב לְגַלּוֹת עֶרְוָתָהּ — And to a woman who has her period, don't come close to her to uncover her nakedness (Leviticus 18:20). That's all the verse says; I didn't hear anything about strengthening the marital bond. So where do we get this idea from? Where do the rabbis get it from?

I just realized that I had all of this suspicion swimming around inside of me, that what we tell ourselves about niddah is just apologetics. And it left me feeling kind of ambivalent about this mitzvah.

Adina: And if that's what's going on in your head, then, yeah, when you hear Rebbi Meir’s explanation, you're going to be suspicious. Like, are we just trying so hard to make sure that no one thinks that the Torah is anti-women? 

Beth: Exactly, exactly.

Adina: So I'm not trying to downplay that, but honestly, Beth, most women that I speak to aren't struggling with niddah in that way. What you're describing is very cerebral — “What's the reason? Do I buy the reason?” Most women I speak to are just frustrated that observing niddah doesn't seem to strengthen their marital bond; that the experience of observing these halachot almost seems to do the opposite.

Beth: Can you say more about that?

Adina: Yeah, like, I'm thinking about the women who basically call me up, and they say, “I just really need a hug. I'm craving sexual intimacy, but it's off-limits.” Or, “I'm just finding that we fight a lot during our time apart, and niddah’s a really tense, sad time in our marriage.”

Beth: I'm so glad you're bringing that up, because I relate to that, too. There's that one level of struggling with niddah, that maybe some couples can relate to, which is having the suspicion of, “Is that the only reason we're told that separation is good for marriages, because otherwise it would be so uncomfortable that the Torah says a menstruating woman needs to be kept away from her husband?”

But even if I could resolve that somehow, like if I would get a prophecy tomorrow from the Almighty saying, you know, “Hi, Beth. Just wanted to let you know, niddah really is about strengthening marriage. That was my intention. That's why I put it in the Torah. This is God. See you on Shabbos!” Even then, a lot of people would still have a problem with niddah because, for many people in their lived experience, it doesn't actually work like that. It's not good for their marriages. It strains their marriages instead of strengthening them. And that's real, and that's hard.

So, Adina, we've mapped out these two major niddah challenges, and that's a really fabulous introduction to the journey that I'm about to share with you, because that is really where I found myself, as someone who was faithfully observing these laws and had no plans of stopping but nonetheless was struggling. Struggling in my head, you know, with the rationale piece, “Is it apologetics?” and also struggling sometimes with the experience piece. And I didn't want to stay there. I was kind of thirsting for a more meaningful way to connect to this mitzvah. So I did what we do here at Meaningful Judaism. I turned to the Torah text to see if the Torah speaks to us, in its own words, about these issues, about why husbands and wives should be apart during niddah, and maybe even about why niddah can be so challenging to observe. 

The only question was where to look. As we said, the Torah in Vayikra, in Leviticus, does discuss the laws of niddah. It states the basic prohibition, but it doesn't seem to say anything about why. So that kind of felt like a dead end. But it occurred to me that there might be another place in the Torah that could offer some clues. 

Adina: Which other places were you thinking of? 

Beth: Well, let me ask you, is there any other place you can think of in the Torah that talks about a menstruating woman? 

Adina: You mean outside of Vayikra? 

Beth: Yep. 

Adina: Oh, Rachel.

Beth:  Yes, exactly. There's a story in the book of Genesis that describes a woman who is menstruating, or at least who says that she's menstruating, and that woman is Rachel. It’s when she is fleeing her father Lavan’s house, as described in Genesis 31. And when I read that story closely, I was blown away by what I found. What I saw there, as wild as it sounds, actually helped me to understand the laws of niddah in an entirely new light. 

Adina: That’s not something most people would think to do, to go to a story in Genesis to look for the meaning of a law in Vayikra. So, okay, Beth, let’s go with it, show us what you found. I’ll go with you, I want to see what you found. 

Beth: Great, so I'm going to play for you the recording of a conversation where I shared what I found with Tikvah Hecht, another Aleph Beta scholar. So most of the rest of what you're going to hear in this episode, parts one and two, is from that conversation. Everybody say goodbye for now to Adina —

Adina: Bye, it’s been a pleasure.

Beth: — she'll meet us again at the very end, and hop with me into a time machine, of sorts. We're going to take a deep dive into this Rachel story, and have faith — have faith, because it is going to answer our big niddah questions in the end

Tikva, as you know, I've been having a lot of fun researching this topic, and I have some crazy cool stuff going through my head. I'm really eager to share it with someone, so let's dive in. What do you remember from the story of Rachel's period? Can you give us the plot summary? 

Tikva Hecht: Sure. Jacob and his wives have just fled from Lavan's house. And on the way out, Rachel steals these terafim; I think they're idols, right? And then Lavan starts chasing after them, and he catches up to them, and he accuses them of stealing the idols, and he starts looking for the terafim. So he goes into Rachel's tent, but she's hidden them in this saddle pack of her camel, and she does something really sneaky. She sits on it. So Lavan is, you know, looking all over this tent, but of course he's not finding them because they're in the one place he can't look. And then Rachel says to him, “Please don't be angry, but I can't stand up because דֶרֶךְ נָשִׁים לִי — the way of women is upon me (Genesis 31:35). 

Beth: Right. Seems to be Bible talk for, “I have my period.”

Tikva: I've always been very intrigued by that. It’s sort of this, almost, throwaway line, and I always found it fascinating. Just, wait, what does this mean? Does this mean women just sat and didn't move during their periods? Were they so open with their fathers about this? So, I'm happy, like really happy, to be looking at this story with you because it's reminding me how intriguing I always find that. And then I always forget about it, and I move on. In terms of a clue in understanding niddah, I'm a little skeptical. I don't know. Yeah, I think you're going to have to convince me that it's relevant, but I'm definitely excited and intrigued to look at it with you. 

Beth: If I were in your shoes, I would be skeptical too. Why would we think that this story about Rachel’s period is connected in any way to the laws of niddah? That just sounds like a ridiculous proposition. Yes, this is a story about menstruation, but it feels like that’s where the commonalities end, right? The laws of niddah are about interactions between a husband and a wife. This story is about a father and a daughter. So, yeah, at first glance, it doesn't seem like this story is intentionally connected in any way to the laws of niddah, the idea of niddah. I totally grant you that, and I was skeptical at first. But then I saw something that really caught my eye and made me reconsider, which is that the word niddah actually does come up in this story. It's just not where you would expect it to be. It's not Rachel who says it. It’s not Lavan either. It's Jacob. And, weirdly, it's not clear what it has to do with menstruation at all. Let's keep on reading and you'll see what I mean. 

Tikva: Okay, sure. So let's see. So Rachel says, “The way of women is upon me.” Niddah’s not there. And then Lavan doesn't find the terafim and he starts searching. And what comes next is that Jacob is really angry. He starts yelling at Lavan, “What's your problem? You chased after me. You went through all my stuff.” He starts defending himself, “I didn't do anything wrong. These whole 20 years, you've taken advantage of me. I've been working so hard for you.” So he seems to be airing all these grievances, but I'm not seeing the word niddah

Beth: Take a close look at verse 40. Look at the language in the Hebrew. 

Tikva: In the daytime, drought consumed me. וְקֶרַח בַּלָּיְלָה — At nighttime, it was icy, וַתִּדַּד שְׁנָתִי מֵעֵינָי — and sleep wandered from my eyes. 

Beth:  Let me just pause you there. The root of that word, וַתִּדַּד, is the same as the word niddah: Nun, daled, daled. Sleep wandered from my eyes, it was separated from my eyes. Just as a menstruating wife might be separated from her husband. 

Tikva: Wow. That's really cool.

Beth: Right? This is the only story in the whole Tanach that talks about a woman who has her period, and we were wondering, okay, so can we assume that this story is somehow in conversation with the idea of niddah? And it seemed like a wild thought, but then, lo and behold, in that very same story, just a few verses later, we actually get the word niddah, which is a highly unusual word. It’s very unusual for it to show up like this in a narrative in Genesis, so it’s usage feels really intentional. Jacob could have just said any number of other things. He could have said, “Lo yashanti, I didn’t sleep,” or “Hayiti ayef bimeod meod, I was very, very tired.” But instead, he says, “Sleep was niddah from my eyes.” So that’s very cool. It feels like more than a coincidence. It really feels like the Torah signaling to us that there is a connection between this story and the idea of niddah that gets introduced to us later on in Vayikra, and that one can help us to understand the other.

And yet, if that’s true, it’s also really confusing, because there's just a lot that doesn’t add up. The “Rachel’s period” part of the story — it doesn’t have to do with a husband and wife spending time apart, it has to do with a father who is searching his daughter’s tent for his stolen objects. It just seems completely unrelated. And the niddah part of the story, you know, Jacob’s comment about the sleep, doesn’t seem to have anything to do with a woman’s period. Sleep was niddah? It’s hard to figure out what that even means.

Tikva: It doesn't feel helpful at all in understanding niddah, it just feels helpful in understanding what it's like to be really, really tired. That's the powerful part of it to me. It's like, oh, that's a great image. But no, in terms of understanding niddah, this doesn't seem helpful at all. So I'm super intrigued, but also super confused.

Beth: I still think this story has something to teach us about niddah, but in order to see it, you have to better understand what is happening in this larger story with Lavan and Yaakov and Rachel and Leah. Because we’ve looked at this moment in Rachel’s tent, and at this verse from Yaakov about niddah and sleep, but we’re kind of reading it out of context. So let’s go back and look at this entire story that we just recapped, not just to zoom in on the “Rachel's tent” moment and the “Niddah sleep” moment and ignore the rest, but read the story as a whole, from top to bottom, starting with the moment when Yaakov and Rachel and Leah and the kids first flee. And we’re just going to relax, take it in, ask some basic questions. Just to try to understand it. Are you ready?

Tikva: Very ready.

Beth: Great, so Jacob gathers Rachel and Leah. He tells them that he wants to leave Lavan’s house and go to Canaan. Just remember, Jacob has been living there for 20 years, ever since he ran away from his parents’ home and showed up on their doorstep. But he decides that it’s time — time for a new era for him and his family. And, surprisingly, Rachel and Leah are totally on board with the plan. They’re not even a little bit sad to be leaving their father’s home.

Tikva: Yeah, they sort of say, there's really nothing for us here anymore. Their relationship with their father is strained, and they're very honest. They tell Yaakov, “We're ready to leave.” 

Beth: They sneak out without even telling Lavan. They had lived together as a kind of household for all of these years; Jacob, Rachel, Leah, the maidservants, the kids. And now, they don’t even let him know that they’re leaving, they don’t even say goodbye, which is a little strange. וַיָּקׇם יַעֲקֹב, they set out for Canaan. I’m reading from Genesis 31, verse 17. They take all their stuff with them, including what we mentioned before, the terafim that Rachel stole, which, as you said, the commentators say they are probably some kind of idols. And when Lavan discovers that they’ve left, וַיִּרְדֹּף אַחֲרָיו, he starts chasing after them. He’s desperate to catch up with them, וַיַּדְבֵּק אֹתוֹ.

Tikva: וַיַּדְבֵּק is so weird here. I think it means, “He caught up with him,” but it's just a very strange way of saying that. 

Beth: You’re pointing out that the word וַיַּדְבֵּק, it’s a bit of an odd word to use here. It means “to cling.” We talk about devekut, usually in the context of clinging to God, but here it’s Lavan clinging to Yaakov. You said that it probably means that Lavan physically caught up with Yaakov and everyone else, but I actually don’t think that’s right, because if you look two verses later, it says וַיַּשֵּׂג. That definitely means he caught up to him, so וַיַּדְבֵּק can’t mean that. It’s got to mean something else. Like, he wasn’t physically attached to him yet, but maybe he was emotionally attached to him? He really wanted to catch up to him? But yeah, I agree, it is a strange word to use in this context. Now, when Lavan does catch up to him, how does that play out?

Tikva: Like you said, he's really angry and he says to Yaakov, “What have you done? You tricked me. You snuck out in the middle of the night. You carried my daughters away like captives.” And he says, “You didn't even give me a chance to kiss my daughters and grandchildren goodbye.”

Beth: And Jacob says: כִּי יָרֵאתִי — I was afraid that, if you knew that we were leaving, you would try to steal your daughters from me. That’s why we snuck out without telling you (Genesis 31:31).

Tikva: Why does Yaakov think that Lavan would try to steal the daughters from him? Like, where's he getting that from?

Beth: I think that’s a good question. I mean, I can definitely see how a father would be upset about his daughters leaving, but Jacob’s language seems to point to something more sinister, which just feels a little paranoid. It’s sort of coming out of nowhere. Lavan might not have been the world’s best father-in-law, but since when is he a kidnapper? So that’s one question to put on our list. Why would Jacob be afraid that Lavan would try to kidnap Rachel and Leah?

Ok, so let’s keep reading. We were talking about Lavan’s mood. He's definitely angry, and listen to what he says next. “I could hurt you if I really wanted to.” Okay, he is hostile. This is not a particularly loving, healthy family dynamic, and the hostility is far from over. He says, “As if it isn’t good enough that you basically kidnapped my daughters, why did you steal my gods?” He’s referring to the terafim that Rachel took, although Jacob doesn’t know that Rachel took them. So Jacob says, “None of us took your terafim. Go ahead, Lavan, search our tents.” Lavan begins to search, and it's this very detailed description. Listen to this: וַיָּבֹא לָבָן בְּאֹהֶל יַעֲקֹב — Lavan came into Yaakov’s tent, וּבְאֹהֶל לֵאָה — and in Leah’s tent, וּבְאֹהֶל שְׁתֵּי הָאֲמָהֹת — and into the maidservants’ tent, וְלֹא מָצָא וַיֵּצֵא מֵאֹהֶל לֵאָה — and he left Leah’s tent, וַיָּבֹא בְּאֹהֶל רָחֵל — and he came into Rachel's tent. The verses are painting this frantic scene, Lavan going in and out of the tents like a madman.

Tikva: Yeah, and I'm noticing the next verse: וַיְמַשֵּׁשׁ לָבָן אֶת־כׇּל־הָאֹהֶל. It's very graphic language. Literally, he was putting his hands on everything in the tent.

Beth: I think you have to ask, would I be missing some huge part of the story if all I knew was that Lavan searched for the terafim, but I didn't know that he frantically went in and out of all the tents and he felt everything up? Why is the text giving us so many details here? So that's another question. 

Musical Interlude

We're up to that moment that we read about before. Rachel is sitting on the stolen goods, and the way I imagine it, at least, Lavan is getting closer and closer. He's realizing that there's only one place in the whole tent that he has yet to lay hands or eyes on, which is right where his daughter is sitting. And she says to her father, “Don't be angry. I can't get up because I have my period.” Stop right there. If you didn't know how the story was going to end, how would you expect Lavan to react? He's accused his own son-in-law and daughters of stealing from him. He's rummaging through Rachel's tent. He's probably thinking, you know, “They've got to be here somewhere.” And Rachel says, “Sorry, Dad, I can't get up. It's that time of the month.” What do you expect Lavan to do?

Tikva: “That's very well, Rachel, but I'm going to need you to stand up now.” I don't think he's just going to, you know, nicely take orders from her or nicely react to her.

Beth: Totally. Anything to find his precious terafim, right?. He's not a tactful guy, but he doesn't make her move. He just backs off. The text just says וַיְחַפֵּשׂ וְלֹא מָצָא אֶת־הַתְּרָפִים — he searched and he couldn't find anything. So his search peters out, and he just lets Rachel be.

Musical Interlude

Beth: When I first read this, I was surprised by Lavan’s reaction. It struck me as out of character for him. Why doesn’t he make Rachel get up? Why doesn’t he search underneath her?The text doesn’t seem to tell us why. We can speculate. I think a lot of people might say, well, Lavan was probably observing some kind of taboo. You know, maybe it was understood in his historical context, in ancient Charan, that menstrual blood is problematic, or whatever it is, and men shouldn’t go near it, and that’s just the convention. But that’s not a satisfying explanation to me. Something about his reaction is still really surprising.

Put yourself in Lavan’s shoes. He’s searched everywhere else. He has to know that the terafim are in Rachel’s tent. It’s obvious. He knows it, she knows that he knows it, and if he doesn’t find the goods, he’s going to look like a fool, the way that he’s come charging in throwing out all these accusations. So even if it is a taboo that he shouldn't come close to a woman who has her period, okay. So he could say, “Rachel, I need you to stand up and go have your period over there, please.” The fact that he lets her keep sitting there is odd. It’s unexpected. So that’s another question I want to ask: Why does Lavan back off from Rachel in the tent? 

Musical Interlude

What happens next is, Lavan, at the very least, seems sort of quieted by his inability to find the terafim, sort of humbled by his inability to find the terafim, and that seems to create a vacuum for Jacob to step up and express his anger. And this is the part that we read earlier, with the niddah verse. “You chased me, you accused me of being a thief.” This is all Jacob's grievances. “I don't deserve this treatment. I've been working my tail off for you for years, caring for your animals all those sleepless nights.”

Let's focus in on how Lavan is going to react to what Jacob is saying, okay? Remember, Lavan was the one who initiated this fight. He’s come on strong, hostile, casting out all these accusations. And then Jacob steps up, and Jacob kind of raises the temperature on the whole conflict, and he says some not-so-nice things about Lavan being a terrible father-in-law, and now it’s Lavan’s turn to reply. And I think we’re expecting to hear a string of angry retorts from Lavan, right? But that’s not what we actually get. Look at what he says. Tikva, do you want to read it?

Tikva: Um, he says הַבָּנוֹת בְּנֹתַי — the daughters are mine, וְהַבָּנִים בָּנַי — the grandchildren are mine, וְהַצֹּאן צֹאנִי — the flocks are mine, וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר־אַתָּה רֹאֶה לִי־הוּא — and everything that you see is mine. וְלִבְנֹתַי מָה־אֶעֱשֶׂה לָאֵלֶּה הַיּוֹם אוֹ לִבְנֵיהֶן אֲשֶׁר יָלָדוּ — What can I do today for my daughters and my grandchildren? 

Beth: Good. Keep reading and then we'll talk about it.

Tikva: Okay, so the very next thing Lavan says is: וְעַתָּה לְכָה נִכְרְתָה בְרִית — come, let's make a covenant. And he's saying that to Yaakov. He's going to make a brit, a covenant with him. That's interesting.

Beth: Right? He wants to make some kind of formal agreement with Yaakov. Very curious. What is he asking for?

Tikva: He says, אִם־תְּעַנֶּה אֶת־בְּנֹתַי — don't oppress my daughters, don't mistreat them. And  וְאִם־תִּקַּח נָשִׁים עַל־בְּנֹתַי — and don't take any additional wives. Even when there's no one else around and you're out of my sight, God will always be watching. He'll be a witness between me and you. Those are the terms of the covenant: One, I want you to treat my daughters well. And two, I don't want you to marry anyone else in addition to them.

Beth: I wouldn’t describe this as  angry. Lavan is making Yaakov swear that Yaakov will take good care of Rachel and Leah. Lavan is suddenly acting like a dad — a loving, caring, worried dad.

Tikva: I see how you're reading it, but for him to suddenly be respectful and understanding, it just feels like, where is that coming from? 

Beth: You know, Tikva, I actually think it's not so sudden. I mean, yeah, at the start of the story, Lavan was angry and aggressive. But ever since that moment in Rachel's tent, he’s been acting differently. Let me show you.

There are three unexpected reactions that we have noticed up until this point. The first is Lavan’s response when Rachel tells him that she has her period, and he doesn't make her stand up. The second is when Jacob casts out this whole string of angry accusations against Lavan, and Lavan doesn't respond angrily. Instead, he is uncharacteristically tender. He says, מָה־אֶעֱשֶׂה, what can I do for my daughters? And now, number three, this brit, where he just seems desperately concerned about his daughters being okay. So there's a pattern here. And what we're seeing at the end of the story, with the brit, it’s  just the latest indication that Lavan has softened, that he has changed. And Rachel's period seems to be the turning point. 

Now, why would it be that Rachel's declaration that she has her period makes Lavan change his tune? We don't know that yet. That's a mystery. That's a great question. But it is so very cool because what it means is that menstruation isn't just a throwaway detail in the story. That’s what you said, Tikva, right? It seems like a throwaway line, but no, no, no, it's not a throwaway line. It seems to be at the epicenter of the drama. So what are we to make of Lavan’s unexpectedly compassionate behavior at the end of the story, and what does Rachel's period have to do with it?

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Tikva: One other thing, Beth. He says, “Don't mistreat my daughters and don't marry any more wives.” It just seems funny. It seems really hypocritical. You know, if you're thinking back in the story, Yaakov only wanted to marry Rachel, but Lavan was the one who set it all up so that Yaakov would marry Leah also, and he would take another wife in addition to Rachel. And that ended up just causing so much misery for both of them, for Rachel and Leah. You know, that rivalry was bitter, and they suffered for so many years being married to the same man, and all of that was thanks to Lavan's interference. So, “don't mistreat my daughters and don't marry additional wives” is kind of a great summary of what Lavan himself did to his daughters. And now that's the thing that he's telling Yaakov not to do.

Beth: Is Lavan aware of the absurdity of what he's saying? Is he oblivious to it? “I need you to take care of my daughters. Please, please, please, whatever you do, make sure you don't do this (“this” being something pretty close to what I did to them).” 

It's bizarre, so that's another question: What is with the brit? So just to recap our questions: What makes Jacob think that Lavan would steal his daughters from him? Isn't that a little nuts? Why does the text describe Lavan’s invasive search in such graphic detail? Why does Lavan seem to react with such calmness and understanding to Rachel's declaration that she can't get up because she has her period? Why is Lavan suddenly so concerned about what he can do for his daughters, so much so that he makes this brit? You know, where is this compassionate turn coming from and what does it have to do with that moment in the tent? And then, lastly, there's the hypocritical terms of the brit. What are we to make of that?

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Big picture — how did we get here, where are we going? We're trying to understand the meaning of the niddah law, why husband and wife need to separate. And we came over here to Genesis 31. I told you that if we could just better understand this story, we'd see that it is actually teaching us something deep and profound about the laws of niddah. So we went back to the top. We read through the whole story. We now have even more questions than when we started. If the Torah is trying to tell us something about niddah with this story, we don’t seem to be any closer to figuring that out. And even just understanding this story on its own, it kind of feels like we’ve raised all of these questions that are just making the whole thing unravel.

That’s because we are still not seeing the big picture. We’re still zoomed in too close. This story is the final act of a drama with Jacob and Rachel and Leah and Lavan. It’s a drama that started back when Yaakov first arrived at Lavan’s house. So to understand this story, it’s not enough to just look at this chapter — you have to go back. Come with me to one last destination, to Genesis 29, and when we do, you’ll see that everything is going to start falling into place.

Okay, so we're going back to the moment when Yaakov first arrives in Lavan’s hometown. He sees Rachel at the well, he falls in love with her, and Lavan comes out to greet him. Listen to what Lavan says: עַצְמִי וּבְשָׂרִי אָתָּה — You are my bone and my flesh (Genesis 29:14), and Lavan invites Jacob to stay with them. He moves in. Now, Tikva, I'm going to ask you a question that the answer might seem obvious, but just humor me. What do you think Lavan means when he says, “you are my bone and my flesh”?

Tikva: I think it just means, “you're my family.” Like we say, you're my flesh and blood. You know, Yaakov is Lavan's nephew, his sister's son. He's probably never even met him, and now he's showing up and that's exciting, and Lavan feels close to him. They're family.

Beth: That seems to be the plainest read, but I'm going to argue that there is a deeper, more insidious layer of meaning in Lavan's words. Lavan is using very particular language here.  עַצְמִי וּבְשָׂרִי, does that language remind you of anything?

Tikva: It does, but I'm blanking 

Beth: What if I say עֶצֶם מֵעֲצָמַי וּבָשָׂר מִבְּשָׂרִי (Genesis 2:23)?

Tikva: Oh! Adam and Chava.

Beth: Yes, it's from the creation of Adam and Eve. “Bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh.” And as far as I can tell, Tikva, this is actually the only time in the entire Chumash, the entire Five Books of Moses, that we get language quite like this, this pairing of the words עֶצֶם and בָשָׂר, bone and flesh, which is intriguing. And to me, it suggests that we're meant to read Lavan’s words, somehow, through the lens of how these words were first used in the Garden of Eden. Now, you had suggested that this idiom, “my bone and my flesh,” it just means, “you're my family.”  But would you say that that's what the idiom meant in Gan Eden, or did it mean something else? 

Tikva: No, I think it had much more specific connotations in Gan Eden. If you think about the story there, God is trying to find a helpmate for Adam. He brings all the animals in front of Adam, but none of them are a good match. So then God puts Adam to sleep, and He takes one of his ribs, and He builds Eve from the rib and then presents Eve to Adam. And then, when Adam sees her, he says, “This time, it's bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh. This one will be called ‘Woman’ because she was taken from Man.” So עֶצֶם עֲצָמַי is this expression of, “Whoa, Eve, you are my soulmate. You're the right one for me, because meeting you feels like reuniting with a lost part of myself.”

Beth: So that's part of the message of עֶצֶם עֲצָמַי, but there's another layer to it, there's more richness to this idiom. And this I heard from Rabbi Fohrman. He says, keep reading. Look at the next pasuk: עַל־כֵּן — Therefore, יַעֲזׇב־אִישׁ אֶת־אָבִיו וְאֶת־אִמּוֹ — a man will leave his father and his mother, וְדָבַק בְּאִשְׁתּוֹ — He will cling to his wife, וְהָיוּ לְבָשָׂר אֶחָד — and they'll become one flesh. What do we make of the “therefore” that connects these two verses? Like, why “therefore,” why does one lead to the other? What's the connection between Adam calling Chava עֶצֶם מֵעֲצָמַי and a man leaving his parents?

Tikva: Yeah, I've heard Rabbi Fohrman’s take on this. It's really beautiful. He says that, on some level, it's kind of crazy for a son to ever leave his parents. Why would he leave his own bone and flesh to start a family with a total stranger? He already has a kind of unity with his parents. I mean, he's literally conceived from them, from their sperm and the egg, and then he's inside the womb. He has this, you know, incredible unity or connection with the mother. And then, even after birth, he's growing up in their home. So there's this connection, this unity that's already there. Why would he leave that behind for this stranger? And the answer is because his spouse isn't really a stranger. She's bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh, and when he joins with her, hopefully, it feels like she's a part of him, and he's just coming back to himself. With his wife, ideally, he can achieve an even greater sense of connection, an even more perfect unity than the one he had with his parents. 

Beth: Exactly. So this verse from the Garden of Eden is kind of articulating a basic algebra. You know, when you’re a child, your primary connection is to your parents, and that makes sense. But when you get older, if you’re lucky enough to find your bashert, your soulmate, then your primary connection switches. It’s not to your parents anymore. You leave them behind, and now your primary connection is to your spouse. So to bring it back to the Lavan story, Lavan is happy to meet Jacob, and he says to Jacob: עַצְמִי וּבְשָׂרִי אָתָּה — you are my bone and my flesh, and he invites Jacob to move in with him. Knowing what we know about how this language is used in the Garden of Eden, “bone and flesh,” that’s the motto of why children should leave their parents’ house and go get married. And we have Lavan saying those words. Lavan, who is embracing Jacob and inviting him into his home, who is going to offer his daughter Rachel's hand in marriage to Jacob. What do you make of that?

Tikva: Yeah, it's really interesting. It's like he's confusing what his role is. It's like Lavan's not getting the role that he's cast into, and what it means for him in this equation. 

Beth: What is the role that he's cast into?

Tikva: He is the father.

Beth: He's kind of acting like he's the husband. 

Tikva: Yeah. Like, “I don't want it to be that you marry my daughters and now you guys all go off into the sunset.” It feels more like, “Yeah, go off into the sunset, but I'm coming too.”

Beth: “I’m coming too.” We're joking about it, but I think there's something really off going on here with Lavan quoting this verse, which is supposed to be about a father letting go. But he's using it as the reason for not why the daughter should leave her father, but why the son-in-law should stay. “Yaakov, you can dwell with me because you are my mate.” There's just something that I find very creepy. There’s something very creepy about it, to me.

Musical Interlude 

So that's one thing that I want to point out to you, and here's another. Jacob declares that he's willing to work for seven years in exchange for marrying Rachel. Now, listen to Lavan’s response. I think most people don't remember this line. He says, טוֹב תִּתִּי אֹתָהּ לָךְ — it's better for me to give her to you, מִתִּתִּי אֹתָהּ לְאִישׁ אַחֵר — then I marry her off to someone else. What does Lavan mean when he says that? Lavan seems to really like the idea of Jacob as his son-in-law. Now, it might seem like an obvious question, but why is Lavan so eager to accept this deal? 

Tikva: Like, why not? It's great to have someone willing to work for free for seven years for room and board. Who wouldn't want someone to work for them for seven years with that kind of dedication?

Beth: The thing is, if Lavan is essentially just greedy and, you know, he wants free labor, he's trying to get as rich as he can, it's strange to me that he's so fond of Yaakov as a potential son-in-law. Because most potential son-in-laws, you know, they would offer a dowry. That’s what we saw in Parshat Chayei Sara, in the story of Eved Avraham, you know, Avraham’s servant who comes to the family seeking a wife for Isaac, and he brings a whole parade of gifts, all of these riches, right, that he gives to the family. But Yaakov seemingly shows up without any of that. He's penniless. The only thing that he can give is his labor.

So, it just seems strange. If you're Lavan, and you're greedy, you're just trying to get rich fast, that's really your fundamental care, then why is it better that I give her to you? Why are you, Yaakov, such a great candidate? You know, you'd think he'd be shutting the door in his face and waiting for someone more fitting to show up. What is so desirable about Yaakov?

Tikva: That’s really interesting. Once you raise the question, and with everything we saw, it makes me wonder if there's more going on.

Beth: Can you say more about that?

Tikva: Well from this lens, part of that desirability is actually that he is penniless and destitute and needs a home. Like, he's finding a way to hold onto Yaakov to make sure Yaakov is kind of being integrated into his family rather than taking his daughter away from him. 

Beth: Exactly. When you read the story that way, with Lavan as this controlling father who has trouble letting his daughters go, who's not able to respect the boundary that's supposed to exist in their relationship, then not only does it explain why Jacob is called Lavan's bone and flesh and why Jacob is better than some other, richer guy, but it also changes the way we understand what I think is arguably the craziest part of the Lavan story, the whole deceit thing with the wedding. Why did Lavan trick Yaakov and set him up to marry Leah first? 

Most people think it's just Lavan trying to extort Yaakov — you know, another seven years of free labor. But maybe it was Lavan’s sneaky way of getting Jacob to stick around, and in doing so, getting the daughters to stick around so they would never leave him, because he's a parent who doesn't know how to let go.

Tikva: Even the fact that he would marry his two daughters off to one man sort of keeps everything in the family, and maybe allows it to be — you know, he can kind of control the situation more easily than if they're married to two separate men. Like two different families he has to try to manipulate. So it feels like, in a lot of different ways, he's just trying to keep everyone close.

Musical Interlude

Beth: And it doesn’t stop there. If you look ahead in the Lavan story, I think you see this same theme rearing its head again. After the first seven years of work, and the second seven years of work, Jacob decides he doesn't want to live with Lavan anymore, and he tells Lavan that he wants to go, and Lavan's response is really interesting. He says: נָקְבָה שְׂכָרְךָ עָלַי וְאֶתֵּנָה — Tell me what wage I can pay you, so you'll stick around (Genesis 30:28). Which, by the way, is what Lavan said the first time he met Jacob and wanted him to stick around. Now, at first, Jacob resists, and he says something about how he worked enough already for Lavan. In fact, he made Lavan wealthy, and now it's time for Jacob to strike out on his own and make his own wealth, to build up a nest egg for his family. But Lavan keeps pushing: מָה אֶתֶּן-לָךְ — Come on, what do you want me to give you? And that second time, if you look at the language, Lavan isn't talking anymore about schar, about paying Jacob a wage. He's willing to give Jacob equity, to make him a partner in the business. “Here, these sheep are yours, you keep the profits.” And it works. Lavan ends up enticing him. Jacob doesn't leave that day — he doesn't leave for another six years. I don't think it's such a stretch to read this as a story about Lavan playing on Jacob's concerns about wanting to provide for his family, manipulating him and the daughters into staying yet again. He just keeps on doing everything he can, often in a sneaky way, often with not so many words, to keep his daughters and his son-in-law close.

Tikva: Right. It's funny, he's like physically trying to keep them close, but he's doing everything in an emotional, relationship way to create distance between them. Because he is sneaky. Like, you don't know who he is. It feels very hard. How can anyone be close to him? It's very hard to take anything he says at face value. And yet, he seems so desperate for closeness and for connection. 

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Beth: This is exciting because we are ready to shift from question mode to answer mode. We've been accumulating this long list of questions, starting with the questions about the meaning behind niddah. And then that led us to the story about Rachel's period and the weird language of Jacob's sleeping niddah. And we wondered what that story could possibly have to teach us about the legal separation between husbands and wives. 

And then, we took a closer look at that story, and we noticed all kinds of really strange things with Lavan's behavior and raised some new questions. So our question list is really quite long. We're about to go through the list and answer each one, and you will see how it is that this story from the book of Genesis illuminates the whole topic of niddah in a very surprising way. So come with me back to chapter 31. What's at stake is finding meaning that's real and satisfying and compelling in the mitzvah of niddah.

Musical Interlude  

Tikva: I just want to say, Beth, this is fascinating. Like, you're laying out all these different pieces, and I understand why we went to this story. I'm not lost in any way. But it just feels like there are these questions just piling up. It's like dominoes — right now, it feels like dominoes. Like, we have each one of our dominoes set up, and I'm just waiting for that piece that's going to make them all click and, you know, tumble together in a good way. 

Musical Interlude

Beth: I'm just going to tell the kind folks who are listening with us, you've reached the end of part one, but don't worry. By the time you all are listening to this, in the future — well, your present, but in our future, part two will be sitting in your feed. That's right, keep on listening with us. You're almost there, and it's about to get good. At least, I think it's about to get good, so stick around.

Tikva: It’s been good, Beth.

Beth: It's been good. It's about to get really good.