One of the most wonderful and edifying benefits of biblical exegesis is seeing how everything ties together, making the Torah a connecting theory of everything spiritual. And I’d like to take you through one of these journeys, because this stuff is too exciting for me not to share. So if you might have at least a passing interest, please dip a toe in!
The Hebrew words for Man and for Woman, each comprising three letters, have two letters in common. Those common letters spell the word aish, meaning “fire”. And each of the words for “man” and “woman” has an extra letter, which, combined, spell G-d’s name. The lesson is simple. G-d can exist in the union of man and woman, marrying and enveloping the fire of each. But when G-d is not in the union, there is only dangerous and capricious fire.
This is, of course, part of the language, but not necessarily part of our experiences. The Torah tells us the much more involved and interesting story of this development. Leah names her sons as follows (emphases added):
Reuben: G-d has seen my pain, so my husband will love me.
Simeon: G-d has heard that I am hated.
Levi: My husband will be joined to me, since I have born three sons.
Judah: I praise the Lord.
Issachar: G-d has paid me back, because I gave my handmaid to my husband.
The progressions are fascinating. Leah starts by seeing G-d as an external observer – who first sees, and then hears Leah. Leah then becomes more active in the relationship, praising the Lord. With Issachar, Leah has engaged in a commercial transaction with G-d, exchanging favors, and seeing G-d as a stand-in for her husband: she gave to her husband, and G-d pays her back.
Zevulun is the capper, Leah’s great triumph.
Zevulun: And Leah said: ‘God hath _______ me with a good _____; now will my husband zevul with me, because I have borne him six sons.’ And she called his name Zevulun.
I left the words above blank because it is a repetition of an extraordinary word – a word that is not found in the Torah anyplace else – not in the Five Books, nor (except as names) in any of the rest of the Torah canon. Though she could have merely said “G-d hath ____ me; now will my husband dwell with me.” the text does not say that. Instead there is an extra helping of the word: “with a good _____”: The double use of this mystery word signifies an extra degree of involvement, of connection.
What does it mean? Often translated as “endowment” or “dowry”, it is clearly a gift of some kind. Two of the three letters of the word are in common with two of the three letters in the word that forms Zevulun’s name, and the Jewish translators see a connection – translating the word as “apportion, give, deal, share, and dispense.” Citations. Leah, by declaring the intimate involvement of G-d in her marriage, claims reciprocity – that her husband now needs to be similarly intimately involved with her.
In trying to firm up the meaning of the mystery word, let’s look as well as the verb: what does it mean that Leah’s husband should “zevul” with her? The answer is found elsewhere in the Torah: King Solomon calls the Temple the “House of Zevul” – a house of habitation, or of dwelling. I have built Thee a house of habitation, and a place for Thee to dwell in for ever. (2 Chron. 6:2)
The place where G-d resides among the Jewish people is named after Leah’s sixth son. Why? Because Leah, through declaration, brought G-d completely into her marriage. The combination of man and woman in a marriage is the model for the combination of man and G-d in G-d’s House.
Leah points to this as well when she marks the importance of having six sons. The first instance in the Torah of the number six is the sixth day of creation: the completion of the entire world, with man and G-d coexisting within it. Leah is saying that, by having six sons, she has done something analogous to G-d’s creation of the entire world – something so very good, that when G-d finished it, He saw fit to rest and bless the world. Having six sons means that Leah expects Jacob to similarly rest with her in blessing.
Zevulun, of course, becomes one of the tribes of Israel. And his role reflects his name! Jacob blesses him:
Zevulun shall dwell at the shore of the sea, and [the shore] shall be a shore for ships, and his flank (yerech) shall be upon Sidon.
What is at the great port of Sidon? Trade. Commerce. The fusion of the sea and the sand, the active interchange of goods and people and ideas. Zevulun represents the same combination as is found in marriage: the meeting of, and trading between, different people.
Port cities are, of course, not usually lovely exemplars of humanity. Sailors are synonymous with salty language, and ports have historically been places where every manner of two legged and four-legged rat thrives. Which helps explain why the verse says, “his flank (yerech) shall be upon Sidon”.
This word yerech is a fascinating one. Avraham makes his servant swear by putting his hand “under Avraham’s yerech.” Jacob does the same thing to Yosef. And in the wrestling match with the angel, Jacob’s yerech is changed forever.
The word Yerech means “loins.” “And all the souls that came out of the yerech of Jacob were seventy souls.” (Ex 1:5) Yerech, then, is the place that emits seed, the font of biological procreative power.
But in a Jew, that place is circumcised! It is the only physical mark by which a Jew is distinguished from a non-Jew. Why? The circumcision is specifically to harness and focus our biological powers in the service of a relationship with G-d. A Jew’s yerech is a declaration: I am not an animal; my physicality is constrained to be godly. The yerech in itself is not important for what it is – it is important for what it can do – make children, in holiness. In other words, the yerech is the core symbol of a Jews’ holiness!
So when Avraham and Jacob make people swear critical oaths by holding his yerech, it is a symbolic connection to the most primal and basic aspect of a Jew’s connection with G-d – the very same place where a Jewish man intimately connects with his wife!
This is why Zevulun’s yerech is at Sidon. Just as we can take a part of our body that can easily be reduced to the most profane thing man can imagine (just look at how sailor’s descriptors of intimacy form the linguistic backbone of a gutter society) and make it holy, so, too Zevulun was charged with taking the great port of Sidon, and marking it with a Jewish imprimatur. In Judaism, everything can be sanctified – loins and ports alike.
Which helps us understand the other blessing for Zevulun, the one given by Moshe at the end of the Torah:
And of Zevulun he said: Rejoice, Zevulun, in thy going out, and, Issachar, in thy tents.
They shall call peoples unto the mountain; there shall they offer sacrifices of righteousness; for they shall suck the abundance of the seas, and the hidden treasures of the sand. (Deut. 33:18)
Zevulun rejoices in going out – he represents the port, after all, a place of constant comings and goings. This explains the blessing of connecting the seas and the sand – the fruits of the connection between adjacent but separate components – just like man and woman, Jew and non-Jew (at the Temple), as well as man and G-d. The poetry in the verse, seen in this light, comes alive.
And the mountain reference? The temple – Solomon’s home of zevul, of habitation with G-d. Zevulun provides the connectors. So Zevulun, with Sidon on his yerech, sanctifies business and commerce, connecting Israel with the world, bridging from the sea to G-d’s house, the Temple.
All of this helps explain why, after a Genesis text that refers to the descendants of Adam and Noah and Shem and Terach (Gen 5:9, 6:1, 11:10, 11:27 etc.) – and even the descendants of the heaven and earth (Gen. 2:4), the Torah does NOT refer to the descendants of Jacob.
Instead, Jacob’s descendants are described as
All the souls belonging to Jacob that came into Egypt, that came out of his loins (yerech), besides Jacob’s sons’ wives, all the souls were threescore and six. (Gen 46:26 and Ex. 1:5)
Unlike everyone who came before him (Avraham had 8 sons, but only Isaac inherited the legacy; Isaac had Jacob and Esau, and only Jacob continued), every single product of Jacob’s loins was sanctified, and was included in the family going forward.
Jacob’s offspring were not merely biological or natural products. They were the result of a sanctification that had heretofore not existed in the world, a family that, after enormous trials and tribulations, still stayed together, each person different from the next, but unified under a common standard.
This is the result, in part, of Leah’s great breakthrough, of the way she invited G-d into her marriage, and credited Him as the third full partner in her marriage to Jacob. By consecrating the physical act in this way, she helped to sanctify the connections of dualities in the world – man and woman, sea and land, man and G-d.
When Jacob’s family entered Egypt, they brought their own source of fecundity with them – their own yerech. This was a symbol of the spiritual and physical potency of the nation, capable of settling in Egypt, and still resisting marrying the natives. The Jewish people brought their own kind of vitality. As Pharaoh dreamed it in a fore-shadowing:
So Pharaoh spoke to Joseph, “In my dream, behold, I was standing on the bank of the Nile; and behold, seven cows, well-favoured and sleek came up out of the Nile, and they grazed in the marsh grass. “Lo, seven other cows came up after them, poor and ill-favored and lean fleshed, such as I had never seen for badness in all the land of Egypt; and the leand and ill-favored cows ate up the first seven fat cows. Yet when they had devoured them, it could not be detected that they had devoured them, for they were just as ill-favored as before.
Jacob’s family were indeed relatively poor and hungry, and, by Egyptian standards, not pretty. But they brought their own yerech with them, so that when the Jews came into Egypt and ate of the fat of the land, they remained distinct. Possessing their own constrained vitality, the Jewish people do not need to borrow so heavily from their surroundings that they necessarily assimilate. This is part of the legacy of the Jewish people.
When the nation of Israel sins with the golden calf, Moshe says,
‘Thus saith the LORD, the God of Israel: Put ye every man his sword upon his thigh (yerech), and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbour.’
The connection to yerech here means that the punishment cannot be capricious or random: it must be directed from and through the holiness of the Jewish people.
As befitting a marriage, there are risks when people turn astray. The word yerech is not very common in the Torah, so it is notable when it is found in the description of the woman who has been suspected of stepping out of her marriage. (Num: 5)
Then the priest shall cause the woman to swear with the oath of cursing, and the priest shall say unto the woman–the LORD make thee a curse and an oath among thy people, when the LORD doth make thy thigh (yerech) to fall away, and thy belly to swell;
Why does her yerech fall away? Because if she has been unfaithful, then she has defiled her yerech – she loses her relationship to her husband, to G-d, and to holiness. Her yerech is no longer holy, or even hers to keep, and it falls away.