Often, it’s the little words which do the damage. Or it’s the words not said, like the unspoken ‘but’ after an insincere ‘I love you’. It’s absent in the semantics but all too evident in the intonation, undermining what’s being professed, hurting the hearer to the heart.
It’s with words that we do most of our wounding, – and blessing. That’s partly why the rabbis who studied the Hebrew Bible discounted not one word, ignoring not a single syllable or even a seemingly superfluous letter. It all had to have meaning. Rabbi Akiva was famous for interpreting every particle, every ‘and’ and ‘also’ in the Torah.
There’s a challenging example in these week’s portion. Jacob has just been deceived by his father-in-law Laban into marrying Leah, when it is her younger sister Rachel with whom he is in love. Now, just one week later, Laban ‘gives’ him the latter too in marriage:
And Jacob slept also with Rachel and loved also Rachel than Leah (Genesis 29:30)
That second ‘also’ – it comes twice in six words – is like the laceration of Leah’s wound. That she knows to her core that she isn’t loved is apparent from the name she gives her first son, whom she calls Re’u-ven, ‘Look, a son’, saying, ‘For God has seen my affliction and now my husband will love me’. Thus, the innocent baby imbibes with his first milk the life-long burden of being the son of the one who wasn’t loved.
One wonders: with whom would Leah be most angry, her father, her husband, her hapless, no less wounded sister? Which one of them has betrayed her most? (Yet she still manages to be sister, wife, and eventually mother of six sons and a daughter.)
Leah’s poignant cry, ‘Surely now he’ll love me’, has ached in countless hearts in every generation. It still does.
Decades later, children carry the wounds of homes where love went wrong. Sometimes it’s the after-shock of homes full of violent anger; sometimes it’s the cold absence of affection; sometimes it’s contempt; sometimes it’s abuse, made even worse if others knew but turned a blind eye.
These are hurts which damage not just the body but the soul. They invade a child’s, a woman’s, a person’s, sense of self-respect. They attack the essential inner feeling of being lovable, worthy of another’s love. They penetrate into places to which it is extremely hard to bring healing. Even the memory of such afflictions may be deeply, overwhelmingly humiliating.
Maybe that is, partly, what leads many women to suffer in silence verbal contempt, emotional belittling and bullying, physical violence, threats to their very lives. Sometimes, even amidst the cruelty, the hope in Leah’s desperate words still echoes in the heart, ‘Maybe now he’ll love me???’
Jewish Women’s Aid, similar organisations in other faiths, and national agencies are calling on us not to ignore such suffering. If we glimpse such cruelty within ourselves, we must take ourselves to therapy. If there are victims within our families, or among those we know, we need to think carefully, and maybe seek confidential advice, about how to help. What we must not do is condone; that aligns us with the perpetrator.
We have seen in the Jimmy Saville scandal, and many since, (not exactly the same issue, but closely connected) is not only that there are people whose behaviour is vile, but that there are far more who turn a blind eye, as if the prevailing culture considered it ‘OK’ to treat women, and children, in such ways. It is most definitely not OK.
Leah, we are told, has einayim racot; a kind translation would be that her eyes are ‘gentle’ but the usual rendition is that they are ‘weak’. Maybe, though, the true weakness resides in the eyes of those around her, and all those since, who look but refuse to see.
Jewish Women’s Aid, is the only specialist organisation in the UK supporting Jewish women and children affected by domestic abuse. Their free phone confidential helpline is 0808 801 0500