In an article for Vayeitzei 5774, Rabbi Cherki presents a novel idea for the relationship among the maidservants of the Matriarchs.
Bilhah and Zilpah first appear in Jewish history as the slaves of Rachel and Leah. From the point of view of the etymology, the word “shifchah” – female slave – is related to the word “nispach” – something that is secondary to a more important person or object. Throughout the Torah, women slaves appear close to a major woman who is an important figure.
It seems likely that the slaves served as teachers for the Matriarchs. The Torah tells us that the name of Rebecca’s wet nurse was Deborah (Genesis 35:8). The Torah shows her great respect in that it mentions her death but not that of Rebecca, who died on the same day, according to the sages. The reason is that Deborah was the source of Rebecca’s piety and personality. Deborah is named for the bee which makes honey, and she is a wet nurse who provides milk. Milk and honey remind us of mystic secrets, in that they have been transformed from blood and impure material into pure foods.
And this also illustrates the role that Deborah played – to remove the pure soul of Rebecca from the house of Bethuel. The same is true of Bilhah and Zilpah, who taught and looked out for Rachel and Leah. That is how we should remember the hidden influence of the slaves.
There was another person in Abraham’s family who seems at first glance to be a minor character but who was evidently responsible for educating Sarah. This was her sister Milcah, about whom it is written, “Behold, Milcah has also borne children to your brother Nahor” [Genesis 22:20]. The root of the name Milcah is related to “lehimalech” – to give advice. We can conclude that in Abraham’s family there was a hidden dynasty of female slaves whose task was to educate the Matriarchs.
We can see a hint of the backgrounds of Bilhah and Zilpah at the end of this week’s Torah portion. “And Laban declared and said to Jacob: the daughters are my daughters…” [31:43]. The sages understood from this that Bilhah and Zilpah were also Laban’s daughters, from a second wife.
In the apocryphal book “The Will of Naftaly” it is written that the mother of Bilhah and Zilpah was named “Chavah” and their father was “Achoti.” The parents of Bilhah and Zilpah are reminiscent of the first couple, Adam and Chavah (Eve). The mother’s name is the same, while the father’s name, Achoti (“my sister”) is a hint of the trait of wisdom, which Adam lost after the sin.
“The Will of Naftaly” adds more details about the family of these slaves. Achoti’s sister was Deborah, Rebecca’s wet nurse, and the father of Achoti and Deborah was Utz, the firstborn son of Nahor and Milcah. Thus, all of these slaves – Milcah, Deborah, Bilhah, and Zilpah – were members of a single branch of Nahor’s family. And the name “Utz” is related to the concept of giving advice. Wisdom and understanding (as hinted by the names Chavah and Achoti) were influenced by the Master of the Universe.
Thus, we have encountered four important figures in the family of Nahor:
(1) Chavah – She is a symbol of understanding (“He gave the woman extra understanding” – Nida 45).
(2) Achoti – A symbol of wisdom (“Tell wisdom, you are my sister” [Proverbs 7:4]).
(3) Utz – The root of desire, a deep influence on wisdom and understanding.
(4) Deborah – A bee, which sweetens justice, and draws out purity from the impure.
Source: “AS SHABBAT APPROACHES” – a biweekly column in Shabbat B’Shabbato, Vayeitzei 5774, Volume 1498. (Zomet Institute) See: www.zomet.org.il/eng