The Gemara in Eruvin 100b lists the ten curses placed on women as a result of Chava’s role in the chet etz hada’as. One of the best treatments I’ve seen on the topic is "The Ten Curses of Eve (an unpublishable article on women in Judaism)" on Berel Lerner’s Jewish Bible Blog.
I’m going to concern myself with curse #8: what we call tznius, or according to the Gemara, “…that she stays in the home and does not show herself in public like a man.” There are strong indicators in each of the next three parshiyot that indicate three things about contemporary discussions of tznius, inside and outside the bes medrash:
One, that the popular, go-to translation, “modesty”, might be incomplete, particularly when the focus becomes visual and/or sartorial;
Two, that, in line with Eruvin 100b, it is truly is more of a curse than a desideratum; and,
Three, there is such a thing as “too much” tznius, Rabbi Pesach Falk’s assertion that “What Torah Does For Men, Tznius Does For Women” (chapter title in his “Oz Vehadar Levusha: A Blueprint for Modesty”) notwithstanding.
Before I delve into the relevant passages in the parsha, I will be upfront about what my aim in “attacking” tznius (which, I don’t think I’m really doing, but since I will definitely be giving that perception, I will have to deal with it) by putting it this way:
If Kol Kevuda de-Bas Melech Penima...
...nowadays the Benos Melech have been mochlos said kavod.
In any case, the story in question in Vayetzei which deals directly with my first issue--mistranslation—-is the Gemara in Baba Basra which deals with how becuase Rachel Imenu allowed Leah to marry Yaacov first, Hashem listened to Rachel and said, “Ki yesh sachar li’f’ulaseich v’shavu vanim l’gvulam”-- the Jewish people will indeed go back to Eretz Yisrael. The gemara even refers to this specifically as Rachel’s act of “tznius”. What kind of tsnius is this? Rabbi Usher Laifer, Yeshiva Gedolah of Greater Washington, provides what one might call a “classical” explanation:
“Rachel, when she gave the simanim to Leah, performed an act of tznius- an act of treating something special (Klal Yisroel) with the utmost respect. Regarding our physical bodies the manifestation of tznius is covering and clothing it; regarding the formation and foundation of Klal Yisrael, the manifestation of tznius is by making sure it starts “Al Taharas Hakodesh”- totally and absolutely pure- that not one ounce of hurt or bad can be found in its formation and creation. Thus the Gemarah describes Rachel’s deed as one of tznius.”
I have a different explanation, from someone who has requested anonymity, which I think might be more realistic, in light of how the Gemara and midrashim detail the events of that night.
First, the ostensibly earth shattering assertion from said anonymous source: Rachel was afraid that if she married Yaacov first, her father would rape Leah. (Which, to be blunt, seems to be a better way to explain “achshav techalem achosi” than mere embarrassment.)
I haven’t found a direct corroboration for this, but I have found a strong correlational source: the medrash that says that Besuel was killed by an angel the night before Rivkah was to leave with Eliezer for her marriage with Yitzchak because he intended to carry out his “droit de signeur”, or right to have a virgin before her intended did. Even--or especially--his own daughter. (Indeed, his very name, “Besu-El”, could be translated as “Lord of Virginity”.) In Lavan’s case, it seems that in the end his material greed got the better of his carnal inclinations, but in light of ma’aseh avos siman lebanim, Rachel couldn’t have been sure about that.
Additionally, might not Yaccov’s wedding to Leah could have been a mekach ta’us (Rav Aharon Kotler’s maaleh min hateva explanation notwithstanding)? Might Rachel have "blackmailed" Yaacov to stay married to Leah (if Yaakov didn't feel compelled already to stay married to Leah for Lavan to allow him to marry Rachel?)
So what was the “tznius”? It seems that the details of this entire affair hardly resemble the "classic" (mis?)-conception of tznius. Indeed, as the gemara and Medrash Eicha details, during the wedding night, Rachel was under the bed doing all the talking while Yaacov was with Leah. (Hardly the most "tzniusdik" approach to tznius.)
Rather, a further definition of “tznius” should include:
Or, more specifically, when one must keep a secret—and when one must not.
When One Must Keep A Secret: Yaacov and Rachel’s “simanim”.
When One Must Not: Rachel giving the simanim to Leah, knowing the possible result of Rachel marrying first.
When One Must Keep A Secret: Rachel not letting on to Yaacov her suspicions….
When One Must Not: …until she could ascertain that Leah’s wedding was a fait accompli. (Here, the more standard explanation of “techalem achosi” would make more sense.)
When One Must Keep A Secret: Rachel and Leah never letting on to what really happened under the bed.
When One Must Not: Leah never letting on to how Rachel was in on it, because when Yaacov calls her “Deceiever, daughter of a deceiver!!!”, Leah doesn’t give up Rachel, but instead comes back with her pot-kettle-black retort: “And what about the brachos?”
We see, from all this, that the real “tznius” involved a delicate operation on Rachel’s part involving what to tell and not to tell, what needed to be “covered up” and what didn’t, and for her to suspend her very strong personal feeling in the process, which is probably why the midrashim elevate this “tznius” to the highest level, because discretion was definitely the better part of valor. Usually, getting discretion to be the better part of discretion is hard enough.