Brothers: Wrestling or Embracing?

Our story about the twin brothers who became mortal enemies continues. Of course, we know they are enemies partially due to their family dysfunction.

This week, Ya’akov (Jacob) and his twin, Esav (Esau), are destined to meet each other after many years apart. The fabulous writer and novelist Dara Horn is the narrator for G-dcast this week, and her reading of the meeting of the twins presents us with core questions: how are our identities linked to our names? how are our relationships with our closest loved ones? how does God work in our lives? and what does this text want us to learn from the enigmatic story of the wrestling match at the Yabok River?

Just in case it isn’t obvious, this motley tribe descended from Avraham and Sarah is known as The Children of Israel. And since there was no place yet named Israel, we learn that we are the children of the man called “Yisrael/Israel;” that is the new name Ya’akov receives after his midnight wrestling at the river. He is given a new name by the being he wrestled with. YISRA-EL. “…for you have striven with beings divine and human and have prevailed” (Genesis 32 verse 29). The scientific etymology of the word Yisrael is unclear, but the folk etymology stuck, perhaps because the people descended from Ya’akov liked to think of themselves as “God-wrestlers.” Isn’t that what Jews are often known for even today? Arguing and wrestling with the meanings of the text, trying with all their might to figure out what the text is saying and what it wants us to take away as a lesson?

This dramatic passage of the midnight encounter bears a close reading. I invite you to read the 10 verses (Genesis 32: 23-33) as you would a poem, wrestling with the meaning. What are we supposed to make of this mysterious nighttime encounter? Ya’akov is tired and scared. He sends his wives and children and servants across the Yabok River (doesn’t that sound very much like his name?). “He is left alone and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn” (verse 25). Is Ya’akov dreaming? Who is this man he wrestles with?

Dara Horn gives us a few ideas: he is wrestling with his conscience, he is wrestling with an angel, he is wrestling with his twin brother, Esav. Can you think of other possibilities? Could he be wrestling with the various parts of himself, his very character? Does the setting of midnight at a river provide you with hints that this is more than just an encounter with another human being? When you see two people in a wrestling hold, can you imagine that they are actually locked in an embrace? What do wrestling and embracing have in common?

Questions, questions, questions…. and no definitive answers.

And then the denouement, in verse 31: “I have seen a divine being face to face yet my life has been preserved.” Ya’akov finally meets his real life twin brother, Esav, in Chapter 33, and they reconcile. And we hear an echo, Ya’akov once again says something similar about having seen God: “No, I pray you; if you would do me this favor, accept from me this gift; for to see your face is like seeing the face of God, and you have received me favorably” (verse 10). With this utterance, Ya’akov creates a standard for an I-Thou relationship, so well described by Martin Buber, centuries later.

A couple of other interesting tidbits in this parasha:

  1. Isaac/Yitzhak finally dies in chapter 35 verses 28-29. Wow… we thought he was supposed to die way back, years ago, when he asked Esav to bring him some stew made from wild game, so that he could bless Esav before dying! And notice that when Yitzhak, the second patriarch, dies, BOTH twin brothers bury him. No longer enemies, their last act as brothers is to bury their father. Anything like that ever happen in your family?
  2. There are 3 stories of women embedded in this parasha:
    • The longest and most disturbing is the rape of Dinah, Ya’akov’s daughter. Rabbi Laura Geller has written a compassionate drash (interpretation) about the tragedy of Dinah, linking her rape with violence against women today.
    • The other two stories are much shorter; one is only one sentence long, but mysterious for what is NOT said, in chapter 35 verse 8: “Deborah, Rebecca/Rivka’s nurse, died, and was buried under the oak below Bet-el, and so was named Allon-Bachut.” Really? Rivka’s nurse? What about Rivka herself? We read nothing of her death and burial. How could such an important, lively and perspicacious woman as our second matriarch die without a mention? And anyway, why is her nursemaid, Deborah/D’vora, called out in this way?
    • And finally, the death of our beloved matriarch Rachel, in chapter 35 verses 16-20…. The poignancy of her dying in childbirth, on her journey back home, is heart-wrenching and filled with pathos. Verses 19-20: “Thus Rahel died. She was buried on the road to Efrat — now Bethlehem. Over her grave Ya’akov set up a pillar; it is the pillar at Rahel’s grave to this day.”

Last question: when the Bible says, “to this day,” what do you think it signifies?

“And He Went Out”

“And he went out” are the opening words of the parasha this week, continuing our cliffhanger from the end of last week’s portion when Ya’akov /Jacob fled his home to avoid incurring his twin brother’s murderous wrath. If I were reading this story for the first time, I sure would be mighty curious to see what happens to this guy, who cheated his brother from getting the blessing of the first born son, and who stoops to deceiving his old blind father — at the behest of his mother. Talk about dysfunctional family dynamics!!

After fleeing home, the first night Ya’acov beds down by the side of the road, and uses a stone for a pillow. Seems like when you use a stone for a pillow you have very strange dreams. Ya’acov dreams of a ladder that has angels going up and down on it. (This is where we get the expression, Jacob’s Ladder.) He has a vision that God speaks to him (Genesis 28, verses 13-16). Ya’acov hears the same promise that was already made to his father and to his grandfather. When he wakes up in the morning, he realizes that this spot is special, even holy, and he says: “Indeed [or WOW!] the Lord is in this place, and I, I did not know.” Rabbi Larry Kushner wrote an entire book on how different commentators throughout history have interpreted this one little sentence.

Ya’acov then creates an altar to consecrate the spot and utters a very puzzling vow to the Lord — kind of a conditional vow — giving us another bit of insight into his character. He is looking more and more like a kind of schemer, wheeler-dealer type, which will develop further in later chapters. Then, he “lifts up his feet” and continues on his journey, like a man with a mission.

When he gets to his destination (his mother’s home town,) he sees a watering hole, a well, where the sheep are given water, and he begins a conversation with the local guys. If meeting at the well reminds you of something, you are correct in remembering that Ya’akov’s mother, Rebecca/Rivka, met the servant who would bring her to her husband at a similar well. The well is kind of like the office water cooler, or maybe like the after-work local bar. Serendipity is at play, and it’s easy for boy-meets-girl kinds of things to happen. In fact, there are other boy-meets-girl scenes in the Bible — they are called “type-scenes” by Robert Alter in his illuminating book, The Art of Biblical Narrative. Here’s the thing: our Torah was once an oral tradition. The storytellers wanted to keep the attention of the audience and there’s nothing like a “meet-cute” romantic touch to please the listeners.

It turns out that a cousin of Ya’akov is approaching: she is none other than the beautiful Rachel! Ya’akov summons up all his strength. He rolls the heavy rock from the mouth of the well, waters her sheep, kisses her, cries (out of relief??), and then gets invited home to meet his uncle, Laban, his own mother’s brother.

The conversation between uncle and nephew (Genesis 29, verses 14-28) is a gem. These two seem like they “speak each other’s language” in that they both like making deals and have more than a touch of deceit in their make-up. You probably can guess by now, if you’re unfamiliar with this story, that Ya’acov is head-over-heels in love with Rachel and wants to marry her, and Laban agrees, but, ultimately, he out-schemes our schemer, Ya’acov. Read what happens on the wedding night! (And by the way, the narrator has told us, way back in verse 17, that Rachel has an older sister…. hmmmm, older sister…. not so subtle a reminder of Ya’acov’s older brother?)

Another hint drops into our story: a hint to uncle Laban’s character. His name means “white,” but once we see his manipulations on the wedding night, we understand that calling him “white” is just a polite way of saying he’s the bad-guy twisting his moustache and wearing the black hat… The no-goodnik who is, at his most basic, a liar and deceiver.

And so we are introduced to the 3rd generation of our foremothers and forefathers, with all of their personality flaws as well as their good features. Ya’akov ends up marrying two sisters, Rachel and Leah, and gets two more concubines (Zilpah and Bilhah) in the deal. These four women give birth to the sons who will become the Twelve Tribes of Israel, and let’s not forget the one daughter mentioned, Dinah, who has her own story. This week’s g-dcast tells us about the birthing competition in some detail:

What I love about this parasha is how many echoes of personality traits as well as verbal expressions we are given by the narrator. These days we know how genetics determines so much about who we are, what talents we have, what diseases we might inherit, how we present ourselves to the world, how we articulate, and how we think. Back then, when these stories were written, we learn that their authors recognized the same genetics at work. They might not have the language of science to label these phenomena “genetic,” but surely, as seen in this parasha, they showed us how history repeats itself in the different generations of the same family.

To consider:

  • What do you notice about your choice of profession, or a particular hobby or interest, that is the same as others in your family?
  • Why do you suppose the Biblical forefathers and foremothers are represented with their faults as well as their virtues?

This Family Is Headed For Trouble!

When I sat down to write about Toldot, my husband said, “This is one of your favorite parshiot (plural of parasha – portion), isn’t it?” I laughed and said, “Yeah, it definitely ranks right up there with the best.” So, why do I like it so much?

Well, for starters, the family trauma-drama continues: We see what happens to our plucky heroine, Rebecca, after being married to Yitzhak/Isaac for 10 years, but still not blessed with children. Then she gets pregnant — with twins, no less!! She has a difficult pregnancy (having no clue that she is carrying twins). She is far from her own home, perhaps with no kinswomen to consult with, and decides to “inquire of the Lord” (Genesis 25: 22-23). The Lord tells her she is carrying the progenitors of two nations, given in the form of an oracular poem — terse and mysterious.

She gives birth to twins who look, and, later, behave, very differently. The eldest is called Esav (Esau) and the younger is called Ya’akov (Jacob). The descriptions of them in verses 25-28 tell us how different they are, but with no judgment. Many hundreds of years after the Bible was written, when the Jews were defeated, exiled, and subjugated by the Romans (in the first centuries of the common era), the rabbis of the Talmud did make judgments about Esav and Ya’akov and in fact, called Esav “wicked.” This week’s G-dcast narrator uses that midrashic interpretation. Check it out:

However, what I find the most illuminating in these verses is notT later interpretation but the actual Torah text as we have it right here. We read just a few words that provide remarkable insight into the family dynamic. Verse 28:

And Yitzhak/Isaac loved Esau for the game (meat) that he had brought him, but Rebecca loved Ya’akov/Jacob.

What jumps out at you?

I see a strong hint of major family dysfunction. Dad loves one twin because of what that twin does for him (this child brings his dad tasty wild game) while Mom loves the other twin (for no apparent reason, or at least we aren’t told)! We have all heard about unconditional love that parents are supposed to have for all of their children; we know the pitfalls of preferring one child more than the other. It is almost as if the author of this narrative is holding up a bright neon sign saying: WATCH OUT FOLKS, THIS FAMILY IS HEADED FOR TROUBLE WITH A CAPITAL “T.”

Let’s remember, Rebecca is the one who has heard the oracular pronouncement concerning who she will give birth to, and what will become of these twins. Does Yitzhak/Isaac know what Rebecca knows? What do you think? The text doesn’t say one way or the other. And let’s also remember that Yitzhak/Isaac may have suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome after his near-sacrifice and might not have been sensitive to nuance.

This parasha also has the famous story of Esav selling his birthright for a pot full of “red-red stuff” (probably lentil stew). We read about God appearing to Isaac, repeating the promise given to Abraham…. plus a bunch of other juicy tidbits, but I am saving the best for last.

Chapter 27 is one of the most well crafted stories in all of Torah. Some of the lines are actually famous even today, and used as metaphors: “the voice is the voice of Jacob and hands are the hands of Esav…” (verse 23).

I invite you to think of this chapter as a one-act stage play with 7 scenes, some longer than others. In each scene (except for one) there are 2 characters on the “stage” in dialog with each other. Other characters lurk, but we don’t actually see them on the “stage.” The characters appearing are: Yitzhak, Rebecca, Esav, and Ya’akov.

Consider:

  • Can you identify the “scenes” and who is talking to whom?
  • What do the characters say to each other?
  • What is the secret?
  • Who is in on the secret?
  • Why the subterfuge?
  • What happens in families when crucial secrets are shared between parent and child but kept from the other spouse?

In verse 35 we get the most poignant and pitiful cry of any in all of Torah. The twin whom dad loves the best has been cheated of the blessing of the first-born son; his younger twin brother (Ya’akov) came and pretended that he was the eldest! Now the deed has been done and Esav cries out with a “great and very bitter outcry, and he said to his father, ‘Bless me too, Father.’” Doesn’t this just break your heart?

Sarah’s Life and Rebecca’s Voice

Our parasha opens with the words, “The span of Sarah’s lifetime was…” indicating that Sarah, our first foremother, wife of Abraham and mother of Yitzhak, has died. We can know this only because now we can count her days. It is a statement filled with irony and sadness, because the text focuses on her death and burial, while using the words, “Sarah’s life(span).”

As one generation passes, the story continues with the next generation. Some early rabbinic commentators tell us that Sarah died when she heard the false rumor that her husband had sacrificed her beloved son — upon hearing this news, she had a heart attack from extreme grief. (Abraham had no instant messaging or updates on his Facebook status to let folks know something like “Trip to Mt. Moriah went well — sacrificed a ram instead of our son.”

Whatever the reason for her death, this parasha moves on to a narrative of new beginnings and romance, and provides a rich portrait of the second of our foremothers, Rebecca/Rivka. The g-dcast cartoon this week focuses on this story line. Watch it here:

The g-dcast storyteller in this episode gives us the plotline of how Abraham’s servant travels back to Abraham’s native land, in Aram Naharyim, to find a suitable wife for his son, Yitzhak/Isaac. (By the way, Yitzhak is the only one of the 3 forefathers who never leaves the Land of Canaan/the promised land/what becomes the Land of Israel.)

The g-dcast cartoon includes a traditional commentary which says that Rebecca/Rivka was only 3 years old when she performed the prodigious act of watering the caravan of 10 camels that came with Abraham’s servant and his retinue. Hmmm… Watering the camels is already quite a feat of prowess and strength (see Genesis chapter 24, verses 16, 18-20). Robert Alter (a UC Berkeley professor who writes and lectures on the bible) calls it the closest thing to a “feat of Homeric heroism…” in Genesis. She is, in Alter’s words, “a continuous whirl of purposeful activity. In 4 short verses she is the subject of eleven verbs of action and one of speech…”

While this sounds like the dervish-like activity of a hyper-active toddler, I don’t think she was a baby. Rather, I think the servant saw a beautiful teenager, “very comely to look at, a virgin…” (verse 16). She also was extremely kind, intuitive, resourceful, independent, gregarious and eager for adventure. Read the description of what she says (she has a voice!! amazing for a women in the Bible!!) in verses 57-61 when her kinsmen ask her if she wants to accept the generous offer to marry Yitzhak, the son of their relative, Abraham. The qualities just listed make Rivka a perfect choice for a marriage partner for Yitzhak, who, after his trauma of being almost slaughtered on an altar by his father, likely suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome his entire life. He also seems to have been the more passive partner in this marriage.

When I read a commentary that just feels wrong, I feel perfectly OK disregarding the commentator’s interpretation and replacing it with my own, as long as it fits with the text. I want and need to be loyal to the text, and not distort it with some off-the-wall commentary just because it better suits my world-view.

The text belongs to all of us, and we can “turn it and turn it, because everything is in it” (Mishnah Avot 5:25).

Let’s end with a poem by Reba Connell on what happens when Rivka first sees Yitzhak, taking off on (Genesis chapter 24:64:

Rivkah’s Voice by Reba Connell
“And Rivkah lifted up her eyes and saw Yitzhak and fell off the camel.” — Genesis 24:64

she rises that morning
like every morning
to walk in the early light
and bring water from the well

among the dusty goats
she walks to the well
the sun hangs low in the sky
she squints in its glare
heavy jug on slight shoulder

as she lowers her jug
the waters see her
and immediately rise up
she does not hear the other maidens
whispering in surprise

the water flows uninterrupted
her jar has no bottom
she does not see the man or his camels
even as she rushes back and forth

all is the flowing water
the bright sun
and the voice surrounding her

rivkah
you will be a sign to your descendants
because the waters rose to you
your sister of the future yet-to-be
miriam, will bring a well with her
for the thirsty children in the desert

the voice that says: elech, I will go
is both her own
and the same voice that said lech l’chah to avram

she follows the voice
her own and not her own
to the new land

for that voice
she will abandon family
land, birthplace
even her well

the voice speaks to her
the whole journey

when she sees a strange man
the voice says
your descendants will remember him
not you
you will love me as you do now
and follow my commandments
but it will not be written

she falls off the camel

It’s Complicated

The name of each week’s parasha is typically the first Hebrew word of that grouping of chapters.  This week’s parasha, VA-YERA/And He Appeared, tells multiple stories about Abraham and his family. In 5 short chapters a lot of stories are offered. Here’s the run-down:

Chapter 18:  TWO very fascinating sagas. Story #1: Abraham hears from some visiting angels that he and Sarah will conceive a child even at their advanced old age; Sarah will give birth to Isaac/Yitzhak (whose name “he will laugh” was suggested by God in last week’s parasha). Story #2: God tells Abe that the city of S’dom will be utterly destroyed because its “sin is so grave” (Chapter 18 verse 17-25).  At the end of this we read how Abraham bargains with God to save S’dom (Sodom).

Chapter 19:  The destruction of S’dom and Gemorrah with all the evil-doing exposed. How Lot and his family are saved; how Lot’s wife turns into the famous pillar of salt (chapter 19 verses 15-26); how Lot’s daughters think the end of the world has come so get their father drunk, have sex with him, and each becomes pregnant (to keep the world’s population going).

Chapter 20: Abraham and Sarah travel south, meet up with the King of Gerar; Abraham again passes Sarah off as his sister, rather than his wife, causing major troubles for the King of Gerar AND Abraham.  The plot thickens!

Chapter 21:  Sarah gives birth to a baby boy, Yitzhak.  He is weaned, grows into a little boy.  One day, Sarah sees him “playing” (same Hebrew root word as his actual name) with his older brother Yishma’el, (the son of Hagar, the maidservant) and Sarah doesn’t like what she sees.  She tells Abraham to banish Hagar the teenager Yishma’el once and for all and they are expelled to the desert.

Watch the g-dcast episode and find out what Hagar, the Egyptian maidservant sees when she is completely distraught and fears for her son’s life (read the story in chapter 21 verse 9-21).

Many people think of Abraham as SEEING things that others did not and could not (see last week’s blog for link to Martin Buber essay, Abraham The Seer.)  This week, it is Hagar who SEES things others might have missed.

Finally, in Chapter 22 we come to a story that is at the top of my list of the most disturbing episodes in all of Torah, referred to as the Akedah/The Binding (chapter 22). This is when Abraham hears God’s command to sacrifice his son, Yitzhak, as a burnt offering. It is complicated from so many different angles and it seems to me that this saga has disturbed all who read it, back from the time that the story was born. Evidence of this goes back to the earliest midrashim/legends that comment on the story of the Akedah. The early rabbinic commentators (from the year 200 CE) frame the story as a “test” God gives Abraham. They posit that there were 10 “tests” in all and the Akedah was one of them.  A fascinating way of looking at this idea that the Akedah is a “test” is offered by Bible professor, Dr. David Marcus of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Professor Marcus introduces the literary idea of “prolepsis” also known in literature as “foreshadowing.” The idea is that somehow, we, the reader, know that this horrendous thing God requests is “just a test.” It’s kind of like the new Ben Affleck movie, Argo, the story of the rescue of U.S. hostages in Iran in 1979. Even though we know that the hostages will eventually be rescued, while we are watching the movie, we are swept away by the frightening situation and remain riveted, sitting at the edges of our seats.

But back to Genesis: yes, it’s true, we know that Abraham will pass the test of the Akedah and that in the end, he will sacrifice a ram instead of his beloved son and that everything will turn out OK. But still, we can’t help but think….

And now for some art:

  • 20th century Israeli poet Amir Gilboa’s poem Yitzhak
  • Jan Victor’s painting of the Expulsion of Hagar:

    (If you like looking at the way painters have imagined these scenes from parashat VA-YERA for the past 500 years, surf the net to find many examples!)

To consider:

  1. Why does any great leader need to be “tested”?
  2. What “tests” have you experienced as enormous challenges that you “passed” at great cost to yourself?  Or, do you think these kinds of character tests are important to build character strength?