The End of Genesis

We have gotten to the end of the book of Genesis, the book of Bereishit (Beginnings) — the beginnings of the world and of our people. This last parasha in Genesis is called Va-Yehi (And He Lived), commenting on the life of Ya’akov (Jacob) that we have been following for weeks. But just as the parasha Chayei Sarah (Sarah’s Lives) begins with the death of Sarah, so too here, Va-Yehi paints a picture of Ya’akov on his death-bed (even though we might have thought, from the title of And He Lived, that the parasha would be about his life, not his death).

There is also a curious puzzle in Va-Yehi that is captured by the very form in which the Hebrew letters are written in the scroll. The puzzle is why Ya’akov loses the prophecy he wanted to convey to his sons before he took his leave of this world. What happened to him that the prophecy just escaped from him so completely?

What exactly, is that form that echoes the mystery of the missing prophecy? Well, Ya’akov is “blocked,” somehow prevented from delivering a message of final redemption to his sons. And our parasha is also “blocked” or “closed off.” Very rarely in the Torah scroll we see something called a “closed parasha,” referring to the actual physical layout of the letters on the parchment scroll. They appear on the same line as the last words of the parasha of the preceding week, instead of the typical separation of at least 9 blank spaces, which would separate last week‘s reading from this week’s. The form echoes the content. Ya’akov is blocked and our parasha is written in a “blocked” format, as if to emphasize our patriarch’s lost prophetic vision at the end of his life.

In fact, in Genesis chapter 48, when we get to verse 8, Ya’akov seems befuddled and lost. OK, he’s about to die, but he had just given a whole speech reminiscing about his life, and mentioning his grandsons, Ephraim and Manasseh. And now, a moment later, he is asking, “who are these boys?” What’s going on here? Is he losing it or not? And then he does something very curious: he wants to bless the boys that he has just formally adopted (chapter 48 verse 5) but he switches his hands so that the younger son, Ephraim, gets Ya’akov’s right hand, and the older son, Manasseh, receives his blessing from Ya’akov’s left hand. Do you think this is a subtle reminder of how he “stole” the blessing from his own twin brother Esav (Esau) so many years before?

In the present, Yosef (Joseph) tries to correct his dying father’s apparent mistake, but old Ya’akov is still sharp (so he isn’t losing it) and tells the assembled family that he wants to bestow the blessing just the way he indicated. Read what Ya’akov says in verses 19 and 20.

To this day, parents give this exact blessing to their sons on Friday night, as part of the ritual welcoming Shabbat. Why do you suppose we ask God to make our sons like Ephraim and Manasseh instead of any of the other brothers or even the patriarchs? (By the way, girls are blessed to be like the matriarchs: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.) One possible hint may have to do with the lack of sibling rivalry associated with these two sons of Yosef; whereas, at least in the generation of Ya’akov and Yitzhak, there were terrible and sometimes violent sibling struggles.

In Chapter 49, Ya’akov says his last words, called blessings, to each of his sons, spoken in poetic form. Each little poem recalls things that happened earlier in their lives. We call these snippets of poetry “blessings,” but they often don’t sound like what we think of as blessings; they are more like “this is what you did so now you will get what you deserve.” In verse 29, Yakov gives his final instructions; and in verse 33, the long life of Ya’akov ends. As you can read in Chapter 50, he is given quite a funeral, paralleling how we bury great leaders in our day and age. Senior members of the Pharaoh’s court joined the family to mourn Ya’akov, and the mourning period lasted 7 days, just like “shiva” today.

Not only does Ya’akov die in this “closed” parasha called “And He Lived/Va-Yehi,” but Yosef also dies, at the age of 110. It is as if the author of this story wanted us to know that we are leaving the patriarchal and matriarchal tales and moving onwards. And where are we moving to? Look at the very last word in the book of Genesis to find out.

So we conclude Genesis at the same time as we conclude the year 2012. I have learned to read each parasha with an eye towards what is actually happening right now in our world, not limiting myself to thinking that the parasha is about some history that happened thousands of years ago. At the end of each book of the Torah we say, “Chazak, Chazak, V’Nitchazek” (be strong, be strong, let us be strong). As we say those words this Shabbat, I think we are encouraging each other to be strong in the face of the many challenges we face as we repair our communities from both deadly storms and massacres and have the strength to find ways to sustain and celebrate life.

To consider:

  • What would you like to say to each of your children at the end of your life? What kind of blessing would you like to bestow? Or, if you don’t have children, what kind of blessing would you like to receive from your parents before they die?
  • What is so different about Yosef from his father Yakov, his grandfather Yitzhak (Isaac), and his great-grandfather Avraham (Abraham)? What makes him a great transitional figure?
  • Since we tell each other to “be strong” as we finish the book of Genesis, as we finish 2012, what is the nature of the strengths you need to meet the challenges that came at the end of this year?

Jospeh’s Big Reveal

Last week, we left our hero, Yosef/Joseph, in a heated conversational exchange with one of his brothers, Yehuda/Judah, who speaks on behalf of all of the brothers and pleads with Yosef not to keep the youngest brother, Binyamin/Benjamin, as a slave. We were literally stopped in our tracks in the middle of the conversation!

Now we take up the story in the middle of that conversation, with Yehuda’s heartfelt and poignant speech to save his youngest brother. Va-yigash (and he [Yehuda] approached) is the name of this parasha; in it we hear the longest and most sophisticated speech in all of the book of Genesis.

This long discourse takes 17 verses. Yehuda recounts much of the recent history of what has transpired with the brothers, adding that their elderly father, Yakov, would surely die from grief if this son, Binyamin, is enslaved in Egypt. The atmosphere couldn’t be more tension-filled. Everyone seems to be holding his breath to see what will happen next. Yehuda goes on to offer himself in place of Binyamin. He says all of this to the grand Egyptian vizier, not knowing that it’s Yosef, his brother. He ends his plea by asking Yosef to please take him instead, “for how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me? Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father.” And then he is silent.

You could hear a pin drop — the room is absolutely still. Breaking the silence, Yosef yells out and demands that the court to be emptied; the only ones who are allowed to stay are these men from Canaan. When the room is emptied, Yosef breaks down in loud sobs, crying, as he makes his true identity known to the brothers who once threw him into a pit and then sold him into slavery. He says, “I am Yosef…. Is my father still well?” His brothers are speechless and cannot believe that this guy, who looks and acts so Egyptian and has so much power, is actually their little brother, the dreamer and braggart, now completely grown up and chief advisor to the Pharaoh.

There is a tearful scene of reconciliation as Yosef tells them that he has forgiven them for their wrongdoing so many years before. He now believes that it was God’s will that he ended up in Egypt so he could devise a plan to save that country and his own clan from the severe famine that they are all experiencing. Wow!! He instructs them to return home and bring their father and the entire tribe of Israelites down to Egypt so he can take care of them properly. Everyone is hugging everyone else and crying, the text tells us. I think they were probably laughing as well, from relief, from joy, from a break in the tension.

News reaches the Pharaoh who bestows gifts to Yosef’s family, “the best of the land of Egypt.” All of Yakov’s sons get ready to return home, laden with wagons bearing several changes of clothing, silver, and provisions like bread, grain, and other food for the journey to Canaan. Yosef tells his brothers, “don’t be quarrelsome with each other on the way back.” Why do you think he gives this particular piece of advice? What mood do you think the brothers were in that would cause them to get into fights?

The caravan leaves Egypt and after days, they reach Canaan. There are several midrashim (rabbinic interpretations to fill in the story) about how the brothers will tell their father Yakov that his beloved son Yosef, to whom he gave the coat of many colors, is still alive. They don’t want him to be shocked and have a heart-attack (God forbid), so how will they handle the news? The rabbis of the Talmud come up with a great little story that acts as a gloss to Genesis 45: 26-27. They remember that Yosef warned them not to alarm their aged father. So the brothers summoned Serach, the daughter of Asher, and asked her to sit before Yakov and play for him on the lyre; in this gentle, soothing manner she could reveal to her old grandfather that his favorite son was still alive, down in Egypt. Serach played the lyre well and sang gently: “Yosef my uncle did not die, he lives and rules all the land of Egypt.”

Serach bat (daughter) of Asher acquires a rich life in the midrash/rabbinic stories. She is actually named in the Torah, in the genealogy of this parasha, Genesis 46:17. And because she is the only girl listed by name, the rabbis embellished this tiny mention with fabulous stories about her: how she lives for hundreds of years; how she identifies Moshe/Moses as the liberator; and how, when the Children of Israel finally leave Egypt 400 years later, she alone knows exactly where Yosef’s bones are buried in the Nile River, and she shows Moshe so that Yosef’s bones can be carried out of Egypt, as per his instructions…. But wait, we are getting ahead of ourselves here. For more on Serach bat Asher, look at this resource from MyJewishLearning.

The rest of the parasha deals with the migration of the Children of Israel into Egypt and how they become a protected people among the Egyptians, how they are given the choicest geographical areas in Egypt by the Pharaoh, and how they prospered. We also get to read how Yosef manages the famine by establishing a system of serfdom among the population (not such a pretty solution, but the Egyptians were grateful nonetheless).

Next week, we will come to the end of the book of Genesis, the first of the 5 books of Moses. Stay tuned!

To consider:

  1. How do you feel about the system Yosef devises to enable all to have food (Genesis 47: 23-26)? Do you think the ends justify the means?
  2. What do you think about the way Yosef reveals himself to his brothers? Why did he take so long to tell them the truth about who he was? Did Yehuda’s speech have anything to do with Yosef’s finally breaking down?
  3. Have you ever been moved by a powerful speech, spoken from the heart? When? What moved you?

Joseph: The Good, The Bad, The Tricky

For the past few weeks, the names of all the parshiot (weekly Torah readings) have started with “Va, meaning “and.” There was Va-Yetze (And He Went Out), Va-Yishlach (And he sent) and Va-Yeshev (And he settled). I don’t know about you, but sometimes it’s easy for me to get confused about what happens in each of these chunks of torah.

This week we get to Miketz (After [two years]), and we land smack dab in the middle of the Yosef/Joseph novella. Today’s blog is a kind of re-cap of this irresistible story. When we left off, our hero was still languishing in the dungeon after the chief cupbearer was restored to Pharaoh’s service, having forgotten all about the interpreter of his dream (Yosef himself!).

If this were a TV show, across the bottom of the screen, you would see this: Two years later…

The story opens in Pharaoh’s court and we are told of a strange dream Pharaoh had in which seven “handsome and sturdy” cows appeared and then, right behind them, seven “ugly and gaunt” cows, who proceeded to eat the seven handsome, sturdy cows. Sounds just like a dream, huh? Then he dreamt a similar second dream. When he awoke in the morning and told his dreams to his wise men, none could interpret them (Genesis chapter 42 verses 1-8). Luckily, the chief cupbearer remembered that Hebrew kid in prison — the one who had correctly interpreted the dreams of his fellow inmates — and he told the Pharaoh about Yosef. So, Yosef was brought up to court, cleaned up and decked out nicely to meet the ruler who then proceeded to tell Yosef his dreams. Yosef offered the interpretation that there would be seven years of plentiful agricultural yields in Egypt, followed by seven years of severe famine. Yosef also recommended that a very wise person be appointed to collect the extra grain during the seven years of plenty and store it for the famine years. The Pharaoh was so impressed that he made Yosef a viceroy or vizier, elevating him to second in command of the country. Wow!! What a meteoric rise in status!

Yosef gets a new name, Zaphenath-Paneah, and he takes an Egyptian wife, Asenath, with whom he has two children. He is re-made in the image of a powerful, influential Egyptian vizier. Some say that Yosef provides us with a model of the first assimilated Israelite — he looks, acts, and talks just like the Egyptians in the court.

In fact, he is so assimilated that when brothers come down to Egypt to procure rations because of the famine back home in Cana’an, they don’t even recognize the bragging, arrogant teenage brother they sold into slavery so many years before. (An aside: we typically read this Torah portion on the Shabbat of Hanukkah, the holiday in which the Maccabees fought the Greek Romans whose influence in Israel caused the many Jews to assimilate. Assimilation seems to have exerted a strong influence on Jews throughout our history. And it’s not a simple answer to figure out if assimilation is completely pernicious — look at Yosef in Egypt!)

Now the drama circles back to the family and we read of several encounters between Yosef and his brothers. Since Yosef recognizes the brothers, but they utterly fail to recognize him, he has a great opportunity to engineer some power-plays. He could act like a mensch — or not. Inside he is still an angry teenage twerp, but given his power-broker status he can either (wrongly) accuse the brothers of being spies or warmly welcome them. What do you think he does? He decides to hide his identity, and although it looks like it might be pay-back time, maybe he is just attempting to measure if and how the brothers have changed.. He imprisons his brothers — just like he was imprisoned because of what they did to him (chapter 42 verses 8-17).

After 3 days, Yosef gives them an ultimatum, using information that he presumably got from his interrogation of them, but that he really already knew. He instructs them to return home with rations, but they must return with their youngest brother (Benjamin); in the meantime, Yosef will keep another brother, Simeon, in prison, as a ransom. The brothers confer; they talk about selling him off so long ago. They conduct this conversation in front of Yosef, who, of course, understands every word, unbeknownst to them.

And so, heavy-hearted, the brothers return home, back to their old father, Yakov/Jacob, in Cana’an, only to find another horrible surprise: When each brother opens his sacks of grain, he sees the money that he thought he had paid for the rations. (Yosef had instructed his servants to replace the coins so it would appear as if the brothers stole the grain.) Oy Oy Oy!! Now what??? There is a trick turn behind every action in this parasha.

How will it all end? What other tricks does Yosef have up his elegant Egyptian sleeve? And what are all these shenanigans about? To see if the brothers have really repented from their dirty deeds? To enjoy a little sweet revenge? To show the brothers that his teenage dreams had come true after all? All of the above? Or none of it?

This parasha gives us insights into the way this family works or doesn’t….Old Yakov still thinks everything bad that happens in the world is always centered on him (Genesis chapter 42 verse 36). Yosef doesn’t look so great either — he keeps losing control as he manipulates his brothers (Genesis chapter 43 verses 30-34). He keeps breaking down in tears privately, but dealing deceitfully with his brothers in his public persona. It won’t be until next week that the brothers find out what we (the loyal readers) already know — that this great and powerful Egyptian vizier is none other than their brother, their father’s favorite son, Yosef.

TO CONSIDER:

  1. Why didn’t Yosef ever “write home” in the 20 years he was in a powerful position in Egypt?
  2. How did Yosef’s assimilation affect his behavior towards his brothers, if at all?

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Drama

Last week, the parasha (Torah portion of the week) ended with a chronology, a long list of names of the descendants of Esav (Esau), the twin brother of Yakov (Jacob), with whom he struggled, even in the womb, before they were born. The brothers finally made peace with each other and the Torah honors Esav by spending lots of time detailing his family. This week, however, it is clear that we are moving on to the key protagonist descended from Yakov: Yosef (Joseph), the 11th and the favorite son, borne by Yakov’s favorite wife, Rahel (Rachel).

Our opening scene sets the stage for what is actually a novella, the first in the Torah, the story of Yosef and his adventures. Andrew Lloyd Weber famously wrote a hit musical about some of our story that you may want to check out:

But we really don’t need a Broadway hit to let us know that this story has everything that makes a good novel or novella work: intrigue, plot twists, character development, changes in identity, dreams, lies, sibling rivalry, and more than a little a hint of sex.

In fact, just reading the text we see why the great German Jewish novelist of the early 20th century, Thomas Mann, produced a masterpiece of literature, Joseph and His Brothers, based not only on this story, but also incorporating the rabbinic midrashim (stories) that embellish the torah text. A new translation by John E. Woods is described as “a major literary event. Thomas Mann regarded his monumental retelling of the biblical story of Joseph as his magnum opus. He conceived of the four parts — The Stories of Jacob, Young Joseph, Joseph in Egypt, and Joseph the Provider — as a unified narrative, a ‘mythological novel’ of Joseph’s fall into slavery and his rise to be lord over Egypt. Deploying lavish, persuasive detail, Mann conjures for us the world of patriarchs and pharaohs, the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Palestine, and the universal force of human love in all its beauty, desperation, absurdity, and pain. The result is a brilliant amalgam of humor, emotion, psychological insight, and epic grandeur.”

Embedded in the opening part of this novella, the biblical authors do something so crafty. They begin the story in Genesis chapter 37 and build it to a crescendo, leaving Yosef at the point of being sold to an Egyptian after a terrible ordeal, and poor old Yakov, back home, mourning for his favorite boy. We really want to know what happens next… kind of the way you feel when you watch an episode of Homeland and you are just dying to know what will happen to Carrie and Brody. However, chapter 38 is a total departure from the Yosef story; we detour to read a completely separate story about Yehuda (Judah), Yakov’s 4th son, borne by Leah. It is the tribe of Judah that gives the Children of Israel their eventual name, Yehudim (Jews), and it is from this tribe that both King David and Jesus are descended.

The entire detour story tells us that Judah (Yehuda) had 3 sons, and when his oldest, Er, came of age, Yehuda arranged a marriage between Er and Tamar. Unfortunately Er dies and Yehuda sees fit to have Tamar marry another son, Onan. The story devolves (you can read it in chapter 38 verses 8-11). After Onan dies, Tamar is left a widow, childless, and she hatches a plot to make sure she can remarry and have children. In her cleverness, she reminds us somewhat of Rivka/Rebecca, the great-grandmother of Tamar’s husbands. Neither of these women possesses any overt power in this patriarchal society.

In order that the right thing will be done, each woman resorts to subterfuge — each one uses a cover-up to get the right outcome. Two generations before, Rivka puts skins on the arms of the smooth twin (Yakov) to make him feel hairy, like his twin, Esav, when their blind old father touches him. Now Tamar dons a garment that makes her resemble a cultic prostitute; she waits at the crossroads to entice Yehuda into a one-night-stand that she hopes will make her pregnant. He doesn’t recognize her; she takes his seal, cord, and staff as a voucher (for a goat) that she can later redeem — he will send the goat to her with a friend (chapter 38 verses 17-20).

Later, the townspeople tell Yehuda that his daughter-in-law is pregnant; and since he knows that she hasn’t re-married, he tells everyone “Bring her out and let her be burned!” Tamar comes out, shows the seal, cord, and staff, and says “I am pregnant by the man who owns these.” Yehuda recognizes his things and realizes that he should have given Tamar his youngest son to marry (but didn’t), and says “This woman is more righteous than I — I should have given her my youngest son.” This couple is not intimate again, but later in Genesis, we will see how Yehuda develops. It is one of the twin babies, Perez, born of this coupling, who is the progenitor of the Davidic line, the line of the Messiah.

Finally we get back to the Yosef story in Chapter 39 and 40, and our parasha ends with Yosef interpreting dreams that are “spot-on.” Doesn’t this sound like a great novel, movie, or TV series???

To consider:

  1. What does the little story of Yehuda and Tamar (chapter 38) come to teach us about the larger Yosef narrative in which it is embedded?
  2. What do you think of women (or men) who have no power resorting to subterfuge to make things right?

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?

Go To Yourself!

This week’s Torah reading (“parasha”) throws us smack into the middle of the nitty-gritty of the first Hebrew family, Avram and Sarai, whose genealogy we read last week at the end of parashat Noah.

Terach (the idol maker) lived in Ur of the Chaldees and had 3 sons: Avram, Nahor and Haran. When they were grown, Avram and Nahor both took wives; Avram’s wife was Sarai… and her sister married Avram’s brother! To complicate things even more, both wives were the daughters of the 3rd son of Terach, Haran — which means that Avram married his niece! Before we even get started on the patriarchal and matriarchal tales of the Hebrews, we get an intertwined genealogy.

Then, the first thing we learn about Sarai is that she was barren (Genesis 11:30). Finally, we begin our parasha in chapter 12, with the plot getting ever more intense. A few incidents: Sarai is passed off as Avram’s sister in Egypt, Sarai becomes terribly jealous and wreaks havoc in the household when, after she gives Hagar (her handmaid) to Avram, Hagar actually becomes pregnant (Genesis 16:4-11).

But, we’ll leave the juicy parts for another time.

The parasha commences with the words, Lech Lecha, translated as “Go forth” or “Set yourself forth,” a command from God to Avram that begins chapter 12. Just one of many names in the genealogy of the previous chapter, now this one name, Avram, has the spotlight turned on him; we see Avram emerge as an individual character, whose life trajectory we will follow all the way until Chapter 25. He is the first figure we really get to know in some depth, and whose adventures and conversations describe what feels like a real person. He is more nuanced than the biblical figures before him (Adam, Noah, etc.) and because of this, we realize we have moved from a universal history to a national history that is also a personal history. In his book, On the Bible: Eighteen Studies, Martin Buber writes a magnificent chapter titled “Abraham the Seer (chapter 3).”

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