Who Dwells Where?

Our G-dcast storyteller this week correctly informs us that Parashat Terumah is all about the Israelites’ newest project: building a portable sanctuary (mishkan) for worshipping God, right there in the middle of the desert. God gives the instructions to Moshe/Moses, and then we, as readers, get the dozens of details as a kind of blueprint in what might be considered numbingly boring minutiae.

But we need to ask ourselves: what is the point of laying it all out so exactingly? And does God really care about gold, silver, lapis lazuli and dolphin cloth??? And if not, why would these specifications be made?

Our storyteller suggests that we need to zoom in and zoom out of these particulars in order to see the bigger picture.

There are a few verses that really call out to me in this parasha, starting with Exodus chapter 25 verse 2:

Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him/her.

What an incredible thing to find here in the Torah, a book full of commandments for so many things. Here, we are told that gifts are only to be brought if one WANTS to participate, if one’s heart is so moved… Only then, should he or she bring a gift to help build the sanctuary. This is the first startling thing in this huge, complicated new construction project the former slaves are undertaking.

The second verse that is at the heart of Parashat Terumah is also from chapter 25, a few verses later in verse 8:

And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.

God is actually telling Moshe that God wants to be “among” the people (b’tocham — in their midst). Not above them, not in a special place rooted in a specific locality, but AMONG them, in this portable tent-like santuary that moves with the people as they wander in the desert. What kind of God wants to be AMONG the people? What is God’s need, if we could be so bold in asking?

The storyteller also uses several words for this building, this “sanctuary.” First we get the Hebrew name, Mishkan, which has the same root as shakhen/neighbor and shekhinah/feminine presence of the Divine. The portable building is also referred to as a tabernacle (which always makes me think of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir). Finally, it’s also called the Divine Dwelling Place.

Sanctuary implies a holy place, a sanctum, a place with sacred dimensions (mikdash/holy place). There is also the name Ohel Mo’ed /Tent of Meeting, referring to the function this place provides — it’s where Moshe encounters the Divine and receives instruction. These names seem like they might be interchangeable, but as we proceed through the book of Exodus and Leviticus and get more information on the Mishkan, we will see that each name implies a different function and/or is describing another part of the whole compound.

Still, think about what it could mean to have the Almighty say that S/He wants to “dwell among the Israelite nation.” Not only is this a profound gloss on the relationship between God and the people, it also suggests possibilities in the way we build our contemporary synagogues and places of worship right now, in the 21st century. Chancellor Arnold Eisen of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America writes about this in his column on Parashat Terumah.

To consider as you continue reading:

  1. If you believe in God, is your concept of the Divine immanent or transcendent (close-by, near you or above you, far away)? In other words, is God inside you or way outside?
  2. What is the purpose of adorning holy worship places with gold and other precious materials (think of the great cathedrals of Europe)? What does it do for the worshipper?

Let My People Go!

For you to consider as you read this week’s blog post:

  1. Can you remember a time when you rejoiced in the pain suffered by someone whom you thought of as your enemy? What was that like? Did you feel justified or diminished? What would it take to set your joy aside?
  2. Why do you suppose that God neither hears the cries of the Israelite slaves nor remembers the covenant made with the Israelite ancestors, until now? Why did Israel have to be enslaved for so long?
  3. If the Pharaoh kept changing his mind and “hardening his heart,” why did the God of Israel keep sending more plagues? What do you think was going on with Pharaoh?

Last week we focused on the birth of our nation; we were introduced to the greatest prophet of the Jewish people, Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses our Teacher). This week’s parasha, Va-eira, propels us right into the heart of the story of the Israelite journey from slavery to freedom, from darkness to light, from oppression to redemption — all familiar phrases that echo in our heads and hearts — likely imprinted there at the Passover seder, the most celebrated Jewish ritual of the entire year.

But wait, doesn’t Passover come in the spring? And aren’t we now reading this parasha in the dead of winter? Yes and Yes. The Torah narrative doesn’t correspond to the seasons, and it does seem like this story is coming too early in the cycle of the seasons; on the other hand, we can think of it as a preview of the next major Jewish festival.

So much of what happens in Va-eira is familiar: the story of Moshe and his brother, Aharon/Aaron going to the Pharaoh to tell him “Let my people go!” If you are like me, when you hear this, you immediately set it to the music of the African American “spirituals,” or songs that the black slaves of the American South composed, soulful melodies of sadness and uplift.

The parasha opens with a little speech God gives to Moshe outlining God’s own identity; telling Moshe that God’s name is YHVH, a 4 letter name that is never vocalized but stands in for the defining statement, “I AM EXISTENCE, TOTALITY”; and reminding Moshe that this God of the Hebrews intends to keep the covenant (brit) that was made with Avraham/Abraham, Yitzhak/Isaac, and Ya’akov/Jacob so many generations before (Exodus 6:2-4.) God/YHVH then commands Moshe to go to the Pharaoh to deliver the message that the Israelites are a people under the protection of YHVH and that they must be liberated.

The rest of the parasha is a back and forth power play between Moshe and the Pharaoh, aided by what we have come to know as “the 10 plagues,” although in this parasha, we just get the first 7 — next week we’ll find out about the last three. God knows that the Pharaoh is stubborn and will need lots of persuasion to allow his cheap labor force to leave the land of Egypt, so God addresses this issue straight on… read about it in Exodus 7:14-18. God tells Moshe to accost the Pharaoh in the morning, when he comes out for his morning ablutions at the Nile River. This body of water is like the life force of Egypt — fresh, potable water in the desert. And now the God of the Hebrews is going to turn it to blood!!!

Following that first plague, we read about the frogs that will appear all over Egypt. This second plague has been turned into a very popular children’s song at many seder tables; at my seder table, I place some colorful little plastic frogs around the table, to give little kids something to play with and to remind us of this plague. We make the frogs kinda cutesy as you can see in the song:

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there is a much more sober and scary depiction of what it could have been like to experience the plague of frogs, seen in the movie, Magnolia. (Viewer advisory: yucky stuff.)

After an absolutely horrible week of frogs everywhere, Pharaoh says he has had enough and begs Moshe to ask the God of the Hebrews, YHVH, to return the frogs to the river. Of course, anyone who knows human psychology can now predict that the Pharaoh will change his mind. And of course, he does… (Exodus 8:11). And so on and on it goes, one plague after another, with horror and destruction raining down on the Egyptians until YHVH stops the plague and Pharaoh, in turn, reneges on his promise to let the Israelite slaves leave.

The storyteller in this week’s G-dcast video points out that when we recite the 10 plagues that the Egyptians suffered as part of the Passover seder, we diminish the amount of wine in our goblets by one drop for each plague, to symbolize our sympathy with the plight of our enemy. After all, wine is intended to gladden the heart, and we are removing some of that happy-making substance. This comes to teach us to have compassion, even for the suffering of our enemies — it’s the polar opposite of schadenfreude.

All of these natural human emotions — changing your mind when the worst of consequences lets up, not jumping up and down with glee when your enemy is getting pummeled, and hardening your heart against the human misery and pain — are part of this story.

Welcome to Exodus!

This is kind of exciting: we start a new (secular) year on the calendar and start a new book of the Bible, Exodus or Sh’mot which in Hebrew means “[These Are the] Names,” taken from the opening phrase of the book.

The book begins with a very short history of how the Children of Israel came to be in Egypt and these verses act as a kind of bridge from Genesis (Bereishit, “Beginnings”).

Shifra and Puah

Micography art depicting the midwives Shifra and Puah, and the first act of civil disobedience recorded in history.

We are officially leaving the fables about the “beginnings” of the world and of our ancestors, and transitioning to the birth of this new nation, going from being the Children of Israel (the person, who was also called Ya’akov/Jacob) to being the Children of Israel (the emerging nation of Israelites).

As you might expect in a well-crafted story focusing on birth, we have a bunch of female figures and some water imagery that echo what happens in the plot. And, in addition to women (and one special girl, Miriam) this week’s parasha also introduces us to another outsider, Yitro/Jethro, who becomes the father-in-law of Moshe/Moses, our great leader. Yitro, also called Re’uel, is a priest of Midian; he is portrayed as a wise and perspicacious desert-dweller who plays a key role in the story of our people’s birth. He also is the father of seven daughters (again, introducing more women into our tale).

Let’s list the women characters and a few tidbits about them:

  1. A Levite woman (Exodus 2:1) who gives birth to a son. We later find out (in Exodus 6:16-20) that her name is Yocheved and that she had 3 children: Aaron, Miriam, and Moshe.
  2. Miriam, who also is not named here, but referred to as the sister of the baby born to Yocheved (Exodus 2:4) and only named later, in chapter Exodus 15:20.
  3. The Pharaoh’s daughter who, again, is not named at all, but given a name hundreds of years later, in the Talmudic midrash (stories). She is called Batya, meaning “Daughter of God.” Batya rescues the Hebrew baby boy (Moses) from the Nile River.
  4. The seven daughters of the priest of Midian (Yitro) one of whom, Zipporah, is given to Moshe as a wife.
  5. Two Hebrew midwives (Exodus 1:15) named Shifrah and Puah. By the way, if you are not inclined to read the whole parasha, I highly recommend reading this little episode of these two brave midwives (Exodus 1:15-22) and then join the centuries-old conversation about why these women ignore the Pharaoh’s decree. Why indeed? First, consider the following: the midwives are described in a noun phrase, which, in Hebrew, ends up being ambiguous. The phrase is m’yaldot ha-ivri’yot meaning either “the midwives who were themselves Hebrew” or “the (Egyptian) midwives who helped with the birthing of the Hebrew women slaves.” Depending on what you think about the nationality of the midwives, imagine how and why they had the courage to disobey the powerful ruler of Egypt. And how does a reward given by God (Exodus 1:20) influence your conclusion about who they really were?

Basically, this parasha brings all of this woman-energy to the foreground, as if to underscore how essential the women were in the birthing process of this nation.

The G-dcast narrator this week raises questions about another group of outliers — people with disabilities, like Moshe Rabbenu / Our Teacher Moses, who had a speech impediment.

In thinking about those who tend to be “outside” the mainstream both today and in many biblical stories, we have a trio: people with disabilities, women, and non-Israelites.

How do you think this enhances the description of the birth of the Israelite nation?

To further emphasize the birthing metaphor, we can look at the Hebrew word for Egypt: Mitzrayim. Mitzrayim also can be understood to mean “narrow straits,” probably describing the land on both sides of the life-giving waters of the Nile. The river waters are much like birth-waters; our people must make the journey down the birth canal, the narrow straits, before emerging as a brand-new nation, the Israelite nation, the People of Israel.

And so we get to the end of this blog post, without my even sharing thoughts about the burning bush, Moshe’s conversation with God, the name God gives Moshe to identify Godself, the murder of the Egyptian task-master, the fugitive status of our greatest leader, and how Moshe gets along (or doesn’t) with the Israelite slaves. Just in case this parasha whets your appetite for more, here are a couple of sources you might enjoy:

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?

“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?

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).”

Continue reading

Noah and The Flood: What You Don’t Know

What to say about this Torah portion, Noah (Genesis chapters 6 – 10)? There are just so many different ways to view this narrative.  Many people like to think of the story of Noah’s Ark, the flood and the rainbow as a children’s story, and that’s fine–as long as you don’t look too closely at it.  Because once you take a closer look, you will understand that not only did all the depraved human beings drown in this cataclysm sent by God to undo all of God’s own recent creation, all of the innocent babies, children, and animals also drowned, except of course, the fish, other sea creatures, and those saved on the ark.

So, first, let’s agree that this is more than a child’s fable, and it raises disturbing questions.

For the basic outline of the story, take a look at g-dcast  for this parasha:

Who was Noah?  Was he a “righteous man” as described in chapter 6 verse 9? And what does that mean?  The rest of the phrase describing him is that he “was a righteous man IN HIS GENERATION.”  The rabbis of the Talmud debate:  does this mean Noah was absolutely pious and good, with the right moral compass or rather, that he was just a good-enough fellow, and good only in comparison with the absolutely debased human beings populating the earth at that time?  What do you think?

Then, let’s agree that this biblical story has much in common with the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh, the Sumerian tale recorded on clay tablets dating back to at least 2000 BCE, based on some even older accounts, written in archaic poetic style, found in the geographical area of what is today modern Iraq.  Contemporary scholars believe that the biblical account fuses several traditions of near-eastern flood stories, and although there are dozens of similarities, the biblical authors have a different purpose in mind when they re-tell the story of the Flood.  Instead of warring gods on a quest for immortality, the narrative in the Hebrew Bible is an argument for a Creator who demands adherence to a universal moral code. From this story, western civilization derives something called the Noahide Laws, which seem to be a precursor to the Ten Commandments and are laws incumbent upon all people, not just the Hebrews.

Finally, Noah gets off his Ark and builds an altar to God; he is witness to the sign of the covenant (the rainbow) when God promises never to destroy creation again with a flood.  And what does he do? Plants a vineyard. And when the grapes are ripe, he gets rip-roaring drunk (chapter 9 verse 21).  Why do you suppose this is included in this iconic story?   And what do we think of the way his sons react and the consequences for the family? (verses 22-27)  This is definitely some R-rated material, not just for kids!

If you’re intrigued by the more “mature content” of this story, here are links to reading material that may catch your fancy:

Finally: here are some life lessons one could take from the Noah’s Ark story; after you read the biblical narrative, pick which lesson is meant especially for you.

  • Plan ahead. It wasn’t raining when Noah built the Ark.
  • Stay fit. When you’re 600 years old, someone may ask you to do something really big.
  • Build your future on high ground.
  • For safety’s sake, travel in pairs.
  • Speed isn’t always an advantage; the snails were on board with the cheetahs.
  • Remember, the Ark was built by amateurs; the Titanic, by professionals.
  • No matter the storm, when you are with God, there’s always a rainbow waiting.
  • You might be a righteous person, but someone still has to shovel the poop.
  • Remember: We’re all in the same boat.