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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 â€˜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 nextâ€¦ 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???
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. “â€¦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, questionsâ€¦. 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:
Last question: when the Bible says, “to this day,” what do you think it signifies?
“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 sisterâ€¦. hmmmm, older sisterâ€¦. 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 hatâ€¦ 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.
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: