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).”

Continue reading

Rosh Hashanah: A Family Thing

OK, I admit it: I watched the recent Democratic convention in Charlotte, and Michelle Obamas’s speech stole my heart… and got me to thinking about how important it is to both presidential candidates to highlight their families. Some of the most intense feelings and experiences in our lives happen in the intimate spaces of family life. Fast forward to Rosh Hashanah and lo and behold, the Torah readings are narratives that takes place in the cauldron of familial relationships: Husband/Wife, Father/Son, First Wife/Concubine, Siblings.

On the first day of the new year, we read about Sarah, wife of Abraham, becoming pregnant at the age of 90; when she heard the news, she laughed, of course! She later names her son, Yitzhak, from the Hebrew root word for laughter. Unfortunately, Yitzhak’s life was anything but a barrel of laughs, as we find out on the second day when we read one of the most troubling narratives in the Torah, the “Akeidah,” the binding of Yitzhak (Genesis 22).

Back on Day 1, our narrative from Genesis 21 contains a story about Sarah’s maid servant, Hagar, whom Sarah earlier gave to Abraham to impregnate, in order that the elderly couple would have offspring. Hagar and her son, Ishma’el, are cast out of the household by Abraham at Sarah’s demand. Sarah sees Ishma’el, the big brother, playing with her toddler Yitzhak, and she is none to pleased. We don’t really know what Ishma’el was doing with Yitzhak, but the verb comes from that same Hebrew root that makes up Yitzhak’s name. And whatever is happening makes Sarah very angry. Abraham is distraught but God tells him to listen to Sarah, despite the fact that he loves Ishma’el as well as Yitzhak (and maybe he even loves Hagar too).

What a boiling pot of familial intrigue and passion!

The expulsion of Hagar and Ishma’el and the binding of Yitzhak have given philosophers (Kierkegaard for one), rabbinic commentators from 1800 years ago, poets, painters, playwrights, and others much to contemplate. Our questions way outnumber any satisfying answers.

I invite you to read the stories and talk about what happens in them. And why in the world do we read these particular stories on Rosh Hashanah as we renew ourselves and re-start our yearly Torah cycle?

Wishing you a sweet and bountiful year of blessings!

Nechama