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