Archive for November, 2012

November 29, 2012 8:34 am CDT

Vayishlach—Memorial Stone

Jacob set up a pillar in the place where [God] had spoken with  him, a pillar of stone; and he poured out a drink offering  on it, and poured oil on it.  . . . . [A few verses later, after the death of Rachel] Jacob set up a pillar at her grave; it is the pillar of Rachel’s tomb, which is there to this day.  (Gen 35:14, 20)

A “pillar” (matzebah) is a large sacred stone.   Jacob sets up several of these weighty memorials along his way.   These matzebot are part of the landscape of religion in ancient Canaan.  Millenia later, in the same land, Rav Kook, the first chief Rabbi of Palestine, later Israel, made the following comment.

“While the patriarchs erected pillars for worship, this was later forbidden and gave way to altars at which cultic rites were to be performed. Why? Pillars were symbols of generalized faith; altars were symbols of faith plus mitzvahs that is, Judaism.”


November 29, 2012 8:28 am CDT

Vayishlach—Short story

Israel then resumed his journey, and pitched his tent beyond the tower of Eder. Now, while Israel was residing in that area, Ruben went and lay with his father’s concubine Bilhah, and Israel heard of it.  (Gen 35:21 – 22)

That’s it. End of story.

The only other place in the Bible where a son sleeps with his father’s concubine is the revolt of Absalom in 2 Sam 16:20 – 22. There the act constitutes a part of a political revolt, part of Absalom’s usurping his father’s throne. But there’s no question of a political revolt here.

We learn that Rueben’s act does not escape Jacob’s knowledge, but that’s it.  We observe no reaction from Jacob.  Yet the episode comes up again at the very end of Jacob’s life, as part of his “blessing” to his 12 sons. He lashes out at Reuben, as if he’s been holding it in all these years.

Reuben, you are my firstborn,
my might and the first fruits of my vigor,
prevailing in rank and prevailing in honor.
Unstable as water, you shall no longer prevail
because you mounted your father’s bed;
then you defiled it–you  mounted my couch!

Talk about a delayed denouement!

November 22, 2012 1:14 am CDT

Vayetze–Stealing the Heart

In Gen 29, Jacob arrives Syria where he marries first Leah and then Rachel, the daughters of his uncle Laban.   Laban takes advantage of Jacob’s service; finally, after twenty years, Jacob has had enough.

And Jacob deceived Laban the Aramean, in that he did not tell him that he intended to flee.  (Gen 31:20)

The word “deceive” here means literally to “steal” (ganav) the heart,” which in this case means not the heart but the head, the understanding, the wits.   “In heading for Canaan with his wives, children, and flocks, Jacob is actually taking what is rightfully his, but he has good reason to fear that the grasping Laban will renege on their agreement, and so he feels compelled to flee in stealth, making off not with Laban’s property but with his ‘heart.'” (Alter)

I’ve recently been thinking about a passage from Khaled Hosseini’s Kite Runner: “Every other sin is a variation of theft….When you kill a man, you steal a life. You steal his wife’s right to a husband, rob his children of a father. When you tell a lie, you steal someone’s right to the truth.”

Perhaps Laban has forfeited his right to the truth in this matter.  Yet (as a folk proverb quoted in the Talmud has it) “whoever steals from a thief has a taste of theft.”  Indeed, in Jacob’s case, there is more than a taste, since, unbeknownst to him, his wife Rachel has stolen (again, ganav) the gods of her father’s household.

In any event, the secret flight doesn’t work.  Laban catches up with Jacob.   The ensuing dialogue boils over with mutual suspicion and distrust.

November 22, 2012 1:09 am CDT

Vayetze–An Uneasy Truce

Therefore he named the pillar Mizpah, for he said, “The LORD watch between you and me,  when we are absent one from the other.” (Gen 31:49)

When Laban overtakes Jacob, he tells him, “It is in my power to do you harm; but the God of your father spoke to me last night, saying, ‘Take heed that you speak to Jacob neither good nor bad.'” (Gen 31:29)  Fear of God transforms a violent reprisal into an uneasy truce.

Laban concedes nothing in his words to Jacob: as far as he is concerned “the daughters are my daughters, the children are my children, the flocks are my flocks, and all that you see is mine.”  At the same time, he is restrained not only by the divine warning, but by family feeling, if not for Jacob, at least for his daughters and grandchildren:  “Yet what can I do this day to these my daughters, or to their children whom they have borne?” (Gen 31:43)

Instead, Jacob and Laban raise up a pillar and a mound as a boundary marker and as a “witness” against misconduct.  We are reminded of the overlap of the personal and the political in these patriarchal narratives when Laban (= Aram, Syria) and Jacob (= Israel) name the mound in Aramaic and Hebrew respectively.  (Gen 31:47)

As Shlomo Carlebach said (paraphrasing the Maharal of Prague), “Great is peace, because if even the most rotten people learned to get along, God would be with them, because they were peaceful.”

November 15, 2012 10:33 am CDT

Toledot–Sympathy for Esau

When Esau heard his father’s words, he cried out with a great and very bitter outcry, and said to his father, “Bless me, too, father!”  But he said, “Your brother has come in deceit, and he has taken away your blessing.”  Esau said, “Is he not rightly named Jacob? For he has supplanted me these two times. He took away my birthright; and look, now he has taken away my blessing.” And he said, “Have you not kept back a blessing for me?”  Isaac answered Esau, “I have already made him your lord, and I have given him all his brothers as servants, and endowed him with  grain and wine. What then can I do for you, my son?”  Esau said to his father, “Have you only one blessing, father?  Bless me, too, father!” And Esau lifted up his voice and wept.  (Gen. 27:34-38)

The figures in the Bible tend to get polarized in its subsequent interpretation, drawn to extremes of good or evil.  Such is certainly the case with Esau.  Beginning  with Edom’s* alliance with the Babylonians at the time of Judah’s destruction in the 6th century BC, later biblical traditions and biblical interpreters increasingly took the view that Esau/Edom was simply wicked.    The rabbis and their medieval successors see Esau as standing for pagan (later Christian) Rome.

However, the text evokes sympathy for Esau at this point.  True, we have seen enough of Esau to view him as less worthy than Jacob to carry on the ancestral promise to Abraham.  But Jacob is flawed too, not least in this episode, and Esau is not so “wicked” that we don’t feel sorry for him in this moment.

*remember, Esau = Edom just as Jacob = Israel

November 15, 2012 10:26 am CDT

Toldedot–Jacob (Alternate Version)

Then Isaac called Jacob and blessed him, and charged him,”You shall not marry one of the Canaanite women.  Go at once to Paddan-aram to the house of Bethuel, your mother’s father; and take as wife from there one of the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother.  May El Shaddai bless you, make you fruitful and multiply you, that you may become an assembly of peoples.  May he give to you the blessing of Abraham, to you and to your seed as well, so that you may take hold of the land where you sojourn, which God granted to Abraham.”  (Gen. 28:1-4)

Modern scholars see this as a different, “alternate” version of Isaac’s blessing and Jacob’s departure (from the “Priestly” source).  Here, Jacob does not flee for his life from a brother he has swindled; rather, he dutifully follows the family tradition of finding a wife from within the clan, rather than intermarrying, as Esau had done.   Isaac, for his part, does not have to be (self) deceived in order to bless Jacob; his blessing is a natural expression of his intent grounded in the tradition of his father.

This is a far smoother version of the tale, and consequently far less rich.  For all the difficulties and ambiguities created by the story of Jacob’s deception, I can’t imagine his story otherwise.  Its consequences resonate throughout the rest of Jacob’s life.

But perhaps this other version is here as a reminder that the deceit accomplished nothing, at least from the standpoint of the divine purpose.  God was going to bless Jacob anyway.

November 8, 2012 10:54 am CDT

Chayei Sarah–The Dynamic Figure of Her Generation

And Isaac went out to stroll in the field towards evening, and he raised his eyes and saw and, look, camels were coming. And Rebecca raised her eyes and saw Isaac, and she alighted from the camel. And she said to the servant, “Who is that man walking through the field toward us? And the servant said, “He is my master.”   And she took the veil and covered her face.   (Gen. 24:63-65)

Isaac, the patriarch between Abraham and Jacob, strikes us as by far the most passive of the trio. In chapter 22, he is a sacrificial victim. In chapter 27, he is (prematurely?) old, blind, the victim of a deceit. Here, the journey to find a wife has been undertaken by proxy, through a nameless servant who is acting on Abraham’s (deathbed?) instructions.

Rebecca is the yang to Isaac’s yin. When she first encounters Abraham’s servant (24:18-20), her hospitality and alacrity recall the actions of Abraham himself in chapter 18. You can even see the contrast in the above quoted passage, albeit in muted form. Isaac is strolling aimlessly, it would seem. Rebecca is able to detect the figure of a man moving across the open country. She does not to know who he is yet, but senses that his appearance signals the end of her journey and jumps [lit., “falls”!] off the camel. A conversation with the servant confirms her intuition, and she veils herself, since it is customary for the bride to be veiled in the presence of her bridegroom until the wedding.

Fox considers Rebecca the dynamic figure of her generation. “It is she to whom God reveals his plan, and she who puts in motion the mechanism for seeing that it is properly carried out. She is ultimately the one responsible for bridging the gap between the dream, as typified by Abraham, and the hard-won reality, as realized by Jacob.”

November 8, 2012 10:50 am CDT

Chayei Sarah–Family Reunion

His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah . . . . There Abraham was buried, and Sarah his wife.  (Gen 25:9-10)

It is, to me, a lovely detail of reconciliation that both Isaac and Ishmael are there together to bury their father. But what exactly is Ishmael doing in Abraham’s neighborhood? When we last saw him and his mother, they had been driven away and had taken up residence in the wilderness of Paran in the Sinai. The Torah itself provides no answer to this question.

But around 200 BC, a fascinating reinterpretation of the book of Genesis was written. The work is known as the Book of Jubilees because of its unusual calendar system, which divides the biblical period into 49-year “jubilees” and subdivides those into seven-year “weeks.”  Jubilees describes a kind of family reunion at Shavuot just before Abraham’s death:

And it came to pass in the first week of this forty-fourth Jubilee in the second year, the year in which Abraham died, that Isaac and Ishmael came from the well of the oath of Abraham, their father, to observe the feast of Shavuot, which is the feast of the first fruits of the harvest. And Abraham rejoiced because both of his children came . . . .  And Isaac slaughtered a sacrifice as a burnt offering and offered it up upon the altar of his father which he built in Hebron. And he sacrificed a thank offering and made a feast of joy before Ishmael, his brother. And Rebecca made new round cakes of new grain. And she gave them to Jacob, her son, to take to Abraham, his father, from the first fruits of the land so that he may eat and bless the creator of all before he died.  (Jubilees 22:1-4)

But what’s Rebecca doing here??  And Jacob??!!??  The answer is: this is what happens when you take the numbers in the Torah as a single coherent chronology and not as a melange of different sources.  If, as this parsha informs us, Abraham lived to be 175 years (Gen 25:7), and if Abraham was 100 when Isaac was born (Gen 21:5), and if Isaac was 60 when Esau and Jacob were born (gen 26:26), then Abraham passed away only when his twin grandsons were 15.  (Esau is presumably off hunting during this whole reunion.)  In the Jubilees version, before Abraham dies he blesses Jacob directly with two extended blessings, which has the effect of further reducing Isaac’s role in the patriarchal triad: there is a direct connection between Abraham and Jacob.