Lekh-Lekha (and Bereishit): Giving Directions

October 9, 2013 at 11:02 am | Posted in Bereishit, Lekh Lekha, Noach | 3 Comments
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For me, every story in the book of Genesis/Bereishit is another fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. And the God who speaks to individual people, from Adam to Jacob, is like a human teacher trying to prod people into making conscious choices and moral judgments.

Like other animals, we humans make most of our decisions automatically, out of instinct and habit. Sometimes we stop to solve a practical problem or an intellectual puzzle. But only rarely do we stop to solve a moral problem. When we do become aware of a moral issue, and of our ability to choose between good and evil actions, I think we are tasting another fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.

The anthropomorphic God in Genesis often talks to Himself, debating what to do next. He also talks to human characters, asking them questions, telling them His plans, blessing and cursing them, making covenants with them, and giving them directions.

“God” tries out several methods for giving directions. In the second creation story, “God” makes a single human out of dirt and breathes life into it. After placing the human (ha-adam) in the garden of Eden, the God character gives it an instruction.

figGod tzivah the human, saying: From every tree of the garden, certainly tokheil. But from the tree of the knowledge of good and bad, not tokhal; for on the day you eat from it, you will certainly die. (Genesis 2:16-17)

tzivah = commanded, ordered, directed.

tokheil, tokhal = you will eat, you shall eat, you should eat, you could eat, you may eat, you can eat, you are going to eat, you must eat.

It is impossible to translate this passage literally, because biblical Hebrew has only one verb form for action that has not yet happened. Is “God” telling the human “you must not eat” from the tree of knowledge, and if you do, you will be punished with death? Or is “God” saying “you could not eat” from it without becoming mortal?  Either translation is correct.

The God character’s motivation in giving this order is also open to interpretation. Classical commentary assumes “God” wants the human to stay in the garden, in a state of moral ignorance, and therefore after the female and male humans eat the fruit, they are punished for disobeying orders. I think “God” points out the Tree of Knowledge in order to show the adam, the solo and sexless human, that it can act of its own free will, and gain knowledge. But the adam passively follows orders, and nothing changes. I can imagine the God character wondering what it will take to get the humans to make a choice and acquire a sense of good and evil, so He can remove them from Eden and place them in the real world! “God” solves the problem by splitting the human it into male and female persons, and inventing the snake to make the female human think.

The next person in the Torah to get moral training is Cain, who gets upset when God shows a preference for Abel’s offering over his. Perhaps because reverse psychology did not work well with Adam, “God” avoids anything that sounds like an order when He first addresses Cain.

Cain, by Henri Vidal, detail

Cain, by Henri Vidal, detail

 

And God said to Cain: Why are you making yourself angry, and why has your face fallen? Is it not so: if you do good, [there is] uplifting; but if you do not do good, wrongdoing waits at the door, and its desire is for you. Yet you can rule over it. (Genesis 4:6-7)

Cain does not get the hint, and in a fit of rage kills his brother Abel.

In the story of Noah, the God character tries a different approach.

God said to Noah: The end of all flesh is coming before Me, because the earth is filled with violence on account of them, and here I am, the one Who destroys the earth.  Make for yourself a floating-container of gofer wood; you shall make the floating-container compartmented, and you shall cover it inside and outside with caulking. (Genesis 6:13-14)

If what “God” wants is for Noah to obey orders, His new style works. Noah simply follows orders, and makes no independent decisions until after the flood. But commentators have wondered for millennia whether Noah’s mechanical obedience is actually what “God” wants. (See my post last week, Noach: Righteous Choices.) What if “God” is hoping that Noah will propose an alternative, the way Abraham does later when “God” announces He will destroy Sodom and Gommorah?

abraham-looks-at-starsThis week’s Torah portion, Lekh-lekha, begins with the God character’s first direction to Abraham.

God said to Abraham: Lekh-lekha, away from your land, and away from your home, and away from the house of your father, to the land that I will show you. And I will make you into a great people, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, so it will become a blessing. (Genesis 12:1-2)

Lekh = Go!

-lekha = yourself, for yourself, to yourself.

Here the God character’s order specifies what Abraham should leave behind, but gives no details about the future he is walking into. What “God” does communicate is that this move is important for Abraham, not just for God. Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) interpreted Lekh-lekha as “Go for yourself”, i.e. for your own sake. The Zohar (a 13th-century kabbalistic text) interpreted it as “Go to yourself”, i.e. recreate yourself as a new individual, separate from your past.

All the promises of blessing, while non-specific, also serve to let Abraham know that going to the new land will be for his own benefit. This is the first time in the Torah that “God” promises a reward for obeying His directions.

Abraham responds to the divine direction by leaving home for good, as instructed. But he takes some initiative and prepares for his own future by bringing along his wife, nephew, servants, and livestock.

Since the voice of God does not even tell him which way to head when he leaves his father’s house in Charan, Abraham chooses to travel west into Canaan. Only after he has reached Shechem, well inside Canaan, does “God” appear to him and say: To your offspring I will give this land. (Genesis 12:7)

The God character’s method of giving partial directions, promising an eventual reward, and leaving the rest up to the human being seems to be the most successful approach so far. Abraham responds by leaving his old familiar habits behind, and making new choices.

Today, few people hear God giving them direct instructions in Biblical Hebrew. But I can imagine the God character in these stories as an inner voice from the human subconscious, struggling to be heard properly.

There are many ways for a human being to get stuck and wait passively for change, instead of looking for a good action and bravely doing it. At times in my life I have been like the adam, obeying orders without raising questions, avoiding any potential conflict. I had to reach a certain level of misery before an inner voice from God’s snake reminded me that it would not kill me to pick the fruit and liberate myself, to choose my own course and act.

At times in my life I have been like Cain, feeling as though I am at the mercy of a bad desire. Yet eventually I hear the divine hint that I can master the desire, and choose to do good.

Other times, I feel overwhelmed, drowned, by the demands of other people and by the way the world works. I want to make my own little floating container and hide in it. But my conscience nags at me, reminding me that I cannot hide in an ark without bringing my family and hordes of hungry animals with me. God wants engagement with the world.

And yes, periodically I have heard an inner call to leave my familiar but not-so-good life, and set out for an unknown destination and destiny, like Abraham. So far, responding to that voice has led to blessings.

May we all be blessed to listen to our inner “God” voice, and never lose the taste of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Bereishit: Inner Voices

September 25, 2013 at 2:26 pm | Posted in Bereishit | 4 Comments
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The first Torah portion in the first book of the Torah (both called Bereishit, “In a beginning”, in Hebrew) opens with God’s creation of the world. It closes with God’s decision to destroy the world and start over again.

Just before God makes this decision, the Torah gives us a curious story fragment:

And beney ha-elohim saw the daughters of the human, how tov they were, and they took themselves wives from whomever they chose. (Genesis 6:2)

The Nefilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, for beney ha-elohim came into the daughters of the human, and they bore children to them. They were the mighty ones from long ago, men of renown. (Genesis 6:4)

beney ha-elohim = the sons of God.

tov = good, attractive.

What does “the sons of God” mean? Some traditional commentary claims the phrase refers to superior human men, who make the mistake of marrying an inferior class of women. Other commentators say the “sons of God” are angels, angels of a lower grade than the malachim (“messengers”) that appear in the Torah in human form in order to speak as mouthpieces for God.

What strikes me is that the phrase beney ha-elohim appears only four times in the whole Hebrew Bible: twice in the passage above, and twice in the book of Job. The book of Job begins by describing how upright, good, and God-fearing Job is. Then the scene shifts to the court of God:

One day beney ha-elohim came to present themselves in front of God, and ha-satan came too, in the middle of them. And God said to ha-satan: Where do you come from? And ha-satan answered God, and said: From roving about on the earth and from going back and forth on it. (Job 1:6-7)

ha-satan = the adversary, the obstacle

God pays attention to ha-satan, and does not question any of the other “sons of God”. The Adversary doubts whether Job is genuinely good and God-fearing, and persuades God to test Job’s faithfulness. God assigns the Adversary to strike all Job’s possessions. Ha-satan eliminates Job’s wealth and all his children—for no good reason—but Job still blesses God.

Then one day beney ha-elohim came to present themselves in front of God, and ha-satan came too, in the middle of them, to present itself in front of God. And God said to ha-satan: Where do you come from this? And ha-satan answered God, and said: From roving about on the earth and from going back and forth on it. (Job 2:1-2)

Once again God only converses with ha-satan. The Adversary persuades God to test Job again, this time by afflicting his body, and God authorizes another injustice in order to find out what Job will do.

The book of Job is a theological conversation in the guise of a story about a man who lived long ago and far away. In order to set up the question of whether God is just, the story uses an allegory of God in His court, receiving His sons, the lesser gods (a scene obviously borrowed from one of the pantheistic religions in the region).

But on another level, I see both stories about beney ha-elohim as allegories for the human mind.

In the book of Job, I think God’s court represents the human mind. The decision-making ego is visited by various sub-personalities, including one that takes an adversarial role and obstructs the ego by planting doubt, then tempting the ego to abandon morality in order to find out for sure.

In the book of Genesis, the interaction between “the sons of God” and the “daughters of the human” can also represent the human mind. Like ha-satan in Job, beney ha-elohim in Genesis  visit the earth. The purpose of the visit in Job is to observe the human beings from a different perspective than God’s, and bring that perspective into the heavenly court that I think represents the human mind.

The purpose of the visit in Genesis is to marry and “come into” human women. When the book of Genesis says “for beney ha-elohim came into the daughters of the human, and they bore children to them”, we can read it as simply a description of the sons of God having sex with their wives, who then give birth to mighty and famous men. But we can also read it as a representation of subconscious aspects of the mind coming into the consciousness of human women, and inspiring them to give birth to new ideas and notions.

In the Bible divine inspiration, ruach elohim, can be good or bad; good when a prophet is moved to speak out and warn people they are doing wrong, but bad when King Saul is seized by divinely-induced madness. What if divine inspiration comes from different aspects of God, different “sons”? One aspect might give us an impulse to speak out against injustice. Another aspect (such as ha-satan in Job) might give us an impulse to commit any injustice in order to prove a point.

The “sons of God” in Genesis are apparently bad impulses, leading to bad thoughts and actions.

And God saw the abundant badness of the human on the earth, that the shape of every idea of his heart was only bad all the time. And God nicham that It had made the human on the earth, and It was heartbroken. (Genesis/Bereishit 6:5-6)

nicham = had a change of heart, reconsidered. (This verb covers at least two kinds of change of heart: regret, and consolation.)

Before the beney ha-elohim show up, the humans on earth seem like a mixed lot, more good than bad. Cain is a murderer, and his great-great-great grandson Lemekh boasts to his wives about vengeance, but the other people the Torah mentions seem innocent enough. When Enosh is born, people start invoking the four-letter name of God. One of Enosh’s descendants, Enoch (Chanokh), “walked with God”.

Only after the beney ha-elohim influence the human race does God consider the ideas of the human heart “only bad all the time”. Perhaps these “sons of God” are like ha-satan in Job. The Adversary in Job corrupts the ruling god with feelings of doubt. The sons of God in Genesis apparently introduce urges that corrupt the conscious mind of the human “daughter”, and become obstacles to good behavior.

And God said: I will wipe away the human that I created from the face of the earth, from human to beast to creeper to flyer in the sky, because I have nicham that I made them. But Noah found grace in the eyes of God. (Genesis/Bereishit 6:7-8)

In next week’s Torah portion, God decides to start the world over again with Noah and his family (as well as pairs of all the animals). This is like deciding to eliminate all those awkward feelings of beney ha-elohim, and reduce the mind to a single virtuous ego. Yet when the flood ends, God reaches the more mature conclusion that the human mind is always subject to evil, and decides to put up with it.

Today, we all hear the mental voices of divine inspiration inside our own minds. Sometimes they are Adversaries, trying to push us off the right path and make us act out of doubt or resentment or another negative urge. Sometimes they enter with enlightenment, and impregnate us with ideas that lead to good actions.

May we all learn to put up with the many shapes of our ideas, as the god in Genesis did. And may we all become more discriminating about our inner promptings than the god in Job.

Vayakheil: Shadow Power

March 8, 2013 at 8:35 am | Posted in Bereishit, Vayakheil | 1 Comment

God spoke to Moses, saying: See? I have called by name Betzaleil son of Uri son of Chur of the tribe of Yehudah. And I have filled him with the spirit of God, with wisdom and with insight and with knowledge, and with every craft. (Exodus/Shemot 31:1-3)

Moses said to the children of Israel: See? God has called by name Betzaleil son of Uri son of Chur of the tribe of Yehudah. And he has filled him with the spirit of God, with wisdom, with insight, and with knowledge, and with every craft. (Exodus 35:30-31)

Betzaleil (בְּצַלְאֵל) = In the shadow of God.           b- (=in, at, by, with) + tzeil (=shadow, shade) + eil (= god)

In the Torah portions of the last few weeks, God told Moses everything that should be included in a portable sanctuary the Israelites would make for God. In this week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil (And he assembled), Moses passes on the lists to the Israelites, and points out (See?) that God has chosen Betzaleil to be in charge of creating all the items properly. Everyone can see that God has filled Betzaleil with a divine spirit or inspiration, so it is easy to believe God has singled him our or “called him by name”–a name that is oddly appropriate for his mission.

What does it mean to be, or to create, in the shadow of God? Today we use the word “shadow” as a metaphor for so many things. For example, being in someone’s shadow means going unnoticed. The shadow side of a person or institution is the unacknowledged, unconscious, or repressed side. Shadowing someone is following their every move.

But in the Hebrew Bible, the meanings of the word “shadow” are more limited. The word tzeil appears 48 times, and 40 of those references are either literal (such as the shadow of a tree or a sundial) or a metaphor for shelter and protection. The first time the word appears is in Lot’s speech to the men of Sodom, begging them not to molest his two angelic visitors:

Here please, I have two daughters who have not known a man. Please let me bring them out to you, and you may do to them whatever is good in your eyes. Only don’t do a thing to these men, because they came into the shadow of my roof. (Genesis/Bereishit 19:8)

Here “the shadow of my roof” means “under my protection”. Once Lot has offered the visitors the hospitality of his house, he feels honor-bound to protect them from the mob.

Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, some people are under the “shadow” or protection of a government, and the luckiest people are in the “shadow” of God’s hand or wings.

In the shadow of Your wings I seek refuge. (Psalm 57:2)

Those of us who live in more moderate climates might not think of a shadow as a protection or a shelter, but in the deserts of the Middle East a shadow meant shade from the burning sun.

The other eight occurrences of the word tzeil, shadow, are all connected with a person’s lifespan. When that days of your life are like a shadow, it means they are brief and fleeting.

Humankind is like a puff of air; his days are like a passing shadow. (Psalm 144:4)

Both of these metaphors can be applied to the master craftsman Betzaleil. Since he is human, his life is short compared to God’s. By extension, his creations, however dazzling and holy, are a mere shadow of God’s creation of the universe.

On the other hand, Betzaleil is in the shadow of God, so God protects and shelters him as well as naming him. His inspiration for designing all the holy objects comes from the spirit of God, and therefore everything will come out right.

A literal shadow is like a silhouette; you see the outline of the original, but none of the details or colors. This kind of shadow fits the Hebrew word tzelem, which is sometimes translated as “shadow”, but more often translated as “image”. The word tzelem, which may well be related to the word tzeil, appears in the first account of God’s creation of the universe:

And God said: Let us make humankind betzalmeinu, in our likeness, and they will rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the beasts, and over all the land, and over all creepers that creep on the land. (Genesis/Bereishit 1:26)

betzalmeinu (בְּצַלְמֵנוּ) = in our image

Humans are shadows of God in the sense that we are like silhouettes of the divine. As two-dimensional images, our power, both to rule and to create, is limited yet still extensive. We cannot rule over the laws of nature, but we have a lot of control over this earth and its creatures. (We can even change the earth’s climate.) We cannot create a universe, but we can recombine existing elements to create new things within our universe. When we humans are at our best, when we are inspired to create, like Betzaleil, we shadow or imitate the divine. Only God can make a tree, but some poems are also inspiring.

So, I imagine, was the entire work of art of the portable sanctuary, and later of the temple.  It inspired the children of Israel to keep returning to their God, over the centuries, and it kept their religion alive until it could metamorphose and survive without a temple.

When God calls us by name, either to rule or to create, we are given a heavy responsibility. We humans have more power than we think, for good and for ill. May we use it wisely.

Bereishit: A First-Rate Beginning

October 11, 2012 at 12:58 am | Posted in Bereishit | Leave a comment

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. (Genesis/Bereishit 1:1, King James Version)

I used to find flaws in the King James translation of the first line of the Bible: Bereishit bara Elohim eit hashamayim ve-eit ha-aretz. Consider the first word, a compound of

be- = a prefix meaning “in”, “with”, “at”, “by”, or another preposition, depending on context and idiomatic usage

+ reishit = beginning, first, first-rate, best

I knew that “in the” was ba, not be. So I preferred modern translations of bereishit as “In a beginning”. But this year, I checked all the other places where the word reishit appears in the Hebrew bible, and I discovered that reishit itself often implies a definite article (i.e. “the”). So the King James version’s In the beginning is accurate after all.

The second Hebrew word is bara, “created”. Before I learned Biblical Hebrew grammar, I made the translation mistake the Talmud warns against (Megillah 9a) and wondered if bereishit bara Elohim means that “In-a-beginning” created God. Then I found out that the subject follows the verb in Hebrew, so the correct translation of bara Elohim is “God created”, not “created God”.

What about the word Elohim? It is a plural noun, used in the Torah for both God and for other peoples’ gods. But the book of Genesis/Bereishit would hardly say that other peoples’ gods created the heavens and the earth!

The word translated in the King James version as “the heavens”, hashamayim, is either plural or double, not singular. So I would translate it as “the heavens”. But that is nit-picking.

When I began researching this blog, I still hoped I could come up with a more interesting, yet accurate, translation. Over the years I have enjoyed reading alternate translations, especially when they lead to intriguing ideas about the nature of God.

For example, here is one of 19th-century Rabbi Raphael Samson Hirsch’s translations: From the very beginning God created the heaven and the earth. I notice that this version implies not only that God (Elohim) is the original, and perhaps the only, creator, but also that creating the heavens and the earth is an ongoing process.

For another example, here is Rabbi David Cooper’s 20th-century translation in God Is a VerbWith a beginning, [It] created God (Elohim), the heavens and the earth. Cooper explained that in kabbalah, the ein sof (“without end”) precedes Nothingness, and out of Nothingness comes Beginningness. From Beginningness comes Elohim, the plural name of God, and then plural creation follows, starting with the heavens and the earth. The first part of this amazing progression occured before the first word of the Torah. The word bereishit catches the kabbalistic progression at the stage of Beginningness.

Yet the 17th-century King James translation, prosaic as it seems, is closer to the original Hebrew. So then I wondered if I could invent an interesting alternate translation by using one of the other meanings of reishit.

The word reishit appears in the Hebrew bible 50 times. It is used most often (23 times) to indicate one kind of offering to the temple: an offering of the first or the finest sample of an agricultural product–usually fruit or grain, but sometimes bread, oil, or livestock. Another common use of the word (10 times) is to indicate that something else is first-rate: a person, a group of people, a father’s vigor, a land’s fertility, a fig’s flavor.

If the reishit part of the first word in the Bible meant “first-rate”, the first sentence could be translated: With the best, God created the heaven and the earth. We would learn that our universe is first-rate (or at least the best of all possible worlds), and that God also created other, inferior universes!

But this is stretching too far, when the Hebrew bible uses reishit to mean “the beginning” 17 more times after the opening Bereishit. Twelve of these occurrences refer to the beginning of something that unfolds over a period of time: a year, an episode in someone’s life, a king’s reign, a person’s lifetime, a kingdom’s duration. Two more occurrences refer to the beginning of a process of divine creation: the book of Job claims the behemoth was the beginning of God’s creation of animals, while the book of Proverbs claims wisdom was the beginning of God’s creation of the world. The word reishit is also used three  times for a more abstract beginning, as in Psalm 111:10 (The beginning of wisdom is awe of God).

The compound word bereishit shows up four times in the book of Jeremiah. All four times, bereishit merely gives the approximate date of a prophecy, by placing it “in the beginning of the reign of” a certain king. So the bereishit in the first sentence of the Torah must also be the beginning of something that unfolds over time, like a king’s reign. But this beginning came before everything. It is the beginning of time as we know it (one new thing after another), or the beginning of being.

Maybe Elohim, the god of plurals, means God the Creator, the God of Time, and the God of Endless Beginnings. Then what came before the beginning of time and creation, before Elohim? If the answer is God, this is a god we cannot even imagine. The Ein Sof (“Without End”) of kabbalah is, by definition, inconceivable. As the Zohar says, “No thought can grasp You at all.” Yet Elohim, the God that we can think about, points back at the Ein Sof, the inconceivable God  that began Rabbi David Cooper’s kabbalistic progression.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” is more profound than I thought.

Toledot & Vayishlach: Seeing Red

November 24, 2011 at 3:35 pm | Posted in Bereishit, Toledot, Vayishlach | 2 Comments

The book of Genesis/Bereishit explores a series of conflicts between brothers, and one between sisters.  Two of these conflicts feature an especially hot-blooded, emotional brother, and both of these use various permutations of the word adom, “red”.

After Cain kills Abel, God tells Cain:

The voice of the blood of your brother is crying out from the ground!  (Genesis/Bereishit 4:10)
dam = blood
adamah = ground, dirt, earth

Both Hebrew words come from the same root as adam (“human”, also the name of the father of Cain and Abel, whom God makes out of dirt in Chapter 2).  To be human is, among other things, to be red.  Dam, “blood”, is obviously red.  And traditional commentary explains that uncultivated earth (at least in the world described by the Torah) is red clay.

This week’s Torah portion, Toledot (“histories”), tells the story of the twins Esau and Jacob, from their conception to age 40, when Jacob flees because Esau is threatening to kill him.

And her days of pregnancy were completed, and hey!  twins were in her womb.  And the first one went out, red all over like a fur robe of hair, and they called his name Esau.  And after that his brother went out, and his hand held onto the heel of Esau, so he called his name Jacob … (Genesis 25:24-26)

admoni = reddish

eisav = Esau; do it, get it done

ya-akov = Jacob; he heels, he follows, he is cunning

Even at birth, Esau is red.  (The text is not clear about whether he has ruddy skin and is covered with hair, or whether his fur-like hair is reddish.  Either way, he is born red, like blood, and hairy, like a wild man.)

Since Esau is born a moment before Jacob, he counts as the firstborn son.  In the world of the Torah, when the patriarch of an extended family dies, his firstborn son inherits  a double portion of his father’s possessions, and also becomes the family’s priest or intercessor with God.  Yet in this story, when Esau grows up and becomes a hunter, he does not care about the role of the firstborn.  Jacob, who stays in the tents, cares very much.

Jacob stewed a stew, and Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted.  And Esau said to Jacob:  “Please, let me gulp down some of the red– this red– because I am exhausted.”

Therefore he called his name Edom.

And Jacob said:  “Hand over, as of today, your right as firstborn to me”.

And Esau said:  “Hey, I am going toward death, so what is this to me, a firstborn right?”

And Jacob said:  “Swear to me, as of today!”  And he swore to him, and he handed over his firstborn right to Jacob.  And as for Jacob, he gave to Esau bread and a stew of lentils.  And he ate and he drank and he got up and he went.  Thus he belittled the right of the firstborn.  (Genesis 25:29-34)

Edom = a people who later lived east of the Jordan valley, supposedly descended from Esau.  (The Hebrew word comes from the same root as adom = red.)

On a literal level, this story amuses me, because I often make stew from red lentils, and it always comes out a golden color.  Other kinds of cooked lentils are dark brown or green-brown—but never red.  Did someone who never cooked write down this story, and get the detail about lentils wrong?  I prefer to assume that Jacob is so clever, he adds an ingredient to his stew that will make even lentils look red enough to attract Esau’s attention.

Esau sees food, and the color red.  He does not notice the lentils.  He cannot even find the word for stew.  The 19th-century commentator Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that the color red delights Esau because it reminds him of the blood on an animal when his arrow hits it.

The 20th-century psychologist Helen Luke wrote that red is the color of instinct, impulse, and emotion.  She added that Esau, who is controlled by the color red, is in danger of losing all civilizing tendencies and becoming evil.  Jacob, his opposite, is in danger of repressing or denying all instinct and emotion, and becoming evil.  I conclude that neither the man of blood-red violence nor the bloodless schemer is a good candidate for the spiritual role of the firstborn, the one who speaks with and makes offerings to God.

I think Jacob sees the world as black and white, divided between losers and winners.  Since he sees the firstborn as the winner in the family, he applies his intelligence to acquiring that role.  He suppresses any emotional impulses in order to carry out first his own scheme for taking his brother’s birthright, then his mother’s scheme for stealing his brother’s blessing.  Jacob may not savor his food as much as Esau, but he knows how to plan ahead.

Esau sees only red.  Carried away by one emotion after another during the Torah portion of Toledot, he carries out his impulses and lives for the moment.  In the passage translated above, he gives away his birthright to appease one day’s feelings of hunger and despair.  Later in the Torah portion, he weeps like a child when he finds out Jacob has stolen the blessing their father intended for Esau.  Then he becomes so angry he threatens to kill Jacob as soon as their father dies.

Jacob flees from him, and in a distant town he meets his match in his cold, calculating uncle Lavan—whose name means “white” in Hebrew.  Yet some color also comes into Jacob’s black-and-white life, as he impulsively falls in love with Lavan’s daughter Rachel.  Gradually he succeeds in becoming the leader of his own clan, through a combination of sensitivity to others’ emotions and rational long-term planning.

Meanwhile, Esau leaves home and learns how to be a leader.  When he hears that his twin and nemesis is coming his way (in the Torah portion Vayishlach), he plans ahead by bringing 400 men to meet Jacob on the road.  But he retains his emotional instincts, and when he sees Jacob bow to him, he runs over and embraces his brother.  The two older and wiser men pull off a peaceful reunion.

We all have some of Jacob’s black-and-white rationalism and some of Esau’s red emotionalism.  We can only be whole human beings when those two sides embrace.

Furthermore, in order turn our whole personality toward peace rather than toward evil, we must learn from the evolution of both brothers.  Jacob learns to use his black-and-white intellect to lay plans for the good of everyone, instead of for just his own advantage.  And Esau learns to move beyond seeing red as the blood shed in killing, and see red as the blood of life, shared with other humans.

If we can widen our vision enough, through both our intellects and our emotions, we will recognize that all human beings share the same blood; we are descendants of Adam, the red one.  Then we will all truly deserve the right of the firstborn to speak with God.

Bereishit & Noach: All Flesh

October 27, 2011 at 11:10 pm | Posted in Bereishit, Noach | Leave a comment

Light and dark, good and bad, heaven and earth, spirit and matter—the narratives as well as the religious laws in the Torah often speak in terms of contrasts.  In this universe of contrasting pairs, humans are a unique combination of the heavenly and the earthly.  This concept of humankind begins in the second chapter of Genesis:

And God formed the adam out of dirt from the adamah, and blew into its nostrils the soul of life, and the adam became a living being.  (Genesis/Bereishit 2:7)

adam = human, humankind

adamah = ground, soil

Humans are a combination of dirt and God’s breath—a vivid way of saying we are a combination of body and soul (in the English idiom), or basar (flesh) and ruach (spirit) in the biblical Hebrew idiom.

basar = flesh; muscle; all the soft tissue of a human or other animal, the part that can decay, be eaten, or be burned up; all mortal creatures

ruach = wind; spirit; temperament; divine movement or impulse

The word ruach appears right at the beginning of the Torah, at the beginning of the first creation story:

…and darkness was over the face of the deep, and the ruach of God was hovering over the face of the waters.  (Genesis/Bereishit 1:2)

The word basar (flesh) first appears when God divides the primordial human into two sides, and refashions them into two independent creatures:

Then God cast the human into a supernal sleep, and took one of its side, and closed the basar.  And God built the side that It took from the human into a woman, and It brought her to the human.  And the human said:  This time, it is bone from my bone, and basar from my basar; this one will be called woman, because this one was taken from man. (Genesis/Bereishit 2:21-23)

Eleven generations and about a thousand years later, God observes that the human combination of flesh and spirit has led to a lot of bad thoughts and actions.

And God saw that the badness of the human on the earth was great, and all the tendencies of its inner considerings were only bad, every day.  (Genesis 6:5)

How were they so bad?  The next Torah portion, Noach (a resting place, serenity; as a proper name, “Noah”) gives us only a hint.

God looked at the earth, and hey! it had become spoiled, because all basar had spoiled its ways upon the earth.  So God said to Noah:  “An end of all basar is coming, because they have filled the earth with outrage; so here I am, about to spoil the earth.”  (Genesis 6:12-6:13)

shicheit = spoil, corrupt, damage, ruin, bring down

When God warns Noah about the flood, God predicts the end of  “all flesh”.  But when God proceeds to flood the earth, the Torah describes the end of the ruach  of humans and the other land animals.

Everything that had the soul of the ruach of life from God’s nostrils, out of all that was on dry land, died.  …and God wiped them away from the earth, and kept safe only Noah and those with him in the ark.  (Genesis 7:22-23)

Apparently the “badness”, or evil, does not lie exclusively in either the flesh (“dirt” or inanimate matter that God brought to life) or the spirit (ruach, wind, God’s own movement within our inner selves).  The badness may be in a spoiled relationship between flesh and spirit.

Medieval Jewish commentators said the problem was sexual immorality (one of their favorite topics).  The 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explained that a righteous person refrains from sexual immorality by subordinating the physical, sensual drives of the flesh to the divine will of God’s spirit.  If, on the other hand, the spirit is subordinate to the flesh, then a person’s thoughts and actions will tend toward immorality, and be “spoiled”.

Jews have little or no monastic tradition, and even medieval rabbis carefully distinguished between morally desirable sex and immoral sex.  Today some of us might draw the line in a different place, but we still draw a line, and expect a decent human being to have enough self-control to refrain from immoral sexual acts.

And sex is not the only area in life where humans experience a conflict between the flesh and the spirit.  For example, sometimes we crave food or drugs that we know will have bad results for ourselves and other humans who depend upon us; if our flesh is not subordinate to our spirit, we act on our cravings.  Sometimes we have trouble giving up a material comfort our “flesh” is attached to, for the sake of a higher good.

It’s easy to condemn other people for not trying hard enough, when their spirit loses the struggle with an undesirable desire of the flesh.  But when I look deeper, I see people who find dieting manageable condemning those who try to diet without success; people who already have sexual self-control condemning those who succumb to temptation; people who can afford to buy hybrid electric cars condemning those who drive old gas-guzzlers.

In the Torah, God condemns and wipes out the whole human race except for Noah and his immediate family, and throws in millions of animals for good measure.  After the flood subsides, Noah sacrifices the excess animals that God included in the ark at the last minute, in Chapter 7.  By building an altar and completely burning up their flesh, Noah demonstrates that he values God more than animals, spirit more than flesh.

And God smelled the soothing fragrance, and God said to Its heart:  I will not again denigrate the ground (adamah) on account of the human (adam), for the tendencies of the inner human are bad from its youth; so I will not again strike down everything that lives, as I have done.  (Genesis, 8:21)

So God decides to continue the experiment, continue with these strange combinations of physical flesh and divine spirit that we call adam, humankind.  God pulls back from condemnation because of the mere scent of a better relationship between flesh and spirit.

If God can do it in the Torah, maybe we can do it here on earth.  We humans all have bad tendencies, because we are all hybrid creatures of flesh and spirit.  My most troublesome bad tendency may be different from yours.  But I pray that I will notice what is good in you, and in myself ; that I will refrain from the impulse to condemn; and that I will become a humane human.

Bereishit: Fairness & Free Will

March 13, 2011 at 5:54 pm | Posted in Bereishit | 3 Comments

(This blog was first posted on September 26, 2010.)

And God said to Cain:  Why did you heat up, and why did your face fall?  Isn’t it true that if you do good, there is uplifting?  And if you do not do good, sin is lying like a beast at the door, and its hunger is for you.  But you, you can rule over it.  (Genesis/Bereishit 4:6-7)

chatat = sin, moral violation, missing the mark, going off track, fault, guilt

Yes, God gives Cain a warning, and he kills his brother anyway.

The first time I read the story of Cain and Abel in Hebrew, I saw it in a new light.  Cain’s name in Hebrew is kayin, which means “spear”, and may or may not be related to the word kanah, “acquire”.  But Abel’s name in Hebrew is hevel—the same word that is translated as “vanity” in the King James version of Ecclesiastes/Kohelet.  A hevel is a puff of air, a vapor, something transitory and insignificant; it can also be translated as “emptiness” or “futility”.

Somebody named Abel might well be a virtuous shepherd who brings a superior sacrifice to God.  But somebody named Futility?  Or Puff?  I don’t think so.

Puff’s insubstantiality is underscored by the description of the births of Adam and Eve’s first two sons.  First the Torah says: She conceived and she gave birth to Cain, and she said: I have created a man with God.  Then it says:  And she added to the birthing his brother, Puff.  Clearly Cain is the important character.  Puff is merely a foil for Cain’s drama.

Cain is the one who gets the idea of bringing an offering to God, and since he works the soil like his father Adam, he brings a sacrifice from the fruit of the ground.  Puff then imitates Cain, and brings a sacrifice from the firstborns of his flock and from their fat.

God pays attention to Puff’s offering, and ignores Cain’s.  (The Torah does not say how God demonstrated this attention, but somehow Cain could tell.  Medieval commentary said that fire from heaven devoured Puff’s animals, but left Cain’s fruits and vegetables untouched.)

Then Cain gets upset; in the metaphor of the Torah, he becomes hot, and his face falls.  I remember how upset my own son used to get when he was small and something unfair happened.

Is God’s action unfair?  Traditional commentary argues that Puff’s sacrifice is superior to Cain’s, so he deserves God’s favor.  But I don’t buy it.  It’s true that later in the Torah, firstborn animals and fat are especially appropriate for sacrifices, so Puff gave God the best he had.  But the text says nothing about the quality of Cain’s gifts; he might have offered the best he had, too.  And given that at this point God still expects humans to be vegetarians, it seems odd that God would prefer the sacrifice of animals.

I think God’s action is deliberately unfair, and its purpose is to give Cain a test or  challenge.  God then gives Cain a strong hint with the warning translated above.  Never mind whether life is fair, God implies.  The important thing is to do good yourself, regardless.  If you do, you’ll be uplifted.  But if you succumb to the animal impulse to do evil, you’ll be eaten up by it.  Believe me, you have the ability to overrule that impulse.  So here’s your chance to prove yourself.

Alas, Cain fails the test and kills his brother.

Traditional commentary claims this is the second time a human fails one of God’s tests, the first time being in the garden of Eden.  But I think that when God creates the adam (which means “human” or “humankind”) out of dirt and the divine breath, this new creature is incomplete, not entirely human yet.  God transfers the proto-human into an otherworldly place in which all the animals subsist on fruit.  Judging by God’s “curses” on man, woman, and serpent, the garden of Eden has no weeds, thorns, pain, birth, or death; it’s not part of the real world we know.

The whole point of Eden seems to be to expose the adam to the Tree of Knowledge.  God points out the tree to the creature by saying: From all the trees of the garden you may certainly eat; but from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad, you may not eat, because once you eat from it you will certainly die.

When the adam doesn’t do anything about this prohibition, God divides it into two beings, male and female counterparts.  This does the trick; the female human accepts the challenge, and both of them eat from the Tree of Knowledge.  Now they are truly human: they exercise free will, they have a moral sense that other animals lack, and they are mortal.  Now God can take them out of Eden and return them to the real world to get the history of humanity going.

But apparently humanity needs another nudge from God.  The knowledge of good and bad that Adam and Eve acquired in Eden is still nascent and primitive.  A real test is needed to show humanity what free will and good and evil really mean.  So God sets it up, with Puff as the foil for Cain.  Cain has a good impulse, wanting to show his gratitude for the produce of the earth, and gives some to God.  God responds with unfairness, injustice.  Cain has a primitive intuition of good and evil, and gets upset when life isn’t fair.  And God tells Cain to get over it, and use his free will, his ability to override his impulses and make deliberate choices, his ability to act according to a higher morality.  This is the first real test of a human being.

Cain flunks the test.  And to this day, human beings keep on flunking the test.  We lash out at unfairness, we take revenge, and we murder our brothers, our fellow human beings.

But some of us grow up.  Some of us hear an echo of God’s message to Cain, and override our angry impulses, and choose to behave with more virtue.  It’s not easy at first, but gradually we can develop a habit of choosing good over evil, of keeping the hungry beast at the door at bay.  We can make the beast lie outside, instead of letting it come in and take over.

Is humanity making any progress on this hard path?  Examples of atrocities are still all too easy to find.  But I believe that more and more people are recognizing them as atrocious.  The world is still full of Cains.  But maybe, in some future century, if humanity lasts long enough, we will all finally be able to hear God’s warning to Cain, and rule over our emotional reactions to unfairness, and dedicate ourselves to choosing good, no matter what.

May it happen soon.

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