Chayyei Sarah (& Lekh-Lekha): A Holy Place

October 21, 2013 at 1:00 pm | Posted in Chayyei Sarah, Lekh Lekha, Vayeira, Vayeitzei | 2 Comments
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What makes a place holy?

The word for “holy”, kadosh, means separated from mundane use, dedicated to God, or simply inspiring religious awe.  Kadosh appears only once in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, in verb form, when God blesses the seventh day of creation and makes it holy.  The word does not show up again until the book of Exodus/Shemot, when Moses stops to look at the burning bush, and God tells him to take off his shoes, because the place where you are standing is holy ground (Exodus 3:5).  Later in Exodus, Mount Sinai becomes holy ground for a whole people.  Eventually the Bible names Jerusalem as a holy city.

Even though there are no places called kadosh, “holy”, in the book of Genesis, there many sites where God makes first contact with a human being.  At two of the locations where God speaks to a human, the human dedicates the spot, and later someone returns to the same place to connect with God.  These places, Be-eir Lachai Ro-i and Beit-El, must surely count as holy!

Isaac and his bride Rebecca meet in a field next to Be-eir Lachai Ro-i (“Well for the Living One Who Sees Me”) in this week’s Torah portion, Chayyei Sarah (“the life of Sarah”).  But it is Hagar, an Egyptian, who first encounters God there.

When Abraham and his wife Sarah leave Egypt in the Torah portion Lekh-Lekha (“Go for Yourself”), Hagar goes with them as Sarah’s servant.  Sarah gives Hagar to her husband for the purpose of producing a child Sarah can adopt.  But once Hagar is pregnant, Sarah abuses her, and Hagar runs away across the Negev Desert, back toward Egypt.  A messenger of God  finds her at a spring, a watering-place by the road.  God speaks to Hagar through the messenger and convinces her to return to Abraham and Sarah.

And she called the name of God, the one speaking to her: You are the God of Ro-i; for she said: Even as far as here, I saw after ro-i! Therefore the be-eir is called Be-eir Lachai Ro-i. (Genesis 16:13-14)

ro-i = seeing me, one who sees me.

be-eir = well, watering-place.

lachai = for the living one.

For Hagar, accustomed to being a pawn in Sarah’s schemes, the most amazing thing is that God actually notices her—and she survives.  Hagar does return, and gives birth to Ishmael.  Sarah adopts Ishmael, but later bears her own son, Isaac, and sends Hagar and Ishmael into exile.

Isaac is 40 years old before the Torah once again mentions Be-eir Lachai Ro-i, the Well of the Living One Who Sees Me.  At this point, Isaac is estranged from his father.  In last week’s Torah portion, Vayeira (“And He Saw”), Abraham bound Isaac as a sacrificial offering, and raised the knife to his son’s throat before a voice from God called him off.  After that, Isaac did not go home with his father.  In this week’s Torah portion, Abraham buries Sarah, Isaac’s mother, without Isaac’s presence.  Then he arranges for Isaac to marry an Aramean without even informing his son.  Apparently they are not on speaking terms.

Abraham lives in Beersheba (Be-eir Sheva), and Isaac lives farther south, in the Negev Desert.

And Isaac, he came from coming to Be-eir Lachai Ro-i, and he himself lived in the land of the Negev.  And Isaac went out lasuach in the field, in the face of the sunset; and he raised his eyes and he saw—hey!  Camels were coming. (Genesis 24:62-63)

lasuach = to ?? (This is the only occurrence of the word in the Bible, and though it is in the form of an infinitive verb, scholars do not agree on its meaning.  Lasuach has been translated as to stroll, to pray, to supplicate, and to meditate.  It might be a variant spelling of the verb siyach = meditate, go over a matter, contemplate something.)

I like the literal translation he came from coming to; it emphasizes that a holy well is a place you come to.  Isaac is avoiding his father, but he comes to the well where God noticed and spoke to Hagar.  Since he has no intention of traveling to Egypt on the road that runs past the well, he must come there because he knows about Hagar’s experience.

Like Hagar, Isaac is used to being overlooked as a person, accustomed to being a pawn in his father’s schemes.  Maybe he hopes that God will notice him at Hagar’s well, or maybe he hopes he will be able to see himself.

Coming from the Well of the Living One Who Sees Me, Isaac heads out into the field at sunset to lasuach.  Maybe Isaac senses the holy presence of God at the well, and he walks back through the field slowly to absorb the experience.

Lost in thought, he raises his eyes and is surprised to see camels approaching.  He is not far from the road between Beersheba and Egypt, but these camels have left the road and are heading across the field toward him.  The first rider to dismount is Rebecca, the bride that Abraham’s servant is bringing to Isaac.  They meet in the field, he loves her, and he begins his new life.

Near the end of the Torah portion, Isaac and his half-brother, Hagar’s son Ishmael, bury Abraham in the family cave to the north.  Then Isaac returns to Hagar’s well.

And it was after the death of Abraham when God blessed Isaac, his son; and he settled next to Be-eir Lachai Ro-i. (Genesis 25:11)

The only other place in the book of Genesis that remains holy years later, under the same name, is Beit-El (sometimes called Bethel in English).  In the upcoming Torah portion Vayeitzei (“And he went”), Jacob stops for the night on his way to Charan and dreams of a stairway between heaven and earth. God speaks to him for the first time.  When Jacob wakes, he says:

Truly God yesh in this place and I, I did not know! And he was awestricken, and he said: How awesome is this place! This is nowhere but Beit El, and this is the gate of the heavens! (Genesis 28:16-17)

yesh = it exists, it is present, there is.

Beit El = the house of God.

For Jacob, the most amazing thing is not that God notices him, but that God exists at all in this world.

Jacob dedicates the spot by setting up a stone pillar and pouring oil over it, and naming it Beit-El.  More than 20 years later, God tells him to return to Beit-El.  Jacob first buries all the idols belonging to his household.  Then he leads them to the spot and builds an altar. God blesses him again, and Jacob pours a libation as well as oil on the stone pillar before moving on.  By returning to the place where God first spoke to him, Jacob rededicates himself to God.

*

Few of us today hear God speaking to us in Biblical Hebrew.  But once in a while, we notice God, or God notices us, and we are amazed.  Suddenly our usual mundane perspective changes, and the world is suffused with new meaning.

Sometimes this happens because a place strikes us as holy, awe-inspiring, connected with God.  It might be a liminal place in nature—the edge of the ocean, deep in a forest, a remote spot with a brilliant night sky.  I have also felt that mysterious awe inside medieval cathedrals, though as a Jew I do not go looking for God there.

Sometimes we go back later, and find God again.  Sometimes we go back and discover that the place seems ordinary now; the holiness was in our own heart.  Either way, it is a blessing to be able to stand on holy ground.

Lekh-Lekha (and Bereishit): Giving Directions

October 9, 2013 at 11:02 am | Posted in Bereishit, Lekh Lekha, Noach | 2 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.

Lekh-Lekha & Vayeira: Going with the Voice

November 1, 2011 at 10:59 pm | Posted in Lekh Lekha, Vayeira | 3 Comments

The phrase lekh-lekha appears only twice in the Torah.  Both times God is telling Abraham to do something radical.

The Caravan of Abraham, by James Tissot

The first time God says lekh-lekha is in his first request of Abraham, at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion (called “Lekh-lekha”):

God said to Abraham: “Lekh-lekha , away from your land, and away from your birthplace, and away from the house of your father, to the land that I will show you.”  (Genesis/Bereishit 12:1) 

lekh (לֶךְ) = Go! 

lekha (לְךָ) =  for yourself, to yourself.

lekh-lekha (לְךְ־לְךָ) = Go for yourself!  Go to yourself!  Go, yourself!  Get going!  

God’s final request to Abraham, in the Torah portion Vayeira (“And he appeared”), contains the same phrase.

And [God] said:  “Please take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac; and lekh-lekha to the land of the Moriyah, and bring him up there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains, which I will tell to you.” (Genesis 22:2)

God’s first request seems difficult but relatively benign.  Yes, Abraham leaves his father and his familiar life.  But he takes along his wife Sarah, his nephew Lot, a lot of personal property, and a number of servants or followers.  Although he is venturing into a strange land to find himself,  he has the benefit of both resources and a party of people of his choosing.  He also has the reassurance of knowing his brother Nachor has remained in Charan to take care of their elderly father, Terach.

French, 13th century

God’s final request, on the other hand, seems impossibly horrific.  Abraham must cut the throat of his son and heir, and burn him up as an offering to God.  In dire circumstances, chieftains in the Middle East did sacrifice their own sons to prevent national disaster.But at this point in the story of Abraham, his small clan is living peacefully at Beer-sheva, with no threat in sight.

So Abraham knows that although he will prove something to God and himself by sacrificing Isaac, his own people and his neighbors will probably think he is a lunatic.  He also knows that his wife Sarah is so attached to Isaac that she will either die of shock or become his bitterest enemy.  Nevertheless he leaves early in the morning with his son and three servants, without speaking to Sarah and without telling the servants what kind of offering he is planning.

God’s final request leaves Abraham without aid or comfort from anyone.   At this point Abraham only has two family members at home: his wife Sarah, and their son Isaac.  (He has already sent away his concubine Hagar and their son Ishmael.  His nephew Lot separated from him long ago.)  By sacrificing Isaac, Abraham will lose the rest of his family: his wife and his remaining son.

Yet God’s two requests, one benign and one disastrous, are related.  Not only do both requests use the unusual term lekh-lekha, but both of them also use a series of phrases that increase Abraham’s emotional stake in obeying.  In the first request, God asks Abraham to leave not just his country, but also the culture he grew up with, and even his own birth family.  In the final request, God asks Abraham to sacrifice not just his son, but his only child (now that Ishamel is exiled), the son he loves.

Both sentences with the phrase lekh-lekha also leave Abraham’s destination a mystery.  The first time, God does not even tell Abraham that he should head for Canaan; he must blindly go to “the land that I will show you”.  The second time, God tells Abraham to go to the land of Moriyah (a place name that may be related to the word marah,  “something shown”) and promises to point out the right mountain to Abraham when he arrives.  Both times, Abraham must start out on his mission trusting God to reveal where it will end.

Furthermore, both of God’s orders come at times when Abraham has a settled life and there is no emergency.  When Abraham first hears God say lekh-lekha, he is simply living in Charan with his extended family.  (Later commentary invented stories about his dramatic youth there as an idol-smasher, but the Torah itself says nothing.)  And when Abraham hears God say lekh-lekha again, he and his people have been living at Beer-sheva for “many years”.

Both times, when nothing in particular is happening, Abraham hears God speak to him out of the blue.  Maybe lekh lekha does mean “Get going!”, since both times Abraham responds by rousing himself and taking an action that changes his whole life.

Rashi wrote that lekh-lekha meant “Go for yourself”, i.e. for your own benefit.2  He pointed out that God promised Abraham many descendants, a famous name, and blessing in return for leaving Charan and going to God’s undisclosed destination.

But surely Abraham would not benefit from sacrificing Isaac, his son and heir.

The sacrifice is not completed; an angel of God stops Abraham at the last minute, when he is holding his knife over Isaac’s throat.  But Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his own son causes lifelong psychological trauma for Isaac.  Although Abraham arranges a marriage for his younger son, there is no indication in the Torah that he and Isaac ever see one another again.

Furthermore, after the attempted sacrifice, the next story in the book of Genesis is about the death of Abraham’s wife Sarah.3  Although Abraham eventually remarries, the death of Sarah probably weighs on him.

*

Lekh-lekha!

How do you know whether the apparently divine voice in your head is summoning you to an adventure, or to a nightmare?  How do you know whether it is ethical to follow that call?

Maybe you experience a divine call as an urgent need to change your life, even though you do not know where the need comes from, or where you will end up if you act on it.  Suppose you ignore this inner voice, this inner god.  Will you feel ashamed for the rest of your life that you did not rise to the challenge?

Suppose you do heed the call.  Will you become a revered leader and the founder of a new way of life, like Abraham?  Or will you become a crazy person ready to sacrifice his own child—like Abraham?

Listen carefully.

  1. For example, in 2 Kings 3:27, when the king of Moab is losing to the invading armies of Israel, Judah, and Edom, he sacrifices his son and heir as a burnt offering, and the invaders retreat.
  2. Rashi is the acronym of 11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.
  3. The story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac is Genesis 22:1-19.  Then there is a brief genealogical interlude, Genesis 22:20-24.  The story of Sarah’s funeral begins with Genesis 23:1.
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