Lekh-Lekha, Vayeira, & Toledot: The Wife-Sister Trick, Part 3

November 8, 2018 at 11:25 am | Posted in Lekh Lekha, Toledot, Vayeira | 2 Comments

Isaac and Rebekah, by Simeon Solomon, 1863

And Isaac stayed in Gerar.  And the men of the place asked about his wife, and he said: “She is my sister,” because he was afraid to say “my wife”—“lest the men of the place kill me on account of Rebecca, since she is good-looking.”  (Genesis 26:6-7)

Isaac’s father, Abraham, pulls the wife-sister trick twice, once in Egypt and once in Gerar(See The Wife-Sister Trick, Part 1 and Part 2.)  Now Isaac moves to Gerar and starts the process a third time in this week’s Torah portion, Toledot (“Lineages”).

The Torah tells us he is afraid; he believes that people in Gerar are so immoral they would kill a man in order to marry his wife—perhaps because he heard the story from his father.  (The assumption is that marrying an already-married woman is so sinful, not even foreigners would do it.  Murder is the lesser sin.)

Abraham’s feelings about passing off his wife as his sister are omitted; we do not even know if he believes he would be killed, or if he sees it as a way to get rich.  At least Abraham has a reason for moving to Egypt.

A famine happened in the land, and Abraham went down to Egypt lagur there, because the famine was heavy on the land.  (Genesis 12:10)

lagur (לָגוּר) = to live as a resident alien, to sojourn.1

In the second tale, Abraham goes to Gerar for no apparent reason—except maybe to get richer.

And Abraham pulled out from there to the land of the Negev, and he settled between Kadeish and Shur, vayagar in Gerar.  And Abraham said of Sarah, his wife: “She is my sister.”  And Avimelekh, king of Gerar sent and took Sarah. (Genesis 20:1-2)

vayagar (וַיַּגָר) = and he lived as a resident alien, and he sojourned.  (Another form of the verb lagur.)

After the king of Gerar discovers the ruse, he showers gifts on Abraham and Sarah in order to induce Abraham to pray for him and compensate Sarah for any loss of honor.

In the third iteration of the wife-sister tale, Isaac faces another famine, and goes to Gerar even though he believes the men of Gerar are exceptionally lusty and murderous.

Then a famine happened in the land, apart from the first famine that happened in the days of Abraham.  And Isaac went to Avimelekh, King of the Philistines, to Gerar.  And God appeared to him and said: “Do not go down to Egypt.  Stay in the land that I say to you.  Gur in this land and I will be with you and I will bless you, for I will give all these lands to you and your descendants, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham, your father.”  (Genesis 26:1-3)

gur (גּוּר) = Live as a resident alien!  Sojourn!  (Another form of the verb lagur.)

What is “the land that I say to you”?  Canaan is the land God “shows” Abraham.2  But perhaps Isaac interprets God’s words as an order to stay in Gerar.

When Isaac tries Abraham’s wife-sister trick with the second Avimelekh3 of Gerar, the reader or listener expects the same outcome: the king will marry Rebecca, God will afflict the king and his household with a disease, and he will discover that the cause of the affliction is the sin of marrying an already-married woman.  Then the king will restore Rebecca to Isaac, along with some movable property as compensation, and they will return to Canaan richer than when they left.

But this time it does not happen.  The new king of Gerar merely watches and waits.  After a while Isaac gets tired of treating Rebecca like a sister.

Abimelech Spies Isaac Fondling Rebecca, by Bernard Salomon, 1558

And it happened because the days were long for him.  Then Avimelekh, the king of the Philistines, looked out the window, and he saw—hey!  Isaac was fooling around with Rebecca, his wife.  And Avimelekh summoned Isaac and said: “So hey!  She is your wife!  Then why did you say: ‘She is my sister?”

And Isaac said to him: “Because I said (to myself): ‘Lest I die on account of her.’”

And Avimelekh said: “What is this you have done to us?  Is it a small thing that one of the people might have lain down with your wife?  Then you would have brought guilt upon us!”  (Genesis 26:8-10)

Even though Rebecca is beautiful, not a single man in Gerar has attempted to bed her or marry her.  The only moral transgression that occurs is Isaac’s deception about their relationship.

Then Avimelekh commanded all the people, saying: “Anyone who touches this man or his wife will certainly be put to death.”  And Isaac sowed that land, and he obtained that year a hundredfold.  And God blessed him.  And the man became great, and he grew constantly greater until he became very great.  (Genesis 26:11-13)

This king does not need to shower Isaac with gifts.  God makes Isaac rich.

This new ending for the tale raises questions about all three explanations in The Wife-Sister Trick, Part 1 and Part 2.

Explanation A:  Exculpating the Patriarchs

Traditional commentators take the wife-sister tales as literal history, and also assume that Abraham and Sarah are more virtuous than any of the kings.  They do not question Abraham’s claims that the men of both Egypt and Gerar routinely seize beautiful female immigrants and kill their husbands if they happen to be married.

But when Isaac tries the wife-sister trick and nothing happens, their attempts to prove that the foreign king and his men are immoral prove feeble.  Nineteenth-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote: “Isaac’s concern was not unfounded; for as soon as the true relation between Rebecca and Isaac became known, Avimelech found it necessary to protect them by a decree of the death penalty for any assault.”4

However, Avimelekh might issue the order, “Anyone who touches this man or his wife will certainly be put to death” simply in order to reassure the fearful Isaac, not because there is any real danger.  If Rebecca were at risk for sexual assault, why would so much time pass without any man making the attempt?

Early commentary interprets Avimelekh’s question “Is it a small thing that one of the people might have lain down with your wife?” as proof that the king was at least planning to lie with Rebecca.  Rashi interpreted the phrase achad ha-am (אַחַד הָעָם),one of the people” as “the most prominent of the people, meaning the king”.5  And 16th-century rabbi Ovadiah Sforno claimed Avimelekh means he can bed Rebecca whenever he wants because the king “is singular among his people”.6

But although these commentators strained to paint the second Avimelekh in a bad light, the most they could say was that the king thinks about having sex with Rebecca, but does not do it.

Abimelech Sees Isaac and Rebecca, by Daniele Squaglia, 1649

Meanwhile, they find Isaac and Rebecca’s behavior scandalous.  Rashi, following Bereishit Rabbah, wrote that when Avimelekh saw Isaac and Rebecca “fooling around”, they were actually engaging in marital relations.7  They were doing it during the day where they could be seen; married couples are supposed to do it at night and in private.

Thus the efforts of traditional commentators to exculpate the patriarchs and matriarchs of Israel, and paint foreign kings and their male subjects as immoral, break down when it comes to the third wife-sister tale.  The king of Gerar and his men think about sex, but do not do anything wrong.  Isaac and Rebecca, on the other hand, are guilty of unseemly behavior in public.

Explanation B: Instilling Xenophobia

Modern scholars view the three wife-sister tales as three iterations of an ancient folk tale, casting first Abraham and then Isaac as the trickster husband.  But why did the people who wrote and edited most of Genesis during the 8th and 9th centuries B.C.E. choose to include these tales in the first place?  Perhaps they would encourage readers to believe  that the descendants of the patriarchs belong in Canaan, and that foreigners are dangerous.8  (See The Wife-Sister Trick, Part 2)

Alan Segal argued that the first wife-sister tale reinforces other warnings in the Hebrew Bible against dealing with Egyptians; the second tale “stresses God’s promise to live in the Canaanite land in which the patriarchs wander; the third shows that Hebrews were also invited to live on land controlled by the Philistines, both with their flocks and to raise crops.”9

Isaac does gur for some years in Gerar, which this Torah portion refers to as Philistine territory.10  There he copies his father by pretending his wife is his sister, and by redigging his father’s wells.11

Yet the second Avimelekh actually does not invite Isaac to stay.  Isaac apparently takes Avimelekh’s command to his people not to touch him or Rebecca as a free pass to engage in any lawful activity in Gerar.  The next sentence says he plants seeds and harvests an excellent crop.  The Torah does not say who, if anyone, owns the land Isaac farms, but it does say he uses wells that his father’s servants had dug during Abraham’s sojourn in Gerar.  As Isaac becomes richer, the native Philistines become envious, and they plug the wells with dirt.12

And Avimelekh said to Isaac: “Go away from us, because you have become much more mighty than we are.”  (Genesis 26:16)

This is the opposite of an invitation to stay.  Only after Isaac has moved to Beer-sheva does Avimelekh come over with his councilor and his army chief to make peace.  They say politely:

Abimelech Visits Isaac, by Wenceslas Hollar

“We see clearly that God is with you, and we say: Let there be, please, an obligation by oath between our sides, between us and you, and let us cut a covenant with you: that you will do no harm to us, as we have not touched you, and we did only good to you and sent you away in peace.  Now may you be blessed of God!”  (Genesis 26:28-29)

Thus the third wife-sister tale implies that the Israelite kingdoms can co-exist peacefully with Philistine states, not that Israelites have a right to use Philistine land.  The peace treaty, rather than instilling xenophobia, demonstrates that Israelites can get along with at least some outsiders.

Explanation C: Exploring Morality in a Trickster Tale

If the Torah is presenting three versions of a trickster tale as an entertaining way to teach a moral lesson, then the third wife-sister iteration must be the climax, the one with a turn that makes us think.

The new turn in the tale is that after the patriarch passes off his wife as his sister, nobody tries to get her into bed.  Every man of Gerar, including the king, is circumspect and sexually virtuous.  (I can imagine the second Avimelekh remembering what happened to his father, and being especially careful to avoid strange women.)

The funniest part of this version is when Isaac and Rebecca are fooling around right under the king of Gerar’s window, and the king pops his head out, looking outraged. Then he questions Isaac, just as the previous two kings questioned Abraham.  But he does not need to pay them anything, since he did nothing wrong, and God has not afflicted him.

All three kings in the three wife-sister tales respect the moral law that one must not poach a married man’s wife.  There is no indication that any of them resort to murder to fix their domestic affairs.  And when they find out they were deceived, none of them take revenge.  They ask the trickster to leave the country, but let him take his wife and his new riches with him.

The king in the bible who actually does kill a man in order to marry his wife is not a foreign king at all, but the second king of Israel, David.

David Sees Bathsheba, by Jean-Leon Gerome, 1889

While King David’s men are off fighting the Philistines, David looks down from his rooftop and sees “a very good-looking woman” bathing.  He finds out she is Bathsheba, another man’s wife, but he has her brought to his bed anyway.  After he has impregnated her, he tries to get her husband to spend a night with her, but he fails.  So David has her husband killed, and then marries her.13

Is it a coincidence that King David actually commits the moral crimes that Abraham and Isaac claim the kings of Egypt and Gerar would consider committing?  Or is the book of Genesis making an implicit criticism of Israel’s legendary king?

The wife-sister tale in Toledot demonstrates that a foreign king, even a king of Israel’s enemies the Philistines, can be more virtuous than an Israelite king.

It is not enough to say:

And you must love the geir, since you were geirim in the land of Egypt.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 10:19)

geir (גֵר) = foreigner, resident alien, sojourner.  Plural geirim (גֵרִים).  (From the same root as lagur.)

We should not only love foreigner and immigrants, but also remember that some of them are better than we are.

  1. All three patriarchs in the Torah are sojourners: temporary resident aliens, staying in countries where they are not citizens. After Abraham leaves Charan, his homeland in Mesopotamia, the bible describes him as “sojourning” in Egypt (Genesis 12:10), Gerar (20:1), Beersheba (21:34), and Hebron (35:27).  Isaac lives most of his life in Beer-sheva and Beer-lachai-roi, but he “sojourns” in Gerar (26:3) and Hebron (35:27).  Jacob grows up in Beer-sheva, then sojourns with his uncle Lavan in Charan during his prime (32:5), and in Egypt during his old age (47:4).
  2. Genesis 12:1, 12:5-7.
  3. Avimelekh can be translated as “My Father King”: avi (אֲבִי) = my father + melekh (מֶלֶךְ) = king. Avimelekh may be a title, like “Pharaoh”, and the second Avimelekh of Gerar may be the first one’s son and successor.
  4. Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Bereshis, English translation by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2002, p. 566.
  5. “Rashi” is the acronym for 11-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.
  6. Ovadiah Sforno, Sforno: Commentary on the Torah, translation and notes by Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz, Artscroll Mesorah Series, 1993, p. 136.
  7. Bereishit Rabbah, also called Genesis Rabbah, is a collection of commentary on the book of Genesis by rabbis from the Talmudic period of about 300-500 C.E. “Fooling around” is one translation of metzacheik (מְצַחֵק) = amusing oneself, fooling around, playing around with; from the root tzachak (צָחַק) = laughed, which is also the root of the name Isaac (יִצְחָק) = he laughs, he will laugh.
  8. Alan F. Segal, Sinning in the Hebrew Bible, Columbia University Press, New York, 2012, chapter one.
  9. Segal, p. 33.
  10. Scholars agree that the reference to Philistines (Plishtim) is an anachronism, since these people did not cross the Mediterranean and settle between the Negev and the sea until circa 1200 B.C.E., much later than the putative time of the three patriarchs. The Torah may use “Plishtim” here to indicate the geography, or remind the reader of one of Israel’s old enemies.  The term “Canaan” in the Torah refers to a region that always includes the west bank of the Jordan and the Negev desert, but only sometimes includes the Philistine states as well.
  11. Genesis 26:15-18.
  12. Genesis 26:14-15.
  13. 2 Samuel, chapter 11.

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Lekh-Lekha, Vayeira, & Toledot: The Wife-Sister Trick, Part 2 

October 31, 2018 at 1:31 pm | Posted in Lekh Lekha, Toledot, Vayeira | 3 Comments

Abraham has a low opinion of two kings in the book of Genesis/Bereishit: the Pharaoh of Egypt, and Avimelekh of Gerar.  Yet he emigrates to both their countries with his wife Sarah: to Egypt in the Torah portion Lekh-lekha and to Gerar in Vayeira.

Both times, Abraham says Sarah is so beautiful that if men knew they were husband and wife, he would be killed and the king would marry his widow.  So he asks Sarah to pretend to be his unmarried sister; that way, he figures, he will survive when the king takes her.  And as her nearest male relative, he might even receive gifts.

“Say, please, you are my sister, so that yitav for me for your sake, and my soul will live on account of you.”  (Genesis 12:13)

yitav (יִיטַב) = it goes well, it becomes better.

Both times, the king does take Sarah as one of his wives.  Then the hoax is revealed.  The horrified king releases her and sends off Abraham and Sarah with gifts to buy their silence.  The couple journeys on, richer than before.

Last week’s post, The Wife-Sister Trick, Part 1, reviewed “Explanation A”: traditional commentary’s attempt to take the wife-sister stories as literal history while also rescuing the reputations of Sarah and Abraham.  Here are two other explanations of what each iteration of the tale “really” means.

Explanation B: Instilling Xenophobia

Modern commentator Alan Segal posits that in the 8th and 9th centuries B.C.E., when most of Genesis was written,1 the editor(s) of Genesis cast Abraham and Isaac as the tricksters in an existing folk tale.  Then they added details to promote the view that the descendants of the patriarchs belong in Canaan and should have no dealings with outsiders.2

  1. Pharaoh

In the portion Lekh-Lekha Abraham hears God tell him to leave his hometown, Charan, and move to a new land that God would show him.3  He and his household, including his childless wife (called Sarai at this point) journey south through Canaan.  But there is a famine, so they continue south to live as resident aliens in Egypt.4  (See last week’s post, The Wife-Sister Trick, Part 1.)  There Abraham passes off his wife as his sister.

And [Pharaoh] heytiv for Abraham because of her, and he acquired a flock and a herd and male donkeys and male slaves and female slaves and female donkeys and camels.  (Genesis 12:16)

heytiv (הֵיטִיב) = he made it good, he made things go well.  (From the same root as yitav.)

Abraham and Sarah’s return to Canaan with additional movable property prefigures the liberation from Egypt in Exodus.  Near the end of Genesis, their grandson Jacob and his descendants, the Israelites, migrate to Egypt.5  In the book of Exodus, God liberates the Israelites from Egypt and leads them back toward Canaan, enriched by “gifts” from the Egyptians.  Later prophets warn the kings of Judah not to ally with Egypt.

The Torah makes it clear that God wants the Israelites, Abraham’s descendants, to live in Canaan.  The first iteration of the wife-sister tale reinforces this idea, and also prejudices Israelites against making treaties with Egypt.

  1. Avimelekh

According to Segal, the second iteration of the wife-sister tale adds the information that the God of Israel also speaks to non-Israelites—at least when it is necessary to promote the welfare of the people of Israel. 6

Then God came to Avimelekh in a dream at night and said to him: “Hey, you are dead, on account of the woman that you took, for she is a wedded wife!”  (Genesis 20:3)

Avimelekh protests that he was an innocent dupe, and God takes credit for preventing Avimelekh from touching Sarah.  (See The Wife-Sister Trick, Part 1.)  Then God tells the king what to do.

“And now, restore the wife to the man, because he is a prophet, and he can pray for you, and then you shall live.”  (Genesis 20:7)

In the morning Avimelekh asks Abraham why he told such a terrible lie.

And Abraham said: “Because I said [to myself] only: there is no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me over the matter of my wife.”  (Genesis 20:11)

Abraham receives Sarah from King Abimelech, by Nicholaes Berchem, ca. 1665

Abraham appears to believe that any foreign country with a foreign religion must be lawless and immoral.  After Abraham has insulted him, Avimelekh collects himself and bribes the man with lavish gifts.

Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Avimelekh and his wife and his slave-women, and they bore children.”  (Genesis 20:17)

This version of the wife-sister tale repeats the lesson that outsiders are immoral, and also shows that God is in charge everywhere and promotes the welfare of divinely favored people.

I often find that a scholarly analysis of a passage in Torah provides valuable information about the details, but misses the meaning of the bigger story.  In this case Segal shows how the biblical editor(s) used the wife-sister trickster tale for political persuasion.  But why not find a less sordid story for this purpose?  Why does the Torah use the wife-sister tale in the first place?

Explanation C: Exploring Morality in a Trickster Tale

A reader or listener without an agenda, someone who does not require Abraham and Sarah to be saintly or the kings of foreign countries to villainous, might well consider the wife-sister stories humorous tales that raise questions about morality.

  1. Pharaoh

In the first iteration of the tale, Abraham is traveling from Beit-El toward the Negev when he notices there is a famine in Canaan.  He takes his household all the way to the border of Egypt, a journey of about 200 miles (320 km), before he tells Sarah:

“Hey, please!  I know that you are a woman of beautiful appearance.   And it will happen that the Egyptians will see you and they will say: ‘This is his wife!”  And they will kill me, but they will let you live.  Say, please, you are my sister …”  (Genesis 12:11-13)

After traveling toward Egypt for weeks, does Abraham suddenly remember how immoral Egyptians are?  Or does he get a brilliant idea for leaving Egypt with a lot more wealth, if his scam comes off?  I know which alternative I would believe if I were Sarah.

And the officials of Pharaoh saw Sarah, and they praised her to Pharaoh, and the woman was taken to the House of Pharaoh.  (Genesis 12:15)

Pharaoh Takes Sarah (at 65!), from Treasures of the Bible, H.D. Northrop

Out of all the beautiful women the border guards detain, 65-year-old7 Sarah is the one who gets referred to Pharaoh.  Abraham receives a generous bride-price, just as he had hoped.  Twentieth-century commentator Pamela Tamarkin Reis wrote, “To the ancient reader, I am convinced, this shady deal was funny.  Pharaoh, more fool he, is paying all those livestock and servants for a woman who is not even a virgin. And no spring chicken into the bargain.”8

Then God afflicts Pharaoh with some unmentionable disease.

And God afflicted Pharaoh with great afflictions, and his household, over the matter of Sarah, the wife of Abraham.  And Pharaoh summoned Abraham and said: “What is this you have done to me?  Why didn’t you tell me she is your wife?”  (Genesis 12:17-18)

The Torah never says whether Pharaoh’s disease prevents him from bedding Sarah, but he does discover the truth about Sarah, perhaps because the disease makes him impotent and he wants to know why.  Pharaoh has Sarah and Abraham escorted out of the country—but they get to keep the bride-price, perhaps because Pharaoh wants to avoid publicity.

Caravan of Abraham, by James Tissot, ca. 1900

So Abraham went up from Egypt, he and his wife and everyone that was his, and Lot with him, to the Negev.  And Abraham was very heavy with livestock and with silver and with gold.  (Genesis 13:1-2)

Pharaoh is the dupe in this story, but he is innocent of any deliberate wrongdoing.

Sarah is passive; the Torah does not report anything she says in Egypt.  The custom among Abraham and Sarah’s people is to give a prospective bride the chance to consent or refuse the prospective groom.9  But the Torah does not say Sarah protested against being taken to Pharaoh—and the Torah never depicts her as shy.  Perhaps she is more interested in getting rich than in avoiding polyandry.

Abraham is the chief trickster in this tale.  He lies to the Egyptians at the border, to Pharaoh, and perhaps to Sarah.  He destroys his wife’s honor by putting her in a position where she, too, appears to be a liar, and where she stays in Pharaoh’s harem long enough for her chastity to be questioned.  Yet despite his moral failings, Abraham goes unpunished.  He leaves Egypt in safety and with riches.  Cleverness, not virtue, is rewarded.

  1. Avimelekh

In the second wife/sister story there is no famine in Canaan, no practical reason for Abraham and Sarah to leave their campsite in the Negev.10  God has recently told them both that in a year Sarah (who has been childless her whole life) will have a son.11

Abraham should be focusing on giving his aged wife the baby God promised, but instead he decides to repeat the wife-sister trick, this time in the relatively nearby city-state of Gerar.  His supposed fear that the men of Gerar would kill him over Sarah is more ridiculous the second time, since Sarah is now 89.

And Avimelekh, king of Gerar, sent and took Sarah. (Genesis 20:2)

I can imagine Abraham cheerfully waving goodbye, not caring whether God prevents Avimelekh from bedding her, or uses the arrangement to get Sarah pregnant.  Either way, once the king discovers the truth about Sarah he will have to buy they off to avoid public shame.

This time God tells the king in a dream that he will die because Sarah is already married.  Avimelekh protests his innocence.  God is not impressed, and tells him to restore Sarah to Abraham—because Abraham is a prophet who can pray for the king’s life.

When Avimelekh summons Abraham in the morning, his first words are:

“What have you done to us?  And what is my sin against you, that you brought [this] upon me and my kingdom?  [You committed] a great sin, doing what should not be done against me!” (Genesis 20:9)

Avimelekh’s outburst is justified; he did not act against Abraham, but Abraham tricked him into marrying an already married woman.  Abraham insults the king by explaining his poor opinion of the morals of Gerar, and adds feebly that Sarah really is his half-sister as well as his wife.

Prophet Abraham

But Avimelekh does not blow up.  He remembers that he needs Abraham to pray for him, so he gives the man a flock, a herd, slaves, and permission to settle wherever he likes in the land of Gerar.  He gives Sarah a thousand silver pieces as hush money.

At that point in the story we finally learn what God has been doing to Avimelekh.

Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Avimelekh and his wife and his slave-women, and they bore children.  For God had closed up every womb in the House of Avimelekh over the matter of Sarah, the wife of Abraham.  (Genesis 20:18)

In other words, God afflicted the king and his household with impotence.  Once again the duped king cannot even enjoy his wedding night with Abraham’s “sister”.

In this second iteration of the wife-sister tale, God forces an innocent and protesting Avimelekh to bribe Abraham in exchange for the prayer of a so-called prophet.  This demonstrates favoritism rather than justice on the part of the God-character.

Sarah is silent again.  And Abraham?  He has no excuse for his behavior.  If he were really worried about being murdered in Gerar, he could simply stay home.  Instead he swindles Abimelekh because he can get away with it and make a profit.  No sense of honor or consideration for his wife stops him.  Abraham does not care about the king of Gerar, who is, after all, a foreigner.  But he prays for him anyway, once he has received enough gifts.

*

The first two wife-sister tales in the Torah were undoubtedly derived from an ancient folk tale.  Folk tales love reversals.  In this story, the poor man tricks a rich man into giving him wealth.  The king expects to marry a beautiful virgin and discovers he has taken an old married woman.

Another common feature of folk tales is that men never learn.  Abraham manages to escape Egypt with his wife and Pharaoh’s gifts. Then 25 years later, when God has promised Sarah a miraculous birth, Abraham casually goes to Gerar and tries the same trick.  It never occurs to him that when Sarah’s son is born, someone might wonder whether he is really the father.

Yet the kings in both iterations of this tale try to do the right thing.  When they discover they have been duped, they resolve the situation with generosity rather than death sentences.  Everyone benefits from the righteous behavior of Pharaoh and Avimelekh.

God heals both kings after they have returned Sarah to Abraham, with gifts.  But God does even more for Abraham, the trickster with the shady morals.  He dies happy after a long and healthy life.12

Does this mean God does not care about human morality?

The third time a patriarch claims that his wife is his sister, the story takes a different turn.  See next week’s post, The Wife-Sister Trick, Part 3.

  1. Scholars who subscribe to the Documentary Hypothesis consider the wife-sister passages as either J or E, both sources dating from 922-722 B.C.E., the period when the Israelites had two small kingdoms, Samaria (a.k.a. Israel) in the north and Judah in the south. (Scholars who view the sources as more fragmentary do not dispute this dating.) The kings of Samaria and Judah vacillated between paying tribute to Assyria and allying with Egypt, but biblical books from Exodus through Zephaniah opposed cooperation with world powers, the worship of other gods, and intermarriage with other peoples.
  2. Alan F. Segal, Sinning in the Hebrew Bible, Columbia University Press, New York, 2012, chapter one.
  3. Charan had became an important Assyrian city by the time this passage was written.
  4. Genesis 12:10.
  5. The first three Torah portions of the Joseph story: Genesis chapters 37-47.
  6. Also God warns Lavan in a dream that he must not do anything bad to Jacob (Genesis 31:22-24) and God tells Bilam in a dream that he cannot curse the Israelites because God has blessed them. When Bilam attempts to curse them anyway, God puts blessings in his mouth (Numbers 22:7-12 and 23).
  7. Sarai and Avram leave Charan when Avram is 75 (Genesis 12:4). Avram is ten years older than Sarai (Genesis 17:17).
  8. Pamela Tamarkin Reis, Reading the Lines, Hendrickson Publishers, 2002, p. 45.
  9. Genesis 24:58-59.
  10. Genesis 20:1.
  11. Genesis 18:10-14.
  12. At age 175. And Avraham breathed his last, and he died at a good old age, old and satisfied.  (Genesis 25:7-8)

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Lekh-Lekha, Vayeira, & Toledot: The Wife-Sister Trick, Part 1

October 25, 2018 at 3:19 pm | Posted in Lekh Lekha, Toledot, Vayeira | 4 Comments

The Tale

A man and his beautiful wife immigrate to a foreign kingdom.  The man assumes that if the local king knew they were married, he would be killed and the king would marry his widow.  So he asks his wife to pretend to be his unmarried sister.  He knows the king will still take her, but as her nearest male relative the man might live—and receive the customary bride-price.

Sarah is seized (artist unknown)

The beautiful woman does become one of the king’s wives.  Then the hoax is revealed.  The horrified king releases her and sends off the man and his wife with gifts to buy their silence.  The couple journeys on, richer than when the story began.

A version of this sordid tale appears two and a half times in the book of Genesis/Bereishit.  The first time, in the portion Lekh-lekha (“Go for yourself”), the husband is Abraham and the king is the Pharaoh of Egypt.  In this week’s portion, Vayeira (“And he appeared”), Abraham and Sarah do it again with Avimelekh, King of Gerar.

And Pharaoh summoned Abraham and said: “What is this you have done to me?  Why didn’t you tell me that she is your wife?  Why did you say ‘She is my sister’, va-ekach her for my wife?”  (Genesis/Bereishit 12:18-19)

va-ekach (וָאֶקַּח) = and I took; and I married.

And Abraham said of Sarah, his wife: “She is my sister”.  And Avimelekh, the king of Gerar, sent vayikach Sarah.  (Genesis 20:2) … Avimelekh summoned Abraham and said: “What have you done to us?” (Genesis 20:9)

vayikach (וַיִּקַּח) = and he took; and he married.

In a later portion, Toledot (“Lineages”), Abraham’s son Isaac passes off his wife Rebecca as his sister.  This time the tale is cut short because the king (also called Avimelekh)1 never takes her as a wife.  The aborted version begins the same way as the first two iterations, but it reverses the lessons of the Abraham tales.

In this series about the wife-sister tales, the first two posts will present different explanations of the wife-sister tales in which the trickster is Abraham.  The third post will show how Isaac’s attempt to use the wife-sister lie challenges the conclusions of all three interpretations.

 

Explanation A:  Exculpating the Patriarchs

Early commentary such as Bereishit Rabbah2 takes the wife-sister stories as literal history, and assumes that Abraham and Sarah are more virtuous than Pharaoh or Avimelekh.  It does not question Abraham’s claims that the men of both Egypt and Gerar routinely seize beautiful female immigrants, and kill their husbands if they are married.

And it happened, as he [Abraham] was close to entering Egypt, he said to Sarah, his wife: “Hey, please!  I know that you are a woman of beautiful appearance.   And it will happen that the Egyptians will see you and they will say: ‘This is his wife!”  And they will kill me, but they will let you live.”  (Genesis/Bereishit 12:11-12)

Abraham implies that the Egyptian border guards routinely detain beautiful women of all ages (Sarah is at least 65)4 and then kill their husbands if they are married.  With these orders, the guards would have to murder a lot of foreign men.  But perhaps the idea is not so preposterous, given that in 2018 American guards on the border of Mexico jailed the children of would-be immigrants separately from their parents, without making any provision for reuniting the families.  Foreigners have been fair game in many cultures.

from Babylon Marriage Market, by Edward Long, 1875

The first part of Abraham’s claim, that beautiful immigrants will be seized, turns out to be true in both episodes.

And it happened, that Abraham came to Egypt and the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful.  The officials of Pharaoh saw her, and they praised her to Pharaoh, vatukach ha-ishah to the House of Pharaoh.  (Genesis 12:14-15)

vatukach ha-ishah (וַתֻּקַּח הָאִשָּׁה) = and the woman was taken; and the wife was taken.

And Abraham said of Sarah, his wife: “She is my sister”.  And Avimelekh, the king of Gerar, sent vayikach Sarah.  (Genesis 20:2)

For both stories, the early commentary only needed to explain:

  • why Sarah is so beautiful,
  • why she is never molested by a king, and
  • why Abraham’s behavior is excusable.
  1. Pharaoh

from Bisson, La Fiancee, 1895

Although Sarah is in her sixties when Pharaoh takes her, early commentary maintains that she is extraordinarily beautiful.  Talmud Bavli, Megillah 15a, lists Sarah as one of the four most beautiful women in the world.5  According to Bereshit Rabbah 40, the whole land of Egypt was illuminated by her beauty.

The Torah does not say whether Pharaoh has sexual intercourse with Sarah.  But early commentators wrote that both times when Abraham passes her off as his sister, God protects her from being molested by afflicting the king with a disease that prevents intercourse.

And God afflicted Pharaoh and his household with great afflictions over the matter of Sarah, the wife of Abraham.  And Pharaoh summoned Abraham and said: “What is this you have done to me?  Why didn’t you tell me that she is your wife?” (Genesis 12:17-18)

The Torah does not describe the nature of the affliction.  Bereishit Rabbah 41 suggested lupus or another disease that affects the skin.  Rashi6 wrote that this affliction made intercourse harmful to Pharaoh.  Whatever God’s affliction is, according to classic commentary it prevents Pharaoh from molesting his new wife, and alerts him that things are not what they seem.  Then Sarah tells him the truth, and he is outraged that he was tricked into marrying another man’s wife.  He sends Abraham and Sarah out of the country, and lets them take all their new wealth with them.7

Abraham and Sarah Before Pharaoh, by Comnenian, Byzantine

Pre-modern commentators differ when it comes to the question of Abraham’s virtue.  The Zohar says that Abraham sees the divine presence is with Sarah, and an angel confirms it, so he knows she will be safe.8  But Ramban wrote: “Know that our father Abraham inadvertently committed a great sin by placing his virtuous wife in a compromising situation because of his fear of being killed.  He should have trusted in God.”9

Even if Abraham is not guilty of putting his wife in peril, what about his deception?  Some commentators view Abraham’s lie as his only alternative, given the nastiness of the Pharaoh and the famine in Canaan.

  1. Avimelekh

The second version of the wife-sister tale appears in the Torah portion Vayeira, after God has promised Abraham and Sarah they will have a child at last.  They settle in the Negev Desert, but travel west to Gerar to live there as resident aliens for a while.  Once again Abraham calls Sarah his sister.  The king of Gerar, Avimelekh, “takes” her.

At this point in the Torah, Sarah is 89 years old.10  So classic commentary needs to explain why Sarah is still beautiful enough to tempt a king.  Before Abraham takes her to Gerar, three angels announce that in a year she will have a son.  (See my earlier post, Vayeira: Laughter, Part 1.)  In Talmud Bavli, Bava Metzia 87a, Rav Hisda explains that after the annunciation, Sarah’s worn and wrinkled skin is rejuvenated, and her beauty returns.

Sarah and Abimelech, by Marc Chagall

In this iteration of the wife-sister tale, God speaks to the king in a dream after he has married Sarah.  God informs him that Sarah is another man’s wife, and declares that Avimelekh and his people must die for this sinful marriage.

But Avimelekh had not come close to her.  And he said: “My Lord, will you slay even innocent people?  Did not he himself [Avraham] say: ‘She is my sister’?  And she even said: ‘He is my brother’!  With a pure heart and with clean palms I did this.”

And God said to him in the dream: “Even I myself knew that you did this with a pure heart, so I restrained you from sinning against me, even I myself.  Therefore I did not let you touch her.”  (Genesis 20:4-6)

How does God restrain Avimelekh from having intercourse with Sarah?  Through “a closing up of orifices” according to Bereishit Rabbah.  Rashi wrote that God closes the orifices of Avimelekh and his household, including their ears and noses as well as genital and urinary openings.

The rabbis of Bereishit Rabbah overlooked Avimelekh’s protest that his intention were good, and give God all the credit for the king’s restraint.  “R. Aibuil said: It is like the case of a warrior who was riding his horse at full speed, when seeing a child lying in the path, he reined in the horse, so that the child was not hurt. Whom do all praise, the horse or the rider? Surely the rider!”11

And Avimelekh summon Abraham and said to him: “What did you do to us?  And what is my sin against you, that you brought [this] upon me and my kingdom?  [You committed] a great sin, doing what should not be done against me!” (Genesis 20:9)

Abraham explains his poor opinion of the morals of Gerar, and adds that Sarah really is his half-sister as well as his wife.  Avimelekh then gives Abraham a flock, a herd, and slaves, and permission to settle wherever he likes in the land of Gerar.  He gives Sarah a thousand silver pieces as hush money.

Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Avimelekh and his wife and his slave-women, and they gave birth.  For God had shut every womb in the house of Avimelekh on account of the matter of Sarah, the wife of Abraham.  (Genesis 20:18)

This is the verse that Bereishit Rabbah and Rashi interpreted as meaning that God had “closed up every orifice”.  Other commentators, including Ramban and 18th century Rabbi Chayim ben Moshe ibn Attar, wrote that the men’s genitals were also closed, and this proved that Avimelkh could not be the biological father of Sarah’s son Isaac.

Is Abraham’s behavior excusable in this case?  The idea that Abraham knew God would protect Sarah still applies in the story of Avimlekh, but why does he take Sarah to Gerar in the first place, when they could just continue grazing their livestock in the Negev?  The classic commentary has no answer.

*

Traditional commentators assumed the first two wife-sister stories relate what actually happened to Abraham and Sarah.  They talked up Sarah’s beauty to explain why she was brought straight to the king both times, and they worried about and how Sarah and Abraham retained their virtue.  But they offered no insights on why these stories are included in the Torah; traditional commentary views the tales as part of history.

When one considers the Torah as an ancient composite crafted by one or more religious editors, the questions that traditional commentary answered are not the important ones.  What is the purpose of including the sordid story at all?  And why does the patriarch Abraham tell lies and sell his wife to a foreign king—twice?  What kind of sacred book is this, anyway?

These questions illustrate the frequent problems that arise when one both takes the bible literally and believes that the designated heroes are good, and the designated villains are bad.  Some people feel a psychological need to have faith in a religion that contains contradictions, so the classic explanations serve them well.

What about the rest of us?  Next week’s post will examine two other explanations, one from the viewpoint of a modern scholar and one from the viewpoint of a modern storyteller.

  1. Avimelekh can be translated as “My Father King”; avi (אֲבִי) = my father + melekh (מֶלֶךְ) = king. Avimelekh may be a title, like “Pharaoh”, and the second Avimelekh may be the first one’s successor.
  2. Bereishit Rabbah, also called Genesis Rabbah, is a collection of commentary on the book of Genesis by rabbis from the Talmudic period of about 300-500 C.E.
  3. 2 Samuel 11:1-17.
  4. Sarai and Avram leave Charan when Avram is 75 (Genesis 12:4). Avram is ten years older than Sarai (Genesis 17:17).
  5. The other three beautiful women in Megillah 15a are Rahab, Abigail, and Esther.
  6. 11th-century C.E. Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.
  7. Genesis 12:20.
  8. Moses de Leon, 13th century Spain, Zohar 1:181b, 3:52a.
  9. Ramban (13th-century Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, a.k.a. Nachmanides), translated in Etz Hayim, ed. David L. Lieber, Jewish Publication Society, 2001, p. 73.
  10. In Genesis 17:15-17 and 18:10 Abraham learns that Sarah will give birth at age 90. An alternative to early commentators’ claim that Sarah miraculously regains the beauty of youth is a theory that the border officials single her out for a different reason.  Twentieth-century commentator Savina Teubal (Sarah the Priestess, Swallow Press Reprint edition, 1984) suggests that Sarai was the priestess of a god or goddess in Charan, and her marriages with Pharaoh and Avimelekh were examples of hieros gamos, an ancient ritual in which a high priestess and a king had intercourse in order to enact the coupling of the gods who made the land fertile.  Teubal did not explain why a king would employ a priestess from a foreign land for this ritual, instead of using the priestess of one of his own country’s gods.
  11. Bereishit Rabbah, translation by H. Freedman, Soncino Press, London, 1939.

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Vayeira & Toledot: Laughter, Part 2

November 7, 2017 at 7:49 pm | Posted in Toledot, Vayeira | 1 Comment

detail from Democritus, by Johannes Moreelse

Laughter is not always happy.  In English we distinguish between the friendly act of laughing with someone and the cruel act of laughing at someone.  A “fool” might be either a professional jester, or an innocent ignoramus who makes people laugh because of the contrast between his serious doings and what his words or actions mean to “normal” people.  All of these meanings of “laugh” and “fool” are captured by Biblical Hebrew verbs based on the root tzachak, צָחֲק = laughed.

The first person to laugh in the Torah is Abraham, when God tells him that he and his wife Sarah will finally have a baby the following year.  His laughter is incredulous.

And Abraham fell on his face vayitzchak, and he said in his heart:  Will he be born to a 100-year-old man, and will 90-year-old Sarah give birth? (Genesis 17:17)

vayitzchak (וַיִּצְחָק) = and he laughed.

The first six times a word derived from the root verb tzachak appears in the Torah, it is in the kal stem of the verb and refers simply to laughing.  (See last week’s post, Vayeira: Laughter, Part 1.)  Even the name of Abraham and Sarah’s son comes from the kal stem of tzachak.

Sarah Hears and Laughs,
by James Tissot

“Truly Sarah, your wife, will be pregnant with your son, and you shall call his name Yitzchak, and I will establish my covenant with him …” (Genesis 17:19)

Yitzchak (יִצְחָק) = Isaac in English; “He laughs” in Hebrew.

When God reveals the same information to Sarah in last week’s Torah portion, Vayeira, she too laughs incredulously.

Lot the Fool

Later in the portion Vayeira, Abraham’s nephew Lot tries to convince his sons-in-law that God is about to destroy the town of Sodom.

Lot went out and he spoke to his sons-in-law who had married his daughters, and he said: “Get up and go out from this place, because God is destroying the town!” But he was like a metzacheik in the eyes of his sons-in-law. (Genesis 19:14)

metzacheik (מְצַחֵק) = joking, amusing oneself, fooling around, making someone laugh; a jester, a fool.

Although metzacheik is derived from the same root verb as vayitzchak and yitzchak, it comes from the piel stem.  While the kal stem of the root means laughing, the piel stem means making or causing laughter—and can also indicate someone who makes people laugh.

Lot’s sons-in-law see Lot as a fool who seriously believes something will happen that “normal” people know is impossible.  How could the god of Lot and Abraham wipe out the whole town of Sodom?  The men cannot believe in the miracle that kills them the next morning.

Abraham, standing on the heights above, sees Sodom and Gomorrah being obliterated, and moves his household south, settling near Gerar.

An Embarrassing Birth

Then Sarah became pregnant, and she bore for Abraham a son for his old age, at the appointed time that God had spoken of …  And Abraham was 100 years old when his son Yitzchak was born to him.  And Sarah said: God has made tzechok for me; everyone who hears, yitzachak about me. (Genesis 21:2, 6)

tzechok (צְחֹק) = laughter (noun, from the root tzachak).

yitzachak (יִצֲחַק) = he will joke, he will amuse himself or others (from the root tzachak in the piel stem).

detail from Old Woman, by Jakub Schikaneder

For Sarah, having a baby is a good miracle.  After all, in the Torah portion Lekh-Lekha she wants a son and heir so much that she gives Abraham her slave Hagar and plans to adopt their baby, Ishmael.  That plan does not go well, but now Sarah has her own son.

However, instead of laughing with joy, Sarah is self-conscious about the laughter she expects from other people.  How ridiculous it looks for a 90-year-old woman to nurse an infant! Sarah expects to be the butt of jokes.

Ishmael at the Weaning Feast

When Yitzchak is weaned, Abraham holds a feast in celebration.  There Sarah observes Ishmael, now an adolescent, doing something that alarms her.

Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had born to Abraham, metzacheik.  And she said to Abraham: Drive out this slave-woman with her son, because the son of this slave-woman must not inherit along with my son, with Yitzchak! (Genesis 21:9-10)

Sarah observes Ishmael metzacheik: “joking, playing, amusing himself”.  But what, exactly, is the boy doing?

Rashi1 suggested three possibilities taken from the Midrash Rabbah on Genesis2: Sarah might have seen Ishmael in the act of sexual immorality, idolatry, or killing people in a contest.  His bad moral character would give Sarah an excuse to exile him, so that her own Yitzchak would become Abraham’s only heir.

Ramban and later Sforno3 wrote that Ishmael is joking that Yitzchak is actually the son of Avimelekh, the king of Gerar, who only pretended he had not touched Sarah when he held her captive in chapter 20. This is a potentially profitable joke for Ishmael to make; if Yitzchak really were the son of Sarah and Avimelekh, then Ishmael would be the only son of Abraham, and therefore his only heir.

Robert Alter has pointed out that since Yitzchak and metzacheik come from the same root, “we may also be invited to construe it as ‘Isaacing it’—that is, Sarah sees Ishmael presuming to play the role of Isaac, child of laughter, presuming to be the legitimate heir.”5

If Ishmael were merely laughing with Yitzchak, his behavior might be innocent.  But since the text says she sees Ishmael metzacheik, making someone laugh, he probably is joking around at Yitzchak’s expense.

Playing with a Sister

What about Yitzchak himself?  Is he named “He laughs” merely because Abraham laughs at the news of his conception?

The Torah never says that Yitzchak himself laughs.  But in next week’s Torah portion, Toledot, Yitzchak creates laugher (in the piel stem).

Yitzchak and his beloved wife Rebecca move to Gerar to escape a drought, and Yitzchak, like his father Abraham, worries that the king of Gerar or one of his men will seize Rebecca for his own harem.  If the men of Gerar know she is married to Yitzchak, he thinks, they will kill him so they can take her as a widow without fear of reprisal.  Thus Yitzchak, like Abraham, calls his wife his sister. (See my post Lekh-Lekha, Vayeira, & Toledot: The Wife/Sister Trick.)

Abimelech, Isaac, and Rebecca,
by Daniele Squaglia, 1649

But unlike his father, Yitzchak cannot keep his hands off his wife.

And the days became long for him there.  And Avimelekh, the king of the Philistines, looked down through the window, and he saw—hey!—Yitzchak metzacheik with Rebecca, his wife!  (Genesis 26:8)

Here metzacheik means fondling: playing or fooling around sexually.  There is no implication of mockery or meanness in Yitzchak’s behavior.  He is merely in love with his own wife, and touches her when he thinks they are unobserved.

Like the king of Gerar who took in Sarah, this king of Gerar is horrified to discover that an apparently single woman is actually someone’s wife.  The king issues an order:  Anyone who touches this man or his wife shall certainly die.  (Genesis 26:11)  And Yitzchak prospers in Gerar.

*

Yitzchak, “He laughs”, is surrounded by people who laugh and joke.  Both his parents laugh at the incredible mismatch between their extreme old age and having a baby.  Both accept God’s miracle and adjust their lives to it, Abraham by winning God’s reassurance that his older son Ishmael will survive, and Sarah by finding a reason to exile Ishmael and give her own son the inheritance.

Yitzchak’s uncle Lot informs his sons-in-law of a different divine miracle, the impending destruction of Sodom.  His earnest belief in something they think is impossible makes them laugh, and they see him as a fool, a metzacheik.  So they stay put in Sodom, and are annihilated.

May we become more like Abraham and Sarah than like Lot’s sons-in-law: flexible and able to accept the unexpected in our lives.

When Ishmael is metzacheik at Yitzchak’s weaning feast, he is probably making other people laugh at Yitzchak’s expense.  But when Yitzchak is metzacheik with his wife in Gerar, he is probably making her laugh with his playful fondling as he expresses his love for her.

May we become more like Yitzchak than like Ishmael; may we guard ourselves against cruelty, even toward our opponents, when we joke around, and restrict ourselves to generating only loving laughter.

  1. Rashi is the acronym for the 11th-century C.E. French rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki, who wrote commentary on the entire Hebrew Bible and all of the Babylonian Talmud.
  2. Genesis/Bereishit Midrash Rabbah is a compilation of commentary by rabbis of the first through third century C.E. The three alternatives on page 53:11 are based on the use of similar words in three other passages.  In Genesis 39:17, the verb letzachek (לְצַחֶק, in the piel) is used to accuse someone of attempting sexual seduction.  In Exodus 32:6, letzacheik (לְצַחֵק, in the piel) is what the Israelites do after sacrificing to the Golden Calf.  In 2 Samuel 2:14, the lietwort viysachaku (וִישַׂחַקוּ) is used to mean a tournament or contest in which pairs of soldiers fight to the death.
  3. Ramban is the acronym for the 13th-century C.E. rabbi Moshe ben Nachman Girondi, a.k.a. Nachmanides. 16h-century C.E. rabbi Ovadiah Sforno gave the same opinion.
  4. Rachel Adelman, “The Expulsion of Ishmael: Who Is Being Tried?”, thetorah.com.
  5. Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, p. 103.

 

Haftarat Toledot—Malachi: Respectfully Yours

November 30, 2016 at 9:00 am | Posted in Malachi, Toledot | 2 Comments
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week’s Torah portion is Toledot (Genesis 25:19-28:9), and the haftarah is Malachi 1:1-2:7.

Do religious rituals and observances matter? How important is it to get the details rigcalf-ashkleon-silverht?

The three faults that draw the most condemnation from the prophets in the Hebrew Bible are

1) worshiping other gods,

2) behaving unethically toward other people, and

3) failing to follow the rules of rituals—in that order, if one judges by the number of words devoted to each.

When the prophets criticize the Israelites for their sacrifices at the temple, they usually condemn them for going through the ritual motions while continuing to act unjustly toward the poor, orphans, and widows.

But when the prophets criticize the temple priests, they denounce them for not teaching the Israelites about God (Jeremiah 2:8), for not separating the holy from the unholy and the pure from the impure (Ezekiel 22:26 and Zephaniah 3:4), for charging fees to make religious rulings (Micah 3:11), for promoting sexual sins (Hosea 6:9), and, in this week’s haftarah, for accepting defective animals as offerings for the altar.

Second Temple, Jerusalem

Second Temple, Jerusalem

The last prophet in the Hebrew Bible is Malachi, whom most scholars date to the 5th century B.C.E., when the homeland of the Israelites has become a province in the Persian Empire, and Ezra and Nehemiah have rebuilt Jerusalem and its temple.

A pronouncement: the word of God to Israel, by the hand of Malakhi. (Malachi 1:1)

Malakhi (מַלְאָכִי) = Malachi (usual English spelling); My malakh.

malakh (מַלְאָךְ) = messenger, either human or divine.

God’s messenger delivers God’s complaint against the priests of the second temple.

“A son should honor a father, and a slave his master; but if I am a father, where is My honor? And if I am masters, where is My reverence?” says the God of [Heavenly] Armies to you, the priests who are bozeh of My sheim. And you say: “How are we bozeh of Your sheim?” (Malachi 1:6)

bozeh (בּוֹזֶה) = being in contempt, slighting, disrespecting, demeaning, finding insignificant.

sheim (שֵׁם) = name, reputation.

God answers:

“Presenting on My altar degraded food, then you ask: How are we degrading you? When you say: The table of God is nibezeh. Then if you present a blind [animal] for a slaughter-sacrifice, there is nothing wrong, and if it is lame or sick, there is nothing wrong!” (Malachi 1:7-8)

nibezeh (נִבְזֶה) = insignificant, contemptible, not worthy of respect. (From the same root verb as bozeh.)

Temple altar

Temple altar

The animals are given by the people, but the priests must decide whether each animal is acceptable to burn on the altar that serves as God’s “table”. Malachi astutely diagnoses the problem with flawed offerings: although the end-product of smoke is the same, priests who accept defective animals as gifts for God are showing contempt for God’s reputation. This teaches the people that they can give God any old leftovers; they need not honor God the way they would honor a parent or a master by serving a beautifully presented dinner.

The haftarah contrasts this negligent attitude with the respect and reverence that Israelite priests used to show for their God.

A torah of emet was in his mouth

And no wickedness was found on his lips;

In peace and on level ground he walked with Me

And he turned many away from wrongdoing. (Malachi 2:6)

torah (תּוֹרַה) = instruction, direction; the sum of God’s law; a book containing God’s laws. (From the same root as yoreh (יוֹרֶה) = he will teach; and moreh (מוֹרֶה) = teacher.)

emet (אֱמֶת) =  reliability, trustworthiness, truth; reliable, trustworthy, true.

A good priest teaches the people what to do, both ritually and ethically. The priest’s actions are consistent with his teachings; he is honest, what we call being “on the level” even in English. Therefore his instructions are emet.

kohen-ordinary-garmentsBecause the lips of a priest preserve knowledge

And they seek torah from his mouth;

Because he is a malakh of the God of [Heavenly] Armies.

But you turned away from the path;

You made many stumble through the torah;

You wiped out the covenant of the Levites, said the God of Armies. (Malachi 2:7-8)

Just as the author of the book Malachi is a malakh, a messenger from God, every priest must be a responsible malakh.

The Talmud extends this requirement to everyone who teaches about God. Rabbi Yochanan says: “If the rabbi is like a messenger of the God of Armies, they should seek the law at his mouth; but if he is not, they should not seek the law at his mouth.” (Babylonian Talmud, Mo-ed Katan 17a)

Back to our original question: Do rituals matter? And how important is it to get the details right?

For the priests at the second temple in the 5th century B.C.E., it was essential. They had to carry out the letter of the law concerning animal sacrifices, particularly the requirements for unblemished animals, in order for the people to see that they took God seriously.

After the fall of the second temple in 70 C.E., Judaism’s new teachers, the rabbis cited in the Talmud, focused on interpreting and extrapolating the laws in the Bible that did not require offerings at a temple. The examples they set in their personal lives were also scrutinized. If you wanted your rulings to be respected about the shape of lamps permissible on Shabbat or which slaves a master is obligated to feed, you had to follow all the rules yourself.

Today many rabbis and other teachers of the Torah, as well as many teachers of other religions, are primarily concerned with ethical behavior toward fellow human beings. The Hebrew Bible addresses ethics, but provides proof texts for contradictory opinions. For example, in one passage Moses commands genocide (see my post Mattot: Killing the Innocent).  In another, God tells Moses to tell the people: You shall not wrong a stranger, and you shall not oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (ExodusShemot 22:20)

In the face of conflicting passages, a modern Torah interpreter is responsible for finding the deepest truth and teaching it. Rabbi David Frankel wrote: “Thus, what makes Torah “true” is the sincerity and integrity with which one pursues the process of searching and interpreting.”

I am continually away of the shortcomings in my own behavior when I teach the Torah in a class, in a service, or in this blog. Not only is my idea of keeping kosher too idiosyncratic for most observant Jews, but I catch myself falling short of my own standards for kindness and justice. Are my words emet? Probably not. I can only pray that my sincere attempts to wrestle with the text and reach through to the divine spirit behind it will somehow lead to an occasional flicker of inspiration.  I may not walk with God on level ground, but I am grateful for this journey.

 

Toledot: Generations of Impersonations

November 11, 2015 at 7:38 pm | Posted in Toledot | Leave a comment
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The story of Abraham’s family in the book of Genesis/Bereishit is a story of impostors. Four family members (Sarah, Rebecca, Jacob, and Leah) deceive others by assuming false identities.  And four family members (Abraham, Isaac, Rebecca, and Lavan) ask one family member to impersonate another in order to deceive someone.Table of Impersonations

(See my posts on The Wife-Sister Trick, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 regarding the first two impersonations, and my post Vayeitzei: A Den of Thieves on the last one.)

In this collection of tricksters, only Rebecca both acts as an imposter herself and tells someone else to become an imposter. Both episodes occur in this week’s Torah portion, Toledot (“Lineages”).

The second episode is the most famous. When Isaac has grown old and blind, he summons his favorite son, Esau, and asks him hunt game and cook it for him.

Then I will eat, so that my nefesh will bless you before I die. (Genesis 27:4)

nefesh (נֶפֶשׁ) = appetite, animating soul.

Isaac does not mention God; he may want only to give Esau his personal blessing.  But his wife, Rebecca, is listening on the other side of the wall, and she hears something different.

And Rebecca spoke to Jacob, her son, saying: Hey! Shamati to your father speaking to Esau your brother, saying: Bring me hunted-game and make tasty dishes for me, and I will eat and I will bless you in front of God before I die. (Genesis 27:6-7)

Shamati (שָׁמַעְתִּי) = I listened to, I heard, I heeded.  (Here the word means “listened in on”.)

Rebecca assumes Isaac is going to pass on the grand blessing that God gave to Abraham, and repeated in abbreviated form to Isaac. And she is determined that this blessing go to her favorite son, Jacob, instead of to his twin brother Esau.

If she trusted her husband, Rebecca might wait until Esau goes hunting, and then try to persuade Isaac that he give God’s blessing to Jacob, and give Esau an ordinary garden-variety blessing instead.  But she does not.  She does not believe Isaac would listen to her.

On the other hand, she believes Jacob will listen to and obey her.

Goat kid

Goat kid

And now, my son, shema my voice, to what I am commanding you. Go, please, to the flock, and take for me from there two good goat kids, and I will make them into tasty dishes for your father, like those he loves. Then you will bring [them] to your father and he will eat, so that he will bless you before he dies. (Genesis 27:8-10)

shema (שְׁמַע) =  Listen to! Hear! Heed!  (The imperative form of the same verb as shamati.)

Although Rebecca does not explicitly command Jacob to impersonate his brother, Jacob takes it that way.  He has no moral qualms about deceiving his father, but he is afraid the impersonation will not work, because he has smooth skin, and Esau is exceptionally hairy.

Rebecca responds by helping Jacob do a more effective impersonation.

Then Rebecca took Esau’s best garment, which was with her in her house, and she put it on Jacob, her younger son.  And the skins of the goat kids she put on his hands and over the smooth part of his neck. (Genesis 27:15-16)

When her blind husband touches Jacob, he feels skin that is as hairy as a goat—like Esau’s skin. He even says: The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau. (Genesis 27:22)

Isaac y Jacob, by Jose de Ribera

Isaac y Jacob, by Jose de Ribera

The blessing Isaac gives the impostor includes most of the blessing of Abraham.

Of course, as soon as Esau returns with his own meat to cook, the impersonation is discovered. Esau vows to kill his brother, and Jacob has to flee. But at least he got the blessing Rebecca wanted for him, a blessing that is irrevocable.

Why does Rebecca have Jacob impersonate his brother, instead of simply speaking to Isaac? Why doesn’t she trust her husband to listen to her?

I think the answer lies in an earlier episode where Rebecca is the impostor. When Isaac and Rebecca moved to Gerar in the land of the Philistines, Isaac told everyone Rebecca was his unmarried sister.

And it happened that when their days there grew long, Avimelekh, king of the Philistines, looked down from the window and he saw—hey! Isaac was fooling around with Rebecca—his wife! Avimelekh summoned Isaac and said: Hey, surely she is your wife!  Why did you say she was your sister?

And Isaac said to him: Because I thought “In case I would be killed over her…” (Genesis/Bereishit 26:8-9)

Isaac’s father, Abraham, had given the same reason when he asked his Sarah to pretend to be his unmarried sister:

Hey, please—I know that you are a beautiful-looking woman.  And it will happen, when the Egyptians see you, then they will say: This is his wife. And they will kill me, but you they will keep alive. Say, please, that you are my sister, so that it will go well with me for your sake, and I will stay alive on account of you. (Genesis 12:11-13)

As long as Sarah appeared to be single and available, Abraham’s reasoning went, any man hoping to make her his concubine would court the favor of her “brother”.

Isaac must have heard this family story, because assumed that any foreign king would kill the husband of a beautiful woman.  And Isaac pulled the same trick as his father when he brought his own beautiful wife to Gerar.

The Torah does not report Isaac asking Rebecca to pretend to be single. But Rebecca obviously went along with her husband’s lie anyway, since her true marital status was discovered only after they had lived in Gerar for a while.

Rebecca is not by nature submissive.  As an adolescent, in the Torah portion Chayyei Sarah, she independently invited a stranger to stay at her parents’ house, and boldly decided to leave home and marry the stranger’s master, Isaac.

But at this point in the story, Rebecca still trusts Isaac to keep her best interests in mind. After all, Isaac fell in love with her when they first met, and prayed for her when she failed to get pregnant.

I think Rebecca stopped trusting Isaac when she heard him explain that he passed her off as his sister because he was afraid of being killed.  At that point, Rebecca would realize that her husband was slavishly imitating his father’s example, even in a town with a friendly and ethical king. She could no longer count on him either to make rational decisions, or to consult with her first.

Years later, when she thinks Isaac is about to give the wrong son the blessing of Abraham, Rebecca does not even try to talk him out of it.  Instead, she falls back on a different family tradition:  when you need a favor from a man you do not trust, try deceiving him with an imposture.

Resorting to impersonation is an especially flamboyant family tradition. But all of us, in times of doubt, tend to fall back on strategies we learned from our families.  For example, I often used to follow my father’s strategy of making myself absent when interpersonal frictions arose.

What family strategies did you learn? How do they get repeated?

Toldedot: To Bless Someone

October 30, 2013 at 9:45 am | Posted in Toledot | 4 Comments
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For most of my life, the closest I came to giving or receiving a blessing was “Good luck!” When I converted to Judaism, I learned how to bless God as a way to express my appreciation for food and other good things in life. But the idea blessing another person never occurred to me.

Yes, I had read about Isaac blessing his sons in this week’s Torah portion, Toledot (“Lineages”). I gathered that giving a blessing means both stating the good outcomes you want for another person, and calling on (or praying to) God to make your words come true. But I did not believe that the actual words mattered, or that a formal blessing would be any more effective than “Good luck!” I felt sorry for Isaac and his family for taking the blessing business so seriously. I was 48 before I discovered Jewish Renewal and the potential power of blessing.

What makes a blessing a living force instead of a formality?

The blessings in the book of Genesis/Bereishit use formal poetic language. Even when they are personal blessings, they focus material prosperity, fertility, and/or victory over enemies, and use customary phrases. For example, Rebecca’s mother and brother bless her as she leaves home to get married, saying: Our sister, may you become a thousand multitudes, and may your descendants take possession of their enemies’ gate. (Genesis/Bereishit 25:60)

Another kind of blessing in Genesis is “the blessing of Abraham”, a phrase the Torah uses to refer both to God’s promise that Abraham’s descendants will possess the land of Canaan, and to the first blessing God gives Abraham:

I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you and I will make your name great, and you will become a blessing. And I will bless those who bless you, and those who curse you I will curse. And all the clans of the earth will find blessing through you. (Genesis 12:2-3)

In this week’s Torah portion, Isaac decides to give a blessing to Esau, the firstborn of his twin sons. The Torah does not say whether Isaac is planning to give Esau his personal blessing, or the blessing of Abraham, but it does say what part of himself Isaac hopes will deliver the blessing.

He said: I have grown old, and I do not know the day of my death. So now, please pick up your gear, your quiver and your bow, and go out to the field and hunt game for me. Then make me tasty tidbits, the kind that I love, and bring them to me, and I will eat, so that my nefesh may bless you before I die. (Genesis/Bereishit 27:2-4)

nefesh = animating soul; seat of appetite, desire, yearning, instinct; person

Isaac wants the blessing to come from his nefesh, his instinctual self, without any interference from his conscious mind. Isaac loves Esau more than his other son, Jacob. But he wants his blessing to express the will of God as it moves through him, not his own conscious will.

When Isaac’s wife, Rebecca, overhears him, she assumes he intends to give Esau the blessing of Abraham. She panics, not only because she loves Jacob more, but also because she knows that Jacob is the one who will carry on the worship of the God of Abraham.

Apparently Rebecca and Isaac are having communication problems, because she does not march into Isaac’s tent and straighten him out. Instead, she says to Jacob:

Hey, I heard your father speaking to your brother Esau, saying: Bring game to me and make me tasty tidbits, and I will eat them, and I will bless you lifnei God, before my death. (Genesis 27:6-7)

lifnei = in the presence of, before

Rebecca interprets Isaac’s reference to blessing with his nefesh as blessing “in the presence of God”, and she associates this with God’s blessing of Abraham.

She quickly cooks some tasty tidbits from goat meat, and orders Jacob to bring them to his father. Jacob protests that he is not a hairy man, like his brother, so his blind father will know he is not Esau as soon as he touches him. So Rebecca disguises Jacob by dressing him in Esau’s spare clothes and fastening the skins of goat kids around his hands and neck.

Of course as soon as Jacob comes in and says, My father, Isaac recognizes Jacob’s voice, and asks:

Who are you, my son? Then Jacob said to his father: I am Esau, your firstborn. I have done as you spoke to me. Get up, please, sit, and eat some of my game, so that your nefesh may bless me. (Genesis 27:18)

Jacob thinks like his father. He hears Rebecca’s “in the presence of God”, and interprets it in terms of Isaac’s nefesh!

Isaac tests his son several times, unable to believe that this man with Jacob’s voice is really Esau, no matter how hairy his hands feel. Then he decides to bless the son in front of him anyway. Now it is even more important that the blessing come from God, so he repeats:

I will eat some of the game of my son, so that my nefesh may bless you. (Genesis 27:25)

After Isaac has eaten and received a kiss from his son, he delivers the blessing:

May God give to you from the dew of the heavens, and from the fat of the land, and abundant grain and wine. May peoples serve you, and may nations bow down to you. Be a leader to your kinsmen, and may the descendants of your mother bow down to you. Cursed be those who curse you, and may those who bless you be blessed. (Genesis 27:28-29)

The blessing begins with the standard themes of material abundance and victory over other nations. Then Isaac adds part of God’s blessing of Abraham:  Cursed be those who curse you, and blessed be those who bless you. He does not say the other part of the blessing of Abraham—that he will have many descendants, and they will possess the whole land of Canaan—until later in the Torah portion, when he gives a blessing to Jacob as Jacob.

I think that Isaac gives Jacob-in-disguise part of the blessing of Abraham because he is indeed speaking from his instinctual self, channeling divine inspiration without thinking it through. His words naturally mirror the words of the blessing of Abraham.

When his other son shows up a moment later with his own tasty tidbits, Isaac recognizes Esau’s voice, and comes out of his trance and back to earth. He trembles, partly because he knows he cannot repeat the same blessing to Esau, and partly because he realizes that the blessing he just gave Jacob is indeed an expression of God’s will.

Then Isaac trembled, full of fear, and said: Who is it, then, who hunted game and brought it to me and I ate everything before you came and I blessed him? He must be truly blessed! (Genesis 27:33)

Is it possible to channel a blessing from God, as Isaac apparently channels his first blessing? I do not know. But when I was 48 and I wandered into a Jewish Renewal service, I saw the rabbi of P’nai Or of Portland, Aryeh Hirschfield zt”l, blessing people. I could tell he was connecting with some inner source of energy, and the people he blessed were taking in that energy.

Is that kind of blessing from the instinctual self, the nefesh, confirmed by God and therefore bound to come true? Again, I do not know. What I do know is that a blessing given with what seems to be divine energy makes a big impression on both giver and receiver. No doubt the words of the blessing are absorbed deep into the subconscious mind of the one blessed, where they affect one’s outlook and behavior for years to come. That alone might make a blessing come true.

May everyone who needs a blessing be truly blessed. And may everyone who sees the need for a blessing be inspired to give a true blessing.

Vayishlach: Goat Versus Snake

November 27, 2012 at 6:58 pm | Posted in Toledot, Vayeitzei, Vayishlach | Leave a comment

The book of Genesis/Bereishit is full of pairs of opposites. Some are counterparts and friends. Adam and Eve, the prototypes of male and female, demonstrate that opposite genders can be partners. Ishmael and Isaac, the outcast who invents his own life and the chosen one who is bound to his father’s agenda, eventually become allies. Leah and Rachel, the unloved and the beloved, unite when their husband Jacob consults with them, and they both decide to leave their father and go with Jacob to a new land.

But other pairs of opposites in Genesis never become partners. Cain kills Abel; Sarah exiles Hagar. The twins brothers Esau and Jacob manage two peaceful reunions: one at age 60, and the other when they bury their father. But their differences are such that they can never build a real partnership—any more than a goat can partner with a snake.

The Torah identifies the twins with these two animals when they are born, in the Torah portion Toledot:

The first emerged red, entirely like a robe of sei-ar, so they called his name Esav. And after that his brother emerged, and his hand was holding fast to the heel of Esau, so he called his name Ya-akov… (Genesis/Bereishit 25:25-26)

sei-ar = bristling hair; (from the same root as the word sa-ir = he-goat)

Esav = Doer; (in English, Esau)

Ya-akov = Heel-grabber, Cheater, Cunning One; (in English, Jacob)

At birth, Esau is hairy like a goat. Jacob’s grip on his twin’s heel is a reminder of the snake in the garden Eden, whom God cursed to crawl on his belly and bite human heels.

When they grow up, Esau is headlong like a goat, rashly running at what he desires until his horns crash against it. Jacob is sneaky like a snake, gliding on circuitous routes to his desires. We see this in their behavior when Esau is famished and sells his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of lentil stew. In the Torah’s next scene about Esau and Jacob, their blind father Isaac wants to give Esau a blessing. Rebecca, the twins’ mother, commands Jacob to steal Esau’s blessing. Jacob protests:

Hey, my brother Esau is a sa-ir man, and I am a chalak man! (Genesis 27:11)

 sa-ir = hairy; he-goat

chalak = smooth, slippery

So Rebecca not only dresses Jacob the snaky  in Esau’s clothes, but also covers his arms and neck “with skins of goat kids” (Genesis 27:16), and Isaac gives the blessing he intended for Esau to Jacob. Enraged by the “theft” of his blessing, Esau rashly swears he will murder his brother, and Jacob leaves for his uncle Lavan’s house in Aram.

In the next Torah portion, Vayeitzei, Jacob completes his 14 years of service to Lavan in lieu of bride-prices for Lavan’s daughters Leah and Rachel. He gives notice to his employer/uncle/father=in-law, but Lavan does not want to let him go.

And Lavan said to him: If, please, I have found favor in your eyes! Nichashti, and God has blessed me on account of you. And he said: Designate your wage to me, and I will give it. (Genesis 30:27-28)

nichashti = I sought an omen; (from the same root as nachash = snake)

Lavan almost said, “I sought a snake, and God has blessed me on account of you.” The serpentine Jacob makes a clever bargain and works for another six years in exchange for far more livestock than Lavan expected. Meanwhile, we learn, Esau has moved to the land of Sei-ir = hairy goat, and become its chieftain.

Twenty years after Jacob fled to avoid being murdered by his brother, he finally heads back toward Canaan. Now he has a large family, servants, and abundant flocks and herds.  In this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach (And he sent), Jacob sends messengers ahead, and they return with the news that Esau is marching to meet him—with 400 men. Frightened, Jacob takes three precautions: he divides his people into two camps (see my blog “Vayishlach: Two Camps”), he prays to God, and he sends extravagant gifts to Esau: 220 goats, 220 sheep, 60 camels, 50 cows, and 30 donkeys.

The night before they meet in person, each man battles with his inner god or demon. (The Torah describes how Jacob wrestles with a “man” who turns out to be a messenger of God. I think Esau must go through his own struggle that night, after the surprise of receiving a fortune in livestock from Jacob, so I wrote a Torah monologue about it.) In the morning, the estranged brothers meet.

Jacob raised his eyes and he saw—hey! Esau was coming, and with him 400 men! So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two slave-women. And he put the slave-women and their children first, and Leah and her children behind them, and Rachel and Joseph behind them. Then he himself passed ahead of them, and he bowed to the ground seven times as he approached his brother. And Esau ran to meet him, and he embraced him, and he fell upon his neck, and he kissed him; vayiveku . (Genesis/Bereishit 33:1-4)

vayiveku = and they wept out loud. (In the Torah, people weep out loud at moments of strong emotion, including relieved joy, lamentation, pleading, and remorse.)

When the goat and the snake meet again, they both weep out loud, perhaps in relief, perhaps in remorse. Perhaps they both have evolved enough to see the divine in one another. Jacob (who was always more verbal, even smooth-tongued) says:

If, please, I have found favor in your eyes, then you will take my tribute from my hand; inasmuch as I saw your face, like seeing the face of God, and you were well-disposed toward me. (Genesis 33:10)

Thus the twin brothers, opponents since birth, finally meet in peace. But their family reunion is brief and fragile.  Esau does invite Jacob to travel with him as far as  Seir. But Jacob does not dare go to the land of goats; he cannot rush headlong into a trusting friendship the way Esau can. The serpentine Jacob politely says he will catch up later—and then heads in another direction. The two brothers do not see one another again until their father’s funeral.

Esau and Jacob do better than the other mismatched pairs in Genesis; nobody dies, and nobody is driven away. Yet a goat and a snake cannot become close friends and go home together. Esau and Jacob must part and head for their separate destinies.

May each of us be blessed, like Jacob, to see God’s face in people who are fundamentally different from us. And may we all learn, like Jacob and Esau, to greet them in peace, and part from them in peace.

Toledot: Rebecca Gets It Wrong

November 15, 2012 at 12:17 pm | Posted in Toledot | 3 Comments

Rebecca tries so hard to set up her son Jacob for a good life—and everything she does turns out to be a mistake.

In this week’s Torah portion, Toledot (Histories), Rebecca and Isaac have twins who are opposites. Esau, the firstborn, is big and hairy, emotional and impulsive, fixated on food and sex. Jacob, born holding onto Esau’s heel, is smooth-skinned and smooth-tongued, clever and scheming, fixated on becoming a patriarch someday. He makes his first move when Esau comes home hungry after a long day of hunting, and Jacob trades a bowl of  stew for his his brother’s birthright.

At age 40, Esau takes two wives without his parents’ permission, and does not notice that these Hittite women are morat ruach, provocations to the spirit, for both Isaac and Rebecca. Esau expresses his love for his 100-year-old blind father, Isaac, by feeding him meat from his hunts. Esau’s needs are as simple as his intellect, and he takes care of himself. Rebecca does not worry about her firstborn son.

Isaac loved Esau because of the hunted-meat in his mouth, but Rebecca was loving Jacob. (Genesis/Bereishit 25:28)

Rebecca does worry about Jacob. Although he has the intelligence and desire to carry on the legacy of his grandfather Abraham, he sticks close to the family’s tents, and at age 40 he remains unmarried. He will never be able to serve Abraham’s god unless he gets out into the world, and he will never continue the line of Abraham’s descent unless he marries a suitable woman.

What Rebecca wants for Jacob is a good wife and Abraham’s blessing from God. But only her husband Isaac can make these things happen. They live in Canaan, where marriages are arranged by men. And although God did answer Rebecca’s question once, when she was pregnant, Isaac has a stronger connection with the divine. After all, when he prayed to God to let her bear children, God responded. And God gave Isaac the blessing of Abraham. She knows that he has the power to pass it on to  Jacob before he dies.

And Isaac’s health is failing. When the twins were born, Isaac was 60. Now he is over 100. He is blind and finds it hard to stand up. One day, Rebecca overhears Isaac tell Esau:

… and go out in the field and hunt meat for me. Then make for me some tasty food that I love, and bring it to me, and I will eat it, so that my nefesh will bless you before I die. (Genesis 27:3-4)

nefesh = soul, self, animating spirit, appetite

Rebecca jumps to the conclusion that Isaac is about to give Esau the blessing of Abraham. But God’s blessing would be wasted on Esau; it has to go to Jacob!

Rebecca orders Jacob to bring Isaac the tasty food and secure the blessing before Esau gets back from the field. When Esau and Isaac find out what happened, she will take care of the consequences somehow. The charade spins out from there. Rebecca dresses Jacob in goat-skins to imitate Esau’s hairiness. Isaac, after some uncertainty, gives Jacob the blessing he intended for Esau: a prayer for a life of material abundance and power, with no reference to God or Abraham.

I can imagine Rebecca listening in and discovering her mistake. Isaac merely wanted to bond with Esau the only way he could, through food, and  then leave him with a father’s blessing–the blessing of his personal self, or even the blessing of his appetite. Isaac was saving the blessing of Abraham for Jacob after all. Now what can she do?

Of course the subterfuge is discovered as soon as Esau returns from his hunt. Esau weeps and begs his father for another blessing, and Isaac does the best he can. But Rebecca finds out that Esau is so enraged, he wants to kill Jacob as soon as their father dies.

Rebecca does not try to talk him down. Instead, she sees another opportunity to promote Yaakov’s welfare. She tells Yaakov he must flee to her brother in Charan in order to escape Esau’s murderous rage. Then she reminds Isaac of how much they dislike Esau’s Hittite wives, and hints that he must send Yaakov away to get a wife.

Rebecca said to Isaac: I am disgusted with my life because of the Hittite women. If Jacob takes a wife from the Hittite women like these, why should I go on living? (Genesis 27.46)

So Isaac summoned Jacob and he blessed him and  commanded him, and he said to him: You must not take a wife from the daughters of Canaan. Get up, go to Padan of Aram, to the house of Betu-el, your mother’s father, and take yourself a wife from there, from the daughters of Lavan, your mother’s brother. (Genesis 28:1-2)

Then Isaac, who never loses his temper, gives Jacob the blessing of Abraham.

May God give you the blessing of Abraham for yourself, and for your offspring as well, so as to possess the land from your sojournings, which God gave to Abraham. (Genesis 28:4)

Most commentary says that Rebecca’s motivation is to save Yaakov’s life, and her marriage scheme is an excuse. I think it is the other way around. As modern commentator Tikva Frymer-Kensky writes, Jacob would be just as safe if Isaac sent him to his ally, King Avimlelkh, or to his half-brother Ishmael, both of whom live nearby. Rivkah is smart enough to think of a pretext for sending Jacob to either man. Instead, she deliberately brings up the subject of Jacob’s marriage, knowing that Isaac’s first thought will be to get Jacob a wife from the relatives in Aram, just as Abraham did for him.

Why does Rebecca want Jacob to marry one of her brother Lavan’s daughters? The Torah does not say, but her desire is similar to Abraham’s; both want to keep the intermarriage among the descendants of Terach going.  At least Lavan worships the same god as Abraham, even if he is not exclusive about it.

Rebecca also knows that her brother thinks in terms of material wealth. In last week’s Torah portion, we read that Lavan was willing to marry off his sister once he saw the jewelry Abraham’s steward had given her, and the ten camels carrying packs. Lavan would not accept a husband for any of the women in his household without receiving a hefty bride-price.

Yet in next week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei (And he went), Jacob leaves home on foot, carrying nothing but a staff (and a few personal supplies, such as the oil he pours on the stone where he has his famous dream of the ladder of angels). Surely neither Isaac nor Rebecca would send their son off to Lavan to take a wife without giving him a mount, some servants, and a generous bride-price!

In my blog post Vayeitzei: Guilty Conscience, I speculated that Jacob’s guilt  drives him to leave home before his parents have time to give him anything, and then to sentence himself to seven years of servitude to Lavan as the price for a wife. Now I think Jacob’s hasty departure might be due to fear as well as guilt. And Rebecca is to blame for this fear, since she tells Jacob Esau is determined to kill him, and urges him to flee.

Poor Rebecca. What she wants for Jacob is God’s blessing and the right wife. But everything she does to help Jacob has the opposite effect. Isaac planned all along to give God’s blessing to Jacob. By making Jacob masquerade as Esau, Rebecca only makes Jacob guilty and Esau enraged. Then Rebecca tries to get Jacob the right wife by telling him to flee to his uncle Lavan before Esau tries to murder him. The combination of fear and guilt make Jacob leave too soon, without a bride-price, and stay with Lavan for 20 years.

Jacob does, eventually, get what his mother wants for him: God’s blessing, both from Isaac’s lips and from God in a vision; and both of Lavan’s daughters as his wives. Yet Rebecca dies without ever seeing her favorite son again, or his children.

Could she do better? What if, as soon as she overheard her husband promising to give Esau the blessing of his nefesh, she went straight to Isaac and asked him what he intended? Or what if she spoke to Jacob directly about why he should marry one of Lavan’s daughters? Could Rebecca achieve her goals by being honest?

I know from my own experience that being honest and direct works well with someone who can listen to me, and ask for clarification when necessary. It does not work well with someone who becomes emotionally overwhelmed because a childhood complex is triggered, or with someone who simply cannot focus on what I am saying.

Isaac is passive and traumatized because his father nearly sacrificed him as a burnt offering, lifting the knife off his throat only at the last moment. Everything relating to fathers and sons might be emotionally overwhelming for him. And he is 100 years old, infirm, and blind. When the Torah says his eyes have dimmed, it may mean his mind has also dimmed, and he cannot focus long enough to hear Rebecca out.

And Jacob?  He would be shocked by the consequences of obeying his mother and stealing Esau’s blessing, and expect a rejection from his father or an attack by his brother at any moment. In the middle of this crisis, how could he listen to someone talk about marriage?

Perhaps there are times when we are all like Rebecca, longing for the best outcome, but knowing there is no use in going for it directly and honestly. Yet if we try to manipulate the situation, we may discover that we have misread another person’s heart, and done everything wrong. We are only human. Yet sometimes, even if it comes too late for us, the best outcome arrives after all.

Vayeitzei: Guilty Conscience

December 1, 2011 at 8:23 pm | Posted in Toledot, Vayeitzei | 3 Comments

At the end of last week’s Torah portion, Toledot (Histories), Jacob runs away to his uncle Lavan’s house in Charan.  The official reason for his trip east is to get a wife.  But his more urgent reason is to avoid being murdered by his twin brother Esau.

Jacob has just tricked their blind father in order to “steal” the blessing that Isaac intended for Esau.  The twins’ mother, Rebecca (who instigated the scheme to divert the blessing), finds out that Esau is so enraged he is vowing to kill his brother.  So she privately tells Jacob:

.. flee for yourself to my brother Lavan, to Charan.  And stay with him a few days, until your brother’s rage turns away… from you, and he forgets what you did to him; then I will send and take you away from there …  (Genesis 27:43-45)

Rebecca does not mean a few days literally; it would take at least a week just to travel to Charan and back.  But she does indicate that Jacob’s stay in Charan will be brief—perhaps just long enough to arrange his marriage.  This is reasonable, since we know Esau is a man whose emotions, though  overwhelming, are short-lived. (See my post Toledot: Seeing Red.)

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei (And he went), Jacob stops on the way and has a prophetic dream. Then he arrives in Charan, where Lavan takes him in.

…and he stayed with him a month of days.  Then Lavan said to Jacob:  Is it so, that you are my kinsman, and you serve me without compensation?  Tell me what is your wage!  (Genesis/Bereishit 29:14-15)

maskoret = wage, pay for hired labor

And Jacob loved Rachel, so he said:  I will serve you for seven years for Rachel, your younger daughter.  (Genesis 29:18)

Seven years?  Jacob has already been tending Lavan’s flocks for a month.  Why does he offer to serve for seven years?

Many commentators have written that seven years of labor is the bride-price Jacob pays for Rachel. Yet Jacob’s family is wealthy.  When his father sends him off to get a bride, he would normally send him with riding animals, servants, and gifts for the bride’s family—just as Abraham did when he sent his steward to Charan to get a wife for Isaac.  And even though Isaac has learned how Jacob tricked him, he still gives Jacob a generous parting blessing, showing no desire to deprive him of anything.  So Jacob should be well equipped to pay a large bride-price to Lavan on the spot.

Yet he is not.  There is no mention of servants traveling with him, even when he stops for the night.  And he travels on foot:

Then Jacob lifted his feet and he walked toward the land of the easterners.  (Genesis 29:1)

Lavan puts him to work as soon as he arrives, treating him as a poor relative rather than as a guest, so we can infer that Jacob did not carry any valuable gifts in his pack.  And in next week’s Torah portion, Vayishlakh (And he sent), when Jacob heads back west, he says:

…with my walking-stick I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps.  (Genesis 32:11)

Why does Jacob leave without the servants and riding animals and gifts that his father must have provided for his journey?

I believe Jacob is punishing himself, perhaps subconsciously, for tricking his father and cheating his brother.  Instead of coming to Lavan as a guest and a wealthy prospective bridegroom, he arrives as a poor relative who volunteers to serve Lavan as his master.

The 20th-century commentator Shmuel Klitsner has pointed out that although a hired laborer is paid a daily wage and is free to leave his employer at any time, a Hebrew slave serves his master without fair wages for up to seven years.

If you buy a Hebrew slave, he will serve six years, and in the seventh he will go out as free, without compensation. (Exodus/Shemot 21:1)

Jacob gives himself the maximum number of years of slavery as a punishment for stealing Esau’s blessing.  Since his father has not sentenced him to any punishment, he has to punish himself.  It is the only way he can cope with his guilty conscience.

Later in the Torah, Moses sets up a system of animal sacrifices as guilt-offerings; the animal’s owner not only suffers the loss of the valuable property, but also lays hands on the animal before the priest slaughters it, symbolically transferring his guilt to the animal about to be killed for God.  In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and later Jacob himself, do offer animal sacrifices to God.  But they are never guilt-offerings, and never for the purpose of expiating sin or wrongdoing.

If Jacob cannot atone for his bad deed through a guilt-offering, and his clan leader and father will not punish him, what else can he do to resolve his guilty conscience?  Today, we might ask him to apologize to both Isaac and Esau, and find a way to make restitution.  That is precisely what Jews are expected to do every year before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

But although the people in the book of Genesis sometimes confess their wrongdoing to God, they never think of apologizing to one another.  Jacob’s grandfather Abraham never apologizes  either to Sarah, or to the two kings he hoodwinks, for passing off his wife as his sexually available sister.  Neither Sarah nor Hagar apologizes after they abuse one another.  Rebecca does not apologize to anyone for masterminding the trick on Isaac, which also hurts Esau and makes Jacob flee for his life.  And Jacob does not apologize to Esau, either for talking him into trading his birthright for stew, or for cheating him out of his blessing.  In his family, in his whole experience, people do not apologize to each other.

I am tempted to conclude that we are better off today, when rabbis, teachers, and parents train us to confess and apologize whenever we do something wrong.  Yet I know it’s not that easy.  Sure, I can apologize for an inconsiderate remark to someone who understands and forgives me, and then I feel relieved.  But I also know from personal experience that few things are harder than apologizing to someone whom you believe will neither understand nor forgive you.  It takes not only courage, but also an ability to accept that your effort may fail, and the only reward you will get for doing the right thing is the knowledge that you did the right thing.

This knowledge may not seem like much of a blessing at the time.  But it does save you from having to run away from the person you wronged, and punish yourself by becoming a slave for seven years.  

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