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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

be-eir = well, watering-place.

lachai = for the living one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beit El = the house of God.

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

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

*

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

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

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

Vayeira & Noach: Drunk and Disorderly

October 16, 2013 at 8:08 pm | Posted in Noach, Vayeira | Leave a comment
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As I read the book of Genesis/Bereishit again this year, I feel sorry for the characters who try to rise to the challenge of walking with God, but are just too limited to keep up. Two of those who fall by the wayside are Noah and Lot, who both attempt to do the right thing, then collapse into drink and incest after they see their worlds destroyed.

Noah begins by following all of God’s directions; he sees God destroy all life on land with the over-the-mountaintop flood. Abraham’s nephew Lot begins by offering hospitality to strangers in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeira (“And he saw”). He sees the strangers, who are actually messengers from God, destroy the city of Sodom and the land around it.

After their respective catastrophes are over, and it is time to build a new life, both men think only about getting drunk.

And Noah began to be the man of the soil, and he planted a vineyard. And he drank some of the wine, and he became drunk, and vayitgal in the middle of his tent. And Cham, the father of Canaan, saw the erat aviv and he told his two brothers outside. (Genesis/Bereishit 9:20-22)

vayitgal = he uncovered himself, exposed himself

erat aviv = nakedness of his father

Noah plans his drunkenness with the foresight of an alcoholic who hides stashes of liquor in strategic places. He has to wait a long time, through planting and harvesting and fermentation, before he gets his first drink after the flood. Although the Torah does not report Noah’s feelings, I imagine he is haunted by the deaths of everyone he knew outside his own immediate family of eight. Perhaps he dreams of children drowning. Perhaps he wishes he had said something to change God’s mind, or found some way to rescue more people.

I suspect that Noah cannot find a way to live with this knowledge and move forward. So he opts to escape into an altered state of consciousness, or unconsciousness.

After becoming drunk, Noah uncovers his nakedness in the middle of his tent. A modern reader might wonder what is so bad about lying down naked in the privacy of your tent—even if one of your sons barges in and accidentally sees you.

But in the Torah, to “uncover the nakedness” of someone is a euphemism for a sexual act. The book of Leviticus/Vayikra devotes thirteen verses to listing close relatives whose nakedness you must not uncover, using the same words for “uncovering” and “nakedness” as the passage above.

The implication is that Noah and his son Cham (whose name means “heat”) are guilty of some illicit sexual act. Furthermore, Noah begins it, by “uncovering himself”. Yet Noah shifts all the blame to his son.

And Noah woke up from his wine, and he knew what his youngest son had done to him. (Genesis 9:24)

Noah expresses his anger at Cham by cursing Cham’s son Canaan. Alas, it is a common human reaction to reject your own guilt by lashing out at someone else.

In this week’s Torah portion, Lot and his daughters act out a different version of the drunken incest theme.

Lot, like Noah, means well. His story begins with a good deed; when two messengers from God, disguised as ordinary men, come to the city of Sodom, Lot goes out of his way to give them hospitality and treat them with respect and kindness—just as his uncle Abraham did in the previous scene in this week’s Torah portion. After Lot has brought the strangers home and fed them, the men of Sodom converge on Lot’s house and demand that he bring out his guests, so that they can “know” them.

Just as it never occurs to Noah to question God’s plan to wipe out the earth, it never occurs to Lot that there might be an alternative to sacrificing two people to the mob. Since his two guests are out of the question, Lot steps outside and offers the would-be rapists his two virgin daughters instead.

Maybe Lot is so terrified of his neighbors that he cannot think straight. But we can still question his impulse to sacrifice his daughters—and perhaps after the crisis is over, Lot is tormented by remembering his own behavior.

The mob outside ignores Lot’s proposed substitution of rape objects, and crowd forward to break down the door. The messengers from God save the day (or night) by pulling Lot inside and blinding the men outside. Then they tell Lot that God has sent them to destroy the whole city, and they order Lot to flee with his family.

Lot panics, and at dawn he is still dithering in his house. The messengers grab him, his wife, and their two daughters by the hand and lead them outside the city. They tell Lot to save himself by escaping to the mountain, without stopping or looking back.

When God rains sulfur and fire down from the heavens, Lot’s wife looks back and turns into a pillar of salt, but Lot hurries on. He settles into a cave on the mountain with his two daughters.

And the elder said to the younger: Our father is old, and there is no man on the earth to marry us as the way of all the earth. Come, we will give our father a drink of wine, and we will lie down with him, and we will keep alive seed from our father. So they gave their father wine to drink that night, and the elder came, and she lay down with her father, and he did not know when she was lying down or when she was getting up. (Genesis 19:31-33)

They repeat the procedure the next night, with the younger daughter as the seed collector. And once again the Torah claims Lot did not know when she was lying down or when she was getting up. Both women become pregnant, as they planned.

Many commentators have pointed out that preserving a man’s lineage is a high value in the Torah, and concluded that Lot’s daughters were doing the right thing. But if incest were truly the right behavior in their situation, they would simply ask their father to cooperate, without resorting to wine. Lot may not have read the Torah’s prohibition against “uncovering the nakedness of your father”, but he obviously knows that incest, like mistreating a stranger, is wrong.

The Torah appears to view Lot as innocent of incest by reason of unconsciousness. Yet it is Lot’s decision to keep drinking the wine until he passes out; even two strong young women could not force it down his throat.

And where did the wine come from? The Midrash Rabbah, a collection of commentary from Talmudic times, speculates that either the Sodomites stored wine in distant mountain caves, or the wine appeared miraculously. However, I agree with modern commentator Jonathan Kirsch that Lot probably grabs some wine when they pass through the village of Zoar on the way to the mountain. Like Noah, Lot would anticipate a need for escape from sanity after the catastrophe. And as in Noah’s story, the Torah blames Lot’s subsequent sexual misdeed on his children.

It is easy for me to judge both Noah and Lot harshly. But if God gave me orders, would I have the imagination or the courage to talk back? If I were faced with a mob of evil men, would I have the imagination or the courage to divert them safely? I have lots of imagination—except when it comes to my own problems. I’m learning courage, but I still prefer avoidance.

If all my friends, most of my family, and every familiar thing in my life were suddenly wiped out, would I have the imagination and courage to build a new life from nothing? I think I would, but how do I know?

When life becomes unbearable, do I stick with reality and avoid any drugs of escape? Cookies don’t count, do they?

When something bad happens between two people, do I duck responsibility by blaming it on the other guy? Never—except for when I am fixated on escaping the situation.

As I read the book of Genesis/Bereishit again this year, I feel sorry for the characters who try to rise to the challenge of walking with God, but are just too limited to keep up. I might be one of them.

Vayeira: Seeing Angels

October 30, 2012 at 11:03 am | Posted in Vayeira | 2 Comments

Three Visitors, by James Tissot (one is God)

How do you deal with an angel who looks like a man?  What if even God looks like a man?

Sometimes in the Torah God speaks directly to a human being.  Sometimes God speaks through an intermediary, a malakh = messenger, emissary.  (The Hebrew word malakh is often translated as “angel” in English, although it bears little resemblance to an angel in our popular culture.)

A messenger/malakh of God can manifest as a voice “from the heavens” (to Hagar and Abraham), and as someone who looks like a man (to Abraham, Lot, Hagar, Jacob, and probably Joseph).  In this week’s Torah portion, Vayeira (“And it appeared”), men who are really divine messengers appear first to Abraham, then to his nephew Lot.

God appeared to him [Abraham] at the great trees of Mamre; he himself  was sitting at the entrance of the tent in the heat of the day.  He lifted his eyes and saw–hey!–three men were standing over him.  He saw, and he ran  from the entrance of the tent to greet them, and he bowed to the ground.  He said: Please, Adonai, if I find favor in your eyes, please don’t pass by your servant. (Genesis 18:1-3)

Adonai (אֲדֺנָי) = my lords; My Lord (a name of God).

Abraham’s words are ambiguous. By saying “my lords” to three strange men, he is treating them as people of high rank.  Does he do this because he is a polite host?  Or does he know he is actually addressing God and a pair of God’s messengers?

He rushes around, preparing a delicious meal for the three “men”.  He recruits his wife Sarah to bake cakes, and his teenage boy (either a slave, or his son Ishmael, who is 13) to slaughter a tender calf.  The three men eat, or appear to eat.  Then one of them declares that Abraham’s wife Sarah will have a baby.    Inside the tent, Sarah laughs; she is 89 years old.

Then God said to Abraham: Why is it that Sarah laughed? … Is it too extraordinary a thing, from God? (Genesis 18:13-14)

Abraham expresses no surprise that now God is talking to him, though the three “men” are still present.

And the men got up from there, and they looked down on the face of Sodom, and Abraham was walking with them to send them off.  And God said: … Because the outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their wrongdoing is very heavy, I will go down … (Genesis 18:16-21)

But it is the “men” who go down to Sodom, while Abraham argues with God.

The men turned their faces away from there and they went to Sodom, when Abraham was still standing before God. (Genesis 18:22)

After Abraham convinces God to refrain from destroying Sodom if there are even ten righteous people in the city,

God left as [God] finished speaking to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place. And the two malakhim came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom, and Lot saw, and he got up to greet them, and he bowed to them, face to the ground. (Genesis 18:33-19:1)

malakhim (מַלְאָכִים) = messengers, emissaries.  (Plural of malakh.)

Lot bows to the ground before the men just like his uncle Abraham.  He begs them to come home with him for the night.  Like Abraham, Lot calls the men adonai, which could mean either “my lords” (men of rank) or “My Lord” (God).  Lot prepares a drinking-feast for the two messengers, with matzah he bakes himself.  Unlike Abraham, he does not ask his wife or his children to participate in welcoming the guests.  That night, all the men of Sodom surround Lot’s house.

Lot Prevents the Sodomites from Raping the Angels, by Heinrich Aldegrever, 1555

And they called to Lot and they said to him: Where are the men who came to you tonight?  Bring them out to us, and we will “know” them. (Genesis 19:5)

The men of Sodom do not see divine messengers, only strangers who can be degraded through rape.  Lot steps out, closing the door behind himself, and asks the men of Sodom not to do evil.  Then he says:

Hey, please, I have two daughters who have not known a man.  I will bring them out to you, please, and do to them what is good in your eyes.  Only don’t do a thing to the men of God … (Genesis 19:10)

Does Lot think his two guests are prophets, and therefore “men of God”?  Or does he know they are malakhim, God’s emissaries?

The last thing the men of Sodom see, before they are blinded by a dazzling light, is the “men” stretching out their hands and pulling Lot back into the house.  The two “men” urge Lot to collect his married daughters and their families, so they can all flee together before disaster strikes.  Now their words make it clear that they are God’s instruments, not ordinary men.

For we are destroying this place, because the outcry is great before God, and God sent us to destroy it. (Genesis 19:13)

But Lot cannot persuade his sons-in-law to flee.  When he returns to his house, the two “messengers” urge Lot to leave at once with his wife and his two unmarried daughters.  Lot hesitates, so the “men” grasp all four people by their hands and pull them out of the city.  Once Lot, his wife, and his two daughters are out of range, it is “God” who rains sulfur and fire on Sodom.

*

Both Abraham and Lot recognize the strangers as messengers of God.  What strikes me is that Abraham not only recognizes God, but also recognizes the importance of his own wife and boy.  By telling them to help prepare the banquet, he is acknowledging that they, too, have a stake in this visit from the divine.  He speaks to everyone: his own family, the three strange men, and God.

Lot, on the other hand, speaks only to God’s messengers and the men of Sodom.  He prepares drink and matzah for the divine messengers without saying a word to his wife or his daughters.  When he faces the men of Sodom outside his house, he shuts the door to protect God’s messengers, but he offers his daughters to the mob.

Lot reminds me of people I have met who act as if their relationship with God is more important than their relationships with human beings.  Abraham, at the beginning of this Torah portion, is a model of someone who lives comfortably with both humans and God, who speaks to everyone, respects everyone, and is generous with everyone.  He loses his balance later in his life; but at that moment, in the grove of Mamre, he values both God and human beings.

Whether we recognize God’s messengers or not, may we all become more like Abraham in Mamre, and less like Lot in Sodom.

Lekh-Lekha & Vayeira: Going with the Voice

November 1, 2011 at 10:59 pm | Posted in Lekh Lekha, Vayeira | 4 Comments

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

The Caravan of Abraham, by James Tissot

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

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

lekh (לֶךְ) = Go! 

lekha (לְךָ) =  for yourself, to yourself.

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

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

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

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

French, 13th century

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

Lekh-lekha!

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

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

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

Listen carefully.

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