Repost: Toledot & Vayeitzei

November 28, 2019 at 1:37 pm | Posted in Toledot, Vayeitzei | Leave a comment

When I looked through my previous posts on this week’s Torah portion, Toledot, the one that grabbed my attention was Toledot & Vayeitzei & Vayishlach: Goat Versus Snake.  (Click on the title to read an updated version of my 2012 essay.)

In the story of Esau and Jacob, the contrast between the twins is described in language related to the goat and the snake.  Esau is hairy as a goat, and goatish about sex.  He becomes the chieftain of “the land of the goat”.

Does the description of Esau also allude to the most famous goat scene in the Torah, the instructions in Leviticus 16:5-30 for the Yom Kippur ritual with two goats?  One goat, chosen by lot, is sacrificed to God.  The high priest confesses the sins of the whole community on the head of the other goat, and it is sent out into the wilderness to Azazel, a  mysterious goat-demon.  The Ramban and the Zohar claimed that Azazel represented the heathenism of Esau.1

Jacob, Esau’s twin brother, is smooth and hairless like a snake.  He is also clever and a heel-grabber, like the snake in the Garden of Eden.

We have been seeing a lot of symbolic animals in paintings and sculptures during our travels in Europe.  The most common is the lion, the ubiquitous symbol of royal or religious power. There are also beasts that stand for powerful families or cities.  For example, in Florence we saw dolphins carved in relief on many buildings because dolphins stood for the Pazzi family.  Other heraldic animals I have noticed include ravens, eagles, stags, wolves, bulls, boars, bees, dragons, and griffins.

The most widespread subject matter for art in the middle ages and the Renaissance was Catholic.  So we have seen a lot of sheep, as well as the beasts associated with certain saints, such as Jerome’s lion, George’s dragon, and John’s snake-in-a-chalice.

“Original Sin” by Paolo Uccello, 1430’s.  (Photo by M.C.)

The two most popular subjects from the “Old Testament” have been the near-sacrifice of Isaac (considered a prefiguration of Jesus’ self-sacrifice) and the story of the Garden of Eden (which Catholics interpreted in terms of “original sin”, a concept important to their idea of redemption through Jesus).

The snake in the Garden of Eden appears with a human head in this weathered fresco on the wall of the Santa Maria Novella refectory in Florence, Italy:

 

Satyr in “Bacchus” by Michelangelo, 1496-97

As far as I know, goats did not appear in symbolic Christian art.  But Italian Renaissance artists did borrow themes from the ancient Romans and Greeks.  One of their favorites was the story of Leda seduced by Jupiter in the form of a swan.  They also revived the image of the satyr, a hybrid goat-man representing impulsive sex and drunken orgies.  Michelangelo included a satyr in one of his lesser sculptures, now in the Bargello in Florence.  The Greek satyr is a separate tradition from the story of Esau, but both feature sex, impulsive decisions, and an allusion to goats.

*

This repost covers two Torah portions—Toledot this week and Vayeitzei next week.  I am staying up late tonight in Barcelona so I can post it.  Tomorrow we get up early for a day trip to Girona, and then we are off to Granada, with its famous Moorish palace, the Alhambra.  Will we see any goats or snakes there?  I will let you know.

  1. “Ramban” is the acronym of 13th-century Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, a mystical Torah commentator from Girona, Spain. The Zohar is a kabbalistic work written by Moses de Leon in 13th-century Spain.  (See http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/2203-azazel.)

Vayeitzei:  Stealing Away

November 13, 2018 at 9:20 pm | Posted in Hosea, Samuel 1, Vayeitzei | Leave a comment

Jacob runs away twice in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei (“and he went”).  At the beginning he runs away from his brother Esau in Beersheva, and arrives alone at his uncle Lavan’s house in Charan.  He works as a shepherd for his uncle for twenty years, but Lavan still refuses to grant him independence.  So Jacob runs away again at the end of the Torah portion.  He heads back toward Beersheva with two wives, two concubines, eleven children, many servants, assorted tents and household goods, and more livestock than his own household needs,1 including expensive riding camels.2

His wives Leah and Rachel resent their father and agree it is time to go.3

Lavan went to shear his sheep.  And Rachel, vatiginov the terafim that belonged to her father.   (Genesis/Bereishit 31:19)

vatiginov (וַתִּגְנֺו) = she stole, (or) you stole.  (A form of the verb ganav, גָּנַב = stole, robbed.)

terafim (תְּרָפִים) = figurines or statues of household gods?  (Although the -im suffix usually indicates a plural, the noun terafim can be plural or singular in the bible.)

Unlike his wife Rachel, Jacob takes only what he believes is rightfully his.  But he does a different kind of stealing.

Jacob Flees (artist unknown)

And Jacob, vayignov et leiv Lavan the Aramean by not telling him that he was running away.  And he ran away, he and all that was his; he got up and he crossed the Euphrates and he set his face toward the hills of the Gilead.  (Genesis 31:20-21)

vayignov et leiv (וַיִּגְנֺב אֶת לֵב) = he deceived.  (Literally: vayignov = he stole + et = (definite direct object indicator) + leiv = the mind of.)

Lavan learns three days later that Jacob and his household have fled.  He takes some kinsmen and chases after them, catching up with Jacob’s party in the hills of Gilead.  The next morning Lavan confronts Jacob and says:

“What were you doing when vatignov et levavi and you carried off my daughters like captives of the sword?  Why did you hide to run away, vatignov me, and you did not tell me? … I have power in my hand to do bad to you all, but last night the god of your fathers spoke to me, saying: ‘Protect yourself from speaking with Jacob for good or bad’.”  (Genesis 31:26-27, 29)

vatignov et levavi (ותִּגְנֺב אֶת לְבָבִי) = you deceived me.  (The same idiom as vayignov et leiv.)

He accuses Jacob of both deception (“stealing his mind”) and robbery.  But influenced by the dream from the God of Israel, Lavan gives Jacob the benefit of the doubt.

“And now you surely walked away because you surely longed deeply for the house of your father.  [But] why ganavta my gods?”  (Genesis 31:30)

ganavta (גָנַבְתָּ) = did you steal.   (Another form of the verb ganav.)

Lavan cannot help exclaiming about what bothers him the most: that his household gods, his terafim, are missing.

And Jacob answered and he said to Lavan: “Because I was afraid, because I said [to myself]: ‘What if you tear away your daughters from me?’  If you find anyone has your gods, he shall not live.  In front of our kinsmen, identify what is yours with me and take it!”  And Jacob did not know that Rachel genavatam.  (Genesis 31:31-32)

genavatam (גְּנָבָתַם) = had stolen them.  (Another form of the verb ganav.)

Lavan acts on Jacob’s invitation by searching the tents of Jacob, Leah, the two concubines, and finally Rachel.

Bedouin camel saddle, photo by hannatravels.com

And Rachel?  She had taken the terafim and put them inside the camel saddle, and she sat on them.  Lavan groped through the whole tent, but he did not find them.  (Genesis 31:34)

Rachel tells her father she cannot stand up to greet him because it is her monthly period, and he leaves her tent.  Jacob is spared the anguish of finding out the truth and making good on his promise to kill the thief.

Jacob justifies deceiving Lavan by explaining that he secretly fled because he was afraid of losing his wives.  Later in the confrontation he justifies his deception by bringing up Lavan’s history of cheating him.4

But what about Rachel?  Why does she steal from her father, and is she justified?

What are Lavan’s terafim?

from Judah, 7th century BCE

Lavan’s terafim may be small terra cotta figurines, which archaeologists have found in abundance throughout Mesopotamia as well as at pre-586 B.C.E. sites in the kingdom of Judah.  These figurines came from private houses, not temples.  They may have represented a clan’s ancestors, and ancestor-worship may have been distinguished from idol-worship.5

One proposal is that Lavan’s terafim are similar to the “gods” mentioned in tablets from 1440-1340 B.C.E. at Nuzi.6  According to one Nuzi tablet, the chief heir of an estate received the “gods” of the deceased.  The chief heir was usually a son of the deceased, but if he had no natural son, his adopted son could inherit the “gods” along with the rest of the estate.7

If possession of a family’s terafim indicated the ownership of a household in Charan as well, then Rachel might steal her father’s terafim in case she needs future proof that her husband owns the flocks, slaves, and goods he took.

This explanation is based on 20th-century archaeology, and assumes that the biblical term terafim applies to small terra cotta figurines.  But what if we interpret the word terafim in this week’s Torah portion by examining the other seven occurrences of the word terafim in the Hebrew Bible?

Traditional commentary assumed that terafim were idols, which God forbids in the Ten Commandments and later biblical passages.  Genesis Rabbah 74:5-6 and Rashi (11th-century C.E. rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki) credited Rachel with taking the terafim in order to reform her father and end his idol-worship.  19th-century rabbi S.R. Hirsch added that since the terafim could not protect themselves from theft, Lavan should realize that they were also powerless to protect him.8

But if Rachel despised the terafim, she could have discarded or destroyed them during the first ten days of the journey, before Laban caught up with them.

Furthermore, the book of Genesis never censures anyone for owning terafim.  And the book of Hosea includes terafim in a list of things the Israelites will be deprived of until they turn back to God.9  The implication is that in the northern kingdom of Israel (Samaria) where Hosea prophesied, terafim were acceptable accompaniments to the worship of the God of Israel.

Michal Lets David Out the Window, by Gustave Dore, 1865

The first book of Samuel also considers household terafim acceptable.  In 1 Samuel 19:13, King Saul sends men to kill David, and David’s wife Mikhal helps him escape out the bedroom window.  Then she arranges his bed so that it will look as if he is still sleeping there.  She takes a terafim in their house, gives it a wig of goat-hair, and pulls the bedclothes over it.  This man-sized terafim is obviously larger than the ones Rachel steals and hides in her camel saddle.  It seems to be a normal item for a God-fearing Israelite general to have in his house.

That leaves five negative references to terafim in the bible.  Judges 17-18 gently pokes fun at Micah by relating how he acquires four “gods”: a carved silver idol, a cast silver idol, an oracular object, and a terafim.  Like the silver idols, a terafim is a physical object used for dubious religious purposes.

Terafim are listed along with false and/or idolatrous items used for divination in 1 Samuel, 2 Kings, Ezekiel, and Zecharaiah.  These lists assume that terafim are also devices for soothsaying.10  The purpose of Lavan’s terafim may therefore be to provide omens about the future and knowledge of the unknown.

In that case, Rachel might steal the terafim so Lavan could not use them to find out what route Jacob and his household were taking.11  But Lavan and his men track them down anyway.

Jacob and Laban Set a Boundary (artist unknown)

Once Lavan no longer has his terafim for divination, he also becomes able hear God in a dream: an inner voice telling him to guard his own behavior and be careful when he speaks to Jacob.  The next day, Lavan becomes a reasonable man, giving up his “rights” for the sake of peace.12  The two men conduct a ritual to set a clear boundary between the areas they will occupy, and Jacob walks off as a free man and head of his own household.

*

If Rachel had ditched the terafim after stealing them from Lavan, would she, too, have heard God’s voice in dream?  God never speaks to her in the Torah, and she dies in childbirth on the road south of Beit-El.  The contention between Rachel and her sister Leah continues between her sons and Leah’s sons.  Would it have been different if she had heard God’s voice?  What kind of person would she have become?

What if you threw away your terafim?  So many people get attached to the figurines they have acquired: viewing every coincidence as an omen, reacting as if human beings were stock characters made of clay, denying inconvenient realities.  What if you stopped deceiving yourself, stopped stealing your own mind?  What would you be able to hear?

  1. Jacob evidently leaves Charan with more flocks and herds than he needs, since he can afford to give away 580 animals to Esau in Genesis 32:14-16.
  2. Genesis 31:17-18 and 32:16.
  3. Genesis 31:11-16.
  4. Jacob promises to serve Lavan for seven years in exchange for marriage with Lavan’s younger daughter, Rachel, but at the wedding Lavan substitutes his older daughter, Leah. He gives Rachel to Jacob a week later as a second wife, but he requires Jacob to work another seven years (Genesis 29:15-27).  After he has completed 14 years of service, Jacob asks Lavan to let him go back to Canaan with his wives and children, but Lavan negotiates wages for continued service (Genesis 30:25-31).  Jacob alludes to this history in Vayeitzei in Genesis 31:41.
  5. Aaron Greener, “What Are Clay Female Figurines Doing in Judah During the Biblical Period?”, www.thetorah.com, Aug 16, 2016.
  6. The ruins of Nuzi were unearthed near present-day Kirkuk, Iraq, about 430 miles (690 km) east of Charan (present-day Harran in Turkey near the Syrian border).
  7. jewishvirtuallibrary.org/nuzi.
  8. Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Bereshis, English translation by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2002, p. 640.
  9. Hosea 3:4.
  10. 1 Samuel 15:23, 2 Kings 23:24, Ezekiel 21:26, and Zecharaiah 10:2. Following up on the idea of diviniation, Targum pseudo-Jonathan (originally Targum Yerushalmi) defined a terafim is a mummified head that can speak prophecy.  12th-century commentator Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra proposed that a terafim was an image made by astrologers at a propitious time so that it could speak.
  11. Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah, Bereishis (vol. 1), English translation by E.S. Mazer, Mesorah Publications, Ltd., Brooklyn, NY, 1994, p. 424.
  12. Genesis 31:43-44.

Vayeitzei: The Place

November 21, 2017 at 9:38 am | Posted in Vayeitzei | 2 Comments

Jacob’s Dream, detail
by Jusepe de Ribera, 1639

 

Jacob departed from Beersheba and he went toward Charan.  He encountered the makom, and he spent the night there because the sun had set.  He took one of the stones of the makom and he put it at his head, and he lay down at that makom. (Genesis/Bereishit 28:10-11)

makom (מָקוֹם) = place, location, space.

The repetition of the word makom at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei (“And he left”) establishes that the place Jacob stumbles upon at sunset will be significant for him. But when he arrives, all he notices is hard, stony ground.

Jacob has lived his entire life in Beersheba, but now he is running away from his twin brother, Esau. In last week’s Torah portion, Toledot, Jacob cheated Esau first out of his birthright, then out of the family blessing. Esau threatened to kill him, and the twins’ mother, Rebecca, arranged Jacob’s hasty departure on the pretext that he must find a wife in her old hometown in northern Mesopotamia.

So in this week’s portion Jacob sets off on a journey of about 620 miles (1,000 km) to his uncle’s house in Charan. He hikes north from Beersheba, equipped with a flask of olive oil and some other provisions, but no donkey nor servant nor livestock nor silver.1 For the son of a wealthy man, he is ill-equipped for either a long journey or a marriage negotiation.

At sunset on the second or third day he arrives at the makom, identified later as the site of the former town of Luz and the future town of Beit-El (Bethel).2 Nobody lives in the vicinity to offer a traveler a place to sleep.  So Jacob lies on the ground with a stone for a pillow.

During the day, Jacob’s conscious mind is busy as he acts and schemes.  But on this night, his unconscious mind opens in a dream.

German 14th century

And he dreamed, and hey! A stairway was set to the ground and its top reached to the heavens, and hey! Messengers of God were ascending and descending on it. (Genesis 28:12)

The stairway and its traffic of messenger angels may represent a new idea for Jacob. He knows that his father was almost sacrificed on an altar by his grandfather Abraham; after all, at the end of this week’s Torah portion, Jacob calls God “the terror of Isaac”.3 He knows that a messenger of God called to Abraham and ordered him to desist.

But we never see Jacob praying or conversing with God before this week’s Torah portion. Jacob has depended on his own guile to get what he wants.  Now his dream reveals that communication between heaven and earth happens all the time. It could happen with him.

And hey! God stood over him and said: “I am God, the god of Abraham your forefather and the god of Isaac. The ground that you yourself are lying on, I will give it to you and to your descendants.” (Genesis 28:13)

God continues speaking to Jacob in the dream, giving him the blessing of Abraham, and promising to guard Jacob wherever he goes and return him to the place where he is lying now.

And Jacob woke up from his sleep, and he said: “Actually, there is God in this makom, and I, I did not know!”  And he was awed, and he said: “How awesome is this makom!  This is none other than the home of God, and this is the gate of the heavens!”  (Genesis/Bereishit 28:16-17)

What is Jacob’s amazing realization?

One tradition claims that Jacob dreams in the same place where his father, Isaac, was almost sacrificed—at the top of Mount Moriyah, which that tradition identifies with Jerusalem.4 It actually is the gate between heaven and earth, the makom where humans pray and God speaks. Jacob does not even recognize anything holy about it when he lies down. Yet he is transformed by the dream he has in that particular makom, where God broke through to his father and grandfather.5

Ruins of Jeroboam’s temple at Beit-El

However, this week’s Torah portion clearly states that the makom of Jacob’s dream is the site of Beit-El (Bethel in English), about 12 miles north of Jerusalem. In the Torah, Beit-El becomes a holy place because Jacob erects and anoints a standing-stone there to commemorate his dream, and upon his return he builds an altar.6 (These actions provide a rationale for why Jereboam, the first king of the northern kingdom of Israel, built a temple at Beit-El.7)

Rashi reconciles the two stories about the location of Jacob’s dream by suggesting that God simply collapses the distance between Beit-El and Jerusalem for that one night. Therefore the foot of the ladder is at Beit-El, while the top of the ladder is at the gate of the heavens above the future temple in Jerusalem.2

I prefer the theory that God is in every place, even an unremarkable patch of stony ground; the question is whether we are aware of God. Jacob lies down unaware. When he wakes up from his dream, he is awed by the presence of God.

He could only become aware of God by losing awareness of himself, according to Tiferet Shlomo: “This “I, I did not know,” means I did not know myself at all. I was not aware of myself at all, but only of the unity of the Holy One, Blessed Be He.”8

Jacob’s father, Isaac, had a direct waking encounter with God while he was bound on the altar, then twice heard God promise him the blessing of Abraham.9 But Jacob spent his waking hours scheming for his own advantage. God could only reach him in a dream.

Jacob’s real achievement is taking his dream seriously. And he takes two more steps. He realizes with amazement that God is still there, in the same place where he is. And he realizes that his own ego, his own “I” (anokhi in Hebrew), has been ignorant, unaware of God and perhaps of his own larger self.10

Until this point, Jacob has been driven by the identity he has held ever since he heard the story of how he emerged from the womb second, grasping Esau’s heel. Jacob has acted from the conviction that he was cheated at birth. He could only get a full inheritance and a full blessing by cheating his brother out of them.

When he lies down at the makom, Jacob owns nothing. He may never receive an inheritance. His father gave him the blessing of Abraham before he left, but since he duped Isaac into giving him the first blessing, how can he believe his father’s second blessing is intentional and authentic?

Yet in his dream, God blesses him and promises to stay with him. Now Jacob has a chance to become someone larger, separate from Esau.

Several times when I was a young atheist I happened to step outside with nothing particular in mind and suddenly, for some unknown reason, I was struck by how everything around me was alive.  Everything was one thing, and I was part of it.

If I had known some Torah then, I might have thought: “Actually, there is God in this place, and I, I did not know!”

May we all find ourselves in that makom, and may we discover our deeper selves.

  1. No animals or servants are mentioned in this week’s Torah portion. And when Jacob head home twenty years later, he says: “With only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps” (Genesis 32:11).
  2. Genesis 28:19. Beit-El (“Bethel” in English) is about 60 miles (100 km) north of Beersheba, so Jacob could not have reached in on his first day of travel. It is about 12 miles (20 km) north of Jerusalem.
  3. In Genesis 32:42 Jacob refers to God as “the God of Abraham and Pachad Yitzchak (פַּחַד יִצְחָק) = “the terror of Isaac”. In Genesis and 32:53 Jacob swears by Pachad Yitzchak.
  4. See note 3 on Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer. This tradition continues in the Midrash Rabbah, and is repeated by Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki).
  5. g. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Beginning of Desire, Doubleday, New York, 1995, p. 187-188.
  6. Genesis 28:19, Genesis 35:6-7.
  7. 1 Kings 12:28-33.
  8. Tiferet Shlomo, by 19th-century Polish Rabbi Shlomo Hakohen Rainowicz, translated by Rabbi David Kasher, ParshaNut Weekly Post: Parshat Vayeitzei.
  9. Genesis 26:2-5, Genesis 26:24.
  10. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Murmuring Deep, Schocken Books, New York, 2009, p. 278: “The Zohar reads his waking speech—va-anokhi lo yadati—‘I–I did not know,’ as referring to his own selfhood: ‘I have not known my anokhi—my self.’”

Haftarot Vayeitzei & Vayishlach—Hosea: A Heart Upside Down

December 7, 2016 at 9:26 am | Posted in Hosea, Vayeitzei, Vayiggash | Leave a comment
Tags: , ,
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 Vayeitzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3), and the haftarah is Hosea 12:13-14:10. Next week’s Torah portion is Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43) and the haftarah is Hosea 11:7-12:12. 1
Together, the passages from Hosea show us a God whose “heart has turned upside down”.

A punishment from God! That’s how the Bible describes almost every plague or military defeat the Israelites suffer, from the time they leave Mt. Sinai to the fall of the temple in Jerusalem. God gets a hot nose (the biblical idiom for anger) when the Israelites fail to live up to their covenant with God—by not trusting God to provide for them, by worshiping other gods, or by neglecting God’s ritual and ethical laws. Then God yells at them through a prophet, and lashes out with a deadly punishment.

Yet in the second half of Isaiah, God says the Israelites have suffered enough, and forgives them.  And in the haftarot for this week and next week, two contiguous sections the book of Hosea, God is torn between vicious anger and tender-hearted love.

Baal in bronze, from Ugarit

Baal in bronze, from Ugarit

The double passage begins with God saying:

            My people are stuck in meshuvah from me.

            Upward they are summoned—

            They do not rise at all. (Hosea 11:7)

meshuvah (מְשׁוּבָה) = backsliding, defection (to other gods), disloyalty.

The people of the northern kingdom of Israel (which Hosea also calls Efrayim, after the tribe of its first king, Jeroboam) remain trapped in their habit of worshiping Baal, even though prophets such as Hosea call for reform. When any of the people of Israel or Judah persist in worshiping idols, God usually becomes enraged and threatens destruction.  But this time, God says:

           How can I give you up, Efrayim?

            [How] can I hand you over, Israel?

            How can I put you in the position of Admah?

            [How] can I treat you like Tzevoyim?

            My heart nehapakh.

            It is altogether anxious, and I have had a change of heart. (Hosea 11:8)

nehapakh (נֶהְפַּךְ) = has turned upside down, turned around, been overturned.

Admah and Tzevoyim were villages annihilated along with their neighbors, Sodom and Gomorrah, and presumably shared their immorality. Although the northern kingdom of Israel is engaging in the Baal-worship of its neighboring kingdoms, the thought of annihilating Israel turns God’s anger into anxiety.

            I will not act on the anger of My nose.

            I will not turn to destroy Efrayim.

            Because I am a god, and not a man;

            The holy one in your midst.

            And I will not come with agitation. (Hosea 11:7-9)

The book of Hosea implies that only a human man would reject his unfaithful wife in anger.  A god, unlike a man, is able to master emotional reactions. The God of Israel chooses the path of love instead—at least for a few more verses. Then God remembers:

            Efrayim encircled Me with false denials,

            And the house of Israel with deceit… (Hosea 12:1)

            It cut a covenant with Assyria;

            Then it brought oil as tribute to Egypt. (Hosea 12:2)

The book of Hosea, like the book of Jeremiah, urges the Israelites not to become vassal states of other empires, but to remain independent and trust God to protect them. The government of the northern kingdom is deceiving itself by pretending that an alliance with a foreign empire does not affect its service to God, but only leads to wealth and power. Israel, personified as Efrayim, says:

from Croesus by Nicholas Knupfer

from “Croesus” by Nicholas Knupfer

            How rich I have become!

            I have found power for myself.

            [In] all my labor they cannot find crooked activity

            That is a sin. (Hosea 12:9)

Efrayim knows his shady dealings are crooked, but tells himself that he is good as long as he does not break the letter of the law.  However, God knows better.

            And now they add sin to sin

            And they make for themselves molten images…

            They speak to them!

            Sacrificers of humans, they kiss calves! (Hosea 13:2)

God’s nose gets hot again, and God speaks of punishing the Israelites in various terrible ways, concluding:

            By the sword they shall fall;

            Their infants shall be smashed on rocks,

            And their pregnant women shall be ripped open! (Hosea 14:1)

Then Hosea advises the Israelites to pray for forgiveness and promise never to worship idols again. (See my post Haftarot for Rosh Hashanah and Shabbat Shuva.) Their words are enough to turn God’s heart upside down once again. God says:

            I will heal their meshuvah.

            I will love them nedavah.

            For my hot nose has turned away from them. (Hosea 14:5)

nedavah (נְדָבָה) = voluntarily, freely, as a gift, spontaneously.

A prayer and a promise are enough to change God from an angry punisher into a loving and forgiving healer. God’s love is not even contingent on the Israelites fulfilling their promise.

God predicts that the Israelites will be cured of their meshuvah, their habit of disloyalty and defection, in response to God’s freely given love.

            Efrayim [shall say]:  “What are idols to me now?”

            I Myself shall respond and I shall look at him with regard. (Hosea 14:9)

*

Parents and teachers are familiar with the conundrum God faces in these haftarot. After you have told children what they are doing wrong, and what they should do instead, do you wait for them to change their behavior before you reward them?  Or do you shower them with love first, hoping that they will then change in response to your trust in them?

I suspect the right answer is different for each child. And once in a while, when a child is testing you, you need to show that your temper has limits, and mete out an appropriate level of punishment.

In most of the Bible, God is not a wonderful parent or teacher. The anthropomorphic God has a hair-trigger temper, and “His” punishments include early and painful death for thousands of innocent people. But Hosea holds up a different model when he suggests that a god has more self-control than a man. The God of Israel need not act like a man who cannot overcome his anger against an unfaithful wife, Hosea says. God can stay calm and heal humans of their slavish devotion to idols and emperors—through love.

Today many adult humans try to meet the higher standards that Hosea set for God, behaving with self-control, good judgment, and love. It is not easy, since we seem to be made in the image of the old anthropomorphic God, full of both anger and love.

Underneath those feelings, can we come close to a more holy God?  I believe we can, if we spend enough time reflecting and turning our hearts upside down, as well as recognizing our self-deceit and denial and pushing through to deeper truths.

            You, you must return to your own god!         

            You must observe kindness and just judgments,

            And eagerly wait for your god, constantly! (Hosea 12:7)

 

1 (There is an alternate tradition of reading the book of Obadiah for next week’s haftarah, but Obadiah merely predicts the triumph of the people of Jacob (Israel) and the complete downfall of the people of Esau (Edom), without offering any reasons or any characterizations of God, Jacob, or Esau. Hosea 11:7-12:12, on the other hand, mentions Jacob wrestling with the mysterious being, a key feature of the Torah portion Vayishlach, as well as considering divine and human psychology.)
 

Vayeitzei: Father Figures

November 19, 2015 at 10:12 pm | Posted in Vayeitzei | Leave a comment
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Jacob runs away from home at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei (“And he went”). He might be fleeing from his twin brother, Esau—who is threatening to murder Jacob for cheating him twice:  first by trading him a bowl of stew in exchange for his inheritance, and then by impersonating him in order to steal their father Isaac’s blessing.

Jacob might also be running away from his mother, who inveigled him into the impersonation.  He might be running away from his father, an authoritarian figure who loves Esau but not Jacob. Or he might be running away from a household in which he is and always will be the second-born (emerging from the womb holding onto Esau’s heel) and second-best.

prophet 2Officially, Jacob is not running away at all, but following Isaac’s instruction to go to Charan and take a wife from among the daughters of Rebecca’s brother, Lavan.  But Jacob does not wait for his wealthy father to give him a bride-price, riding animals, and servants for the journey.  Instead, he dashes away with only his walking stick.

I think Jacob is determined to leave his past behind, and never again try to take anything from his father: neither an inheritance, nor a blessing, nor even a bag of gold for a bride-price.

When Jacob arrives in Charan, he falls in love with his uncle Lavan’s younger daughter, Rachel, and proposes to pay her bride-price by working as Lavan’s shepherd for seven years.

Lavan agrees to Jacob’s deal, but when the seven years are up, he substitutes his older daughter, Leah, as the bride. Jacob does not dare challenge his authoritarian, unloving uncle/father-in-law—any more than he could directly challenge his father. He ends up working an additional seven years so he can marry Rachel, too.

After fourteen years, Jacob says he is ready to return to Canaan.  But Lavan is not ready to lose such an excellent shepherd.  So he asks what wages would induce Jacob to continue working for him.

Black sheep

Black sheep

He said: What shall I give you?  And Jacob said: You shall not give me anything at all.  If you will do for me this thing, I will go back to shepherd your flocks and watch over them. I shall pass through all your flocks today, and remove from them every speckled or spotted young animal, every dark or spotted one among the lambs and every spotted or specked one among the goat-kids. That will be my wages. (Genesis 30:31-32)

In other words, Lavan will give Jacob ownership of all the spotted goat-kids and dark lambs that day, and when any new spotted kids or dark lambs are born, they will also belong to Jacob. This is a reasonable offer, since the majority of goats in that area are entirely black or brown, and the majority of sheep are entirely white. Jacob will own only the animals with unusual coloring.

And Lavan said: Right! Let it be as you have spoken. (Genesis 30:34)

But Lavan is lying. Before Jacob can go through the flocks, Lavan removes all the oddly colored goats and sheep, both young and adult, and sends them off with his own sons.

And he turned aside on that day the he-goats with akudim or spots or speckles, and all the speckled and spotted she-goats, every one that had lavan on it, and all the dark sheep; and he gave them into the hands of his sons. And he put a journey of three days between himself and Jacob…(Genesis 30:35-36)

akudim (עַקֻדִּים) = stripes; marks from being bound with ropes; bindings. (From the root akad (עקד).)

lavan (לָבָן) = white; brick.  (Also the name of Jacob’s uncle and father-in-law.)

Only the monochromatic animals are left for Jacob to tend. Lavan believes that it would take a miracle for all-black goats to have multi-colored offspring, or for all-white sheep to have dark offspring, so Jacob will never own any animals.

Goats stripedJacob did not mention stripes in his proposal, but Lavan also removes the striped goats.

In the whole bible, words from the root akad (עקד) appear only in the book of Genesis: once when Abraham binds Isaac, and six times in this week’s Torah portion, in descriptions of goats and sheep.

In the story Jews call the Akedah (“Binding”), God tells Abraham to sacrifice his 37-year-old son Isaac.

And they came to the place that God said to him, and Abraham built altar there, and he arranged the wood, vaya-akod Isaac, his son, and he placed him on the later on top of the wood.  And Abraham stretched out his hand, and he took the knife to slaughter his son. (Genesis 22:9-10)

vaya-akod (וַיַּעֲקֹד) = and he bound. (Also from the same root akad (עקד).)

God stops Abraham at the last minute, but the near-sacrifice is the defining moment of Isaac’s life. Isaac, who clearly acquiesced in the binding, is bound for the rest of his life not only to God,  but also to Abraham.  He avoids his father for the rest of the old man’s life, but after Abraham dies, Isaac takes over his livestock business, redigs his father’s wells, and repeats his father’s trick of passing off his wife as his unmarried sister (see my post Toledot: Generations of Impersonations). Isaac remains akudim, as if you could still see the stripes from his binding.

When Lavan goes through his flocks ahead of Jacob, he removes all the he-goats that are akudim like Jacob’s father Isaac, as well as all the she-goats that bear patches of lavan, his own name, and all the dark-colored sheep.

Thus Jacob is symbolically deprived of both his father and his uncle/father-in-law. At last he has no father figure!

Unfortunately, he also has no independent means to feed his own large family.

Jacob tries sympathetic magic, mating the best goats in front of sticks with the dark bark peeled off in strips to reveal the white (lavan) wood underneath, so the she-goats will be thinking of black-and-white mixtures when they conceive. The Torah assumes this method is effective for breeding multi-colored goats.

And the flock went into heat at the sticks, and they gave birth to the flock of akudim, speckled ones, and spotted ones. (Genesis 30:39)

Today we know that while the genetics of coat color for goats and sheep is complicated, involving several pairs of genes, it is possible for two all-black goats carrying the right recessive genes to produce a spotted kid, and for two all-white sheep carrying the recessive gene for pigment production to produce a black or brown lamb.

Lavan’s large flocks of all-black goats and all-white sheep would include many animals carrying recessive genes.  So regardless of peeled sticks, some of their offspring would have two recessive genes leading to multi-colored coats—and Jacob would have breeding stock for his own flocks.

Goat female with 2 kids

She-goat with two kids

After six years Jacob has large flocks and ample wealth. As soon as the untrustworthy Lavan is out of town, Jacob sneaks away with his own wives and children and his own flocks. But he does not escape all reminders of his uncle or his father; all his own goats have spots of lavan on them, and many are akudim.

The last time a form of the word akad appears in the Bible is when Jacob tells Rachel and Leah that God said:

Raise your eyes, please, and see: All the he-goats going up on the flocks are akudim, speckled, and dappled, because I have seen everything that Lavan is doing to you. (Genesis 31:12)

Thus God becomes the ultimate father-figure for Jacob—but at least this divine father-figure recompenses Jacob for the injustice he suffered.

After that last reference to akudim, Jacob no longer lets himself be bound by Isaac, Lavan, or any other head of a household.  He becomes the head of his own household, and when Jacob’s authority falters, it is only when his own sons take charge.

Psychologically, Isaac never loses the stripes from when his father bound him.  Jacob finally outgrows his own father complex, but not until he is over 60.

As we read their stories, may the stripes on the goats, and even sheep, remind us of the endurance of father-figures, and help us to outgrow our dependence on them.

Vayechi and Vayeitzei: No Substitute

December 28, 2014 at 9:02 am | Posted in Vayechi, Vayeitzei | Leave a comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

Am I tachat God? (Genesis/Bereshit 50:19)

tachat (תַּחַת) = underneath, under the authority of; instead of, a substitute for, in exchange for.

Two people in the Hebrew Bible ask this question. Jacob says it to his favorite wife, Rachel, in the Torah portion Vayeitzei (“and he went”). Almost 60 years later, their son Joseph says it to his brothers in this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi (“and he lived”).

Jacob instead of God

from "Jacob and Rachel" by William Dyce

from “Jacob and Rachel” by William Dyce

Jacob throws the question at Rachel right after she has spoken for the first time in the Torah, more than ten years after Jacob first sees her and kisses her. Their romance is not smooth. Jacob serves her father Lavan for seven years as Rachel’s bride-price, and then on his wedding day, Lavan tricks him and marries him to Rachel’s sister Leah. Jacob’s wedding with Rachel follows a week later, once he commits to working an additional seven years. Leah has four sons before Rachel speaks up.

And Rachel saw that she had not borne children to Jacob, and she was envious of her sister. And she said to Jacob: Give me children!—and if not, I am dead. Then Jacob was angry with Rachel, and he said: Am I tachat God, who withheld from you fruit of the womb? (Genesis 30:1-2)

Rachel’s demand makes Jacob angry for more than one reason. When she says that without children, she is dead, Rachel implies that Jacob’s devotion is not enough to make her life worthwhile. Naturally Jacob’s anger flashes. And it is not his fault that Rachel is infertile. So he demands: Am I tachat God?

He cannot be a substitute for God. Only God can “open the womb” of an infertile woman.

It does not occur to Jacob to pray to God, as his father Isaac prayed for his mother Rebecca to conceive. But his rebuff does lead Rachel to take her own action. She gives her slave-woman, Bilhah, to Jacob as a wife, then adopts Bilhah’s two sons as her own.

Through this human solution, Jacob actually does give Rachel children, tachat—instead of—God.

Joseph instead of God

After Rachel has two adopted sons, God does open her womb, and she gives birth to Joseph. The family continues to be dysfunctional; Joseph’s ten older brothers hate him and sell him as a slave bound for Egypt. When they are reunited twenty years later, Joseph tells them not to worry about their past crime, because God planned it all in order to get him to Egypt and elevate him to viceroy so he could feed everyone during the seven-year famine. The whole clan, including the patriarch Jacob, Joseph’s brothers, and their families, immigrate to Egypt under Joseph’s protection.

But after Jacob dies, we learn that Joseph’s brothers are still worried about retribution. Like Rachel, they “see” a problem.

And Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, and they said: If Joseph bears a grudge against us, then he will certainly pay us back for all the evil that we did to him! (Genesis 50:15)

They assume that their father’s words would carry more weight with Joseph than their own, and they send Joseph what they claim is a deathbed request from Jacob:

Please sa, please, the crime and the offense of your brothers, when they did evil to you; now sa, please, the crime of the servants of your father’s god. (Genesis 50:17)

sa (שָׂא) = lift up. (To lift up a man’s head was to legally pardon him.)

And Joseph sobbed when they spoke to him. (Genesis 50:17)

Unlike Jacob, Joseph is not angry when he asks: Am I tachat God? Instead, his brothers’ clumsy and obsequious request makes him cry. Perhaps he cries because his brothers cannot speak to him directly. Or perhaps he cries in frustration, because he thought everything was settled, and now he has to deal with the issue all over again.

And his brothers also went and flung themselves down in front of him, and they said: Here we are, your slaves. (Genesis 50:17-18)

Nothing has changed in the seventeen years since Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers. His older brothers still feel guilty. Joseph is sobbing again.  His brothers bow down to him again, and offer to be his slaves again. (See my  post Vayiggash: A Serial Sobber.)

joseph_receives_his_brothers_cameoAnd Joseph said to them:  Do not be afraid. For am I tachat God? While you planned evil against me, God planned it for good, in order to accomplish what is today, keeping many people alive. (Genesis 50:19-20)

Joseph said something similar seventeen years before:

And now, do not be worried and do not be angry at yourselves because you sold me here; because God sent me ahead of you for preservation of life. (Genesis 45:5)

Contemporary commentator Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg made the case that the first time Joseph tells his brothers their crime is part of God’s plan, he is suddenly seeing the big picture. His enslavement was a necessary step to reach his present position as the viceroy, enabling him to save his own family and many other people from starvation. Joseph drops his own resentment against his brothers, and he hopes that sharing his vision of big picture will let his brothers drop their guilt.

But years later, when their father dies, Joseph finds out that his brothers still feel guilty. And he still does not realize that what they need is forgiveness, or at least a pardon. (See my  post Vayiggash & Vayechi: Forgiving.) Instead, he once again declares that their evil deed turned out to be part of God’s plan. Joseph continues:

And now, do not be afraid; I myself will sustain you and your little ones. And he comforted them, and he spoke to their hearts. (Genesis 50:21)

Joseph’s brothers are comforted because his promise to sustain them—to keep them alive and well—implies that he no longer hates or resents them. Even though they do not get the relief of explicit forgiveness, they know that at least they do not need to worry about future retribution from their powerful brother.

Targum Onkelos, written around 100 C.E., translated Joseph’s statement “For am I tachat God?” as: “For I am subordinate to God”. In other words, this time tachat means “under” instead of “a substitute for”. In the 16th century, Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno took this interpretation further by explaining that Joseph considered his brothers God’s agents. It was not his place to judge God’s agents, just as it was not his place to judge God’s plans.

Nevertheless, Joseph acts almost like a substitute for God. As viceroy of Egypt and distributor of food, he decides who will live and who will die.

Two substitutions

When Jacob tells Rachel he is no substitute for God as an opener of wombs, she finds another way he can give her the children she wants.  When Joseph tells his brothers he is no substitute for God as a judge of men, they do not find another way to get the human pardon or forgiveness they want.  They still cannot speak to Joseph directly. But he offers them a substitute for forgiveness: the reassurance that he will not punish them.

Am I tachat God?” is a good question for us to ask ourselves today. Am I trying to do something no human can do? If so, is there another way to achieve a desirable outcome? Or am I acting like God when I should be acting like a human being toward someone? If so, how can I come down off my pedestal and have a true heart-to-heart conversation?

Vayeitzei: A Den of Thieves

November 26, 2014 at 11:34 am | Posted in Vayeitzei | 1 Comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

There are three kinds of theft in the Torah:

geizel (“robbery”), in which one takes something belonging to another by force;

goneiv (“stealing”), in which one takes something belonging to another with secrecy; and

goneiv leiv (“stealing the heart”), an idiom for rama-ut (“deception”).

In English, “He stole my heart” means “I didn’t expect to fall in love with him, but he was irresistible”. In Biblical Hebrew, “He stole my heart” means “He deceived me”. Ancient Israelites considered the heart the seat of thoughts as well as feelings: the whole conscious mind. When we deceive someone, according to the Torah, we appropriate their thoughts and feelings, replacing what they would normally think (if they knew the truth) with what we want them to think and feel.

The words for all three kinds of theft appear in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei (“And he left”). The first appearance of any form of the word goneiv (“stealing”) is in this portion, and it shows up eight times! Veiled-Woman

In last week’s Torah portion, Jacob cheats his brother, Esau, out of both his inheritance as the firstborn, and his father’s first blessing. (See my post Toledot: To Bless Someone.) He leaves home to escape Esau’s murderous rage.

In this week’s portion, he arrives at his uncle Lavan’s house in Aram, and immediately falls in love with Lavan’s younger daughter, Rachel. Jacob volunteers to work seven years for her bride-price. But on the wedding day, Lavan deceives him by substituting his older daughter, Leah, hidden by a veil.

And it happened in the morning, hey! She was Leah! So he said to Lavan: What is this you did to me? Was it not for Rachel I served you? Then why rimitani? (Genesis/Bereishit 29:25)

rimitani (רִמִּיתָנִי) = you deceived me.

Lavan cleverly reminds Jacob of his own guilt when he replies: It is not done thus in our place, to give the younger one before the firstborn. (Genesis 29:26)

Jacob agrees to serve Lavan another seven years so he can marry both daughters. (See my post Vayeitzei: Guilty Conscience.) But the damage has been done. Jacob cannot escape his guilt over “stealing the heart” of Esau.  And once Lavan deceives him, Jacob can no longer trust his uncle and father-in-law.

At the end of fourteen years, Jacob tells Lavan that he wants to go back to Canaan. They bargain, and agree that Jacob will work for another six years in exchange for flocks of his own: all the spotted goats and dark sheep. Jacob declares:

And tzidkati will testify for me, on the future day when you bring my earnings in front of you: any goat that is not spotted, or any sheep that is not dark, [consider] it as ganuv by me. (Genesis 30:33)

tzidkati  (צִדְקָתִי) = my righteousness, my honesty, my integrity

ganuv (גָּנוּב) = stolen

This is the biblical equivalent of declaring, “I am not a crook!” It is also the first time any form of the word ganav (גָּנַב), “steal”, appears in the Torah. The word comes up in Jacob’s mind (or heart) because he still feels like a thief.

Jacob does engage in selective breeding over the next six years to increase his own flock, but when he is ready to go, he sticks to his word and takes only the spotted goats and dark sheep. He also checks with Leah and Rachel, and they enthusiastically agreement to leave and start a new life in Canaan. Jacob scrupulously takes only his own wives, children, servants, and property—and sneaks away while Lavan is out of town.

Then Lavan went to shear his sheep, and Rachel, vatignov the terafim that belonged to her father. And Jacob, vayignov the leiv of Lavan the Aramean, by not telling him that he was fleeing from him. (Genesis 31:19-20)

vatignov (וַתִּגְנֹב) = she stole

terafim (תְּרָפִים) = household idols (figurines of gods)

vayignov (וָיִּגְנֹב) = he stole

leiv (לֵב) = the heart

Canaanite goddess, 14-13th century BCE 2Rachel steals actual objects: figurines of gods cast in bronze, molded in clay, or carved out of stone. These small sculptures were commonly found in houses throughout Mesopotamia and Canaan during the second millennium B.C.E. Scholars still do not know their purpose, but they may have been used for divination or to protect the household. (See my post: Vayeitzei: Clinging to Magic.)

But Jacob’s theft is intangible. He takes only what is already his.  He does not lie to his uncle/father-in-law; he merely acts as though nothing is going to happen while Lavan is away.

When Lavan finds out Jacob has left, he gathers his men and chases his son-in-law, catching up with him on the border of Canaan.

And Lavan said to Jacob: What have you done? Vatignov my heart, and you drove my daughters like captives of the sword! Why did you hide, fleeing? Vatignov from me, and you did not tell me! (Genesis 31:26-27)

vatignov (וַתִּגְנֹב) = you stole.

Lavan rants on a bit longer, then ends with a second accusation:

And now, certainly you left because certainly you longed for the house of your father; but why ganavta my gods? (Genesis 31:30)

ganavta (גָנַבְתָּ) = did you steal

At this point Jacob gives a two-point rebuttal.

And Jacob answered, and he said to Lavan: Because I was afraid, for I said: What if tigzol your daughters from me! (Genesis 31:31)

tigzol (תִּגְזֹל) = you take by force, you rob.

In other words, he had to “steal the heart” of Lavan, because he was afraid that if Lavan knew they were going, he would “rob” Jacob of his wives. As for stealing Lavan’s gods, Jacob knows he is innocent. If one of his servants turns out to be guilty, he is willing to go along with a death penalty.

With whomever you find your gods, he shall not live; in front of our kinsmen, identify what is yours with me, and take it for yourself! And Jacob did not know that Rachel ginavatam. (Genesis 31:32)

ginavatam (גִּנָבָתַם) = she had stolen them.

Lavan is upset enough to go through Jacob’s camp tent by tent, looking for stolen goods. But he finds nothing—thanks to Rachel’s cleverness.

And Rachel had taken the terafim, and she had put them in the camel pack, and she sat upon them. And Lavan rummaged through everything in the tent, but he did not find [them]. And she said to her father: Let there be no anger in the eyes of my lord, that I am not able to rise before you, because the way of women is on me. So he searched, but he did not find the terafim. (Genesis 31:34-35)

Lavan reluctantly makes a peace treaty with Jacob, and they go their separate ways: Lavan back to his home in Aram, and Jacob back to the land of his birth, Canaan. I think Jacob hopes to leave his guilt behind, and return to Canaan a new man: not only a rich patriarch in his own right, but also a man of proven integrity. Alas, it is not that easy.

In next week’s Torah portion (Vayishlach), Jacob reconciles with his brother, but he still cannot believe Esau has entirely forgiven him for his deceit twenty years before. So he refuses his brother’s offer of company on the road, and tells Esau he will join him in Seir. Then as soon as Esau and his men have left, Jacob heads toward Shekhem instead. Although the Torah does not say so, he is deceiving Esau the same way he “stole the heart” of Lavan: pretending everything is fine, when really he has other plans. He cannot trust Esau, because he cannot trust himself.

A chain of deception continues through the rest of the book of Genesis, as Jacob’s sons deceive him and each other.

Yet deception is a natural strategy when someone is in a weak position.

Before he leaves Canaan, Jacob cannot compete on a level playing field with his brother, Esau, because the laws in his society favor the firstborn. He probably sees deception as his only option to get what he desperately wants: a household of his own, and a divine blessing. In Lavan’s house, Jacob goes to great lengths to earn what he wants by honest labor. But since Lavan is his master, and he is always afraid Lavan will cheat him again, Jacob remains in a weak position. So he “steals” his father-in-law’s heart—by stealing away. And maybe he is right. Maybe Lavan would never have let Jacob take his own wives, children, and property to Canaan.

In my own life I, too, have found it hard to speak with integrity when I am in a weak position. I am afraid of people who blow up easily, and I am still trying to figure out how to be honest with them, instead of “stealing their hearts” by smiling and pretending nothing is wrong.

I do not rob. I do not steal. I pray that someday I can say, honestly, that I do not ever deceive.

 

Vayeitzei: Satisfaction

November 6, 2013 at 1:20 pm | Posted in Vayeitzei | 1 Comment

You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you might get what you need for a satisfying life.

From the moment Jacob meets his beautiful cousin Rachel in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei (And he went), he wants to marry her. He and his uncle Lavan agree on a bride-price: seven years of free labor. But on the wedding night seven years later, Lavan switches brides, and Jacob wakes up to find himself married to Rachel’s older sister, Leah. A week later Lavan gives him Rachel as his second wife—after he promises to work another seven years.

Jacob only wanted Rachel, but he pragmatically accepts Leah and double the number of years of servitude. What else can he do, when he is far from home and Lavan rules the household?

The two sisters are not happy with this arrangement. Rachel knows Jacob is in love with her, but she longs for children. Leah bears Jacob’s children, but she longs for his love. Each woman envies the other.

When Leah names her first three sons, she explains each name in terms of her yearning for Jacob’s affection. She finally gives up hoping for her husband’s love when she has her fourth son.

And she conceived again, and she bore a son, and she said: This time I will praise God. Therefore she called his name Yehudah. Then she stopped giving birth. (Genesis/Bereishit 29:35)

Yehudah = Yah = God + odeh  = I praise (Judah in English).

Why does Leah stop getting pregnant? Not because of menopause; later in the story she bears three more children. Not because she thinks four sons are enough; she soon arranges for her servant Zilpah to marry Jacob so she can adopt Zilpah’s babies.

The reason is that Jacob stops coming to her bed, because Rachel makes him stay away. The Torah confirms this when Leah’s oldest son brings her fertility herbs, and Rachel asks for some. Leah protests:

Is it such a trifle to take away my husband? And now to take also my son’s duda-im! (Genesis/Bereishit 30:15)

duda-im = an unknown plant believed to increase fertility. The word sounds like dodim = lovemaking.

Apparently after Jacob gave Leah four children, Rachel was fed up and insisted on exclusive conjugal rights. Her next demand on Jacob got a different reaction.

And Rachel saw that she had not borne a child for Jacob, and Rachel was envious of her sister. And she said to Jacob: Give me sons! For if not, I am dead! (Genesis 30:1)

Most commentary takes Rachel’s exclamation seriously. After all, one subtext in much of the Hebrew Bible is that a woman’s purpose in life is motherhood. But I doubt that Rachel really wants to die if she cannot have sons. I think she is merely carried away with her own emotional drama.

Jacob has heard life-or-death language before; it runs in the family. In last week’s Torah portion, Jacob’s brother Esau comes home famished and Jacob offers him lentil stew in exchange for his birthright. Esau says: Hey, I am going to die, so why do I need a birthright? (Genesis 25:32).  Their mother, Rebecca, says: If Jacob takes a wife from the women of Cheit like these … why should I live? (Genesis 27:46)

When Rachel makes a similarly dramatic announcement, Jacob snaps.

Then Jacob’s anger flared up against Rachel, and he said: Am I instead of God, who withheld from you the fruit of the womb? (Genesis 30:2)

Rachel’s demand is indeed irrational. Jacob can “come in” to her, but he has no power to make her fertile. Traditional commentary faults Jacob for being unsympathetic. But I wonder if Jacob’s cold anger is just what Rachel needs to stop and face reality. It seems to work, because in the next verse Rachel decides on adoption.

Then she said: Here is my servant Bilhah. Come in to her, and she will bear a child upon my knees, and through her I, too, will be built up. (Genesis 30:3)

Placing a newborn upon one’s knees was the usual ritual of adoption in the ancient Middle East. Bilhah has two children, and Rachel adopts both of them. Then Leah gives Jacob her own female servant, Zilpah, and adopts Zilpah’s two sons.

Now Jacob has four wives, Leah has six children, and Rachel has two—as well as Jacob’s continued devotion. But she still wants sons from her own body.

When Rachel asks for the duda-im and Leah complains, Is it such a trifle to take away my husband? Rachel decides to compromise.

Then Rachel said: All right, he will lie down with you tonight in exchange for your son’s duda-im. (Genesis 30:14-15)

Rachel now accepts that she cannot get everything she wants. She decides that bearing a child from her own body is more important than denying her sister sex. So she lets Jacob sleep with Leah in exchange for the fertility drug. And Jacob does what he is told.

Leah has no illusions that her husband will fall in love with her. She knows she cannot get everything she wants, but she settles for sex and children, which are both rewarding for her.

Rachel eventually does become pregnant, and gives birth to Joseph. But she is greedy; when she names Joseph, she says she wants another pregnancy. She gets it, in next week’s Torah portion, and she dies in childbirth. Jacob, who only wanted Rachel in the first place, mourns her and complains about her death for the rest of his life.

The only one of these three characters who achieves a long life of contentment is Leah, who learns when to strive, and when to be grateful for what she has.

In our modern western society, adults have more autonomy than in the Torah; if a father-figure or boss like Lavan tricks us, we can sue him. Yet we still can’t get everything we want; we still have to make choices, and think of alternatives.

Yet I believe we can all get at least part of what we want, like Leah, Rachel, and Jacob. I think the keys are to be realistic, to be grateful when you do get something you want, and to keep looking for new paths to a satisfying life.

May we all make good choices, and learn how to find contentment.

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.

Toledot & Vayeitzei & Vayishlach: Goat Versus Snake

November 27, 2012 at 6:58 pm | Posted in Toledot, Vayeitzei, Vayishlach | 1 Comment

Esau and Jacob are twin brothers, but because of their personality differences they can never build a real partnership—any more than a goat can partner with a snake.

Birth of Esau and Jacob, by Francois Maitre, ca. 1480

The Torah identifies the twins with these two animals when they are born in this week’s Torah portion, Toledot (“Lineages”):

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

Eisav (עֵשָׂו) = (Esau in English)  Doer, Made.  (From the root verb asahעָשָׂה = do, make.)

sei-ar (שֵׂעָר) = goat hair, bristling hair.  (From the same root as sa-ir, שָׂעִיר = he-goat.)

Ya-akov (יַעֲקֹב) = (Jacob in English)  Heel-grabber, Sneak.  (From the same root as akeiv, עָקֵב = heel, which derives from the verb akav,  עָקַב= came from behind.)

The Torah explains why Jacob and Rebekah, the parents of the twins, named the second one Ya-akov: he emerged hanging onto his brother’s heel.  But why did they name the first one Eisav?  Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yiztchaki) wrote that because he was covered with hair, he looked like an adult, completely “made”.

Toledot

At birth, Esau is hairy like a goat.  Goats are also known for being “horny” beasts, which fits Esau’s personality when he grows up.  He brings home not one, but two Hittite wives against his parents’ objections.1

Jacob’s grip on his twin’s heel is a reminder of the snake in the garden of Eden, whom God cursed to crawl on his belly and bite humans on the heel.2  The Torah describes the heel-biting snake as arum (עָרוּם) = naked; clever, cunning.3  Jacob is hairless, and therefore naked compared to Esau; and when he grows up he is the clever one.  We first see this when Esau comes home famished and Jacob talks him into trading his birthright for a bowl of stew.4

In the next scene about Esau and Jacob, their blind father, Isaac, wants to give his firstborn son a blessing.  But first he tells Esau to go hunt game and make it into the delicacy he loves.   Rebecca, the twins’ mother, overhears.  She is certain that Jacob should get the blessing instead.  So she orders Jacob:

“Please go to the flock and take for me two good goat kids, and I will make them a delicacy for your father like [those] he loves.”  (Genesis 27:9)

Rebecca’s favorite son can bring her goats from the flock faster than Esau can hunt, and she knows how to make them taste like the game Esau often cooks for his father.  On another level, Rebecca may be implying that Jacob should overpower his hairy he-goat of a brother.

And why does she need two goats for one old man’s meal?  Is she subconsciously sacrificing both of her sons to make sure the right one gets Isaac’s blessing?

Isaac Blessing Jacob, by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, 1642, detail

Jacob protests:

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

sa-ir (שָׂעִר) = hairy.  (Also from the same root as sa-ir, שָׂעִיר = he-goat.)

Physically, Jacob is still as smooth as a snake.  So Rebecca fixes it.  After dressing Jacob in Esau’s clothes, she covers his hands and neck “with skins of goat kids” (Genesis 27:16).  When he brings in the dish of meat, his blind father is not sure which son he is.  He speaks like Jacob, so Isaac asks him to come closer, and touches his son’s hands.

And he did not recognize him because his hands were like the hands of his brother, se-irot.  And he blessed him.  (Genesis 27:23)

se-irot (שְׂעִרֹת) = hairy.  (The plural of sa-ir above.)

Isaac gives Jacob the blessing he intended for Esau.  Enraged by the “theft” of his blessing, Esau rashly swears he will murder his brother, and Jacob quickly slips away and heads for his uncle Lavan’s house in Aram.

Vayeitzei

In the next Torah portion, Vayeitzei (“And he went”), Jacob marries his uncle Lavan’s daughters, Leah and Rachel, and serves Lavan for fourteen years in lieu of bride-prices for them.  When his time is up, his employer/uncle/father-in-law 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 [Lavan] said: “Designate your wage to me, and I will give it.”  (Genesis 30:27-28)

nichashti (נִחַשְׁתִּי) = I received an omen.  (From the same root as nachash, נָחָשׁ = snake.  Snakes were associated with omens and magic in the ancient Near East.)

Lavan comes close to saying, “I sought a snake, and God has blessed me on account of you.”

The serpentine Jacob makes a clever bargain with Lavan and works for another six years in exchange for far more livestock than his employer expected.  Then twenty years after Jacob fled to avoid being murdered by his brother, he finally heads back toward Canaan with his family, servants, and flocks.

Vayishlach

The next Torah portion begins:

And Jacob sent messengers ahead of himself to his brother Esau, to the land of Sei-ir, the country of Edom.  (Genesis 32:4)

sei-ir (שֵׂעִר) = hairy goat.

Esau has become the chieftain of “The Land of the Hairy Goat”, also called Edom.  Jacob’s messengers return with the news that Esau is already marching to meet him—with 400 men.

Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau, by Peter Paul Rubens, 1624

This time, instead of bargaining with his twin brother, Jacob sends him extravagant gifts of livestock.  (See my post Vayishlach: Two Camps.)  In the morning, after Jacob has wrestled with a “man” who turns out to be a messenger of God, the estranged brothers meet.  They embrace one another and weep out loud.  Esau offers to return Jacob’s gifts, and Jacob insists that he keep everything.

“Because I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me.”  (Genesis 33:10)

Then Esau offers to travel with Jacob as far as Sei-ir.  But Jacob politely says his group has to go more slowly, so Esau and his men should go ahead, and he will catch up later.  As soon Esau and his warriors are out of sight, Jacob heads in another direction.  The two brothers do not see one another again until their father’s funeral.5

*

Esau and Jacob do better than Cain and Abel; they do manage two peaceful reunions, and nobody dies.  Yet a goat and a snake cannot become close friends and go home together.  They have 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 learn to greet them in peace, and part from them in peace.

  1. Genesis 26:34, 27:46.
  2. Genesis 3:15.
  3. Genesis 3:1.
  4. Genesis 29:25-34.
  5. Genesis 35:29.
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