Vayishlach: Message Failure

November 18, 2021 at 7:13 pm | Posted in Vayeitzei, Vayishlach | Leave a comment

If you have wronged someone, and many years later you want to make amends, how can you arrange a meeting in a way that will reduce your former victim’s hostility? How can you word your message so they will show up calm enough to listen to you?

This question of moral psychology comes up in this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach (“And he sent”), when Jacob sends a message to his estranged brother Esau. I wrote about it in the first draft of my book on moral psychology in Genesis. Now I am laboring mightily over a complete rewrite of the book, but I still like this essay.

Message to a Brother

Esau Sells his Birthright, by Rembrandt

When Jacob leaves Beir-sheva in Canaan and heads for Charan, he is already guilty of cheating Esau twice. First he trades a bowl of lentil stew to his famished brother in exchange for Esau’s rights as the firstborn.1 Then he impersonates Esau in order to steal a prophetic blessing from their blind father, Isaac.2

Jacob cheats because he feels cheated. Why should his twin brother get twice as much inheritance, just because he emerged from the womb a few seconds earlier? Why should their father give Esau the blessing and leave him unblessed? It is not fair.

Yet the story of Jacob indicates that he also has a guilty conscience; he knows his own actions were not fair, either. So he obeys his parents without a murmur when his mother tells him to flee from Esau’s anger, and his father tells him to go get a bride from his uncle Lavan’s family in Charan. And he slinks away on foot without taking any valuables to offer as a bride-price. Jacob’s family is rich, but he chooses to leave home as a pauper.3

In the Torah portion Vayeitzei, Jacob works for Lavan for twenty years, then leaves the town of Charan with two wives (Lavan’s daughters), two concubines (his wives’ personal servants that they gave to him), twelve children, and a wealth of moveable property. Lavan chases after him and complains that Jacob stole everything from him.

This time Jacob denies any wrongdoing, pointing out that he served Lavan fourteen years for his two daughters, Leah and Rachel, and six years for his share of the flocks. This is a reminder to Lavan that he had only offered to work seven years for Rachel, but Lavan “changed his wages” by tricking him into marrying Leah, and then working an extra seven years to get Rachel, too.4 Compared to that, deceiving Lavan with a secret breeding program in order to get larger flocks from his last six years of labor hardly balances the scales.5

Jacob walks away from Lavan free of guilt. But he still has not cleared his guilt over cheating Esau.

*

Jacob’s unethical behavior did no long-term harm to Esau, who now has everything Jacob thought he was stealing. The firstborn rights have not come into play, since their father is still alive, but it no longer matters who gets the most inheritance. The first part of the blessing Jacob thought he had stolen from Esau is now true for both of them:

“And may God grant you

From the dew of the heavens and from the fat of the earth

And an abundance of grain and wine.

May peoples serve you

And may tribes bow down to you.” (Genesis/Bereishit 27:28-29)

Both men now have abundant possessions and plenty of food, and each brother is the head of his own tribe (though Esau’s is larger).

Jacob is heading for Canaan, where their parents live, not Se-ir, where Esau rules. For once he does not want what his brother has.His route to Canaan goes west along the Yabok River, then crosses the Jordan north of the Dead Sea. The hills of Se-ir are south of the Dead Sea, more than 150 miles (240 km) away from Jacob’s camp on the Yabok. If he merely continued his journey, he would be settled in Canaan long before any news of his whereabouts reached Esau.

Instead Jacob deliberately lets Esau know where he is camping.

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

However nervous Jacob might be about a confrontation, he wants to meet with his brother as soon as possible, and get it over with. I suggest that all he wants is to make reparations for his past misdeeds, whether Esau needs them or not. Then he can forgive himself, and maybe Esau will forgive him.

He does not know whether Esau still wants to kill him. When the twins were younger, Esau was impulsive and changeable. But twenty years have passed, and Esau must have learned how to plan ahead, or he would not have become the chieftain of a tribe. He might also have been planning his revenge during those twenty years.

So Jacob takes a chance when he sends messengers all the way to his brother in Se-ir. His action is both ethical and brave.

Jacob words his message carefully.

And he commanded them, saying: “Thus you shall say to my lord, to Esau: Thus said your servant Jacob: Garti with Lavan, and I delayed until now. And I came to own ox and donkey, flock and male-slave and female-slave. And I send to tell my lord, to find favor in your eyes.” (Genesis 32:5-6)

garti (גַּרְתִּי) = I sojourned, I stayed as a foreigner. (A kal form of the verb g-r, גּור = stayed as a geir, גֵּר= a foreigner.)

Jacob instructs his messengers to say the message is from “your servant, Jacob”, and to quote him as saying “to tell my lord, to find favor in your eyes”. He wants Esau to know that he considers Esau his senior and superior, as if the sale of the firstborn rights had never happened.

Why does Jacob say he was a geir in Charan, even though he is Lavan’s nephew and son-in-law? Rashi wrote that Jacob’s subtext is: “I have become neither a prince nor other person of importance but merely a sojourner. It is not worth your while to hate me on account of the blessing of your father who blessed me (27:29) ‘Be master over thy brethren’, for it has not been fulfilled in me.”6

Jacob probably mentions his livestock and servants because he wants Esau to know that he is already wealthy, so he no longer needs the inheritance of the firstborn. He also says that he delayed (by twenty years!) his return to Canaan. This implies that he earned his wealth through years of labor, not because of Isaac’s blessing.

Having sent a message intended to show Esau that he is not benefiting from either the firstborn rights or the stolen blessing, Jacob waits for news of Esau’s reaction.

Jacob Sees Esau Coming to Meet Him (with an army), by J.J. Tissot

And the messengers returned to Jacob saying: “We came to your brother, to Esau, and moreover he is on his way to meet you, and 400 men are with him.” And Jacob became very frightened … (Genesis 32:7-8)

Four hundred men count as am l independent army in the Torah.7 If Esau is still angry at Jacob, then he can use his army kill his brother and take over his people. If Esau, too, is frightened and anxious, then his army would be good to have on hand in case their meeting goes badly.

*

Esau might view Jacob’s message as a challenge dressed up in polite language. Here is one way Esau might misinterpret his brother’s words:

Thus said your servant Jacob— “Ah, he’s using the standard polite formula, instead of treating me like a brother.”

Garti with Lavan— “He’s been staying all this time with our mother’s brother? I don’t call that living as a foreigner! I suppose Lavan adores him, just like Mother always did. And Lavan probably taught him some new tricks.”

And I delayed until now— “Of course he delayed. Why would he want to see me again? Or our poor father? He already got everything he could out of us.”

And I have ox and donkey, flock and male-slave and female-slave— “Oh, so he’s rich now, and bragging about it. But he’s still coming back to collect his inheritance when Father dies. I wonder how many men he has, and if they are armed for battle?

And I am sending to tell my lord, to find favor in your eyes— “More polite language, pretending I’m his lord! We both know he got the upper hand over me long ago. Does he wants my favor now so he can safely ignore me? Or is he trying to pacify me before he springs on me? Well, I have four hundred men at my command now. If we start marching north today, we can surprise Jacob. And then maybe, just maybe, I’ll have a chance to hold my own against him.”

This is only my midrash; Esau’s reactions to Jacob’s careful message are not recorded in the Torah. But Esau does march north immediately with 400 men.

*

If Jacob had anticipated Esau’s response, he would have sent a different kind of message. What if Jacob called Esau not “my lord”, but “my older brother”? What if he said he wanted to see his brother again so he could apologize? Esau might not have mustered his 400 armed men.

But Jacob is so cautious, he does not say enough. Although he is trying to make amends for his past misdeeds, he is unable to approach the problem head-on. By trying to avoid a confrontation with Esau, Jacob makes confrontation more likely.

  1. Genesis 25:29-34.
  2. Genesis 27:1-36.
  3. See my 2011 post Vayeitzei: Guilty Conscience.
  4. Genesis 31:38-43. Lavan tricked Jacob into marrying Leah and paying an additional bride-price in labor (Genesis 29:23-27).
  5. Jacob tricked Lavan by asking for the spotted kids and dark lambs as his wages, so he could conduct his secret breeding program (Genesis 30:31-43).
  6. Rashi, translation in sefaria.org.
  7. David has 400 men in 1 Samuel 22:2 and 25:13.

 

Chukat & Vayishlach: Israel vs. Edom

June 17, 2021 at 11:01 pm | Posted in Chukkat, Vayishlach | Leave a comment

The Israelites are getting ready to enter Canaan again.

The first time, they marched up to Canaan’s southern border and then refused to cross.1  God decreed they must spend forty years in the wilderness, and then their children could try again.  This time, in the Torah portion Chukat (“decree of”), the new generation of Israelites plans to travel through Edom and north along the east side of the Dead Sea, then enter Canaan by crossing the Jordan River near Jericho.

And Moses sent messengers from Kadeish to the king of Edom, [who said]: “Thus says your brother Israel: You know all the hardship that found us, that our ancestors went down to Egypt and we lived in Egypt a long time, and the Egyptians were bad to us and to our ancestors.”  (Numbers/Bemidbar 20:14-15)

Edom (אֱדוֹם) = a country also called Sei-ir, southeast of the Dead Sea.  The name comes from the country’s founder in Genesis/Bereishit: Esau, who is also called Edom, i.e. Red.2  (Edom comes from the same root as adam, אָדָם = humankind, adamah, אֲדָמָה = earth, and adom, אָדֺם = red-brown.)

Moses introduces the Israelites as the “brother” of the Edomites to remind the king of Edom that in the old Genesis story, Esau (a.k.a. Edom) and Jacob (a.k.a. Israel) are brothers.  The descendants of brothers should be at peace.

Yet Esau and Jacob, twins and rivals for the rights of the firstborn, struggle from birth to middle age.  And the countries of Edom and Israel never do become allies.3

Nevertheless, Moses calls Edom Israel’s brother, and reminds the king that God rescued the Israelites and led them out of Egypt.  Then he asks for a favor.

“… and hey, we are in Kadeish, a town on the edge of your territory.  Please let us cross your land!  We will not cross through field or vineyard, and we will not drink well water.  We will go on the king’s road.  We will not spread out to the right or left until we have crossed your territory.”  (Numbers 20:16-17)

The Israelites are asking only for safe passage from the southern border of Edom to its northern border.  They promise that neither they nor their herds and flocks will eat, drink, or damage anything in the land.

But Edom said to him: “You may not cross through me, or else I will go out with the sword to move against you.”  (Numbers 20:18)

Here the king of Edom is called by the name of his country, and identifies with the land he rules.  Moses responds as if he is synonymous with the Israelites.

And the Children of Israel said to him: “We will go up on the highway, and if we drink your water, I or my livestock, then I will give [you] its price.  [My request] is hardly anything!  Let me cross on foot.”  But he said: “You may not cross!”  And Edom went out to meet him with a heavy troop and with a strong hand.  Thus Edom refused to allow (Israel) to cross through his territory, and Israel swung away from him.  (Numbers 20:19-21)

In this story, the king of Edom does not trust the leader of Israel.  So the people of Israel make a long detour around Edom through the wilderness, instead of taking the highway north.4

*

In the book of Genesis, Jacob (a.k.a. Israel) does not trust his brother Esau (a.k.a. Edom) when he is traveling from Charan to their father’s house.  So he makes a long detour through northern Canaan, instead of taking the highway south through Edom.

Twenty years before, Jacob fled to his uncle’s house in Charan because Esau was threatening to kill him as soon as their father, Isaac, had died.5  Now Jacob has a large family, scores of slaves, and a tremendous wealth of livestock.  The last he knew, his parents were living at an oasis in the Negev Desert to the south, either in Beir-sheva or Beir-lachai-roi.6  The best route for such a large party would be the highway through Edom.

And Jacob sent messengers ahead of himself to Esau, his brother, to the land of Seir, the region of Edom.  (Genesis 32:4)

The wording of this sentence at the beginning of the Torah portion Vayishlach (“and he sent”) implies that Jacob is hoping to follow those messengers to Esau’s home, taking advantage of the highway.  Yet he camps on the Yabok River at Machanayim, one day’s journey west of that highway, and sends his messengers to Esau from there.  He is already nervous about a reunion with the brother who once threatened to kill him.

His messengers return with the news that Esau is coming north with 400 men to meet him.  Alarmed, Jacob sends a series of gifts of livestock down the highway toward Esau.  When Esau reaches Jacob’s camp, Jacob bows down to the ground seven times as he walks toward his brother. Esau embraces him, and Jacob persuades his brother to keep the gifts.  Then Esau says:

“Break camp, and let’s go!  I will go alongside you.”  But [Jacob] said to him: “My lord knows that the children are tender and the flocks and herds, suckling, are upon me, and driving them hard [for even] one day will kill all the flocks.  Please, let my lord pass in front of me, his servant.  And I, I will move along slowly at the pace of the animals and at the pace of the children, until I come to my lord at Seir.”  (Genesis 33:12-14)

Esau then offers to leave some of his men behind as an escort, but Jacob refuses.  He has realized that he still does not trust Esau enough to risk entering his country.  As soon as Esau and his men have left, Jacob heads in the opposite direction, northwest to Sukkot, where he stays so long that he builds a house for his family and sheds for his animals.7  His next stop is Shekhem, farther northwest.  Jacob is willing to wait a few more years to see his ancient father, Isaac, again.

Eventually he journeys south through Canaan, where he discovers that his father has moved to Mamrei near the burial site his grandfather Abraham bought in Canaan.8  Jacob never does enter the land of Edom.

*

Should Jacob/Israel have trusted his brother Esau/Edom in Genesis?  Should the Edomites have trusted their brothers the Israelites in Numbers?  In both cases, trust would have enabled the people of Israel to take a faster route on a good road.

But if Esau’s change of heart had proven temporary, he could have wiped out Jacob and all his household while they were in Edom.  And if the Israelites had rebelled against Moses again, this time by straying from the highway, there would have been war inside Edom.  Humans are fickle.

Thanks to the wariness of Jacob in Genesis and of the king of Edom in Numbers, there is no bloodshed in either story.  Perhaps a long detour is a small price to pay for peace.

  1. See my blog post Shelach-Lekha: Courage and Kindness.
  2. Genesis 25:25, 25:30.
  3. Israel’s first king, Saul, defeats the Edomites in battle (1 Samuel 14:47). Its second king, David, defeats them again and makes the kingdom of Edom a vassal of Israel (2 Samuel 8:13-14).  In the 9th century B.C.E. the Edomites rebel against King Yoram of Judah and set up their own king, who is no longer subject to the king of Israel (2 Kings 8:20).  King Amatziyahu of Judah makes war against Edom in 838 B.C.E. and captures one of its cities, Sela, but the rest of Edom remains independent.
  4. A highway in the Ancient Near East was a wide road of packed earth that could be used by caravans and troops.
  5. Genesis 27:41-45.
  6. Beir-lachai-roi in Genesis 25:11, Beir-sheva in Genesis 28:10.
  7. Genesis 33:17.
  8. Genesis 34:27.

Dark Night

January 13, 2021 at 8:58 pm | Posted in Bo, Vayishlach | Leave a comment

The penultimate plague in Egypt, just before the Death of the Firstborn results in the liberation of the Israelite slaves, is darkness.

For three days there is complete, impenetrable darkness, darkness so thick that it can be felt.  “No one could see his brother, and no one could get up from under it, for three days.”  (Exodus 10:23)

This is not only a physical darkness, but a psychological one.  Click here to read my blog post on the subject: Bo: Impenetrable Darkness.

The Egyptians in this week’s Torah portion, Bo, are immobilized by darkness–by their inability to recognize other human beings as their brothers.

Today I have been writing about Jacob’s wrestling match in the dark night before he sees his brother Esau face to face for the first time in 20 years.  Jacob wronged Esau by making him swap his firstborn rights for a bowl of lentil stew, and by tricking their father into giving him Esau’s blessing.  Like other characters in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, Jacob gave the wrong answer to Cain’s question, “Am I my brother’s protector?”

Guilt drives Jacob’s behavior for 20 years.  Now he is about to return home to Canaan, and he wants to make amends.  But how can he face Esau?

What will it take for Jacob to forgive himself?  Will he ever emerge from his inner darkness?

By the time I finish writing my book on moral psychology in Genesis, I will have some answers.

Repost: Vayishlach (and genocide)

December 11, 2019 at 6:40 am | Posted in Vayishlach | Leave a comment

What makes some people seek peace and cooperation, while others cannot stop finding enemies and scapegoats?  Why are some rulers, and ordinary people, tolerant of different cultures or religions, while others are bigoted, even genocidal?

I noticed the contrast between tolerance and hatred both in this week’s Torah portion and in the history of Spain, where we are traveling this month.

In Medieval Spain

Muslim rulers, from the Umayyads who conquered the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century C.E. to the last Nazrid sultan of Granada in the late 15th century, preferred peaceful cooperation with non-Muslims living in their lands.  Jews and Christians were charged a tax, but they had  religious freedom and the right to own property and run their own civil courts.  Jews rose to prominence in their government, in science, and in scholarship.1

But Christian armies invaded Spain from the north, and in the 11th century several popes declared that the conquest of all Muslim lands was a religious duty.  In Christian Spain, Muslims and Jews were barely tolerated.

Gironella Tower

Jews were considered the property of Spanish monarchs, who valued them as bankers to fund royal ventures.  But when the church or the public needed a scapegoat or a focus for hatred, the king was often unable to intervene.  Peaceful times alternated with pogroms.

On our visit to Girona in northern Spain, my husband and I were enchanted by the ruins of Gironella Tower, a citadel at the corner of the medieval city wall.  Then we learned that in 1391 a priest incited mobs against the Jews in several Spanish cities, and in Girona many Jews fled there to hide.

When King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile married in 1469, only the vassal state of Granada in the southeast remained under Muslim rule.  The “Catholic Monarchs” started the Spanish Inquisition in 1478, and finished conquering Granada in 1491, making the entire Iberian peninsula safe for Christianity, unsafe for Muslims, and a death trap for Jews.

The last sultan of Granada surrendered on January 2, 1492, on condition that all Granadans could continue to practice their own religions and own their property.  A few months later Ferdinand and Isabella issued their “Alhambra Decree” requiring all Jews in Spain to either convert or leave the country in three months.  Jews were required to sell their real estate, but forbidden to carry gold, silver, jewels, or coins out of Spain.  And any Jews who converted were fair game for torture by the Spanish Inquisition.

Palace wall in Barcelona

In 1502 they issued a similar edict to eliminate Muslims.

Now Spain is working to revive Jewish history, but few buildings remain to help tell the story.  Even synagogues were sold in a hurry in 1492.  Our guided tour of Jewish Barcelona included the remains of a synagogue and a mikveh, and some Jewish tombstones used in the wall of the Christian royal palace.  But everything else was remodeled by the new owners.

Yehudah ibn Tibon, Granada

This week we are in Granada, where the Jewish population in 1490 was about 20,000.  Now there are four Jewish families living in Granada, according to a woman who set up a private Jewish museum on the ground floor of her house.  The only other Jewish sight in Granada is a modern sculpture2 of Yehudah ibn Tibon, a 12th-century scholar who translated several important Jewish books from Arabic into Hebrew.3

In the Torah portion

Two peoples start out on a friendly footing in this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach (“And he sent”).  Jacob and his clan camp outside Shekhem in Canaan.  He buys some land from the ruling family of the city, intending to settle down.  He builds an altar for his God, and nobody objects.4

Jacob’s daughter Dinah, curious about their new home, goes out “to look at the women of the land.” (Genesis 34:1-2)  Prince Shekhem, son of the city’s ruler, seizes and rapes her.  Then he falls in love with her, and talks to her until her heart is moved.  (See my post Vayishlach: Change of Heart, Part 1.)

The prince and his father, Chamor, come to Jacob to negotiate a marriage.  Shekhem offers to pay an exorbitant bride-price for Dinah.  Chamor proposes that his people and Jacob’s intermarry and dwell together as one people.  Jacob is silent, but his sons speak for him.  They lie to Chamor and Shekhem, promising the requested union if all the men of Shekhem become circumcised, a religious requirement for Jacob’s people.  The men of Shekhem do it.  While they are in pain, two of Jacob’s sons (Shimon and Levi) enter the city and kill them all, including Chamor and Shekhem.  They take off with Dinah (who now has no marriage prospects at all), and “Jacob’s sons” sack the city and enslave the rest of the population.

Maybe Chamor was asking for too much.  But Jacob’s sons could have tried to negotiate.  They could have asked their sister Dinah what she wanted.  Instead, they chose hatred and vengeance over peaceful cooperation.

(Click on my post Vayishlach: Change of Heart, Part 2 for more about the role of Dinah’s brothers.)

Jacob’s sons in this week’s Torah portion are genocidal zealots like Ferdinand and Isabella.  Just as the Catholic Monarchs obliterated the Jewish people and culture in Spain, Jacob’s sons obliterate the people and culture of Shekhem.

These are not the only examples of extreme intolerance.  We cannot change the past, or the Torah, but we can stand firm in favor of tolerance and peace whenever hatred rises again.

  1. Famous Jewish scholars from Spain include Maimonides (Rambam) in 12th-century Cordoba, Nachmanides (Ramban) in 13th-century Girona, and Moses de Leon (writer of the Zohar) in 13th-century Avila.
  2. Sculpture by Miguel Moreno, donated to the city in 1988.
  3. Yehudah ben Shaul ibn Tibon produced the authoritative translations of Duties of the Heart by Bahya ibn Paquda and Book of the Kuzari by Yehudah ha-Levi, among other works.
  4. Genesis 33:18-20.

Emor: Libations

May 15, 2019 at 1:23 pm | Posted in Emor, Vayishlach | 3 Comments

from Treasures of the Bible, Northrop, 1894

If you make an offering to God in the Hebrew Bible, out of gratitude or obedience or hope for a favor, how does God receive it?  If you offer one of your animals, a priest burns it on the altar and smoke rises to the sky; then God smells the “soothing odor”.1  Priests also burn grain offerings (usually topped with frankincense) on the main altar, and incense on the incense altar.  All of these offerings send aromatic smoke to the heavens, where God is imagined as dwelling when not visiting the earth.2

But what about an offering of wine?  How does God receive a libation?

Although the book of Leviticus/Vayikra gives detailed instructions about animal and grain offerings, libations are mentioned only in this week’s Torah portion, Emor (“Say”), and only as an afterthought.  The portion reviews six holy days during the year.3  The instructions for two of them include libations.

On the first day after the week of Passover, you must bring the first sheaf (omer) of your barley harvest to a priest, along with a sacrifice consisting of a yearling lamb and its corresponding grain-offering of fine flour mixed with oil, for a “soothing odor”

and its nesekh of wine, a quarter of a hin.  (Leviticus Vayikra 23:23)

nesekh (נֶסֶךְ) = poured-offering, libation.  Plural: nesakhim, נְסָכִים.  (From the root verb nasakh, נָסַךְ = pour out.)

A hin is about 1 ½ gallons, so a quarter of a hin would be about 6 cups or 1.4 liters of wine.  The passage does not say where the wine is poured.

At the end of seven weeks of the omer comes Shavuot, the only day of the year when leavened bread is brought to the altar.

And you shall offer with the bread seven unblemished yearling lambs, and one bull from the herd, and two rams; they shall be a rising-offering4 for God.  And their grain offerings and their nesakhim, a fire-offering, a soothing odor for God.  (Leviticus 23:18)

Does this mean that the nesakhim are part of the fire-offering?  If so, perhaps the priests pour the wine directly on the roasting meat and grain.  The addition of wine would enhance the aroma of the smoke for a while.

The passage about offerings on holy days in the Torah portion Emor concludes without any further information about libations:

These are the appointed times of God that you shall announce as holy assemblies for offering fire-offerings to God: rising-offering and grain-offering, slaughter-offering and nesakhim, each thing on its day.  (Leviticus 23:37)

*

Jacob makes the first poured-offering mentioned in the bible, after he wakes up from his dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder or stairway between heaven and earth.

from Cassell’s Family Bible, 1880

And Jacob erected a standing-marker in the place where [God] had spoken to him, a standing-marker of stone, vayaseikh on it a nesekh, vayitzok on it oil.  (Genesis/Bereishit 35:13)

vayaseikh (וַיַּסֵּךְ) = and he poured out. A form of the root verb nasakh, which usually means pouring a libation of wine. 5

vayitzok (וַיִּצֺק) = and he poured out.  A form of the verb yatzak (יָצַק), which usually means pouring oil, or pouring molten metal into a mold.  The bible never uses yatzak for wine.

Pouring oil on religious objects or on people’s heads consecrates them to God; both kings and priests must be anointed before they take up their new roles.  In Genesis, Jacob erects a standing-stone, pours a libation of wine as an offering to the God who spoke to him, and consecrates the stone to God by pouring oil on it.

Libation ceremony, Minoan, 1400 BCE, Hagia Triada

Nobody told him to do this.  But pouring out wine to the gods was a common practice in the ancient Near East as early as the 14th century BCE, when it was depicted in art and written texts by Egyptians, Minoans in Crete, Hittites in Anatolia, and Canaanites in Ugarit.  In these religious rituals, a libation for a god was poured into a bowl, which was sometimes set out along with a ritual meal in front of a statues of the god.6

The first time the God of Israel requests a libation in the bible is at Mt. Sinai, when God gives a partial job description for the new priests Moses is going to anoint.  Every day the priests must offer two yearling lambs on the altar, one in the morning and one in the evening, each accompanied by an offering of finely-ground wheat flour mixed with oil to make a patty—

—and a nesekh, a quarter of a hin of wine for one lamb.  And the second lamb you shall do during the evening; you shall do it like the grain-offering and its nesekh of the morning, for a soothing odor of fire for God.  (Exodus/Shemot 29:40-41)

This text also implies that the wine is poured over the roasting meat like a seasoning, to make its aroma especially soothing to God.  A sentence in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar is more explicit:

And wine you shall offer for the nesekh, half a hin, a fire-offering of soothing odor for God.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 15:10)

 *

According to the Hebrew Bible, nesakhim for the God of Israel must be poured by priests directly onto the altar, where meat and grain offerings are roasting.  Thus the fragrance of the wine can reach God through the smoke that ascends to the sky.

The only exceptions are Jacob’s impulsive libation in Genesis, and libations for other gods in the book of Jeremiah.

And the houses of Jerusalem and the houses of the kings of Judah will become like the place of Tofet7, the impure place, because of all the houses that sent up smoke from their roofs to all the army of the heavens, vehaseikh nesakhim to other gods.  (Jeremiah 19:13)

vehaseikh (וְהַסֵּךְ) = and poured out.  (A form of the verb nasakh.)

Jeremiah also rails against the practice of baking cakes for “the queen of the heavens” and pouring libations to her and other gods from their own rooftops.8  The problem is the worship of other gods, not the places where the libations are poured.

I wonder if Jacob, and the worshippers of the queen of heaven, and everyone who poured a libation onto a rooftop or into an empty bowl, had a more sophisticated and less literal concept of God.  A god who is pacified by the smell of aromatic smoke is like a thoughtless beast at the mercy of its physical sense.  But a god who appreciates symbolic acts of sharing by humans who present gifts instead of consuming all the wine or food themselves is like a mature human who understands thoughts.

*

Libation amphora, Second Temple coin

The Israelite concept of God had changed by the first century BCE, when King Herod remodeled the second temple in Jerusalem.  There was a gap between the new altar and its ramp that was only partly filled in; pipes descended from holes in the surface of the gap, according to the Talmud.  The priests poured nesakhim on the stone surface of the altar, rather than on the fire.  The wine pooled, then drained out through the holes at the edge where the altar abutted the ramp.

Talmudic claims compiled several centuries later include:

“… Rabbi Elazar bar Tzadok said: There was a small gap between the ramp and the altar west of the ramp, and once in seventy years young priests would descend there and gather from there the congealed wine left over from the libations that set over time, which resembled round cakes of dried and pressed figs.”  (Talmud Bavli, Sukkah 49a)9

“… Rabbi Yochanan said: The drainpipes built into the altar and extending beneath it were created from the six days of Creation … they are hollow and descend to the depths.”  (Talmud Bavli, Sukkah 49a)

“Resh Lakish said: When they pour wine onto the altar, they plug the top of the drainpipes so that the wine does not descend to the depths … the space between the altar and the ramp would fill with wine.”  (Talmud Bavli, Sukkah 49b)

Whether the drainpipes were plugged or unplugged, the wine was not evaporated in the altar fire.  Instead, the priests poured out the libations where everyone could see the wine pool over the stone surface of the altar.

Perhaps by then the people of Judah valued the gesture of giving their wine to God, and no longer needed to imagine God smelling it.

*

Today even our gifts to God are non-material.  We still donate money and food for those in need, and for the maintenance of our religious buildings and their staff.  But what do we donate to God?  Only our thankfulness, and our good deeds.

A God who appreciates those is an advanced God, indeed.

  1. See my post Pinchas: Aromatherapy.
  2. See my post Terumah & Psalm 74: Second Home.
  3. Pesach, the omer, Shavuot, Rosh Shashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot (Leviticus 23.)
  4. “Rising-offering” is a literal translation of olah (עֹלָה), in which one or more whole animals are completely burned up, leaving no roasted meat for the priests or the donors. See my post Vayikra & Tzav: Fire OfferingsWithout Slaughter, Part 1.
  5. The verb nasakh (poured out) appears 25­­ times in the Hebrew Bible; 19 of those occurrences are about pouring out a libation of wine. The verb is also used once for pouring oil (Psalm 2:6), twice for pouring water (2 Samuel 23:16, 1 Chronicles 11:18), twice for pouring molten metal (Isaiah 40:19, 44:10), once when God pours out sleep (Isaiah 29:10), and once when God pours out wisdom (Proverbs 8:23).
  6. g. www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/libation; Adolf Erman, Life in Ancient Egypt, trans. by H.M. Tirard, Dover Publications, New York, 1971; Wikipedia, “Libations”, 5/11/2019.
  7. Tofet (תֺּפֶת) = spitting; a valley in Jerusalem where corpses were burned in wartime.
  8. Jeremiah 7:17-18, 32:29, 44:15-18.
  9. All translations from the Talmud in this essay are from The William Davidson Talmud, sefaria.org/Sukkah?lang=bi.

 

Vayishlach: Mother Figure

November 22, 2018 at 10:26 pm | Posted in Vayishlach | 1 Comment

And he built an altar there, and he called the place of God “Beit-El” because there God had been revealed to him in his flight from the face of his brother.  And Deborah, the wet-nurse of Rebecca, died and was buried beneath Beit-El, beneath the great tree; and he called its name “Great Tree of Weeping”.  (Genesis 35:7-8)

Why does an aged wet-nurse suddenly appear in this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach (“And he sent”)?  And why does Jacob name her grave a place of weeping?

*

Jacob is Rebecca’s favorite son, and she mothers him well into his adulthood.  When her husband, Isaac, is about to give a blessing to their other son, Esau, she arranges for Jacob to impersonate his brother and steal the blessing.  She cooks the meat Isaac asked for, and she even dresses Jacob in Esau’s best clothes, as well as in goatskins to imitate Esau’s hairy hands and neck.1

After Esau finds out about the stolen blessing and vows to kill his brother, Rebecca tells Jacob to run away from home, and she arranges his journey to Charan.  (See my post Toledot: Rebecca Gets It Wrong.)  She tells Jacob he will only need to stay with his uncle in Charan—

Until the anger of your brother turns away from you and he forgets what you did to him; then I will send and bring you from there … (Genesis 27:45)

Jacob’s Dream,
by James Tissot

Jacob (who is over 40) spends his first night away from home at a place where God gives him a dream of a stairway between earth and heaven.  God promises:

“I will guard you wherever you go and I will bring you back to this soil …” (Genesis/Bereishit 28:15)

When Jacob wakes up he names the place Beit-El, “House of God”.  Even though God has already promised to guard him, he makes a vow to serve God on the condition that God will take care of him until he returns.

“If God is with me and guards me on this way where I am going and gives me bread to eat and clothes to wear, and I return in peace to my father’s house, then God will be my god, and this stone that I set up as a pillar will become a house of God, and everything that you give me I will repeatedly tithe to you.”  (Genesis 28:20-22)

Jacob thinks in terms of deals, like the one he made with Esau when he traded lentil soup for Esau’s inheritance.2  He also thinks in terms of a parental figure providing food and clothing, as his mother just did.

Jacob stays in Charan for twenty years, working as a shepherd for his uncle Lavan in exchange for wives and his own flocks.  During that whole time, the Torah does not mention any message from Jacob’s mother.  Subconsciously, now that he has lost Rebecca’s apron strings, Jacob may want to stay as long as possible under God’s motherly care.  The terms of the deal he offered God will end once he returns to Beit-El and builds a house (a permanent altar) for God.

Esau and Jacob Reconcile, by Francesco Hayez, 1844

Yet after twenty years Jacob does leave Charan, with a large party of wives, children, servants, and livestock.  In this week’s Torah portion he sends gifts to his estranged brother, Esau.  The brothers meet, embrace, and cry on one another’s necks.  Having made peace with Esau, Jacob’s next order of business must be to return to his father’s house, and then build an altar at Beit-El.  Right?

Wrong.  Once he has crossed into Canaan, Jacob stops at Shekhem and decides to settle down there; he even buys land.3  He is in no hurry to see his parents or to complete his deal with God.

But his own children ruin his plan.  The prince of Shekhem lies with Jacob’s daughter Dinah, then offers to marry her.  Jacob’s sons Shimon and Levi respond by murdering every male in the town.4  Jacob complains that Shimon and Levi have destroyed his reputation in the region.  He is about to despair when God reminds him to go to Beit-el and make the altar he promised.5

Jacob leads his people south and builds the altar.

And Deborah, the wet-nurse of Rebecca, died and was buried tachat Beit-El, tachat the allon; and he called its name “Allon of Weeping”.  (Genesis 35:8)

tachat (תַּחַת) = beneath, under; instead of, in exchange for.

allon (אַלּוֹן) = stately tree, possibly with religious significance.  (Translators guess it may be an oak or a terebinth.)

The only other time Deborah is mentioned is when Rebecca leaves Charan to marry Isaac, and she brings along her former wet-nurse, who is not named at this point.6  Presumably the woman is at least fifteen years older than Rebecca, and they have a relationship of trust and affection.

Rashi7 asked why Deborah is traveling with Jacob’s household in this week’s Torah portion.  He answered that after twenty years, Rebecca finally sent to Jacob in Charan to tell him it was safe to come home.  She used the aged Deborah as her messenger, and Deborah died in Beit-El on the journey back.  (This would not be surprising, since by then she must have been at least 87, and probably more than 100.)

The Torah, however, does not mention Deborah or any other human messenger arriving in Charan.  Instead,

God said to Jacob: “Return to the land of your fathers and to your homeland, and I will be with you.”  (Genesis 31:3)

Jacob would not need a signal from his mother once he had received a signal from his new protector, God.

Another possibility is that Deborah travels to Beit-El from Hebron, where Isaac and Rebecca have settled,8 in order to tell Jacob that his mother has died.  Having accomplished her final mission in life, the aged wet-nurse dies.  When Jacob buries her, he weeps for both her and his mother—even though the Torah does not mention the news about Rebecca.  (Although Rebecca is one of the speaking female characters in the book of Genesis, the Torah never gives her age, and mentions her death only when Jacob is giving his own burial instructions and lists who is already buried in the cave.9)

In Genesis Rabbah 81:5 (300-500 C.E.), Rabbi Samuel ben Nahman says that in Greek, allon means “another”, and therefore Jacob was mourning for another while he was mourning for Deborah.  Modern commentator Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg has pointed out: “The word tachat—under, instead—is used twice in this verse, suggesting substitution, a hidden grief.  On this other level, eluding consciousness, Jacob weeps for his mother.”10

Modern commentator Shmuel Klitsner wrote: “This, after all, is Jacob, perhaps only now belatedly ‘weaned’ from his mother Rebecca’s influence.  This is Jacob, who inappropriately relinquished his autonomy to a mother who dressed her adult son in another’s clothing …  Now, at this juncture, upon Jacob’s return to Beth-El and just prior to the moment of the divine reconfirmation of his new identity, he must divest himself of the last vestigial ties to that inappropriate dependence.  This is expressed symbolically in the burial of a mythic woman who has silently accompanied Rebecca and then Jacob through their lives, and whose role, despite her years, is still described as one who nourishes from the breast.”11

Immediately after Deborah is buried, God appears to Jacob and confirms that his new name is Israel: Yisrael (ישְׂרָאֵל) = he struggles/argues (with) God.  Jacob’s relationship with God is no easier than his relationship with his mother.

*

A modern adult knows God is not an anthropomorphic yet all-powerful hero who can replace Mommy or Daddy.  Yet how many of us, even today, are like Jacob?  How many of us, after we realize that our parents cannot protect us from harm, react by bargaining with God to protect us?

I never expected God to be parental—perhaps because I was brought up as an atheist.  When I became an adult and groped my way toward an idea, or perhaps a feeling, of God, I never wanted to bargain.  I have never even asked God to protect and take care of me, because I believe the world is not set up that way.  I do pray in gratitude.  And I pray for courage, strength, empathy, and other inner qualities that help me to face our unpredictable world, and even do some good in it.  I think my prayers are slowly being answered.

(An earlier version of this essay was published in November 2010.)

  1. Genesis 27:1-17.
  2. Genesis 25:29-33.
  3. Genesis 33:19.
  4. Genesis 34:1-26.
  5. Genesis 35:1.
  6. Genesis 24:59.
  7. 11th-century Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.
  8. Genesis 35:27.
  9. Genesis 50:29-31.
  10. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Murmuring Deep, Schocken Books, NewYork, 2009, p. 230.
  11. Shmuel Klitsner, Wrestling Jacob, Urim Publications, Jerusalem, 2006, p. 130.

Vayishlach: Change of Heart, Part 2

November 30, 2017 at 2:05 pm | Posted in Vayishlach | 2 Comments

(My last post considered how the feelings of Shekhem and Dinah change in the Torah portion Vayishlach.  This post considers the decision of Dinah’s brothers in the same story.)

And Jacob came safely from Paddan Aram to the town of Shekhem, which is in the land of Canaan, and he camped in front of the town. (Genesis/Bereishit 33:18)

shekhem (שְׁכֶם)= shoulders; an ancient town; a certain chieftain in that town.

Mt. Gerizim (left) and Mt. Eyval (right)

The city of Shekhem, now part of the modern city of Nablus, sat in a narrow valley between two hills (“shoulders” of land):  Mount Gezerim and Mount Eyval.  Later in the Torah, when the Israelites are about to cross the Jordan, Moses instructs them to perform a ritual on those two hills.  While the Levites recite a list of good deeds that God rewards with blessings, and a list of bad deeds that God punishes with curses, half of the tribes will stand on Mount Gezerim to confirm the blessings, and half on Mount Eyval to confirm the curses.  (Deuteronomy 27:11-14; see my post Ki Tavo: Cursing Yourself.)

Thus Shekhem represents a decision point.  North or south?  Good or evil?  Blessing or curse?

Jacob makes the wrong decision when he arrives.  He has been returning on the same route he took from Beersheba to Charan 20 years before.  Now is supposed to continue south to Beit-El (Bethel), where he promised God that he would build an altar.  Then he should travel farther south to Beersheba, where his aged parents are still waiting for him.  Instead he stops at the crossroads of Shekhem, unwilling to move or choose.  He buys the plot of ground where he is camped.

And Dinah, the daughter of Leah whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to see the women of the land. And Shekhem, son of Chamor the Chivvite, a chieftain of the land, saw her, and he took her, and he lay with her, and he violated her. (Genesis/Bereishit 34:1-2)

Shekhem the young chieftain enters the story as a bad guy who rapes a virgin.  Then he falls in love with his victim, Dinah.  (See my post Vayishlach: Change of Heart, Part 1.)  He speaks “upon the heart of the young woman”, reassuring her, changing her feelings about him, persuading her that he will become a good husband.  He plans to offer her father exorbitant bride-price so he can marry her and restore her honor.  And he asks his own father, Chamor, to come with him to arrange the marriage contract.

Unfortunately, Chamor has another idea.  His clan has land; Jacob has lots of livestock.  What if they all intermarry, and become one people?  Surely the union would benefit both sides.  Chamor makes this a stipulation in the marriage negotiation of Shekhem and Dinah.

Jacob does not respond, but his sons pretend to agree to both Dinah’s marriage and the union of the two peoples, provided that all the men of the town circumcise themselves.  Chamor goes back and tells his men that this is a way everyone can marry into wealth, acquiring Jacob’s livestock.  And the men of Shekhem go for it.

Ruins of stairs and city gate of Shekhem

It was the third day, when they were in pain.  And two of the sons of Jacob, Simon and Levi, [full] brothers of Dinah, each took his sword, and they came upon the town without resistance, and they killed all the males. (Genesis 34:25)

They take Dinah, and then some “sons of Jacob”—maybe the same two, maybe others—plunder all the houses and enslave all the women and girls.

They have made Jacob’s decision for him.  They could have chosen the good side (represented by Mt. Gezerim) and dealt honestly with the citizens of Shekhem.  What if Chamor’s offer turned out to be part of God’s plan to give the land of Canaan to the descendants of Jacob, and God would bless them if they accepted and converted the Shekhemites to their own religion?

On the other hand, even if Jacob’s sons refuse to intermarry or proselytize, they could still accept a generous bride-price for their sister and try to negotiate a peaceful covenant with the town.  This approach would also result in a blessing of prosperity and peace with their new neighbors.

Instead, Jacob’s sons choose the bad side (represented by Mt. Eyval) and commit vengeance.  After they have massacred the men of Shekhem and enslaved the women, their father finally speaks up.

Then Jacob said to Simon and Levi: “You cut me off from the inhabitants of the land, from the Canaanites and Perizzites!  And I am few in number, so they will unite against me and strike at me, and I will be exterminated, I and my household!” (Genesis 34:30)

Jacob Burying the Strange Gods,
by Sebastien Bourdon

At that point God tells Jacob to move to Beit-El.  Jacob collects everyone’s idols and earrings and buries them at Shekhem, perhaps hoping to win God’s favor that way.  Then he abandons the empty town and the land he bought, and flees south.

And they set out, and a horror of God came upon the towns that surrounded them, and they did not pursue the sons of Jacob. (Genesis 35:5)

So God blesses Jacob’s sons even though they choose evil at the decision point of Shekhem.  God also fails to reward Shekhem for turning away from evil and trying to do good.

*

Like the book of Job, the story of Dinah in last week’s Torah portion illustrates that we cannot expect to get our just rewards out in the world.  Instead, we are rewarded or punished inside.  When we feel anger and hatred but nevertheless choose to do good, our self-control strengthens, and it is easier to choose good in the future.

When we let our bad feelings carry us away, we may momentarily enjoy doing violence, but then it becomes easier to choose evil the next time.  After committing genocide in the Torah portion Vayishlach, Jacob’s older sons sell their brother Joseph as a slave in next week’s portion, Vayeishev—and they feel guilty the rest of their lives.

May each of us, when we reach a decision point, set our immediate feelings aside, consider the moral implications of each option, and do the right thing.

Vayishlach: Change of Heart, Part 1

November 28, 2017 at 10:35 am | Posted in Vayishlach | 4 Comments

Jacob’s Family Meets Esau,
by Francesco Hayez, 1844

Jacob, after working for his uncle Lavan for twenty years, returns to Canaan in this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach (“And he sent”). When he left Canaan he was alone; when he returns he brings back two wives, two concubines, eleven sons, servants, a wealth of livestock, and one daughter—or perhaps only one daughter whom the Torah considers worth mentioning.

Eager to settle down, Jacob buys the land where his household is camping in front of the town of Shekhem.

And Dinah, the daughter of Leah whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to see the women of the land. And Shekhem, son of Chamor the Chivvite, a chieftain of the land, saw her, and he took her, and he lay with her, and he violated her. (Genesis/Bereishit 34:1-2)

dinah (דִינָה) = judge her, pass sentence on her; her judgment, her verdict.

shekhem (שְׁכֶם)= shoulders; an ancient town on the west bank of the Jordan1.

The Seduction of Dinah,
by James Tissot

Dinah’s name hints that she is doing something unacceptable.  In the culture of the ancient Near East, a young unmarried woman did not leave her family’s compound unaccompanied.  Her motive is merely to make friends with the women who have become her neighbors.  But walking alone, in that time and place, was considered asking for trouble.

And trouble comes.  Dinah is raped—by the young chieftain whose name is the same as the town.  It is as if the whole town of Shekhem rapes the whole household of Jacob.  Honor, shame, and responsibility were not restricted to individuals in the ancient Near East; what happened to one family member affected the standing of the entire family.

But Shekhem does not throw his victim out in the morning.

And his soul became attached to Dinah, daughter of Jacob, and he loved the young woman, and he spoke al leiv the young woman.  Then Shekhem spoke to Chamor, his father, saying: “Take for me this girl as a wife” (Genesis/Bereishit 34:3-4)

al leiv (עַל־לֵב) = upon the heart of. (In biblical Hebrew, the heart is the mind, the seat of conscious thoughts and feelings.)

Clearly Shekhem falls in love with Dinah.  He not only wants to keep her and take care of her; he wants to repair her reputation (as much as he can) by marrying her through an official contract between his family and hers.

How does Dinah feel now about the man who raped her?  The Torah does not say.  The only clue we have is that Shekhem speaks al leiv her, upon her heart.

Touching the heart

Biblical Hebrew uses several idioms that include the word leiv or its alternative spelling levav. When something arises in someone’s heart, an idea or a memory is occurring to that person.2  To place something upon one’s heart is to think it over.3  What does it mean to speak upon someone’s heart?

At the end of the book of Genesis, Joseph’s brothers are afraid that Joseph will finally take revenge for when they sold him as a slave.  Joseph reassures them: “And now don’t you fear, I will provide for you and your little ones.”  And he comforted them, and he spoke al leiv them. (Genesis 50:21)

Joseph’s intent is to reassure his brothers so they no longer feel afraid.

In the book of Judges, a man’s concubine runs away to her father’s house.  After four months, Her husband got up and went after her, to speak al leiv her to get her back. (Judges 19:3)

The concubine does head back with the man, so he must have changed her feelings about him.4

David’s Grief over Absalom, Bible card

King David’s troops win a battle and kill his son Absalom, who had seized David’s throne.  When David ignores his soldiers and weeps for his dead son, the troops become demoralized.  David’s general, Yoav, warns him that if he does not act at once, they will all desert overnight.  Yoav concludes: “And now get up! Go out! And speak al leiv your followers!” (2 Samuel 19:8)

Here, King David must persuade his soldiers that he appreciates their victory after all, and he is still their king.5  He must change their feelings from despondency to optimism.

Ruth gives the idiom a different shade of meaning when she is a gleaner in Boaz’s field.  He asks her to stick to his field, where he has ordered his men not to molest her; tells her to help herself from the water jugs; compliments her on taking care of her mother-in-law; and gives her a blessing.  Ruth replies: “I find favor in your eyes, my lord, since you comfort me and since you speak al leiv your maidservant—although I, I am not even one of your maidservants.” (Ruth 2:13)

Ruth does not need to be persuaded to return to Boaz’s field.6  She is telling him that he has reassured her and made her feel better.

The other two occurrences in the Hebrew Bible of the idiom “to speak al leiv” are in prophecies that God (in the role of a husband) will take back the Israelites (in the role of a wife) even though they have strayed with other gods.  God will tenderly reassure Israel that “her” suffering is over.7  Then the Israelites will no longer feel despair.

So if speaking al leiv someone means reassuring someone or changing someone’s feelings, we can conclude that in this week’s Torah portion, Shekhem changes Dinah’s feelings about him, and she wants to marry him.

Not touching the heart

Shekhem offers to pay Jacob any bride-price he asks for.  But his father, Chamor, stipulates that the people of Shekhem and Jacob’s household will all intermarry and become one people.  He promises Jacob’s people that they can share the town’s land, and he promises the town’s people that they can share Jacob’s livestock.  It does not occur to Chamor that Dinah’s family is still upset about her rape and hates Shekhem—both the man and the town.

Chamor does not speak al leiv Jacob or his sons, and their feelings do not change.

Then the sons of Jacob answered Shekhem and his father Chamor, and they spoke deceitfully, since he had defiled their sister Dinah.  And they said to them: “We cannot do this thing, giving our sister to a man who has a foreskin, because that is a disgrace for us.” (Genesis 34:13-14)

Dinah’s Brothers Attack Shekhem
(artist unknown)

Jacob says nothing.  But his sons pretend to agree to intermarriage if all the men of the town will circumcise themselves.  After the men of Shekhem have done so, and are disabled by pain, two of Dinah’s brothers, Simon and Levi, swoop in, kill every male, take their sister out of the chieftain’s house, and leave.  Then the “sons of Jacob” (which sons are not specified) plunder the town of Shekhem and take its women and girls as slaves.

When Dinah’s brothers are finished, the reformed Shekhem is dead, and Dinah is a tainted woman with low market value instead of the happy wife of a chieftain.

*

The story of Dinah illustrates both that human feelings can change—and that when people refuse to change their feelings, they may hurt the people they care about as well as those they consider enemies.

May everyone who is trapped in old feelings of anger, resentment, or despair be freed.  And if nobody steps forward to speak al leiv, may we hear an inner voice comforting our hearts with a different point of view.

  1. Shekhem was 30 miles (49 km) north of Jerusalem, between two round hills, Mt. Gezerim and Mt. Eyval. It is now part of the modern city of Nablus.
  2. Arising in someone’s heart: e.g. Jeremiah 44:21, Ezekiel 38:10.
  3. Placing upon one’s heart: e.g. Deuteronomy 6:6, Jeremiah 12:11, Isaiah 57:11, Malachi 2:2.
  4. The King James Bible (KJV) translation is “to speak friendly unto her”; the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) translation is “to woo her”.
  5. The JPS translation is “placate your followers”.
  6. The KJV translation is “thou hast spoken friendly”; the JPS translation is “to speak gently to”.
  7. Hosea 2:16, Isaiah 40:1.

 

Vayishlach: A Partial Reconciliation

November 24, 2015 at 5:59 pm | Posted in Vayishlach | 1 Comment

Jacob finally heads back to Canaan at the opening of this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach (“And he sent”)—after living 20 years in the Aramean town of Charan, being cheated by his uncle and father-in-law Lavan.  Jacob now has his own large family and plenty of wealth to make a fresh start.  But one thing hangs over his head: when he fled Canaan 20 years before, his twin brother Esau was planning to murder him.

Esau lentil-soupEsau was enraged because his brother had cheated him twice.  First Jacob had traded Esau a bowl of stew for Esau’s larger inheritance as the firstborn.  Then Jacob had disguised himself as Esau to steal their blind father Isaac’s blessing.

Jacob’s guilt over his own behavior and anxiety about Esau are still strong 20 years later.  He knows that Esau has moved to Sei-ir and founded his own kingdom, Edom.  What he does not know is whether Esau still wants to kill him.

map middle east 1The first thing Jacob does after he crosses the hills of Gilead east of the Jordan is to send messengers to his brother.

And he gave them orders, saying: Thus you shall say: “To my lord, to Esau: Thus says your servant Jacob: I sojourned with Lavan, and I lingered until now. And it happened I acquired oxen and donkeys, flocks and male slaves and female slaves. And now I send ahead to tell my lord, to find chein in your eyes.” (Genesis/Bereishit 32:5-6)

chein (חֵן) = favor, approval.

Jacob words his message to his brother carefully. He addresses Esau as “my lord” instead of “my brother”; calls himself “your servant Jacob”; and mentions “finding favor in your eyes” as if Esau were his king.

The blessing that Isaac gave to Jacob instead of Esau included the words:

Be an overlord to your kinsmen, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you. (Genesis 27:29)

Now Jacob’s message intimates that the reverse of the blessing is true; Esau is Jacob’s overlord, and Jacob will bow down to him.

But Esau does not trust his brother’s words.  (See my post Vayishlach: Message to a Brother, in which I speculate on how Esau might misinterpret Jacob’s message.)

And the messengers returned to Jacob, saying: “We came to your brother, to Esau, and he is actually going out to meet you, and 400 men are with him”.  Jacob became very frightened … (Genesis 32:7-8)

Jacob concludes that Esau still carries a grudge from 20 years before. Why else would he head north with an of 400 men?

shepherd and sheepHe reacts by dividing his family and possessions into two camps, so Esau’s men cannot wipe out everyone at once; by praying to God; and by sending several ridiculously large gifts of livestock ahead to Esau on the road.  Jacob instructs the servant in charge of each drove of livestock that when he reaches Esau and his men, he should tell Esau the animals are a gift from Jacob.  Again, he uses language that flips Isaac’s blessing.

And you shall say: From your servant, from Jacob, it is a minchah sent to my lord, to Esau; and hey!—he is also behind us. (Genesis 32:19)

minchah (מִנְחָה) = a gift of respect, thanks, homage, or allegiance; a tribute.

In the Bible, a person gives a minchah to a king or to God.  Thus Jacob’s messages continue to emphasize that he is subservient to Esau—just as if Isaac had given the blessing to Esau after all, and it had taken effect.

For he said [to himself]: I will appease him with the minchah that is going before me, and after that I will see his face; perhaps he will pardon me.  (Genesis 32:21)

Jacob then spends the night on the bank of the Yabok River, wrestling with a mysterious being and coming to terms with his own identity.  (See my post Vayishlach: Blessing Yourself.)  In the morning he crosses over and goes to meet Esau—still limping from his wrestling match.

… and he bowed down to the ground seven times until he drew up to his brother. (Genesis 33:3)

Bowing to the ground seven times was the correct procedure for approaching a Canaanite king in the second millennium B.C.E.  By literally bowing down to his brother, Jacob is, in effect, transferring Isaac’s blessing to Esau.

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

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

And Esau’s hostility evaporates.  He might question Jacob’s words; he might view the gifts of livestock with suspicion; but when he sees his brother limping toward him and bowing his gray head to the ground seven times, he realizes that his brother has changed.  Jacob is not trying to cheat him again.

Then Esau ran to meet him, and he embraced him, and he fell on his neck, and he kissed him, and they wept. (Genesis 33:4)

Jacob introduces Esau to his family.  Next Esau politely refuses to keep Jacob’s gift, and Jacob politely urges him to accept it, according to the usual social ritual.  At first Jacob says: “If, please, I have found chein in your eyes, then take my minchah from my hand … (Genesis 33:10)

Esau still demurs, so Jacob urges him to accept the gift a second time, saying: Take, please, birkhati that was brought to you, because God chanani and because I have everything.”  And he urged him, and he took [it]. (Genesis 33:11)

birkhati (בִּרְכָתִי) = my blessing.

chanani (חַנַּנִי) = favored me.  (From the same root as chein.)

The gift of livestock is so large it probably equals the inheritance of the firstborn that Jacob once traded him for.  (The Torah does not say how much each brother actually inherits when Isaac dies later in the story, but both are already wealthy.)  Jacob urges Esau to accept not only the equivalent of the inheritance, but also a blessing.  Thus Jacob returns everything he cheated Esau to get.

Are the brothers reconciled?  Not quite.  Esau, no longer angry or anxious about Jacob, invites him to come home with him to Sei-ir.  But Jacob refuses, on the pretext that the children and the nursing animals cannot travel fast enough.  He falsely promises to catch up with Esau later.  Then he heads in the other direction.

Jacob has made amends for his bad deeds, so his conscience is cleared.  He no longer has a rational reason to believe Esau holds a grudge.  Yet he still cannot get over his fear of Esau.

I think the reason is that Esau has not changed.  Jacob has changed; he has faced who he is, and taken steps to right past wrongs.  But Esau is essentially the same: impulsive, emotional, easy to persuade.  At that moment, Esau loves him because he believes Jacob had become a good brother.  But in the future, who knows what random act or remark might sway Esau’s heart?

*

I have similar problems in my own life. I can think of at least three people with whom I have reconciled—up to a point.  I have thought of good reasons why they did not reciprocate my apologies, and I am careful to treat them with respect.  Yet all three seem unpredictable to me, moved by mental complexes I do not understand.  Like Jacob, I am still afraid of what they might do next.

Sometimes only a partial reconciliation is possible.  Perhaps Jacob is wise to realize this, and to travel away from his brother Esau.

 

 

 

Mikeitz & Vayiggash: Serial Sobber, Part 1

December 23, 2014 at 11:05 pm | Posted in Mikeitz, Vayiggash, Vayishlach | 5 Comments
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Joseph cries eight times in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, more often than any other individual in the Hebrew Bible.  Only the Israelites as a whole are recorded as breaking into sobs more often.

Joseph Cast into the Pit, by Owen Jones

Although Joseph is the most lachrymose character, he does not start crying in the Torah story until he is 37 years old and the viceroy of Egypt.  When he is 17, his ten older brothers throw him into a pit, argue about whether to kill him, then sell him as a slave to a caravan bound for Egypt.1  Later, the brothers remember that he pleaded for mercy;2 but nowhere does the Torah say he cried during that ordeal.  Nor does the Torah report any crying when Joseph, as a head house slave in Egypt, is falsely accused and thrown into prison.3

If Joseph does not cry when he feels frightened or sorry for himself, when does he cry?

Bowing to the ground in Egypt

Egyptian relief of slaves bowing

First sob

The first time Joseph cries is in the Torah portion Mikeitz (“In the end”).  After a year of drought and famine, Joseph’s older brothers travel to Egypt to buy grain.  They bow down to the viceroy of Egypt, not recognizing him as their brother Joseph 20 years later.  Joseph speaks to them in Egyptian, using an interpreter so they will not suspect he knows their language.

He accuses them of spying, and they protest that they are all brothers, and honest men.  When the viceroy says no, they are not, the brothers babble:

“We, your servants, are twelve brothers, sons of one man in the land of Canaan.  And hey!  The youngest is with our father now, and the other—is absent.”  (Genesis 42:13)

Joseph throws them into prison for three days, then confronts them again.  As they talk among themselves, they do not know he understands every word when they agree that although they are not spies, they deserve punishment because they did not listen to Joseph pleading from the bottom of the pit 20 years before.

And he [Joseph] turned away from them, vayeivek.  Then he returned to them and he spoke to them, and he took Shimon from them and tied him up in front of their eyes.  (Genesis/Bereishit 42:24)

vayeivek (וַיֵּבְךְּ) = and he sobbed, and he wept audibly.  (From the root verb bakah, בָּכָּה, wept, shed tears.)

Joseph is overwhelmed when he hears them admit, in effect, that they were wrong to leave him in the pit.  He steps out to break down in private, and returns only when he can control himself again.

When he recovers his composure he tells them he will sell them grain, but he will keep one brother hostage until they prove they are honest men by returning with their youngest brother, the one who stayed home in Canaan.

Maybe Joseph embarks on this elaborate game in order to punish his older brothers for their old crime.  But most commentary assumes Joseph is testing his brothers to see if they have truly changed.  The youngest brother is Benjamin, who was a small child when Joseph’s older brothers sold him, and the only one who has the same mother.  Will the older brothers treat Benjamin as callously as they once treated Joseph?

Second sob

Joseph is Governor, by Owen Jones

After a second year of famine, the brothers finally return with Benjamin.  When they arrive at the viceroy’s palace a servant brings Shimon to them, none the worse for imprisonment, and says the viceroy invites them to stay for a meal.

All eleven brothers prostrate themselves when the viceroy of Egypt walks in.  Joseph asks them whether their father is still alive and well, and they say yes.

Then he lifted his eyes, and he saw Benjamin, his brother, the son of his mother …  And Joseph hurried, because his compassion fermented, and he was close to bekot; so he came into the inner room vayeivek there.  Then he washed his face, and he went out and he restrained himself, and he said: “Serve the food.”  (Genesis 43:29-31)

bekot (בֶּכּוֹת) =  weeping.  (Also from the root bakah.)

This time the Torah attributes Joseph’s emotional ferment to a sudden feeling of compassion.  The sight of his brother Benjamin triggers the compassion, but who is the object of it?  Does he feel compassion toward all his brothers, for the ordeal he is putting them through now?  Toward his father, who had to let Benjamin go?  Or toward Benjamin himself, for growing up surrounded by brutal older brothers?  The Torah does not say.

Joseph resumes his game, giving Benjamin five times as much food as the others.4  The older brothers do not act jealous.  Next Joseph has a silver goblet planted in Benjamin’s pack before they leave, and sends his steward to catch them on their way out of town. The steward, following Joseph’s script, insists on searching their packs, and declares that the owner of the pack containing the missing goblet must return to the viceroy’s palace as a slave.  When the goblet is found in Benjamin’s pack, the ten older brothers are free to travel on without him.  But they choose to return with Benjamin to confront the viceroy.5

Third sob

The third time Joseph cries is during the confrontation at the beginning the next Torah portion, Vayiggash (“And he approached”).  Judah, the leader of Joseph’s brothers, steps up and volunteers to become the viceroy’s slave in place of Benjamin.  He says he is doing it in order to spare their father from dying of grief.  Joseph is moved by the revelation that Judah, at least, has changed from a man who would sell his own brother into a man who would sacrifice himself for the sake of a father who does not even love him.6

Then Joseph was not able to restrain himself in front of everyone stationed around him, so he called out: “Remove everyone from me!”  And no one stood with him when Joseph revealed himself to his brothers.  And he gave his voice to bekhi, and Egypt heard, and the house of Pharaoh heard.  (Genesis 45:1-2)

bekhi (בְּכִי) = weeping, wailing, sobbing; distilling water.  (Also from the root bakah.)

Once Egyptians are cleared out of the room, a tearful Joseph finally identifies himself to his brothers.  He excuses their old crime as the working out of divine providence, and tells them to bring their father and their own families to Egypt, where they will have plenty of food.7

The cause of Joseph’s sobbing this time is the shock of Judah’s revelation.  An enemy who despised and sold him 20 years before has become a moral paragon, sacrificing himself to spare two other people.  Perhaps Joseph’s compassion ferments again, this time toward Judah.

Fourth sob

Benjamin Returns to Egypt, by Owen Jones

Then he [Joseph] fell upon the neck of Benjamin, his brother, vayeivek, and Benjamin bakha upon his neck.  (Genesis 45:14)

bakha (בָּכָה) = he sobbed. (Also from the root bakah.)

For the first time, Joseph’s sobbing is reciprocated; Benjamin also sobs, in a mutual embrace.  The two full brothers are full of emotion at their reunion after 20 years.  They have no bad history with one another, so they simply weep tears of joy.  (Benjamin probably weeps with relief as well, since his status has just changed from prospective slave to honored brother of the viceroy.)

Fifth sob

Then he kissed all this brothers vayevek on them, and after that his brothers spoke with him.  (Genesis 45:15)

By kissing, embracing, and crying on the ten men, Joseph accepts them at last as his older brothers.  They are more reserved, because for them the situation is still unresolved.  Joseph appears to have forgiven them, but he does explicitly pardon them; he only excuses their past crime as God’s means for getting him, Joseph, to Egypt.  In their lingering anxiety about the possibility of future retribution, they remain suspended in a state of emotional tension.8  They do not embrace Joseph, but they do become able to speak with him.9

*

So what makes Joseph cry?  The first five times he breaks down and sobs, he is emotionally overwhelmed when he suddenly sees one or more of his brothers from a new point of view.

First he is moved when his older brothers realize they deserve punishment (Genesis 42:24).  Joseph thought his older brothers were irredeemable, but now he realizes they feel guilty.  Next he sees Benjamin for the first time in 20 years and feels compassion (Genesis 43:29-31).  Joseph had written off his baby brother, whom he thought was lost to him forever, but now he sees Benjamin in front of him.

The third time Joseph weeps is when Judah offers to become a slave to spare Jacob and Benjamin (Genesis 44:27-34 and 45:1-2).  He thought none of his brothers would sacrifice his freedom for the sake of another person, but now Judah volunteers to do it.  And the fourth time is when Joseph embraces Benjamin (Genesis 45:14).  Joseph was completely committed to his life as an Egyptian, determined to forget his whole family in Canaan, but now he embraces his relationship with his innocent brother.

Joseph cries for the fifth time when he embraces the rest of his brothers, even though they do not reciprocate.  He had considered them his implacable enemies.  Now he sees them as the instruments of fate—but also as men who blundered and later felt guilty and are trying to do the right thing now; as human beings and brothers.

Joseph sobs three more times in Genesis, all in the last Torah portion, Vayechi.  He sobs at his reunion with his father, when his father dies, and when his brothers plead with him afterward.  We will listen to those sobs in my next blog post.

*

Have you ever felt moved to tears, or to a “ferment of compassion”, when an important person in your life is suddenly revealed in a new and better light?  Did it change your relationship?

May we all be able to notice when things are different, and embrace relationships we had turned away from.

  1. Genesis 37:19-28.
  2. Genesis 42:21.
  3. Genesis 38:1-23.
  4. Genesis 43:34.
  5. Genesis 44:1-14.
  6. In the first Torah portion of Joseph’s story, Vayeishev, Jacob’s ten older sons noticed when Joseph was an adolescent that their father displayed extreme favoritism toward Joseph, giving him the “coat of many colors” and asking him to his older brothers’ misdeeds to him.  That is why, when they are away from home and Joseph shows up in his fancy coat to spy on them again, they throw Joseph into a pit and then sell him into slavery.  When they return home they tell their father that Joseph is dead, torn by a wild animal.  Jacob goes into deep mourning and refuses to be comforted by any of them.
  7. Genesis 45:9-11.
  8. See Genesis 50:15 for evidence that the brothers felt lingering anxiety about the possibility of future retribution for years.
  9. At the beginning of the Joseph story, when Joseph is 17, the Torah says:  “And his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, and they hated him, and they were not able to speak to him in peace.” (Genesis 34:4)  Now, finally, they are able to do it.

 

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