Taking the Fifth

February 10, 2022 at 9:36 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Doing what I love includes writing about the Torah. Doing what I must includes honoring my mother (the fifth of the Ten Commandments) by moving her into assisted living so she can get the help she needs.

This heroic labor means that I will have little time for my blog over the next few weeks. I started working on a new essay for next week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, and I hope I can squeeze in enough writing time to finish it soon. Meanwhile, I will send out links to earlier posts every week until my mother is safe and settled.

If you want to read one of my earlier posts about this week’s potion, Tetzaveh, you can click on this link: Tetzaveh & Psalms 141, 51, and 40: Smoke and Prayer.

Or go to “POSTS BY TORAH PORTION OR BOOK” in the sidebar on the right side of this page, click the down-arrow next to CATEGORIES, and navigate to any previous post you want to read … while I am being a mother to my mother.

Mother and Child, by Mary Cassat


Idol Thief

January 6, 2021 at 9:07 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

My time is up.  I had planned to finish writing my book, Tasting the Fruit: Moral Psychology in Genesis, by the time the cycle of Jewish Torah readings came to the book of Exodus in January.  But I’ve had to do a lot more writing from scratch than I expected.

Today I wrote about how Rachel steals her father’s household idols as she leaves home, sneaking off toward Canaan with her husband (Jacob), her son (Joseph), and her three fellow wives and their children.

Why would Rachel steal the idols?  Because they can be used for divination, and she does not want her father to know where she and her family are.

Idols (physical images of gods) are forbidden in the book of Exodus.  One of the Ten Commandments declares: “You may not make for yourself a statue or any likeness of what is in the heavens above or what is on the earth below or what is in the waters from under the earth.  You may not bow down to them or serve them.”  (Exodus 20:4-5)

15th-13th century BCE storm god from Megiddo, Israel Museum

The books of Isaiah and Psalms make fun of idols, asking why anyone would treat a piece of inert wood, stone, or metal as if it could hear and speak.  But the book of Genesis is a different story.  The patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob do not use idols, but Jacob’s father-in-law Lavan does, and his daughter Rachel believes they can speak to him.

The idols Rachel steals are small enough to fit into a camel pack.  They may look like the figurines of gods I saw last year in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, all smaller than my hand.

Idols were standard religious equipment in Egypt during the 19th dynasty (1292–1190 B.C.E.), where Moses was born in this week’s Torah portion, Shemot.  He would have learned about all the gods of Egypt and their representations in painting and sculpture after he was adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter.  When he left Egypt as a young man, he went to live with a priest of Midian, and learned about the gods of the Midianites–probably including the god on Mount Sinai that later became the God of Israel.

Moses first encounters that god, God with a capital “G”, when he sees the  bush on Mount Sinai that burns but is not consumed.  God speaks out of the fire, not from an idol.  Click here to read about it in my post Shemot: Holy Ground.

Today most of us do not hear strange voices in our heads, only the familiar subvocalizations of our own psyches.  Yet many people engage in magical thinking.  I can imagine staring a long time at a bronze figurine, and hearing it speak inside your head.  And if the figurine said something that you did not consciously know, but that turned out to be true, you would stare at it again when you needed insight.

Unless it was gone when you got home, because someone had stolen it.

Deathbed Blessings

December 30, 2020 at 7:34 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

I finally finished writing about Isaac’s “deathbed” blessings for my book on Genesis.  Isaac does not actually die for many more years, but the blessings are so vital to him, Rebecca, and their sons Jacob and Esau that all four characters engage in morally dubious behavior to get what they want.  It took four essays and a Torah monologue to cover their moral psychology.

Isaac is the first person in the Torah to give what he believes is a deathbed blessing.  The next is his son Jacob, who gives blessings to all twelve of his sons and two of his grandsons just before he expires in this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi.  Here’s a link to my blog post about those blessings: Vayechi: Three Tribes Repudiated.

Both Isaac’s blessings in Toledot and Jacob’s blessings in Vayechi are like prophecies predicting what will happen the the descendants of the sons who are “blessed”–and the predictions are not all good.  All the characters in Genesis take them seriously, because if God chooses to carry out a blessing, it comes true.

The only deathbed blessing I received from my father was his smile when I told him I loved him, and that was fine with me.  If my mother gave me a Torah-style blessing when her life is about to end, I would find it creepy, even though I cannot believe there is a direct channel between her and God.

Will I want to give a deathbed blessing to my son?  He and his wife do not plan to have any children, so no prophecies about their descendants are necessary.  I would simply like to wish them good fortune and long lives.

Deception and Compassion

December 23, 2020 at 10:14 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

I have not finished writing the part of my book about Isaac’s blessings of his two sons, deceitful Jacob and straightforward Esau.  I realized that deception occurs throughout the book of Genesis, and deserves special treatment.  So I rewrote the questions I am addressing in my book on moral psychology in Genesis, and now deception gets its own heading.  So does controlling others, an important though less frequent theme.

In another day or two I expect to finish rewriting essays in earlier chapters of my book to reflect my new focus.  Then I can dive back into discussing both deception and control in the Torah portion Toledot, where I left old, blind Isaac struggling to give the right blessings.

Meanwhile, this week’s Torah reading is the portion Vayigash, which opens with Judah stepping forward to offer himself as a slave to the viceroy of Egypt in place of his little brother Benjamin.  The viceroy is actually their brother Joseph, who has been deceiving them…  You can read about it here: Vayigash: Compassion.

It’s one of my earliest blog posts, and in it I point out that although compassion is neither necessary nor sufficient for ethical behavior, the feeling of compassion does sometimes move people to step outside their usual habits and act with more kindness or generosity.

I pray that in the year 2021 all of us will be open to compassion.

What Do You Seek?

December 9, 2020 at 10:26 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

And [Joseph] came to Shekhem.  And a man found him, and hey!  He was going astray in the field.  And the man asked him: “What do you seek?” (Genesis/Bereishit 37:14-15)

That is the opening of the first post I ever wrote on this week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev.  I dusted if off and polished it up today, and you can find it at this link: Vayeishev: The Question.

I plan to expand on  two of the points in that post when I write Chapter 9 of my book on moral psychology in Genesis.  This week I’ve been writing Chapter 5, on the Torah portion Chayyei Sarah, which includes the story of how Abraham and his steward acquire a wife for Abraham’s son Isaac.  “What do you seek?” is a good question for that story as well.

When Abraham gives instructions to his steward for picking out the bride, he is seeking a woman who will keep Isaac on the path to provide descendants who will someday rule Canaan under God’s law.  Since Abraham believes his son is  weak and easily influenced, he wants Isaac to have a wife who is not a Canaanite but who will move to Canaan for the marriage.

Abraham’s steward has another agenda besides fulfilling his oath to his master.  He seeks a bride who is generous and strong–perhaps because Isaac is withdrawn and passive, and the steward hopes a wife like that will draw him out.

Isaac himself seeks solace after his mother’s death, but it does not occur to him to look for it in a wife.  He is surprised when his father’s steward arrives with a bride for him.

And the bride herself?  Rebecca, Isaac’s first cousin once removed, is the one all three men have been seeking.  But what does she seek, and does she find it in her marriage to Isaac?  The Torah is silent on that subject, so I am making it the theme of my Torah monologue for Chapter 5.


I like the word “seeking” because it means actively searching, not passively hoping that what you want will happen.  I have been seeking a life of writing books for most of my 66 years, but real life is complicated, and I have only achieved my goal a few times, during years that were never long enough.  This time, even though I am retired, I still have to keep saying no to all kinds of things in order to guard my writing time.  That’s the hard part.  The easy, delightful part is spending so many hours a day writing, and going to bed every night looking forward to writing again in the morning.

I have found what I was seeking.  What do you seek?

But Not Together

December 2, 2020 at 2:06 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

And it happened after these events, and God tested Abraham …  And he said: “Take, please, your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac.  And get going to the land of the Moriyah, and bring him up there as a burnt offering on one of the hills …”  (Genesis 22:1-2)

Abraham almost does it.  Isaac is tied up on top of the stacked wood, and Abraham takes the knife in his hand before he hears the divine voice telling him to desist.

I spent four days writing about four possible tests God might have in mind, and whether Abraham passes or fails each version.  Whatever God wants to find out about Abraham, there is no doubt that slaughtering Isaac would be morally wrong.

Today I am writing one more essay for this chapter on the story of the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, in the Torah portion Vayeira.  How can Abraham and Isaac reconcile after the near-sacrifice?  The Torah says twice that they walk up the hill yachdav (יַחְדָּו), together.  But  Abraham walks down alone.  (Genesis 22:6, 22:8, and 22:19)

I love writing this book on moral psychology is Genesis, but I have fallen several Torah portions behind the Jewish cycle of Torah readings.  This week we are reading Vayishlach, in which Jacob and Esau meet again, 20 years after Jacob cheated his brother Esau on his blessing and Esau vowed to kill him.  After 20 years apart, the twin brothers do reconcile–mostly.  You can read about it in the blog post I wrote in 2015: Vayishlach: A Partial Reconciliation.

The reconciliation between the two brothers is only partial because after they have embraced one another and shed tears, Esau suggests that they travel together.  (Genesis 33:12)  Jacob gives him an excuse, and heads in a different direction.

When someone has wronged you, togetherness can be even harder than forgiveness.

Giving Thanks Anyway

November 25, 2020 at 4:29 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

This week of Thanksgiving in the United States happens to be the week of the Torah portion Vayeitzei, in which Jacob marries two sisters, Leah and Rachel, and all three of them eventually settle for less than they wanted.  Only Leah thanks God for what she already has.  See my 2015 post, Vayeitzei: Satisfaction.

As for me, I am grateful that I am still working every day on my book about moral psychology in Genesis.  Right now I am rewriting a Torah monologue, or dialogue, between Sarah and Hagar, the rival mothers of Abraham’s sons.  In the Torah portion Vayeira, Sarah makes Abraham drive  Hagar and her son out of the camp.

Two generations later, Leah and Rachel, rival mothers of Jacob’s sons, both travel to Canaan with him, and they achieve a grudging peace.  The Torah illustrates that improvement is possible over time.  And a dash of gratitude can only help.

Today we are right to work against racism in the United States; and we can also be grateful that civil rights increased during the 1960’s.  We are right to work against the air pollution that is already changing the world’s climate; and we can also be grateful that so many heads of state, including America’s incoming president, finally recognize the problem.  We are right to accept further isolation to reduce the spread of Covid-19; and we can also be grateful for the scientists who recommend best practices and develop new vaccines.

We would all rather just get what we want.  But in the meantime, let’s give thanks for what we have.

Inbreeding and Incest

November 19, 2020 at 12:56 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

This week’s Torah portion, Toledot (“Histories”), begins with Rebecca’s difficult pregnancy and the birth of her twins, Esau and Jacob.  Here is the first blog post I ever published, written eleven years ago in 2009: Toledot: Opposing Twins.

Esau and Jacob are the sons of Isaac and Rebecca, who are first cousins once removed.  (Isaac’s father, Abraham, is the brother of Rebecca’s grandfather, Nachor.)  Further inbreeding takes place in that family when Jacob marries both daughters of Rebecca’s brother Lavan–in other words, his first cousins.

But this is a far cry from the incest I am writing about today in the third chapter of my book on moral psychology in Genesis.

Father-daughter incest is usually perpetrated by the father on an underage daughter who cannot defend herself.  But after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, it is Lot’s two unmarried adult daughters who get him drunk so they can use him to get pregnant.

I feel sorry for Lot, whom the Torah portrays as foolish but not bad at heart.  As he flees Sodom he knows that his city and his home are going up in flames behind him, along with his married daughters and probably grandchildren.  Then Lot’s wife turns into a pillar of salt.  Lot and his two remaining daughters keep going and find shelter in a cave in the hills.  Then Lot wakes up and discovers he is a victim of incest.  Oy, vey!

Yet Lot’s daughters are also traumatized, and the evening before the destruction of Sodom their father offered to throw them to the mob at his door in order to protect the strangers he was sheltering.  And there are other complications …

It is easy to make general rules for ethical behavior.  It is harder to apply them to specific cases.



November 11, 2020 at 8:24 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Abraham arranges a wife for his estranged son Isaac without Isaac’s knowledge in this week’s Torah portion is Chayyei Sarah.  Here is a link to my 2015 blog post: Chayyei Sarah: Loss of Trust.

The book of Genesis is full of dysfunctional families committing acts of dubious ethical value.  This past week I wrote the chapter of my Genesis book on Noah, and found more examples.  Fortunately I had already written a Torah monologue from the viewpoint of Noah’s wife, whom I picture as out of place in the pre-flood world of brutality.  Do Noah and his family bring the seeds of more brutality with them on the ark?


Evisceration and Subversion

November 4, 2020 at 4:59 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

This past week I eviscerated eight essays that seemed fine when they were blog posts and installed all new plumbing so they would speak to one of the moral themes in the first chapter of my Genesis book:

       How do we know whether something is good or evil?

       When should we obey God?

       How do we act ethically toward family members?  Toward the earth?

       What subverts our ability to choose the good?

These themes continue to be questions in the rest of Genesis, along with a few more questions about ethics.

Now I just need to revise my Torah monologue from the viewpoint of Cain, and I’ll be ready to tackle my chapter on the Torah portion Noach.  I don’t expect this next chapter to call for as many essays as the two creation stories and the narrative of Cain and Abel.  But the story of Noah and the story of the tower of Babel certainly do address questions of moral psychology.

Meanwhile, the Jewish cycle of Torah readings covers the Torah portion Vayeira this week.  Here’s a post I wrote in 2012 about how Abraham and Lot deal with men who turned out to be messengers from God, also known as angels: Vayeira: Seeing Angels.

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