Taking the Fifth

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

 

Deathbed Blessings

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

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.

But Not Together

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

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

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.

 

Estrangement

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

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.

A Snake

The Torah portion this week is Lekh-lekha, which means “Go to yourself!” or “Go for yourself!” or “Get yourself going!”  To read one of my favorite earlier posts on this portion, click on this link: Lekh-lekha: Please.

This past week I got going again on the book I’m writing about moral psychology in Genesis.  (My current working title is “Genesis: Good and Evil Fruit”.)  The most important chapter in a book is the first one, because if it doesn’t sparkle, nobody wants to read the rest.  So I spent the week writing many, many drafts of a new Torah monologue from the viewpoint of the snake in the Garden of Eden.  In my version, the snake is not a bad character at all.

I’ll check in with you again next week.

 

Leave of Absence

I want to finish writing my book on moral psychology in Genesis.  And I want to continue writing my weekly blog posts.  But I have discovered I cannot do both at once.

So this fall, while the Jewish cycle of Torah readings is going through the book of Genesis, I will work on my own book.  I have already rewritten my essays  and Torah monologues to date that deal with how Genesis presents moral conundrums to its characters.  Now I need to write new work to complete the jigsaw puzzle.

During the next eleven weeks, I will send you an update on my progress, and a link to one of my earlier blog posts on the Torah portion of the week–one that will not appear in the book.

Also at anytime, you can click on “Categories” in the sidebar to the right of any of my posts, scroll down, click on the name of a Torah portion, and click on any of my earlier posts that you would like to read.

I plan to be back with a new blog post in January, when we begin studying the book of Exodus again.  By then I hope my book is finished!

May the next eleven weeks be creative and fulfilling for all of us.

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Here is a link to one of my essays on the first two Torah portions of Genesis, Bereishit and NoachNoach: Winds of Change.