Repost: Va-eira

January 22, 2020 at 12:04 pm | Posted in Va-eira | Leave a comment

Moses never says “Let my people go!” in the book of Exodus without adding “to serve God” or “to slaughter offerings for God”.  Sometimes he adds more qualifiers.  Throughout this week’s Torah portion, which covers the first seven plagues, Moses’ demand is that the pharaoh give the Israelites a short leave of absence from their forced labor so they can travel for three days into the wilderness the midbar (מִּדְבָּר), and serve their god there with animal sacrifices.

Click here: Va-eira & Shemot: Request for Wilderness, to see a rewritten version of my 2013 essay on Moses’ demand.

Back in 2013 it seemed obvious to me that prayer in a midbar is different from prayer in inhabited places.  I have done very little wilderness hiking, but even a walk through the woods or on a beach beyond the houses and other people has let me pray more deeply.  And midbar means not only wilderness, but also includes any land that is uninhabited or uncultivated.

But this year, writing in our apartment in Split, Croatia, the idea of encountering God in the midbar seems intriguing but out of reach.

Maisel Synagogue in Prague; built 1592, rebuilt 1905

Since we left our home in Oregon four months ago, we have visited old synagogues in five European cities during the past four months, but we only managed to go to one service, at the Maisel Synagogue in Prague.  We pick which European spots we visit, whether for a day trip or for a month-long stay, based on their  history, art, and architecture.  We happily spend our days in cities that were already urban centers centuries ago, and are still packed with people.  I sing Jewish prayers inside our lodgings, and sometimes while I walk outside.   But my praying is neither communal nor in a midbar.

We are heading for Jerusalem at the end of February.  Until then, when we push our aging bodies into taking long walks, we pick routes with old buildings, museums, and an occasional café where we can rest and warm up.  In Oregon we had breathtaking midbar of all kinds: seashores, forests, waterfalls, deserts, mountains …  Why waste time going to those kinds of places in Europe when we can get the same or better at home?

Peacock and fallen oranges in a front yard, Split, Croatia

Now my memories of praying alone in the woods seem faded, as if it happened long ago.  Yet every day I sing  my morning prayers when I get up, and it still reminds me of God, still triggers gratitude for my life.  And when I see something that amazes and delights me, natural or man-made, I am moved to murmur another prayer of gratitude in Hebrew.

I daresay both communal prayer and wilderness prayer will both come back to me, maybe in Israel, certainly when we return to the United States.  Meanwhile, I savor not only my personal practice, but also continuing to study and write about the Torah.

Repost: Shemot

January 14, 2020 at 8:26 am | Posted in Shemot | Leave a comment


Entrance to synagogue in Split, Croatia (photo by M.C.)

The people we now call Jews have had many names over the past four millennia.  The names they chose for themselves changed as they evolved from a cluster of Canaanite tribes, to an ethnic group with their own religion and country, to the scattered adherents of a religion and ancestry, to the varied people we know as Jews today.  So did the names other people called them.

Click on this link: Shemot: Hebrews versus Children of Israel for an improved version of the essay I wrote in 2013 on two ancient names for the people we call “Jews” today: Hebrews and Israelites.  In the Ancient Near East, the word corresponding to “Hebrews” (ivrim) meant outsiders, while the words corresponding to “Israelites” (benei Yisraeil) meant the children of an active engagement with God.

Both names appear in the Torah portion Jews are reading all over the world this week, Shemot (“Names”).  It is the first portion in the book of Exodus, also called Shemot in Hebrew.

At least Jews who follow the cycle of Torah readings are opening the book of Exodus again.  But what about Jews who pay little attention to the religion, yet stand firm in their ethnic identities?

A few of my friends in the United States fit that description.  And so do most of the one hundred Jews in Split, Croatia, according to a Jewish man I met in Split’s only surviving synagogue.  The survivors of World War II dismissed their parents’ religion.

West end of sanctuary, Split

“We gather mostly to eat dinner together,” said the man who called himself Albert to English speakers like me.  His eyes twinkled.  “We eat kosher lobster!  We get it straight from the fisherman, and he tells us which lobster is kosher.”

The Jewish community also dedicates itself to maintaining the synagogue, which was created in the 16th century out of the upper floors of two older stone houses inside the wall of Diocletian’s Palace.  The interior of the sanctuary was remodeled in 1728, and has been maintained that way.

During the past year, a rabbi has been coming down from Zagreb about once a month to lead a service.  The first service he led lasted three hours, Albert said.  “We were thinking 45 minutes.  People started to get up and leave.  Afterward I told him he could come back, but we had to have a shorter service.  He asked how long, and I said: 35 minutes.  He said he couldn’t lead a service in only 35 minutes.  I said okay, you can pray as long as you as you want to, but after 35 minutes we’ll go downstairs and have dinner.  He got the idea.”


I converted to Judaism 33 years ago, but I am still aware of the difference between being an ethnic Jew and being a Jew for the religion.  I can never have a Yiddish-speaking grandmother.  I will never acquire the Ashkenazi taste for herring, either pickled or in sour cream.  (I do not know what the traditional Jewish foods were for Croatians.  Not lobster!)  I will never know what it is like to grow up Jewish; I can only guess based on reports from my Jewish friends and memories of how as a child I was excluded and teased for other reasons.

I cannot be described as a “religious Jew” either, because in some ways I am not very observant, and my beliefs are idiosyncratic.  Yet I remain passionately engaged with the religion.  The longer I am away from the two Jewish communities I belong to in Oregon, the more I notice that I am a Jew and I can never be comfortable with any other religion.

When we visit old synagogues in Europe, I always take time to decipher the phrases written in Hebrew letters over the ark or on the wall.  (For my own Torah study I use the Masoretic text, which includes vowel markings (nikudim).  But the words on the walls are always painted or carved without vowels, like the writing in a Torah scroll, and like modern Hebrew in Israel.  I hope to get better at reading unvoweled Hebrew when we spend a month in Israel at the end of this winter.)

Ark on the east wall, Split

Each time I pronounce a phrase in Hebrew and then translate it to myself, my heart lifts, and I feel a surge of homecoming.

The Hebrew over the ark on the east wall of the only synagogue in Split is in Aramaic, but I managed to read it.

Du lifney mi atem omdim, “Know before whom you stand.”  (Talmud Bavli, Berakhot 28b)

It’s a tall order.  But as a Jew, as an adopted member of the children of Israel, I will keep striving to do so.

Vayechi: Serial Sobber, Part 2

January 8, 2020 at 11:32 am | Posted in Vayechi | Leave a comment

Joseph Dwells in Egypt,
by James J.J. Tissot

What kind of person is Joseph in the book of Genesis/Bereishit?  Does he forgive his ten older brothers for selling him as a slave, or does he fail to notice that they need to be pardoned?1  Does he set up his elaborate charade to test them, or to punish them?2  Why, once he has been elevated from prison slave to viceroy of Egypt, does he fail to let his father know he is alive and well?3

These questions are open to interpretation.  But one thing is clear: Joseph is often moved to tears.  He sobs eight times in the book of Genesis, more than any other character in the Torah.

When an adult sobs, it is often an emotional release triggered by some change in the sobber’s perception of circumstances.  Not every adult reacts with tears, but those who do can understand Joseph, who has to work to restrain himself in moments of high emotion.

I discussed the first five times Joseph breaks down and cries in my post Mikeitz & Vayiggash: Serial Sobber, Part 1.  He sobs once when he overhears his older brothers privately acknowledge their guilt for selling him, and realizes they have changed.   He sobs a second time when he first sees his little brother Benjamin after 21 years.  And he sobs three times after Judah, the leader of the ten older brothers, proves his character is completely transformed: once right after Judah speaks, once when he embraces Benjamin, and again when he embraces his older brothers.

But his tears are not exhausted.  Joseph sobs three more times in the last Torah portion of Genesis, Vayechi (“and he lived”).

Sixth sob

Joseph and Jacob Reunited,
by Owen Jones

After he has revealed his identity and wept upon the necks of all his brothers, Joseph invites them to move to Egypt along with their father, Jacob (also called Israel), and their whole extended family.  They arrive in Goshen, the area of the Nile delta that Joseph picked out for them, and Josephs rides his chariot there to greet his father.

And [Joseph] fell upon his neck, vayeivek upon his neck again and again.  And Israel said to Joseph: “This time I may die, after I have seen your face, that you are still alive.” (Genesis 46:29-30)

vayeivek (וַיֵּבְךְ) = and he sobbed, and he wept audibly.  (From the root verb bakahבָּכָּה, wept, shed tears.)

In last week’s Torah portion, when Joseph falls on Benjamin’s neck and weeps, Benjamin reciprocates.  Joseph is probably sobbing with joy over being reunited with his innocent younger brother, now that he can be himself instead of pretending to be an Egyptian.  Benjamin is probably sobbing with relief that the threatening Egyptian viceroy has turned into a long-lost brother who wishes him well.4

Joseph weeps on the necks of his other brothers because he finally accepts them as brothers rather than enemies.  They have passed his tests and proven they have become better men; and Joseph has reinterpreted their original crime as a necessary step toward a happy ending in Egypt.  His older brothers, however, do not weep along with Joseph; they are still too anxious.  But they are able to speak to him face to face.5

In this week’s portion, when Joseph weeps on the neck of his father, what change causes his emotional release?  In my post Vayeishev: What Drove Them Crazy, I argue that for years Joseph resented his father for making his ten older brothers hate him.

Jacob Blesses Joseph and Gives him the Coat, by Owen Jones

When he was an adolescent, Jacob not only showed blatant favoritism by giving Joseph alone a fancy new coat, but also regularly asked the boy to check up on his older brothers and report back.  The last time Jacob sent Joseph out to inform on his brothers, they threw him in a pit, discussed killing him, and sold him into slavery.  Joseph named his second son Menashe because he wanted to forget his whole family in Canaan, including his difficult father.6  So for 21 years he sent no message to Jacob, even after he was elevated to the position of viceroy.

Does Joseph discard his resentment now because the sight of his father reminds him of the good times in his childhood before things went south?  Or do his feelings suddenly change when he sees that his father, whom he used to obey as a dependent, is now merely the superannuated elder of a starving Canaanite family?  Joseph is the one in charge now, and he can enjoy being magnanimous to a father who is now dependent on him.  Maybe he weeps on Jacob’s neck with joy and relief that the tables have turned.

Jacob, on the other hand, stands there dry-eyed, even though he mourned over Joseph’s apparent death for 21 years.  I believe that seeing Joseph alive and well (not to mention rich and powerful) is a happy occasion for Jacob, but he is emotionally worn out.  He has no tears left.  Instead of feeling rejuvenated, Jacob declares that he can now die in peace.

At age 39, Joseph has the energy to sob with relief at the reversal in his relationship with his father.  His father, at age 130, is too exhausted to sob any more.

Seventh sob

Jacob lives for another 17 years.  Shortly before his death he includes Joseph’s first two sons in his inheritance; speaks to each of his own twelve sons; and requests burial in the cave of Machpelah in Canaan, next to his first wife (Leah), his parents, and his grandparents.

And Jacob finished giving orders to his sons, and he gathered up his feet into the bed, and he was gathered to his people.  Then Joseph fell on his father’s face, vayeivek upon him, and he kissed him.  (Genesis 49:33-50:1)

For the last seventeen years Joseph has been taking care of the old man, secure in his role as the provider rather than the vulnerable dependent.  This makes it easy for him to feel love toward Jacob and cry at his death.  He also knows that his own life will change now that he is no longer responsible for his father.

Jacob is Buried, by Owen Jones

And he may feel some lingering guilt over his earlier period of neglect.  The Torah says Joseph has his father embalmed according to the complete 40-day process.  The mourning period for Jacob lasts for 70 days—40 days during the embalming plus the traditional Israelite mourning period of 30 days.7

Next Joseph asks the pharaoh’s permission to bury Jacob in the cave of Machpelah in Canaan.  Pharaoh consents, and all twelve brothers accompany Jacob’s body to the burial place, along with an honor guard of Egyptian soldiers.

Why does Joseph arrange such a big display over Jacob’s death?  Maybe he sobbed when his father died because he suddenly realized it was too late to apologize or compensate Jacob for letting him suffer for so many years over the supposed death of his favorite son.

Final sob

All twelve brothers return to Egypt after Jacob’s burial.  Then the ten oldest ones worry that maybe Joseph refrained from taking revenge on them only because their father’s presence.  They send messengers to Joseph with instructions to tell him:

“Please pardon, please, the transgression of your brothers and their guilt, because they did evil to you.  And now pardon, please, the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.”  Vayeivek, Joseph, when they spoke to him.  (Genesis 50:17-18)

Joseph breaks into tears because he feels as if he took God’s point of view considering their crime, but now he learns that they still think of him as a potential avenger.  He probably feels hurt that they do not trust him.

And his brothers also went and fell down in front of him and said: “Here we are, your slaves.”    Then Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid, for am I instead of God?  And you, who designed evil against me; God redesigned it for good, in order to keep alive a large number of people to this day.”  (Genesis 50:19-20)

Then he goes a step farther than he had seventeen years before.

“So now don’t be afraid.  I will feed you and your little ones.”  And he comforted them and he spoke to their hearts.  (Genesis 50:21)

Even without explicit forgiveness, even though he insists on his role as benefactor, Joseph manages to reassure his brothers that they are safe in his hands.  But the they still do not weep.


A change that moves one person to tears may leave the other one dry-eyed.  Even when two people are both sobbing, they may have different reasons for their tears.

May we all be blessed with awareness and acceptance of the differences between ourselves and the people we are connected with.  If we cry, may we be blessed with tears of relief, and even joy.  And if tears do not come, may we find comfort when relationships change.

  1. See my posts Vayiggash & Vayechi: Forgiving? and Vayeishev & Mikeitz: A Narcissist in the Pit and Vayiggash: Near a Narcissist.
  2. See my post Mikeitz & Vayiggash: Testing.
  3. See my post Mikeitz: Forgetting a Father.
  4. See my post Mikeitz & Vayiggash: Serial Sobber, Part 1.
  5. 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 they can.
  6. Genesis 41:51.
  7. The Torah adds that the Egyptians wept with Joseph for 70 days (Genesis 50:3). Some traditional commentary claims that the Egyptians were honoring Jacob because the famine ended when he arrived in Egypt, only two years after it began instead of the seven years God had originally planned.  Yet the Torah describes Joseph impoverishing the Egyptians during the famine in three stages, each lasting at least a year.  So I think the Egyptians mourn for Jacob because Joseph, the viceroy, orders them to do it.


Repost: Vayiggash

January 1, 2020 at 2:30 pm | Posted in Mikeitz, Vayiggash | Leave a comment

I went back to my 2014 post on Joseph as a “Serial Sobber”, and I could not resist tearing it in two and rewriting both parts extensively.  You can read the first part here: Mikeitz & Vayiggash: Serial Sobber, Part 1.  I’ll post the second part next week, after I finish rewriting it.

Unlike Joseph, I am a person who  does not cry easily.  I only break into sobs once every five to ten years, when I have been trying and trying to accomplish something, and I finally realize I have to give up.

There are also times when another person touches my heart and I feel moved, like Joseph, but the closest I get to weeping then is a small tightening of my throat.

My throat tightened a bit this week when I was walking around Split, Croatia.  Most of the other folks on the streets are Croatians, since this is definitely the off season.  It dawned on me that only people under 30 looked happy.  The faces of most older Croatians are engraved with lines of grim endurance, broken only when someone says hvala, “thank you”, and flashes a quick smile.

And then I remembered: Croatia used to be part of Yugoslavia under the totalitarian dictatorship of Josip Tito.  After his death in 1980 the country deteriorated further, and then war began: first between Croats and Serbs, then between an independent Croatia and the splintering Yugoslavia.  Croatia’s secession and independence were finally secured in 1995.  The Croatian economy began to recover around 2000, and the country became a member of the EU in 2013.

View from Narodni Trg, a popular plaza in old Split (photo by M.C.)

Now Split has a prosperous tourist industry.  Sunshine and a warm seashore help, but so do all the ancient stone buildings that nobody could afford to raze and replace during the second half of the 20th century, when so many other cities lost their architectural treasures to the brutal aesthetic of the time.  Now, thanks to the segments of “Game of Thrones” filmed in Split, the old city is more attractive to tourists than ever.

The young adults look relaxed and happy here.  But when I consider the older adults who lived through the war in the 1990’s, and some even through the Tito years, my throat tightens.  I respect them just for carrying on.


Repost: Vayeishev & Mikeitz

December 20, 2019 at 1:46 am | Posted in Mikeitz, Vayeishev | Leave a comment

Inside the Pantheon, Rome

During four and a half whirlwind days in Rome we saw, among other things, the Pantheon, built 113-125 C.E.; St. Peter’s Basilica, built 1506-1612; and the Tempio Maggiore (Great Synagogue), built  1899-1904.  In some ways they all look alike: each is designed to enclose a large, impressive volume of space, horizontal as well as vertical; and the architecture is grand, with the circle, the square, and the Greek orders of columns and capitals repeated over and over again.  All three buildings project authority.

So I polished up my 2011 post on this week and next week’s Torah portions: Vayeishev & Mikeitz: Symbols of Authority.  The symbols of Judah’s and Joseph’s positions of authority include a cylinder seal and a signet ring, both used the way we use a signature to authorize a written order.  Judah also has his staff, as a clan leader.  And Joseph has his chariot, as the pharaoh’s second-in-command.


The architecture of sacred buildings can also include symbols of authority.  Roman Emperor Hadrian built the Pantheon as a temple for all the gods.  He had M•AGRIPPA•L•F•COS•TERTIUM•FECIT (“built by Marcus Agrippa in his third consulate”) carved on the front to glorify the ruler who erected the previous temple on that site.  As well as being a religious building, the Pantheon reinforced the authority of Rome’s government.

Cathedra, St. Peter’s

St. Peter’s is the pope’s church, in Vatican City.  Behind the central altar, where only the pope may serve mass, is the “cathedra”.  A cathedra is the seat or throne of a bishop in a cathedral, and the throne of the pope in St. Peter’s.  Originally when the pope announced a decision “ex cathedra” he sat in that throne to show that his word had ultimate authority.

The only true stained glass window I saw in St. Peter’s was the sunburst window in the wall above the cathedra, with a symbolic dove in the center representing the Holy Spirit.  It is the focal point of the church’s interior, drawing the eye to the relatively dark chair below.

The synagogue that Roman Jews built to celebrate their liberation from the ghetto has several good wooden chairs on the bima, the raised platform at the east end.  One is where the person holding the Torah scroll sits while the scrolls is dressed again in its cover, and its two crowns are put on.  The other chairs are traditionally used to honor important members of the community.

Ark, Great Synagogue

But the focal point, as in all synagogues, is the ark where the crowned Torah scrolls are stored in between readings.

These symbols put the text of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) in the position of the authority, rather than a person.  And any adult Jew (male, in this orthodox synagogue) can step up on the bima and lead the service.



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.

Repost: Toledot & Vayeitzei

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Satyr in “Bacchus” by Michelangelo, 1496-97

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


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

  1. “Ramban” is the acronym of 13th-century Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, a mystical Torah commentator from Girona, Spain. The Zohar is a kabbalistic work written by Moses de Leon in 13th-century Spain.  (See

Chayyei Sarah: Exposure

November 25, 2019 at 7:51 am | Posted in Chayyei Sarah | Leave a comment

“Florence,” I said when Will and I first began thinking about a long trip abroad.  “I want to see the two Davids.  And there’s enough other great art and architecture there to last us for a month.”

David by Donatello
(photo by M.C.)

I remember comparing the two Davids, two nude sculptures of young David at the time of his fight with Goliath,1 in an art history class almost 45 years ago.  Donatello cast one in bronze in the 1440’s; Michelangelo chipped one out of marble in 1502-04.  Now I have seen them!

Donatello’s nude David was the first freestanding nude male sculpture since the Roman era.  (Earlier he had made a fully clothed David in marble, now standing in the same room in the Bargello Museum.)  His bronze David wears only boots and a hat with a laurel wreath.  He stands on Goliath’s helmeted head, and he holds the sword he took from Goliath to cut off his head after he had killed him with a stone from his slingshot.  The sword looks too heavy for Donatello’s David, and his expression is calm and bemused.  In 1494 the statue was moved from a Medici palace to the public square in front of the city hall, where Michelangelo’s larger David already stood.

About 50 years later, Michelangelo carved his marble David, completely nude with his slingshot on one shoulder, preparing for the fight with Goliath.  Michelangelo gave him a tense, muscular body and a nervous but determined expression.

David by Michelangelo
(photo by M.C.)

This heroic sculpture was unveiled in front of Florence’s city hall in 1504.  It stood there until 1873, when the marble was beginning to crack, and the statue was brought indoors and replaced by an inferior copy.2

Souvenir shops all over Florence sell Michelangelo’s David memorabilia.  Many items feature close-ups of David’s crotch.  I noticed the decorative and symmetrical pubic hair when I saw the statue, but buying souvenirs of David’s genitals seems prurient to me.

Then I reread an essay I wrote nine years ago on this week’s Torah portion: Chayyei Sarah: Chayyei Sarah: A Peculiar Oath.  (You can click on the title to read it yourself.)   Abraham asks his steward to swear an oath while placing his hand under Abraham’s genitals, the most sacred object available.

What is this peculiar oath doing in the Torah?  It appears twice, both times in the book of Genesis/Bereishit.  The book of Exodus first prohibits stairs for an altar, so no one would see the priests’ “nakedness” as they ascend, and then decrees that all priests must wear underpants.3  Leviticus/Vayikra refers to incest by prohibiting “uncovering the nakedness” of various family members.4  Seeing the genitals is a dangerous thing.

Maybe attitudes toward full exposure change back and forth with the times.  Indecent exposure becomes decent, and vice versa.

Where are we now?

  1. I Samuel 17:23-51.

Vayeira: Stopped by an Angel

November 13, 2019 at 11:06 am | Posted in Vayeira | Leave a comment

I wrote this new post on the “akedah”, the binding and near-sacrifice of Isaac, because I keep thinking about two paintings I saw on the subject last week, one at the Archivio di Stato in Siena and one at the Uffizi in Florence.  How does one transform a brief and enigmatic written story into a painting?

Vincent van Gogh, 1885

The words

Abraham almost kills his son Isaac in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeira (“and he saw”).  God tells him to do it.

And after these events, God nissah Abraham.  And [God] said to him: “Abraham!”  And [Abraham] said: “Here I am.”  And [God] said: “Please take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and go for yourself to the land of the Moriyah, and bring him up there as a rising-offering on one of the hills that I will say to you.”  (Genesis/Bereishit 22:1-2)

nissah (נִסָּה) = tested, evaluated, assayed.

The phrase I translate here as “go for yourself” is lekh-lekha, which could also be translated as “get yourself going” or even as “go to yourself”.  (See my post Lekh-lekha & Vayeira: Going with the Voice.)  This week’s Torah portion gives the place-name Moriyah a folk etymology explaining that it means “the vision of God”.  (See my post Lekh-lekha & Vayeira: Hints of Jerusalem.)  A “rising-offering”, my literal translation of olah, is one that is completely burnt up into smoke.

The next sentence begins with Abraham getting out of bed; perhaps he heard God’s request in a dream.

And Abraham got up early in the morning and he saddled his donkey and he took two of his servants with him and his son Isaac and he split wood for the rising-offering and he stood up and he went to the place that God said.  (Genesis 22:3)

The Torah appears to list everything Abraham does between hearing God’s request and arriving at the hill in the land of Moriyah.  It does not say that he speaks to his wife Sarah, Isaac’s mother.  It does not say that he tells anyone where he is going, or why.  It does not say that he wonders why God, who promised him many descendants through Isaac, now tells him to kill Isaac even though the young man is still unmarried and childless.  It does not say that Abraham has any second thoughts, or any thoughts at all.

Maybe Abraham finds God’s request so incomprehensible that he is incapable of thought.  He can only go through the motions as if in a trance.

He does not know that God is testing him.

The journey from Beersheba to the designated hill takes three days.  When they arrive, Abraham leaves the two servants and the donkey at the bottom of the hill and walks to the top with Isaac, who is carrying the wood.  Abraham carries a fire-stone and a knife.

Then Isaac talked to his father, Abraham, and he said: “My father!”  And he said: “Here I am, my son.”  And [Isaac] said: “Here is the fire and the wood.  But where is the sheep for the rising-offering?”  And Abraham said: “God will see to the sheep for the rising-offering, my son.”  And the two of them walked on together. (Genesis 22:7-8) 

Next we see Abraham, who was already 100 years old when Isaac was born, building an altar.  (Altars in the book of Genesis are made out of big stones.)

Tintoretto, detail

And they came to the place that God said.  And Abraham built an altar there and he laid out the wood and he bound his son Isaac and he put him on the altar, on top of the wood.  And Abraham stretched out his hand and he took the knife to kill his son.  (Genesis 22:9-10)

Abraham, who argued with God earlier in this week’s Torah portion about destroying Sodom,1 still does not question God’s request that he use his own son as an animal offering.  He simply picks up the knife.

Then a malakh of God called to him from the heavens and said: “Abraham!  Abraham!”  And he answered: “Here I am”.  And [the malakh] said: “Don’t you stretch out your hand against the youth, and don’t you do harm to him!  Because now I know that you fear God; you have not withheld your son, your only one, from me.”  (Genesis 22:11-12)

malakh (מַלְאַ֤ךְ) = messenger, emissary.  (A messenger from God is often translated in English as “angel”.)

The text says the divine malakh speaks to him, not that it appears to him.  It has to call Abraham’s name twice before he pays attention.  Then the malakh delivers its message referring to God in the third person, then switching to the first person, as if God is talking directly to Abraham by the end of the speech.

All of these divine communications are auditory, not visual.  When Abraham looks up, he sees a ram in the bushes behind him, not a malakh.  Hearing the voice of a malakh is a far cry from seeing a burning bush, like Moses,2 or a crowd of six-winged serafim with faces, hands, and feet, like Isaiah.3

And Abraham raised his eyes, and he saw, and hey!  A ram, behind [him], caught in the thicket by its horns.  And Abraham went and took the ram and sent it up as a rising-offering instead of his son.  (Genesis 22:13)

Virgin and Child Enthroned with Angels, 1285, Uffizi

The pictures

The climax of the story is the moment when Isaac is on the altar, Abraham is holding the knife, and the angel stops him.  This is the scene that artists have depicted over the centuries, often with a ram in the lower background.  But a painting needs a visual representation of God’s malakh.

In medieval Europe, Christian artists conflated a malakh from God with Isaiah’s serafim, and started a tradition of humanoid angels with bird wings, as in this 1285 painting at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence:

Bible subjects were not supposed to be depicted realistically in the Middle Ages; their purpose was to stimulate awe and worship through symbolic images.  When the Renaissance began in Florence (circa 1380-1420) artists shifted their focus to realism and science, even in religious paintings.  Although the Renaissance spread all over Europe, the artists of Siena, a city south of Florence, stuck to the older tradition for another century.  Here is how Mariotto d’Andrea da Volterra painted the Sacrifice of Isaac in Siena in 1485:

Mariotto d’Andrea da Volterra, 1485, Archivio di Stato, Siena.  Photo by M. Carpenter

The angel in this miniature has bird wings, but they melt into the clouds, leaving a general impression of the sky as heaven.  It is more important that the angel’s clothing is diaphanous, in contrast to the opaque fabric that the fully-human Abraham wears.  Isaac is mostly nude with a diaphanous loincloth, ready for the transition from life in this world to life after death.  His discarded clothes lie on the ground to his right, and a ram grazes calmly to his left, but Isaac is prepared to leave the physical plane.

Although Isaac’s face looks pained, his hands are in a Christian prayer position, indicating his consent to the sacrifice.  He kneels on a sculpted marble altar that looks almost like a halo floating off the ground; the painter is not interested in depicting a realistic stone altar like the ones in Genesis.

Abraham is raising a sword, not a knife, implying that he is striking a blow in a metaphysical battle.  The angel reaches for it rather lackadaisically, while its right arm hangs limp; the mere presence of this manifestation of God’s power is enough to stop the action.

At the Uffizi Gallery in Florence I was arrested by a very different depiction of the same scene.  Tintoretto (a.k.a. Robusti Jacopo), a Venetian High Renaissance painter, created more than one version of the Sacrifice of Isaac.  Here is the one in the Uffizi, which he painted in 1550-55:

Tintoretto, 1550-55, Uffizi Gallery.  Photo by M. Carpenter.

The cascading composition creates dramatic interest rather than a contemplative mood.  Isaac looks as though he would fall off the woodpile if Abraham let go of his shoulder, and although he looks passive, he is not praying.  He half-sits on the woodpile, a more realistic indication of the altar than da Volterra’s floating marble oval.  But like da Volterra, Tintoretto omits the biblical detail that Isaac is bound.

The angel’s bird wings are mostly out of the picture, and appear solid, not at all like the clouds.  The angel and Isaac both wear white fabric wrappings that are as opaque as Abraham’s more colorful costume, bringing all three characters into the physical world, along with the bemused ram looking up from the bottom right.

Tintoretto shows Abraham holding a knife; it is not a symbol, but a real detail from the biblical story.  The angel stops him by lightly laying a hand on his arm, as a human being might do to get someone’s attention.  The focus of the painting is the glance between the angel and Abraham.  As their eyes meet, the angel’s expression is gently admonishing, while Abraham’s is stunned, not yet enlightened.

Tintoretto painted the climax of the story in terms of its emotional drama, employing realism, a  composition fraught with tension, and a choice of details that all emphasize Abraham’s human dilemma.  I am sure I am not the only viewer who has responded to this painting by imagining myself in Abraham’s place, and wondering what his choice means.

Da Volterra, on the other hand, took the medieval approach of turning a biblical scene into an object of worship.  He referred to the story by including its main elements, but he freely added details such as the sword and the floating marble oval to increase the symbolism.  His angel is as passive as the clouds around it, merely a symbol of God’s contact with the world.


Does either painting address the question of whether Abraham passed or failed God’s test?  Da Volterra’s version implies that Abraham is simply carrying out what God has ordained.  I think he must have taken the divine words “now I know that you fear God; you have not withheld your son, your only one, from me” as evidence that Abraham passed God’s test.  Abraham’s unselfish—and unquestioning—obedience was the right thing to do.

But for a Renaissance man like Tintoretto, and for me, the interpretation of the test results is not so easy.  Tintoretto’s painting leaves the question open.

And in the context of the whole Torah, in which God appears to enjoy arguing and bargaining with first Abraham4 and then Moses5 when lives are at stake, I think God wants Abraham to question the command to sacrifice his son.  I propose that God did not actually want him to kill Isaac; after all, God sent an angelic voice to stop him in time.  Since Abraham failed to do what God really wanted, he failed the test.  And that is why Abraham never heard God’s voice again.

  1. Genesis 18:23-33.
  2. Exodus 3:2.
  3. Isaiah 6:2-6.
  4. Genesis 18:23-33.
  5. Exodus 32:9-14, 33:12-17, and 34:8-10.

Repost: Lekh-lekha

November 6, 2019 at 8:22 am | Posted in Lekh Lekha | Leave a comment

“Lekh-lekha!” God says to Abraham at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, called Lekh-lekha.  The first word of this phrase, lekh (לֶךְ), is easy to translate; it means “go” in the imperative.  The second word, lekha (לְךָ), is more ambiguous.  The -kha suffix means “you”, “your”, or “yourself”.  The preposition at the beginning of the word, לְ, could correspond to either “to” or “for” in English.

Certainly God is urging Abraham, who has lingered for years in Charan, to go to a new land now.  Adding lekha might make the request more urgent; God might be saying “You!  Go!” or “Get yourself going!”

But commentators through the ages have pointed out that God might also be saying “Go for yourself!”  In other words, Abraham should uproot himself from Charan and go to Canaan for his own sake.  Or God might be saying “Go to yourself!”  In other words, Abraham should look inside himself and see that going away is part of his nature.


Tempio Maggiore

We had many reasons, my husband and I, to uproot ourselves from our familiar and comfortable life in Oregon and fly to Europe and eventually Israel for a new adventure.  Here on the other side of the globe we have had many new experiences, some of them delightful.  But the day we visited Tempio Maggiore, the Great Synagogue of Florence, was so disconcerting I still feel uprooted.

The synagogue itself is a majestic Neo-Moorish building constructed 1874-1882, after Jews in Florence were given full citizenship and the old ghetto was razed and turned into a large public square.

In the same block as the Great Synagogue we found a now-defunct Chabad house; Ruth’s, the best kosher restaurant I’ve eaten at on two continents; and soldiers in berets and “camouflage” uniforms.   (At least that’s what uniforms of patchy green, brown, and khaki are called, though they really stand out in a street of gray stone and stucco.)  These soldiers were carrying sub-machine guns.

View from Ruth’s

A building labeled “Carabinieri” was in the next block.  But there were no carabinieri posted at the entrances to this military police station.  Instead, they were walking slowly up and down the block in front of the synagogue.  Protecting Jews.  Protecting us.

I know that anti-Semetism has increased lately in the United States, and in a few cities people have opened fire on Jews in synagogues.  I understand why even in Portland, Oregon, there are now police guards at the front doors buildings where Jews are arriving in droves for  Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  I understand why we had to show our ID at the door to enter a synagogue in Prague for Yom Kippur.

But I was not psychologically prepared for sub-machine guns.

Some people probably feel safer thanks to these well-armed carabinieri.  But I felt less safe.  I felt as if I had stepped into a war zone without knowing it.  Am I more at risk than all the other Americans touring Florence just because I am a Jew and I eat at a kosher restaurant?

Maybe I am.  Can I accept it?  What about when we reach Israel, and we see a lot more guards carrying sub-machine guns?

Lekh-lekha!  Go for yourself!”  I expected this journey to benefit me personally, broadening my horizons and knowledge.  And it has.

Lekh-lekha!  Go to yourself!”  I did not expect this journey to open an uncomfortable cranny of my own psychology.  But it has, most notably at Terezin, and now in Florence.


Click here for my 2011 post on this week’s Torah portion:  Lekh-Lekha & Vayeira: Going with the Voice.

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