Tags: Bereishit, forgiveness, free will, Genesis, God, torah portion
The story of Joseph and his brothers reaches a turning point in this week’s Torah portion, Vayiggash (And he stepped forward). When Joseph is 17, his ten older brothers catch him far from home, throw him into a pit, and sell him as a slave. He pleads with them, but he is powerless to stop them.
Now, at age 39, Joseph is a viceroy of Egypt, and his brothers must come to him to buy grain during a regional famine. He recognizes them, but they do not recognize him. Now Joseph has all the power; he can forgive his older brothers, or he can have them executed. He decides to postpone his decision until he has tested them. (See my last blog post, Mikeitz: Shock Therapy)
First Joseph commands them to bring back the youngest of their father Jacob’s twelve sons, Benjamin. They do so only after a second year of famine, knowing that otherwise the viceroy will not sell them more grain.
Joseph hides his tears at the sight of his grown-up baby brother. But he still proceeds with the test, planting a silver divination goblet in the innocent Benjamin’s pack. When all eleven brothers start back toward Canaan, Joseph sends his steward after them to accuse them of theft.
The steward says that the one who has the goblet will become the viceroy’s slave, but the rest will be free to go. This is Joseph’s test. Will the ten older brothers abandon Benjamin to slavery in Egypt, just as they did to Joseph? Or have they changed?
The brothers respond by tearing their clothes in grief, then returning to the viceroy’s house together.
This week’s Torah portion opens with Judah stepping forward and telling the story of the test from his own point of view. He emphasizes that their father, Jacob, would die of grief if Benjamin did not return. He concludes:
And now, please let your servant stay, instead of the youth, as a slave to my lord; and let the youth go up with his brothers. For how can I go up to my father if the youth is not there with us? Otherwise I would see the evil that would befall my father! (Genesis 44:33-34)
Judah passes Joseph’s test with flying colors, proving that he would rather become a slave himself than mistreat his brother or his father. As modern commentator Karen Armstrong wrote, “Judah had been able to accept the painful truth that had torn siblings apart since the time of Cain: that love is unfair … His own suffering had enabled him to enter the inner world of the father who had wronged him.” (Karen Armstrong, In the Beginning, pp. 109-110)
Joseph feels that all ten older brothers have passed the test, and he is overcome with emotion.
Then Joseph was not able to contain himself in front of all those standing attendance on him, so he called out: Remove all the men around me! So not a man stood with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. Then he let his voice rise in weeping, and the Egyptians heard, and the household of Pharaoh heard. And Joseph said to his brothers: I am Joseph. Is my father still alive? But his brothers were not able to answer him, because nivhalu before him. (Genesis 45:1-3)
nivhalu = they were terrified; they were dumbfounded and alarmed. (This verb is sometimes translated “they were dismayed” or “they were disconcerted”, but the Hebrew Bible usually uses the word for more extreme emotions. I think an inability to speak also indicates an extreme emotional reaction!)
Why are the brothers terrified? I believe the shock of discovering that the Egyptian viceroy is Joseph brings home the truth. Until this moment, they felt justified in getting rid of Joseph, who at age 17 was a conceited tattletale and seemed to be turning their father against them. They only felt guilty later for their lack of compassion while they were doing it.
Now they realize they did not succeed in getting rid of Joseph. Nor did they succeed in winning the love of their father; Jacob merely transferred his favoritism to Benjamin and continued to grieve over Joseph’s apparent death. But they did do wrong, to both their brother and their father. They are criminals. And before them stands Joseph, viceroy of Egypt, who can order their execution.
While they are still speechless, Joseph talks.
I am Joseph, your brother whom you sold into Egypt. But now, don’t worry and don’t get angry at yourselves because you sold me here. For God sent me before you, to preserve life. Because this is the second year of famine in the midst of the land, and for five more years there will be no plowing or harvesting…So now, you did not send me here, but God, who has appointed me as av to Pharaoh and master of all his household and ruler over all the land of Egypt. (Genesis 45:4-8)
av = father (often translated as “advisor” in this verse).
Some commentators say that Joseph is now humble. They claim that Joseph is modestly giving credit to God instead of himself. But I think he is still a braggart, pointing out that he has risen from being their father Jacob’s favorite to Pharaoh’s favorite to God’s favorite.
Furthermore, when he excuses his brothers’ crime by saying that God arranged it, Joseph shows that he does not respect them as adult human beings. If they are not responsible for their own actions, they are incapable of free choice; they are less than human. Personally, I would rather admit a crime and apologize for it, than be silenced because my victim insists I had no freedom of choice.
Joseph’s flood of words continues as he urges his brothers to hurry home and bring their father and their own families and flocks down to Egypt, so he can take care of them all by settling them in the region of Goshen.
And I will sustain you there, because there are still five years of famine left, lest you become impoverished, you and your household and all that is yours. (Genesis 45:11)
Joseph clearly enjoys being a “father” to his own family, as well as to the Pharaoh of Egypt. He is in charge, and his brothers would starve without him.
Once he has reduced his brothers to an infantile status, Joseph embraces Benjamin and weeps, and then kisses each of his other brothers and weeps. And after that, his brothers spoke with him. (Genesis 45:15)
The Torah does not record what they said. But we know that there is no true reconciliation, because in next week’s Torah portion, the brothers are still worried that Joseph hates them and will turn on them.
I can understand why Joseph’s brothers do not feel safe. According to Joseph’s new philosophy, anyone might become a puppet in God’s hands, deprived of free will. Even if they do not remember the free choice God gave to Adam (a name that also means “humankind”) in the story of the Garden of Eden, the brothers might instinctively shrink from Joseph’s philosophy—as I do.
But if humans do have a measure of free will, then Joseph, too, is responsible for his own choices. He is offering to sustain them now, but for all they know, he is reserving the option of punishing them later. They know he does not respect them. He might forgive them anyway, but so far, he has not pardoned them; he has not said he forgives them. I suspect Joseph’s brothers still feel a shadow of their initial terror when the viceroy said: I am Joseph.
A world in which we are responsible for our own decisions is a world in which forgiveness matters.
Does Joseph ever forgive his brothers? Do they ever know that he has forgiven them? I will address these questions in next week’s post, Vayechi: Asking for Forgiveness.
Tags: Bereishit, denial, forgiveness, Genesis, torah portion
A deep injury always leaves a scar. You can create a new life, a new identity, but you cannot erase your scars.
Joseph was born into a dysfunctional family. His father, Jacob, loved only one of his four wives. After Rachel died, he loved only her two sons: Joseph and his newborn brother Benjamin. Jacob’s other ten sons were naturally jealous. And their father made it worse: not only by giving Joseph a fancy tunic, but also by asking Joseph to report on his brothers.
Joseph also made his older brothers hate him. His reports on them were not good. And at age 17, he was so naïve that he told them his two prophetic dreams. In one dream, his brothers’ eleven sheaves of grain bowed down to his sheaf; in the other, eleven stars bowed down to him. (See my blog post “Vayeishev: A Difficult Youth”.) **LINK** Yet Joseph, mourning for his mother, loved only by his father, must have wanted acceptance and approval from his ten older brothers. Unfortunately they concluded that he was their enemy.
They took the flocks all the way to Dotan, but Joseph came after them even there. So they threw him into a pit. Then they debated, over lunch, whether to kill him. After they had eaten, they sold him to a passing caravan, and Joseph began his new life as a slave in Egypt.
Blessed with intelligence, good looks, and the resilience of youth, Joseph builds a new identity in Egypt. At age 30, in this week’s Torah portion, Mikeitz (In the end), he becomes a viceroy of Egypt, second only to the Pharaoh. Like most people with a traumatic past, he wants to forget everything and concentrate on his new job, his new family, his new country.
When Joseph names his first son, he says: God made me forget all my hardship and all the household of my father. (Genesis/Bereishit 41:51)
He can forget, or repress, his past, but he cannot erase it. As viceroy, Joseph stockpiles grain in Egypt for seven years to prepare for the coming seven years of regional famine. After the first year of famine, Joseph’s ten older brothers show up in Egypt.
And the brothers of Joseph came, and they bowed down to him, noses to the ground. And Joseph saw his brothers, and he recognized them. But he made himself unrecognizable; and he spoke to them with difficulty, and he said to them: From where did you come? And they said: From the land of Canaan, to buy food. (Genesis 42:6-7)
Joseph’s older brothers were already adults when they sold him, so they do not look very different. But Joseph has grown a beard and a deep voice. He speaks fluent Egyptian, wears upper-class Egyptian clothing, and goes by an Egyptian name. Besides finding it difficult to speak to his old nemeses, he might be feigning difficulty in putting together a simple question in Hebrew. This may be the point where he starts using the interpreter mentioned later in this week’s Torah portion.
And Joseph remembered the dreams that he had dreamed of them, and he said to them: You are spies! You came to see the nakedness of the land! (Genesis 42:9)
Seeing his brothers bow down before him, Joseph remembers his two dreams, and then his repressed trauma starts to come back. When he accuses his brothers of being spies, come to see the nakedness of the land, his overt meaning is that they plan to spy out the exposed and vulnerable places of Egypt. But I think Joseph is also remembering his own nakedness, when his brothers stripped off his tunic before selling him, and when he started life in Egypt as a slave working naked in the field. (See Vayeishev: Stripped Naked.) *LINK* Now his hateful brothers cannot see him naked; he is wearing the clothes of a viceroy, and they are at his mercy.
The brothers protest: We are keinim! Your servants are not spies. (Genesis 42:11)
keinim = honest, upright, ethical
They explain that they traveled to Egypt together because they are brothers, and they gratuitously add: Your servants are twelve brothers; we are the sons of one man in the land of Canaan. And the youngest is with our father now, and the other one—he is not. (Genesis 42:13)
At this point Joseph remembers his innocent baby brother Benjamin, his mother Rachel’s only other child. His ten half-brothers were the opposite of keinim with him. What if they turn against Benjamin next?
So Joseph says: In this you will be tested. By Pharaoh’s life, you will not get out of this unless your youngest brother comes here. (Genesis 42:15)
Then he imprisons his older brothers for three days. During these three days, Joseph no doubt remembers the pain he felt when the brothers whose approval he sought turned into callous and murderous enemies, the pain he repressed during his past 21 years in Egypt. Yet instead of having all ten men executed, he decides to give them a genuine test, to see whether they can change. He only tells them about the first part of the test.
And Joseph said to them on the third day: Do this, and you will live …If you are keinim, one of your brothers will be imprisoned in the house where you were under guard, and you will go and bring grain for the hunger in your households. Then you shall bring to me your youngest brother, and then your words will be proved reliable, and you will not die. (Genesis 42:19-20)
Meanwhile, the ten brothers have spent their three days in prison reviewing their own past. Apparently they still believe they had to get rid of Joseph to save themselves, and that they had to trick their father into believing his favorite son was dead. But they do recognize one thing they did wrong, while Joseph was in the pit and when they were selling him.
And they said, each man to his brother: Truly we are guilty concerning our brother, that we saw the anguish of his soul when he pleaded with us for compassion, and we did not listen. Therefore this distress has come [to us]. (Genesis 42:21)
And they did not know that Joseph was listening, because of the interpreter between them. Then he turned around, away from them, and he wept. And he turned back to them and spoke to them… (Genesis 42:23-24)
Why does Joseph weep? I think that as soon as the ten brothers admit they were wrong to treat him without compassion, Joseph suddenly sees them as fellow human beings—human beings who now depend on him for their lives. Already shaken by the return of his past trauma, his heart cracks for a moment with compassion for them.
When Joseph is young, he sees his older brothers as important human beings, and yearns for their affection and approval. Joseph is shocked when his brothers sell him like a sack of flour, and for the next 21 years he refuses to think about them—but his subconscious still sees them as heartless, inhuman criminals. Although he is moved to compassion for a moment, he still needs to test them before he can forgive them.
When I was young, I yearned for respect and approval from my parents. I was angry when they failed to understand who I was, or trust what I said. It took me many years to accept who they were, and let go of that anger. But I did it without testing them, or confronting them, because I felt it would only make things worse.
Does Joseph’s testing enable him to let go of his anger? Does he forgive his brothers? Do they become reconciled?
Those questions remain for next week’s blog post, “Vayiggash: Forgiveness Without Respect”.
Tags: Bereishit, clothing, Genesis, torah portion
What does it mean to be stripped and exposed in public with no clothes? Joseph finds out—twice—in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev (And he stayed).
When Joseph is growing up, his father, Jacob, treats him as superior to all ten of his older brothers. Naturally his brothers are jealous. They also hate Joseph because he tells them his two dreams, both of which predict his brothers will bow down to him.
One sign of Jacob’s favoritism is a special garment he gives only to Joseph.
…and he made for him a ketonet passim. And his brothers saw that it was he their father loved most out of all his brothers, so they hated him, and they were not able to speak to him with peace. (Genesis/Bereishit 37:3-4)
ketonet = a long tunic
passim = ? (Newer translations include “ornamented” and “long-sleeved”. Pas = palm of hand (or sole of foot). A garment with sleeves below the wrist would be impractical for physical labor, and therefore a sign of high rank.)
The King James Bible translated ketonet passim, inaccurately, as a “coat of many colors”. I wonder if the translators chose the word “coat” in order to imply that Jacob is fully dressed underneath the garment his brothers strip off. But a coat or cloak would be a simlah or me-iyl in biblical Hebrew, not a ketonet. And as far as we know, nothing was worn under a ketonet.
Jacob sends Joseph to check up on his brothers, who are pasturing the family flocks far away in Dotan. Although he knows his brothers could not speak to him in peace (Genesis 37:4), Joseph cannot imagine that as they watch him approach, they are debating whether to kill him.
And so it was, when Joseph came to his brothers, then they stripped off Joseph his ketonet, the ketonet of the passim, which was on him. And they took him and threw him down into the pit; and the pit was empty, there was no water in it. (Genesis 37:23-24)
The brothers decide to sell Joseph as a slave instead of killing him. They have no trouble selling him to a passing caravan; at the bottom of an empty cistern, naked and far from home, Joseph could be anyone. When the traveling merchants reach Egypt, they resell Joseph to the Pharaoh’s chief butcher, Potifar.
What if you found yourself in a foreign country with no clothes, money, or identification, being handed over to your new owner? Would you scream that it was a mistake, and keep trying to explain who you are?
At age 17, Joseph accepts his new situation with remarkable equanimity. He sees that without his father’s ketonet and his father’s favor, he has no identity. Naked, he has only the blessings God gave him at birth: brains and beauty. So he applies his intelligence to his new situation and makes the best of it.
God was with him and he became a man of success, and it happened in the house of his master, the Egyptian. (Genesis 39:2)
Joseph’s master, Potifar, promotes him from field slave to steward of his entire household. Egyptian field slaves worked naked, but a steward would wear a linen kilt called a shenti or shendyt.
Once Joseph is nicely dressed, his beauty attracts Potiphar’s wife. She propositions him day after day, but Joseph refuses her on the grounds that it would be unfair to his master and an offense against God.
A less mature young man would assume his elevation to steward was entirely due to his own cleverness and hard work. But Joseph’s reply to Potifar’s wife shows that he knows he would still be naked in the field without the goodwill of his human and divine masters.
Then it happened one day, he came into the house to do his work, and none of the men of the house were there inside the house. And she seized him by his beged, saying: Lie with me! But he left his beged in her hand, and he fled and he went outside. (Genesis 39:11-12)
beged = garment (of any kind), clothing, cloth covering; treachery
Joseph’s wrap-around kilt would be tied in front, and if the knot came loose—or were pulled loose by a lustful woman—the garment would fall off onto the floor.
What does an Egyptian wear under his kilt? In the time of the Middle Kingdom, an Egyptian nobleman wore a sheer linen shendyt and a short under-skirt. But Joseph would wear coarse linen and nothing underneath. When he flees and goes outside, he is naked.
Potifar’s wife is afraid that other servants will see Joseph naked, and find Joseph’s garment in her room. To avoid being accused of adultery, she screams, and then accuses Joseph of imposing himself on her. As a result, Joseph finds himself back in a pit: Potifar sends him to prison.
Once again, Joseph has been stripped of his clothing and his public identity, due to the treachery of someone he never suspected would go that far.
Joseph continues to use his brains in prison, and God continues to bless him with success. He becomes the chief jailer’s steward. After two years, Joseph is given an opportunity to interpret the Pharaoh’s dreams, and he succeeds at this, too. Pharaoh elevates him to viceroy of Egypt, and Joseph wears a gold ring and the finest sheer linen. This time he keeps his public identity, along with his clothes.
Today, clothing still gives people visible status and identity. We treat a man wearing a suit and tie differently from one wearing a torn sweatshirt. And even today, we might lose our social identities at any time, no matter how wonderful our innate qualities are.
But we increase the odds of keeping our public identities when we treat other people not as clothes hangers, but as human beings with their own feelings and desires. We do better if we are grateful to the Potifars in our lives, and extremely cautious with the jealous brothers and philandering wives.
We are all naked under our clothes. May we all become humble enough, like Joseph, to learn from the times we are exposed, and reinvent our lives for the better.
Tags: Bereishit, Genesis, Jacob and Esau, torah portion
Jacob and his uncle part for good after twenty years of devious power plays, when Jacob finally comes out on top with a family and wealth of his own. They mark the spot of their separation on Mount Gilead with a mound of stones, and Jacob heads down toward Canaan.
Now that he is free from his uncle Lavan, the first thing Jacob does, at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach (And he sent), is to send a message to his twin brother Esau.
And Jacob sent messengers lefanav to Esau, his brother, to the land of Sei-ir, the field of Edom. (Genesis/Bereishit 32:4)
lefanav = before himself, in front of himself; literally, “to his face”
Jacob anticipates meeting Esau face to face. He sends messengers “before himself” in order to prepare both Esau and himself for this meeting—and thus precipitates it.
Why is he in such a hurry to meet Esau? I looked up Jacob’s route into Canaan, which crosses the Jabbok and Jordan rivers, north of the Dead Sea; it goes nowhere near Esau’s territory. The hills of Sei-ir, where Esau has settled, are south of the Dead Sea, at least 90 miles away in a straight line, a two- or three-week march on foot. Jacob could easily travel to Canaan and settle down in a new home before Esau could discover his movements and come to meet him.
Moreover, Jacob fled to his uncle’s house twenty years before because his brother was threatening to kill him. Esau was enraged because Jacob had used trickery to take both Esau’s birthright (his inheritance as the firstborn) and their father’s first blessing.
Jacob fled to his uncle in Charan, and spent twenty years there accumulating wives, children, servants, and livestock. Although his mother, Rebecca, had promised to send for him when Esau’s anger cooled, the Torah does not report any messenger arriving in Charan.
Why is Jacob now so eager to meet Esau that he sends him advance notice? As far as Jacob knows, Esau still hates him. On the other hand, once when Esau was famished he willingly traded his birthright for a bowl of stew. Would such an impulsive man nurse a grudge for twenty years?
Jacob may feel so guilty about the way he cheated his brother that he cannot bear to go any longer without a resolution. On the other hand, he may feel his actions were justified, and now he just wants to deal with his remaining potential enemy before he settles down to a new life. Either way, if he resolves his relationship with Esau before he crosses the Jordan, he can come home to Canaan free of enemies, internal or external. So he dispatches messengers to Sei-ir.
He commanded them, saying: Thus you shall say to my lord, to Esau: Thus said your servant Jacob: I have sojourned with Lavan, va-eichar until now. And I have ox and donkey, flock and servant and maidservant, and I am sending to tell my lord, to find favor in your eyes. (Genesis 32:5-6)
va-eichar = and I delayed, and I hesitated, and I lingered
Jacob gives Esau selected information about himself, without mentioning the past, or even his new family. Then he waits for his messengers to return with news of Esau’s reaction.
Why does Jacob say he delayed in Charan? According to 17th century Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno, Jacob is explaining why he did not come to pay his respects to Esau sooner. Why does he mention his livestock and servants? Maybe he wants Esau to know that he no longer needs the inheritance of the firstborn.
And the messengers returned to Jacob saying: We came to your brother, to Esau, and moreover he is on his way to call on you, and four hundred men are with him. Jacob became very frightened and anxious. (Genesis 32:7-8)
We can only imagine how Esau feels. Does he still hate Jacob for cheating him twice? Or is he afraid Jacob might take advantage of him again? Does he view Jacob’s message as a challenge dressed up in polite language?
Here is one way Esau might interpret his brother’s careful message:
Thus said your servant Jacob—“Ah, he’s using the standard polite formula, instead of treating me like a brother.”
I have sojourned with Lavan—“He’s been staying all this time with our mother’s brother? I suppose Lavan adores him, just like Mother always did. And Lavan probably taught him some new tricks.”
va-eichar until now—“Sure, he lingered. Why would he want to see me again? Or our poor father?”
And I have ox and donkey, flock and servant and maidservant—“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 servants 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! I may be a few minutes older, but we both know he mastered me, long ago. I wonder if he only wants my favor so he’ll be safe ignoring me. Or is he trying to pacify me before he springs on me? Well, what Jacob doesn’t know is that I actually am a lord in Sei-ir now, with four hundred men at my command. 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.”
Esau’s reactions to Jacob’s careful message are not recorded in the Torah. But he does march north immediately with four hundred men.
Jacob never was good predicting other people’s feelings. If he could have imagined Esau’s response, he might have sent a different kind of message. What if Jacob had called Esau not just “my lord”, but “older brother”? What if he had said he wanted to see his brother again so he could make an apology? I doubt Esau would have mustered his four hundred armed men then. But Jacob was so cautious, he did not say enough.
When I am afraid of someone, I become careful about what I say to that person. If I think a confrontation is unavoidable, I censor my speech so much that I probably leave a false impression, like Jacob.
I pray that in the future, if I am afraid of someone, I will be careful in a different way. I want to be careful to consider what the other person might be feeling, and then risk saying too much, if it lets me address the real issue between two human beings.
You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you might get what you need for a satisfying life.
From the moment Jacob meets his beautiful cousin Rachel in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei (And he went), he wants to marry her. He and his uncle Lavan agree on a bride-price: seven years of free labor. But on the wedding night seven years later, Lavan switches brides, and Jacob wakes up to find himself married to Rachel’s older sister, Leah. A week later Lavan gives him Rachel as his second wife—after he promises to work another seven years.
Jacob only wanted Rachel, but he pragmatically accepts Leah and double the number of years of servitude. What else can he do, when he is far from home and Lavan rules the household?
The two sisters are not happy with this arrangement. Rachel knows Jacob is in love with her, but she longs for children. Leah bears Jacob’s children, but she longs for his love. Each woman envies the other.
When Leah names her first three sons, she explains each name in terms of her yearning for Jacob’s affection. She finally gives up hoping for her husband’s love when she has her fourth son.
And she conceived again, and she bore a son, and she said: This time I will praise God. Therefore she called his name Yehudah. Then she stopped giving birth. (Genesis/Bereishit 29:35)
Yehudah = Yah = God + odeh = I praise (Judah in English).
Why does Leah stop getting pregnant? Not because of menopause; later in the story she bears three more children. Not because she thinks four sons are enough; she soon arranges for her servant Zilpah to marry Jacob so she can adopt Zilpah’s babies.
The reason is that Jacob stops coming to her bed, because Rachel makes him stay away. The Torah confirms this when Leah’s oldest son brings her fertility herbs, and Rachel asks for some. Leah protests:
Is it such a trifle to take away my husband? And now to take also my son’s duda-im! (Genesis/Bereishit 30:15)
duda-im = an unknown plant believed to increase fertility. The word sounds like dodim = lovemaking.
Apparently after Jacob gave Leah four children, Rachel was fed up and insisted on exclusive conjugal rights. Her next demand on Jacob got a different reaction.
And Rachel saw that she had not borne a child for Jacob, and Rachel was envious of her sister. And she said to Jacob: Give me sons! For if not, I am dead! (Genesis 30:1)
Most commentary takes Rachel’s exclamation seriously. After all, one subtext in much of the Hebrew Bible is that a woman’s purpose in life is motherhood. But I doubt that Rachel really wants to die if she cannot have sons. I think she is merely carried away with her own emotional drama.
Jacob has heard life-or-death language before; it runs in the family. In last week’s Torah portion, Jacob’s brother Esau comes home famished and Jacob offers him lentil stew in exchange for his birthright. Esau says: Hey, I am going to die, so why do I need a birthright? (Genesis 25:32). Their mother, Rebecca, says: If Jacob takes a wife from the women of Cheit like these … why should I live? (Genesis 27:46)
When Rachel makes a similarly dramatic announcement, Jacob snaps.
Then Jacob’s anger flared up against Rachel, and he said: Am I instead of God, who withheld from you the fruit of the womb? (Genesis 30:2)
Rachel’s demand is indeed irrational. Jacob can “come in” to her, but he has no power to make her fertile. Traditional commentary faults Jacob for being unsympathetic. But I wonder if Jacob’s cold anger is just what Rachel needs to stop and face reality. It seems to work, because in the next verse Rachel decides on adoption.
Then she said: Here is my servant Bilhah. Come in to her, and she will bear a child upon my knees, and through her I, too, will be built up. (Genesis 30:3)
Placing a newborn upon one’s knees was the usual ritual of adoption in the ancient Middle East. Bilhah has two children, and Rachel adopts both of them. Then Leah gives Jacob her own female servant, Zilpah, and adopts Zilpah’s two sons.
Now Jacob has four wives, Leah has six children, and Rachel has two—as well as Jacob’s continued devotion. But she still wants sons from her own body.
When Rachel asks for the duda-im and Leah complains, Is it such a trifle to take away my husband? Rachel decides to compromise.
Then Rachel said: All right, he will lie down with you tonight in exchange for your son’s duda-im. (Genesis 30:14-15)
Rachel now accepts that she cannot get everything she wants. She decides that bearing a child from her own body is more important than denying her sister sex. So she lets Jacob sleep with Leah in exchange for the fertility drug. And Jacob does what he is told.
Leah has no illusions that her husband will fall in love with her. She knows she cannot get everything she wants, but she settles for sex and children, which are both rewarding for her.
Rachel eventually does become pregnant, and gives birth to Joseph. But she is greedy; when she names Joseph, she says she wants another pregnancy. She gets it, in next week’s Torah portion, and she dies in childbirth. Jacob, who only wanted Rachel in the first place, mourns her and complains about her death for the rest of his life.
The only one of these three characters who achieves a long life of contentment is Leah, who learns when to strive, and when to be grateful for what she has.
In our modern western society, adults have more autonomy than in the Torah; if a father-figure or boss like Lavan tricks us, we can sue him. Yet we still can’t get everything we want; we still have to make choices, and think of alternatives.
Yet I believe we can all get at least part of what we want, like Leah, Rachel, and Jacob. I think the keys are to be realistic, to be grateful when you do get something you want, and to keep looking for new paths to a satisfying life.
May we all make good choices, and learn how to find contentment.
Tags: blessing, Esau, Genesis, God of Abraham, torah portion
For most of my life, the closest I came to giving or receiving a blessing was “Good luck!” When I converted to Judaism, I learned how to bless God as a way to express my appreciation for food and other good things in life. But the idea blessing another person never occurred to me.
Yes, I had read about Isaac blessing his sons in this week’s Torah portion, Toledot (“Lineages”). I gathered that giving a blessing means both stating the good outcomes you want for another person, and calling on (or praying to) God to make your words come true. But I did not believe that the actual words mattered, or that a formal blessing would be any more effective than “Good luck!” I felt sorry for Isaac and his family for taking the blessing business so seriously. I was 48 before I discovered Jewish Renewal and the potential power of blessing.
What makes a blessing a living force instead of a formality?
The blessings in the book of Genesis/Bereishit use formal poetic language. Even when they are personal blessings, they focus material prosperity, fertility, and/or victory over enemies, and use customary phrases. For example, Rebecca’s mother and brother bless her as she leaves home to get married, saying: Our sister, may you become a thousand multitudes, and may your descendants take possession of their enemies’ gate. (Genesis/Bereishit 25:60)
Another kind of blessing in Genesis is “the blessing of Abraham”, a phrase the Torah uses to refer both to God’s promise that Abraham’s descendants will possess the land of Canaan, and to the first blessing God gives Abraham:
I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you and I will make your name great, and you will become a blessing. And I will bless those who bless you, and those who curse you I will curse. And all the clans of the earth will find blessing through you. (Genesis 12:2-3)
In this week’s Torah portion, Isaac decides to give a blessing to Esau, the firstborn of his twin sons. The Torah does not say whether Isaac is planning to give Esau his personal blessing, or the blessing of Abraham, but it does say what part of himself Isaac hopes will deliver the blessing.
He said: I have grown old, and I do not know the day of my death. So now, please pick up your gear, your quiver and your bow, and go out to the field and hunt game for me. Then make me tasty tidbits, the kind that I love, and bring them to me, and I will eat, so that my nefesh may bless you before I die. (Genesis/Bereishit 27:2-4)
nefesh = animating soul; seat of appetite, desire, yearning, instinct; person
Isaac wants the blessing to come from his nefesh, his instinctual self, without any interference from his conscious mind. Isaac loves Esau more than his other son, Jacob. But he wants his blessing to express the will of God as it moves through him, not his own conscious will.
When Isaac’s wife, Rebecca, overhears him, she assumes he intends to give Esau the blessing of Abraham. She panics, not only because she loves Jacob more, but also because she knows that Jacob is the one who will carry on the worship of the God of Abraham.
Apparently Rebecca and Isaac are having communication problems, because she does not march into Isaac’s tent and straighten him out. Instead, she says to Jacob:
Hey, I heard your father speaking to your brother Esau, saying: Bring game to me and make me tasty tidbits, and I will eat them, and I will bless you lifnei God, before my death. (Genesis 27:6-7)
lifnei = in the presence of, before
Rebecca interprets Isaac’s reference to blessing with his nefesh as blessing “in the presence of God”, and she associates this with God’s blessing of Abraham.
She quickly cooks some tasty tidbits from goat meat, and orders Jacob to bring them to his father. Jacob protests that he is not a hairy man, like his brother, so his blind father will know he is not Esau as soon as he touches him. So Rebecca disguises Jacob by dressing him in Esau’s spare clothes and fastening the skins of goat kids around his hands and neck.
Of course as soon as Jacob comes in and says, My father, Isaac recognizes Jacob’s voice, and asks:
Who are you, my son? Then Jacob said to his father: I am Esau, your firstborn. I have done as you spoke to me. Get up, please, sit, and eat some of my game, so that your nefesh may bless me. (Genesis 27:18)
Jacob thinks like his father. He hears Rebecca’s “in the presence of God”, and interprets it in terms of Isaac’s nefesh!
Isaac tests his son several times, unable to believe that this man with Jacob’s voice is really Esau, no matter how hairy his hands feel. Then he decides to bless the son in front of him anyway. Now it is even more important that the blessing come from God, so he repeats:
I will eat some of the game of my son, so that my nefesh may bless you. (Genesis 27:25)
After Isaac has eaten and received a kiss from his son, he delivers the blessing:
May God give to you from the dew of the heavens, and from the fat of the land, and abundant grain and wine. May peoples serve you, and may nations bow down to you. Be a leader to your kinsmen, and may the descendants of your mother bow down to you. Cursed be those who curse you, and may those who bless you be blessed. (Genesis 27:28-29)
The blessing begins with the standard themes of material abundance and victory over other nations. Then Isaac adds part of God’s blessing of Abraham: Cursed be those who curse you, and blessed be those who bless you. He does not say the other part of the blessing of Abraham—that he will have many descendants, and they will possess the whole land of Canaan—until later in the Torah portion, when he gives a blessing to Jacob as Jacob.
I think that Isaac gives Jacob-in-disguise part of the blessing of Abraham because he is indeed speaking from his instinctual self, channeling divine inspiration without thinking it through. His words naturally mirror the words of the blessing of Abraham.
When his other son shows up a moment later with his own tasty tidbits, Isaac recognizes Esau’s voice, and comes out of his trance and back to earth. He trembles, partly because he knows he cannot repeat the same blessing to Esau, and partly because he realizes that the blessing he just gave Jacob is indeed an expression of God’s will.
Then Isaac trembled, full of fear, and said: Who is it, then, who hunted game and brought it to me and I ate everything before you came and I blessed him? He must be truly blessed! (Genesis 27:33)
Is it possible to channel a blessing from God, as Isaac apparently channels his first blessing? I do not know. But when I was 48 and I wandered into a Jewish Renewal service, I saw the rabbi of P’nai Or of Portland, Aryeh Hirschfield zt”l, blessing people. I could tell he was connecting with some inner source of energy, and the people he blessed were taking in that energy.
Is that kind of blessing from the instinctual self, the nefesh, confirmed by God and therefore bound to come true? Again, I do not know. What I do know is that a blessing given with what seems to be divine energy makes a big impression on both giver and receiver. No doubt the words of the blessing are absorbed deep into the subconscious mind of the one blessed, where they affect one’s outlook and behavior for years to come. That alone might make a blessing come true.
May everyone who needs a blessing be truly blessed. And may everyone who sees the need for a blessing be inspired to give a true blessing.
Tags: Bereishit, Genesis, holy place, torah portion
What makes a place holy?
The word for “holy”, kadosh, means separated from mundane use, dedicated to God, or simply inspiring religious awe. Kadosh appears only once in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, in verb form, when God blesses the seventh day of creation and makes it holy. The word does not show up again until the book of Exodus/Shemot, when Moses stops to look at the burning bush, and God tells him to take off his shoes, because the place where you are standing is holy ground. (Exodus 3:5) Later in Exodus, Mount Sinai becomes holy ground for a whole people. Eventually the Bible names Jerusalem as a holy city.
Even though there are no places called kadosh, “holy”, in the book of Genesis, there many sites where God makes first contact with a human being. At two of these locations God speaks to a human, the human dedicates the spot, and much later someone returns to the same place to connect with God. These places, Be-eir Lachai Ro-i and Beit-El, must count as holy!
Isaac and his bride Rebecca meet in a field next to Be-eir Lachai Ro-i (“Well for the Living One Who Sees Me”) in this week’s Torah portion, Chayyei Sarah (“the life of Sarah”). But it is Hagar, an Egyptian, who first encounters God there.
When Abraham and his wife Sarah leave Egypt in the Torah portion Lekh-Lekha (“Go for Yourself”), Hagar goes with them as Sarah’s servant. Sarah gives Hagar to her husband for the purpose of producing a child Sarah can adopt. But once Hagar is pregnant, Sarah abuses her, and Hagar runs away across the Negev Desert, back toward Egypt. A messenger of God finds her at a spring, a watering-place by the road. God speaks to Hagar through the messenger and convinces her to return to Abraham and Sarah.
And she called the name of God, the one speaking to her: You are the God of Ro-i; for she said: Even as far as here, I saw after ro-i! Therefore the be-eir is called Be-eir Lachai Ro-i. (Genesis 16:13-14)
ro-i = seeing me, one who sees me.
be-eir = well, watering-place.
lachai = for the living one.
For Hagar, accustomed to being a pawn in Sarah’s schemes, the most amazing thing is that God actually notices her—and she survives. Hagar does return, and gives birth to Ishmael. Sarah adopts Ishmael, but later bears her own son, Isaac, and sends Hagar and Ishmael into exile.
Isaac is 40 years old before the Torah once again mentions Be-eir Lachai Ro-i, the Well of the Living One Who Sees Me. At this point, Isaac is estranged from his father. In last week’s Torah portion, Vayeira (“And He Saw”), Abraham bound Isaac as a sacrificial offering, and raised the knife to his son’s throat before a voice from God called him off. After that, Isaac did not go home with his father. In this week’s Torah portion, Abraham buries Sarah, Isaac’s mother, without Isaac’s presence. Then he arranges for Isaac to marry an Aramean without even informing his son. Apparently they are not on speaking terms.
Abraham lives in Beersheba (Be-eir Sheva), and Isaac lives farther south, in the Negev Desert.
And Isaac, he came from coming to Be-eir Lachai Ro-i, and he himself lived in the land of the Negev. And Isaac went out lasuach in the field, in the face of the sunset; and he raised his eyes and he saw—hey! Camels were coming. (Genesis 24:62-63)
lasuach = to ?? (This is the only occurrence of the word in the Bible, and though it is in the form of an infinitive verb, scholars do not agree on its meaning.)
I like the literal translation he came from coming to; it emphasizes that a holy well is a place you come to. Isaac is avoiding his father, but he comes to the well where God noticed and spoke to Hagar. Since he has no intention of traveling to Egypt on the road that runs past the well, he must come there because he knows about Hagar’s experience.
Like Hagar, Isaac is used to being overlooked as a person, accustomed to being a pawn in his father’s schemes. Maybe he hopes that God will notice him at Hagar’s well, or maybe he hopes he will be able to see himself.
Coming from the Well of the Living One Who Sees Me, Isaac heads out into the field at sunset to—what? The unique word lasuach has been translated as to stroll, to pray, to supplicate, and to meditate. It might be a variant spelling of the verb siyach = meditate, go over a matter, contemplate something. In that case, maybe Isaac does sense the holy presence of God at the well, and he walks slowly through the field nearby to absorb the experience.
Lost in thought, he raises his eyes and is surprised to see camels approaching. He is not far from the road between Beersheba and Egypt, but these camels have left the road and are heading across the field toward him. The first rider to dismount is Rebecca, the bride that Abraham’s servant is bringing to Isaac. They meet in the field, he loves her, and he begins his new life.
Near the end of the Torah portion, Isaac and his half-brother, Hagar’s son Ishmael, bury Abraham in the family cave to the north. Then Isaac returns to Hagar’s well.
And it was after the death of Abraham when God blessed Isaac, his son; and he settled next to Be-eir Lachai Ro-i. (Genesis 25:11)
The only other place in the book of Genesis that remains holy years later, under the same name, is Beit-El (sometimes called Bethel in English). In the upcoming Torah portion Vayeitzei (“And he went”), Jacob stops for the night on his way to Charan and dreams of a stairway between heaven and earth. God speaks to him for the first time. When Jacob wakes, he says:
Truly God yesh in this place and I, I did not know! And he was awestricken, and he said: How awesome is this place! This is nowhere but beit El, and this is the gate of the heavens! (Genesis 28:16-17)
yesh = it exists, it is present, there is.
beit El = the house of God.
For Jacob, the most amazing thing is not that God notices him, but that God exists at all in this world.
Jacob dedicates the spot by setting up a stone pillar and pouring oil over it, and naming it Beit-El. More than 20 years later, God tells him to return to Beit-El. Jacob first buries all the idols belonging to his household. Then he leads them to the spot and builds an altar. God blesses him again, and Jacob pours a libation as well as oil on the stone pillar before moving on. By returning to the place where God first spoke to him, Jacob rededicates himself to God.
Few of us today hear God speaking to us in Biblical Hebrew. But once in a while, we notice God, or God notices us, and we are amazed. Suddenly our usual mundane perspective changes, and the world is suffused with new meaning.
Sometimes this happens because a place strikes us as holy, awe-inspiring, connected with God. It might be a liminal place in nature—the edge of the ocean, deep in a forest, a remote spot with a brilliant night sky. I have also felt that mysterious awe inside medieval cathedrals, though as a Jew I do not go looking for God there.
Sometimes we go back later, and find God again. Sometimes we go back and discover that the place seems ordinary now; the holiness was in our own heart. Either way, it is a blessing to be able to stand on holy ground.
Tags: Noah, torah portion
As I read the book of Genesis/Bereishit again this year, I feel sorry for the characters who try to rise to the challenge of walking with God, but are just too limited to keep up. Two of those who fall by the wayside are Noah and Lot, who both attempt to do the right thing, then collapse into drink and incest after they see their worlds destroyed.
Noah begins by following all of God’s directions; he sees God destroy all life on land with the over-the-mountaintop flood. Abraham’s nephew Lot begins by offering hospitality to strangers in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeira (“And he saw”). He sees the strangers, who are actually messengers from God, destroy the city of Sodom and the land around it.
After their respective catastrophes are over, and it is time to build a new life, both men think only about getting drunk.
And Noah began to be the man of the soil, and he planted a vineyard. And he drank some of the wine, and he became drunk, and vayitgal in the middle of his tent. And Cham, the father of Canaan, saw the erat aviv and he told his two brothers outside. (Genesis/Bereishit 9:20-22)
vayitgal = he uncovered himself, exposed himself
erat aviv = nakedness of his father
Noah plans his drunkenness with the foresight of an alcoholic who hides stashes of liquor in strategic places. He has to wait a long time, through planting and harvesting and fermentation, before he gets his first drink after the flood. Although the Torah does not report Noah’s feelings, I imagine he is haunted by the deaths of everyone he knew outside his own immediate family of eight. Perhaps he dreams of children drowning. Perhaps he wishes he had said something to change God’s mind, or found some way to rescue more people.
I suspect that Noah cannot find a way to live with this knowledge and move forward. So he opts to escape into an altered state of consciousness, or unconsciousness.
After becoming drunk, Noah uncovers his nakedness in the middle of his tent. A modern reader might wonder what is so bad about lying down naked in the privacy of your tent—even if one of your sons barges in and accidentally sees you.
But in the Torah, to “uncover the nakedness” of someone is a euphemism for a sexual act. The book of Leviticus/Vayikra devotes thirteen verses to listing close relatives whose nakedness you must not uncover, using the same words for “uncovering” and “nakedness” as the passage above.
The implication is that Noah and his son Cham (whose name means “heat”) are guilty of some illicit sexual act. Furthermore, Noah begins it, by “uncovering himself”. Yet Noah shifts all the blame to his son.
And Noah woke up from his wine, and he knew what his youngest son had done to him. (Genesis 9:24)
Noah expresses his anger at Cham by cursing Cham’s son Canaan. Alas, it is a common human reaction to reject your own guilt by lashing out at someone else.
In this week’s Torah portion, Lot and his daughters act out a different version of the drunken incest theme.
Lot, like Noah, means well. His story begins with a good deed; when two messengers from God, disguised as ordinary men, come to the city of Sodom, Lot goes out of his way to give them hospitality and treat them with respect and kindness—just as his uncle Abraham did in the previous scene in this week’s Torah portion. After Lot has brought the strangers home and fed them, the men of Sodom converge on Lot’s house and demand that he bring out his guests, so that they can “know” them.
Just as it never occurs to Noah to question God’s plan to wipe out the earth, it never occurs to Lot that there might be an alternative to sacrificing two people to the mob. Since his two guests are out of the question, Lot steps outside and offers the would-be rapists his two virgin daughters instead.
Maybe Lot is so terrified of his neighbors that he cannot think straight. But we can still question his impulse to sacrifice his daughters—and perhaps after the crisis is over, Lot is tormented by remembering his own behavior.
The mob outside ignores Lot’s proposed substitution of rape objects, and crowd forward to break down the door. The messengers from God save the day (or night) by pulling Lot inside and blinding the men outside. Then they tell Lot that God has sent them to destroy the whole city, and they order Lot to flee with his family.
Lot panics, and at dawn he is still dithering in his house. The messengers grab him, his wife, and their two daughters by the hand and lead them outside the city. They tell Lot to save himself by escaping to the mountain, without stopping or looking back.
When God rains sulfur and fire down from the heavens, Lot’s wife looks back and turns into a pillar of salt, but Lot hurries on. He settles into a cave on the mountain with his two daughters.
And the elder said to the younger: Our father is old, and there is no man on the earth to marry us as the way of all the earth. Come, we will give our father a drink of wine, and we will lie down with him, and we will keep alive seed from our father. So they gave their father wine to drink that night, and the elder came, and she lay down with her father, and he did not know when she was lying down or when she was getting up. (Genesis 19:31-33)
They repeat the procedure the next night, with the younger daughter as the seed collector. And once again the Torah claims Lot did not know when she was lying down or when she was getting up. Both women become pregnant, as they planned.
Many commentators have pointed out that preserving a man’s lineage is a high value in the Torah, and concluded that Lot’s daughters were doing the right thing. But if incest were truly the right behavior in their situation, they would simply ask their father to cooperate, without resorting to wine. Lot may not have read the Torah’s prohibition against “uncovering the nakedness of your father”, but he obviously knows that incest, like mistreating a stranger, is wrong.
The Torah appears to view Lot as innocent of incest by reason of unconsciousness. Yet it is Lot’s decision to keep drinking the wine until he passes out; even two strong young women could not force it down his throat.
And where did the wine come from? The Midrash Rabbah, a collection of commentary from Talmudic times, speculates that either the Sodomites stored wine in distant mountain caves, or the wine appeared miraculously. However, I agree with modern commentator Jonathan Kirsch that Lot probably grabs some wine when they pass through the village of Zoar on the way to the mountain. Like Noah, Lot would anticipate a need for escape from sanity after the catastrophe. And as in Noah’s story, the Torah blames Lot’s subsequent sexual misdeed on his children.
It is easy for me to judge both Noah and Lot harshly. But if God gave me orders, would I have the imagination or the courage to talk back? If I were faced with a mob of evil men, would I have the imagination or the courage to divert them safely? I have lots of imagination—except when it comes to my own problems. I’m learning courage, but I still prefer avoidance.
If all my friends, most of my family, and every familiar thing in my life were suddenly wiped out, would I have the imagination and courage to build a new life from nothing? I think I would, but how do I know?
When life becomes unbearable, do I stick with reality and avoid any drugs of escape? Cookies don’t count, do they?
When something bad happens between two people, do I duck responsibility by blaming it on the other guy? Never—except for when I am fixated on escaping the situation.
As I read the book of Genesis/Bereishit again this year, I feel sorry for the characters who try to rise to the challenge of walking with God, but are just too limited to keep up. I might be one of them.
Tags: God, good and evil, torah portion, Tree of Knowledge
For me, every story in the book of Genesis/Bereishit is another fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. And the “God” who speaks to individual people, from Adam to Jacob, is like a human teacher trying to prod people into making conscious choices and moral judgments.
Like other animals, we humans make most of our decisions automatically, out of instinct and habit. Sometimes we stop to solve a practical problem or an intellectual puzzle. But only rarely do we stop to solve a moral problem. When we do become aware of a moral issue, and of our ability to choose between good and evil actions, I think we are tasting another fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.
The anthropomorphic God in Genesis often talks to Himself, debating what to do next. He also talks to human characters, asking them questions, telling them His plans, blessing and cursing them, making covenants with them, and giving them directions.
“God” tries out several methods for giving directions. In the second creation story, “God” makes a single human out of dirt and breathes life into it. After placing the human (ha-adam) in the garden of Eden, the God character gives it an instruction.
God tzivah the human, saying: From every tree of the garden, certainly tokheil. But from the tree of the knowledge of good and bad, not tokhal; for on the day you eat from it, you will certainly die. (Genesis 2:16-17)
tzivah = commanded, ordered, directed.
tokheil, tokhal = you will eat, you shall eat, you should eat, you could eat, you may eat, you can eat, you are going to eat, you must eat.
It is impossible to translate this passage literally, because biblical Hebrew has only one verb form for action that has not yet happened. Is “God” telling the human “you must not eat” from the tree of knowledge, and if you do, you will be punished with death? Or is “God” saying “you could not eat” from it without becoming mortal? Either translation is correct.
The God character’s motivation in giving this order is also open to interpretation. Classical commentary assumes “God” wants the human to stay in the garden, in a state of moral ignorance, and therefore after the female and male humans eat the fruit, they are punished for disobeying orders. I think “God” points out the Tree of Knowledge in order to show the adam, the solo and sexless human, that it can act of its own free will, and gain knowledge. But the adam passively follows orders, and nothing changes. I can imagine the God character wondering what it will take to get the humans to make a choice and acquire a sense of good and evil, so He can remove them from Eden and place them in the real world! “God” solves the problem by splitting the human it into male and female persons, and inventing the snake to make the female human think.
The next person in the Torah to get moral training is Cain, who gets upset when God shows a preference for Abel’s offering over his. Perhaps because reverse psychology did not work well with Adam, “God” avoids anything that sounds like an order when He first addresses Cain.
And God said to Cain: Why are you making yourself angry, and why has your face fallen? Is it not so: if you do good, [there is] uplifting; but if you do not do good, wrongdoing waits at the door, and its desire is for you. Yet you can rule over it. (Genesis 4:6-7)
Cain does not get the hint, and in a fit of rage kills his brother Abel.
In the story of Noah, the God character tries a different approach.
God said to Noah: The end of all flesh is coming before Me, because the earth is filled with violence on account of them, and here I am, the one Who destroys the earth. Make for yourself a floating-container of gofer wood; you shall make the floating-container compartmented, and you shall cover it inside and outside with caulking. (Genesis 6:13-14)
If what “God” wants is for Noah to obey orders, His new style works. Noah simply follows orders, and makes no independent decisions until after the flood. But commentators have wondered for millennia whether Noah’s mechanical obedience is actually what “God” wants. (See my post last week, Noach: Righteous Choices.) What if “God” is hoping that Noah will propose an alternative, the way Abraham does later when “God” announces He will destroy Sodom and Gommorah?
This week’s Torah portion, Lekh-lekha, begins with the God character’s first direction to Abraham.
God said to Abraham: Lekh-lekha, away from your land, and away from your home, and away from the house of your father, to the land that I will show you. And I will make you into a great people, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, so it will become a blessing. (Genesis 12:1-2)
Lekh = Go!
-lekha = yourself, for yourself, to yourself.
Here the God character’s order specifies what Abraham should leave behind, but gives no details about the future he is walking into. What “God” does communicate is that this move is important for Abraham, not just for God. Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) interpreted Lekh-lekha as “Go for yourself”, i.e. for your own sake. The Zohar (a 13th-century kabbalistic text) interpreted it as “Go to yourself”, i.e. recreate yourself as a new individual, separate from your past.
All the promises of blessing, while non-specific, also serve to let Abraham know that going to the new land will be for his own benefit. This is the first time in the Torah that “God” promises a reward for obeying His directions.
Abraham responds to the divine direction by leaving home for good, as instructed. But he takes some initiative and prepares for his own future by bringing along his wife, nephew, servants, and livestock.
Since the voice of God does not even tell him which way to head when he leaves his father’s house in Charan, Abraham chooses to travel west into Canaan. Only after he has reached Shechem, well inside Canaan, does “God” appear to him and say: To your offspring I will give this land. (Genesis 12:7)
The God character’s method of giving partial directions, promising an eventual reward, and leaving the rest up to the human being seems to be the most successful approach so far. Abraham responds by leaving his old familiar habits behind, and making new choices.
Today, few people hear God giving them direct instructions in Biblical Hebrew. But I can imagine the God character in these stories as an inner voice from the human subconscious, struggling to be heard properly.
There are many ways for a human being to get stuck and wait passively for change, instead of looking for a good action and bravely doing it. At times in my life I have been like the adam, obeying orders without raising questions, avoiding any potential conflict. I had to reach a certain level of misery before an inner voice from God’s snake reminded me that it would not kill me to pick the fruit and liberate myself, to choose my own course and act.
At times in my life I have been like Cain, feeling as though I am at the mercy of a bad desire. Yet eventually I hear the divine hint that I can master the desire, and choose to do good.
Other times, I feel overwhelmed, drowned, by the demands of other people and by the way the world works. I want to make my own little floating container and hide in it. But my conscience nags at me, reminding me that I cannot hide in an ark without bringing my family and hordes of hungry animals with me. God wants engagement with the world.
And yes, periodically I have heard an inner call to leave my familiar but not-so-good life, and set out for an unknown destination and destiny, like Abraham. So far, responding to that voice has led to blessings.
May we all be blessed to listen to our inner “God” voice, and never lose the taste of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
Tags: God, Noach, Noah, torah portion
This is the story of Noah: Noah was a man of tzaddik; he was blameless in his generations; Noah walked with God. (Genesis/Bereishit 6:9)
tzaddik = right conduct, lawfulness, innocence; a righteous person.
In the Talmud, a man is called a tzaddik if he devotes his life to Torah study and prayer. For the Chassidim in Eastern Europe, a tzaddik was a holy man so esteemed by God that he could work miracles. Some commentary reads these meanings of the word tzaddik back into Noah’s story, but since the Torah never shows Noah studying, praying, or acting like a holy miracle-worker, I think Noah is merely innocent and lawful, avoiding chamas (violence) even though everyone around him is doing it.
At the end of last week’s Torah portion, God regrets creating humankind, because of the abundant badness of the human on earth, that the shape of every idea of his heart was only bad all the time. (Genesis 6:5) (See my post last week, Bereishit: Inner Voices.)
Since Noah is the best human being available, God speaks to him at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Noach (“Noah” or “resting”).
And God said to Noah: The end of all flesh is coming before me, because violence has filled the earth on account of them, and here I am, their destroyer of the earth. Make for yourself a tevah of gofer wood. (Genesis 6:13-14)
tevah = floating vessel, “ark”. (A different word from aron = chest, “ark”, where Moses stores the tablets of the Torah.)
gofer = ? (This is the only occurrence of the word in the whole Hebrew bible, and its meaning is unknown.)
God gives Noah detailed instructions on how to build the tevah, explains that It will address the problem of human violence by wiping away everything ion earth (except the tevah) with a vast flood, and tells Noah to collect what will go inside the tevah: a pair of every kind of animal; Noah and his wife, sons, and daughters-in-law; and food for everybody.
And Noah did so; everything that God commanded him, thus he did. Then God said to Noah: Enter, you and all your household, into the tevah, because in you I have seen tzaddik before Me in this generation. (Genesis 6:22-7:1)
It sounds as if God approves of Noah’s passive obedience. Yet commentators through the ages have wondered why Noah does not try to talk God out of the Flood, the way Abraham tries to talk God out of destroying Sodom and Gomorrah by saying perhaps there are some innocent people among the wicked.
Most of the commentary I have read falls into two camps. One camp considers Noah either a failed prophet (because he did not warn anyone to repent) or a failed tzaddik in the Chassidic sense (because he did not ask God to decree a different fate for the world). The other camp argues that God must have asked Noah to prophesy in an unrecorded conversation, and Noah must have done his best, while building the tevah, to warn people about the flood and urge them to repent before it was too late.
But the commentary that alarms me the most comes from the 19th-century Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. Hirsch wrote that performing God’s will is what matters; acting on the basis of your own judgment is of secondary and uncertain importance. So although Noah could have done other things, he was correct in doing exactly what God commanded, and no more.
I would say that if God only wants humans to do as they are told, God had no reason to plant the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden in the first place. Yet God not only places the Tree, but points it out to Adam by warning him not to eat from it. Then when Adam obediently avoids it, God creates Eve and the talking snake, so the humans finally eat. The taste of knowledge of good and bad gives humans have the ability to form opinions, and choose between them. Though we usually act out of habit and instinct, we have the ability to make new and creative choices.
Some rabbis have argued that the most desirable outcome is when a human deliberately chooses to do exactly what God wants. But sometimes there is a difference in the Torah between what God says and what God wants. On several occasions God “tests” (nasah) people to see what they will choose to do. For example, God tests Abraham by telling him to sacrifice his son Isaac as a burnt offering—but when Abraham binds his son on an altar and raises his knife, God intervenes to save Isaac’s life. It was only a test, and in a real test you do not tell the subject everything you want.
So when God tells Noah to build and supply the tevah before the flood wipes out the earth, is that really all God wants Noah to do? Or is God testing him, to see whether Noah will warn people to repent, or even propose a different solution to God?
Suppose Hirsch is right, and God only wants us to choose to follow explicit directions. That not only makes the relationship between humans and God uninteresting, it also leaves us stranded when we have to make independent decisions that are not explicitly covered by the 613 rules in the Torah. The tradition of Jewish oral law tries to fill the gap, but it still cannot cover everything. Human beings often find themselves in situations where they need to figure out the best course of action for themselves.
Thank God! I believe we humans shine when we discover, or invent, good ideas that nobody considered before. Choosing to follow God’s orders is a virtue of sorts. But we are blessed with the ability to rise above Noah’s level of virtue, and improve the world in ways the Torah never envisioned. Depending on how you define “God”, this might be what God really wants.
In my own lifetime, I have seen great progress in granting status, rights, and respect to people in groups that were subjugated for millennia, including women, people outside the traditional heterosexual model, and outsiders from different ethnic groups and countries. We still have farther to go, and some parts of the world lag far behind, but we have created a good path. The Torah merely assumes these groups will always be inferior, and offers a few paltry laws to protect the members of some groups within their inferior status. Thanks to our God-given abilities, humans are now working on a better vision.
The Torah also promotes war, while alluding to a distant future when war will disappear because everyone will worship the same god. But we can do better than that, thanks to our taste for knowing good from bad, our ability to transcend our habits and instincts and make choices, our creative minds, and our power to rise above ourselves to speak as prophets or tzaddikim. Someday humans may achieve an era of peace better than the one imagined in the Bible!
May it be God’s will … but most of all, may it become our will.