Vayeitzei: The Place

November 21, 2017 at 9:38 am | Posted in Vayeitzei | 2 Comments

Jacob’s Dream, detail
by Jusepe de Ribera, 1639

 

Jacob departed from Beersheba and he went toward Charan.  He encountered the makom, and he spent the night there because the sun had set.  He took one of the stones of the makom and he put it at his head, and he lay down at that makom. (Genesis/Bereishit 28:10-11)

makom (מָקוֹם) = place, location, space.

The repetition of the word makom at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei (“And he left”) establishes that the place Jacob stumbles upon at sunset will be significant for him. But when he arrives, all he notices is hard, stony ground.

Jacob has lived his entire life in Beersheba, but now he is running away from his twin brother, Esau. In last week’s Torah portion, Toledot, Jacob cheated Esau first out of his birthright, then out of the family blessing. Esau threatened to kill him, and the twins’ mother, Rebecca, arranged Jacob’s hasty departure on the pretext that he must find a wife in her old hometown in northern Mesopotamia.

So in this week’s portion Jacob sets off on a journey of about 620 miles (1,000 km) to his uncle’s house in Charan. He hikes north from Beersheba, equipped with a flask of olive oil and some other provisions, but no donkey nor servant nor livestock nor silver.1 For the son of a wealthy man, he is ill-equipped for either a long journey or a marriage negotiation.

At sunset on the second or third day he arrives at the makom, identified later as the site of the former town of Luz and the future town of Beit-El (Bethel).2 Nobody lives in the vicinity to offer a traveler a place to sleep.  So Jacob lies on the ground with a stone for a pillow.

During the day, Jacob’s conscious mind is busy as he acts and schemes.  But on this night, his unconscious mind opens in a dream.

German 14th century

And he dreamed, and hey! A stairway was set to the ground and its top reached to the heavens, and hey! Messengers of God were ascending and descending on it. (Genesis 28:12)

The stairway and its traffic of messenger angels may represent a new idea for Jacob. He knows that his father was almost sacrificed on an altar by his grandfather Abraham; after all, at the end of this week’s Torah portion, Jacob calls God “the terror of Isaac”.3 He knows that a messenger of God called to Abraham and ordered him to desist.

But we never see Jacob praying or conversing with God before this week’s Torah portion. Jacob has depended on his own guile to get what he wants.  Now his dream reveals that communication between heaven and earth happens all the time. It could happen with him.

And hey! God stood over him and said: “I am God, the god of Abraham your forefather and the god of Isaac. The ground that you yourself are lying on, I will give it to you and to your descendants.” (Genesis 28:13)

God continues speaking to Jacob in the dream, giving him the blessing of Abraham, and promising to guard Jacob wherever he goes and return him to the place where he is lying now.

And Jacob woke up from his sleep, and he said: “Actually, there is God in this makom, and I, I did not know!”  And he was awed, and he said: “How awesome is this makom!  This is none other than the home of God, and this is the gate of the heavens!”  (Genesis/Bereishit 28:16-17)

What is Jacob’s amazing realization?

One tradition claims that Jacob dreams in the same place where his father, Isaac, was almost sacrificed—at the top of Mount Moriyah, which that tradition identifies with Jerusalem.4 It actually is the gate between heaven and earth, the makom where humans pray and God speaks. Jacob does not even recognize anything holy about it when he lies down. Yet he is transformed by the dream he has in that particular makom, where God broke through to his father and grandfather.5

Ruins of Jeroboam’s temple at Beit-El

However, this week’s Torah portion clearly states that the makom of Jacob’s dream is the site of Beit-El (Bethel in English), about 12 miles north of Jerusalem. In the Torah, Beit-El becomes a holy place because Jacob erects and anoints a standing-stone there to commemorate his dream, and upon his return he builds an altar.6 (These actions provide a rationale for why Jereboam, the first king of the northern kingdom of Israel, built a temple at Beit-El.7)

Rashi reconciles the two stories about the location of Jacob’s dream by suggesting that God simply collapses the distance between Beit-El and Jerusalem for that one night. Therefore the foot of the ladder is at Beit-El, while the top of the ladder is at the gate of the heavens above the future temple in Jerusalem.2

I prefer the theory that God is in every place, even an unremarkable patch of stony ground; the question is whether we are aware of God. Jacob lies down unaware. When he wakes up from his dream, he is awed by the presence of God.

He could only become aware of God by losing awareness of himself, according to Tiferet Shlomo: “This “I, I did not know,” means I did not know myself at all. I was not aware of myself at all, but only of the unity of the Holy One, Blessed Be He.”8

Jacob’s father, Isaac, had a direct waking encounter with God while he was bound on the altar, then twice heard God promise him the blessing of Abraham.9 But Jacob spent his waking hours scheming for his own advantage. God could only reach him in a dream.

Jacob’s real achievement is taking his dream seriously. And he takes two more steps. He realizes with amazement that God is still there, in the same place where he is. And he realizes that his own ego, his own “I” (anokhi in Hebrew), has been ignorant, unaware of God and perhaps of his own larger self.10

Until this point, Jacob has been driven by the identity he has held ever since he heard the story of how he emerged from the womb second, grasping Esau’s heel. Jacob has acted from the conviction that he was cheated at birth. He could only get a full inheritance and a full blessing by cheating his brother out of them.

When he lies down at the makom, Jacob owns nothing. He may never receive an inheritance. His father gave him the blessing of Abraham before he left, but since he duped Isaac into giving him the first blessing, how can he believe his father’s second blessing is intentional and authentic?

Yet in his dream, God blesses him and promises to stay with him. Now Jacob has a chance to become someone larger, separate from Esau.

Several times when I was a young atheist I happened to step outside with nothing particular in mind and suddenly, for some unknown reason, I was struck by how everything around me was alive.  Everything was one thing, and I was part of it.

If I had known some Torah then, I might have thought: “Actually, there is God in this place, and I, I did not know!”

May we all find ourselves in that makom, and may we discover our deeper selves.

  1. No animals or servants are mentioned in this week’s Torah portion. And when Jacob head home twenty years later, he says: “With only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps” (Genesis 32:11).
  2. Genesis 28:19. Beit-El (“Bethel” in English) is about 60 miles (100 km) north of Beersheba, so Jacob could not have reached in on his first day of travel. It is about 12 miles (20 km) north of Jerusalem.
  3. In Genesis 32:42 Jacob refers to God as “the God of Abraham and Pachad Yitzchak (פַּחַד יִצְחָק) = “the terror of Isaac”. In Genesis and 32:53 Jacob swears by Pachad Yitzchak.
  4. See note 3 on Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer. This tradition continues in the Midrash Rabbah, and is repeated by Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki).
  5. g. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Beginning of Desire, Doubleday, New York, 1995, p. 187-188.
  6. Genesis 28:19, Genesis 35:6-7.
  7. 1 Kings 12:28-33.
  8. Tiferet Shlomo, by 19th-century Polish Rabbi Shlomo Hakohen Rainowicz, translated by Rabbi David Kasher, ParshaNut Weekly Post: Parshat Vayeitzei.
  9. Genesis 26:2-5, Genesis 26:24.
  10. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Murmuring Deep, Schocken Books, New York, 2009, p. 278: “The Zohar reads his waking speech—va-anokhi lo yadati—‘I–I did not know,’ as referring to his own selfhood: ‘I have not known my anokhi—my self.’”
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Chayyei Sarah: A Satisfactory Old Age

November 10, 2017 at 10:30 am | Posted in Chayyei Sarah, Vayeira | Leave a comment

What is a good old age?  What is a good time to die?

Sarah dies at age 127 at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Chayyei Sarah (“Life of Sarah”).

Sarah’s Burial,
by Gustave Dore

And Sarah died in Kiryat Arba, which is Hebron, in the land of Canaan. And Abraham came to lament for Sarah and to wail for her. (Genesis/Bereishit 23:2)

At the end of last week’s portion, Vayeira, Abraham and Sarah lived in Beersheba. Now Sarah dies in Hebron, 26 miles (42 km) northeast of Beersheba, near the grove where they camped during their first sojourn in Canaan. Abraham travels there to perform ritual mourning and purchase a burial site. The couple appear to have separated, and Abraham’s ritual mourning is emphasized, as if he needs to make a show of grief.

At the end of this week’s Torah portion, Abraham dies at age 175.

And Abraham breathed his last and he died at a good old age, old and savei-a, and he was gathered to his people. (Genesis 25:8)

savei-a (שָׂבֵעַ) = satisfied, sated, with plenty, contented.

Sarah seems to have a tragic death; Abraham’s is good. What makes their final years different?

Sarah’s Old Age

Sarah and Abimelech,
by Marc Chagall

Sarah was already old when she finally had a baby—at age 90, according to last week’s Torah portion. (See my post Vayeira: Laughter, Part 1.) Right after God announced the miraculous pregnancy, Abraham took his 89-year-old wife to Gerar. She was still so attractive that Abraham passed her off as his sister, and the king of Gerar “took” her.1 (In Biblical Hebrew, when a man “takes” a woman, it means he has sexual intercourse with her in order to make her his wife or concubine.) In the Babylonian Talmud (Bava Metziah 87a), Rav Chisda explained that after the annunciation, Sarah’s worn and wrinkled skin was rejuvenated, and her beauty returned.

Before the king of Gerar touched Sarah, God told him in a dream that she was married, and unless her husband Abraham interceded, the king would die. King Avimelekh returned Sarah to Abraham, showered him with gifts, and invited him to live anywhere in the territory. Abraham and his household settled in Beersheba, and Sarah gave birth to Isaac.

But at Isaac’s weaning feast three years later, Sarah was full of anxieties.  (See my post Vayeira & Toldot: Laughter, Part 2.) She worried that people would mock her, and she was afraid that Isaac’s older half-brother, Ishmael, would inherit the firstborn’s double portion of Abraham’s wealth, even though Ishmael was the son of a slave.  So Sarah tried to secure her own son’s future by telling her husband to exile Ishmael and his mother.2 God backed up her request and Abraham obeyed.

When Isaac was a young man, however, God told Abraham to sacrifice his only remaining son as a burnt offering.3

According to one strand of classic commentary, Sarah dies of shock when she learns that Abraham almost slaughtered her beloved Isaac.4 This explanation implies that she had moved back to Hebron earlier, leaving Isaac with his father, and that news of the Akedah reached her there. But why would she separate from her husband and stop watching over her son when Abraham had done nothing new to alarm her? It would make more psychological sense if Abraham sent her back to Hebron because he resented her for making him exile Ishmael and Hagar—or if Sarah left her husband only after he tried to slaughter Isaac.

Whenever Sarah moved away, she also lost contact with her son.  Isaac walked away alone from the altar where Abraham almost sacrificed him, and later in this week’s potion we learn that he settled farther south, in the Negev.

At the beginning of Chayyei Sarah, Sarah dies at 127, and Isaac is 37. He is not present at his mother’s funeral.

What is a good old age, a good death? When I asked some of my friends, we concluded that the best ending would be:

  • Having fulfilled your mission in life, whatever that turned out to be.
  • Doing something meaningful with your last years.
  • Having a loving connection with someone during your last years.
  • Leaving no unfinished business (such as making amends, arranging inheritance).
  • Dying in a calm state of mind.

Sarah raised a son in her old age, fulfilling the mission God gave her. But the Torah does not say that she did anything after she moved back to Hebron. She was alienated from her husband, and she lost contact with her son. She died among mere acquaintances, in a state of either shock or bitterness.

Abraham’s Old Age

Abraham suffered during what turned out to be his early old age in the Torah portion Vayeira. At 103, he had to drive out his concubine Hagar and his beloved son Ishmael. And the thing was very bad in his eyes. (Genesis 21:11)

Akedah in an Icelandic
14th cent manuscript

When his remaining son, Isaac, was a young man, he carried out God’s orders to sacrifice him. Although God stayed his hand at the last minute, he never saw Isaac again, and his wife never forgave him. In this week’s Torah portion Sarah dies when Abraham is 137, and he still feels guilty about her.5

Yet after that Abraham lives another 38 years in Beersheba.  His first order of business is to send his steward to Aram to arrange a suitable marriage for Isaac.  (He sees no need to consult his son about this; the important point is that Isaac’s descendants are supposed to inherit the land and God’s blessing.  Isaac has to marry a woman from his father’s clan and religious background, so that he can produce those descendants.)

After the steward is dispatched, Abraham takes a new concubine for himself.

And Abraham continued, and he took a woman, and her name was Keturah.  (Genesis/Bereshit 25:1)

Keturah (קְטוּרָה) = incense, smoke from incense.

The name Keturah is suggestive. Biblical Hebrew, like English, associates heat and fire with passionate emotion. Fragrant smoke is something to savor and enjoy; the smoke from a burnt offering or an incense pan is the part of an offering that gives God the most pleasure. Abraham and Keturah have six sons—another indication that at long last, Abraham has a passionate relationship with a woman.

He has already fulfilled his mission in life by moving to Canaan, accumulating wealth to pass on to his heirs, making a covenant with God through circumcision, and producing the correct son to fulfill God’s prophecy that his numerous descendants will own Canaan and be a blessing to other peoples. He has even furthered God’s plan by getting Isaac married to his cousin Rebecca.

Abraham also does something meaningful in his last years: raising six more children. We can assume he has a loving connection with them; he certainly has one with Keturah. And he leaves no unfinished business. When his sons through Keturah have grown up, Abraham resolves his inheritance ahead of time.

Abraham gave everything that he had to Isaac.  And to the sons of the concubines he had, Abraham gave gifts, and while he was still alive he sent them away from his son Isaac, eastward to the land of Kedem. (Genesis 5-6)

Abraham dies not only in a calm state of mind, but savei-a: satisfied, contented.

Our Own Old Age

When we are in the thick of life, we do not know whether we will die like Sarah or like Abraham.  But we can improve our chances of dying “at a good old age, old and satisfied” (Genesis 25:8).

During our most active years, may we keep asking ourselves what our true mission in life is, and how we can realign ourselves to carry it out.

May we still do things that are meaningful to us and give us satisfaction when that God-given work is completed (perhaps when we retire from a career, perhaps when a cause or a beloved individual no longer needs our efforts, perhaps when our bodies or circumstances change).

May we keep learning how to love, keep working on the relationships that are worth continuing, and keep making new friends as long as we live.

May we take care of our own business as we go along, so that whenever we leave this world we leave nothing important undone.

And may we cultivate awareness and gratitude, making a calm and contented state of mind a habit that we never lose, even at the end.

Then no matter when death comes, at that moment we can be satisfied with our lives.

  1. Genesis 20:1-3.
  2. Genesis 21:9-13.
  3. Genesis 22:1-12.
  4. Rashi (11th-century C.E. Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki) cites the opinion of Rabbi Yose in Genesis Rabbah 58:5.)
  5. Moshe Anisfled, “Rashi’s Midrashic Comments Are Supported by a Broad Range of Biblical Texts”, Jewish Bible Quarterly, p. 144.

Vayeira & Toledot: Laughter, Part 2

November 7, 2017 at 7:49 pm | Posted in Toledot, Vayeira | 1 Comment

detail from Democritus, by Johannes Moreelse

Laughter is not always happy.  In English we distinguish between the friendly act of laughing with someone and the cruel act of laughing at someone.  A “fool” might be either a professional jester, or an innocent ignoramus who makes people laugh because of the contrast between his serious doings and what his words or actions mean to “normal” people.  All of these meanings of “laugh” and “fool” are captured by Biblical Hebrew verbs based on the root tzachak, צָחֲק = laughed.

The first person to laugh in the Torah is Abraham, when God tells him that he and his wife Sarah will finally have a baby the following year.  His laughter is incredulous.

And Abraham fell on his face vayitzchak, and he said in his heart:  Will he be born to a 100-year-old man, and will 90-year-old Sarah give birth? (Genesis 17:17)

vayitzchak (וַיִּצְחָק) = and he laughed.

The first six times a word derived from the root verb tzachak appears in the Torah, it is in the kal stem of the verb and refers simply to laughing.  (See last week’s post, Vayeira: Laughter, Part 1.)  Even the name of Abraham and Sarah’s son comes from the kal stem of tzachak.

Sarah Hears and Laughs,
by James Tissot

“Truly Sarah, your wife, will be pregnant with your son, and you shall call his name Yitzchak, and I will establish my covenant with him …” (Genesis 17:19)

Yitzchak (יִצְחָק) = Isaac in English; “He laughs” in Hebrew.

When God reveals the same information to Sarah in last week’s Torah portion, Vayeira, she too laughs incredulously.

Lot the Fool

Later in the portion Vayeira, Abraham’s nephew Lot tries to convince his sons-in-law that God is about to destroy the town of Sodom.

Lot went out and he spoke to his sons-in-law who had married his daughters, and he said: “Get up and go out from this place, because God is destroying the town!” But he was like a metzacheik in the eyes of his sons-in-law. (Genesis 19:14)

metzacheik (מְצַחֵק) = joking, amusing oneself, fooling around, making someone laugh; a jester, a fool.

Although metzacheik is derived from the same root verb as vayitzchak and yitzchak, it comes from the piel stem.  While the kal stem of the root means laughing, the piel stem means making or causing laughter—and can also indicate someone who makes people laugh.

Lot’s sons-in-law see Lot as a fool who seriously believes something will happen that “normal” people know is impossible.  How could the god of Lot and Abraham wipe out the whole town of Sodom?  The men cannot believe in the miracle that kills them the next morning.

Abraham, standing on the heights above, sees Sodom and Gomorrah being obliterated, and moves his household south, settling near Gerar.

An Embarrassing Birth

Then Sarah became pregnant, and she bore for Abraham a son for his old age, at the appointed time that God had spoken of …  And Abraham was 100 years old when his son Yitzchak was born to him.  And Sarah said: God has made tzechok for me; everyone who hears, yitzachak about me. (Genesis 21:2, 6)

tzechok (צְחֹק) = laughter (noun, from the root tzachak).

yitzachak (יִצֲחַק) = he will joke, he will amuse himself or others (from the root tzachak in the piel stem).

detail from Old Woman, by Jakub Schikaneder

For Sarah, having a baby is a good miracle.  After all, in the Torah portion Lekh-Lekha she wants a son and heir so much that she gives Abraham her slave Hagar and plans to adopt their baby, Ishmael.  That plan does not go well, but now Sarah has her own son.

However, instead of laughing with joy, Sarah is self-conscious about the laughter she expects from other people.  How ridiculous it looks for a 90-year-old woman to nurse an infant! Sarah expects to be the butt of jokes.

Ishmael at the Weaning Feast

When Yitzchak is weaned, Abraham holds a feast in celebration.  There Sarah observes Ishmael, now an adolescent, doing something that alarms her.

Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had born to Abraham, metzacheik.  And she said to Abraham: Drive out this slave-woman with her son, because the son of this slave-woman must not inherit along with my son, with Yitzchak! (Genesis 21:9-10)

Sarah observes Ishmael metzacheik: “joking, playing, amusing himself”.  But what, exactly, is the boy doing?

Rashi1 suggested three possibilities taken from the Midrash Rabbah on Genesis2: Sarah might have seen Ishmael in the act of sexual immorality, idolatry, or killing people in a contest.  His bad moral character would give Sarah an excuse to exile him, so that her own Yitzchak would become Abraham’s only heir.

Ramban and later Sforno3 wrote that Ishmael is joking that Yitzchak is actually the son of Avimelekh, the king of Gerar, who only pretended he had not touched Sarah when he held her captive in chapter 20. This is a potentially profitable joke for Ishmael to make; if Yitzchak really were the son of Sarah and Avimelekh, then Ishmael would be the only son of Abraham, and therefore his only heir.

Robert Alter has pointed out that since Yitzchak and metzacheik come from the same root, “we may also be invited to construe it as ‘Isaacing it’—that is, Sarah sees Ishmael presuming to play the role of Isaac, child of laughter, presuming to be the legitimate heir.”5

If Ishmael were merely laughing with Yitzchak, his behavior might be innocent.  But since the text says she sees Ishmael metzacheik, making someone laugh, he probably is joking around at Yitzchak’s expense.

Playing with a Sister

What about Yitzchak himself?  Is he named “He laughs” merely because Abraham laughs at the news of his conception?

The Torah never says that Yitzchak himself laughs.  But in next week’s Torah portion, Toledot, Yitzchak creates laugher (in the piel stem).

Yitzchak and his beloved wife Rebecca move to Gerar to escape a drought, and Yitzchak, like his father Abraham, worries that the king of Gerar or one of his men will seize Rebecca for his own harem.  If the men of Gerar know she is married to Yitzchak, he thinks, they will kill him so they can take her as a widow without fear of reprisal.  Thus Yitzchak, like Abraham, calls his wife his sister. (See my post Lekh-Lekha, Vayeira, & Toledot: The Wife/Sister Trick.)

Abimelech, Isaac, and Rebecca,
by Daniele Squaglia, 1649

But unlike his father, Yitzchak cannot keep his hands off his wife.

And the days became long for him there.  And Avimelekh, the king of the Philistines, looked down through the window, and he saw—hey!—Yitzchak metzacheik with Rebecca, his wife!  (Genesis 26:8)

Here metzacheik means fondling: playing or fooling around sexually.  There is no implication of mockery or meanness in Yitzchak’s behavior.  He is merely in love with his own wife, and touches her when he thinks they are unobserved.

Like the king of Gerar who took in Sarah, this king of Gerar is horrified to discover that an apparently single woman is actually someone’s wife.  The king issues an order:  Anyone who touches this man or his wife shall certainly die.  (Genesis 26:11)  And Yitzchak prospers in Gerar.

*

Yitzchak, “He laughs”, is surrounded by people who laugh and joke.  Both his parents laugh at the incredible mismatch between their extreme old age and having a baby.  Both accept God’s miracle and adjust their lives to it, Abraham by winning God’s reassurance that his older son Ishmael will survive, and Sarah by finding a reason to exile Ishmael and give her own son the inheritance.

Yitzchak’s uncle Lot informs his sons-in-law of a different divine miracle, the impending destruction of Sodom.  His earnest belief in something they think is impossible makes them laugh, and they see him as a fool, a metzacheik.  So they stay put in Sodom, and are annihilated.

May we become more like Abraham and Sarah than like Lot’s sons-in-law: flexible and able to accept the unexpected in our lives.

When Ishmael is metzacheik at Yitzchak’s weaning feast, he is probably making other people laugh at Yitzchak’s expense.  But when Yitzchak is metzacheik with his wife in Gerar, he is probably making her laugh with his playful fondling as he expresses his love for her.

May we become more like Yitzchak than like Ishmael; may we guard ourselves against cruelty, even toward our opponents, when we joke around, and restrict ourselves to generating only loving laughter.

  1. Rashi is the acronym for the 11th-century C.E. French rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki, who wrote commentary on the entire Hebrew Bible and all of the Babylonian Talmud.
  2. Genesis/Bereishit Midrash Rabbah is a compilation of commentary by rabbis of the first through third century C.E. The three alternatives on page 53:11 are based on the use of similar words in three other passages.  In Genesis 39:17, the verb letzachek (לְצַחֶק, in the piel) is used to accuse someone of attempting sexual seduction.  In Exodus 32:6, letzacheik (לְצַחֵק, in the piel) is what the Israelites do after sacrificing to the Golden Calf.  In 2 Samuel 2:14, the lietwort viysachaku (וִישַׂחַקוּ) is used to mean a tournament or contest in which pairs of soldiers fight to the death.
  3. Ramban is the acronym for the 13th-century C.E. rabbi Moshe ben Nachman Girondi, a.k.a. Nachmanides. 16h-century C.E. rabbi Ovadiah Sforno gave the same opinion.
  4. Rachel Adelman, “The Expulsion of Ishmael: Who Is Being Tried?”, thetorah.com.
  5. Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, p. 103.

 

Vayeira: Laughter, Part 1

October 31, 2017 at 9:10 pm | Posted in Vayeira | 3 Comments

The first laughter in the Torah happens when God tells Abraham, age 99, that after he has circumcised himself and all the males in his household, he and Sarah, his 89-year-old wife, will have a son.

“I will bless her, and I will even give you a son from her, and I will bless her and she will become nations; kings of peoples will come from her.” (Genesis/Bereishit 17:16)

And Abraham fell on his face vayitzchak, and he said in his heart:  Will he be born to a 100-year-old man, and will 90-year-old Sarah give birth? (Genesis 17:17)

vayitzchak (וַיִּצְחָק) = and he laughed.  (From the root tzachak, צָחֲק = laughed.)

Humans laugh when we encounter a mismatch: when two things appear together that we would never expect to see in the same context.  We laugh

* in fun at the surprise of humor,

* in incredulity when a mismatch is almost unbelievable,

* in bitterness when we wish both mismatched things were true but cannot believe it,

* in joy at unexpected good fortune, and

* in mockery at a mismatch in a person we resent.

In the Torah, humor is offered without a laugh track; it is up to the reader to recognize jokes and funny situations. But characters in the Bible do laugh in incredulity, in bitterness, in joy, and in mockery.

When God tells Abraham he and his 89-your-old wife will have a baby, he silently laughs out of incredulity. He also “falls on his face” into the prostrate posture for communicating with God,1 because he is concerned about how God is planning to fulfill the divine prophecy that Abraham will have more descendants than there are stars in the sky.2 Until this point, Abraham assumed all these descendants would come from his 13-year-old son Ishmael, whose mother is Sarah’s slave. What if God ignored Ishmael while making these almost unbelievable plans for Sarah to get pregnant?

Abraham said to God: “If only Ishmael will live in Your presence!” (Genesis 17:18)

And God said: “Truly Sarah, your wife, will be pregnant with your son, and you shall call his name Yitzchak, and I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. And as for Ishmael, I have heard you. Hey! I will bless him and I will make him fruitful… (Genesis 17:19-20)

Yitzchak (יִצְחָק) = Isaac, in English.  In Hebrew, yitzchak = he laughs, he will laugh (from the root tzachak, צָחֲק).

When God repeats his promise of a miraculous birth, Abraham overcomes his incredulity and goes ahead with the circumcisions.

Abraham Sees Three Visitors
(artist unknown)

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayeira (“And he appeared”), three mysterious strangers arrive at Abraham’s camp while he is recovering from his circumcisionThe aged Abraham gets up and runs to welcome the visitors, who look like men, but turn out to be divine messengers or angels. Abraham prepares them a meal (and asks Sarah to bake them cakes, though the cakes are not listed in the meal they eat). The visitors eat, in their disguise as men, and then make sure Sarah is close enough to overhear, and then let her know that she will, at long last, have a child.

And they said to him: “Where is Sarah, your wife?”

And he said: “Here!  In the tent.”

And he said: “I will definitely return to you at the time of life, and hey!  (There will be) a son for Sarah, your wife.”

And Sarah was listening at the opening of the tent, which was behind him.  Abraham and Sarah were old, coming on in years; the periods of women had stopped happening to Sarah.  Vatitzchak, Sarah, inside herself, saying: After I am worn out, will I have sexual pleasure? And my husband is old! (Genesis 18:9-12)

Sarah Hears and Laughs,
by James Tissot

vatitzchak (וַתִּצְחַק) = and she laughed (also from the root tzachak, צָחֲק).

What kind of laughter does Sarah laugh—incredulous, bitter, joyful, or mocking? Biblical commentary is divided.  Sarah does not seem to be mocking anyone, though she may wonder if the man speaking is mocking her. But I can imagine her inner laughter as incredulous or bitter or joyful. So I offer these three alternatives, in colloquial modern English, for what she might be thinking as she laughs:

  1. Incredulity:

    What an idiot this stranger is!  He hasn’t seen me, so he doesn’t know what a dried-up old woman I am.  But Abraham’s standing right in front of him, all wrinkled and liver-spotted.  Who would make an outrageous prediction like that, with a time limit, even? Only an idiot—or a prophet.3  That’s it, Abraham’s three guests are a band of traveling prophets!  Well, this is the most absurd prophecy I’ve ever heard.  You’ve got to laugh at such a ridiculous situation.

  2. Bitterness:

    This stranger may know my name, but he obviously doesn’t know my age.  I bet he was trying to give old Abraham a compliment; even a 99-year-old man likes to hear that he’s virile.  But the man overdid it.  I bet he also doesn’t know that I’ve been barren my whole life, and I had to give my slave to my husband just to get a son to adopt.  And that was a disaster.  Now, even if I were still young enough to have some juice, I know Abraham is past it.  I thought I was used to sleeping in a cold bed. But now all I can think about is how long I’ve been alone.  No sex for years, never nursed a baby, and I didn’t even get to be a mother by adoption; nobody treats me as Ishmael’s mother.  Curse that stranger!  He doesn’t realize how much his remark hurts me.  Men are careless like that.  Even my own husband asks me to make fancy cakes for his guests, and then forgets to serve them!  Men never think of women’s feelings.  You’ve got to laugh at these jokers, so you don’t cry.

  3. Joy:

    Who is this stranger?  How does he know my name?  Does he realize how old we are?  Actually, Abraham may have forgotten to serve my cakes to those men, but he’s been running around like a man in his prime.  And not every 99-year-old man could even survive being circumcised.  Or be so cheerful about it. Hey, Abraham even winked at me, when he told me about what he was going to do to himself, and about how God opened up our names by adding the letter hey.  Everything’s opening up now, he said.  I wonder if he was hinting that my womb was going to open, too?  Maybe when God changed our names and ordered the circumcisions, He went on and told Abraham were going to have a child?  Oh, that would be a rich joke, after I’ve been barren my whole long life!  But if God wants to play a joke on us, and give us both a second youth so I can have my own baby— well then, bring on the miracle!

Then God said to Abraham: “Why is it that Sarah tzachakah, saying: Is it really true, I will give birth, when I have become old? Is a thing too extraordinary for God? At the appointed time I will return to you, at the time of life, and Sarah will have a son.”  (Genesis 18: 14)

tzachakah (צָחֲקָה) = she laughed (also from the root tzachak, צָחֲק).

Now Sarah is alarmed. How could the visitor hear her silent thoughts? Only God could do that sort of thing.  Has she just insulted God?

And Sarah denied it, saying: “Lo tzachakti!”—for she was afraid. But he said: “Not so, for tzachakte”. (Genesis 18:15)

lo tzachakti (לֺא צָחַקְתִּיה) = I did not laugh (also from the root tzachak, צָחֲק).

tzachakte (צָחָקְתְּ) = you (feminine) laughed (also from the root tzachak, צָחֲק).

Then the three “men” get up and walk with Abraham to look down at Sodom in the valley below.

*

Both Abraham and Sarah laugh at the idea of having a baby in extreme old age.  But they keep listening to God, get over their incredulity, and accept the transformation of their lives. Abraham is reassured to hear that both his sons will become fathers and patriarchs. Sarah casts off her bitterness and accepts her sudden good fortune after her adoption scheme went so badly. She is prepared to enjoy sexual pleasure again, as well as nursing her own child.  We next see her in the Torah at Yitzchak’s weaning feast.

When you laugh incredulously, do you leave an opening for an unexpected miracle?  Are you willing to accept a new reality? Are you able to move from bitterness to joy?

(An earlier version of this essay was published in October 2010.  Next week I will post part 2, on making laughter in joy and in mockery.)

  1. See my post Korach: Face Down.
  2. In Genesis 15:5 God promised Abraham he will have more descendants than there are stars in the sky. By the time Abraham is 99, God has promised him five times that his descendants will possess the land of Canaan.  Abraham has assumed these descendants will come from Ishmael, his son through the slave Hagar.
  3. 16th-century Rabbi Obadiah Sforno wrote that Sarah assumes the speaker is a prophet giving a blessing. (Sforno: Commentary on the Torah, trans. by Raphael Pelcovitz, ArtScroll Mesorah Publications, 1993)

 

 

 

Lekh-Lekha: New Names for God

October 25, 2017 at 6:04 pm | Posted in Lekh Lekha | Leave a comment

What is God’s name?

In this week’s Torah portion alone, Abraham encounters God six times, more than anyone else in the book of Genesis/Bereishit.  God both speaks to him and appears to him.  And Abraham learns—or adopts—three new names for God:  Eil Elyon, Adonai, and Eil Shaddai.

Before Abraham appears in the Torah, God is called either Y-H-V-H or Elohim.  These names for God are also used in this week’s Torah portion, Lekh-Lekha (“Get yourself going”).

And Y-H-V-H said to Abraham: “Get yourself going, away from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.”  (Genesis 12:1)

Y-H-V-H (י־ה־ו־ה) = the four-letter name of God (the “tetragrammaton”).

This is God’s most holy and personal name in Judaism.  Y-H-V-H may be based on the root verb for being, becoming, and happening, hayah (היה); or it may derive from an ancient pre-Hebrew god name.  It is often translated into English as “LORD” in all capitals, although the Hebrew word for “lord” is adon (see Adonai below) and has nothing to do with the tetragrammaton.

The Torah calls God Elohim in Genesis/Bereishit 1:1, and the name resurfaces often, including later in this week’s Torah portion:

And Abraham fell on his face, and Elohim spoke to him.  (Genesis 17:3)

Elohim (אֱלוֹהִים) = God; gods.

The first new name for God is introduced when Abraham he runs into a delicate political situation.  After Abraham and his allies have won a war, the local kings meet in the valley of the king-priest MalkiTzedek.1

Melchizedek and Abraham,
Cologne Bible, 1478

And Malki-Tzedek, the king of Shaleim, brought out bread and wine.  He was a priest to Eil Elyon.  And he blessed him; he said: “Blessed is Abraham to Eil Elyon, the owner of heaven and earth”.  (Genesis 14:18)

Eil Elyon (אֵל עֶלְיוֹן) = highest god, supreme god.  Eil (אֵל) = god +  elyon (עֶליוֹן) = highest, uppermost.

Then the crasser king of Sodom interrupts with a plan for dividing the spoils of war.  In order not to insult the god of Malki-Tzedek, Abraham replies using the same god-language as the king-priest, merely putting his four-letter name for God in front of Malki-Tzedek’s formula.

And Avram said to the king of Sodom: “I vow by Y-H-V-H, Eil Elyon, the owner of heaven and earth, from a thread to a sandal strap, if I take anything that is yours …  (Genesis 14:22-23)

Thus Abraham politely indicates that his own personal god is the same as Melki-Tzedek’s highest god, the owner of heaven and earth.

This is the only chapter in the Torah in which God is called Eil Elyon.  But the word Elyon, “highest”, is used again 21 times in the Hebrew bible.  Most of these uses occur in poems, where the parallel structure of verses requires a lot of synonyms for “God”.

The second new god-name introduced in this week’s Torah portion is an honorific.  Abraham is the first person to call God Adonai, “my lord”.  He follows this honorific with the four-letter name of God both times that he initiates a conversation with his god.

And Abraham said: “Adonai, Y-H-V-H, what will you give me, since I go childless, and the heir of my household is Eliezer of Damascus?”  (Genesis/Bereishit 15:2)

And he said: “Adonai, Y-H-V-H, how will I know that I will take possession of it?”  (Genesis/Bereishit 15:8)

Adonai (אֲדֺנָי) = my lords (usually translated as “my lord” when it refers to God).  From the singular adon (אֲדוֹן) = lord, master.

The third new god-name in this week’s Torah portion is the most difficult to translate.  Eil Shaddai is commonly translated into English as “God Almighty”, based on the Latin Vulgate, but Shaddai means something else in Hebrew.

It was when Abraham was 99 years old that Y-H-V-H appeared to Abraham and said to him: “I am Eil Shaddai.  Walk constantly in my presence, and become perfect.”  (Genesis 17:1)

Eil Shaddai = An eil is a god.  Shaddai might mean:

— who is enough (prefix she-/שֶׁ = who + dai/דַּי = enough)

— of breasts (shadayim/שָׁדַי = breasts)

— devastation (shudad/ שֻׁדַּד = devastated)

— of the mountain (if the word shaddai is borrowed from Akkadian)

God is called Eil Shaddai 48 times in the Hebrew Bible.  Most references to Eil Shaddai or just Shaddai occur in poems,2 which need lots of synonyms for God.  The two uses of Shaddai in the book of Ezekiel are onomatopoeic; Ezekiel describes the sound of wings in his vision as being “like the sound of Shaddai”.

However, Eil Shaddai does occur nine times in biblical prose passages, including every reference in Genesis.  And all nine occurrences have something to do with fertility.  In this week’s Torah portion, when God first reveals the name Eil Shaddai to Abraham, God goes on to say 1) that Abraham will be very fruitful, with nations of descendants; 2) that he and all the males in his household must be circumcised, and 3) that he will have a son with his 89-year-old wife Sarah.3

*

The five names for God that Abraham uses in the Torah portion Lekh-Lekha are still used in Hebrew liturgy today.4  Do Abraham’s three new names for God have any relevance to us?  The name Eil Elyon, “Highest God”, is about God’s relationship to other gods.  But by the time of Deuteronomy, the Torah is monotheistic, and uses only Elyon, “Highest”, as an adjective for the one God.  Today, calling God Elyon might remind us that God (at least the God within us) is more important than other things we give top priority in our lives.

The name Adonai, “My lords”, can remind us that we are not as autonomous as we might think.  We are not the masters of the universe.  We are not even masters of our own souls; we do what we can, but we are all dependent on the grace of God.  Calling God Adonai might remind us to be humble.

The name Eil Shaddai, “God of Breasts” or “God of Enough”, is about God as the source of fertility and nurture.  We are creative creatures; we not only bear offspring, like other animals, but we generate inventions, art, ideas, religions.  Calling God Eil Shaddai might remind us to be grateful for all those inspirations that come “out of the blue”, and grateful for our abilities to nurture both ideas and fellow human beings.

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

  1. MalkiTzedek (מַלְכִּי־צֶדֶק) = melekh (מֶלֶךְ)=king + tzedek (צֶדֶק)=righteousness, justice. MalkiTzedek is identified as the king of Shaleim (שָׁלֵם) = wholeness; from the same root as shalom (שָׁלוֹם) = peace.  Judging by the location, he is probably Jebusite ruler of the town that came to be known as Jerusalem.
  2. The word Shaddai occurs in poems in Isaiah 13:6, Joel 1:15, twice in Bilaam’s prophecies in Numbers/Bemidbar, twice in Psalms, and 31 times in the book of Job.
  3. In the next occurrence, Isaac asks Eil Shaddai to bless Jacob by making him “fruitful and numerous” and “an assembly of peoples”.  When God renames Jacob “Israel”, God adds, “I am Eil Shaddai; be fruitful and numerous; a nation and an assembly of nations…”  Jacob himself uses the name Shaddai three times, once to recall the above blessing, once to plead for the safe return of two of his sons from Egypt, and once to shower blessings on the tribe of Joseph, including “blessings of breasts and womb”.  In Exodus, God tells Moses “I appeared to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Yaakov with Eil Shaddai”, but then uses a different name with Moses—whose personal fertility is not an issue.  In the book of Ruth, Naomi refers to Shaddai twice, complaining that this god harmed her and made her bitter by bereaving her of her husband and two sons, and leaving her with no grandchildren.  Eil Shaddai, the god of breasts, can withhold fertility as well as grant it.
  1. This week’s Torah portion also includes what might be considered a fourth new name of God.  Hagar, who is Abraham’s concubine and Sarah’s servant, runs away, then hears angels of God giving her advice and prophecy.  She says, “You are a seeing god!”  But this particular formation, eil ro-iy, is never used again in the Torah, and I have never found it in the standard liturgy. It seems to be an expression Hagar’s personal relationship to God.

Noach: Noah’s Wife

October 19, 2017 at 10:36 am | Posted in Noach | 2 Comments

a Torah monologue by Maggidah Melissa Carpenter

It all started with sheep.  When I was a girl, people kept sheep to shear for wool and to milk for making cheese.  My mother used to say, “On the sixth day, God gave the humans and animals plants for food.  Nothing but plants!”1

I used to argue, “Then why did God make mothers that give milk?”  And I ate cheese on my lentils.  I still do.

Lamech and His Two Wives
by William Blake, 1795

Those were the good days.  Then some man named Lemech went crazy, and there was a fight, and two men died.  Lemech was the second murderer in the world.  He boasted about what he’d done, so I could understand why God didn’t give him a mark of protection, like Cain.  What I could not understand was why God didn’t speak.

After that fight, it seemed like young men had shorter tempers and bigger appetites.  One year they came back from the sheep-shearing missing two sheep.  There was blood on the fleeces.  Blood in their beards.  Soon they were bringing back whole sheepskins, and legs to cook.  The first time I saw a man bite into a roasted leg, I had nightmares for a week.

Nobody stopped them.  My mother tried, but she was a small woman, and they knocked her down.  After that she walked with a limp.  My father kept going out with the other shepherds.  And when they brought back lambs, some of the women ate the tender meat.  In a few years almost everybody was eating lamb.  Even the lions.

The young men came home sometimes with cuts and gouges from the shearing knives.  They were fighting.

Chamas,2” my mother whispered.  Violence.  Cruelty.

*

            Lots of men came after me once my figure filled out.  I carried my own knife to keep them away, since we had no laws.

Some years later I made friends with Lemech’s youngest son, Noach.  His mother had died by then, and his father had gone for good.  Noach traded barley and grapes in the marketplace, along with the little wooden boxes he made.  He stayed away from the other end of the market.  Said he didn’t like the taste of meat, and sheep gave him a rash.

One day he invited me up the hill to see the house he’d built.  It was a big empty wooden house with four bedrooms.  Noach said we could put a bed in the room I liked best.

“What about the other rooms?”

He looked down.  “Maybe we’ll have children.”

“Yes,” I said.

*

            We had three sons, and I raised them to be vegetarians.  Once Cham, our youngest, came home with a nasty knife wound, but at least none of my sons ever brought home meat.  All three married good women.  Our house was full.

One day when Noach came home from the fields he was shivering.  He said: “God spoke to me.”

“What!”

“I was just hoeing, out in the field, and God spoke to me. Inside my body.”

“Are you sure it was God?”

“Yes.  God said I have to build a box.  A giant box.  Waterproof.  Divided up into compartments.  And then I have to collect animals.  Two of every kind of animal in the world. And put them in the box.  And four pairs of humans: you and me, and our sons and their wives.”

“Why?”

“Because God is disappointed in the human race.  Because of all our violence, our chamas.  God wants to start all over again.  So he’s going to send a flood that will wipe out the whole earth.  Except for the survivors in the floating box.  The ark.”

“But Noach, what about children?  And the more peaceful animals?  Isn’t God more—selective?”

“I guess not.  And I can’t argue with God.  I’ve got to start building a box.”

He did.  It dwarfed our house.  Sometimes folks wandered by and jeered at him, but my husband only told them one thing, over and over again.  “God said to build an ark, because the earth is filled with chamas, so he’s going to send a flood to wipe out all flesh.  That’s what God said.”3

Nobody listened to Noach.

He finished the ark, and packed several compartments with seeds and farming tools, and grain to feed everybody.  Even the lions.  He sent off our sons and their wives to collect pairs of animals from around the world.  Then he asked me to get the sheep.  He told me that now God wanted seven rams and seven ewes, so he could make slaughter-sacrifices for God after the flood.4

“What?  I thought God didn’t like chamas!  Why would God want us to save animals only to kill them?”

“I dunno.  I can’t argue with God.”

“Then go get the sheep yourself, Noach.”

“I can’t.  Sheep give me a rash.”

“I thought—I thought that was just an excuse.  I thought you were a good man, different from all the others.”

Noach looked miserable.  He backed up and stood in the shadow of the ark.  “God wants seven cattle, too, and seven goats, and some extra birds.  I’ll take care of those.”

And I knew I had to get the sheep.  My only other choice was to drown.

God gave us seven days to load all the animals.  When the rain started our son Cham balked and argued, but in the end he followed his wife inside the ark, and we sealed the door.  I remember when the ark shifted and began to float.  We all cheered.  Then we heard people hammering on the outside of the door, and I felt bad.

We spent all our waking time feeding the animals.  The rain stopped after 40 days, but the flood went on for months.  Then the ark grated against something.  We climbed the ladder and peered out the window in the roof.  The sky was blue.  So was the water, rippling in the wind.  Tiny islands of bare rock stuck out of the water.  I realized they were mountaintops.

by Gustave Dore, 1866

When the water finally dried up, we saw lots of mud where we could plant seeds.  We wait for Noach to lead us out of the ark, but he just kept shoveling grain into the animals’ stalls.  Until one morning he finally called us together and said:  “God said to go out, and let out the animals, to be fruitful and multiply.”

We started to cheer, but Noach looked so glum that the cheer failed.  I wondered if my husband had delayed leaving the ark because he was not looking forward to the animal sacrifice.

Noach held back the sheep and cattle and goats and birds that he said God wanted sacrificed.  I stood with my hands on my hips and watched him build a platform out of stones.  I think it was an altar, though I’d never seen one before.

He got our sons to hold the animals while he slit their throats.  Then he burned them.  A new, clean world, and my husband goes and sends up a column of greasy black smoke.  Behind it a rainbow appeared.  Noach’s face and hands broke out in a rash.

We ploughed a big field of mud farther down the mountain, and we discovered that some debris from the flood had settled into the mud.  Pottery, blankets, dead animals.  Human bodies.  When I ploughed up a dead child, I lay down on the dirt and cried the rest of the day.

I don’t get it.  If all our chamas made God regret creating the world, why did God do so much chamas to destroy it?

I liked God’s first creation better.

  1. And God said: “Hey, I give to you all seed-bearing green plants that are on the face of all the earth, and all the trees that have seed-bearing fruit; they shall be food for you. And to all animals of the land and to all birds of the heavens and to all crawlers on the earth that have the soul of life:  all greens, green plants, for food.”  And it was so.  And God saw all that “he” had made, and hey!  Very good.  And it was evening and it was morning, the sixth day.  (Genesis 1:29-31)
  2. chamas (חָמָס) = violence, lawlessness, cruelty. The first occurrence of this word is in the Torah portion Noach: The earth was corrupt in front of the Elohim, and it was chamas. (Genesis 6:11)
  3. Genesis 6:13, 6:17.
  4. Genesis 7:2.

                                                                                                                               

Bereishit: Snake

October 13, 2017 at 1:01 pm | Posted in Bereishit | 1 Comment

a Torah monologue by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah

 

I was created in Chapter Two.  The first creation story in the Bible didn’t even mention me.  I woke up on damp dirt under bare sky.  No plants, no animals.  Just a clump of dirt next to me, slowly changing shape as if somebody invisible were modelling it.1  I knew who: God.  I watched the hands form, and then the face.  As the creature developed, beams of light appeared around it.

“Hey, God, what are you creating?”

Adam.2  Humankind.  Or a model of it.”

I tried to look at my own body, for comparison, but all I saw was a squiggle of light between the adam-in-progress and—what?  My mind?

“Hey, God, what am I?”

“An archetype.  Of the snake.  You are the kind of snake that slides into the human mind.  Not the real-world animal that slithers over the ground or hangs from trees.”

“Wow.  Do all archetypes slide into human minds?”

“In a way.  Archetypes will inspire different groups of humans to invent their own myths about each of you: the healer, the king, birth, death, various gods—”

“Gods?  Hey, am I an archetype of a god?”

“No.  Oh, some humans might invent a snake god, why not?  But you, Snake, are unique.  I created you because humans are going to be complicated.  They’ll operate mostly by instinct and habit, like other animals.  But I’m giving them a bit a free will, to make things interesting.  And humans will need a lot of doubts and questions and temptations to make them use their free will.  Your job is to make them think, so they can choose to change.”

I had a job.  God created me for a purpose.  It made me feel tight inside my skin.  Ready to shed and be a bigger snake.

“Ssso then, are you an archetype of a god?”

God laughed.  I think.  I couldn’t see God’s face, and I realized the sound of laughter was something in my mind.  Like words.  I found out later that real snakes are deaf.  Not a problem for an archetype.

“I’m not that kind of god.  But humans will invent myths about me, too.”

“That what are you, God?  Are you some other kind of archetype?”

“That, Snake, is a trick question.  It depends on how you define archetype.  And reality.  And creation.”

God finished the human’s eyelashes, then breathed into its nostrils.  The dirt figure sighed, sat up, and looked straight at me.

I crawled out of my skin.

*

I woke up the second time in a garden.  Eden.  It didn’t look real.  Every leaf, every fruit, looked as if God had just painted it.  There was no decay, no dust.

I knew the real world could never be that perfect. Maybe this garden was another archetype.

The two trees in the middle of the garden sure looked like archetypes.  They had bark, branches, leaves, fruit, like all the other trees; but they glowed meaningfully.  I looped myself around the trunk of the first one and stuck my neck out, pretending to be an extra branch, but I had no bark.  Only bite.  So I tasted a fruit, and then I knew it was the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad.

That gave me a lot to think about.  But I was distracted by the second tree.  I stretched my neck out farther and bit into one of its fruits.  And I knew it was the Tree of Life.

After that I wasn’t hungry any more.  I slinked around the garden, hissing to myself, looking for the exit.  But there was no exit.  I was stuck in the garden of archetypes.

Still, I didn’t have to do the job God gave me.  I could go on strike.  Thanks to the Tree of Knowledge, I knew I had a choice.  Which meant I had a share in the human’s bit of free will.

Going on strike was boring, so I decided to look for the adam.  Animals were starting to appear in the garden; they were all perfect, without a single scratch or scar, and they all ate fruit.3  But they never went to the middle of the garden.

When I headed back that way, I came face to face with the adam.  It frowned, then said: “Nachash!4  Snake.

I followed the human around while it named other things, hoping it would invent verbs soon.  Maybe someday it would build up to complete sentences, and we could have a conversation.

But before the adam thought up verbs, God dropped by.  Of course I couldn’t see God, but I could tell by the wind.  The adam slumped down into a coma, and the wind really picked up.  Then Eden was still again, and there were two humans lying on the ground.  They both looked like the original, except for a few minor details.  They sat up and stared at one another.  Then they started talking in complete sentences.  I guess it takes two humans to invent a language.

After a while they started touching one another, and they had a really good time.  At least that’s how it looked to me, from my perch in the Tree of Knowledge.  The man dozed off afterward, and the woman wandered over toward me.  I felt a little push, like a gust of wind.

Right.  God.  I was here for a purpose.

The woman stopped in front of me and put her hands behind her back, as if she were afraid she might accidentally touch the tree.

I hung a loop of myself from a branch, and started talking.  “Pssst!  Did God really say that you shouldn’t eat from any tree of the garden?”5

Sure enough, she couldn’t resist explaining.  “Oh, we can eat the fruit of the trees of the garden.  Except for the tree in the middle of the garden.  God said:  You must not eat from it, and you must not touch it, lest you die.”6

Then her eyes shifted, and I knew she wasn’t as sure of herself as she sounded.  After all, she was remembering something God had said when she was only half of the adam.  Maybe she was missing something?

I whispered: “Which of the two trees in the middle was God talking about?”

She had no answer. But I knew eating from the Tree of Life would make her immortal, and then she could never live in the real world.  If she ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad, she’d find out she could make choices.

Maybe the humans even had to disobey God, so they could experience inner conflict.  You can’t make a serious choice without inner conflict.

I said, “Oh, you will not die for certain.  Actually, God knows that on the day you eat from it, your eyes will be opened, and you will become like God, knowing good and bad.”7

I figured God must know the concepts “good” and “bad”, since God created the archetype of that tree.  But God couldn’t chew over the fruits of knowledge.  That was for human minds—and the archetypes inspiring them.

So does God have free will?

Trick question!  Depends on how you define God.

by Lucas Cranach
the Elder (1472-1553)

The woman thought for a while, gazing at the nearest fruit, and I knew I’d done my job and tempted her.  She wanted to become like God.  Finally she touched the fruit.  It fell into her hand.

She took a bite, swallowed, and smiled.  Then she ran back to the man, nudged him awake, and held out the glowing fruit.  He bit right into it.

After that, the two humans were more thoughtful.  When I threw out a question, they’d argue about the answer.  Life was more interesting.

When I asked them about the details that made their bodies different, they got self-conscious.  They sewed together fig leaves and made themselves aprons to hide the most obvious differences.  Silly, if you ask me, but they got satisfaction out of it.

Then one afternoon the wind came back.  God.  The humans must have remembered that God comes in the wind, because I saw a new expression on their faces.  Inner conflict!  They ran behind a tree with a lot of low branches.  As if they could hide from God, the way they wore aprons to hide from one another.

The voice of God rang through the garden.  “Where are you?”8

Good question.  Where were they now?  How much had they changed?  But the man took the question literally, and said, “I heard your sound in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, and I hid.”

“Who told you that you are naked?  Did you eat from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”

“Uh, the woman that you put by my side, she gave me something from the tree, and I ate.”

What an answer!  Instead of taking responsibility, he blames both God and the woman.  Can you believe that idiot ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad?  I realized that once humans know there are such things as good and bad, they spend the rest of their lives figuring out what’s what.

God asked the woman what she had done, and she admitted she ate the fruit, but she blamed me.

Now, I was ready to own up to what I said, and explain why I said it.  But God didn’t ask me.  I guess God figured I was just doing my job, and went directly to the curses.  It became clear that real snakes and real humans were going to have a hard time in the real world.

After the cursing was over, the two humans didn’t look so fresh anymore.  They even had some scabs where they’d pricked themselves sewing the leaves together.  As if God had already clothed them in real human skins.9

Also they both looked depressed.

God spoke again.  To me, I think.  “Hey, the adam has become like one of us, knowing good and bad.  And now, lest it stretch out its hand and take also from the Tree of Life and eat, and live forever—”

Then God made an opening from the Garden of Eden into the real world, and a wind pushed the humans through.  I guess they were finally complicated enough.

I thought of going into the real world too, but God set up this flaming, whirling sword at the gate.  And besides, my skin was feeling tight again.  I shrugged it off.

*

When I woke up the third time, I was in the book of Exodus, in the middle of a story about Moses and Pharaoh and magic.10  The real world was crawling with real snakes, but I was still an archetype, hanging out with Knowledge and Life.

I know where the exit is now, but I’m not going to leave the Garden of Eden.  I’m going to keep whispering doubts and questions into all your dim human minds.  After all, the more you humans stop to think, the more you make real choices.  And the world is slowly getting better.

But it’s still not good enough, not by a long shot.  Bad things keep on happening to good people.   So I’ve got a question for you.  Does God understand good and bad?

Trick question!

  1. After Genesis 1:1-2:4a, in which God creates the universe in six days and rests on the seventh, is a second creation story begins. In this story, God makes earth and heaven (Genesis 2:4b), and fresh water wells up from the ground and waters the surface of the earth (Genesis 2:6). Then, before creating rain or plants, God shapes a human out of the dust of the ground (Genesis 2:5, 2:7) and blows into its nostrils the breath of life.
  2. adam (אָדָם) = humankind; a human being. (From the same root as adamah, אֲדָמָה = ground, dirt; and adom, אָדֺם = red-brown.)
  3. Genesis 1:29-30.
  4. nachash (נָחָשׁ) = snake, serpent. (Probably from the same root as nichash, נִחַשׁ = read omens, practiced divination; and nechoshet, נְחֺשֶׁת = copper, bronze.)
  5. Genesis 3:1
  6. Genesis 3:2-3.
  7. Genesis 3:4-5.
  8. Genesis 3:9.
  9. Genesis 3:21.
  10. The next appearance of the word nachash in the Bible is Exodus 4:3, when Moses’ staff first transforms into a snake.

Kohelet: Is Life Meaningless?

October 5, 2017 at 1:24 pm | Posted in Ecclesiastes/Kohelet, Sukkot | 1 Comment

Modern sukkah in Israel

During the Jewish week of Sukkot, which began on Wednesday evening, the traditional reading is the book of Ecclesiastes/Kohelet. Sukkot is called zeman simchateynu, the “time of our rejoicing”. In the Torah Sukkot celebrates the harvest of autumn fruits (grapes, figs, pomegranates, and olives), and the people live in fragile temporary shelters called sukkot. Today Jews still erect and decorate sukkot and hold rituals and meals inside them.

Modern sukkah in America

Although these huts only last for a week, we rejoice inside them. The author of the book of Kohelet (“Assembler” or “Assemblyman”1), on the other hand, would be depressed.

The famous opening of the book in the King James Bible translation includes “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”

The word “vanity” here means doing something in vain, i.e. with no resulting change. Futility is is indeed one possible translation of the Hebrew word haveil.

Haveil havalim, said the Assembler.

          Haveil havalim! Everything is havel. (Kohelet 1:2)

haveil (הֲבֵל), havel (הָבֶל), hevel (הֶבֶל) = (noun) puff of air, vapor; (adjective) evanescent, futile, absurd. (Also the name of Adam and Eve’s second son, called “Abel” in English. See my post Bereishit: Fairness and Free Will.)

havalim (הֲבָלִים) = plural of haveil. In biblical Hebrew, a plural noun immediately following the same noun in the singular noun is an intensive.  Thus haveil havalim means utterly evanescent, utterly futile, or utterly absurd, though it can also be translated as “futility of futilities”.

The poetic introduction of the book of Kohelet describes how the cycles of nature never change; the sun keeps rising and setting, the wind keeps going around, water flows down to the sea and then returns to its sources.

What will happen has happened before

            and what is done has been done before.

And there is nothing new under the sun.  (Kohelet 1:9)

After the introductory poem, the writer uses an exclamation that becomes a refrain throughout the book:

Everything is hevel and herding ruach! (Kohelet 1:14)

ruach (רוּהַ) = wind; spirit; mood.

In a world of futility and absurdity, trying to achieve anything is like trying to herd the wind.

The rest of the book reports the writer’s fruitless attempts to find meaning in life despite the fact that everything in this world, “under the sun”, is hevel.  Chapter 2 points out that no matter how much you achieve, no matter how much luxury or wisdom you acquire, you still die, and whoever inherits from you also dies.

Chapter 3 starts with the famous poem beginning:

For everything there is a season

            and a time for every business under heaven:

A time to be born

            and a time to die… (Kohelet 3:1-2)

Humans also follow natural cycles, making no progress and doing nothing truly new. God has determined everything, according to Kohelet, and humans die just as beasts do.

Everything goes to one place; everything comes from the dust and returns to the dust. Who knows if the ruach of a human rises to [what is] above, and the ruach of the beast goes down [what is] below, to the earth? (Kohelet 3:20-21)

Judging by the rest of the book, the writer does not believe the spirit (ruach) of any human rises to another life after death. Death is simply an ending that usually comes before the person has had enough of life.

And life, according to Kohelet, is depressing. The author points out the inevitability of oppression, evil, envy, and folly.2 Wealth may disappear, and power is no good because every boss is at the mercy of a superior, and even the king is at the mercy of the crops of the land.3  God might grant someone every desire, along with wealth, possessions, honor, 100 children, and a long life, but that person will still die before being sated with good things; we can never live long enough.4 God makes good and bad things happen; humans have little effect.5

Here is hevel that is done on the earth: that there are righteous ones who God treats as if their deeds were like those of the wicked, and there are wicked ones who God treats as if their deeds were like those of the righteous. I say that this, too, is havel. (Kohelet 8:14)

Life is absurd, rather than meaningful, in the face of the “problem of evil” (also called the theodicy).

Sukkah roof

Kohelet also points out that wisdom is easily brought down by one foolish act6, and that we have decay to look forward to as well as death7. Yet our fragility is part of the celebration during Sukkot; every sukkah is designed to let the rain in, and every morning we stand inside and conduct a ritual to encourage the rainy season to begin.

The most the author of Kohelet can recommend is to enjoy life despite its meaninglessness:

Go eat your bread with joy and drink your wine with a good heart since God has already approved your deeds. At all times let your clothes be clean, and oil not lacking on your head. Choose life with a woman whom you love, all the days of your life of hevel that God granted you under the sun, all the days of your hevel, because that is your share in life and your exertion that you exert under the sun. Everything that your hand finds to do, do with all your power, because there is no doing nor reckoning nor knowledge nor wisdom in Sheol [underground], where you are going. (Kohelet 9:7-9)

*

I cannot argue with Kohelet’s advice about cultivating physical pleasure, loving companionship, and zest in your work. Nor would I deny that everything decays and dies. But unlike the author of Kohelet I believe that new things do happen, and humankind is making progress in some areas, however slow and faltering. And I believe that even though life is too short and reality is absurd, life has meaning. What gives life meaning to me is the conviction that even though so much is out of our hands, we humans can, with conscious attention, change our own minds.

So what if all my thoughts and experiences vanish when my body dies? So what if the whole earth and all human achievement is lost forever when the sun explodes? What happens right now, this moment, is still meaningful if we make it so.

The book of Kohelet ends (excluding the postscript) in the same place it begins:

And the dust returns to the earth, where it was,

            and the ruach returns to God, who gave it.

Haveil havalim, said the Assembler.

            Haveil havalim! Everything is havel. (Kohelet 12:7-8)

Yes, everything is like a puff of air, evanescent and absurd—but some things still matter. And yes, as long as we live, we humans are herding ruach. But we are not always futilely trying to herd the wind. Ruach can also mean mood or spirit. Sometimes we learn how to herd our own moods, so we can rise above them. Sometimes we can even herd our own spirits, nudging our own souls to make our lives meaningful.

Then it is easy to rejoice inside the fragile, evanescent, absurd sukkot of our lives.

  1. The word kohelet ( קֹהֶלֶת) comes from the root verb kahal (קהל) = assemble. But the -et ending is a mystery; it might indicate either a female or a vocation, and it might mean a member of an assembly rather than the one who calls the assembly. See Robert Alter, The Wisdom Books, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2010, p. 337.
  2. Kohelet chapter 4.
  3. Kohelet chapter 5.
  4. Kohelet chapter 6.
  5. Kohelet chapter 7.
  6. Kohelet chapter 10.
  7. Kohelet chapter 12.

Yom Kippur & Isaiah: Ending Slavery

September 27, 2017 at 11:57 pm | Posted in Isaiah 2, Yom Kippur | Leave a comment

Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur, by Maurycy Goittlieb

We do it every year on Yom Kippur. This Friday at sunset, observant Jews whose health permits will begin a 26-hour fast, accompanied by communal prayer Friday evening and all day Saturday.  One of the readings on Yom Kippur is a passage from second Isaiah1 in which the Israelites ask God:

We fasted; why did you not see?

          Inninu our bodies, but you did not notice!

inninu (עִנִּינוּ) = we overpowered, we subdued, we humiliated, we oppressed. (From the root verb anah, ענה.)

God replies:

Hey, on the day of your fasting, you meet [to do] business,

          and you beat all your laborers!

Hey, you fast with a lawsuit and a quarrel,

          and you strike with a wicked fist!

You cannot, with a fast like today,

          make your voice heard on high.

Is it [only] like this, the fast I would choose:

          a day of humans annot their bodies? (Isaiah 58:3-5)

annot (עַנּוֹת) = overpowering, subduing, humiliating, oppressing. (Also from the root verb anah.)

The divine objection is that while the Israelites are annot their physical appetites by fasting, they are also annot other people. God will pay attention only to people who behave morally toward other human beings.

Is not this the fast I would choose:

          Opening the shackles of wickedness,

breaking the harness ropes of the human yoke,

          and setting free those who are crushed?  (Isaiah 58:6)

Most books of the Bible accept slavery, and issue laws ameliorating it somewhat by providing for the emancipation of Israelite slaves (by redemption2 or after six years3), by limiting who can be sold as a slave4, and by giving all slaves, Israelite and foreign, the day of Shabbat and all festival days off from work.5

But in second Isaiah, God calls for slave-owning Israelites to free all their slaves. God will not pay attention to anyone who is annot other people by owning them as slaves.

Then God implies that neglecting anyone so poor as to be without food, shelter, or clothing is another form of annot. God continues the description of the fast God would choose:

Beggars, by Rembrandt

Is it not sharing your bread with the hungry,

and bringing home the homeless poor?

When you see a naked person, you must cover him,

and not hide yourself from your fellow.  (Isaiah 58:7)

This is a tall order for getting God’s attention. If I take it literally, I at least feel relieved that I have no slaves (or even employees), I never use my fists, and I am not quarreling with or suing anyone. But I would be afraid to invite a homeless stranger into my home unless I had a lot of friends there in case of emergency.

Taken less literally, the reading from second Isaiah encourages me to continue making donations to food banks, giving spare change to beggars, and donating money and goods to charities. It also reminds me that I am happy to pay taxes for programs that assist the poor.

But maybe I could do more about “opening the shackles of wickedness” and “setting free those who are crushed”. In the United States today slavery is illegal, but there are people living here without government papers. “Illegal aliens” who have no other home are not free. Many are oppressed and harassed by their employers or by government employees. Many do not dare complain about inhumane working conditions; what if they got deported? There is no American law to free them after six years of menial and insecure labor, so that they can pursue higher education and better jobs.

Freeing the oppressed resident aliens in America is not only the right thing to do, but the religious thing to do. The Bible repeatedly warns us not to “oppress the stranger”, i.e. resident alien.6 What can ordinary citizens do to free “illegal aliens” from annot? We can keep letting our elected officials know that all shackles are wicked, and that everyone deserves freedom and equality—and therefore legal status in their own country, the country where they have lived for years.

That is when you call and God answers,

            you cry out and [God] says, Here I am:

When you banish the human yoke,

            the pointed finger, and unjust speech. (Isaiah 58:9)

  1. Modern scholars agree that chapters 1-39 of the book of Isaiah were written in the 8th century B.C.E., when the Assyrian Empire conquered the northern kingdom of Israel. Chapters 40-66 are dated to either the 6th century B.C.E., during the Babylonian exile of the prominent families of Judah, or the 5th century, after the Persian Empire had swallowed the Babylonian Empire and given Jews permission to return to Jerusalem and build the second temple.
  2. Leviticus 25:35-37. See my post Mishpatim and Psalms 39 & 119: Foreigners.
  3. Deuteronomy 15:12-13. See my post Haftarat Mishpatim—Jeremiah: False Freedom.
  4. Deuteronomy 21:10-14. See my post Ki Teitzei: You Are What You Wear, Part 1.
  5. Exodus 23:12 for Shabbat. Similar laws are given for each festival day when it is ordered.
  6. Exodus 22:21, 23:9; Deuteronomy 24:17, 27:19; Jeremiah 7:6, 22:3; Zechariah 7:10.

 

Ha-azinu: A Hovering Bird

September 18, 2017 at 10:55 pm | Posted in Bereishit, Ha-azinu | Leave a comment

Might God help us learn to fly?

This Shabbat, the one between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we read Ha-azinu (Use your ears). Most of the Torah portion is a long poem predicting that even though that God brought the Israelites up from Egypt and protected them, God’s people will continue to do wrong and worship other gods. At one point, Ha-azinu compares God to an eagle teaching its fledglings to fly.

Like an eagle1 [God] rouses Its nest;

Over Its fledglings yeracheif.

It spreads out Its wings, It takes one;

It carries it up on Its wings.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 32:11)

yeracheif (יְרַחֵף) = it hovers like a bird. (A form of the verb rachaf, רָחַף = flutter like a bird.)

This verse may describe a parent eagle hovering nearby while its young are practicing short flights. If an eaglet falls, the parent swoops under it and catches the fledgling on its own wings. (Eaglets usually learn to fly without assistance. Yet this type of parental rescue has been observed in our own time with golden eagles.)

The verb rachaf occurs only three times in the Bible: here, in the book of Jeremiah, and in the book of Genesis. Jeremiah describes his anguish over the false prophets in Jerusalem this way:

My heart is broken inside me.

            All my bones rachafu.

            I have become like a drunken man,

            Like a strong man who passed through wine. (Jeremiah 23:9)

rachafu (רָחֲפוּ) = they tremble, flutter.

Jeremiah uses a form2 of the verb rachaf  to show that he is so overwhelmed, the bones that are normally stiff enough to hold him up are fluttering, trembling, unreliable.

Golden eagle

But when the verb rachaf  refers to God, it is in a form3 that means hovering. Near the end of the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim, God hovers like a parent ready to rescue young birds learning to fly.

In a few weeks, on Simchat Torah, Jewish congregations around the world will read the last lines of Deuteronomy, then roll the Torah scroll back to the beginning and read about the creation of the universe in Genesis/Bereishit.

In a beginning God created the heavens and the earth. But the earth was a vacancy and a void and a darkness over the face of the deep, and the wind of God merachefet over the face of the waters. (Genesis/Bereishit 1:1-2)

merachefet (מְרַחֶפֶת) = was hovering (like a bird).

Before God even speaks light into being, the wind or spirit of God is hovering over the face of the water and darkness.  It seems as though God is watching, waiting to see if something will rise up, evolve on its own initiative.  When nothing arises, God has to take the next step and say “Let there be light”.

In this week’s Torah portion, almost at the end of the cycle of readings, God watches over human beings like a parent bird, waiting to see if we will evolve on our own initiative. If we are like eaglets, at first we simply eat the food (or live the life) that is given to us, without questioning it. Then we experiment, like fledglings flapping from branch to branch. Finally we are roused by ineffable longings, and we attempt to fly out into the blue.

When we get morally confused or mentally tired, we falter and fall. But the Torah says God is hovering over us, and catches us briefly so we can fly again.

This description may be true for people who feel a religious impulse and reach for the divine with open hearts and minds. Their religion can help to inspire awe and gratitude, and it can catch them when they begin to fall.

But all too often, purveyors of religion lose track of where God is. All too often we humans turn our religions into weapons instead of wings.  Then who, or what, will catch us and carry us back up to the light?

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

  1. nesher (נֶשֶׁר) = a general term for any eagle, vulture, or large bird of prey. In this case, the bird’s behavior indicates a golden eagle.
  2. The kal stem.
  3. The pi-el stem.

 

 

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