Vayishlach: A Partial Reconciliation

November 24, 2015 at 5:59 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah

Jacob finally heads back to Canaan at the opening of this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach (“and he sent”)—after 20 years in the town of Charan in Aram, being cheated by his uncle and father-in-law Lavan.  Jacob now has his own large family and plenty of wealth to make a fresh start, but one thing hangs over his head: when he fled Canaan 20 years before, his brother Esau was planning to murder him.

Esau lentil-soupEsau was enraged because Jacob had cheated Esau twice. First Jacob traded Esau a bowl of stew for Esau’s larger inheritance as the firstborn. Then Jacob disguised himself as Esau to take their blind father Isaac’s blessing.

Jacob’s guilt over his own behavior and anxiety about Esau are still strong 20 years later. He knows that Esau has moved to Sei-ir and founded his own kingdom, Edom. He does not know whether Esau still wants to kill him.

map middle east 1The first thing Jacob does after he crosses the hills of Gilead east of the Jordan is to send messengers to his brother.

And he gave them orders, saying: Thus you shall say: “To my lord, to Esau: Thus says your servant Jacob: I sojourned with Lavan, and I lingered until now. And it happened I acquired oxen and donkeys, flocks and male slaves and female slaves. And now I send ahead to tell my lord, to find chein in your eyes.” (Genesis/Bereishit 32:5-6)

chein (חֵן) = favor, approval.

Jacob words his message to his brother carefully. He addresses Esau as “my lord” instead of “my brother”; calls himself “your servant Jacob”; and mentions “finding favor in your eyes” as if Esau were his king.

The blessing that Isaac gave to Jacob instead of Esau included the words: Be an overlord to your kinsmen, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you. (Genesis 27:29) Now Jacob’s message intimates that the blessing has been reversed; Esau is now Jacob’s overlord, and Jacob will bow down to him.

But Esau does not trust Jacob’s words. (See my earlier post, Vayishlach: Message to a Brother, in which I speculate on how Esau might misinterpret Jacob’s message.)

And the messengers returned to Jacob, saying: We came to your brother, to Esau, and he is actually going out to meet you, and 400 men are with him. Jacob became very frightened…(Genesis 32:7-8)

Jacob concludes that Esau still carries a grudge from 20 years before. Why else would he head north with a small army of 400 men?

shepherd and sheepHe reacts by dividing his family and possessions into two camps, so Esau’s men cannot wipe out everyone at once; by praying to God; and by sending several ridiculously large gifts of livestock ahead to Esau on the road. Jacob instructs the servant in charge of each drove that when he reaches Esau and his men, he should tell Esau the drove is a gift from Jacob. Again, Jacob uses language that flips Isaac’s blessing.

And you shall say: From your servant, from Jacob, it is a minchah sent to my lord, to Esau; and hey!—he is also behind us. (Genesis 32:19)

minchah (מִנְחָה) = a gift of respect, thanks, homage, or allegiance; a tribute.

In the Bible, a person gives a minchah to a king or to God. Jacob’s messages continue to emphasize that he is subservient to Esau—just as if Isaac had given the blessing to Esau after all, and it had taken effect.

For he said [to himself]: Akhaprah fanav with the minchah that is going before me, and after that ereh fanav; perhaps yissa fanai. (Genesis 32:21)

akhaprah (אֲכַפְּרָה) = (literally) I will cover over, I will wipe clean; (idiomatically) I will atone, I will make amends, I will reconcile.

fanav (פָנָיו) = his face.

akhaprah fanav (אֲכַפְּרָה פָנָיו) = (literally) I will cover over his face; (idiomatically) I will appease him, I will placate him, I will pacify him.

ereh fanav (פָנָיו אֶרְאֶה) = (literally) I will see his face; (idiomatically) I will come into his (royal) presence.

yissa  fanai (יִשָּׂא פָנָי) = (literally) he will lift up my face; (idiomatically) he will pardon me.

Jacob then spends the night on the bank of the Yabok River, wrestling with a mysterious being and coming to terms with his own identity. (See my post Vayishlach: Blessing Yourself.) In the morning he crosses over and goes to meet Esau—still limping from his wrestling match.

… and he bowed down to the ground seven times until he drew up to his brother. (Genesis 33:3)

Now Jacob is carrying out what he promised in his original message to Esau; he transfers Isaac’s blessing to Esau by literally bowing down to his brother. (Bowing to the ground seven times was the correct procedure for approaching a Canaanite king in the second millennium B.C.E.)

Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau, by Peter Paul Rubens, detail

Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau, by Peter Paul Rubens, detail

And Esau’s hostility evaporates. He might question Jacob’s words; he might view the gifts of livestock with suspicion; but when he actually sees his brother limping toward him and bowing his gray head to the ground seven times, he realizes that Jacob has changed. His brother is not trying to cheat him again.

Then Esau ran to meet him, and he embraced him, and he fell on his neck, and he kissed him, and they wept. (Genesis 33:4)

Jacob introduces Esau to his family. Then Esau politely refuses to take Jacob’s gift, and Jacob politely urges him to accept it, according to the usual social ritual.  At first Jacob says: If, please, I have found chein in your eyes, then take my minchah from my hand… (Genesis 33:10)

chein (חֵן) = favor, approval.

But when Jacob urges him a second time, he says: Take, please, birkhati that was brought to you, because God chanani and because I have everything. And he urged him, and he took [it]. (Genesis 33:11)

birkhati (בִּרְכָתִי) = my blessing.

chanani (חַנַּנִי) = favored me.

The gift of livestock is so large it probably equals the inheritance of the firstborn that Jacob once traded him for. (The Torah does not say how much each brother actually inherits when Isaac dies, later in the story, but both are already wealthy.) Jacob urges Esau to accept not only the equivalent of the inheritance, but also a blessing. Thus Jacob returns everything he cheated Esau to get.

Are the brothers reconciled?  Not quite.  Esau sheds any lingering anger or anxiety about Jacob, and invites him to go home with him to Sei-ir. But Jacob refuses, on the pretext that the children and the nursing animals cannot travel fast enough. He falsely promises to catch up with Esau later. Then he heads in the other direction.

Jacob has made amends for his bad deeds, so his conscience is cleared. He no longer has a rational reason to believe Esau holds a grudge. Yet he still cannot get over his fear of Esau.

I think the reason is that Esau has not changed.  Jacob has changed; he has faced who he is, and taken steps to right past wrongs.  But Esau is essentially the same: impulsive, emotional, easy to persuade. At that moment, Esau loves him because he believes Jacob had become a good brother.  But in the future, who knows what random act or remark might change Esau’s heart?

I have similar problems in my own life. I can think of at least three people with whom I have reconciled—up to a point.  I have thought of good reasons why they did not reciprocate my apologies, and I am careful to treat them with respect.  Yet all three seem unpredictable to me, moved by mental complexes I do not understand.  Like Jacob, I am still afraid of what they might do next.

Sometimes only a partial reconciliation is possible. Perhaps Jacob is wise to realize this, and travel away from his brother Esau.




Vayeitzei: Father Figures

November 19, 2015 at 10:12 pm | Posted in Vayeitzei | Leave a comment
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Jacob runs away from home at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei (“And he went”). He might be fleeing from his twin brother, Esau—who is threatening to murder Jacob for cheating him twice:  first by trading him a bowl of stew in exchange for his inheritance, and then by impersonating him in order to steal their father Isaac’s blessing.

Jacob might also be running away from his mother, who inveigled him into the impersonation.  He might be running away from his father, an authoritarian figure who loves Esau but not Jacob. Or he might be running away from a household in which he is and always will be the second-born (emerging from the womb holding onto Esau’s heel) and second-best.

prophet 2Officially, Jacob is not running away at all, but following Isaac’s instruction to go to Charan and take a wife from among the daughters of Rebecca’s brother, Lavan.  But Jacob does not wait for his wealthy father to give him a bride-price, riding animals, and servants for the journey.  Instead, he dashes away with only his walking stick.

I think Jacob is determined to leave his past behind, and never again try to take anything from his father: neither an inheritance, nor a blessing, nor even a bag of gold for a bride-price.

When Jacob arrives in Charan, he falls in love with his uncle Lavan’s younger daughter, Rachel, and proposes to pay her bride-price by working as Lavan’s shepherd for seven years.

Lavan agrees to Jacob’s deal, but when the seven years are up, he substitutes his older daughter, Leah, as the bride. Jacob does not dare challenge his authoritarian, unloving uncle/father-in-law—any more than he could directly challenge his father. He ends up working an additional seven years so he can marry Rachel, too.

After fourteen years, Jacob says he is ready to return to Canaan.  But Lavan is not ready to lose such an excellent shepherd.  So he asks what wages would induce Jacob to continue working for him.

Black sheep

Black sheep

He said: What shall I give you?  And Jacob said: You shall not give me anything at all.  If you will do for me this thing, I will go back to shepherd your flocks and watch over them. I shall pass through all your flocks today, and remove from them every speckled or spotted young animal, every dark or spotted one among the lambs and every spotted or specked one among the goat-kids. That will be my wages. (Genesis 30:31-32)

In other words, Lavan will give Jacob ownership of all the spotted goat-kids and dark lambs that day, and when any new spotted kids or dark lambs are born, they will also belong to Jacob. This is a reasonable offer, since the majority of goats in that area are entirely black or brown, and the majority of sheep are entirely white. Jacob will own only the animals with unusual coloring.

And Lavan said: Right! Let it be as you have spoken. (Genesis 30:34)

But Lavan is lying. Before Jacob can go through the flocks, Lavan removes all the oddly colored goats and sheep, both young and adult, and sends them off with his own sons.

And he turned aside on that day the he-goats with akudim or spots or speckles, and all the speckled and spotted she-goats, every one that had lavan on it, and all the dark sheep; and he gave them into the hands of his sons. And he put a journey of three days between himself and Jacob…(Genesis 30:35-36)

akudim (עַקֻדִּים) = stripes; marks from being bound with ropes; bindings. (From the root akad (עקד).)

lavan (לָבָן) = white; brick.  (Also the name of Jacob’s uncle and father-in-law.)

Only the monochromatic animals are left for Jacob to tend. Lavan believes that it would take a miracle for all-black goats to have multi-colored offspring, or for all-white sheep to have dark offspring, so Jacob will never own any animals.

Goats stripedJacob did not mention stripes in his proposal, but Lavan also removes the striped goats.

In the whole bible, words from the root akad (עקד) appear only in the book of Genesis: once when Abraham binds Isaac, and six times in this week’s Torah portion, in descriptions of goats and sheep.

In the story Jews call the Akedah (“Binding”), God tells Abraham to sacrifice his 37-year-old son Isaac.

And they came to the place that God said to him, and Abraham built altar there, and he arranged the wood, vaya-akod Isaac, his son, and he placed him on the later on top of the wood.  And Abraham stretched out his hand, and he took the knife to slaughter his son. (Genesis 22:9-10)

vaya-akod (וַיַּעֲקֹד) = and he bound. (Also from the same root akad (עקד).)

God stops Abraham at the last minute, but the near-sacrifice is the defining moment of Isaac’s life. Isaac, who clearly acquiesced in the binding, is bound for the rest of his life not only to God,  but also to Abraham.  He avoids his father for the rest of the old man’s life, but after Abraham dies, Isaac takes over his livestock business, redigs his father’s wells, and repeats his father’s trick of passing off his wife as his unmarried sister (see my post Toledot: Generations of Impersonations). Isaac remains akudim, as if you could still see the stripes from his binding.

When Lavan goes through his flocks ahead of Jacob, he removes all the he-goats that are akudim like Jacob’s father Isaac, as well as all the she-goats that bear patches of lavan, his own name, and all the dark-colored sheep.

Thus Jacob is symbolically deprived of both his father and his uncle/father-in-law. At last he has no father figure!

Unfortunately, he also has no independent means to feed his own large family.

Jacob tries sympathetic magic, mating the best goats in front of sticks with the dark bark peeled off in strips to reveal the white (lavan) wood underneath, so the she-goats will be thinking of black-and-white mixtures when they conceive. The Torah assumes this method is effective for breeding multi-colored goats.

And the flock went into heat at the sticks, and they gave birth to the flock of akudim, speckled ones, and spotted ones. (Genesis 30:39)

Today we know that while the genetics of coat color for goats and sheep is complicated, involving several pairs of genes, it is possible for two all-black goats carrying the right recessive genes to produce a spotted kid, and for two all-white sheep carrying the recessive gene for pigment production to produce a black or brown lamb.

Lavan’s large flocks of all-black goats and all-white sheep would include many animals carrying recessive genes.  So regardless of peeled sticks, some of their offspring would have two recessive genes leading to multi-colored coats—and Jacob would have breeding stock for his own flocks.

Goat female with 2 kids

She-goat with two kids

After six years Jacob has large flocks and ample wealth. As soon as the untrustworthy Lavan is out of town, Jacob sneaks away with his own wives and children and his own flocks. But he does not escape all reminders of his uncle or his father; all his own goats have spots of lavan on them, and many are akudim.

The last time a form of the word akad appears in the Bible is when Jacob tells Rachel and Leah that God said:

Raise your eyes, please, and see: All the he-goats going up on the flocks are akudim, speckled, and dappled, because I have seen everything that Lavan is doing to you. (Genesis 31:12)

Thus God becomes the ultimate father-figure for Jacob—but at least this divine father-figure recompenses Jacob for the injustice he suffered.

After that last reference to akudim, Jacob no longer lets himself be bound by Isaac, Lavan, or any other head of a household.  He becomes the head of his own household, and when Jacob’s authority falters, it is only when his own sons take charge.

Psychologically, Isaac never loses the stripes from when his father bound him.  Jacob finally outgrows his own father complex, but not until he is over 60.

As we read their stories, may the stripes on the goats, and even sheep, remind us of the endurance of father-figures, and help us to outgrow our dependence on them.

Toledot: Generations of Impersonations

November 11, 2015 at 7:38 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The story of Abraham’s family in the book of Genesis/Bereishit is a story of impostors. Four family members (Sarah, Rebecca, Jacob, and Leah) deceive others by assuming false identities.  And four family members (Abraham, Isaac, Rebecca, and Lavan) ask one family member to impersonate another in order to deceive someone.Table of Impersonations

(See my post Lekh-Lekha, Vayeira, and Toledot: The Wife-Sister Trick on the first two impersonations, and my post Vayeitzei: A Den of Thieves on the last one.)

In this collection of tricksters, only Rebecca both acts as an imposter herself and tells someone else to become an imposter. Both episodes occur in this week’s Torah portion, Toledot (“Lineages”).

The second episode is the most famous. When Isaac has grown old and blind, he summons his favorite son, Esau, and asks him hunt game and cook it for him.

Then I will eat, so that my nefesh will bless you before I die. (Genesis 27:4)

nefesh (נֶפֶשׁ) = appetite, animating soul.

Isaac does not mention God; he may want only to give Esau his personal blessing.  But his wife, Rebecca, is listening on the other side of the wall, and she hears something different.

And Rebecca spoke to Jacob, her son, saying: Hey! Shamati to your father speaking to Esau your brother, saying: Bring me hunted-game and make tasty dishes for me, and I will eat and I will bless you in front of God before I die. (Genesis 27:6-7)

Shamati (שָׁמַעְתִּי) = I listened to, I heard, I heeded.  (Here the word means “listened in on”.)

Rebecca assumes Isaac is going to pass on the grand blessing that God gave to Abraham, and repeated in abbreviated form to Isaac. And she is determined that this blessing go to her favorite son, Jacob, instead of to his twin brother Esau.

If she trusted her husband, Rebecca might wait until Esau goes hunting, and then try to persuade Isaac that he give God’s blessing to Jacob, and give Esau an ordinary garden-variety blessing instead.  But she does not.  She does not believe Isaac would listen to her.

On the other hand, she believes Jacob will listen to and obey her.

Goat kid

Goat kid

And now, my son, shema my voice, to what I am commanding you. Go, please, to the flock, and take for me from there two good goat kids, and I will make them into tasty dishes for your father, like those he loves. Then you will bring [them] to your father and he will eat, so that he will bless you before he dies. (Genesis 27:8-10)

shema (שְׁמַע) =  Listen to! Hear! Heed!  (The imperative form of the same verb as shamati.)

Although Rebecca does not explicitly command Jacob to impersonate his brother, Jacob takes it that way.  He has no moral qualms about deceiving his father, but he is afraid the impersonation will not work, because he has smooth skin, and Esau is exceptionally hairy.

Rebecca responds by helping Jacob do a more effective impersonation.

Then Rebecca took Esau’s best garment, which was with her in her house, and she put it on Jacob, her younger son.  And the skins of the goat kids she put on his hands and over the smooth part of his neck. (Genesis 27:15-16)

When her blind husband touches Jacob, he feels skin that is as hairy as a goat—like Esau’s skin. He even says: The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau. (Genesis 27:22)

Isaac y Jacob, by Jose de Ribera

Isaac y Jacob, by Jose de Ribera

The blessing Isaac gives the impostor includes most of the blessing of Abraham.

Of course, as soon as Esau returns with his own meat to cook, the impersonation is discovered. Esau vows to kill his brother, and Jacob has to flee. But at least he got the blessing Rebecca wanted for him, a blessing that is irrevocable.

Why does Rebecca have Jacob impersonate his brother, instead of simply speaking to Isaac? Why doesn’t she trust her husband to listen to her?

I think the answer lies in an earlier episode where Rebecca is the impostor. When Isaac and Rebecca moved to Gerar in the land of the Philistines, Isaac told everyone Rebecca was his unmarried sister.

And it happened that when their days there grew long, Avimelekh, king of the Philistines, looked down from the window and he saw—hey! Isaac was fooling around with Rebecca—his wife! Avimelekh summoned Isaac and said: Hey, surely she is your wife!  Why did you say she was your sister?

And Isaac said to him: Because I thought “In case I would be killed over her…” (Genesis/Bereishit 26:8-9)

Isaac’s father, Abraham, had given the same reason when he asked his Sarah to pretend to be his unmarried sister:

Hey, please—I know that you are a beautiful-looking woman.  And it will happen, when the Egyptians see you, then they will say: This is his wife. And they will kill me, but you they will keep alive. Say, please, that you are my sister, so that it will go well with me for your sake, and I will stay alive on account of you. (Genesis 12:11-13)

As long as Sarah appeared to be single and available, Abraham’s reasoning went, any man hoping to make her his concubine would court the favor of her “brother”.

Isaac must have heard this family story, because assumed that any foreign king would kill the husband of a beautiful woman.  And Isaac pulled the same trick as his father when he brought his own beautiful wife to Gerar.

The Torah does not report Isaac asking Rebecca to pretend to be single. But Rebecca obviously went along with her husband’s lie anyway, since her true marital status was discovered only after they had lived in Gerar for a while.

Rebecca is not by nature submissive.  As an adolescent, in the Torah portion Chayyei Sarah, she independently invited a stranger to stay at her parents’ house, and boldly decided to leave home and marry the stranger’s master, Isaac.

But at this point in the story, Rebecca still trusts Isaac to keep her best interests in mind. After all, Isaac fell in love with her when they first met, and prayed for her when she failed to get pregnant.

I think Rebecca stopped trusting Isaac when she heard him explain that he passed her off as his sister because he was afraid of being killed.  At that point, Rebecca would realize that her husband was slavishly imitating his father’s example, even in a town with a friendly and ethical king. She could no longer count on him either to make rational decisions, or to consult with her first.

Years later, when she thinks Isaac is about to give the wrong son the blessing of Abraham, Rebecca does not even try to talk him out of it.  Instead, she falls back on a different family tradition:  when you need a favor from a man you do not trust, try deceiving him with an imposture.

Resorting to impersonation is an especially flamboyant family tradition. But all of us, in times of doubt, tend to fall back on strategies we learned from our families.  For example, I often used to follow my father’s strategy of making myself absent when interpersonal frictions arose.

What family strategies did you learn? How do they get repeated?

Chayyei Sarah: Loss of Trust

November 4, 2015 at 2:55 pm | Posted in Chayyei Sarah | Leave a comment
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Abraham, in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, is the decisive ruler of his household of about a thousand people. He never consults or asks favors of anyone except his wife Sarah and God.

When Abraham is 137 years old, God tells him to sacrifice his son Isaac, then rescinds the order at the last second. (See my post Lekh-Lekha & Vayeira: Going with the Voice.)  After that, Sarah dies, and Abraham decides it is time for their son Isaac to marry.  He summons his head servant, Eliezer, and gives him instructions for procuring the appropriate wife—without consulting his 37-year-old son Isaac.

And I will have you swear by God, god of the heavens and god of the land, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites in whose midst I am dwelling. Because you must go to my land and to my moledet, and [there] you shall take a wife for my son, for Isaac. (Genesis/Bereishit 24:3-4)

moledet  (מוֹלֶדֶת) = kin, relatives, family of Abraham's journey

Where is Abraham’s land?  It might be the city of Ur Kasdim, where he was born and married Sarah; or the town of Charan in Aram, where he lived for decades before God called him. Or it might be the land of Canaan, where he has lived for the past 50 years or so, mostly in Hebron and Beersheba.

The word moledet clarifies that Abraham means Charan, because that is where his brother Nachor’s family still lives.

This raises a question for Eliezer. God has promised the land of Canaan to Abraham’s descendants, and since Abraham’s older son, Ishmael, has been exiled, that means Isaac’s descendants.  Yet the custom in that part of the world was for the husband to leave his parents and live near his wife’s family.

Even the Garden of Eden story alludes to this custom:

Therefore a man will leave his father and his mother, and he will cling to his wife, and they will become one flesh.  (Genesis 2:24)

Later in the book of Genesis, Isaac’s son Jacob marries two of his cousins in Charan, and remains there for 20 years.  This is the cultural norm.

Yet Eliezer suspects that Abraham does not want Isaac to move from Canaan to Charan.

And the servant said to him:  What if the woman will not consent to follow me to this land?  Should I really bring back your son to the land that you left? (Genesis 24:5)

Abraham’s reply is clear.

And Abraham said to him:  Guard yourself, lest you bring my son back there!  God, god of the heavens, Who took me from the house of my father and from the land of my moledet, and Who spoke to me and Who swore to me, saying “To your seed I will give this land”—May [God] Itself send Its angel before you, and you will take a wife for my son from there.  But if the woman does not consent to follow you, then you will be cleared from this oath of mine.  Only you must not bring my son back there! (Genesis 24:6-8)

Why is it so important for Isaac to marry a non-Canaanite, yet stay in the land of Canaan?  The commentary offers several suggestions, including:

1) God promised to give Canaan to Abraham’s descendants.  In order to be prepared for God’s gift, these descendants must be distinct from the Canaanites (rather than intermarried), and they must be living in Canaan, so they are attached to the land and willing to change from resident aliens to owners.

2) Even a short visit to Charan would seduce Isaac away from his father’s religion.  The early 20th-century rabbi Elie Munk cites Abraham’s “constant concern for sheltering his son from all influences able to jeopardize the purity of his religious ideas”.

Canaanite goddess, possibly from a set of terafim, 14-13th century BCE

Canaanite goddess, possibly from a set of terafim, 14-13th century BCE

Later in this week’s Torah portion, Abraham’s extended family in Charan refer to God by the same four-letter name as the God of Israel.  But in another portion, Vayeitzei, we learn that the household also keeps terafim, statues of household gods.

3) A Canaanite wife would corrupt Isaac, since Canaanites are morally degenerate.  19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch summarized this opinion by noting that although both the Canaanites and the Aramaeans of Charan worshipped the wrong gods, the Canaanites were also “morally degenerate”.

Although moral issues are not mentioned in Genesis, the book of Leviticus/Vayikra warns the Israelites about the morals of the Canaanites when God says:

…like the deeds of the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you—you shall not do! (Leviticus/Vayikra 18:3)

Then God gives the Israelites a list of forbidden sexual partners, and concludes:

Do not become defiled through any of these [sexual practices], because through all of these they became defiled, the peoples that I will be driving away from before you. (Leviticus 18:24)

All three of the above explanations assume that Isaac cannot be trusted either to pick out his own wife or to commit himself to the land God promised.  Isaac is seen as weak and easily influenced to abandon what he learned from his father.

Since Abraham does not trust Isaac, no wonder he sends Eliezer to arrange his son’s marriage and bring back the bride!

And why should Abraham trust Isaac, when he knows that Isaac has rejected him?

In last week’s Torah portion, Vayeira, the 37-year-old Isaac trusts his father so much that he follows him to the top of Mount Moriyah and lets the old man bind him on the altar as a sacrifice.  I can only conclude Isaac believes that Abraham heard God correctly, and that God really ordered the sacrifice.  Isaac is completely devoted to the god of Abraham and will do whatever this god requires.

14th century Icelandic manuscript, with angel and ram

14th century Icelandic manuscript, with angel and ram

Abraham lifts the blade, then hears God’s voice telling him to stop.  He stops and substitutes a ram for his son on the altar.  God talks to him some more, and then Abraham walks back down the mountain–alone. The Torah does not say where Isaac goes.

Sarah, Isaac’s mother, dies, but only Abraham shows up to bury her.  The Torah never reports father and son in the same place at the same time again.  Their mutual trust is broken. The next time we see Isaac, he is living at Beir-Lachai-Roi, some distance south of Abraham’s home at Beersheba.  Abraham’s servant brings Isaac’s bride directly to Beir-Lachai-Roi, probably because he knows Isaac would never return to his father’s home to meet her.

The Torah does not say why Isaac turns against the father he trusted.  My guess is that the interrupted sacrifice proves to Isaac that

1) Abraham does not always know what God wants, after all, and

2) his father is willing to kill him anyway.

So Isaac separates from his father.  For all Abraham knows, Isaac rejects God as well.  But Abraham still wants descendants—descendants who will be suitable to receive the gift of Canaan from God. So Abraham goes ahead and arranges his son’s marriage.

If this were a modern story, Abraham’s plot would backfire. Isaac would reject the bride Eliezer brings back from Charan, and find his own wife and his own religion.

But in the book of Genesis, Isaac falls in love with his cousin Rebecca from Charan.  He stays in Canaan, and he continues to worship the god of Abraham his whole life.  Isaac is wise enough not to let his mistrust of his father infect his relationships with other people or with God.

May we all be able, like Isaac, to distinguish between a person we cannot trust and the individuals and ideas connected with that person.

Lekh Lekha & Vayeira: Hints of Jerusalem

October 19, 2015 at 8:07 pm | Posted in Lekh Lekha, Vayeira | Leave a comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

No place called Jerusalem appears in the “Torah” proper, the first five books of the Bible.  The Torah only drops two hints about Jerusalem, both in the book of Genesis/Bereishit.

In the Torah portion Lekh Lekha (“Get yourself going”), Abraham is blessed by the king of “Shaleim”.  And in the next portion, Vayeira (“And he saw”), Abraham almost slaughters his son as an offering on Mount Moriyah, later identified as the temple mount. map Jerusalem hills

A place called “Jerusalem” (Yerushalam or Yerushalayim) does not show up in the Bible until the book of Joshua:

When Adoni-Tzedek, king of Yerushalam, heard that Joshua had captured the Ai… (Joshua 10:1)

Adoni-Tzedek (אֲדֹנִי־צֶדֶק) = My-Lord-of-Righteousness.

Yerushalam (יְרוּשָׁלַם) = Jerusalem (in English).

But thanks to Egyptian archaeology, we have older records of a place in the central hills of Canaan called something like Yerushalam.  The oldest reference found so far appears on Egyptian potsherds from the 19th century BCE, where Rushalimum is one of 19 Canaanite cities.

Rushalimum = uru (city of, founded by) + shaleim (the Canaanite god of the evening star, in the Semetic language of the Jebusites).

In the Amarna letters of the 14th century B.C.E., the king of the land of Rishalimum complains to the pharaoh of Egypt about how the Egyptian soldiers treated his capital city, “Beit-Shulmani”—a Semetic name meaning “House of Shaleim”.

Shaleim (שָׁלֵם) = the Canaanite god of the evening star (in the Jebusite language); completeness, safety, peace (in Hebrew, another Semitic language).

In the book of Joshua, Jerusalem is one more Canaanite city-state that Joshua and the Israelites defeat in battle.  Joshua puts its king to death, but he cannot defeat the city itself.  We can tell because he does not subject the city to either of the two standard treatments for a defeated city: making it a vassal-state of the conqueror, or plundering all the goods and enslaving or killing all the residents.

But the children of Judah were not able to take over the Jebusites, the inhabitants of Yerushalam, as their possession, so the Jebusites dwell with the children of Judah to this day.  (Joshua 15:63)

Joshua sets up the Israelites’ portable tent-sanctuary in Shiloh, about 20 miles north of Jerusalem, and it remains there for centuries, acquiring stone walls and becoming the main temple of the Israelites.

Solomon's Temple, artist's rendering

Solomon’s Temple, artist’s rendering

The city-state of Jerusalem remains an independent enclave until King David conquers its citadel and makes it his capital in the second book of Samuel.  Instead of enslaving or subjugating the native Jebusites, David integrates them into his kingdom.  He brings the ark and the tent-sanctuary to Jerusalem, and his son Solomon builds the first temple there.

Back in the book of Genesis, Shaleim (in Lekh Lekha) and “Mount of the Moriyah” (in Vayeira) seem to refer to locations in Jerusalem, long before the time of King David.  These two references also provide hints that this area is destined to someday become the city of the God of Israel.

A blessing in the city of Shaleim concludes Abraham’s only recorded military campaign.  Five kings at southern end of the Dead Sea lose a battle against four northern kings, who then head north with all the southerners they can round up as slaves, along with their wealth and food. One of the kidnapped families is Abraham’s nephew Lot and his women. map Shechem to Zoar

Abraham and his 318 men chase the northerners beyond Damascus, defeat them, and head south with all the captured people and goods.  Before they even reach Abraham’s encampment in Hebron, on the way to the cities of the five defeated kings farther south, the king of Sodom meets Abraham and his men in the Valley of Shaveh.

And the king of Sodom went out to meet him, after he returned from striking Kedarlaomer and the kings who were with him, to the Valley of Shaveh, which is the valley of the king.  But Malki-Tzedek, king of Shaleim, brought out bread and wine; and he was a priest to Eil Elyon.  (Genesis/Bereishit 14:17-18)

shaveh (שָׁוֵה) = level, made level, made equal.

Malki-Tzedek (מַלְכִּי־צֶדֵק) = My-King-of-Righteousness.

Eil Elyon (אֵל עֶלְיוֹן) = the High God.

Malki-Tzedek, the king of Shaleim, has a name similar to Adoni-Tzedek, the king of Yerushalam in the book of Joshua.

Malki-Tzedek is also a priest, but rather than serving a local god called Shaleim, he serves Eil Elyon, the head of the Canaanite pantheon, and later a secondary name for the god of Israel.

This king-priest comes down to the Valley of Shaveh with bread and wine.  Below the Jebusite citadel that became the City of David is a broad, level area where the Kidron Valley meets the Valley of Ben-hinnom.  Commentators have speculated that this was the Valley of Shaveh—though Shaveh would also be a good name for a place where Abraham, the king of Shaleim, and the king of Sodom meet as equals.

Malki-Tzedek not only gives bread and wine to Abraham and his men upon their return from battle (a gesture that did not occur to the king of Sodom); he also gives Abraham a blessing.

And he blessed him and he said: Blessed be Avram to Eil Elyon, owner of heaven and earth.  And blessed be Eil Elyon, Who delivered your enemies into your hand. And he gave him a tithe of everything. (Genesis 14:19)

Probably it is Abraham who gives a tithe of the booty to Malki-Tzedek, prefiguring the tithes that Israelites brought to the high priest in the temple in Jerusalem centuries later.

prophet 2Abraham adds the name Eil Elyon to the four-letter name of God when he swears to the King of Sodom that he will not keep any of the people or goods that he won in battle. (See my blog post Lekh Lekha: Names for God.) Abraham’s use of Eil Elyon may be diplomatic, but it also implies that Malki-Tzedek and Abraham recognize the same god as supreme.

So the stage is set for the Jebusite city of Shaleim to become the capital and holy city of the Israelites someday. The site is associated with a name of God, with priesthood, with blessings, and with tithes.

The next Torah portion, Vayeira, hints at the future site of the temple through a very different story.

Abraham and his people live in Beersheba at this point in the Torah, and Isaac, Abraham’s son by his wife Sarah, is a young man.  God speaks to Abraham in the night.

And [God] said:  Take, please, your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and get yourself going to the land of the Moriyah.  And lead him up there for an olah on one of the mountains, which I will say to you. (Genesis 22:2)

Moriyah (מֹרִיָּה) = Mor of God.  Mor (מֹר) = myrrh.  Mor could also be a shortened form of moreh (מוֹרֶה) = throwing or teaching; or a homonym for mareh (מַרְאָה) = seeing, appearance, vision, apparition, mirror.

olah (עֹלָה) = rising-offering: an animal offering completely burned up into smoke.

“The Moriyah” might originally have been the name for an area where myrrh grew.  The fragrant resin of these small thorn-trees was collected for incense, which was in general use for religious ceremonies in the ancient Near East.

After a three-day walk from Beersheba, Abraham sees the place.  The Torah does not say how he knows this particular hilltop is the one God chooses, but he climbs up with Isaac, firewood, a fire-box, and a knife.

Beersheba is 44 miles from Jerusalem.  If the Moriyah is Jerusalem,  then Abraham, Isaac, and the two servants and donkey they leave at the bottom of the hill would have to walk 14 to 15 miles a day—a reasonable distance, especially if the servants carry the firewood and the donkey carries Abraham, age 117.

14th century Icelandic manuscript

14th century Icelandic manuscript: an angel stops Abraham

Just as Abraham lifts his knife to kill his son at the top of the hill, another voice from God calls to him and tells him to stop.  Abraham sacrifices a ram caught by its horns in the thicket in place of Isaac.  (The Torah does not say whether it is a thicket of myrrh.)

And Abraham called the name of that place “God Yireh”, as it is said to this day:  On the mountain of God yeira-eih. (Genesis 22:14)

yireh (יִראֶה) = sees, will see, perceive, look at, consider.

yeira-eih (יֵרֶָאֶה) = he/it will be seen, become visible, appear.

Abraham’s name for the hilltop plays on the word Moriyah, which sounds like another form of the verb “to see”:  mareh (מַרְאָה) = seeing, appearance, vision.  The only other occurrence of the name Moriyah in the Hebrew Bible is in a book written 300 to 650 years later:

Then Solomon began to build the house of God in Jerusalem on the hill of the Moriyah, where [God] had appeared to his father David, where David had appointed the place on the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite.”  (2 Chronicles 3:1)

The house, or temple, of God in Jerusalem became the place where all Israelite men were required to appear—and be seen—three times a year, on the three pilgrimage festivals.

The first allusion to Jerusalem in Genesis, the story of Malki-Tzedek, mentions priests, blessing, and tithing. The second allusion to Jerusalem, the story of the binding of Isaac, changes the acceptable form of worship from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice, and also explores the idea of seeing and being seen—of perceiving what God really wants, and of being seen by God.

Three of the hints in these two stories—the tithe for the priest, burnt offerings of animals only, and presenting oneself at the holy place—all prefigure the practical religious instructions given later in the Bible for the holy temple of the Israelites.

But the hints about blessing and being blessed by God, and seeing and being seen by God, imply that Jerusalem will become such a holy city that humans will continually meet God there—perhaps not as equals, the way Abraham and the two kings do in the Valley of Shaveh, but as beings who exchange the same currency of blessing and acknowledgement.

Over the centuries, Jerusalem has occasionally lived up to the promise of its name under Malki-Tzedek, which is the same as the Hebrew word shaleim = wholeness, peace, and safety.  At other times, too many of the human beings in Jerusalem have been unable to bless or to see each other—and therefore unable to truly bless or perceive the divine.

May the promises of a holy, whole, peaceful, and safe Jerusalem in Lekh Lekha and Vayeira finally come true, speedily and in our time.


Note:  This post covers two weeks of Torah readings.  Look for my next post, on the portion Chayyei Sarah, in the first week of November. By then I will be settled in my new home on the Oregon coast!


Noach: Winds of Change

October 13, 2015 at 12:50 pm | Posted in Bereishit, Noach | Leave a comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah

Wind changes the weather.  A persistent mood or spirit changes your behavior, driving you like the wind in a new direction.

Bibilical Hebrew has one word for both wind and spirit: ruach.

ruach (רוּחַ) = wind; spirit, mood, emotional energy.

The Torah uses this word to describe both the creation of the world in the first Torah portion of Genesis/Bereishit, and its re-creation after the flood in this week’s Torah portion, Noach.

In a beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was a vacancy and a void and a darkness over the face of the deep, and the ruach of God was merachefet over the face of the waters. And God said: Light, be!  And light was. (Genesis/Bereishit 1:1-2)

eagle+nestmerachefet (מְרַחֶפֶת) = fluttering, hovering tremulously. (The only other place the Bible uses the verb rachaf in this form is in Deuteronomy/Devarim 32:11, where God is compared to an eagle fluttering over its young.)

Translators disagree over whether the word ruach at the beginning of the Bible should be translated as “wind” or “spirit”.  I think the ruach of God, fluttering over the blank darkness and deep waters, is like the tender, hesitant spirit of someone about to become a parent.

The word ruach shows up again when Adam and Eve hear God’s voice in the garden “in the ruach of the day” (Genesis 3:8)   I agree with modern scholars that this means the windy time of day, which tended to be late afternoon in Israel.

The next time the Torah uses the word ruach is when God is musing about the dual nature of human beings.  God made the first human, in Genesis 2:7, out of both dirt and God’s own breath.  In other words, humans are partly animals with physical desires, and partly mental beings with spiritual desires.

And God said: My ruach will not always be judge in the human; he is also flesh…  (Genesis 6:3)

Here, ruach seems to mean God’s spirit, which shapes a human being’s character and prevailing mood.  Sometimes a person’s character controls the appetites of the flesh, but not always.

God lets these double-sided humans make their own choices for 1,556 years in the Torah, from the time God returns Adam and Eve to the world until the time when their great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson Noah is 500 years old.

Then God saw that the badness of the human on earth was abundant—that the shape of every idea of his heart was only bad, all the time. And God had a change of heart about making the human on the earth, and he grieved in his heart. (Genesis 6:5-6)

God tells Noah to make an ark, because in another hundred years God is going to destroy the earth.

And hey, I Myself am bringing the deluge of water over the land to wipe out from under the heavens all flesh in which is the ruach of life.  Everything that is on the land will expire.  (Genesis 6:17)

The Torah repeats the phrase “the ruach of life” twice more in the story of Noah’s ark.  In the third occurrence it becomes clear that ruach in this phrase means moving air, a small-scale wind:

All that had the breath of the ruach of life in its nostrils, from all that were on dry land, they died.  (Genesis 7:22)

Noah Leaving the Ark, by Sisto Badalocchio

Noah Leaving the Ark, by Sisto Badalocchio

The flood wipes out all land animals, including humans, except those aboard Noah’s ark.  But God is not really starting over.  The animals and humans who emerge from the ark are the descendants of the ones God created in the beginning; they are built according to the same designs.  Human beings have the same dual nature.

Nevertheless, when God restores the earth to working order, the language in the Torah recalls the language of the original creation.

And God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals that were with him in the ark, and God made a ruach pass over the earth, and the waters abated.  The springs of the deep and the floodgates of the heavens were stopped up…(Genesis 8:1-2)

Once again God begins with a ruach.  But while the first ruach flutters like the tender spirit of a mother bird, this ruach sweeps across the flooded world like an eagle soaring—or a wind that brings a change of weather.

In the first creation story, God acts by speaking things into being.  In the re-creation story, God merely changes the weather, and the earth gradually dries out over the course of a year.  When God speaks, it is only to tell Noah to come out of the ark with his menagerie.

After the story of Noah, the word ruach continues to mean “wind” when the Bible talks about God. When it talks about humans, the word ruach means “spirit” or prevailing mood.

A third phenomenon is the ruach Elohim, a “spirit of God” that takes over or rests inside humans.  The ruach Elohim is a sublime wisdom in Joseph the dream-interpreter and Betzaleil the master artist, and a supernatural strength in Samson.  It is an infectious battle drive in war leaders, and a divine compulsion in mad King Saul as well as the many prophets God uses as mouthpieces.

Thus even the ruach Elohim is manifested only in human beings.

In the beginning of the Torah, God creates everything.  After the flood, the world and its humans continue on their own, and God intervenes only by blowing winds, by making plagues and occasional miracles, and by changing the spirits of a few select humans.

Today, I encounter two types of “spiritual” people.  One type often sees omens and miracles, attributing every coincidence to the hand of God rather than to the laws of probability or nature.  For this type, if a wind knocks down a tree that just misses them, God is literally in the wind and moves the tree.

The other type perceives God only through changes in their own spirits.  For this type (my type), if a wind knocks down a tree that just misses me, God is in the shaken liberation of joy after the flash of fear.  The divine is in me and moves my spirit.

Yet the Bible shows God changing the spirits of only the few.  And I know I am no prophet or war leader or master artist.

The world has always been full of silent people who are moved by a divine spirit, but never do anything famous enough to be written down in a book. After all, according to the Torah we are all made partly of God’s breath, God’s wind, God’s ruach.


Bereishit:  In Hiding

October 8, 2015 at 7:36 pm | Posted in Bereishit | 1 Comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah

Humankind and God have been hiding from each ever since the garden of Eden, according to the first portion of the first book of the Torah, Bereishit (“In a beginning”).

At first, humankind is as close to God as an infant is to its mother.

And God formed the adam of dirt from the adamah, and [God] blew into its nostrils the neshamah of life, and the adam became an animated animal.  (Bereishit/Genesis 2:7)

adam (אָדָם) = human, humanity, humankind.

adamah (אֲדָמָה) = ground, earth, soil.  (The words adam and adamah come from the same root.  Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield, of blessed memory, once translated adam as “earthling”.)

neshamah (נְשָׁמָה) = breath, soul.

In other words, a human is made out of two ingredients: the earth and the breath of God.  Our souls are God’s breath.

Fig Tree

Fig Tree

God removes the adam from the earth and places it in a mythical garden of Eden, telling the adam to eat from any tree except the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad, …because on the day you eat from it, you must die. (Genesis 2:17)

Like an infant the adam is immersed in its ongoing experience, unable to think for itself.  So it avoids the Tree of Knowledge.  Then God divides the adam into two people, male and female, and the situation changes.

And the woman saw that the tree was good for eating, and that it was delightful for the eyes, and the tree was desirable for understanding; and she took from its fruit and she ate, and she gave also to her man with her, and he ate. And the eyes of the two of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed together fig leaves, and they made themselves loincloths. (Genesis 3:6-7)

The Tree of Knowledge gives the humans the ability to make distinctions, including the distinction between “me” and “you”, as well as between “good” and “bad”.  Now they notice their separate bodies, with different sex organs.  Later in the Torah, the most common euphemism for sexual intercourse is “uncovering the nakedness” of someone.

detail of "Adam and Eve in Eden" by Pere Mates

detail of “Adam and Eve in Eden” by Pere Mates

Perhaps the first humans experiment with their bodies, and discover the power of sexual passion and the potential for procreation. Alarmed, they make clothing to hide their sex organs from one another.  If you cannot see something, you can ignore it.

Then they heard the voice of God going around in the garden at the windy time of the day; vayitchabei, the adam and his woman, from the face of God, among the trees of the garden. (Genesis 3:8)

vayitchabei (וַיּתְחַבֵּא) = and they hid themselves.

Hearing God’s voice, the humans realize they are also separate from God. Before they ate from the Tree of Knowledge, God was just part of their undifferentiated experience.  Now they view God as a separate intelligence with a voice and a face, more powerful than they are.  Suddenly they are afraid.

But if you cannot see something, you can ignore it. So the humans try to hide from God—among the trees of the garden God made.  Perhaps they even try to hide behind the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. They have learned enough to make distinctions, but they have not yet learned logical thinking.

God called to the adam, and he said: Ayeikah? (Genesis 3:9)

Ayeikah (אַיֶּכָּה) = Where are you?  (Ayeh (אַיֵּה) = where + suffix –kah (כָּה) = you.)

Rabbi David Fohrman points out in his intriguing book The Beast that Crouches at the Door that if God had wanted to know their physical location, God would have used the word eifoh—אֵיפֹה.  The other Hebrew word for “where”, ayehאַיֵּה—asks why something or someone is not here.  What happened to it?

The woman is silent, but the man answers:

I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; va-eichavei. (Genesis 3:10)

va-eichavei (וָאֵחָבֵא) = and I hid. (From the same root, חבא, as vayitchabei above.)

Biblical Hebrew has several verbs meaning “to hide”.  The verb חבא in its various forms appears 34 times in the Hebrew Bible, and (except for two metaphors in the book of Job) it always describes human beings hiding themselves. Usually they are hiding from human enemies in order to avoid being killed.

Why does the Torah use this word for hiding in the garden of Eden, when Hebrew has alternative words? Maybe the adam suddenly views God as an enemy who wants to kill him.  After all, God said that if the adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge, he would die.

In the story, the first humans become mortal creatures, and God returns them to the world.  Adam and Eve adapt to life on the ground, with its troublesome farming, sexual desire, and childbirth.

The next time the Torah mentions hiding, Adam and Eve’s oldest son, Cain, is afraid that God will conceal the divine “face” from him.

Competing offerings in detail of print after Maarten de Vos 1583

Competing offerings in detail of print after Maarten de Vos 1583

Cain, a farmer, invents the idea of giving God an offering from his vegetables as an expression of gratitude.  (See my post Vayikra: Gifts to the Giver.)  His younger brother Abel, the shepherd, imitates him with an offering from his flock.  When God rejects Cain’s offering and accepts Abel’s, Cain is enraged and depressed.

God notices and warns him to master his evil impulse, but Cain does not reply.  Unable to vent his rage by killing God, Cain kills his brother Abel.  Then God informs Cain that the ground itself is cursed for him.  He will no longer be able to farm, and he will be homeless.

And Cain said to God:  My iniquity is too great to bear.  Hey, You have banished me today from the face of the adamah, and from Your face esateir.  I will be homeless and aimless in the land, and anyone encountering me will kill me. (Genesis 4:14)

esateir (אֶסָּתֵר) = I will be concealed, go unseen, be unrecognized, take cover, be hidden.

The verb סתר in its various forms is the most common word for hiding in the Bible, appearing more than 80 times. This word is used for the concealment of not only people, but also information, actions, and especially faces.

Starting in the book of Isaiah, the Bible emphasizes that humans cannot conceal themselves or their secrets from God. But Cain does not know this; he believes that once he is banished, God will no longer see him.

What does it mean to be concealed, unseen, unrecognized?  Human beings lower their faces or look away when they want to avoid communication.  We avoid people when we do not want to bother with them, or when we have given up on a relationship.  We also avoid people when we are afraid of them, either because we feel inferior, or because they might attack us.

Moses hides his face at the burning bush because he is afraid of seeing God. He feels inferior, unworthy of direct contact with the divine, and fears that it might hurt him.

Cain believes he will be hidden from God’s face because his crime makes him unworthy of any continuing contact with the divine.

The most frequent use of the verb סתר is to indicate when God conceals God’s “face” from humans, usually Israelites who have strayed from their religion.  The concealment of God’s face is a tragedy because if God does not “see” the Israelites, recognizing them as God’s people, then God will ignore them and stop protecting them from enemies and other dangers.

Later in history, many religious writers have considered the concealment of God’s face a tragedy because if people cannot “see” and recognize God, then they will ignore God’s will and become spiritually ungrounded.

Yet God tells Moses:

You will not be able to see My face, because the adam may not see Me and live.  (Exodus/Shemot 33:20)

Rabbi David Kasher wrote recently in ParshaNut: “We cannot see God’s face, for if we did, we would lose our separateness and cease to exist. It would kill us. In that sense, the true punishment would be not the hiding, but the revealing of God’s face.”

Thus the great creation myth of the Torah reveals that humans have a paradoxical relationship with the divine. God is inside us, in the sense that our bodies are earth and our souls are the breath of God. Yet having tasted fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, we know we are separate and distinct from something we experience as the voice of God.

When humans feel as if God is a loving parent who protects us, we are like Cain, who does not want to be concealed from God’s face.  When we feel unprotected, subject to all kinds of undesirable fates, including death, we are like Adam, who tries to hide from God.

And because we have some knowledge of good and bad, but do not understand what God is, we want to see God’s face. But we cannot see God and continue to live as individual human beings.

Maybe God is hidden from us because we cannot see the souls that God breathed into us.  Or maybe God is hidden because we cannot recognize God, even when the divine is both inside us and in front of us.



Yom Kippur: Broken Promises

September 28, 2015 at 8:40 am | Posted in Shelach-Lekha, Yom Kippur | Leave a comment
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Yom Kippur is the annual day for atonement: for forgiving, being forgiven, and reuniting with God. This year my congregation, P’nai Or of Portland, chose an alternative  Torah reading for the Minchah (afternoon) service, from Shelach Lekha in the Book of Numbers/Bemidbar:

God said to Moses:  How long will this people disrespect Me, and how long will they not trust Me, despite all the signs I have made in their midst?  Let me strike them with the plague and disinherit them, and I will make you a greater and mightier nation than they.  Then Moses said to God: …Please forgive the sin of this people according to the greatness of Your kindness, and as You have carried this people from Egypt until now.  And God said:  I forgive, as you have spoken.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 14:11-12, 14:19-20)

I am pleased to post this thoughtful guest commentary that Chellema Qolus delivered  on Yom Kippur 5776 (2015).


hands reaching

by Chellema Qolus

Our Torah reading today is from the Book of Numbers, or Bamidbar. It’s the one where twelve scouts journey to check out the holy land. Ten come back and say “Oh no! It’s full of giants and scary stuff!” Two come back and say “It’s the land of milk and honey.”

Imagine you are God. You just gave your people some wonderful land. But instead of being grateful, 10 of 12 responses are “oooh no – it’s scary!” God in this case reacts like many of us often do when we feel unappreciated—God gets mad and says to Moses “Oh these people! I’m done with them! Forget it, I’ve changed my mind – I’m not going to play with them anymore!”

This happened before – when the Israelites made the golden calf God said the same thing. And who talked God out if it? Moses. Moses does a repeat performance here. Moses says “You promised—it’ll look bad if you go back on your promise. Come on, please? Forgive your people.”

Now, how is it that the all-knowing omniscient Infinite Oneness makes an agreement, gets mad, wants to break that agreement and then is convinced to keep it? I mean, if God knows everything that’s going to happen, how does this make sense?

God is infinite. All possibilities exist. God makes light and dark, good and evil. How this plays out at this level has a lot to do with us. If we are made in the image of God, then our portrayal of God in the Torah is also a reflection of us. Our relationship with God is a participatory process. That means we have to make the case, like Moses did, that forgiveness is included in the covenant.

If you look at the stories in Torah – the golden calf, the scouts, pretty much every story, people are breaking promises or betraying trusts right, left and sideways – EVERYONE!   Even Moses literally breaks the tablets of the covenant when he comes down from the mountain and sees the people dancing around the golden calf.

Here’s the thing. We ALL break our promises. We ALL betray trusts. We ALL hurt each other whether we mean to or not. That’s the way the world is. That’s the way we are. The great Kabbalist Isaac Luria said that when the universe was first created God’s infinite light was too much for the vessels of existence to hold and they shattered. So our universe has brokenness and so do we. Or, as the ten scouts would say “There’s giants and scary stuff! Oh no!”. The two scouts would say “Our souls are pure—direct from the Infinite. In nature we see the Glory, the cosmic pattern of wholeness of The Eternal. And in our kindness with each other, our hearts are one with God.”

These two perspectives, together, fuel our hopes and fears. We get so hurt and mad sometimes because it means so much. Early in my time with this congregation, I enjoyed a wonderful service and a warm and friendly oneg meal. I was feeling so much love for everyone and it struck me – I saw the patterns, my own patterns: how much community means to me, how much I love  the people here… and how I stumble, make mistakes, am misunderstood, and how inevitably, my heart is broken. After this wonderful service where I felt so much love … I went home and cried. Because I knew—I knew my heart would break with this community. And it did—in small ways, and large ways. But one thing is different from my previous experiences of this—I’m still here. And right now, in this moment, we’re all here.

We are all the characters in the story. Sometimes, like the two scouts Caleb and Joshua, we are in tune with God’s dance and understand how everything fits together and revel in God’s glory. Sometimes, like the ten scouts, we are overwhelmed by our pain and our fears and we project and perpetuate the negative. Sometimes, like God in this story, the God-spark in us feels unappreciated and we are hurt and lash out and just want to call everything off. Sometimes, like Moses, we plead with each other and the Divine Infinite for mercy and compassion.

To call on the Infinite for forgiveness that is attuned to us, here, on this level, we must first forgive ourselves and each other. Our forgiveness is like a homing beacon for God’s forgiveness. It creates a container made from the pieces of our brokenness, made to receive God’s Shalom, God’s Wholeness.handshake

…I call to Torah everyone who wants to bring our broken pieces together, creating a container to receive the Infinite One’s forgiveness and wholeness. Shalom.


Nitzavim & Yom Kippur: Centripetal Force

September 9, 2015 at 9:32 pm | Posted in Nitzavim, Yom Kippur | 1 Comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah

Moses reminds the Israelites at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim (“standing”), that everyone standing on the bank of the Jordan River made a covenant with God.  They will take over the land of Canaan, with God’s help, but eventually they will forsake the covenant, and God will drive them out again

When all these things have come upon you, the blessing and the curse that I placed before you, vahasheivta to your heart among all the nations where God, your god, has driven you. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 30:1) 

vahasheivta (וַהֲשֵׁבתָ) = then you will return, revert, recall.  (Vahasheivta is a form of the verb shuv (שׁוּב) = return, turn around, turn back, restore.)

Assyrian soldier drives prisoners into exile

Assyrian soldier
drives prisoners into exile

Why does Moses make such a long-term prediction? Most modern scholars date this section of Deuteronomy to the Babylonian exile, circa 598-520 B.C.E. At that time, Jews had already experienced two exiles from their land.  Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel (Samaria) in 740 B.C.E. and deported many Samarians to distant parts of the Assyrian Empire. Then Babylonia conquered both Assyria and the southern kingdom of Israel (Judah), and conducted its own deportations from 605 to 588 B.C.E.

Thus “all these things” includes multiple conquests and deportations of Jews.  Jews living (and writing) during the Babylonian exile assumed that their all-powerful god had arranged the curses of subjugation and exile because too many Jews had abandoned their religion. Their own people’s misbehavior had triggered a a divine centrifugal force pulling them away from their center.

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses predicts that after 150 years of deportations and exile, a centripetal force would pull them back in to the land of Israel and the presence of God.

Moses lays out five steps to a complete return. In these steps, the people and God take turns moving toward a reunion.

1)  The first step, “vahasheivta to your heart among all the nations where God, your god, has driven you,” is returning to your own heart (the seat of consciousness in Biblical Hebrew) while you still live in a foreign land. In the next verse Moses explains:

Veshavta ad God, your god; and you will listen to [God’s] voice, you and your children, just as I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul.  (Deuteronomy 30:2)

Veshavta (וְשַׁבְתָּ) = And you will return (also a form of shuv).

ad (עַד) = up to, as far as.

The people must reject the gods of the nations where they are living, and cultivate awareness of their own God by listening for the divine voice and paying full attention to it. They must go as far toward God as they can under the circumstances of their exile.

Ezra and exiles return (woodcut by Schnorr von Carolsfeld)

Ezra and exiles return to Jerusalem
(woodcut by Schnorr von Carolsfeld)

2)  Moses predicts that after they have turned their hearts back to God, God will take the second step and return the people to their former land.

God, your god, veshav your fortune and have compassion on you, veshav and gather you from among all the peoples where God, your god, has scattered you.  Even if you strayed to the end of the heavens, from there God, your god, will gather you, and from there [God] will take you back.  And God, your god, will bring you to the land that your forefathers possessed, and you will possess it, and [God] will do you good and make you more numerous than your forefathers. (Deuteronomy 30:3-5)

veshav (וְשָׁב) = will then restore, will then return (also a form of shuv).

3)  Once God has returned them to the land of Israel, the third step is for the Jews to love God.  Loving God is not easy, in this week’s Torah portion; God will have to help humans to do it.

And God, your god, will circumcise your heart, and the heart of your descendants, to love God, your god, with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you will live.  (Deuteronomy 30:6)

“So that you will live” means “so that you will thrive”—perhaps materially, or perhaps spiritually.

4)  The fourth step, Moses says, is up to the people:

And you, tashuv, and you will listen to the voice of God, and you will do all [God’s] commandments that I commanded you today. (Deuteronomy 30:8)

tashuv (תָשׁוּב) = you will return (also a form of the root verb shuv).

Once God returns the exiled Jews to their land, Moses predicts, they will become able to obey all God’s rules, as well as listening to God’s voice. Presumably, the people could have obeyed God’s ethical rules and family laws wherever they lived.  But in order to obey the agricultural laws, and in order to conduct religious worship through the system of sacrifices at the altar, they had to live in and around Jerusalem.

5)  The fifth step of return is up to God again:

And God, your god, will add to all the deeds of your hand: in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your livestock and in the fruit of your soil, for good, because God yashuv to rejoice over you for good as [God] rejoiced over your forefathers—because you will listen to the voice of God, your god, to observe [God’s] commandments and decrees, the ones written in the book of this teaching—because tashuv to God, your god, with all your heart and with all your soul. (Deuteronomy 30:9)

yashuv (יָשׁוּב) = he/it will return.

Just as in the first step of return the exiled Jews, called “you”, will bring their hearts back to God, in the final step God will bring Its heart back to the people. The result of God’s rejoicing over the people will be abundant life for the humans, their animals, and their crops.

After this fifth step, both the Jews and God would have made a complete return to one another, in both attitude and practical action.  It sounds like the complete restoration of a marriage after the couple has been estranged and separated.

What if “you” in this week’s Torah portion meant anyone seeking a return from exile, a return to the center, a centripetal path?  The center you return to need not be a particular spot on the globe; it could be a spiritual place.

In the annual cycle of Torah readings, the portion Nitzavim falls either one or two weeks before Yom Kippur, the day Jews dedicate to repentance, forgiveness, teshuvah, and atonement.

teshuvah (תְּשׁוּבָה) = reply, return.  (Yes, it also comes from the root shuv.)

In the Torah and in the time of the first and second temples in Jerusalem, the method used to atone and reach teshuvah with God involved animal sacrifices and sprinkling blood in the Holy of Holies.  (See my post Metzora & Acharey Mot: Doubles.)  For the last two millennia, the teshuvah of Jews on Yom Kippur has been a matter of prayer, fasting, inner examination, and listening for God with all our heart and all our soul.

Although Yom Kippur is the official day of teshuvah for Jews, anyone might return, any day, to the inner divine spark—and open the way for the divine spark to return to us.

May all people who seek forgiveness, atonement, and reunion find a centripetal path to the holy center.


I wish all of my Jewish readers Shanah Tovah—a good new year—beginning this Sunday evening. I will be on my own centripetal path from Rosh Hashanah (the beginning of the year) through Yom Kippur (the day of atonement), Sukkot, and Simchat Torah, the night when Jews gather to roll the Torah scroll back to the beginning and read the opening of the book of Genesis/Bereishit.  After Simchat Torah (October 5 in 2105) I will dive into the book of Genesis again myself, even as my husband and I move to a new town. How could I resist writing another post on the beginning of creation?

Ki Tavo: Making It Clear

September 1, 2015 at 12:01 pm | Posted in Ki Tavo | 2 Comments
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by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah

Moses commands the Israelites to paint orders from God on standing stones in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo (“When you enter”).  They are supposed to erect the stones on Mount Eyval, beside the town of Shechem.

And it shall be when you cross over the Jordan, you shall erect these stones, as I command you this day, on Mount Eyval; and you shall paint them with limewash. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 27:4)

Fragments of 8th-century B.C.E. Bilam story on limewash at Deir Alla, Jordan

Fragments of 8th-century B.C.E. Bilam story on limewash at Deir Alla, Jordan

When limewash is painted on a surface in multiple layers, the coating hardens into a thin shell of white limestone, which could last for millennia in dry conditions. (See my post Ki Tavo: Writing in Stone.) Remnants of one ancient text painted in ink on a limewashed wall still survive after 29 centuries!

And you shall write on the stones all the words of this torah, be-eir thoroughly. (Deuteronomy 27:8)

torah (תוֹרָה) = teaching. (The word torah also refers to the first five books of the Bible, to the whole Hebrew Bible, and to any teaching of Jewish law or religion.)

be-eir (בְּאֵר) = (verb) explaining, making clear, making plain.  (The noun be-eir = well, watering place.)

A simple interpretation of this line is that the letters on the limewash must be plain and easy to read. But the Talmud (Sotah 36a) asserts that the teaching was made plain by being inscribed in 70 languages, so anyone who came by could read it.  The purpose of the stones, according to the Talmud, was to teach the laws of the Torah to the native Canaanites.  This would give them a chance to renounce their own gods and adopt the laws of Israel, and thus be spared from death at the hands of the Israelite invaders.

I like the Talmud’s attempt to find a safe path for Canaanites. But it is a stretch to imagine that all the different tribes inhabiting Canaan would immediately send scribes to read and copy the writing on the stones.

Mt. Gerezim (left) before deforestation, Mount Eyval (right)

Mt. Gerezim (left) before deforestation, Mount Eyval (right)

What other purpose is there for the limewashed stones?  In this week’s Torah portion, Moses gives orders for a ritual at the city of Shechem (now Nablus).  Just east of the old town of Shechem stand two hills with a narrow valley between them. Until modern times, Mount Gezerim to the south was wooded, and Mount Eyval to the north was barren. (See my earlier blog, Vayishlakh: Mr. Shoulders.)  Moses wants the standing stones erected on Mount Eyval.  Then his ritual calls for the men of half of the twelve tribes to stand on one mountain, and half on the other.

And Moses commanded the people on that day, saying:  These will stand for blessing the people upon Mount Gerizim, when you have crossed the Jordan: Simon and Levi and Judah and Issachar and Joseph and Benjamin .  And these will stand for the cursing on Mount Eyval: Reuben, Gad, and Asher, and Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali. And the Levites shall sing out, and they shall say to all the men of Israel, in an uplifted voice… (Deuteronomy 27:11-14)

The Levites are to pronounce twelve curses, and at the end of each curse all the Israelites are to say “amen”. The curses are conditional; each one begins with the formula “Accursed is the one who…” and then states a prohibition in the Torah.  The prohibitions include making an idol, treating a parent with contempt, moving a boundary marker, leading the blind astray, doing injustice to the poor, three kinds of incest, lying with a beast, two kinds of murder, and failing to perform “the words of this torah”, i.e. the more complete text on the standing stones.

The Israelites are to confirm their acceptance of the torah by saying “amen”.

Although both of the twin hills are part of the ritual, Moses calls for stones with the written torah only on Mount Eyval—the same hill where half the tribes are to stand to represent the curses.  My guess is that Mount Eyval was chosen for both purposes because it was bare, while Mount Gerizim was wooded.  A bare hill implies infertile land, which would be a curse in Biblical times.  And on the bare summit of Eyval, the white stones would be visible from a distance.

They would also be clearly visible to the men of Israel standing on both hills and saying “amen”.  Rabbi David Kasher, in his blog at, points out that the Israelites would internalize their commitment to the laws of the Torah more deeply by looking at the giant stones. “Words and ideas, I guess, even though they are the essence of the Torah, are somewhat elusive.  We human beings relate to reality in physical space, because that’s where we experience ourselves existing.  So objects help us concretize ideas, to bring them into reality.”

Torah scroll, dressed

Torah scroll, dressed

A similar function is served by the Torah scroll in Jewish services today.  Reading the Torah portion out loud is the purpose of the ritual.  But the reader uses a particular chant to sing out the text, because a melody reaches deeper into the heart.  The reader chants not from a book, but from a Torah scroll, written by a scribe with a quill on parchment.  And we have rituals for taking the Torah scroll out of the ark, unwrapping and unrolling it, holding it up afterward for everyone to see the writing, then rolling, dressing, and returning it to its ark.  All of these rituals make the text itself more real, more important, and more holy to us.

And you shall write on the stones all the words of this torah, be-eir thoroughly. (Deuteronomy 27:8)

be-eir (בְּאֵר) = (verb) explaining, making clear, making plain.  (The noun be-eir = well, watering place.)

Yes, the writing on the standing stones must be clear and easy to read.  But the other meaning of the verb be-eir can also be applied to Moses’ directions.  The ritual of the Levites singing out twelve prohibitions from the Torah, while the men of Israel stand on top of the two hills saying “Amen”, clarifies the purpose of the writing on the stones.  The teachings must be taken as mandatory God-given instructions for behavior.  Anyone who does not follow them is cursed; his life will go badly.

In a way, the noun be-eir also applies to part of the Torah portion.  A deep teaching is like a well, a watering-place in the desert.  If you travel through life with no guidance, acting merely according to your intuitions and feelings in the moment, your life will go badly—as if you were cursed. Human beings need instructions, words of wisdom to hold onto.  But it is easy to forget a piece of torah when you need it.  How do you internalize a teaching?  How do you drink it in?

Saying the words out loud helps.  Chanting or singing them works even better.  Conducting a whole ritual around them impresses your subconscious with their importance.

Then when we come to a decision point, the words of the torah emerge from the depths of our minds.  We still have to figure out the best way to apply them to our current situation, but at least we have something to work with.

May we all internalize the best torah to guide our decisions in our own lives!

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