Monthly Archives: October 2013

Toledot 5774: Born to Strife?

What determined the respective fates of the twins? Were their futures foretold by Rebecca’s oracle, or rather, by its interpretation? Were their fates traded through the exchange of a bowl of lentil stew for the birthright? Or was it Isaac’s blessing, secured through subterfuge, that sealed the respective paths of the boys? Was it all of these things together, or perhaps none of them, that determined that Esau would become a ruffian, while Jacob would emerge as the spiritual father of a people covenanted to God?

Twins are a source of fascination, especially for scientists who research the relative influence of genetics and environment in human development. But even non-scientists wonder about siblings who gestated and were born together, were raised in the same environment, and yet whose paths diverged dramatically one from the other. Twins provide a special vantage point into the nature/nurture dichotomy, and allow us to imagine that it is possible to resolve the mystery of character if we can just isolate the inputs of genes or environment.

Such efforts to simplify human development are, however, prone to fail. True, there are physical characteristics and even some personality traits that are heritable, and there are certainly environmental influences that affect character development. And yet, it is never simple to say that entirely because of parentage, or parenting, that a person became the way that they are. Continue reading

Hayei Sarah 5774: Who Decides for the Girl?

A strange man comes to town, bearing heavy gold jewels, looking to “acquire” a wife for his master’s son. He sees a pretty young woman, finds the responsible man, and they set terms, agreeing that the girl will be sent off with this stranger to a foreign land. That is one way to tell the story of Abraham’s servant and his quest to find a wife for Isaac. I have left out the context deliberately in order to highlight the inherent drama and even terror of this incident.

Guria girlHarold Bloom taught many years ago that we cannot read familiar texts like the Bible and even Shakespeare with fresh eyes, because we already “know” them before we have read them. We know that this transaction is benign and all within a family; and that it is indeed divinely ordained that Rebecca will become a matriarch, literally, the mother of Israel. We also know that Rebecca is no weakling—she controls her own destiny from the moment the stranger enters town, and she will exert control over all of the men of her family—Laban, Isaac, Esau and Jacob—even when ceding to them formal power.  Continue reading

VaYera 5774: Idealism vs. Realism

Puritans ruin everything. That, at least, is one way to summarize the spectacle of the recently ended government shutdown that brought our economy, and perhaps the global financial system, to the brink of disaster. Politicians who are unable to negotiate a compromise, and who are willing to inflict horrific consequences on the public unless they get their way, violate the social contract, causing great damage to others and ultimately to themselves. Still, people caught in a puritanical craze can find it impossible to see the implications of their own behavior. All they recognize is their own principle, and any gesture of compromise can seem like a betrayal of their most cherished values.Yankees

In contrast, consider Abraham, a man of principle, and yet one who never hesitates to engage in negotiations, fighting for the best deal possible rather than insisting on perfection. This is how I read the famous dialogue that he has with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorra. God engages Abraham as a public defender of the sinful cities so that Abraham can demonstrate his righteous leadership, and perhaps so that God can, through an adversarial system, govern the world more justly. God doesn’t quite threaten to wipe out the cities, and certainly doesn’t state any intention to kill the innocent—read verse 21 carefully—but Abraham accepts his role as defense counsel with alacrity and masterfully reduces the liability of the sinful cities.

Abraham keeps arguing until he gets God to spare the cities if only ten righteous individuals can be found within them. Why stop at ten? Was that the best deal available? Could it be that God just decided, enough already, and walked out of the negotiations (see v.33)? But if the death of fifty innocents is unacceptable, then why should 9 or even 1 innocent death be tolerated? Why didn’t Abraham go chasing after God saying, hold on, I’m not done?! Afterwards, why didn’t Abraham complain to God about the ruined cities? What happened to the zealous defender of the innocent?  Continue reading

Lekh Lekha 5774: What’s in a Name?

Hyman and Celia Nevins with their grandson (and my father) Michael at Coney Island, circa 1941.

Hyman and Celia Nevins with their grandson (and my father) Michael at Coney Island, circa 1941.

What’s in a name? Quite a lot, but you need to know the story. My family name, Nevins, is now five generations old, chosen by my paternal great-grandfather Haskell Neviadomsky at the time of his naturalization. He came to this country in 1896, fleeing the czar’s draft, and apparently decided that he would never make it in America with such a long and foreign-sounding name. I imagine him visiting Brooklyn’s Nevins Street, and deciding on the spot to become Hyman Nevins.

Changes of name, whether within a generation or between generations, signal the conflicted agendas of continuity and change experienced by all families, and particularly by immigrants. They attempt to remember the old country while fitting into the new. They make gestures of self-invention that affect not only their own lives, but also those of their descendants. The ancestor’s original rationale may soon be forgotten, but the reverberations of their decision continue through the generations.

This week we read in Parashat Lekh Lekha about two name changes, as Abram and Sarai become Abraham and Sarah. They have already experienced many upheavals, travels, and travails, and they have achieved old age when God suddenly announces in Genesis chapter 17 the establishment of a covenant (brit) that will make Abram into an ancestor for many peoples, secure the land of Canaan for his descendants, and be symbolized by the covenant of flesh, brit milah, in him and his sons.

But first, the names must change: Abram and Sarai each gain the letter heh, and she loses the letter yod. For millennia, our sages have parsed the meaning of these new names and their significance for the changing fortunes of our first family. Rabbi Shlomo Efraim Luntshitz, known as the K’li Y’kar, offers several explanations in his commentary, to which I will add some of my own twists. Continue reading

Noah 5774: Protecting the Image of God

Following the flood, the Torah returns to a theme that we encountered in the first chapter, צלם אלהים, “the image of God.” We are accustomed to reading this expression metaphorically, since we believe God to be disembodied—אין לו דמות הגוף ואינו גוף God has no body image nor body, as our prayer “Yigdal” puts it. But that claim flies in the face (as it were) of the Bible’s description of the divine body and the image of the divine body, which is apparently human.

Uninsured people in Mississippi, James Patterson for the NY Times

Uninsured people in Mississippi, James Patterson for the NY Times

Tikva Frymer Kensky, z”l, wrote a fascinating essay on the image of God entitled, “Religious Anthropology in Judaism and Christianity.”  She noted that statues of kings were erected around the ancient Near East, and that these likenesses were protected (as was the case in later empires like Rome, and in many regimes down to our day). The Akkadian word for statue is tsalmu; in Assyrian, the king is known as tsalam ili, “image of the god.” Mesopotamian gods and kings had statues of wood and stone. The God of Genesis had something far better: walking statues that could reproduce.  Continue reading