Monthly Archives: November 2014

Vayetze 5775: Poverty, Race, and Thanksgiving

And Jacob kissed Rachel, and lifted his voice and wept (Gen. 29:11, R. Alter trans.). Why is Jacob crying? The simplest explanation would seem to be relief. After fleeing in terror from his enraged brother, experiencing strange visions in the night, and vowing anxiously to repay God if he ever makes it home, Jacob has arrived empty-handed at a well. And who is the first person he meets? His cousin Rachel. He has found the only family in the world that can be expected to give him refuge, and so he weeps with relief. KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Or, in the words of Rabbi David Kimhi, commenting on Jeremiah 31:8, Jacob’s tears are tears of joy. So too when he reunites with Esau and is warmly embraced, Jacob will again weep with joy. Jeremiah predicts a future return of exiles to the land, and they too will weep with joy at their reversal of fortune.

But not all traditions read Jacob’s tears as joyous. Midrash Bereshit Rabba (70:11) offers three sad explanations for his weeping. The most far-fetched of them imagines Jacob mourning—he sees Rachel and prophesies all the way to the end of their lives, knowing that they will marry, but that Rachel will not be buried with him. A second possibility is that Jacob weeps out of shame that the locals will judge him for marrying his first cousin—and also her sister—since the local people were “careful about incest.”

However, the first and most compelling midrashic explanation connects to Jacob’s sudden awareness that he is empty-handed. He recalls that when his grandfather Abraham sent a servant to find a wife for Isaac, he arrived laden with precious gifts. Until now Jacob has been intent merely on survival, but now that he is alive and in the presence of Rachel, he becomes painfully aware of his poverty. Continue reading

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Toledot 5775: Isaac’s Midlife Premonition of Death

Isaac_Blessing_Jacob_-_Govert_FlinckDid you ever notice the strange thing that Isaac says to Esau in sending his elder son out to hunt for his blessing? Isaac has gone blind in his old age, but what troubles him most is uncertainty about his death. He said, behold, I have aged, and I know not the day of my death (27:2). He tells Esau to take his bow and quiver and go hunt for a meal to sate his father, “so that I might bless you before I die.” As readers, we quickly move on to the dramatic story of Rebecca’s intervention, Jacob’s collusion in deceiving his father, Isaac’s dread fear upon realizing he was duped, and Esau’s bitter and violent reaction. But let’s pause to consider the set-up. 

The hunting expedition shows Esau to be an obedient son, and highlights the contrast with Jacob, who subverts his father’s will. It also gets Esau conveniently out of the way. Yet I am most interested in Isaac’s premonition of his own death. Why is he suddenly thinking of his mortality—is he ill? Having read this book before, we know he will live yet for quite a while (he was 60 when the boys were born, and his death at 180 is mentioned seven chapters hence at 35:29). Rabbi Yehoshua b. Korhah claims (in Midrash Sekhel Tov) that Isaac is 123 at this point of the story, meaning that the twins are 63, and their father still has 57 years left to live. What then is the significance of his moody meditation upon his unknown date of departure?  Continue reading

Hayyei Sarah 5775: Bringing the God of Heaven Back to Earth

Where is Abraham, the paragon of compassion, when we need him most? Reading the news this week, when antagonists in the holy land have succeeded in spewing hatred in newly violent ways, let’s think about Abraham, the symbol of compassion, of חסד, and try to embody his grace for the sake of all of his descendants.

 When Abraham sends his servant off to find the cousins and bring back a bride for Isaac, he refers in v.3 to Adonai, the God of heaven and the God of the earth, אֱלֹהֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם וֵאלֹהֵי הָאָרֶץ. But a few verses later, recalling his original departure from Haran, Abraham refers only to Adonai, the God of Heaven, אֱלֹהֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם. He is not the only biblical figure to refer to Adonai as, “God of heaven.” The expression recurs in Jonah (1:9), Ezra (1:2), Nehemiah (1:4, 2:4, 20) and Chronicles II (36:23—in the words of Cyrus, no less). Still, it is striking that he shifts terminology within one passage. What’s going on?

In v.3, Abraham imposes an oath upon his servant in God’s name, but in v.7 he refers back to his earlier experience, when the “God of heaven” ordered him to leave his homeland. Rabbinic commentaries, beginning with Midrash Sifre Devarim and Bereshit Rabba, understand the shift in terminology to be chronological. Before Abraham began his journey, Adonai was indeed the God of heaven, but was not known upon the earth. Abraham’s greatest accomplishment was to make God known in the world. This insight, repeated by Rashi and other commentaries, is most radically expressed in Midrash Sifre Devarim (313), which says that before Abraham, “as it were” ,כביכול, the Holy One was not king of the earth, but only of the heavens.  Continue reading

Vayera 5775: Laughter Lost by our Wounded Warriors

Dusk on the FarmWhat became of laughter in the home of our first family? Abraham fell down laughing when he got the news that he and Sarah would finally have a child. Sarah too greeted the annunciation with laughter (it never feels fair that only Sarah was criticized for laughing). Even at an advanced age, and after a very long wait, Abraham and Sarah knew how to laugh. The happiest line of the portion is 21:6, “then Sarah said, “God has brought me laughter; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” (NJPS). Laughter until now indicates surprise, relief and ultimately delight. But laughter isn’t always a positive sign, and in this portion the same root will assume darker resonances.

Isaac, whose name of course means “he shall laugh,” will be caught laughing twice—once with his brother, and once with his wife, but in these instances the intensive “piel” form מצחק is used, and from the context, it appears to be more bawdy, like “making sport” or “fooling around.” Indeed, the sons-in-law of Lot react to his warning of destruction in Sodom as מצחק, perhaps also, “fooling around.” 

Laughter in these stories evolves from a surprised response to good news into a socially inappropriate attitude which leads to tension and conflict. Levity has been lost in our portion, and laughter has become a marker of dark moods and a prelude to violence. Continue reading

Lekh Lekha 5775: Patriarchs in Search of Peace

One of my favorite songs by the late great Arik Einstein is called אוהב להיות בבית (listen here; lyrics below). He describes the heroic adventures of many people who go off climbing mountains and riding horses, and then says that he, however, prefers to be at home, “with my lemon tea, old books, the same lover and the same habits.” I think of this song when I observe father Avram this week. The man is a whirl of action, journeying from Mesopotamia to Canaan, only to move down to Egypt and then return. In Chapter 14 he intervenes in a regional war and defeats the mighty Kedorle’omer. Avram isn’t done traveling yet, but we get the sense that he is getting tired and concerned about his legacy. Continue reading