Monthly Archives: November 2020

Thanksgiving in the Face of Sorrow: Vayetze 5781

On the face of it, Leah has been dealt a dreadful hand. Her marriage to Jacob was born of subterfuge, and the Torah relates that “God saw that Leah was hated, and opened her womb, but Rachel was barren.” Leah’s fertility failed to win her husband’s affections as testified by her statements in naming their first three sons, Reuben, Shimon and Levi. Each name is plaintive, speaking to her sorrow and desperate hope for improvement in her marriage. Jacob’s absence from the naming of his first three sons is notable; does he even notice these boys? Finally, with her fourth son, Leah shifts focus from her indifferent husband to her munificent God, saying, “this time I thank the Lord,” yielding the name Judah, the child of thanksgiving.

Our sages puzzle over the shift in Leah’s perspective and the precise meaning of her words. In the Talmud (B. Brakhot 7b) Rabbi Shimon b. Yochai notes that Leah is the first biblical character to use this language of thanksgiving, but what does it mean? Midrash Bereshit Rabbah looks to arithmetic—Jacob had 12 sons from four wives, so it should have been three apiece, but Leah has borne four (so far). Her gratitude is the product of excess—the prophetic knowledge that she has been granted more than her fair share. This sense of plenty, her relative fortune despite her unhappy marriage, leads Leah to invent the language of thanksgiving. This reading is affirmed by Rashi in his Torah commentary, though in its one-ups-woman-ship it is not entirely honorable.

Midrash Tanhuma gives Leah even more prophetic insight—for each child she anticipates future failures among their descendants. For Judah, she foresees his own failure. Yet Leah also anticipates Judah’s remarkable willingness to admit error in the matter of Tamar (and I would add, in the matter of Joseph in Vayyigash). The name Judah hints at another meaning—modeh—confession, and it is this humility of her son that causes Leah to thank God. Indeed, the Midrash adds that it is due to Judah’s willingness to admit error that the entire Jewish people is named for him, and that King David and the messiah will descend from his line. We Jews are intended to be the people who acknowledge—error, dependence, and gratitude.

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Making Love in the Field: Hayei Sarah 5781

Isaac went out to meditate in the field toward evening. He raised his eyes and saw camels approaching (Gen. 24:63). This scene, this moment before Isaac and Rebecca first meet, is dramatic and full of mystery. The two protagonists have come physically close, but remain each in their own world, and that never really changes. True, they will soon occupy a tent together, and Isaac will love his wife,  but just now Rebecca is alone on her camel, and Isaac too is alone in his field. Each seems psychologically wounded. We don’t know much of Rebecca’s background—her parents are ciphers, but her brother Laban is a piece of work. He takes advantage of her, and will do worse to her son. She wastes no time leaving home, as her one word answer אלך, “I’ll go” makes clear. As for Isaac—mourning his mother’s death, and not so close to Abraham since Mt Moriah, he is alone in the dark.

To meditate. What was he thinking? Could the ambiguous verb לשוח relate to the shoots or shrubs growing in the soil? If so, then he was taking advantage of the cool time of day to inspect his crops, a symbol of renewed vitality. Or does the verb truly mean to meditate, as the rabbis insisted in B. Brakhot 26b when they said he was praying Minhah? Meditate? That’s an after the fact translation. The verb means to speak, but with whom? Is Isaac speaking with God? If so, then what is he saying?

In the field. A promising place to meet one’s partner, a place of fertility. It is also a place of concentration, as I often experience when outdoors in a quiet space. In mystical thought, “the field” refers to Shekhinah, the divine presence, and this time of day, Minhah, is when “judgment is dangling toward dusk,” as the Zohar states. Isaac himself is a symbol of divine judgment or gevurah, and so this evening scene is tense and potentially dangerous. The field is a place of encounter—but will it be a struggle, an embrace, or both? The same ambiguity will recur during Jacob and Esau’s reunion in the field. Is Isaac preparing for battle, or is he battling against judgment itself, seeking an opening for compassion? Hasidic writers imagine Isaac engaged in an exalted campaign—to “sweeten judgment,” not only for himself but for the world.

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Dreaming of the Future: Vayera 5781

Once again the pollsters blew it. As in 2016, so in 2020, predictions about election results have born little resemblance to the outcome. Why are we surprised? It is hard enough to describe events that have already happened with accuracy and perspective. The future? Who are we kidding? No doubt, explanations will be found for the significant gap between expectation and reality, but pollsters are no prophets.

Were even the prophets prophets? Did they hear the divine voice, see divine sights, and discern divine secrets? Or was their experience more like a dream or hallucination—vague patterns of uncertain significance? This question pits the two titans of medieval Jewish thought, Rambam and Ramban, against each other. Rambam stakes out a skeptical position in his Guide of the Perplexed, Section II: 42. Because for Rambam there is no material aspect to the divine realm, it is simply impossible for a prophet or any person to see or hear God or angels using sensory perception. Even Moses “heard” God speak through a process of intellection, not auditory perception. Rambam writes, “It should by no means occur to your thought that an angel can be seen or that the speech of an angel can be heard except in a vision of prophecy or in a dream of prophecy, according to what is stated as a principle: I do make Myself known unto him in a vision, I do speak with him in a dream.”

That “principle” comes from the story in Numbers when God rebukes Aaron and Miriam for criticizing their brother, and indicates that prophets such as them are limited to dream like revelations. But Rambam leaves out the next verse, “Not so my servant Moses…” Moses sees the image of God, speaking face to face as if to another person. For Rambam this claim is unacceptable. That which is reported of the prophet’s experience is truly a reflection of their internal vision—a dream or an apparition, not an encounter in time and space.

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