Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Va-yeishev

Gen. 39:1-6

This very short aliyah, highlighting the rise of Joseph in Potiphar’s household after his sale into Egypt, ends with the statement that “Joseph was well built and handsome.” Generally the assertion is considered to be an introduction to the following episode, in which Potiphar’s wife attempts to seduce her husband’s good-looking young slave, but if that were so, it would make more sense at the beginning of the next aliyah. The present division seems to imply that Joseph’s appearance has something to do with his high status in the eyes of his master as well.

Despite centuries, possibly millennia, of admonitions from parents to children that “handsome is as handsome does,” and “You can’t tell a book by its cover,” modern studies show that good looks are still an advantage in everything from hiring to sentencing. It has even been suggested that we are biologically programmed to prefer a more symmetrical appearance as a sign of healthy genes in a possible mate.

Interestingly, especially in the light of the former argument, the same words that are used of Joseph are also used in describing his mother, Rachel. In their bald statement, “Leah had weak eyes; Rachel was shapely and beautiful,” the authors are setting up the reader to share the preference of Jacob for Rachel and his contempt for Leah. Remember, “Men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses,” no matter how many sons they bear.

Midrash notwithstanding, in the actual text of the Torah Rachel cannot take credit for a single praiseworthy act; neither, of course, can Leah, but considering our biases, we somehow expect more from Rachel. At least Rebecca shows hospitality to Abraham’s servant and a superhuman kindness to animals in watering all of his camels, and, although we are told that she is beautiful, it is her actions that are the critical test of her suitability to be Isaac’s wife, not her looks.

Joseph, at least up to this point in the narrative, and arguably afterward, is like his mother in showing little promise of becoming a mensch. Although after the episode with Potiphar’s wife, he shows some sensitivity in noticing that his fellow prisoners are downcast by their troubling dreams, most of his later behavior is not particularly edifying.

On the other hand, we are told nothing of Judah’s looks, and as the fourth son of the despised Leah, his prospects are not promising. He also comes off badly compared to Joseph in his relations (in more than one sense) with his daughter-in-law Tamar in the episode recounted just before this aliyah. However, unlike his younger brother, he seems to undergo a true process of teshuvah, and despite paternal preference and Joseph’s natural charisma, it is Judah who becomes the ancestor of King David and, by extension, the Messiah, as well as the eponymous ancestor of the Jewish people.

L'shalom -

Monday, December 26, 2005

Va-yishlach

Gen. 34:1-35:12

Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died, and was buried under the oak below Bethel; so it was named Allon-bacuth. - Gen. 35:8

I have lived a long life and seen three generations of my young mistress’ family grow to adulthood, but never have I been so grieved and ashamed as I have been by the actions of her grandsons Simeon and Levi. And the howls of despair and grief that come from the women’s tent as my youngest lady, Dinah, bewails her lost husband, are enough to break this old heart in two. The young fools! If she had been taken unwillingly, at least their sister would have been an honored wife, mistress of a household – and what is left for her now? But young men do not think of these things when their blood is up and their honor is wounded.

How I remember my first nursling, young Rebecca, running breathlessly home, her eyes alight with excitement and the bracelets that Abraham’s manservant had given her jangling about her wrists. Her brother Laban was no prize, but what if he had taken offense and slaughtered Eliezer and his party? I was not there when Jacob arrived in Paddan-Aram, but I can imagine Rachel, too, blushing and laughing after being thoroughly kissed in public by her normally cautious cousin. Her brothers, too, could easily have brought this story to a bloody and premature end.

And I must wonder, is that incident, so well known to the boys, one source of this unwarranted violence? The gods know, for all Rachel's beauty and charm, they have never forgiven her for being better loved than their more decorous mother. If they saw her behavior as unseemly, might they not have felt that she influenced their sister and, horrible as it is to think, might the brutal slaughter at Shechem not have been a reflection of their feelings toward their own father?

In the meantime, the women of Israel and those of Shechem, now united in the sorrow of our sister Dinah, are incidental casualties of these battles between men.

Va-yetzei

Gen. 30:28-31:16

When Jacob decides to leave Laban and return to his ancestral land, he tells Leah and Rachel that Laban “has cheated me, changing my wages time and again.” But is this accusation a just one, borne out by the facts of the case as provided in the text?

Jacob’s main complaint is presumably Laban’s substitution of Leah for Rachel, but while his intent was obviously deceptive, Laban could certainly claim (along with many modern politicians) that his response to Jacob’s request was “legally accurate.” “Better that I give her to you than that I should give her to an outsider. Stay with me,” is, in the words of Etz Hayim, “a statement of consummate ambiguity naively accepted by Jacob as a binding commitment,” and Laban did, indeed, eventually allow Jacob to marry Rachel. Perhaps Jacob, whose previous experience in deception consisted of outright lies like “I am Esau, your firstborn,” can be forgiven for missing the subtlety in his uncle’s more sophisticated technique. However, Laban does not seem so different from the younger man who hastened out to meet Abraham’s servant only upon seeing evidence of his kinsman’s great wealth; it is hard to imagine that Rebecca told her favorite son nothing of her brother’s personality during those cozy years in the tents.

The only other time that wages are discussed is in the story told in our aliyah, that of the division of the flocks according to their markings, and in that incident there is more than enough discredit to go around. Laban and Jacob first attempt to outdo each other in a ritual of politeness worthy of Chip and Dale. Then Laban eagerly accepts Jacob’s specification of “wages,” believing that he is pulling another fast one on his gullible son-in-law. Perhaps this is the point at which the relationship could have been salvaged, if Laban had, perhaps out of his feeling for his daughters, overcome his own insatiable greed and protested that the division was not fair. If Jacob expected anything like this to happen after fourteen years he was certainly optimistic, if nothing else. If not, he had no reason to complain, especially since he had his own plan to turn the tables on his wily uncle.

Perhaps, however, even if he did want Laban to do the right thing, Jacob was equally at fault for setting the test and then feeling betrayed when the older man failed it. Perhaps the correct thing to do would have been to end the power games and unequivocally ask for the wages he felt he was entitled to, demanding that his father-in-law show equal candor. Unfortunately, this may have been as foreign to Jacob’s personality as honesty was to Laban’s, in which case there was no other way their relationship could have played out.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Tol'dot

Gen. 26:30-27:27

REBECCA: Foolish old man! Thank God he has a healthy appetite for game, even in his old age. He provided me with the perfect opportunity to prevent the disaster that would come if he allowed his doting love for Esau to blind him to reality. I had the idea of substituting Jacob for his brother when it first became obvious that Isaac could not tell one son from the other in the dim light inside the tent, but the problem had always been how to make the switch. Now Isaac himself had solved it for me.

Please don’t think that I don’t love my older son, but he is a simple, uncomplicated man who acts on a whim, definitely not suited for the responsibilities that should by custom fall upon him as the eldest. Jacob, on the other hand, takes after me and my brother Laban. Even his hesitation came more from his fear of being caught than from any scruples about what I was asking of him. He feared appearing as a trickster to his father, not being one. On my side of the family, we always consider our own self-interest, even when acting for the greater good.

JACOB: All I could think was that my mother had gone mad. How could my father possibly mistake me for Esau, whom he loved so much? Yet he did, although there were a few times I was sure he had seen through the ruse. Esau wasn’t the only one whose sweat was on those furs by the time I was done! I was almost giddy with glee and relief when I emerged and gave my mother the signal that we had succeeded. The next thing I knew, I was being bundled unceremoniously out of the camp and sent on a long visit to Uncle Laban, beside whom I was an innocent babe when it came to manipulation.

ESAU: Maybe I should not have sold the birthright, but what right did my brother have to take advantage of my weaknesses? I would not have done it to him! And the Hittite women – my mother didn’t like them, but would she have liked my cousins Rachel and Leah any better if she had had to live with them? My mother was a queen in our encampment and would tolerate no rivals. I often thought it was a good thing that Sarah was already dead when Rebecca came to marry my father, or there would have been war between those two proud women. And my mother might have been the loser, too!

My sense of betrayal, when I arrived at my father’s side with the stew he had asked for and found that he had given my blessing to my brother, was like a physical blow to the gut. That he had not known me, that Jacob had been able to fool him with my clothing and skins on his hands, was the cruelest part, even more than the loss of the blessing. My howl was more of pain than of rage.

Later I came to see what happened as being for the best, as I was the one who stayed with my parents and cared for them into their old age, a blessing that my brother forfeited. The price that Rebecca paid, although she may have thought the gain worth it, was that she never saw Jacob again.

ISAAC: It was becoming obvious, even to my dimmed eyes, that Esau was not the one to carry on my legacy. First there was the incident with the birthright; oh, yes, I heard about that one! The servants laughed about it for days, how clever Jacob had taken advantage of his brother’s impulsive nature, but to me it showed how cheaply Esau held what I had almost died for. Then there were the wives, with their airs and their lack of respect for us and our ways.

So, when I felt my mortality coming upon me, I sent Esau out to hunt me some game and make me a stew, promising to give him my blessing when he returned. It was now up to God, and to Rebecca, who always believed that God helps those who help themselves. I knew she was listening; she is not so silent as she thinks she is, especially to one whose hearing is heightened in the absence of vision.

The skins were a lovely touch, though; they confused me momentarily.

Chaye Sarah

Gen. 24:53-67

After that unnerving, dream-like experience with my father and the subsequent death of my mother, I fled. I could no longer bear the burden of being the focus of all his impossible expectations – that strange, God-touched man, my father.

And where did I go? I sought out my brother, Ishmael, whom I had not seen since I was a child. I barely remembered him, but in those memories he was a huge, god-like figure, strong and outgoing with a booming laugh that seemed to make the earth vibrate under my feet. I found him at Beer-lahai-roi, where his mother had first heard the voice of God – one more thing for which my mother had never forgiven her.

He was still the same, large and hairy and smelling of the outdoors, and he welcomed me with tears in his eyes and a bone-crushing hug. We spoke about the abandonment we had both suffered at the hands of our father, and how he had come to terms with it. Expansive in his feelings as well as his gestures, he had long ago forgiven Abraham, and had been in contact with him over the years. Yet he had not felt that he could get in touch with me.

“How was I to know what Sarah had told you?” he said sadly. “You were so young. I was tickling you and roughhousing with you, throwing you in the air, and you were squealing with delight. Perhaps she could not bear seeing us friends, or perhaps she really was afraid that I would hurt you.” I could only shake my head. Her bitterness had remained unabated, except maybe at the end, when she had stood in Hagar’s shoes, facing the death of her only child.

“Do you think that was why he did it?” I asked. “So that she would know what he and Hagar had felt, when she insisted that he cast you out?”

He did not think so. Abraham was utterly serious about his God, and would never use Him as an excuse for petty revenge. “There may have been an element of it, though, and of justice. Abraham and his God are both obsessed with justice.” However, his mother had lived many years, and I still suspected that the terror Sarah had felt had contributed to her death.

I returned home, however, more at peace than I had been for many months. On the first day afterward I was walking in the fields, my heart still aching for all the pain my family had put itself through, when I beheld a procession coming towards me. My father’s old servant, Eliezer, hastened up to me and presented a veiled woman to me as my cousin Rivkah, who was to be my bride. I could see her eyes sparkling at me behind the veil, and her voice, low and musical, reminded me of my mother’s. My heart lifted. This would be a new beginning. We would never tear the family asunder with jealousy and favoritism, as my parents had done.

Va-yera

Gen. 21:5-21

With the last of my strength I flung my beloved child the last few feet into the only shade available, and moved slowly, feebly, like an old woman, to sit down and give way to despair. My eyes were dazzled by sun and sand, my skin blistering, and my lips and throat were parched. It seemed like hours ago that I had forced the last of the water down Ishmael’s throat, and now he moaned and tossed in a delirium that I could not bear to witness.

How could Abraham have done this to us - to his firstborn son, at least, however little he thought of me? Yet his eyes had borne a stricken look as he placed the supplies on my back, and there had been tenderness in the hand that brushed a stray lock of hair out of my eyes. As he bent over me, he had whispered some hurried instructions to the nearest oasis, but I had either misunderstood or made a wrong turning, an error we would pay for with our lives.

If only I had never gone back to Sarah! I had been deceived; it had been no divine being but a demon who had made such dazzling promises on that day when, out of fear and despair, I had run away from my mistress. My bones and Ishmael’s would whiten in the blazing sun, and only Isaac would father the great nation Abraham’s God had promised him. I slumped on the ground, sunk in my misery.

Ishmael gave another moan, and it was as if the voice which had spoken to me before spoke once again. In the deathly quiet around us, I heard a blessed sound, a tiny splash as some desert creature landed in water. Lifting up my eyes, I looked desperately around, trying to place the sound, and found it at last, only a few feet away from where I was lying. El-Roi had not lied to me after all, and I knelt by the spring to fill the waterskin, babbling thanks and apologies as my laughter mingled with my tears, and my tears with the water of life

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Lekh L'kha

Gen. 14:18-15:6

After the battle of the five kings against the four and the rescue of his nephew Lot, Abram lay in his tent, sleepless. Instead of the elation of victory, he felt a strange emptiness.

Not so strange, really, he thought. This day had seen the end of a dream, with none to replace it. Even after they had parted in the wake of their herders’ wranglings, he had believed that Lot would be his heir if he and Sarah had no son, which seemed increasingly likely.

Now, however, the breach between them was complete, and although Lot was a decent man, there was a fundamental flaw in his character. Abram had already known this, deep in his heart, when he had offered his nephew the choice of which land he would take and Lot, like a greedy child, had grabbed at the most attractive parcel as if it were a sparkling toy. A serious, thoughtful man, a potential leader, would have deferred to his elder, or at least consulted with him.

And yesterday, when they had burst into the encampment where Lot and his family were being held prisoner, Abram had seen the burning humiliation on the younger man’s face and the impotent fury in his eyes, and knew what he was thinking. Even when I go off on my own, my uncle still has to come in person to rescue me.

He acknowledged to himself that he should not have gone, should have let some of the other men free Lot, so that they could have met again as equals, not as a warrior freeing a hostage. Lot had spent his entire life trying to live up to his uncle’s reputation, and could not forgive Abram for the fact that he had failed. “If you should come before God, nephew,” Abram had told him once, “you will not be asked why you were not Abram. You will be asked why you were not Lot.”

No, Lot would not carry on his legacy. That task must go to his trusted servant, Eliezer, although that thought too disturbed him. Could a man be too selfless? A good man, the perfect servant, would not necessarily make a good leader. Decisiveness and a certain amount of self-interest, perhaps even ruthlessness at times, were called for, and he saw no sign of these things in Eliezer.

“After these things, the word of YHVH came to Abraham in a vision…”

Noah

Gen. 9:8-17

In a sense, the fifth aliyah of this parashah is a recapitulation of creation, but with a difference. While God did indeed create the world and everything in it at the beginning of Bereshit, the only divine interaction with human beings and animals comes in the form of commands, to “be fruitful and multiply” and in Chapter 2 for Adam not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and bad.

This may be likened to a parent who provides everything for her child but does not communicate with him, except in the most basic sense of telling him what to do and punishing him when he disobeys. This parent has not made, and shown herself to have made, an unconditional emotional investment. Perhaps she has unreasonable expectations of perfection in the child. Then a tragedy happens, perhaps brought on by the actions of the parent herself, and she realizes her child does not have to be perfect; she loves him just the same.

After the flood God is in this position, at last recognizing that the contradictory creatures She has made are not going to do what they are expected to do, and accepts the situation. After laying down the basics of a human-centered system of justice, God makes an unconditional emotional commitment, not just to humanity but to all living creatures. The word b’rit is used seven times in this aliyah; this is surely not a coincidence. The fact that we divide the rainbow into seven colors, and its modern symbolic value of harmonious diversity, are only beautiful elaborations on this point.

Bereshit

Gen. 4:19-26

It could be argued that the listing of Lamech’s four children by his two wives, and their crediting as “ancestors” of those who practice various callings, is ultimately meaningless. Even if their children intermarried with the descendants of Seth, in the end, through the bottleneck of Noah, they would still be the ancestors of all human beings.

However, perhaps this is the meaning that can be found in the passage. Although throughout history there have been clans and guilds that have restricted certain trades to their own members, and even talents such as music that seem to have a genetic component, there is no “natural” reason why an aptitude should not show up in any given individual, regardless of bloodline. Indeed, even if these men, and one woman, who according to the midrash was a singer, had no blood descendants, as the originators of their callings they are the ancestors of all who followed them. As the Talmud points out, a teacher is, in a sense, a parent to his or her students.

Another aspect of this genealogy that drives home the idea that biology is not destiny is the fact that these are said to be the descendants of Cain, the first murderer, who was cursed by God. Even their father Lamech is known for nothing but his song of vengeance and perhaps as the first polygamist. Yet this bloodline makes considerable contributions to human civilization. Cain himself does so in his founding of the first city, although even today cities are seen as a mixed blessing at best!

Finally, the midrash brings the descendants of Cain and those of Seth together at the end of this first period of primeval history by making Naamah the wife of Noah, thus making all of humanity one family, as it was at the beginning.