Friday, November 20, 2015

Torah Thoughts on Vayetze

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayetze (Gen. 28:10-32:3) Jacob runs away from his home in Beersheba to escape his brother’s fury.  He flees to Haran and meets his cousin, the daughter of Rebecca’s brother Laban, at the well.  He falls in love with her immediately and offers to work for Laban for seven years for her hand in marriage.  Laban agrees.  At the end of seven years, Laban makes a feast and in the evening (presumably after dark) brings his older daughter, Leah, to Jacob’s bed.  In the morning, Jacob awakens to find that he has married not his beloved Rachel, but her older sister.  He confronts Laban, who tells him that it is the custom that the elder daughter is married before the younger, but he offers Jacob Rachel’s hand in marriage as soon as Leah’s wedding week is over, for another seven years of work.

The Torah tells us that Jacob loved Rachel, and that “Leah was hated”, but doesn’t tell us why.  A midrash fills in the blanks: “The whole of that night he called her ‘Rachel’ and she answered him.  In the morning however, ‘Behold, it was Leah’ (Gen 29:25).  Said he to her, ‘What, you are a deceiver and the daughter of a deceiver!’ ‘Is there a teacher without pupils, ’she retorted; ‘did not your father call you Esau, and you answered him!  So did you too call me and I answered you!”  By drawing his attention to his own deception, Leah earns Jacob’s disfavor.  Unfortunately, that is not an uncommon consequence for those who tell the truth.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Torah Thoughts on Toldot

This week’s Torah portion, Toldot (Gen. 25:19-28:9) begins with the words “This is the line of Isaac, son of Abraham”.  We might expect what follows to be about Isaac’s life and accomplishments.  Instead, the parshah focuses mostly on his wife and children.

Rebecca has difficulty conceiving and Isaac pleads with God on her behalf.  But once she is pregnant and experiencing pain, she herself speaks with God and learns that she will give birth to twins, who are already striving within her womb, and who will be rivals throughout their lives.  Their competition for the birthright, and Rebecca’s collusion with Jacob to trick Isaac into blessing him instead of Esau, dominate the story line.  The only glimpse we get of Isaac’s own life is an encounter with Abimelech that almost exactly duplicates the story of Abraham and Abimelech as recounted in Gen. 20.  Isaac’s role in the blessing of Jacob instead of Esau casts him not as the leader of the people ensuring their successor, but as a dupe who needs his wife’s machinations to ensure that God’s choice is the son who gets the birthright.

Still, there are important things to be learned from the example of Isaac.  He is the bridge between Abraham and Jacob.  He keeps faith with God, and carries on the line that will become the people Israel.  He is not a natural leader or an out-of-the-box thinker, but he carries on the tradition.  A midrash tells of Rabbi Zusya, who, on his deathbed, cried bitter tears.  “Why are you crying?” he was asked, “is it because you were not as great as Moses?”  “No”, he replied, “It is because I was not as great as Zusya could have been.”  Isaac was as great as Isaac could have been.  And that is enough.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Torah Thoughts on Chayei Sarah

This week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah (Gen. 23:1-25:18) contains something unusual, not in the words themselves, but in the trope (cantillation marks) the indications of how the melody is to be chanted.  After the death of Sarah at the outset of the parshah, and after Abraham has mourned her and purchased land in Canaan to bury her, he sends his servant to find a wife for Isaac.  The servant goes to Aram Naharaim, and prays to God to help him find the right woman.  The first word of his prayer, va’yomar (“he said”) is sung with the shalshelet, a rare sign that is found in only four places in the Torah.  There are other rare tropes, but they don’t sound very different from the standard melody.  Shalshelet has a very distinctive sound, going up and down the scale three times.  When you have heard it, you know you’ve heard something unusual.
What is so important about this word that it merits the shalshelet? The servant’s prayer, that he might find a suitable mate for Isaac, is what changes the story of Abraham and Sarah from a one-time phenomenon to a spiritual inheritance that has lasted for thousands of years.  Rebecca meets and then exceeds the criteria that the servant has asked God to show him.  She is eager to go with the servant, she and Isaac fall in love at once and, in coming Torah portions (spoiler alert) she will manipulate her husband to further the cause of the son best suited to carry on the leadership of the people to the next generation.
Also, interestingly, the word shalshelet means “chain”.  Rebecca never gets to meet her mother-in-law Sarah, but she is the bearer of the female leadership of this people who will, in another few years, become the people Israel.  May this chain, which has been carefully carried for so many years, continue to be passed on from one generation to the next.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Torah Thoughts on Vayera

This week’s Torah portion, Vayera, (Gen. 18:1 – 22:24) continues the story of Abraham, Sarah and the rest of their complicated family.  In last week’s portion, after Sarah had been unable to bear a child, she urged Abraham to take her Egyptian servant, Hagar, as a concubine.  Hagar bore Abraham a son named Ishmael, but God assured Abraham that he would also have a son by Sarah, and that son would be his spiritual heir.  Abraham fell flat on his face and laughed before God at the thought of his 100 year old self and his 90 year old wife having a child, and God did not rebuke him for it.

In this week’s Torah portion, three strangers come to Abraham’s tent bearing news:  Sarah overhears them telling her husband that at this time next year, Sarah will bear a son.  She, too, laughs, although only to herself.  But God knows it, and calls her to account for it. (Gen. 18:10-15)

Bible scholar Tikva Frymer-Kensky interprets the difference between God’s reaction to Abraham’s and Sarah’s laughter as follows: “God ignores Abraham’s laughter but reacts to Sarah’s.  After all, Sarah should understand how important she is…Sarah’s importance in God’s scheme means that God will have zero tolerance for skepticism from her.” [Women in Scripture, quoted in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary]

Throughout Genesis, we repeatedly see that the matriarchs are the ones who ensure the spiritual heritage of Israel by collaborating with God to make sure that the “correct” son is chosen to lead the next generation.  In this week’s portion, Sarah begins that tradition.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Torah Thoughts on Lech Lecha

 This week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha (Gen. 12:1-17:27) picks up the story of Abram and Sarai, who were introduced to us at the end of last week’s parshah.  At that time, Abram’s family had left Ur of the Chaldees and settled in Haran.  Now, Abram receives the word from God: “Go forth from your country, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Gen. 12:1).

But wait a moment.  Abram can’t leave his birthplace; he already has. The whole family has moved from his birthplace, Ur of the Chaldees, to Haran.  In fact, we were told at the end of last week’s parshah, they had originally set out from Ur for the land of Canaan, but instead they got as far as Haran and settled there.  

God is asking Abram to go on one of the greatest journeys of history; a journey that would become the beginning of the Jewish religion, as well as the other great religions that would take their origin from Judaism.  He will end up in Canaan, where his family had originally planned to go, but he will go there without the idols and pagan practices of his family.  Rather, he goes at God’s bidding, on a sacred journey.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Torah Thoughts on Noah

This week’s Torah portion, Noah, (Gen. 6:9-11:32) tells a story of an ancient flood which wiped out all life in the world except for that of Noah, his wife and sons and his sons’ wives, and one each male and female of every species.  In the beginning of the tale, Noah is “a righteous man in his generation, he was above reproach; Noah walked with God” (Gen. 6:9).  Noah does God’s bidding. He builds the ark to the exact specifications, collects the animals, lives through the flood, and watches everything else on earth die.  After spending nearly a full year on the ark, God gives them permission to leave it.  Noah builds an altar and God blesses Noah and his family, and makes a covenant with them with the rainbow as its sign.

And the next we hear of Noah, he plants a vineyard, drinks of the wine and becomes drunk, then lies naked in his tent.  What has become of the righteous man, above reproach, who walked with God?

Almost ten years ago, I was in Biloxi, Mississippi on a Hillel trip to help repair the extensive damage done by hurricane Katrina.  Across the street from the home on which we worked, a woman lived in a FEMA trailer on the front lawn of her destroyed home.  We noticed that she started drinking bourbon at about ten every morning.  One day she told us her flood narrative.  When the hurricane was due to land, her boyfriend tied her with a belt high on a telephone pole, and she stayed there for nine hours as the waters rose.  In those hours, she told us, she watched the dead body of her neighbor’s child wash down the street past her.  A snake slithered up the telephone pole, and she claimed that their eyes met in mutual fear.  Neither of them tried to harm the other.  She also told us that she had had a drinking problem in the past, but had been clean and sober for six years before the hurricane.  She lost her home and her sobriety, but she still held the awful memories of what she had seen.

Perhaps there are things that human beings endure that cause them to seek comfort in whatever way they can. Drinking alcohol can be one of those comforts.  Sometimes they can be transcended.  I hope that the woman in Biloxi is once again safe in her own home, and has regained her sobriety.  And maybe for the first time, I understand why Noah needed to do what he did.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Torah Thoughts on B’reisheet

This week’s Torah portion, B’reisheet (Gen. 1:1-6:8) tells the story of creation.  In fact, it tells it twice.  The first Creation narrative, Gen. 1:1-2:3, tells of a well-organized creation of the heavens and the earth, beginning from chaos.  In six neatly ordered “days”, God creates light and darkness, heaven and earth, seas and dry land, sun, moon and stars, creatures of the air and sea, and finally ending with land creatures, and last of all, human beings, male and female.  On the seventh day, God ceases from work and rests.  And then, instead of moving on, comes yet another recounting of creation.

The second Creation narrative, Gen. 2:4-25, begins with a formed planet, but with nothing yet growing on it.  God first creates the male human out of the dust of the earth, and blows the breath of life into him.  God follows with a garden in the east, called Eden, and then considers that it is not good for him to be alone.  God creates all manner of animals and birds, and brings them to the man but none is an appropriate companion.  Then God puts the man into a deep sleep, removes one of his ribs, and fashions a woman from it and brings her to the man, and the man names her, too, calling her “woman”.

The two stories may be explained, as Dr. Tamara Eskenazi does in her introduction to her work, The Torah, A Women’s Commentary, as follows: “A wide-angle lens that encompasses the whole world in Genesis 1 is augmented in Genesis 2-3 with a zoom lens that discloses an ‘up close and personal’ relationship with God. This split-screen view characterizes the Torah as a whole and introduces a biblical perspective on important events.”

One difference between the two stories that is seldom commented upon is the way God is depicted in the two versions of Creation.  In the first, God, working alone, builds an ordered universe from utter chaos.  There is no question but that God is in charge, and knows exactly what is to be done.  In the second, God creates the man, allows him to name the animals, and then casts about for a suitable helpmeet for him, apparently not even knowing what that might be.  Perhaps when the human factor enters the story, and God must interact with us, there can be no such thing as order and organization.