Sunday, December 31, 2006

Thoughts on Parashat Miketz/Vayigash

These two parhiyot are so tightly integrated that I wish to treat them together. This year, going through, the whole family saga thing has not much caught my interest. I think its noteworthy that Joseph comes from a place where he recounts a dream he had and is immediately taken to task for its meaning - His family all speak the language of dreams, but in Egypt this ability is not a given. Joseph must interpret dreams for the Eqyptians.

Returning to a theme I wrote on last year, Joseph's assertion that Pharaoh's dreams are one dream is presaged in the following verse

וַיְסַפֵּר פַּרְעֹה לָהֶם אֶת־חֲלֹמוֹ וְאֵין־פּוֹתֵר אוֹתָם לְפַרְעֹה

And Pharaoh recounted to them his dream and none and there was no interpretating them for Pharaoh.

This is easier to understand in Hebrew than it is to render, because the participial form of פתר can mean "interpreter," "interpretation," or "interpretating." I have chosen the last, which is good English only in Appalachia, because it is the only one that does not demand the interpolation of a preposition where there is none in the Hebrew. However, the participle does not concern me. More interesting in this verse is the use of the plural direct object pronoun אותם with the singular referent חלומו. This hints at the single meaning of the multiple dreams.

וַיֹּאמֶר יוֹסֵף אֶל־הָעָם הֵן קָנִיתִי אֶתְכֶם הַיּוֹם וְאֶת־אַדְמַתְכֶם לְפַרְעֹה הֵא־לָכֶם זֶרַע וּזְרַעְתֶּם אֶת־הָאֲדָמָה: וְהָיָה בַּתְּבוּאֹת וּנְתַתֶּם חֲמִישִׁית לְפַרְעֹה וְאַרְבַּע הַיָּדֹת יִהְיֶה לָכֶם לְזֶרַע הַשָּׂדֶה וּלְאָכְלְכֶם וְלַאֲשֶׁר בְּבָתֵּיכֶם וְלֶאֱכֹל לְטַפְּכֶם: וַיֹּאמְרוּ הֶחֱיִתָנוּ נִמְצָא־חֵן בְּעֵינֵי אֲדֹנִי וְהָיִינוּ עֲבָדִים לְפַרְעֹה: וַיָּשֶׂם אֹתָהּ יוֹסֵף לְחֹק עַד־הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה עַל־אַדְמַת מִצְרַיִם לְפַרְעֹה לַחֹמֶשׁ רַק אַדְמַת הַכֹּהֲנִים לְבַדָּם לֹא הָיְתָה לְפַרְעֹה

And Joseph said to the people, "look, today I have purchased you and your land for Pharaoh. Here is seed for you, you shall sow the earth. It shall be in the harvest that you will give 1/5th to Pharaoh and four parts will be for you to sow the field and to eat and satisfy your households and feed your children." And they said "you have caused us to live, we will find grace in your eyes my lord, and we will be slaves to Pharaoh." And Joseph established it as a law until today over the land of Egypt for Pharaoh only the land of the Priests alone was not Pharaoh's.

I find myself troubled by this passage, so this year I decided to wrestle it to the ground to see what blessings it might have to give. The problem I have is this: In Miketz the Egyptians are freeholders. Joseph imposes a 20% tax on them for the purpose of laying up stores against the famine. The famine arrives and Joseph does not disburse the grain to them that they grew, but rather sells it back to them. When they no longer have silver, he buys their means of production for grain, and when they later need food, he buys them, making them sharecroppers on the land. To a contemporary economic and social liberal this seems appalling. Indeed, even Torah itself seems appalled; the institution of sabbatical years and Jubilee seem designed very much as a safeguard against this sort of thing happening in Israel.

So why does this happen? Some sources (Sifrei, Midrash HaGadol - cited in Feinstein) suggest that this transfer of wealth from individuals to Pharaoh, and Pharaoh's absolute ownership of all wealth means that when the Israelites left Egypt with articles belonging to their neighbors, it is in fact Pharaoh, not their neighbors that are being deprived. To my mind this explanation does not satisfy. It seems more indicative of the Rabbi's ethnocentric focus that explicatory of why the enslavement happens at all. Personally, I have wondered if the Israelite slavery could be viewed as a נגד כנגד response to this action of Joseph's. But this too does not satisfy.

Morgan has argued that this is a "just so story;" a legend to explain how a status quo has come to pass. Her proof is "וַיָּשֶׂם אֹתָהּ יוֹסֵף לְחֹק עַד־הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה" with "היום הזה" indicating the biblical narrator's present at which time Pharaoh still holds all the land. The idea that a legend would be required to explain this suggests that, from the point of view of the speakers society, the notion of a king holding all the land seemed aberrant. The state from which they descended to slavery - that of the freeholder, seems viewed by the narrator as normative.

But why would Joseph behave thus? Another suggestion of Morgan's - given the situation at court, with Joseph being a stranger regardless of how well he has blended, and a former slave regardless of how high he has ascended, he really cannot act in ways that do not accrue to the direct benefit of Pharaoh. Joseph must be ever mindful of the caprice of court life; given the fates met by the Baker and the Cupbearer. One can be arbitrarily jailed, and arbitrarily redeemed or hung. Thus Joseph's treatment of the Egyptians at large can be viewed as a mechanism of self defense.

But there is something else too. The whole region is having a famine. And while one might cynically say that Joseph has helped Pharaoh make a killing in grain futures, the value of these futures depends on the fact that the need is there to be met. And it is a vital need. Joseph is selling not only to the Egyptians and to the Israelites, but to all the surrounding nations. His foresight has saved the region from starvation. Returning it measure for measure to the people who grew it, "giving the surplus back to the people," as it were, would not have allowed him to do this.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Thoughts on Parashat Vayeshev

וַיְהִי אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה וַתִּשָּׂא אֵשֶׁת־אֲדֹנָיו אֶת־עֵינֶיהָ אֶל־יוֹסֵף וַתֹּאמֶר שִׁכְבָה עִמִּי: וַיְמָאֵן וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל־אֵשֶׁת אֲדֹנָיו הֵן אֲדֹנִי לֹא־יָדַע אִתִּי מַה־בַּבָּיִת וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר־יֶשׁ־לוֹ נָתַן בְּיָדִי: אֵינֶנּוּ גָדוֹל בַּבַּיִת הַזֶּה מִמֶּנִּי וְלֹא־חָשַׂךְ מִמֶּנִּי מְאוּמָה כִּי אִם־אוֹתָךְ בַּאֲשֶׁר אַתְּ־אִשְׁתּוֹ וְאֵיךְ אֶעֱשֶׂה הָרָעָה הַגְּדֹלָה הַזֹּאת וְחָטָאתִי לֵאלֹהִים

And it was after these thing that the wife of his lord lifted her eyes toward Jacob and said "lie with me." He refused and said to the wife of his lord "look, with me, my lord is not concerned with what is in the house, for everything that is his he has placed in my hand. No one is greater in this house than me and he has witheld nothing from me except you, insofar as you are his wife, so how could I do this great evil and sin against God?" (Genesis 39:7-9)

This episode is striking, I think for a number of things. to my mind the most noteworthy thing is that Joseph perceives Potiphar's wife's proposal as a sin not against Potiphar, but against God. He has been entrusted with absolute control over Potiphar's household, he could do anything he wants, but this one thing, lying with Potiphar's wife, he knows he cannot do. I think that the reason for this is that it was with God's help and the successes that God granted him that he gained this degree of trust from Potiphar. To betray the trust that was built with the Lord's help would be to betray God by spurning the gift that God has given him in Potiphar's faith.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Thoughts on Parashat Vayishlach


וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב לְבַדּוֹ וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ עַד עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר

And Jacob remained by himself and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. (32:25)

We always hear of Jacob wrestling with an "angel," but this is not what the text says. It uses the word איש, not מלאך of Jacob's opponent. Who it is is never explained in the text. Some have argued that it was Esau's guardian angel, and that the מלאכים that Jacob sends are his own. As charming a reading as it is, it turns this into more a magician's battle than anything else, befitting the mindset of the midrashic period. But it seems to me to be fairly likely that it is Esau himself. And, though he does not let on, I think Jacob knows it. The thing that Jacob demands of this personage that comes to wrestle with him is his blessing. What would the blessing of a stranger be worth? And God has already given him His blessing, but the blessing of Esau - that would be a prize indeed.

Back in Toldot, Jacob voiced discomfort with his mothers plan for obtaining his father's blessing. He did it, it can be argued, under duress from her. She was acting according to what God had told her, but she did not let him in on that. So Jacob has discomfort - he does not feel he holds his father's blessing with legitimacy, and the only person who can grant that legitimacy is the person he wronged to obtain it -- Esau. So Jacob triumphs and receives his blessing, and then names the place "PeniEl" "Because I have looked upon the face of God and lived."

The face of God? This is what causes us to speculate that this is an angel. But I think something else is going on here, in this moment, in wrestling with Esau, Jacob sees for the first time that his brother is created בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהים, in the divine image. Hence he later says to Esau: רָאִ֣יתִי פָנֶ֗יךָ כִּרְאֹ֛ת פְּנֵ֥י אֱלֹהִ֖ים "I have seen your face like the face of God." Why "רָאִיתִי" in the perfect; why not "seeing" your face? Why not an infinitive; why not "to see" your face. It is perfect, because earlier, he noticed that his brother too, like himself, contained a spark of the divine.

I heard it said that Dinah was six years old at the time of the event. The math was very good, being the same sort of math that puts Isaac at 37 for the Akedah. This math relies on the assumption that there is no gap in the narrative. Torah narrative is episodic. We do not know, because we are not told, how much time passed between Jacob settling in sh'chem, and Dinah going out to see the local girls.

The rape, and the rather curious phrase "וַתִּדְבַּק נַפְשׁוֹ בְּדִינָה בַּת־יַעֲקֹב וַיֶּאֱהַב אֶת־הַנַּעֲרָ וַיְדַבֵּר עַל־לֵב הַנַּעֲרָ" "and his soul cleave in Dinah, daughter of Jacob, and he loved the girl and spoke over the heart of the girl" raises questions. וַיְדַבֵּר עַל־לֵב הַנַּעֲרָ is often rendered "he spoke tenderly to the girl," but I would press another reading: he overrode her objections. על means "over" "on" or "above," so it seems to me that rather than being an indication of kindness, it is a willful ignoring of her wishes.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Thoughts on Parashat Vayetze

Just some quick notes to myself

סוּלָם is a hapax legomenon.

Rachel and Leah have quite the race. Their motivations are quite different. With each son Leah hopes that Jacob will finally love her. Rachel's concern, however, is to build herself up through offspring. Morgan has noted that since a woman who had not yet borne a child could be spurned by a husband, Rachel's concern may have been that if she did not give Jacob a child of her own, that Laban would pull something like, "She has borne any children to you, so I will keep her with me lest you spurn her."

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Thoughts on parashat Toldot

Thoughts on parashat Toldot
וירא אליו יהוה ויאמר אל-תרד מצרימה

And Adonai appeared to him and said "don't go down to Egypt."

In Chayyei Sarah, Abraham takes great pains to ensure that Isaac does not go to Padan Aram, likewise Adonai takes pains to ensure Isaac does not go to Egypt. I can only speculate that both share the concern that if Isaac goes to either of these places he will become mired. Indeed, this language and the following promises remind us of the language with which He removed Avram from the land in which Terach had become mired.

Isaac doesn't separate between business and personal. For largely pragmatic reasons, Abimelech sends him away, but when Isaac is prospering a safe distance away, Abimelech wants a treaty. Isaac is shocked that he even showed up:

מדוע באתם אלי ואתם שנאתם אתי
"Why have you come to me when you hate me?"

To Isaac's mind, it was hatred that motivated Abimelech's sending him off, and the notion that that hatred was conditional and not a permanent condition is strange. The conclusion of the covenant must have seemed truly wondrous - a relationship thought to have been permanently soured restored.

From Lech Lecha clear to here, צחק receives lots of word play. Here that wordplay reaches a tragic climax with יצעק.

The Deception of Esau

It's a story we're all familiar with - Isaac prepares to bless his children, and Esau, who is the eldest and, we are told, Isaac's favorite, is sent to hunt some venison to make a stew before he blesses him. Rebekah hears of it and seizes the opportunity to sneak her favorite, Jacob, in with a stew of his own, masquerading as Esau in order to receive the blessing from poor, blind Isaac, who grants it not knowing any better. The tragedy of this is described by Plaut thus:

[Jacob] practices outrageous deceit on a helpless father and a guileless brother, and he is rewarded for his deed. . . . Ironically Jacob and Rebekah involve themselves in moral turpitude in order to achieve what God would have brought to pass in any case. (185)

There are other spins too, like the "Isaac knew" camp that shows an Isaac passive-aggressively participating in his own deception because he knows that Jacob, not Esau, merits the blessing, or as Plaut describes it:

As we read the story with close attention to the personality of Isaac we are led to conclude that throughout the episode he is subconciously aware of Jacob's identity. However, since he is unable to admit this knowledge, he pretends to be deceived. (186)

I would argue, however, that he is not merely subconciously aware, but rather that he knows precisely what is happening, because he and Rebecca planned it just this way. In order to understand why they might do such a thing one needs to look at what surrounds this episode. Right before it begins, we find these verses:

34] When Esau was 40 years old, he took to wife Judith, daughter of Beeri the Hittite and Basemath daughter of Elon the Hittite. 35] They were a bitterness of spirit to Isaac and Rebekah.

Verse 35 here is especially telling. Whereas earlier in the parsha, we see a house divided, with Isaac favoring Esau and Rebekah favoring Jacob, here we find Isaac and Rebekah united in their dissatisfaction with Esau. Indeed, the fact that this verse leads with Isaac rather than Rebekah is not overlooked by the rabbis:

Both Yitzchak and Rivkah suffered from Aisav's idolatrous wives, but Yitzchak was affected more than Rivkah. He was the son of holy parents, and had been raised in a household which served Hashem, and he was therefore disturbed by the slightest trace of idolworship. (Feinstein, 255)

So here we have a strong motivation on Isaac's part to deny Esau the blessing. In marrying these Canaanite women, Esau has brought idolatry into the house, but he has also done something worse; he has married into a group of people who have actually been cursed, for Noah cursed Canaan in retribution for Ham's gazing upn his nakedness. We shall see how that curse works together with the blessings Isaac bestows upon Jacob and Esau.

At the other end of the story we see Esau having an epiphany. At verse 28:8 "Esau understood that his father Isaac looked with disfavor at the daughters of Canaan." This verse is heavily loaded. The first thing we note is that it is neither "his parents," nor "his mother," but rather "his father Isaac" looking with displeasure. In this way, the Torah drives home the point that Isaac had been set against Esau from the very beginning of this episode, and he blessed precisely who he meant to bless. The second thing we note is that although these women are both Hittites, they are not described as "daughters of Chet," but rather as "daughters of Canaan" once again alluding to Noah's curse.

So, it is clear that on account of Esau's marriage to these Canaanites, Isaac and Rebekah are of one mind regarding Esau. The question, of course, is how the timid and vulnerable Isaac is going to deny anything, especially something this serious, to the rash and powerful Esau. The answer, of course, is to set up a set of circumstances that grants him plausible deniability, for, as Plaut notes, "Isaac does not have the courage to face Esau with the truth." (186)

A close reading of the story allows us to see how such a plot can be found in the text.

The first thing that happens is that Isaac sets Esau a task:

27:3] So pick up your weapons -- your quiver and your bow -- and go out to the countryside and hunt me some game. 4] Then you can make me tasty dishes such as I like and bring [them] to me and I will eat, so that I can give you my heartfelt blessing before I die.

This is quite a task Isaac is setting Esau. He is sending him off by some distance, to engage in the time consuming task of hunting which is itself a critical task to dressing, butchering and preparing the food. This should occupy Esau for quite a while. In assigning this task, Isaac very effectively gets Esau out of the way, for a long enough while for other things to happen.

5] As Isaac was speaking to his son Esau, Rebekah was listening, and when Esau went to the countryside to hunt for some game to bring [him], 6] Rebekah said this to her son Jacob, "Look -- I heard your father speaking to your brother Esau, saying, 7] 'Bring me game and make me tasty dishes, that I may eat -- and [then] bless you before the Eternal before my death.'

We normally imagine Rebekah sneakily eavesdropping here, but the text does not necessarily imply this. It seems just as plausible that she is listening for her cue, making sure that her husband has had time to get Esau out of the picture before she begins with Jacob. It is interesting to note at this point the differences between verses four and seven. In verse four Esau is promised Isaac's "heartfelt blessing." This hints to us that the blessing that Isaac is going to give Esau is the blessing he will feel comfortable giving him. Isaac does not make any claims for this blessing other than that it will be heartfelt. Indeed, all of three and four may be read to mean "go away for a while, so that I can give you the blessing it is in my heart to give you, rather than the blessing of the first born, which it is not in my heart to give you." At verse seven, however, Rebekah misrepresents what Isaac has said to Esau - the "heartfelt blessing" of verse four becomes a blessing "before the Eternal" in verse seven. Rebekah is trying to convey a sense of urgency to Jacob; she knows that while the diversion that Isaac has provided for Esau is ample, it is nonetheless limited.

11] But Jacob said to his mother Rebekah, "Look -- My brother Esau is a hairy man and I am a smooth skinned man; "

15] Rebekah now took the finest of her elder son Esau's garments that she had in the house and dressed up her younger son Jacob. 16] The skins of the kids she wrapped on his hands and over the smooth part of the neck.

Jacob calls attention here to a problem that had not been considered - the discrepancy between Esau's and Jacob's skin. This would perhaps have been irrelevant had everything gone according to plan, but Jacob's fears must be assuaged, so Rebekah improvises a disguise to appease him. It's a safe bet that this costume reeks; the goats were only just killed; the scent of fresh blood would still be upon the pelts.

20] Isaac then said to his son: "How is it that you were able to find [game] so quickly, my son?" And he replied, "The Eternal your God made it happen for me."

We generally read this as suspicion, and from this we may derive that Isaac gets his first clue that he is being deceived and is willing to go along. But I would suggest another reading - Isaac is genuinely alarmed that Esau has returned quickly from the hunt, before Jacob could arrive for his blessing. After all, Jacob would not reek of fresh kill, he was to arrive with a plate of stew prepared by Rebekah. So Isaac is confused about who is in the room with him, not because he was expecting Esau (who should still be in the field), but because he was expecting Jacob, and this person reeking of blood shows up. Now, as to the reply he receives, Rashi asserts that this would have disclosed Jacob's identity to Isaac: "Yitzchok thought to himself 'it is unusual for Eisov to readily mention God's name and this one has said, "Because Adonoy, your God, [brought it about]."'(Metsuda Rashi, 297). However, it seems to me that Jacob is playing the role of Esau to the hilt, saying "your God" rather than "our God." Rashi may yet have the correct reading, because Jacob has not yet contracted his own relationship with God.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Thoughts on Parashat Chayei Sarah

The years of the life of Sarah

וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי שָׂרָה

And the life of Sarah was a hundred years and twenty years and seven years: the years of the life of Sarah. (23:1)

Zohar makes much of the way this is broken up, and noting that is a reminder to myself to look there if I want to work with that.

Another interesting thing going on here is pointed out by Ben Baruch in his comic Shabot 6000:

A mersenne prime is a prime number that is a power of 2 with 1 subtracted from it. Powers of two are digit places binary, which is the joke.

Normally I would stop there, figuring powers of two to be irrelevant to exegesis, and just accept the joke for what it is. But a power of two comes up someplace else as well - in the 32 paths of creation that is the opening line of the Sefer Yetzira. Not sure there's anything worth doing with that, but there it is.

Buying the gravesite.

Most interesting here is the way the transaction took place: in the presence of witnesses. But not before their eyes, but in their ears.

וַיְדַבֵּר אֶל־עֶפְרוֹן בְּאָזְנֵי עַם־הָאָרֶץ לֵאמֹר אַךְ אִם־אַתָּה לוּ שְׁמָעֵנִי נָתַתִּי כֶּסֶף הַשָּׂדֶה קַח מִמֶּנִּי וְאֶקְבְּרָה אֶת־מֵתִי שָׁמָּה
And he spoke to Ephron in the ears of the people of the land saying "but if you will only listen to me, I have given the silver of the field - take from me and I will bury my dead there."

My transation here is rather literal, because I think its an important metaphor. The transaction does not take place לִפְנֵי, before the people, but בְּאָזְנֵי, in the ears of the people. This is taking place in speech. Money is changing hands. A contract is made that is not written but carried out in the full hearing of everyone. And it seems, from the way Abraham is saying let me buy the land (on my terms, so I own it) and then AND ONLY THEN will I bury my dead. It almost seems as if Abraham finally burying Sarah is a bargaining chip he uses to get them to let him buy the land.

But why would they object to selling him the land? Because he is an immigrant, a foreigner, and to own land in a place is to control it. If they give him a land for a grave, well, they have helped him meet a need, but if he buys land, he is more than a sojourner. If he buys land, he might well SETTLE there. Hence the reluctance.

A Wife for Isaac

וְהַנַּעֲרָ טֹבַת מַרְאֶה מְאֹד בְּתוּלָה וְאִישׁ לֹא יְדָעָהּ וַתֵּרֶד הָעַיְנָה וַתְּמַלֵּא כַדָּהּ וַתָּעַל
And the lass was very nice to look at, and a virgin and no man had known her and she went down to the well and filled her pitcher and went up.

The curiosity here to me is why וְהַנַּעֲרָ and not וְהַנַּעֲרָה? Morgan suggests that the final ה is in any case a mater lecciones and that this is merely a defective spelling. Fine as far as it goes but a defective spelling cannot pass without comment. So what is the significance of the missing ה?

It's interesting to note that the divine name comprises materes lecciones entirely. For this reason, when a word is spelled defectively, or when one shows up in an unexpected place (as later in this parsha אֹהֵלָה אִמוֹ where what looks to be a heh of direction shows up in a place where it makes little grammatical sense) the Zohar makes much of it. The Zohar's drash supposes that Rebekah is a direct replacement for, perhaps even a doppelganger of Sarah. I do not like this reading, it is eerily oedipal and a bit off the mark. But an idea that has occurred to me is that that extra heh is there to show that the defect - that Rivka was still living at home is a family of origin that is kind of sick - is repaired as she settles into a new home with Isaac who loves her. Unqualifiedly.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Thoughts on Parashat Vayera

The opening scene - it begins with 3 men standing over Abraham, and ends with Abraham standing over them as they eat. I wondered at first what the siginificance was of the apparent role reversal. Lily, our dinner guest for the evening, was troubled by why he would have to run out to greet them if they were "standing over him." She provided the most satisfying resolution - being divine beings, when they arrived they were larger than human standing over everything, but as they adjusted to human scale, Abraham had a distance to bridge. This also helps to explain why Abraham is so flighty, running, rushing, and hurrying about in this scene. The midrashic tradition would have us believe that this was Abraham's starndard for hospitality, but that this is special behavior for special guests makes more sense all around. Finally, he stands over them ready to serve, rather than, as I had at first imagined, in a fussy sort of way.

Sodom and Gomorrah
The account opens with God wondering whether to conceal what he is about to do from Abraham, and deciding not to. It seems that God wants to see how Abraham will react. Is this a test of Abraham's willingness to intervene? Or is it God, deeply troubled by what he is about to do seeking a confidante? Or does Abraham's bargaining with God help God to decide where to draw the line. At ten, there is a kind of consensus.

When Lot leaves why is he reluctant to go up to the mountain? What is the wickedness that clings to him? Why are feminine forms used of it - is it his daughters?

The Akedah
Isaacs question of where is the sheep moves Abraham from a simple state of denial that he will have to sacrifice his son to an overt articulation of faith that he will not have to sacrifice his son.

Random thought - Zohar v. Romance of the Rose

A fundamental difference between Zohar and the Romance of the Rose:

Zohar uses sex as a metaphor for talking about God; the Roman uses the task of explaining God as an excuse to talk about sex. This is a reflection of a fundamental difference in mindset wherein one tradition regards sex as a commandment, and something any man beyond a certain age would be familiar with, while the other tradition regards sex as something forbidden that can only be talked about behind a veil of piety.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Thoughts on Parashat Lech L'Cha

Parashat Noach ends telling us:

וַיִּקַּח תֶּרַח אֶת־אַבְרָם בְּנוֹ וְאֶת־לוֹט בֶּן־הָרָן בֶּן־בְּנוֹ וְאֵת שָׂרַי כַּלָּתוֹ אֵשֶׁת אַבְרָם בְּנוֹ וַיֵּצְאוּ אִתָּם מֵאוּר כַּשְׂדִּים לָלֶכֶת אַרְצָה כְּנ֔עַן וַיָּבֹאוּ עַד־חָרָן וַיֵּשְׁבוּ שָׁם. . . וַיָּמָת תֶּרַח בְּחָרָן

And Terah took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Haran, his son’s son, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife; and they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldees, to go into the land of Canaan; and they came unto Haran, and dwelt there. . . and Terah died in Haran. (11:31-2)

We do not know why Terach packed up his family and set out to Canaan, but we do know that this was Terach's goal. We also know that Terach settled in Haran, again we don't know why. Then Parashat Lech L'Cha begins with:

וַיִּקַּח אַבְרָם אֶת־שָׂרַי אִשְׁתּוֹ וְאֶת־לוֹט בֶּן־אָחִיו וְאֶת־כָּל־רְכוּשָׁם אֲשֶׁר רָכָשׁוּ וְאֶת־הַנֶּפֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר־עָשׂוּ בְחָרָן וַיֵּצְאוּ לָלֶכֶת אַרְצָה כְּנַעַן וַיָּבֹאוּ אַרְצָה כְּנָעַן

And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls that they had gotten in Haran; and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan; and into the land of Canaan they came. (12:3)
One cannot help but note that Avram is undertaking the journey that his father failed to complete. The journey from Ur to Canaan takes two generations. This puts one in mind of the words of Rabbi Tarfon from Pirke Avot: "It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, yet you are not free to desist from it." (Avot 2:16)

It is of Torah study that Tarfon is speaking, and as we look at the history of Jewish tradition from Torah to Prophets to Writings to Mishnah to Talmud to the Law codes and commentaries and responsa literature, we see a multigeneration conversation taking place.

As individuals faced with a daunting task we may become overwhelmed, but the work is carried out not in a single lifetime, but across the generations. And one of the tasks we face in every generation is the preparation of the next generation to take up the work that we cannot complete.


When I consider:

וַיִּרְאוּ אֹתָהּ שָׂרֵי פַרְעֹה וַיְהַלֲלוּ אֹתָהּ אֶל־פַּרְעֹה וַתֻּקַּח הָאִשָּׁה בֵּית פַּרְעֹה: וּלְאַבְרָם הֵיטִיב בַּעֲבוּרָהּ וַיְהִי־לוֹ צֹאן־וּבָקָר וַחֲמֹרִים וַעֲבָדִים וּשְׁפָחֹת וַאֲתֹנֹת וּגְמַלִּים

And Pharaoh's officers saw her and they praised her to Pharaoh and the woman was taken to the house of Pharaoh. And for Avram it went well because of her, and there was to him flock and herd, asses and bondsmen, maidservants and she-asses and camels.
What I find interesting is that it went well for Avram "because of her" his wife/kinswoman "on the inside" so to speak. I cannot help but be reminded a little of Mordechai and Esther - because of her beauty she was taken into the king's house, and because she was taken into the king's house it went well for the Jews of Shushan.
A curiosity in the changing of names:
וְלֹא-יִקָּרֵא עוֹד אֶת-שִׁמְךָ, אַבְרָם; וְהָיָה
שִׁמְךָ אַבְרָהָם
No longer will you name be called Avram; but your
name will be Abraham . . .(17:5)

Here it looks like God is renaming Avram. Your name was Avram, now it is Abraham. Contrast this with the Sarai/Sarah shift:

וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם, שָׂרַי אִשְׁתְּךָ לֹא-תִקְרָא אֶת-שְׁמָהּ שָׂרָי: כִּי שָׂרָה, שְׁמָהּ
And God said to Abraham, "Sarai your wife - don't call her name Sarai, because 'Sarah' is her name." (17:15)
Here it looks almost as if God is chiding Abraham for having called her by the wrong name all this time. Whereas when Avram becomes Abraham, a converted perfect is used for time-setting, here, we have a simple copulative. It seems almost as if the name Abraham is given - Avram has been transformed into Abraham, but that Sarai has been Sarah all along, and Avram could not know that, but Abraham can.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Thoughts on Parashat Noach

אֵלֶּה, תּוֹלְדֹת נֹחַ--נֹחַ אִישׁ צַדִּיק תָּמִים הָיָה, בְּדֹרֹתָיו: אֶת-הָאֱלֹהִים, הִתְהַלֶּךְ-נֹחַ.

The puzzler here is in the final phrase. הִתְהַלֶּךְ is the hitpa’el form of the root הלך, “walk, go.” The hitpa’el form is Hebrew’s way of expressing the reflexive:

יֹסֶף שָׁמַר אֵת שָׂרָה.
Joseph guarded Sarah

שָׂרָה יַפָה מְעֹד.
Sarah is very pretty.

עַל כֵן, יֹסֶף הוּא הִתְשַׁמֶר
Therefore Joseph guarded himself.

So, back to the question at hand, Gen. 6:10b is generally rendered “Noah walked with God,” but this rendering does not account for the reflexive sense of הִתְהַלֶּךְ. The question therefore arises, just what is that hitpa’el doing there and what is its implication?

Rashi looks at the verb and notices two things: it is in the past, and the preposition is את rather than לפני neither of which addresses the binyan. Maybe I'm trying to read too much into an idiomatic expression. But it seems unusual. The only other place I've seen it is in the imperfect describing Enoch's relationship with God, right before God takes him.

One thought is that this reflexivity tells us that, to a degree that was unique to his generation, he was capable of journeying within himself to find that still, small voice within that said, "hey, it might rain for a bit, build a boat."

The other puzzler of this parsha for me at the moment is in the Bavel tale. Before launching into the Bavel narrative, we are told how each of the nations descended from Noach goes to its own and according to their nations and their tongues (לשון). When we get to Bavel, everyone is using the same language. This is unsurprising, and does not contradict the earlier division, because they are all in the same city. But the word used for language here is not לשון, but שׂפה, lip. What is the meaning of this distinction?

I will say that I think something profound happens at Bavel. I don't think that this is the birth of separate languages - I believe we saw that earlier. I think, instead, that God's "confusion" of language is something deeper. I think that prior to Bavel, when somebody said something to his neighbor, his neighbor, without fail, understood exactly what was meant. That the chasm that must be bridged between the consciousness of the speaker and of the listener did not exist until that moment, that to hear was to know exactly the speaker's thoughts. When Adonai confounds their language it is so that לֹא יִשְמְעוּ אִיש שְׂפַת רֵאֵהוּ, a man will not hear his neighbor's lip. The breakdown is not in the speech, but in the hearing.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Parashat Bireshit - A few random thoughts.

This year I am attempting to read the Torah in Hebrew. It's quite a challenge, because my Hebrew's not quite there yet, so I'm definitely pushing the envelope. I have found William Holladay's Concise Hebrew & Aramic Lexicon of the Old Testament to be of inestimable help in this, as BDB is too cumbersome for just reading.

But anyway, I have rambled a bit. One thing that struck me, reading through, is that light is created, then plants, then the sun, moon and stars. There is a midrash that states that the light created by the utterance יהי אור, "let there be light" is supernal light, stored away for the righteous. But plants cannot flourish without light. So I wonder, were the plants first reared on supernal light, before the sun was made? No profound observation here, just a simple question. It seems to suggest that that supernal light could not have been stored away until the מארת were created.

Regarding the fall: Maimonides posits the idea that prior to consuming the fruit mankind knew right from wrong, in an ideal sense. But with the consumption of the fruit comes notions not of right and wrong, but of good and bad. (Guide I:i) This is an important distinction - good and bad aren't necessarily ethical values. This is rather about discernment. It is interesting to note that God does not say "I will curse the earth on your account," but rather "the earth is cursed on your account." This difference raises the possibility that God is not cursing the earth, but rather that it is Adam's actions that have this as their consequence. Consider the context: Adam now knows good from bad. He may have been just as thrilled by plantain and dandelion as by wheat before this, but now he will call plantain and dandelion "weeds" and wheat "food." Bad and good. And in order to extol the one above the other, he will have to break his back tilling, sowing, weeding, and harvesting. And indeed, when those dandelions show up in the midst of the soybeans he will curse, every gardener does. Hence "cursed is the earth on your account."

It also seems impossible to pass over the first word of Torah - בראשית without noting that there is a sheva, not a patach, under the bet, making it indefinite. Every translator wrestles with that one way or another. The notion that this world is not the first is a common interpretation, and set forth by Rashi. But the thought that occurs to me is that מעשה בראשית, the work of creation never ceases. Mankind is constantly being made from dust, as we eat fruit of the earth, bread brought forth from the earth, and even plant eating mammals, dust becomes us. But not only that but we become dust, not merely by dying, but even in the course of living as we slough hair and skin cells. Creation is not a one time act, the flipping of a cosmic light switch, but the ongoing process of transformation.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006


Hebrew has been making a comeback in the Reform Movement, which, for a few centuries, prided itself on the use of the vernacular languages in worship. In many ways this is unsurprising. Perhaps part of the shift is that with the establishment of the state of Israel, Hebrew is no longer a “dead language,” although I would contend that it never was a dead language. I study Biblical Hebrew because as languages ranging from Ancient Egyptian to Aramaic to Latin and Middle High German and English have passed into and out of the mouths of Am Yisrael, Hebrew has remained the language of Torah and liturgy, of commentary and philosophy. Had Rashi written in Old French rather than Hebrew his work would be far less accessible to the contemporary Jew than it is. I cannot help but note with some irony that in the Metsuda Chumash with Rashi, it is Rashi’s rendering of Hebrew terms into Old French, the vernacular of his audience, that now needs glossing. Hebrew has also made collaboration possible across both space and time. Would the Yiddish-speaking Moses Isserles have been able to gloss the Shulchan Aruch as he did had Karo written it in the Ladino of his own vernacular rather than in Hebrew? And do we not, today, have more difficulty understanding the Aramaic Gemara than the Hebrew Mishnah upon which it comments? More than anything, it is the fact that Hebrew has served Judaism as a reliable lingua franca for millenia, while vernaculars have proven but transient lodgers in our mouths that gives it the distinction of being lashon kodesh, the holy tongue. I celebrate the Reform Movement’s renewed interest in the language, because like Shabbat, Hebrew too has kept the Jews.