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.