A Kiss is Just a Kiss – Or is it?

Esau ran to greet [Jacob]. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept. – Genesis 33:4

In the Torah scroll, the word “kissed” in this verse is always written with a dot above each letter. This is extremely unusual; words in the Torah Scroll usually have no dots or signs at all. While we don’t know exactly why the early scribes saw fit to write the word this way, from the earliest times rabbis have taken it as a sign to pay special attention to that word in the text.

When the text says that Esau embraced Jacob, falling upon his neck and kissing him, the collection of midrash called Genesis Rabbah offers two interpretations side by side:

  1. Rabbi Simeon ben Elazar said that Esau felt compassion for his brother and kissed him with all his heart.
  2. Rabbi Yannai interpreted the dots to mean that the meaning of the word “kissed” is reversed: Esau bit Jacob’s neck, and it miraculously turned hard as marble. The two men wept because Esau’s teeth and Jacob’s neck both hurt.

This is a classic example of two people reading the same text and having very different reactions to it. This happens with many of the characters in Genesis, particularly with Jacob and Joseph. I have seen students get terribly angry and seem to take someone else’s interpretation as almost a personal insult.

When I have spoken with such people outside of class, trying to understand, it began to make sense. They were identified with a character in the story, and it hurt them to hear another student say that character was a bad guy.

Perhaps Rabbi Simeon was an eldest child, and felt sympathy for Esau. Perhaps Rabbi Yannai could not forget the time that his older brother hurt him.

Torah, particularly Genesis,  is a mirror. We look into it and we see ourselves. Sometimes that is conscious, and sometimes it’s a kinship we feel deep in the unconscious.

Is there any character in Torah to whom you feel particularly close? Have you ever felt hurt by someone else’s reading of a story in Torah?

Shabbat Shalom! Vayetzei

This week we continue the story of Jacob. Now he’s out in the world, learning adult lessons, mostly the hard way (but isn’t that how we all do it?)

Some divrei Torah I can recommend to you:

Vayeitzei: Words Words Words by Ben on Six Degrees of Kosher Bacon

How To Read the Torah by Rabbi David Kasher on ParshaNut

Wherever You Go, There God Will Surely Be by Rabbi Edwin C. Goldberg

TorahMama by ImaBima

Ladder by the Velveteen Rabbi

And a couple of my own:

Telling Family Stories

Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This

I wish us all a Sabbath of Peace, a Shabbat Shalom of healing and hope.

Telling Family Stories

When I was a little girl, my grandmother told me a lot of wild stories, most of them true. Most of her stories were about the family: how her grandmother MaryAnn lost her wedding ring, how they celebrated Grandpa Carroll’s 100th birthday, how her own mother, Ma Maggie, learned to make lace.

I see evidence of family story-telling in Parashat Vayetzei:

While he was still speaking with them, Rachel came with her father’s flock; for she was a shepherdess. And when Jacob saw Rachel, the daughter of his uncle Laban, and the flock of his uncle Laban, Jacob went up and rolled the stone off the mouth of the well, and watered the flock of his uncle Laban. Then Jacob kissed Rachel, and broke into tears. Jacob told Rachel that he was her father’s kinsman, that he was Rebekah’s son; and she ran and told her father. – Genesis 29: 9-12

When I read this, I can only imagine that Rebekah told her favorite child the story of meeting Abraham’s servant by the well – perhaps that very well. Laban’s men point Rachel out to Jacob, and this time he helps her water her animals, the exact reverse of the scenario with the servant and Rebekah. After he waters the animals, he kisses her, and it is clear from that moment that he intends to marry her. He is acting out the story of his parents – only this time, there is no servant go-between, and Jacob is the initiator of all the action.

There is a power to old family stories. This one sets in motion both a love affair and a tragedy. Rachel and Jacob are a love match, but because of Laban’s treachery, Rachel and her sister Leah will be set up as rivals for the rest of their lives. The rivalry will live on in their sons and their descendants, a bitter inheritance.

Eventually we wrote down the family stories, and every year we retell them. We call them “Torah” now but they are no less a family matter. We reinterpret the stories in every generation, as families do. And sometimes we find ourselves re-living parts of them both consciously and unconsciously.

What family stories do you retell to the next generation? What stories have you re-created on your own, with or without intent?


Shabbat Shalom: Toldot

This week we look at the eventful and troubling parashah Toldot, or “Generations.”

I confess I don’t have a d’var Torah to offer you this week, but I can point you to several good ones online:

Blind Love from ParshaNut, by Rabbi David Kasher

A Father’s Love by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Joy and Loss by Rabbi Emma Kippley-Ogman

Sowing in the Unity of Love by Ariel ben Avraham

Can I Identify with the Struggles of Others? by Isaiah Rothstein

Shabbat Shalom: “And Sarah Lived”

This Shabbat we read a very strange love story: Rebekah and Isaac, following the death of his mother Sarah. For some drashot (brief words of Torah) on those topics from past posts:

Rebekah, Woman of Contradictions

Romantic Comedy – In Genesis?

Sarah’s Choices

There are some wonderful divrei Torah available on the net. Here are some I’ve particularly liked:

What’s Your (Back) Story? (Howie Beigelman)

The Blessed Burden (Rabbi Menachem Creditor)

I Will Go (Rabbi Stephen Fuchs)

Have you seen a d’var Torah you particularly like on this parashah?

I wish you a Shabbat Shalom, a Sabbath of Peace!

Rebekah, Woman of Contradictions

When I was a little girl, there was an old Bible on the bookshelves at home. It wasn’t our family Bible. I don’t know why we had it, but I loved the pictures. To this day, some of my mental images of Bible stories are rooted in those pictures.

Rebekah, for me, will always be the young woman in “Rebecca et Eliézer” by Nicolas Poussin. Poussin was a 17th century French Baroque painter, and his simplest canvases teem with details. While some of those details are set by artistic convention (for one thing, the two protagonists seem to be meeting at a well in Italy, not in ancient Mesopotamia!) it’s clear that he read the story closely.

Eliezer is the only man in the picture. He is standing by the well and he gestures as he speaks to the young Rebekah.  It appears to be the moment at which he asks her if she will allow him a drink from the jug of water at her feet. Women are all around them, some pouring water, some of them gossiping among themselves, and some watching Eliezer and Rebekah with curiosity.

It is the moment just before Rebekah passes his test: in a moment, she will tell him to drink all he wants, and then she will offer to water his ten camels, just as he hoped she would do. In Jewish tradition, she is a role model for the mitzvah of kindness to animals, because she offered to water the thirsty camels of her own volition.

There’s a great deal that isn’t in the picture, of course. Eliezer still had to talk with Rebekah’s father Bethuel, and her brother Laban, who would give her son Jacob so much grief years later. Later, she would leave with Eliezer to travel hundreds of miles to meet Isaac and marry him.

Rebekah was a woman of contradictions. She had a soft heart for a thirsty stranger and his animals, yet later in life she would calmly deceive her husband and direct Jacob in defrauding Esau of his birthright. In fact, the Torah doesn’t tell us much more about her than those two stories.

As a little girl, I scrutinized Poussin’s painting for clues about Rebekah. She seemed to me to be excited to see a stranger. Maybe she was tired of living in one place. Perhaps she was curious about the world. Looking back, I realize that some of my response to her story and the picture was projection: I was curious about the world!

Where did you get your mental images of the characters in the Torah? Are there Biblical figures with whom you identify strongly? Do you know why they feel so close to you?

Torah portion Chayei Sarah may be found in Genesis 23.1-25.18.

Why the Horror Stories in Torah?

Once an Intro student asked me, “Rabbi, some of the stories in the Torah are awful! Can’t we just scissor some of them out?”

After I recovered from the mental image of someone taking scissors to the Torah, I agreed that some of the stories there are truly horrible. Parashat Vayera has some real doozies:

  • Lot offers his virgin daughters to a mob bent upon rape. (Genesis 19)
  • The destruction by fire of two entire cities. (Genesis 19)
  • Abraham tells the King of Egypt that his wife Sarah is his sister, thereby saying, “If you want her, fine by me!” (Genesis 20)
  • Jealous of the servant Hagar’s son by Abraham, Sarah demands that Abraham toss mother and son out to die in the desert. (Genesis 21)
  • Abraham believes that God has told him to go make a human sacrifice of Sarah’s only son. He takes Isaac up to Mt. Moriah and is stopped at the last minute before the kill by another vision.  (Genesis 21)

These stories are ghastly, no doubt about it. It is tempting to turn away from them, or to do what some traditional and modern commentators have done, and try to explain why they are really OK.

There’s another way to engage with these narratives, though: that is to tackle them as the dreadful stories that they are. Biblical scholar Phyllis Trible has done exactly that in her groundbreaking book Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical NarrativeAs the title suggests, she doesn’t try to sugarcoat the horror stories in the Bible; instead, she demands of them “What can we learn here?”

Every generation of Jews encounters these stories anew, and sees new things in them. If you find them off-putting, join the club. While I learned them at a young age and initially simply accepted them, I now think about these cruelties in a different light. Maybe Sodom deserved destruction, but Lot’s daughters? Isaac? Ishmael? Hagar? Sarah? These are brutal stories, and they should raise serious questions within our souls.

The stories aren’t there to say, “Offer your daughters to rape mobs!” They are there to get us to ask, “Why did Lot do such a horrible thing? Did he have other alternatives?” “Should people who hear voices always just go do what the voices tell them, or should they talk with someone – their wife, their rabbi?” They may serve to remind us that Ishmael’s descendants are our cousins, and that my 21st century family is not the first to be dysfunctional.

Those questions are Torah at work upon us. Torah is not merely the words in the scroll; it is also those words at work on our hearts.

Happy studying!