Romantic Comedy – in Genesis?

November 21, 2014

CamelsOne of my favorite stories in the Bible is the meeting of Rebekah and Isaac.

And Isaac went out to meditate in the field at the eventide; and he lifted up his eyes, and saw, and behold, there were camels coming. – Gen 24: 63

The rabbis interpreted this verse to mean that Isaac was out saying his evening prayers. He finishes them, and looks up. Note what he sees: he sees camels.

And Rebekah lifted up her eyes, and when she saw Isaac, she alighted from the camel. – Gen 24: 64

There is a parallel structure and a little comedy here: Isaac lifts up his eyes and sees camels. Rebekah lifts up her eyes and sees Isaac. Then, despite the translator’s attempt at decorum, the comedy broadens to slapstick. Rebecca sees Isaac, and she falls off her camel. This translator says “alighted” but the simplest translation of the verb  וַתִּפֹּל, מֵעַל הַגָּמָל is “and she fell from [her seat] upon the camel.” Rebecca sees Isaac, and she loses it: she quite literally falls for him.

And she said unto the servant: ‘What man is this that walks in the field to meet us?’ And the servant said: ‘It is my master.’ And she took her veil, and covered herself. And the servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. –Gen 24: 65-66

Rebecca, now sitting in a heap on the ground, asks the servant, “Who’s that?” And the servant gives her the answer she hopes for, and she realizes she’s a disheveled heap on the ground. She takes her veil and covers herself. She’s embarrassed: this handsome fellow has seen her and she’s come across as a klutz who can’t even stay on a camel!

The servant, though, is oblivious: his business is with Isaac. Interesting, isn’t it, that he now reports to Isaac, not Abraham?

Our story (or at least this chapter) has a happy ending, with a twist:

And Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent, and took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. And Isaac was comforted for his mother. –Gen 24:67

He brought her into his mother’s tent, which isn’t as weird as it sounds to a modern ear. Earlier in the chapter, Abraham insists that Isaac not go to find a wife, but that the servant must bring her back with him. Modern commentators suggest that this is because the tribes at the time were matrilocal: men went to live with their wives’ relatives, not the other way around. Abraham was concerned that Isaac stay in Canaan, where he believed the future of his descendants lay. So by taking Rebecca to Sarah’s tent, Isaac is telling Rebekah that she is the new matriarch of this tribe.

There’s no elaborate wedding; the betrothal [kiddushin] happened back at Rebekah’s childhood home, with the gifts of gold, and sex [nisuin] seals the deal. Somewhere along the line, Isaac also falls for Rebekah: the text says that he loves her.

Then we get the line about comfort, and post-Freud, it all seems a bit much. Keep in mind that the Biblical author never heard of the Oedipus complex. Rebekah is the new matriarch, and she fills the shoes of Sarah.

Do you have a favorite love story in the Bible?


Sarah’s Choices

November 8, 2014
Portrait of a Laughing Lady by Bertalan Karolvszky

Portrait of a Laughing Lady by Bertalan Karolvszky

Imanu Sarah: Sarah, Our Mother. Sarah was the wife of Abraham, and yet she is a mystery. The Book of Genesis has many passages that mention her:

She was the half-sister and wife of a chieftain. (Genesis 20: 11-12)

We know that she was beautiful, so beautiful that the Pharaoh of Egypt wanted her for his harem.  (Genesis 12:11)

She was sometimes cruel in her dealings with her servants. (Genesis 16)

She had a sense of humor, but laughed at the wrong moments. (Genesis 18:12)

At 90, she was still so beautiful that the king of Gerar wanted her for his harem. Twice in her life her husband handed her over as a concubine to men that he feared. (Genesis 20)

Later that year, she conceived a child by Abraham and gave birth – at age 90. (Genesis 21: 1-8)

She was fiercely protective of her son Isaac, and demanded that his half-brother Isaac and his mother, her servant, be sent out into the desert to die. (Genesis 21: 9-21) The text is unclear exactly what Ishmael was doing to Isaac, but certainly he was an older male with a claim on Abraham’s estate, and Sarah was ruthless in getting rid of him and his mother.

At some later date, Abraham believed he had been told by God to take Isaac and sacrifice him. God intervened, and Isaac lived.

We do not know what happened between Abraham and Sarah after that. In Genesis 23, the text says that Sarah died at Hebron, where she was apparently living apart from Abraham, since he had to “come” [vayavo] to mourn for her and bury her. We know from the previous chapter that he had taken other wives or concubines, and had children by them.

We know nothing about Sarah’s feelings, except for the times that she was jealous of Hagar. We know about the time she laughed at Abraham, although God covered for her and said she was laughing about herself. (Genesis 18: 12-13) We don’t know how she felt about being passed off as a “sister,” handed to two different kings as a concubine.

We know that her son mourned her for a long time. (Genesis 24:67)

All that we know, we know through a narrator who was much more interested in other people and things. But even that narrator cannot deny that Sarah’s decisions had consequences: her choices to twice play along with the fiction that she was single, to give Hagar to her husband, to banish Hagar and Ishmael, to protect Isaac. Even though she was not much more than property in the world she inhabited, Sarah’s choices had world-changing consequences.

When ever I feel that no one is listening, that I am too small to matter, I remind myself of Sarah. Every choice we make has powerful potential.

Choices have consequences, sometimes long-ranging ones. May we all make good choices this week, for we never know when it may turn out to be important.


Vayera: The Care of Visitors

November 6, 2014
"The Hospitality of Abraham" 13th c. Byzantine icon

“The Hospitality of Abraham” 13th c. Byzantine icon

Parashat Vayera (Genesis 18:1 – 22:24) offers a lesson on the mitzvah of hospitality. Abraham, our role model, runs to greet his guests, even though they are unexpected, even though he is old and recovering from circumcision. The text is generous with details: he washes their feet, calls upon Sarah to bake, and orders a calf slaughtered and dressed. Abraham himself waits upon their table.

The contrast is stark between that story and the next. The angels proceed to the city of Sodom. Lot greets them at the gate, hurrying them to his house. Lot is afraid for a reason: a mob surrounds the house and demands that the strangers be given to them: they intend to rape them. The prophet Ezekiel clarified: “See, this was the sin of your sister Sodom: pride, gluttony, and uncaring were in her and her daughters, nor did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49) The Talmud expands on the story, explaining that the men of Sodom systematically abused all strangers and the poor in their city, enshrining that abuse in law. (Sanhedrin 109a-b) Like all rape, this was not a sin of sex, but a sin of violence. These sins merited their utter destruction.

This week we might ask ourselves: when did I last personally welcome a stranger to my table? Or have I reserved my personal hospitality for those best known to me, and to those who might profit me? Does my community welcome visitors, or only look to profit from them? Are we following the example of Abraham, or Sodom?

A version of this d’var Torah [word of Torah] originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of the CCAR Newsletter.


Creation: Monkeys or Mudpies?

October 17, 2014

When God was creating the heavens and the earth…. – Genesis 1:1

Depiction of Genesis 1:2 by Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677)

Depiction of Genesis 1:2 by Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677)

I’m from Tennessee, home of The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, the infamous “Monkey Trial” in which Clarence Darrow faced off with William Jennings Bryan in the tiny court house in Dayton, TN. I learned as a child about Creationism and its variants: Young Earth Creationism, Gap Creationism, Progressive Creationism, Intelligent Design, etc. And no, I am not providing links: google them if you want. As far as I’m concerned, they are all nonsense.

Lately I’ve heard from the New Atheists (ok, I’ll give them a link) that “all religion” teaches such nonsense, and therefore religion is bunk. None of these folks appear to have been near a synagogue lately, because I don’t know of a branch of Judaism that espouses a literal understanding of the Creation stories in Genesis. I’m sure that there are Jewish fundamentalists somewhere who believe it, but if you ask a panel of rabbis, from Modern Orthodoxy to Reform, we’ll all say politely that the Creation stories are meant to be understood as metaphor. Then we’ll disagree about how to interpret it, and that’s where it will begin to be interesting.

Anyone who gets all hot and bothered over six days of Creation and monkeys and whatnot is missing the point of the Creation stories. (Yes, stories plural, because there are two of them in Genesis, and they contradict one another in more than details. Read Genesis 1 and 2, if this is news.)

Among other things, these narratives point to a notion of the world as a place that teeters between order and chaos. At the beginning of Genesis 1, all is tohu-va-vohu: a sort of murky chaos where “darkness was over the surface of the deep.” God makes order of the chaos, separating light from darkness. Then this same God makes new things with words: light, sky, dry land, sea, plants and animals. Every step of the way, God is separating, organizing, making order out of that original, chaotic tohu-va-vohu. 

And then, with words and clay and breath, God makes human beings. We are different from plants and animals; it took more than words to make us. We make choices, sometimes bad choices, sometimes good choices. In that, we are like the Creator. As the story says, we are made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.

Which brings us back to the Monkey Trial: the distress of the Creationists was twofold: first, that the scientists seemed to be saying that the Bible was not true. Certainly scientists say that Genesis is not literally true. Science does not comment on whether Genesis may convey some other kind of truth, because all it can speak to is scientific knowledge.

The second thing that bothered the Creationists was the idea that somewhere back in the past, grandpa might have been a monkey, or a monkey-like being. This idea was profoundly repulsive to them, because they saw in the Biblical story and they felt in their guts that human beings are different from animals in an important way.

I agree that they are seeing an important Biblical truth: humans are different from animals. We have responsibility for our behavior in a way that animals do not. Where the Creationists and I differ is that they think it is important that human beings were never anything but human. I would argue that in the Bible it already says that we were something else: in the Bible it says we were clay. Frankly, I don’t think it matters whether grandpa was a monkey or a mudpie.

And what about God? What if we were to see “God” not in some cartoon image, but as a Factor that moves the world from tohu-va-vohu, from entropy, towards something organized and meaningful, separating light from darkness, sea from dry land?

The real problem with Creationism and its ilk is that it wants answers, not questions. Good science asks questions, and when it gets an answer, looks for more questions. Judaism does the same: it seeks questions, and more questions. The more often we read the Creation stories, the more questions we will ask.

 


All of You: Netzavim

September 16, 2014

U.S. Embassy, Tel Aviv, 9/3/2012

Today you are standing, all of you, before the Eternal your God — your chieftains, your tribes, your leaders and your officers — all the men of Israel,  along with your little ones, your women and your resident aliens here with you in your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water. – Deuteronomy 20:9-10

When Moses officiated at the solemn ceremony of the covenant between God and Israel described in Deuteronomy he began with this preamble. The verb netzavim has a special meaning that mere “standing” doesn’t fully convey. The people are officially present to make a sacred promise. The closest usage of “stand” in English is “to take a stand.” The People of Israel are not just hanging out; they are ritually and officially present to take action.

In case “all of you” might be mistaken for “just the guys,” Moses made it clear that he meant everyone from the heads of the clans to the lowest hanger-on. He makes it specific: all the men, plus children, women, and foreigners, including day laborers. This vow was not to be taken by proxy: no one “stood in” for anyone else.

In other words, everyone mattered. The covenant is both communal and personal, and no one is left out. There are no second-class Jews in the eyes of God.

 


On 9/11: Reflections on Amalek

September 11, 2014
9/11

U.S. Navy Photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Jim Watson, taken 9/15/2001

There is a famous saying that holding a grudge is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die. On the one hand, it is very important that we never forget the days like 9/11, the Holocaust, and other such dates which will “live in infamy.” On the other, it is important not to allow those memories to poison us. How are we to resolve the two?

Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God. Therefore when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget! Deuterononmy 25: 17-19.

This is the teaching we read only a short time ago as part of our weekly Torah reading. Amalek was the ancient enemy of the Israelites, and we are commanded both to “blot out the memory of Amalek” and “not forget.”

We succeed in keeping these twin commandments when we refuse to allow the pain of the past to transform us into those who have done evil to us. We must not allow ourselves to be infected by the hatred that drives a terrorist, by the racism that drove the Nazis. Those senseless hatreds are what we must blot out forever. At the same time we must remember: to remember what it is to suffer, to remember what terrorism and genocide really look like.

When we manage both to blot out evil and yet to remember, we persist in lives of Torah, which means caring for our own needs as well as caring for the well-being of the stranger among us. Only when and if that stranger proves to be an enemy may we treat him or her as such.

Remember? Forget? We must do both. It is not easy, but the memories of all the dead deserve no less.


What is Shabbat Nachamu?

August 8, 2014
"The Heavens Spread Out Like a Prayer Shawl" by Victor Raphael

“The Heavens Spread Out Like a Prayer Shawl” a meditation on Isaiah 40:1 by Victor Raphael

We’ve been through a lot in the past few weeks, haven’t we? This year, it wasn’t just in the liturgy and the calendar: it’s been a hard time for Israel, for a lot of people in the Middle East, and for the world. So this week, I will likely listen with tears in my eyes when I hear the familiar words of Isaiah: Comfort, comfort, My people!

This Shabbat is called “Shabbat Nachamu.” It takes this name from the beginning of the Haftarah (reading from the Prophets) this week, Isaiah 40:1: Nachamu, nachamu ami! [Comfort, comfort, My people!] After the terror of Tisha B’Av, the Jewish People turn to God and to one another for comfort.

There’s a lot of midrash on this passage: who is comforting, who is comforted, and how? The rabbis speculate whether it means comfort as in “There, there” or comfort as in “strengthen.” There is even a midrash that suggests that it is God who needs comforting, after the terrors of Tisha B’Av!

The problem of suffering has puzzled human beings forever. Often suffering comes to those who have done nothing wrong. Sometimes wicked people thrive. How shall we make sense of it all?

I read this line in my own way. I think Isaiah is telling us that to get comfort, we need to give comfort. There is much undeserved suffering in the world, and I am not qualified to judge who “deserves” or does not. What I know is that a lot of us are hurting. This Shabbat, when we feel we need comfort, may each of us reach out to someone else and say, “Take heart.”

Shabbat shalom.


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