Toledot: Rebecca resurfaces

It has always interested me that Isaac went to supplicate God after twenty years of childless marriage. (We are told in v20 that Isaac was 40 when he married Rebecca and in v26 that he was 60 at the birth of the twins).  What was he doing in the intervening years? And why did he go ‘lenochach ishto” a phrase that is almost always translated as “on behalf of his wife”, yet which only here is translated in this way – for le’nochach actually means to be “in front of/ straight/ before”.

Rashi picks up the point, but with a sharp twist. He understands the phrase to mean not that Isaac supplicated on behalf of Rebecca, but together with her, saying that “this is to be interpreted as ‘opposite’, i.e. he stood in this corner and prayed and she stood in the other corner and prayed”, but then adds an acid comment to the rest of the verse “God let Himself be entreated of him” : “but not of her”

What are we to make of this? It seems that the text is telling us that Isaac is pleading with God in the presence of his wife, but our usual reading of the text does not place her in the action but rather she is the passive object of her husband’s beseeching prayer. When we do see Rebecca it is some months later, clearly in pain, and she does not hesitate to go to God,  and her stance is not to implore but “lidrosh” to ask, to find an answer.

                It seems that not only at the end of his life is Isaac a weaker and less assertive person than his wife. When Rebecca cooks a kid for Jacob in the style of Esau’s venison, so that her favoured child will be the beneficiary of the special blessing for the firstborn, she is true to her character.  She is an equal with her husband and decision making for the family belongs also to her. When Rebecca goes to God and says “im ken, lamah zeh anochi” – if it is to be like this, why am I?” she is asking for a reason for her suffering. And God takes her seriously and tells her of the two nations in her womb, and most critically, that the older shall be subservient to the younger. In view of this knowledge it is no surprise that she manipulates who shall be the recipient of the blessing – it was decided all those years earlier before the boys were born.

I always used to be a little irritated that it looked like Isaac was the one who begged God for a child without consultation with Rebecca, but studying more closely I can see that not only was Rebecca there, she was powerfully present, and integral to the process of the transmission of the blessing. And if Rashi wants to score a little point that it wasn’t her prayer for a child that was answered, well, that is ok by me, it even makes me smile. And it makes me wonder if that great biblical scholar who lived in a house with his wife and three daughters maybe needed to assert himself a little to show that his prayer counted too.


Chayei Sarah, the value of each of her lives as seen from the perspective of her death

      Sarah’s death is recorded unemotionally and briefly – her age, her location, and then the focus is on Abraham who came to mourn her and to bury her appropriately

      More interesting is that it her death is recorded in the context of her life. We are told
“And these were the lives of Sarah. A hundred years and seven years and twenty years were the years of the lives of Sarah. And Sarah died in Kiriat Arba–the same is Hebron–in the land of Canaan; and Abraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her.” (Gen 23:1-2)

      Linguistically this announcement is a strange construction, and we can’t help wondering about it, and seeing it in its immediate context of the story of the binding of Isaac – that Sarah’s reaction to Abraham’s treatment of Isaac, her only son whose wellbeing meant everything to her, was to be living away from Abraham and ultimately to die of her distress.

      It may be that Sarah did die of the heartbreak occasioned by learning of the Akedah, of what Abraham was prepared to do to Isaac in order to pass a test of loyalty from God. But her death is of much less relevance here than her life – more specifically in the Hebrew text, her lives.

      Rashi tells us that this odd construction means that at one hundred years old Sarah was like she was at twenty in respect of sinning, (meaning that she did not sin till she was one hundred, since before the Torah God did not punish the sins of those under 20 years) and at twenty she was as beautiful as an innocent and perfect young girl of seven. And Rashi further tells us that the repetition of the word “years” indicates that all the years of her life were equal in value. (Rashi, Tractate Shabbat 89b).

      This may not exactly resonate with us, but the thought behind it does – that Sarah’s life was made up of different segments, and each period, though maybe not quantitatively long, is of equal value to other times of our lives. Also, that we carry elements of each episode of our lives with us, building up a portfolio of memories and experience to contribute to who we become.

      Sarah was a woman who lived a long and complex life. Married to a half brother with an orphaned nephew (Lot) to bring up, she travelled extensively away from Ur of the Chaldees through Canaan to Egypt, then back, and seems to have live in Philistine territory and also in Beer Sheva and finally Hevron. She wanted a child but did not conceive until old age, and then she fought hard for that child (Isaac) to receive his inheritance. Twice she entered the harem of the ruling king in order to protect Abraham from death, and twice she was returned to him. She was clearly not a doormat however – It was Sarah who decided to bring God’s prophecy about by giving Hagar to Abraham in order for him to conceive a son. Sarah was the one who told Abraham then to remove that son Ishmael from proximity to their own child Isaac, and an unhappy Abraham, protesting to God, was told to obey her. Sarah was a woman fully in control of her own life and pretty controlling of others lives too. By the time of her death the only thing she did not seem to have, was a relationship to Isaac, possibly because in her destroying the relationship between the two half brothers, she also destroyed the trust between herself and her son.

      But her life was clearly full and fulfilled. While not perfect, she was a woman who contributed to her world extensively – one might also note here that when Abram and Sarai had their names changed in order to signify their new position in relation to God, Abram had the letter ‘hay’ added to his name to make it Abraham, and to add the letter used to describe God to his own name, whereas Sarai had the ‘yod’ in her name removed and a ‘hay’ returned. in effect a letter worth the numerical value of ten was removed, half was given to her husband and half to her (‘hay’ has the numerical value of five) – from which one might deduce that all the godliness that came into Abraham’s life came to him from Sarah, who had a surfeit.

     Be that as it may, Sarah’s life was made up of a number of lives, and each of them had value and impact. Each of us too has a number of lives, as children, in different work or leisure roles, in different family constructions and so on. For some of us we go on and on, adding shorter and longer sections to the span of our time on earth, for others that span is cut short through illness or accident or war. But what is important is not the quantity of years we live, but the quality and richness of the experiences we have while we are living. Our lives are not to be measured and judged simply by length of time, but about how we live the years given to us. A shorter but well lived life is a triumph and a complete whole in itself.

Korach and Collective Responsibility

“And they [Moses and Aaron] fell on their faces and said, “God, Master of the Spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin and you cast your wrath upon the entire congregation?”   (Numbers 16:21)

The issue of Collective Punishment remains with us as a modern problem and it is no surprise that rabbinic tradition builds arguments to try to dissect and clarify the issues. Call up the question on a search engine and the chances are you will find emotive responses citing the biblical verses of the children paying for the sins of the father – for example Deut. 5:9 “You shall not bow down to nor worship other gods; for I, the Eternal your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me..”. or maybe citing the fate of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah – though of course a closer look at such texts shows that they do not in fact suggest collective punishment, and one can equally find biblical texts such as Deuteronomy 24:16: “Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sin.” Or Jeremiah 31:29-31 “In those days people will no longer say, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ Instead, everyone will die for his own sin; whoever eats sour grapes–his own teeth will be set on edge” or Ezekiel 18:20: “The soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous person will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them. 

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is in fact a story AGAINST collective punishment – indeed Moses bargains God down from destroying them and destroying the righteous with the wicked, and only when it becomes clear that there are no righteous people at all, beyond Lot and his family (who are warned to leave before the destruction) is the fate of these cities sealed.

 There is no driver towards collective punishment in Judaism – rather the reverse is true in our texts as God is challenged on a number of occasions when it looks like divine punishment will include the innocent alongside the perpetrators – including the verse in our portion. There is no impetus  towards collective punishment but some rabbis – including Maimonides, make the case for collective responsibility, something that becomes enshrined in Jewish Law in the phrase “Col Yisrael arevim zeh ba’zeh” (B.Talmud Shevuot 39a) – All Jews are accountable each for the other. In other words, we have a responsibility to each other, and an obligation to make sure that we all behave properly in the world. If not, then we are guilty of passively colluding with behaviour that is immoral, that we leave unchallenged behaviour we know to be wrong. This is, in many ways, the origin of the periodic “Not in my name” protests to Government – we do not want to be passive, nor to have people believe that we accede to what is done by our elected leaders.

The Code of Hammurabi (c1700 BCE) was the first to bring in to a legal framework the requirement that the punishment should fit the crime, and the bible takes much of that moral world view – including the famous phrase of lex talionis “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” – treated as meaning there should be proportionate punishment rather than a collective retribution. The Talmud puts it rather more fully in tractate Shabbat 54b “Whoever can prevent his household from committing a sin but does not, is responsible [lit seized] for the sins of his household; if he can prevent the people of his city, he is responsible [lit seized] for the sins of his city; if the whole world, he is responsible [lit seized] for the sins of the whole world.”

 The rabbis who taught this are saying that we have a responsibility to each other, and that this responsibility is on a number of levels of propinquity and possibility. Failing to prevent a wrongdoing is not on the same level as actually committing the act oneself. Not stopping someone with whom we have a relationship is not the same as not stopping someone who is unknown to us and at a distance from us. The word “seized” which I have translated as “responsible” does not imply being something to be tried in a court of law, but is more about having a moral relationship to the action, something between ourselves and God rather than between ourselves and humankind.

 We share a Collective Responsibility – among family bonds or amongst the Jewish people, among fellow citizens under shared government, or as human beings who have stewardship of the world.  Jewish teaching is clear that we are not isolated from each other: To use the words of John Donne “All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated…As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come: so this bell calls us all:….No man is an island, entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

 The text of this parashah rings clearly as a bell for us: “And they fell on their faces and said, God, Master of the Spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin and you cast your wrath upon the entire congregation?” 16:21. Collective punishment is not acceptable in any circumstance, but collective responsibility is something for us all to take note of, and to do.


כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה


Parashat Vayera: Is anything too hard for God?

Parashat Vayera 2013     “Is anything too hard for God?”

The narrative tells of an encounter in the desert between three travelling men and Abraham, who welcomes them into his tent and gives them hospitality. At the end of the story we read the following conversation: (Genesis 18) “And they said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” and he said “There, in the tent” and He said “I will certainly return to you when the season comes around, and behold, Sarah your wife will have a son.” And Sarah heard from the doorway of the tent which was behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, well stricken in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. And Sarah laughed within herself saying, “After I have grown old shall I have pleasure? My husband being old also?” And God said to Abraham “Why did Sarah laugh, saying “Shall I really bear a child, who am old?” “Ha’yipalei mei’Adonai davar?”  (Which is generally translated as “Is anything too hard for God?) At the set time I will return to you when the season comes round, and Sarah shall have a son”.

Then Sarah denied saying “I laughed not” for she was afraid. And God said “No, but you did laugh” (Gen 18:9-15)

This announcement of the forthcoming birth of Isaac is, in biblical terms, a long and complicated piece. We begin with the placing of Abraham and Sarah, he outside, serving the three men/angels who are visiting, she inside the tent and hidden. Suddenly the person speaking changes from the plural to the singular, presumably from the men/angels to God, and the person being spoken to is no longer defined. From the three men/angels speaking to Abraham since the beginning of the sidra, we have God saying, with no room for doubt, that Sarah will produce a son. There is no response from Abraham to this, indeed we are not told that God is speaking to him or even that he hears the remark, but there is a response from Sarah. She hears, and her response is to laugh and to question in rather earthy terms both her and her husband’s ability to produce a child. But in between God’s statement and Sarah’s response the Torah interjects. We are told that both Abraham and Sarah are old, and specifically that Sarah is post menopausal.

Now God speaks, asking Abraham why Sarah had laughed, and quite kindly translating her doubt about both her and Abraham’s potency into a questioning only of herself. And then God speaks again, with a rhetorical question whose answer can only be in the negative, a technique found repeatedly within this sidra….”Ha’yipalei mei’Adonai davar? Is anything too hard for God?”

This question is then followed by a repetition that Sarah shall give birth, and the whole scene is concluded with a conversation between Sarah and God – she denies laughing and Torah tells us it is because she is afraid. God tells her, quite kindly I always feel, that her denial is untrue. She did laugh.  There is so much in this one interaction, but I should like to focus on God’s question “Ha’yipalei mei’Adonai davar?” 

It is a difficult question to translate and yet so critical to much theological thought. The root of the verb yipalei, peh.lamed.alef, is not really about something being too hard, more about being ‘hidden’, or ‘covered’, ‘beyond’, or even ‘separate’, although one commentator suggests that one could read it as ‘great’, so the question could be read as “is anything beyond God?” or “is anything hidden from God?” or “is anything separate or covered from God?” Or even “is anything greater than God?”

Rather like the meaning of this verbal root, the question asked by God is difficult, hard to unravel. For the God we have speaking here in Vayera is the same God who must ask themself only a few verses after this event whether to hide what is to be done to Sodom from Abraham, the same God to whom Abraham asks “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?…Shall not the Judge of the earth deal justly?”, the God who is losing the negotiation to save Sodom and walks away from Abraham. This God of the Hebrew bible is not yet the all powerful being for whom nothing is too difficult, but the Creator of all, the unifier of all, who is coming to terms with exactly what has been created, for made in the image of the Creator it is complex, adaptive, learning, curious; not something to be easily known.

The Talmud tells us that “everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven” (Berachot 33b) – in other words human beings have freedom of will, and the freedom also to impact upon God, and so while I am happy to live with the understanding that God is unknowable, that we cannot encompass what God is, or what God can do, I do so on the understanding also that God responds and reacts to us, self-limits divine action with regard to strict justice in order for us to continue in the world, limits what is possible for God in order to be in relationship with us.

For us to have freedom of will, for us to make choices in our lives, then God has to cede power. It seems a reasonable exchange in order to have a relationship with us.

So back to the question – is anything hidden from God? Well probably not, if we believe in the Creator of all, then it is reasonable to consider that nothing is covered up and beyond the gaze of God. Is anything too hard for God – well, again, probably not, for the same reasons as above. But is anything impossible for God? This is where I part company from what is sometimes taught as traditional Judaism – given the relationship within which we operate, given the freedom of will given to us as to the choices we make, and the ceding of power from God in order to make the relationship between Creator and Creation, then God makes some things impossible for God, a willing and loving self-limitation, and it means that as a consequence we have to take up the slack.

If God cannot dictate good in the world, only teach and hope that we will bring it about, then we should stop blaming God for everything that goes wrong and live as best we can in our imperfect world, doing what we can to perfect it.

There is a view attributed to the 4th Century BCE Athenian Agathon, that God cannot change the past, what is done is done; But I would add to that view it is also not for God to create the present or the future. That is in our hands to do and is not for God.

Sarah laughed and then denied that laughter when God asked Abraham about it. Traditional texts tell us that she laughed at the news that she, past the age of fertility, would bear a child. But I wonder if her laughter was not something more – God asks Abraham the rhetorical question “Ha’yipalei mei’Adonai davar?” but he does not say it to Sarah. For Sarah may know the answer is not as some may like it to be, and if some things are off-limits for God to intervene in, then the consequences for us are frightening.

Parashat Lech Lecha: the covenant of circumcision

This sidra contains a number of different covenants, but the covenant of circumcision is one which continues to resonate with us as a sine qua none of Jewish identity. “God further said to Abraham, As for you, you and your offspring to come throughout the ages shall keep My covenant. Such shall be the covenant between Me and you and your offspring to follow which you shall keep: every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you.” Genesis 17:9-11  

The Brit Milah is the first of the rites of passage, and it quite literally etches into the child the central values of Judaism, connecting him to the past and future of the Jewish people.   In the midrash (Kohelet Rabbah) we find a story which makes this clear – it tells of a father of a baby who gives to the guests some good wine to drink in celebration, and says “Drink of this wine, and I trust in my God that I shall also be able to give you wine on the day may son marries”. The guests replied with a blessing that is also found in the ceremony – “Just as the child has entered the covenant, so may he also enter into Torah and into good deeds and be married under the Chuppah”. With this blessing is the clear hope that the Brit Milah is the beginning of a child entering the Jewish community, and the expectation that this will be a lifetime’s commitment. The Brit Milah does not make the child Jewish – that is acquired through birth to a Jewish mother – but it gives the child the mark of Judaism, and with it a Jewish identity.

 Brit Milah may or may not have other reasons to support (or not) its usage – some talk of hygiene, of lower levels of cervical cancer in women whose partners are circumcised, of social or psychological reasons to do it-or not. But the reason why Jews have fulfilled the obligation of Brit Milah down the generations – often at serious personal sacrifice or danger – is precisely because it is just that – an obligation, a mitzvah. It symbolises our willingness to be connected to God, it reminds us of the relationship begun between God and Abraham of which we are a part.

 Circumcision is also seen as an act of completion or perfection. The ceremony is understood traditionally to be one of ‘finishing’ the creation of the child, so that we participate with God in the act of Creation. It is also seen as a willingness to submit, to give up a part of the child for the sake of the whole. As Judah HaNasi (c200CE) wrote – “Great is circumcision, for despite all the commandments that Abraham our father carried out, he was called complete (shalem) only with his circumcision, as it is written (Gen 17) “Walk before Me and be perfect” .

 Whatever one’s view about circumcision, it has become the sign not only of the biblical covenant, but of the male Jew. It has been said that it is not so much the mark of a Jewish man, as the mark of a man whose parents have chosen for him to be Jewish, who were prepared to undergo this ceremony in order to enter him into the Covenant. It is the mark of one generation upon the next, the physical expression of what we want for our child. There is much debate as to its meaning – and the changes in its meaning – over the years. Was it simply a transformation of a pagan fertility ritual, done not to a man at puberty or marriage in order to increase sexual potency but to a child at eight days in order to increase spiritual connection? Was it a fertility rite that extended through agricultural practise to human beings – a sacrifice of a small part for a greater good? Was it a divine requirement to cleanse the people, separating the idolatrous ancestors of Abraham from his monotheistic descendants? Or a blood rite parallel to the Temple sacrifice, that found echoes in Christianity and the crucifixion, returning to express salvation through self not another?  It is all these and more, but when one considers the importance of the rite throughout Jewish history it is hard not to see it as a unifying symbol, the mitzvah which most Jews have practised and with which we pass on covenantal Judaism to this day.

God learns about humanity, and God and Noah learn to live with imperfection

Parashat Noach contains both the story of the Great Flood with Noah and the Rainbow, and the story of the Tower of Babel. It is the source of much of what our children think they know about the bible and all of us probably have in our head the picture of the Ark with a giraffe’s head popping out of the roof, and a tower that looks quite a lot like the one at Pisa.

But there is SO much more to these stories than nursery decorations and we read them as fluffy children’s stories to the detriment of our understanding about what religion is really for.

For what we see in parashat Noach is the first description of God learning in response to the actions of humankind. And we begin to see humanity also starting to learn something important about what we are, and what God is. In last week’s sidra we read about the two different creation stories, the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden and the first murder – fratricide – in the story of Cain and Abel. It ends with God’s dismay at the evil humanity has committed on the earth and the decision to blot out everything created, with the exception of Noach.  Almost as if the Creation was a hobby to be done and erased at a whim.

Now Noach is problematic in so many ways. He never speaks to God at all, either to agree or to argue.  Nor does he speak to the other people in the world to warn them to change their ways and repent in order to gain God’s favour. He takes his time getting on to the boat, only doing so when the rising waters force him to do so, leading rabbinic commentators to suggest his faith is not so strong after all. His first act on returning to dry land is to build an altar (the first ever to do so in bible), and then to sacrifice by burning fully some of the animals he has saved.  He builds a vineyard and makes wine, he gets drunk and his sons see his nakedness. He curses the children of Ham who was the son who had seen him and told the others.  

He isn’t exactly the role model we would like to have had, and yet we are all b’nei Noach, the descendants of Noach – we have to deal with the flawed and slightly repellent individual the bible depicts in the text. And so does God. God has to see that Creation can’t be erased and rebuilt repeatedly; that built into humanity is a series of flaws that we – and God – just have to deal with.  The text tells us that when God smelled the olah, the burned offering that was sacrificed on the very first altar with the intention of creating a conduit between human beings and God, then God paid attention, smelled the sweet savour and resolved never again to curse the ground for the sake of humankind. And that God did so BECAUSE God understood that humanity is essentially and integrally imperfect. God resolves that whatever Creation is, God will work with it rather than try to suppress or destroy its reality.  And of course the sign of the promise from God is the rainbow, a symbol both of violence and of the beauty to be found even in the most grim of situations.

So both humanity (in the guise of Noach), and God demonstrate in this sidra that there is finally an understanding on both sides of our frailty and likelihood to mess up. And both humanity and God begin to see that once we acknowledge the shortcomings we have, we can get on with living better. God changes the divine mind, and Noach tries, albeit with some hiccups, to deal with all the things life has thrown at him. 

There are of course some that he simply can’t deal with. He is a survivor of catastrophe and he drinks in order to blot out memories. He has poor relations with his youngest son Ham, though he manages to relate rather better to Shem and Japhet, albeit in a way that could be seen by modern eyes as divisive of them. He has saved the world and allowed it to be destroyed at the same time.

What we know after the stories of Noach is that humanity is always going to be complicated, fraught, dafka – but that we will continue to try to reach God in our own imperfect ways, and that if we do so, then God will always respond. God may not like it, but is resigned to our deficiencies. We may not like all that God does, but are prepared to challenge and if necessary to forgive God. Our relationship isn’t perfect, there is an element of co-dependency, but together we and God find how to live with each other in the world we are jointly responsible for maintaining.

Not really a story for the kids after all.