Parashat Toledot – Fighting for the space to live in safety and for important resources to be accessible to all who need them has a long history

“and [Isaac] grew richer and richer until he was very wealthy: he acquired flocks and herds, and a large household, so that the Philistines envied him. And the Philistines stopped up all the wells which his father’s servants had dug in the days of his father Abraham, filling them with earth. And Abimelech said to Isaac, “Go away from us, for you have become far too big for us.” So Isaac departed from there and encamped in the wadi of Gerar, where he settled. Isaac dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham and which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham’s death; and he gave them the same names that his father had given them. But when Isaac’s servants, digging in the wadi, found there a well of spring water, the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s herdsmen, saying, “The water is ours.” He named that well Esek., “contention.” because they contended with him. And when they dug another well, they disputed over that one also; so he named it Sitnah. harassment.” He moved from there and dug yet another well, and they did not quarrel over it; so he called it Rehovot, saying, “Now at last the Eternal has granted us ample space(breadth)” to increase in the land.”” (Genesis 26:13ff)

The stories in the life of Isaac often parallel those of his father Abraham. There is a famine in the early story of Abraham, and a famine in the early life of Isaac. In both cases they left the land of Israel – Abraham went down to Egypt, Isaac to Gerar in Philistine controlled territory, having been explicitly told by God NOT to go to Egypt. Isaac encounters an Abimelech, King of Gerar and lies about the relationship he has with Rebecca, calling her his sister rather than his wife, (something Abraham had also done, both in Egypt and in Gerar)

Abraham also has an encounter with an Abimelech, the king of Gerar, over the issue of the ownership of wells, just as Isaac does in the narrative here. The digging and ownership of wells is of importance in both their lives. Both father and son have issues with the large size of their flocks and herds and the resources needed to sustain them, and both father and son react most of the time by removing themselves from conflict – Abraham with his nephew Lot, Isaac with the herdsmen of Gerar. Both have two sons, and have what might be called fraught relationships with them and with the passing of the legacy of covenant. Abraham sends Ishmael away from him and involves Isaac in whatever the mysterious event of the akeidah, never seeing him again afterwards. Isaac is tricked by Jacob pretending to be Esau, passes on the covenant apparently unaware the recipient is not Esau (or at least there is ambiguity in his mind), and Jacob is sent away, never to see his father again.

Yet there is more to Isaac’s life than his simply repeating the leitmotif’s of his father, and echoing the experiences of that great Ivri, crosser of boundaries.

 Isaac – often seen as the least significant of the patriarchs, the son of a famous father and the father of a famous son. Yet his is a story with much to teach us. A man who never leaves the Land despite many trials. The only one to be described as being in love with his wife. A man who has to deal with complexity and ambiguity in navigating his life, and with fewer certainties. A man who has survived the terrible trauma of his father’s apparent attempt on his life – or at least a seeming willingness to do so.

The story told above – of the re-digging of the Abrahamic wells and the negotiations that ensue – resonated particularly for me this year as we watch the COP 26 conference and the postures and positions on display.

In the Abrahamic parallel we are told: “At that time Abimelech, with Phicol the commander of his army, said to Abraham, “God is with you in all that you do; now therefore swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me or with my offspring or with my posterity, but as I have dealt loyally with you, you will deal with me and with the land where you have resided as an alien.” And Abraham said, “I swear it.” When Abraham complained to Abimelech about a well of water that Abimelech’s servants had seized, Abimelech said, “I do not know who has done this; you did not tell me, and I have not heard of it until today.” So Abraham took sheep and oxen and gave them to Abimelech, and the two men made a covenant. Abraham set apart seven ewe lambs of the flock. And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What is the meaning of these seven ewe lambs that you have set apart?” He said, “These seven ewe lambs you shall accept from my hand, in order that you may be a witness for me that I dug this well.” Therefore that place was called Beer-sheba; (well of seven or well of oath) because there both of them swore an oath. When they had made a covenant at Beer-sheba, Abimelech, with Phicol the commander of his army, left and returned to the land of the Philistines. [Abraham] planted a tamarisk tree in Beer-sheba, and called there on the name of the Eternal, the Everlasting God. And Abraham resided as an alien many days in the land of the Philistines. (Gen 21:22-34)

In this narrative we are confronted with the need for trust between the various powers or participants to the agreement who are involved – without that trust nothing “agreed” can be said to really be agreed.  We are confronted too with the issues of ownership of resources, of the fair sharing of such resources, with the actions of the people who reside on the land and those of people who control resources but do not “belong” to the land on which they are situated. Abraham and Abimelech appear able to make a treaty with a reasonable level of success – though we are never told why the servants of Abimelech had seized Abraham’s well in the first place.

By the time of Isaac, the wells had not only been taken back but actively stopped up – a strange phenomenon given the preciousness of the resource. Does this somewhat aggressive action date from unresolved issues from the time of Abraham? Is it to prevent others coming in from outside to use the water improperly? We can only speculate. But the continuing quarrelling and harassment that Isaac faces when trying to reclaim his father’s property shows us that the matter has not only not been resolved, but that there is ongoing acrimony and anger ready to erupt into violence.

Isaac does not go to the King as his father had done, he simply moves away and tries to settle elsewhere near a “family well”, and eventually he digs and finds what may be a new watersource, one that is not contested, and understands that now he has found a place to settle down.

Yet strangely, the next verse tells us that he moves on the BeerSheba, where he encounters God and receives the covenant promise, then builds an altar and worships, then pitches his tent and only then digs a well…

Abimelech and the Philistines come to find him to make a treaty with him, and responding to his challenge about their hostility to him which has forced him to move on, tell him that they now see that God is with him. (26:28) They make their own treaty with him, and leave. Only then do Isaac’s servants come to tell him that they have found water, which he names “Sheba” (oath) and again we have a story about the naming of Beer Sheba.

What comes down to us from these narratives is how the trust and the treaties need to be ongoing, that having been made once is not enough – they must be kept in good repair. We see that was accepted once may not be acceptable going forward. We see that pressure on resources will not only not go away, but will engender resentment and anger if not addressed fairly and regularly. We see that the actions of one (or more) rich and powerful agent (s) can be hugely detrimental to others with less power but with a real stake in the issue. And this power differential cannot be allowed to continue.

If we want to have a fairer world, a world where there is access to resources by all who need them, a world where there is trust and where people work to keep that trust alive and responsive, then we need to ensure that we are part of the solution, able to see the realities and to ensure that our leadership both acknowledge and respond in a timely and appropriate manner to those realities.

Watching the COP26 and seeing the posturing, the lobbying, the arrogance of the more powerful countries and the despair of those less powerful, we can see we have a long way to go to make a fairer and more sustainable world. The time is short, but this is no reason not to continue to involve ourselves and our values. Isaac eventually finds a place where there is space for everyone to have their own needs met without treading on the needs of others. It is a goal worth aspiring to.

The Trees who sought a Sovereign

L’italiano segue l’inglese

In the Book of Judges we find a fantastical story of a debate between the trees about who should become their king. They first asked the olive tree who refused on account of the oil it produces; then they asked the fig who refused because she produced sweet fruit, and finally the grapevine who refused – well you get the idea. Then they asked the thornbush who responded that if they would honour him they could shelter under his shade, but if not, fire would come that would destroy even the cedars of Lebanon.

The story is told by Jotham, the youngest son of Gideon the judge who had brought Israel back to God after it had strayed into idolatry, but who notably had refused the kingship, saying that neither he nor any son would rule over them, only God was ruler of Israel.

Yet Abimelech, one of Gideon’s sons had other ideas. After Gideon’s death Abimelech committed fratricide to become the first king of Israel. Bible tells us Gideon had seventy sons – only Jotham survived Abimelech’s murderous onslaught by hiding. When Abimelech was made king in Shechem, Jotham stood atop Mt Gerizim and declared the story of the trees to the populace.

What was the purpose? To remind the people that good leadership comes with personal sacrifice, and that those who grab leadership for their own benefit can bring down the whole of society. Three trees were not prepared to give up their fruitful lives to take on leadership, and so the barren yet aggressive thorn was able to assume the title, with the false claim that it could provide protective shade (it cannot). Once in power, if anyone went against it, it could fuel the fires that would destroy them all. 

Civil war scarred the population. Abimelech died after a brief and bloody reign. Jotham’s story is for us all.

Gli alberi che cercavano un sovrano
di rav Sylvia Rothschild
pubblicato il 20 gennaio 2021
Nel Libro dei Giudici troviamo una storia fantastica di un dibattito tra gli alberi su chi sarebbe
dovuto diventare il loro re. Dapprima chiesero all’olivo, che rifiutò a causa dell’olio che produce;
poi chiesero al fico, che rifiutò perché produceva frutta dolce, infine alla vite che rifiutò… beh,
avrete capito. Chiesero quindi al roveto, che rispose che se lo avessero onorato avrebbero potuto
ripararsi sotto la sua ombra, ma in caso contrario sarebbe arrivato un fuoco che avrebbe distrutto
anche i cedri del Libano.
La storia è raccontata da Jotham, il figlio più giovane di Gedeone, il giudice che aveva riportato a
Dio il popolo di Israele dopo che si era smarrito nell’idolatria, ma che in particolare aveva rifiutato
la regalità, dicendo che né lui né alcun figlio avrebbe governato sul popolo, solo Dio era
governatore di Israele.
Eppure Abimelech, uno dei figli di Gedeone, aveva altre idee. Dopo la morte di Gedeone
Abimelech commise fratricidio per diventare il primo re di Israele. La Bibbia ci dice che Gedeone
aveva settanta figli e solo Jotham sopravvisse all’assalto omicida di Abimelech nascondendosi.
Quando Abimelech fu nominato re a Sichem, Jotham si trovava in cima al monte Gherizim e
raccontò alla popolazione la storia degli alberi.
Qual era lo scopo? Ricordare alle persone che una buona leadership viene fornita con il sacrificio
personale e che coloro che afferrano il potere a proprio vantaggio possono abbattere l’intera
società. Tre alberi non erano pronti a rinunciare alle loro vite fruttuose per assumere il comando,
e così la spina sterile ma aggressiva fu in grado di assumere il titolo, con la falsa affermazione che
poteva fornire ombra protettiva (non può). Una volta al potere, se qualcuno si fosse messo contro,
avrebbe potuto alimentare gli incendi che li avrebbero distrutti tutti.
La guerra civile segnò la popolazione. Abimelech morì dopo un breve e sanguinoso regno. La storia
di Jotham è per tutti noi.
Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

Toledot: there are more generations and more branches in our family tree than we notice – meet Mahalat bat Ishmael the fragrant bringer of hope

וַיַּ֣רְא עֵשָׂ֔ו כִּ֥י רָע֖וֹת בְּנ֣וֹת כְּנָ֑עַן בְּעֵינֵ֖י יִצְחָ֥ק אָבִֽיו: ט וַיֵּ֥לֶךְ עֵשָׂ֖ו אֶל־יִשְׁמָעֵ֑אל וַיִּקַּ֡ח אֶת־מַֽחֲלַ֣ת ׀ בַּת־יִשְׁמָעֵ֨אל בֶּן־אַבְרָהָ֜ם אֲח֧וֹת נְבָי֛וֹת עַל־נָשָׁ֖יו ל֥וֹ לְאִשָּֽׁה:

“And Esau saw that the daughters of Canaan were displeasing to Isaac his father. So Esau went to Ishmael and he took Machalat the daughter of Ishmael son of Abraham, sister of Nevayot over his women/ in addition to his other wives, for a wife for himself.”

So ends the sidra of Toledot. It began with Isaac marrying Rebecca and pleading with God for her to have children. Having conceived twins who are struggling within her, Rebecca is informed that she will give birth to two nations who would be not be equal. The firstborn, Esau, was red and hairy. The second born was holding on to his brother’s heel so they named him Jacob (heel). Esau became a skilled hunter and was the favoured child of his father, but Jacob remained close to home and his mother. The bible recounts the story of Esau coming home famished after a hunting trip and selling his birthright blessing for some of the delicious red stew that Jacob had made.

The narrative continues with the story of a famine and Isaac goes to the Philistine King Abimelech for support, having been told by God to not leave the land as his father had done. Isaac settled in Gerar, and for fear of being killed because of Rebecca’s beauty, he follows the example his parents had given and told Abimelech that Rebecca was not his wife but his sister. Abimelech however found the lie out, and in order not to attract punishment from God, warns the Philistines not to mistreat the couple.   Isaac grows wealthy and the Philistines begin to hate and envy him to the point where he is unsafe. Isaac moves his household away to Rechovot, and then has an encounter with God at Beersheva where he receives the covenant of blessing. Abimelech, understanding that Isaac is the heir to his father’s relationship with God seeks a peace treaty with him which is sealed with a feast.

Now we return our focus to the family. Esau married two Hittite women, Judith bat Be’eri and Basemat bat Elon, and Isaac and Rebecca are bitterly upset.

Now we come to the last phase of Isaac’s life. He is old, his sight is poor, he knows it is time to give the blessings to his sons. He asks Esau to hunt and prepare a dish of his game for him after which he will bless him. Rebecca overhears, and, when Esau is gone, she instructs Jacob to bring her young goats in order for her to make a meal for Isaac that Jacob can take him and receive the blessing. Jacob does not think this will work- Esau is hairy, Jacob is not. Isaac on touching his son will understand the deception and may curse him. Rebecca responds by taking the curse upon herself, and demands that Jacob do as she has told him. She makes coverings from the skins of the goats and food from the flesh, dresses Jacob in Esau’s clothing and sends him to his father. The text is ambiguous as to whether Isaac recognises which of his sons is with him, but he goes with the flow, blessing Jacob with the special blessing. Esau returns, discovers his blessing is already given to his brother and in his distress asks his father for another. Isaac blesses him with abundance, but also with the hope that he will one day break the yoke of subservience to his brother. Esau’s fury is a danger to Jacob and so his mother arranges that he is sent to safety with her family under the pretext that this will keep him away from Canaanite women and help him to marry within the family group.  Esau hears this, understands that his first two choices of wife were not acceptable to his parents, and so he goes to Ishmael his uncle in order to marry Machalat, his cousin, the daughter of Ishmael.

Machalat is family. She is the daughter of Ishmael the beloved son of Abraham and of Hagar, whom God comforts when she and her son are near to death in the wilderness having been expelled from the camp. Hagar is the first person who is recorded as giving a name to God.   We are told that “she called the name of the Eternal who spoke to her, You are El Ro’ee (a God of seeing)” (Gen 16:13)  So Machalat is the grandchild of a woman who encountered God.

There are two biblical texts naming the wives of Esau, and they do not exactly coincide. One tells us the three wives are Yehudit bat Beeri, Basemat bat Elon and Mahalat bat Ishmael (Gen 26) whereas the second tells us they are Adah bat Elon, Basemat bat Ishmael and Oholivamah bat Anah (Gen 36).  The gemara resolves the problem by saying that Basemat/Machalat were the same woman, and whereas the name Basemat means fragrant, Machalat comes from the same root as forgiveness – mechilah – and that in marrying her all the sins of Esau were forgiven (JT Bikkurim 3:3)This would explain how, when the brothers meet up again years later, Esau is warm and welcoming, having given up the bitterness and anger caused by his brother’s betrayal, he too, having been forgiven, is able to forgive.

Basemat, whose name implies great sweetness, gives Esau a son and names him Re’u-El –friend of God. Is it accident that the name plays with and even seems to echo the name her grandmother gave to God – El-Roee? What is clear is that while Esau has many other children, only this son is named with a reference to God.

It feels like a hint – Hagar and Basemat were not destined to be part of the main thread of the narrative, but they were important nevertheless, they had their own very good relationship with God and their lives impact upon our history.

The bible may not be focussed on these women, or on this lateral branch of the family tree, but it considers them important enough for them and their descendants to be recorded. We know about Rebecca, her initial infertility and her later challenge to God once her difficult pregnancy was begun. We know how she took care to direct the narrative so that Jacob would become the link in the chain of tradition. We know about Sarah, her initial infertility and her derisive laughter in responding to God’s telling her that she would yet bear a child to be the link in the chain of tradition. But the bible reminds us there were other women who also had encounters with God, yet who did not go on to become matriarchs in our tradition.

Our historic commentators do not much notice these women, and if they choose to do so it is usually to make a point about the men they are connected with, and to be honest, they are not often kind to the women nor interested in them and their experience. But now we have a different set of lenses, modernity chooses to unpeel the layers of patriarchy and look again at the unvarnished text. Machalat the daughter of Ishmael appears to be a woman who, like her grandmother, knows God. Her marriage to Esau seems to change him, their son is a friend of God, the same God who appeared to abet Esau’s trauma. She brings forgiveness – mechilah – and she brings hope. Hope for the brothers who were destined to be in an unequal power relationship but whom we see later in life are both wealthy, settled family men. And in bringing the hope that transforms the relationship of brothers born to struggle against each other, surely she can be the touchstone for us in our generation when we know we are not forced or destined to hate each other. Machalat bat Ishmael, she brings the fragrance of hope and optimism. She deserves to be noticed.

 

https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/564x/56/dd/4b/56dd4b96809fb5e941fcbd8129daae88.jpg

 

Image is “Mahalat” [Yishmael’s daughter, Esav’s wife] by Siona Benjamin

Toledot: lessons on the control of resources and why we should resist the power

 046-welfare-state

Within the powerful narrative of sibling rivalry and family betrayal of parashat Toledot there runs another, equally powerful and important theme – the control of resources of food and water and how the manipulation of this control distorts everything around it.

Two stories of deception and duplicity frame this sidra, both pivot on the manipulation of food and drink. In Genesis 25:27-34 we have the story of Esau coming in hungry from his venison hunting, and selling his birthright blessing to Jacob for the red lentil stew that Jacob has cooked and whose savoury smell tempted Esau whose appetite was so sharp he felt he would die if he did not eat it. In Genesis 27 we have the story of the blind and ailing Isaac asking Esau to go and hunt him a last meal of venison, after which he would give him the blessing of the firstborn before he died. The same motifs and words come up again and again: blessing; death; venison; In one story food is withheld until the blessing sworn over, in the other the blessing is withheld until the food is eaten. The stories play with each, resonate and mirror each other, but each of them uses food and the control of resource to put one party at a disadvantage to the other.

In the middle of these two stories of blessing and feasting, of manipulation and betrayal comes quite a different narrative. In Chapter 26 we have a story that begins with famine, specifically a new famine that is not the one faced by Abraham and Sarah, and Isaac and Rebecca go to the Philistine Abimelech king of Gerar to find food. God tells Isaac not to leave for Egypt as his parents had done in the previous famine, but to stay on the land and the blessing first given to Abraham would be his. Isaac stays in Gerar, but in a parallel to the story of his parents he tells everyone that Rebecca is his sister rather than his wife, as he clearly fears for his life should the truth be known. Abimelech notices the relationship between Isaac and Rebecca and chastises Isaac – someone could easily have taken Rebecca for a wife and the community would have been punished, and Abimelech places his protection on the couple. The result was that Isaac sowed the land and immediately reaped “me’ah she’arim” a hundredfold return on his work, and God blessed him and all his work. He became richer and richer, with huge flocks and herds, a great household, and this drew the envy of the surrounding Philistines.

I must confess that I find this extraordinary – why should he reap so much for his work? Surely enough would have been enough, and it would surely have been inevitable that such astonishing wealth would attract the unwelcome interest of those who had less than he, but let us pass on for now…

There follows a rather sad narrative of Isaac and the herdsmen of Gerar fighting for the wells that had belonged to Abraham and should therefore now belong to his son. Bible rather laconically tells us that “All the wells which his father’s servants had dug in the days of Abraham his father, the Philistines had stopped them, and filled them with earth”. It is not clear if this was an earlier event to prevent others taking the water after Abraham had left, or if this was a reprisal motivated by jealousy of Isaac’s wealth, or even if this was an attempt to erase any historical roots that Isaac would have had to the area. The wells don’t seem to have been taken over, strange in a world where water is so precious, but filled in – at least until re-dug by Isaac’s men when the fight over the water between the herdsmen became serious. Finally Isaac moved far enough away – first to Rehovot (meaning wide or spacious) and then to Beersheba (meaning 7 wells) – and an uneasy truce prevailed, cemented by Abimelech making a treaty with him having seen that God was with him – a curious treaty hedged with diplomatic ambiguity, asking that Isaac not hurt the people of Gerar, “as we have not touched you and as we have done you nothing but good, and have sent you away in peace…..” (v29)

In this curious narrative, resonant of the earlier stories of Abraham and Sarah, showing Isaac as both a hungry frightened migrant and as a wealthy possessor of animals and land, and finally as a synthesis of these – wealthy but insecure on the land and moved on further and further into the desert, we have the crux of the story. Control of necessary resources is everything. It doesn’t matter how much you possess if you don’t possess the basics of food, water and space to live on. You can be manipulated and dealt out of your rights by the person or group who has control over these, and who can take everything else of value from you. For all that Isaac reaped a hundredfold from his first planting, his wealth meant nothing as long as he was not secure for his immediate needs. Ultimately we are all in thrall to our basic needs. Bible already recognises what Abraham Maslow later put into his theory of the hierarchy of needs – that to live our lives fully we must first meet certain criteria: his first two sets are “Biological and Physiological needs – air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, sleep.” And when these are met, then “Safety needs – protection from elements, security, order, law, stability, freedom from fear.” Only then are we in a place where we can grow well.

Why does bible frame the narrative of the Philistine King Abimelech and Isaac between the two stories of family manipulation and betrayal which both use food and immediate desire/need to control events?

One can only guess at the mind of the editor of the text. But in my mind I see that controlling others through controlling the access to resources they need is a human behaviour done to both those we are in close relationship with and those with whom we do not have such relationship. It is an atavistic strategy hard-wired into us, presumably for survival, but it is not a laudable strategy, and it seems to me that the structure of the biblical narrative is trying to remind us of this. The alienation of Jacob and Esau is painfully intensified through this behaviour. The pain between Isaac and Rebecca, and each of the participants in the deceptions reverberates through the text, as does the frustration and impotence of Isaac trying to claim his father’s wells and being chased off his land with violent encounters. There is nothing good to come out of this story except by negative example. We who control resources may wish to use them to control the behaviour of others, but we should think hard and long about giving in to this strategy. For history teaches that empires come and empires go, that there is a turning and a spinning of the world, and that what is in our grasp now may not be in our grasp in the future. How would we want those who control the resources to behave to us? As the famous first century rabbi Hillel framed the golden rule ‘That which is hateful to you do not do to your neighbour. This is the whole of the Torah, The rest is commentary. Go forth and study.’ (BT. Shabbat 31a)

alice2

both cartoons by the wonderful Jacky Fleming