Lot: a cautionary tale of superficial success and the victimisation of the powerless

Lot, the nephew and heir apparent of Abraham is a man with barely any redeeming features in the biblical account. We meet him first in the genealogies following the flood, when we are told that “Terach begot Avram, Nahor and Haran, and Haran begot Lot, and Haran died in the presence of his father Terach in the land of his birth, in Ur of the Chaldees.” The fatherless boy is taken into the household of his grandfather, and Terach, Avram and Lot leave Ur to go to Canaan, but settle in Haran, where Terach dies. God speaks to Avram, and he moves on towards Canaan, taking Lot with him. Famine drives them to Egypt where Avram claims that Sarah is not his wife but his sister, and while this saves his life it also puts Sarah into Pharaoh’s harem – until God intervenes and together they all leave Egypt much richer than they had arrived.

The land could not support the flocks and herds of both Avraham and Lot; there is fighting between the herdsmen of the two men, and Abraham suggests that they part company and go in separate directions.  Lot journeys east towards the cities of the plain, Avraham goes to Canaan and again he is promised all the land as far as he can see, to be the eternal possession of his – so far non-existent – descendants.

We hear no more of Lot for a while, instead we witness the births of first Ishmael and then Isaac, and it becomes clear that Lot is no longer the heir apparent – the two households have separated permanently, whatever might have been is no longer a thread in the narrative.

And then comes the cataclysm at Sodom, and Lot’s family are back, centre stage, as we watch with horror the different tragedies unfold.

We get a good, close look at Lot, and we learn too about his family. It is not a pretty sight.

To begin with he parallels his uncle Abraham’s hospitable behaviour. The two messengers of God arrive at Sodom in the evening, and come across Lot sitting at the city gate. It is a significant time as the night is coming, and a significant place in the city where all the communal activity is centred. The implication is that Lot, whose youth was rootless and dependent, is well integrated into the city, either doing business or demonstrating his status in some other way.

Lot is keen to offer his home hospitality and we soon find out why – a mob surrounds his house apparently demanding he hand over his guests for the sexual pleasure of the crowd. Lot goes out not to send the people away but to suggest a compromise – he will not hand over the men who were guests under his roof and his protection, instead he will hand over his two virgin daughters for the use of the crowd. It is at this point the modern reader despairs. While apparently taking his hospitality duties seriously, Lot is prepared to sacrifice his daughters to the baying crowd. We can only wonder what he learned from the actions of Avram who called Sarah his sister rather than his wife and allowed her to be taken into the pharaoh’s harem in order to protect his own life.

The visitors reach out to Lot, bring him back into the house, and smite the crowd outside with blindness so that they are comically unable to find the doorway, though they kept on trying. Lot is told to find his family and take them out of the city which God will destroy. Lot goes to speak to his sons in law, but they do not take him seriously. He makes no attempt to talk to his daughters.  As dawn rises the angels urge him to go with his wife and two unmarried daughters but inexplicably he lingers, and a merciful God transports them out of the city almost magically, warning him to head for the mountains and not to look back, but Lot prevaricates, saying the mountains are too far away, asking if he can survive in a nearby city, Zoar, and God agrees to protect that city from the coming catastrophe.

The fire and brimstone comes, the cities of Sodom and Gemorah are destroyed, Lot’s wife looks back and is turned into a pillar of salt, but through the merit of Abraham Lot is saved. He and his daughters are afraid to stay in Zoar, so they leave and go to live in the mountains, where his daughters conclude that no one else is left alive and so they make a plan to sleep with him in order to ‘preserve his seed’. Having got him drunk, first the elder and then the younger daughter sleep with Lot in order to become pregnant by him, and thus bible tells us of the origins of two important – and inimical – peoples, the Moabites and the Ammonites.

Lot comes over as a man who has been given wealth and status but who below that surface is a weak and selfish buffoon, a man of straw. He is interesting to the narrative only through his relationship with his uncle Abraham, a branch of the family tree that might have been important but which now is irrelevant. He is the father of four daughters, none of whom he thought to protect. His  wife deserves our pity – unnamed, unspoken to, she is referred to only in relation to leaving the cataclysm, she isn’t given the message not to look behind them and so she does, with fatal consequences, though I can’t help feeling that there may have been some relief in no longer having to hitch her life to his.

She is a “Netziv melech” a standing monument made out of an easily eroded material. Salt represents value and wealth, it is used to preserve food, it has medicinal qualities, the beautiful crystals reflect light, it speaks to us of the sea and of tears. Salt is the symbol of the covenant (see Lev 2:13, according to Talmud salt from Sodom was burned in temple ritual (Ker 6a) and it is present to this day on the Kiddush table alongside the challah as an echo of that ritual. Lot’s wife escapes the fate of the rest of her family, she is preserved at one with her environment before the descent into degradation that follows.

The younger daughters of Lot do not escape. Bereft of their mother and older sisters, left alone in the mountains with the weak old man who is their father, fearing the world has ended – theirs is a sorry plight.  They have grown up in an emotionally abusive family; their father cared for the superficial success he could enjoy living in his adopted city, working out his own damage of three times losing his own father figures, he did not himself seem to know how to be a good husband or father. He had already offered these daughters for rape by the baying crowd seemingly in the bizarre belief that this was the action of a good host. He must have known the nature of the city he had chosen to make his home and the home of his daughters. His sons in law clearly had no respect for him, he was a weak and laughable figure to them. In a patriarchal world, Lot was no alpha male. Even his name, meaning ‘tightly wrapped’ or ‘covered’, seems to describe a man who draws his blanket around him and hides inside.

With such a father what chance do the girls have?  Yet they seem determined that he will have descendants. Is this a case of Stockholm syndrome whereby the captive will do anything to support and empathise with their captor? Are they actually fearing more for themselves than for their father, whom they describe as old – possibly near to death – and they may be left without any male relative to support and defend them? Will a son born from incest be better than no man at all? Have they believed the story of his superficial success, and refused to look deeper? It is interesting that his wife actually looks mei’acharav – from behind/after him rather than behind her – she is not looking at the city she is fleeing, but instead maybe she is really seeing who her companion in the escape really is and crystallising in horror about both the past and the future, fixing in an eternal present.

The daughters of Lot had not known any man. Their choice to get their father drunk in order to sleep with them is curious – did they think he would refuse them? Did they think he would be easier to control if he was so stupefied he would remember nothing about what happened?  Is it believable that they would choose the actions described in bible, or is it possible that bible is subtly shifting responsibility, making what can only be described as incestuous rape the fault of the young women involved, rather than the responsibility of Lot himself? We already know that he was ready to hand them over for rape in Sodom, have they internalised their use as sexual objects of no real value otherwise? And is there an ambiguity in the statement that “there is not a man in the earth to come in unto us after the manner of all the earth”? The daughters must surely have seen that Zoar was not destroyed, they must have been able to realise that not everyone had died. Are they saying that they are tainted already simply by their relationship to their father. That no man would want them, coming as they do from a city so wicked and a family so weak? Given that they would be unmarriageable in their society, might they at least preserve some kind of descendant who might even remedy their faultlines in some way? Why the use of the word ‘seed’ rather than children? Is this an early intimation of the messianic line which will eventually derive from Ruth the Moabite woman?

The problem with Lot – damaged from childhood, whose name implies that he is tightly wrapped up and thus insensible to the realities of the outside world, who argues over money with his patron and uncle Abraham, who chooses to live among wicked people and be honoured in their society, who does not value his wife or children – the problem with Lot is he is, from the point of view of the bible, family. Somehow the narrative shifts the blame from him again and again, because of the merit of Abraham. He is the progenitor of two of the tribes most hostile to the Israelites, the incest resonant in their names – Moav (from my father) ben Ammi (son of my people). He has distorted the narrative horribly. But bible and midrash choose instead to focus on the faults of his wife who, all unknowing, looks backwards (and midrash ascribes a whole series of unpleasant attributes to her in order to explain her punishment), and to ascribe to his young daughters the rapists charge that they were complicit, that they wanted it, that the drink removes all culpability. It is almost as though the text continues to abuse the daughters, to blame them, to disappear them into only being the objects of sexual exploitation.

There is no more mention of Lot after this episode. He disappears into history drunk, insensible, incestuous, irrelevant. There is no more mention of his daughters – they have served their purpose and they were always irrelevant from the point of view of the narrative.

The individuals have gone, but the systemic abuse goes on. Weak men who crave status and who use their families to win what they want. Superficial signs of wealth with no respect underlying it. Blaming the victims rather than challenging the abusers. Narratives that shift blame, horror hiding in plain sight, the emergence of different groups determined to assert themselves against others.

Lot is the ultimate cautionary tale – of what we could become if we don’t pay attention, if we don’t try to follow the path of Abraham, if we don’t challenge what we see is wrong. And if we allow Lot to sit in the gates, to achieve status in our society, then we risk being his victims, just as surely as his wife and daughters were.

Sarah: blinded by her outward appearance we miss the person within

Deception and beauty, the bible is fascinated by the interaction of the two.

When Avram, having left Canaan because of the famine, arrived in Egypt he feared that the beauty of his wife Sarai would mean that the Egyptians would kill him in order to take her for themselves, and so he asks her to lie, to say that she is his sister “that it will be well with me for your sake, and so my soul may live because of you”. And certainly his fear is grounded, because the Egyptians see Sarai’s exceptional beauty,“ki yafah hi me’od”. The princes of Pharaoh see her, sing her praises to him, and she is taken into Pharaoh’s house. Pharoah gives a great deal of wealth to Abram as dowry, but God intervenes, plagues Pharaoh and his house on account of Sarai, until Pharaoh understands that he has taken Avram’s wife and arranges for her to go back to him, and for Avram and Sarai to go on their way with their accumulated gains.

This is the first of three wife-sister deception narratives in Genesis, the others being with Sarah and Abimelech and with Rebecca and Abimelech.  The repeated retelling seems to imply that these are not historical reportage, but a motif to give us a deeper understanding of our patriarchs and matriarchs.

Any number of questions emerge from even a cursory reading of this text. We already know that Avram married Sarai (Gen 11:29) yet surprisingly her ancestry is not given, while that of Milcah, who married Nahor Abram’s brother is given her full background. Immediately we are told that Sarai is barren, she had no child – an enormous economic disbenefit for any wife in that society and that she went with her father in Law Terach, with her husband and with Lot the son of Abram’s dead brother, from Ur Kasdim towards Canaan, leaving behind Nahor and Milcah. (Gen 11:29-31)

Sarai’s great beauty is only told to us in the following chapter – which seem surprising if it were really so extraordinary. Her passivity – travelling with the family including the heir apparent Lot – leaving Ur Kasdim to go to Canaan but settling in Haran in the interim – seems to be the expected role of women, yet clearly the family did well, making great wealth, and the plural form is used – “all the wealth THEY had gathered, and the souls THEY had made” from which the midrash develops the idea of Avram and Sarai as the great models of inclusivity and openness, who between them had converted both men and women to the one God of Judaism.

So maybe Sarai was not so passive, but was a valued working partner in the relationship. And yet, as soon as they come near to Egypt she is prevailed upon not only to lie about her relationship to Avram, but essentially to become adulterous in order both to protect his life and increase his wealth.  She does not speak, she does not seem to object, and while one can see what is in the deal for Avram it is not so clear what is in it for her – except maybe that as a widow captured after her husband’s death she may be even more unprotected and powerless than as the sister of a living and wealthy man.

She doesn’t even seem to speak to Pharaoh, who, plagued by God, realises all by himself that the cause of his troubles is that he has taken the wife of another man into his household. Clearly at the beginning if she has bought Avram’s reasoning that this will save his life it is important that she keep the secret, but what about later when it is obvious that something is deeply wrong?  She is returned, as passive as ever, into the safekeeping of Avram her husband, and they are sent on their way, greatly enriched by the whole adventure.

Yet this story, with its overtones of sexual trafficking for gain cannot be left here – there is the repeated retelling with some alterations with a different king Abimelech, and then later with her daughter in law Rebecca and Abimelech. And there is the persistent motif of great beauty and deception.

Others are described in bible in almost the same words as having extraordinary beauty, the most prominent being Sarah’s daughter in law Rebecca, described as being tovat mar’eh me’od (24:16 and 26:7), Rebecca’s daughter in law Rachel about whom we hear “V’einei Leah rakot; v’Rachel hay’ta y’fat to’ar, vi’fat mareh” – The eyes of Leah were soft/ weak,  and Rachel was beautiful of form and beautiful in appearance. (Gen 29:17, and her older son Joseph who is “y’fei to’ar vi’fei mar’eh” (Gen 39:6)

Three matriarchs and the favoured son Joseph all described in bible in terms of their exceptional beauty. And all of them recorded in bible as deceiving in ways that change the narrative profoundly. Sarah and Rebecca are the objects of the their husband’s deception in the wife-sister narratives, but Rebecca goes on to deceive her blind husband in order to gain the major blessing for her favourite son Jacob, when he intends and expects to give it to Esau.

Rachel deceives her father and husband about having taken the household gods when they left Haran, an act that will bring about her early death. And her elder son Joseph, also described as beautiful, deceives his brothers who come to buy food, putting them through a horrible ordeal as they contemplated their father’s devastated reactions.

It is strange that on the whole we don’t know much about the physical appearance of the main characters in the narrative. What does Avram look like? We are not told. Likewise Isaac and Jacob, though we are aware of the physicality of Ishmael and Esau who are earthy,  athletic and skilful hunters.

It seems that only ‘outsiders’ and women are worthy of comment about their appearance. And then, as now, such comment serves to objectify, to limit in some way, to categorise. We no longer see the person, nor do we see their abilities or potential, we see the colour, the gender, the beauty (or lack of) and we make a judgement.

Later on in the narrative we will be able to see Sarah a little better – we will see her as the strong and independently minded woman trying to give her husband his much desired heir, however problematic that intervention is. We will see her as the woman who is visited by God, who laughs on hearing God’s voice telling her and her husband that she too will bear a child, and who speaks directly to God’s challenge to her, albeit to dissemble rather than be upfront with her views. We will see her as the mother determined to protect her child even if it means asking her husband to disown his older child – and ensuring that he does. We will see that her name is changed by God along with that of her husband. We will see that she lives away from her husband after the Akedah until her death when he has to travel to organise her funeral.

Sarah is the matriarch to match Abraham’s role – the promise of the heir who would receive God’s blessing is clearly as much to her as to him – it is Isaac son of Sarah who will inherit the blessing and take on the chain of tradition. She saves Abraham’s life at least twice, she helps him to increase his wealth, she directs the family life.

What is her beauty? The deception of Sarah’s beauty seems to be not so much what she does, but that it hides the strong and independent character within, the personal connection with God that she develops, the innovative and formative life that she lives. Her antecedents are shrouded in mystery, unlike Abraham’s, but their descendants are as much hers as his.

Proverbs tells us “charm deceives and beauty fades” when describing the perfect woman (Eshet Chayil) (31:30) and we should read the narrative of lech lecha with this in mind – if we only see the outward passivity and the blinding beauty that Abraham fears Pharaoh will see, then we miss what is important about Sarah.

Yet plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. Those who only see the outward appearance and the gender will layer on their own perceptions, their own beliefs about what they see, and will miss the gold that lies within.

Chayei Sarah: confronting the reality of death, make preparations, do the work

death pic

Confronting the reality of death is always hard, and for Abraham this is no exception. The text that begins with the phrase “the life of Sarah was one hundred and twenty and seven years, these were the years of the life of Sarah, and Sarah died…” is the introduction to a protracted negotiation for her burial place.

In the twenty verses of the narrative, only three touch on Abraham’s emotional state “Abraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her. And Abraham rose up from before his dead, and spoke unto the children of Heth, saying: I am a stranger and a sojourner with you: give me a possession of a burying-place with you, that I may bury my dead out of my sight.’ In the story as first presented we see that he seems to quickly move from mourning and weeping to making the practical arrangements so that the body of his wife can be buried and removed from before him.

Sarah’s is the first documented burial in bible – up until now the narrative has dispassionately informed us of the death of individuals without much more detail. Yet clearly this burial he is arranging is not an unknown rite. The children of Heth recognise his need and open the negotiations with the offer that he may take his choice from their sepulchres, telling him that no one would withhold their own plot from him should he want to use it. So clearly there was already a well- established proactive structure in place of prepared graves by the time Sarah died, not surprising given the need to quickly dispose of the bodies of the dead. Yet our foundational family did not seem to have made this provision. Was it because as an immigrant family they had not got a sense of ‘owning’ the land they had come to? Or because they had not quite struck roots in the land of Canaan and were still travelling? It is odd that Sarah died in Hebron when Abraham was clearly in Be’er sheva. Were they living separately? The midrash tells of Sarah’s death being caused by her horror that her husband would be prepared to sacrifice their son so had she left Abraham in order to strike out alone? Was any previous plan to have a grave left behind in the tangle of confusion that this relationship trauma had caused, and Sarah’s new place of abode forced Abraham into making new arrangements?

It does seem odd that they had not made plans for their deaths. They were a long way from the graves of their ancestors, (and indeed Terach the father of Abraham had also died in Haran away from his homeland of Ur Chasdim) so they would have had to innovate in their new lives in the new country. Were they hoping for some guidance in the moment? Were they wondering if they would be staying in the land or moving onwards again? What was behind the need for Abraham to have to negotiate for a family plot while in the grief of immediate bereavement? If as a Jewish community we have learned one thing, we have learned of the importance of community support in times of death and bereavement. The chevra kadisha (holy fellowship) which is appointed by every Jewish community to care for the dead, goes back at least to the time of Rabbi Hamnuna (3rd Century CE). The Talmud (Mo’ed Katan 27b) tells us This also said Rav Judah as reporting Rav: When a person dies in town, all the townspeople are forbidden from doing work. R. Hamnuna once came to Daru-matha, he heard the sound of the funerary-bugle [and] seeing some people carrying on their work, he said: Let the people be under the shammetha [ban]! Is there not a person dead in town? They told him that there was an Association (chevra kadisha) in the town. If so, said he to them, it is allowed you [to work].”

It provides a fascinating insight into the way the whole community was responsible for taking these practical arrangements from the mourners, and for arranging the dignified care and disposal of the body of the dead. This mitzvah took over from the need to work for everyone in town. There was a notifying sound when someone had died so that everyone would know of the death, and clearly in some places that R.Hamnuna knew, this sound was the prompt to everyone to down tools and go to help. Yet in Daru-matha they were even more organised, having deputed the responsibility to a group of skilled volunteers, much as we do to this day.

This leaves time for the mourner to use more than the 15 percent of time that Abraham was able to give in the narrative, to their grief. They can focus entirely on their loss, on the person they loved, on evaluating and processing and making sense of what has happened. And here Abraham has something very powerful to teach us.

We are told וַיָּבֹא֙ אַבְרָהָ֔ם לִסְפֹּ֥ד לְשָׂרָ֖ה וְלִבְכֹּתָֽהּ:

Abraham came ‘lispod´ for Sarah and livkotah’

Lispod is the word we use for giving the hesped – for speaking of the dead and telling the story of their life, from where they had come and how the journey had been, assessing and evaluating the real life that was lived, rather than eulogising or praising the person- at least not paying fulsome tribute unrealistically or without the fuller context of the way they lived their life. ‘Hesped’ means to cause to cry – in other words to really understand who we have lost and so to really feel the cost and pain of the death. Only after Abraham has done this, comprehended the full meaning of the life of Sarah, and thus the full extent of his loss, does he cry/mourn.

Sometimes when people die we like only to say good things about them – even unrealistic and unbelievable good things, instead of focussing on who they were, on why they had the damage or the pain or the anger they carried, on how they did or did not deal with the hurts and disappointments every life brings. There is a tendency to quote another midrashic gloss taken from the names of three sidrot in the book of Leviticus – “Acharei Mot Kedoshim Emor – After death speak holiness”. And this is a good maxim, but it is not the way of true mourning if we think the holiness /kedoshim means to tell ‘white lies’ or gloss over the reality of the complexity of every lived life.

To truly speak holiness of the dead is to recognise them in their full humanity. To see the flaws as well as the wonders, the spectrum of attributes they held and the way they allowed themselves to be. We need to see the fights they fought, the pain they felt, the love they gave, the achievements they realised, the relationships they worked on, the memories they embodied, the losses and the gains. Whatever the story behind the separation of Sarah and Abraham at her death and the lack of dignified burial space planned for earlier, Abraham teaches us something very powerful. See the person who died, give them their full rights as full human beings who lived fully human lives, and only then cry for yourself and for the loss of them. Confront the reality of them and their deaths, and go on to live your life in the light of that understanding.hevra kadisha(images from Czech republic: Hevra Kadisha building in Prague)

Lech Lecha – leave the idolatry, an instruction we need to hear again and again

What happened before God told Avram “Lech Lecha: Leave, go out from your country and your family and from the house of your ancestors into the land I will show you….”. The text before has given us the genealogy so that we know that Terach was the father of Avram, Nahor and Haran. That Haran had died young in Ur Kasdim, leaving a son, Lot, and two daughters, Milcah and Iscah. That Avram and Nahor had married: Avram married Sarai and Nahor had married Milcah his niece. Sarai was childless, (Milcah we know from later in the book had eight sons (Gen 22))

Terach took Avram his son, and Lot his grandson, and Sarai his daughter-in-law; and they left Ur Kasdim, to go into the land of Canaan; they came to a place rather confusingly called Haran, and they stayed there, and Terach died there.

Why had Terach left Ur Kasdim? Why did he not take all of his family with him? We cannot know, and the question sits tantalisingly as we read the genealogy that details the ten generations after Noah who himself is the tenth generation from Adam. Had God spoken to Terach and told him to leave? Was there some family issue? Maybe this is why we are told of Sarai’s infertility here, a condition which is all the more painful when we later find that her sister in law was producing son after son? Maybe after the death of one of his three sons he just had to leave and start again, taking the surviving grandchild with him, away from the place his father had died in so as to give him a better start. Maybe something happened and he had to leave the area with his less rooted and established descendants. But what? And whatever it was, why did Nahor and Milcah stay?

The book of Joshua gives us the peg on which the midrash can hang a back story: “Joshua said to all the people, thus says the Eternal, the God of Israel. Your ancestors dwelled in old times beyond the River, even Terach the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, and they served other gods. And I took your father Abraham from beyond the river, and led him throughout all the land of Canaan, and multiplied his seed and gave him Isaac”. (Joshua 24:2).

So the catalyst for Terach leaving with Avram, Sarai and Lot may have been something to with idolatry:- either that it was an established family practise that God needed to get them away from (presupposing that God had chosen Terach and Avram for the covenant) or that the family did something that challenged the idolatrous practise in Ur Kasdim, and so needed to leave to save their lives.

Hence we have the stories (found in Genesis Rabbah 38.13), of a young Abraham, having destroyed the idols in his father’s shop, telling his father that a woman had wanted to make an offering to the idols, but that the idols had argued over which one should eat first, and one idol had taken a stick and smashed the others. Terach’s response that they are only statues with no understanding elicits Abraham’s stinging rebuke to his father – “why are you worshiping them then”?

It is a powerful story, and often mistakenly found in books of bible stories as if of the same status, but it is really an indicator of the rabbinic dislike of idolatry rather than a likely explanation for why this branch of the family left their land and travelled south (in stages) towards Canaan.

Much of Judaism, from bible onwards, can be read as a polemic against idolatry and for the one-ness of the divinity. There is a constant suspicion of foreign influencers who will bring in the foreign practises of ‘avodah zarah’ (strange worship). What is very clear is that the battle was a continuing one, from which we can see that while worshiping YHVH/Adonai was something that the Israelites were well able to do, worshiping ONLY YHVH/Adonai was much harder. The prevalence of the rightness of having a multiplicity of gods for a multiplicity of purposes was deeply rooted in the psyche of the ancient world, and the Israelites were no exception. And this has remained true today. While we may look at the statues of Greek or Roman gods in the museums of the world and feel no resonance with them, we are not so different from the people who worshiped them sincerely. We too fall into the habit of not being true to the One God, we idolise all sorts of people or ways of being, or objects. We idolise ‘celebrities’ be they in the popular entertainment industry or writers/artists/scientists. We idolise the marketplace, or money and the people who own it. We idolise the products of the fashion industry, fantasise about unlikely and unrealistic situations, really believe that if we were thinner or prettier or more powerful in some way our life would be transformed. Sometimes we make a fetish of political positions, be they left wing or right wing, and we idolise religious leaders too – and that is possibly the most dangerous of all.

I have watched with mounting horror as a Jewish idolisation of Judaism – or at least of a particular interpretation of Judaism – has grown exponentially in my lifetime. It has become something not to help us to survive and to grow and to create security and goodness in the world, but a way of living to be fetishized and followed in cumulative minutiae. Somehow the texts and traditions have become distorted by increasingly narrow and strict interpretations that have managed to cloak themselves in the language of authenticity and normative usage. Somehow there is an idolisation of certain rabbinic leaders, who are treated as more than human, given powers that no rabbinic tradition would authorise or approve, a fetishisation that does not even disappear when they di e- indeed the death is not recognised in some way, the rabbi elevated instead to a kind of Elijah figure or even a messianic figure. Somehow the chumrah (the extra stringency that the very pious took on for themselves) has become the norm in many Jewish communities. And yet the more usual (and I would say authentic) Jewish tradition fights against this tendency, with, for example, the words of R. Isaac recorded in the Jerusalem Talmud (Nedarim 9:1) “do you think that what the Torah prohibits is not sufficient for you, that you take upon yourselves additional prohibitions?” Or the Babylonian Talmud discussing the Nazirite (Nazir 19a) which says “if the one who deprived himself only of wine is called a sinner then how much more so someone who deprives himself of all things”.

The word “orthodox” was brought into Judaism as a response to the “Progressive” or Reform Judaism that developed as a result of the enlightenment. The idea that Judaism has an orthodoxy is essentially an idea from outside of Judaism. It has always been a tradition that recorded debates rather than the results of debates, ideas to steer rather than rulings to stifle. In the ‘orthodox world’ today there are a multiplicity of different interpretations, customs, teachings, activities, beliefs, which shelter under the title of ‘orthodox Judaism’ merely to differentiate itself from a different and more open multiplicity of different interpretations, customs, teachings activities and beliefs sheltering under the rather less powerful ‘non-orthodox’ label. Indeed so diverse has orthodox Judaism grown, that the umbrella term is no longer enough. Now we have ‘ultra orthodox’, ‘hassidic’, ‘observant’, ‘traditional’ ,’modern orthodox’…. Each of which sees itself as the true and sometimes the only heir to Judaism. And each of which is vying for authority and authenticity by multiplying rulings, prohibitions designed to keep adherents away from the modern world, and concentrating power in the hands of the leadership.

Now I am not saying that we progressive Jews don’t also fall prey to idolatry – we tend to idolise social justice and tikkun olam over prayer, ritual and a deep relationship with God. We tend to fetishize universalism at the cost of a particular Jewish identity and lifestyle. Our Jewishness tends towards the culture and cuisine of our people and less towards studying and adopting its texts and scholarship. We all have a problem with idolatry – in that way we are just like our ancestors from biblical times onwards. So we need to return to the beginning. Lech Lecha – go, leave behind the lazy habits and the comfortable assumptions and following what others do, and go back to finding what God wants from us. Don’t leave that journey for others to tell you about, don’t fall into the common culture of everyone else, worshiping what we know to be false. Break the idols we have become dependent upon and leave them behind.

Noah: a cautionary tale to take us out of our comfort zone

Everyone knows the story of Noah. He was a good man, God gave him instructions to build a boat and he obeyed. He collected all the right kinds of animals, did everything God said, and so allowed a remnant of the original Creation to survive. When the flood waters finally abated, and God sent the rainbow as a sign, Noah and his family and the animals returned to dry land and got on with the business of repopulating the earth….

Well, that is the story we tell our children. And rainbows are a really beautiful image to put on our walls or use to represent diversity and natural benevolence; and anyway, it is a fairy tale isn’t it?

I have a real fondness for parashat Noah, not least because it is my own batmitzvah sidra, but that said, I also have enormous problems with it. Nobody comes out very nicely in the story of Noah. We begin with a list detailing the ten generations from Adam to Noah, and are told that in that ten generations humanity has created violence and corruption and destruction and brutality and bloodshed, so much that the whole world is awash with it. And God, who only ten generations earlier saw that the world was good, even very good, is now sickened and appalled and furious. God wants to wash the whole thing away. God wants out of the creation business. But not completely, it seems. Because there is a bit of God that is open to the understanding that wanton destruction won’t get entirely the result that God wants – God wants creation to keep going, just not like it currently appears. God is prepared to save the world.

But unfortunately, neither God nor Noah seem to have the ability to do anything rather than the obvious. The earth really is a dreadful mess and clearly something must be done to help it return to its divine purpose. According to the Midrash this world is not the first that God created, but that many worlds were created and destroyed when they did not turn out as intended – it is almost as if having made so many attempts God got tired of having to start right at the beginning yet again. But God still hadn’t quite got the hang of what else could be done when faced with a problem of this scale. And Noah, well Noah was not a great man, he is described as being “ish tzadik v’tamim b’dorotav” a man who was righteous and whole hearted in his generation”. What is the purpose of that qualifying phrase – in his generation. We know that the generation was appalling – was Noah just a bit less appalling? Compared with the others, Noah was a Tzaddik?

Noah doesn’t speak. Not ever. He doesn’t ask any questions of God, he certainly doesn’t argue with God (unlike Abraham who will come ten generations later), he doesn’t go out to the populace to warn them, he doesn’t even talk to his wife and children about it. He just gets on with the commandment – he will save himself and his family and the animals according to God’s instructions.

We are told about Noah that he walked with God. It is as if there is no space between them, they are confluent and therefore unable to see another viewpoint. Even the inhabitants of the Garden of Eden had more about them than Noah. Maybe if he had asked his wife the story would have been different!

To compare Noah once again with Abraham, Abraham did not walk WITH God, he was told by God to ‘walk before me and be wholehearted” – in other words, by the time of Abraham, ten generations after Noah, God had understood the need for Creation to be separate, to grow away and develop into who they must be. It was a lesson first given at Eden, but it took both God and humanity some time to absorb and act upon it. That God must be God and that we must be fully us. We are different. We will not always see the same way, we will not experience the world in the same way, and God will see things that we do not, and will never be able to understand. In the same way, we will see things our way, follow our instincts or our desires even knowing that our choices are not God’s choices. people have free will to be able to do things they shouldn’t. That is the deal.

But we haven’t really got there yet, here in the second weekly reading of Torah, only ten generations away from Creation. Here in this text we meet a God who has much to learn about relating to Creation, and we meet a human being who has much to learn about their own possibilities in relating to God. We have a God who responds to violence with violence. A human who seems to find it perfectly acceptable not to challenge that, who seems to have no problem with wholesale destruction, of the punishment of the innocent with the guilty. Tradition ascribes to Noah the position of toddler in the relationship with God, meaning that he is powerless in the relationship, but that certainly isn’t my experience of toddlers! – Noah simply isn’t up to the job of challenging God and putting a robust argument for the defence of the world because he, like we, is flawed. And he hasn’t had a long tradition of ethical argument to fall back upon, he has no role models of note, he is living in a dangerous world and he is afraid. Noah never really overcomes that fear. Even after the floods are gone and he is back on the cleansed earth, his first act is to sacrifice some of the animals he has saved in order to appease the divine power and to give thanks for the survival of his own family – an act which clearly exasperates God. The only other thing we are told about him is that he plants a vineyard, makes wine, and spends his declining years as a drunk, presumably because he cannot face the horror of what has happened to the world, the pain of his loss and the knowledge of his own inadequacy. He has learned an agonizing and heart-rending lesson about himself and about God. And it will be his descendants who will take the learning forward, Noah himself cannot.

God, however, can and does learn. God immediately repents of the destruction of the flood, takes responsibility, promises not to bring about such devastation by water again. And God gets involved with people, learning to relate to them, learning to see them as separate individuals with their own authenticity and validity. After catastrophe comes something quite amazing – acceptance of each others flaws, readiness to learn and to be, divine and human consideration of each other. So when humans once again become arrogant and dangerous, determining to build a tower to rival heaven, preferring the symbols of technology and empire to the humanity of each other, then God once more steps in, but this time creates diversity and difference, rather than trying to force the world into one narrow way of being, at the expense of individual emergence.

By the end of sidra Noah, both people and God have found many ways to express themselves – not always constructively nor easily, but with a healthy multiplicity of being. And so the Torah readies us for endless possibility in the pathways to become who we really are – all of us in the world are betzelem elohim, made in the image of God.

What we can learn from Balak : acceptance of the other is the best strategy for survival

Twice in Torah, we are privy to the thoughts of a powerful leader about the children of Israel. The first time, at the beginning of the book of Exodus, we see the rise of the melech hadash – the new king who did not know Joseph, and his view that “Hinei Am b’nei Yisrael rav v’atzum mimenu”, “Behold the people who are the children of Israel are more and mightier than we” (Exod. 1:9).  From this fearful perception came the enslavement of the Israelites, and eventually their liberation from Egypt to journey towards the Promised Land. And now here, Balak, the king of Moab, having seen what the journeying Israelites had done to the Amorites, and distressed at the power and size of the Israelites, calls to Balaam: “V’attah l’cha na ara li et ha’am hazeh, ki atzum hu mimeni”, “And now come pray, and curse for me this people, for it is too great for me” (Num. 22:6).

There are many parallels between the narratives in Egypt from enslavement to liberation and the narratives of Balaam’s attempted cursing for Balak, but it is the phrase describing the mightiness of the people Israel that draws attention.  For when the Pharaoh describes this group of descendants of Jacob as “Am”, “a people”, he ascribes to them for the first time coherence beyond family connectedness. He has changed them from a genealogical group into peoplehood. The category shift is vast. Whatever we may know about Abraham and Sarah making Jewish souls and converting the people they met into their way of being, here for the first time is textual evidence that Bnei Yisrael is more than a family or genetic inheritance; it is peoplehood, a community brought together by something other than ancestry. Posited against the Egyptian peoplehood (rav v’atzum mimenu, “more and mightier than we are”), they are perceived to be a threat to the Egyptian way of being and must, in the eyes of Pharaoh and his court, be constrained.

But for Balak, something different is happening, albeit in almost the same words. V’attah l’cha na ara li et ha’am hazeh, ki atzum hu mimeni, “And now come pray, and curse for me this people, for it is too great for me.” (Num. 22:6). This is personal, something to do with Balak king of Moab himself, and so we must look into his own history and his future to determine what it could be.

Balak is a Moabite, a member of a people said to be born from the drunken coupling of Lot and his older daughter in a cave after the destruction of Sodom, when they thought they were the only survivors of a destroyed world. Her son, Moab (the name meaning literally “from my father”) is the progenitor of this people, though we do not have any direct chain of genealogy back to Lot (Gen. 19:37). So Balak is of the family of Abraham through Lot, someone who represents “what might have been” had different choices been made. Unlike Pharaoh he has a connection with the children of Israel, albeit a tenuous one, and a connection to the covenant that Abraham made with God.

The Hebrew phrase “atzum hu mimeni”, besides being cast in the singular and personal frame, can also be translated as: “This people is mighty from me.”

Balak may have been asserting that had Lot not chosen to separate from Abraham and go to Sodom, the line of transmission would have been different, with Lot’s descendants claiming the covenant. But there is another way of viewing this phrase, one that may speak to us more in the struggles of today’s Jewish world. Rabbi Isaiah ben Avraham Halevi Horowitz (1565-1630) chose to understand this verse as referring not to what might have been in the past, but to what would certainly be in the future: that the anointed kingly and messianic line of David would descend from Balak.

Ruth, the great-grandmother of King David was herself a Moabite woman, descended from Eglon [the grandson of Balak], king of Moab (Nazir 23b).

And their direct connection is made plain at the end of her eponymous book. From King Balak would ultimately come King David – No wonder Balak felt that the strength of Israel was coming from himself! He was inadvertently contributing to the continuation and wellbeing of the people Israel.

In an added twist we have the story told as a moral tale twice in Talmud: “Rav Judah, citing Rav, said: A man should always occupy himself with the Torah and [its] precepts, even though it be for some ulterior motive, for the result will be that he will eventually do them without ulterior motive. For as reward for the forty-two sacrifices which the wicked Balak offered, he was privileged to be the progenitor of Ruth, for R. Jose son of R. Hanina has said that Ruth was descended from Eglon [the grandson of Balak], king of Moab (Nazir 23b and Horayot 10b).”

What Balak is recognising, albeit in his case with horror, is that the merging and mingling of other people into Judaism is of enormous benefit to the people of Israel. Like Pharaoh, he sees not a bloodline, but a covenant line, an “Am” a people whom one can join and in joining can benefit.

His horror is because he is an enemy of the Israelites. One can only wonder what the dismay of modern naysayers of conversion into Judaism can be based upon.

The recent trend in some parts of the Dati Jewish world towards the annulment of some conversions for perceived breaches of behaviour, and the disbelief of the sincerity of Jews by choice is the curse that Balak asked for Balaam to give come into fruition in our own time.  When Balak asks Balaam “V’attah l’cha na ara li”, we can read him as saying “come now and curse me,” understanding that in his spite he is asking to be cursed himself, rather than allow his descendants to enter into and to strengthen the Jewish people. Today we seem to have those willing to place a curse on the Jewish people rather than accept the benefit and goodwill of those who have chosen to join us.  They would rather rip apart the Jewish world in their quest to follow their own desire single-mindedly for some notional (and decidedly not traditional) purity, rather than work to include and welcome those who wish to join us. One might ask, “Where is the donkey of Balaam now when we need a clear sighted and generous spirit?”

Conversion procedure and law in Judaism is based on the texts surrounding Ruth, a Moabite woman, descendant of Balak, who would rather not have mixed his bloodline with ours. And about Ruth and her conversion there is nothing but praise: Rabbi Abahu said, “Come and see how precious are proselytes to the Holy One, blessed be He. Once she [Ruth] had set her heart on converting, Scripture placed her in the same rank as Naomi, as it is said: “And they both walked till they came to Bethlehem” (Ruth 1:19) (Yalkut Shimoni, Ruth, Chapter 1, 601).  There was no need for her to prove by her subsequent life choices that her conversion continued to be valid. The famous phrase “Al tifg’ivi l’ozveych lashuv may’acharayich”, “Do not entreat me to leave you, or to return from following after you, for where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge, your people will be my people and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16),  can be translated somewhat differently. The verb peh, gimmel, ayin means “to meet, encounter, reach” and can mean both to encounter with kindness or with hostility, to encounter with a request as in “entreat” or more frequently  “to fall upon and kill”  (1 Sam. 22:17-18 ; Judges 8:21. etc.)

So what if Ruth was saying, “Do not destroy me by making me leave you or not allowing me to be with you”? The verse would then have a whole extra dimension. Instead of asking Ruth to go away (the traditional three time refusal of a person wishing to convert that is derived selectively from these verses) and putting the onus on the convert to be brave enough to return to ask once more, and yet again, the problem becomes ours: we would bear responsibility for the sin of destroying another person by our cold shouldering of the prospective convert.

In Talmud Yevamot 24b we find the following :

MISHNAH. “If a man is suspected of [intercourse] with a slave who was later emancipated, or with a heathen who subsequently became a proselyte, lo, he must not marry her. If, however, he did marry her they need not be parted. If a man is suspected of intercourse with a married woman who, [in consequence,] was taken away from her husband, he must let her go even though he had married her.” GEMARA. “This implies that she may become a proper proselyte. But against this a contradiction is raised. Both a man who became a proselyte for the sake of a woman and a woman who became a proselyte for the sake of a man, and, similarly, a man who became a proselyte for the sake of a royal board, or for the sake of joining Solomon’s servants, are no proper proselytes. These are the words of R. Nehemiah, for R. Nehemiah used to say: Neither lion-proselytes, nor dream-proselytes nor the proselytes of Mordecai and Esther are proper proselytes unless they become converted at the present time (ie when there was no benefit to becoming a proselyte). How can it be said, ‘at the present time’?-Say ‘as at the present time’! -Surely concerning this it was stated that R. Isaac b. Samuel b. Martha said in the name of Rav: The Halachah is in accordance with the opinion of him who maintained that they were all proper proselytes. If so, this should have been permitted altogether! – On account of [the reason given by] R. Assi. For R. Assi said, ‘Put away from you a disobedient mouth, and perverse lips, etc.’”

In other words, there were always those who found a reason not to accept proselytes. There were those who worried that behind someone’s wish to join the Jewish world there would be some material benefit they could claim, so their request could not be said to be pure or acceptable. But the Halachah does not go that way, even if the discussion has to proceed in order to make clear that the point of view is recorded in order to be invalidated. And later commentary on the Mishnah records an overwhelming majority of halachists who agree with the opinion of Maimonides that conversion in order to marry a Jew (which may not be of noticeable benefit) also does not invalidate a conversion.

So back to Balak. Why was he so afraid that the Children of Israel would become stronger through him? Why would he rather have been cursed himself with no descendants than accept the existence and energy of the Israelites. Well we have no idea, just as we can have no sensible idea for the balagan that is conversion in Israel at the moment. Any logical analysis is both too depressing and too frightening to contemplate. Can we have removed ourselves so far from the golden rules – to be a holy people as God is holy, to care for others as we care for ourselves, to concern ourselves with the strangers and the vulnerable and the defenceless – that we have removed ourselves from the divine force that nourishes and sustains us? Only time will tell.

Balak himself failed in his curse, and his hatred and enmity was turned into acceptance of the other and the messianic promise. May the curse that stalks our people now go the same way so that once again we will be able to say, and to mean, Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishk’notecha Yisrael, “How good are your tents O Jacob, and your dwelling places O Israel”

 (a version of a draft first written for Leo Baeck College Parashat HaShavuah 2008

Chayei Sarah: Sarah Imeinu, a flawed and powerful matriarch

The death of Sarah so soon after the binding of Isaac by his father, is ascribed in the midrash as the result of the shock Sarah experienced when she became aware that Abraham had been prepared to sacrifice their son Isaac in order to demonstrate to God his total loyalty, and that God had been prepared to test Abraham with such an ordeal.

God had said to Abraham: take your son, your only one, whom you love…” but the truth is that Isaac was not Abraham’s only son, though he was Sarah’s, HER only one. Abraham still of course, had Ishmael.

sarah

Isaac was her miracle child, born to her after years of infertility had merged into menopause, prophesied to her by God, a boy whose name meant laughter, but whose life in the event seemed to have had very little joy in it.

Isaac was the boy who was born to fulfil the promise of huge numbers of descendants. In procuring a son, any son, for Abraham, Sarah had tried to make sure that promise was fulfilled, but in the process had given herself a life with very little laughter and a great deal of unhappiness. She had given her handmaid Hagar to Abraham, but the son born from that union had then had to leave the family as she understood that he presented a danger to Isaac and to his inheritance. Then too, the relationship between Abraham and Sarah was clearly not all it might have been.  We know that Abraham was not with Sarah when she died, and more than that, that they had separate households in separate cities. The Midrash also suggests that love had died between them before the Akedah, when it allows us read that famous command from God as “Take your son, the only one you love, take Isaac…”

Sarah lived for 127 years, and the content of her life was the launch pad for much of later Jewish history.  Her death gives us a stake in the future too, for the negotiations between Abraham and Ephron the Hittite to buy her gravesite provide us not only with an insight into such transactions, but give documentary credibility to the attachment of the Jewish people to the land.  Many is the scriptural literalist who points to this passage and declares – “see we bought this land all this time ago, it is ours.”

It seems to me horribly appropriate that it should have been for Sarah that the land was purchased and the transaction so scrupulously recorded, for it is Sarah who took matters into her own hands when she procured a son for her husband via her handmaid Hagar, and set up a chain of painful rejection and destruction that has never quite been dealt with by any of the protagonists or by their descendents.

It was Sarah who couldn’t wait; who caused the birth of Ishmael and who had him sent away to what she assumed would be his death. It was Sarah whose sad and ironic laughter prefigured the lack of any real laughter in Isaac’s life.

Sarah is a figure who comes from nowhere – her genealogy is not given (exceptional in the biblical context) except for the defensive statement by Abraham that she is his sister.  She is however included in the covenant promise  given to Abraham – it will be her child with him, not Hagar’s to whom the covenant will apply. She is beautiful enough to be wanted by Kings, yet her barrenness makes her beauty somehow irrelevant, and her beauty is seen by Abraham mainly as a threat to his own life should anyone more powerful than him desire her.

Her life is full of journeying, her relationships full of misplaced love, manipulation and pain.

Sarah’s death leaves unfinished and painful circumstances. There is a great hole in the life of her son, who does not meet her again after the terrifying experience with his father, and who later takes his own bride into his mother’s tent, (not his father’s), to be comforted for the loss of his mother. Her husband also mourns her, but having honourably buried her, swiftly remarries, fathering children who will be the ancestors of the surrounding tribes with which Israel will have to deal.  Intriguingly, Keturah, the second wife of Abraham, is equated in the Midrash with Hagar, the repudiated handmaid of Sarah, a way no doubt of dealing with the discomfort of the rabbis with the behaviour of Sarah and Abraham towards this innocent Egyptian maid, yet a resolution which essentially betrays Sarah.

Sarah’s death is too soon, despite her 127 years of full life. She bequeathed a series of family behaviours that took generations to deal with, if not to fully conclude.  Her son was left emotionally disabled by his upbringing, her grandchildren spent years unable to see past their own senses of injustice and betrayal.

Yet for all of this Sarah was a matriarch, she ordered and she sorted and she gave unquestioning loyalty to Abraham and to his perceived destiny.  She travelled with him, leaving her home and her background just as surely as Abraham had done.  She nourished and cared for him, she understood prophesy and indeed is seen as a prophet in her own right, her gifts in that field considered to be greater even than Abraham’s. She heard God’s voice and she spoke with God and she even had the confidence to laugh at God.

The rabbis say that Sarah’s death is announced in such a way (“The lives of Sarah were..and Sarah died”) to bring home the lesson that her life was fully lived and that that was the important thing about her – her death was inevitable but it was her life that counted.  As we remember the stories about her, the bold actions she took on behalf of those she loved, the meddling in history and the protecting of her own, we can begin to understand her and to some extent understand the choices she made. She was matriarch, wife, part of the chain of the covenant; she loved fiercely and maybe acted on that love unwisely. She was sometimes a problem for herself and for those around her, but her life remains a story worth telling from which we can learn. Sarah Imeinu, a brilliant and determined woman whose life was full and complex and left its mark on her descendants, and whose death has also impacted on our history up to the present time.

(image an embroidery of Sarah’s tent on Torah binder by Caroline Ingram)