Vayechi: He lived. What was the purpose of his life?

And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years; so the days of Jacob, the years of his life, were a hundred forty and seven years. (Genesis 47:28)

The report of the death of Jacob has superficial resonance with that of Sarah in how his age is given, but the wealth of detail around the future he conjures in his deathbed blessings gives us a focus that is missing in the flat account of Sarah’s age and death.

We are told first that he has spent the last seventeen years in Egypt – well past the end of the great famine that brought him there. Bible makes no comment on this fact, but draws our attention to it. Seventeen is a number made up of two significant digits – 7 being the number of the perfected whole, 10 being the number of completeness. It seems as if it is saying that the era is entirely over, it is time for a new thing to happen.

And then we are given the totality of the years of Jacob’s lives – he is 147 years old.

He knows he is soon to die. He makes his preparations, both with Joseph alone and then with his whole family. And so we see the life of Jacob through the prism of his active shaping of the future– through the arrangements for his burial and through the blessings he bestows on each son.

Just as our attention is drawn to his years spent away from his homeland, he draws the attention of his sons – and of we readers of the text – to the land they must also understand to be their homeland.

First he makes Joseph swear that he will not bury his father in Egypt. He is repudiating the adopted land of his son with surprising vehemence – “don’t bury me in Egypt…carry my body out of Egypt and bury me in my ancestral place” (vv29, 30)

Then (48:3) he reminds Joseph that “El Shaddai appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan and blessed me there (with fruitfulness)…and gave this land to my descendants after me for an everlasting possession. He claims the boys -whom he acknowledges were born in Egypt  (48:5) – for himself, giving them the inheritance of the blessing from Luz, the blessing of being attached to the land of Canaan. Then a few verses later (v21) tells Joseph “Behold, I die; but God will be with you, and bring you back to the land of your ancestors.” Then he tells Joseph he will give him an extra portion of the land – Shechem Echad – a puzzling phrase that is variously translated as the city of Shechem, as a topographical feature (a shoulder or mountain ridge), or as simply an extra piece of land – but however one understands this phrase the attention is focussed on the Land of Canaan, the ancestral and promised land.

Jacobs’s total focus on the connection of his descendants to his ancestral land is unmissable. He is powerfully aware of his approaching death, and on the legacy he must ensure is embedded in the next generations of his family. We are no longer quite so fixed on who is to receive the covenantal blessing that Abraham and Sarah ensured went to their son Isaac, and that Rebecca went to such lengths to ensure it went to Jacob himself, deceiving Isaac in the process. Now the covenantal blessing is to go down to each of the sons – so Jacob is thinking further and with more practicality. He wants to pass on land and resources as well as covenant and commitment to God. These are inextricably linked at this point, but his focus is the land and how his descendants will relate to it.

When we think of our own lives, and what we want to pass on to our own descendants, Jacob’s dying activity is instructive. He strips away the unimportant, he faces each person and their reality unflinchingly, he builds on the characteristics of each son, and he gives them responsibility for the land which is both symbolic (the covenantal relationship with God) and real. Treat the land well and you will live in comfort and ease. Treat the land badly and such comfort and ease will not be yours, but instead hunger and rootlessness.

There are many things we want for our descendants. We want them to be ethical human beings. We want them to behave with kindness to others. We want them to live in comfort and ease, not afraid or homeless or having to live a transient anxious existence. We want them to have family of their own –be they families of choice (as Jacob chooses Ephraim and Manasseh) or of relationship. And we want them to live on a land that provides for their needs, that provides food, water and shelter, space to live, landscape to give pleasure – be it the spiritual uplift of mountains or sunsets or the physical enjoyment of walking or swimming in a clean and beautiful environment.

Ours is a generation that has had to learn again to understand the impact on the land of how we choose to live. And we have had to become clearer about our own responsibility for how the land has been abused on our watch. As we distanced ourselves from traditional ways of working the land, found ways to extract resources from the earth in greater amounts, resources we used as if they were limitless, we have created deserts, polluted seas, contaminated soil, tainted air, created huge waste tips and dug enormous pits for landfill – Humankind currently produces two billion tonnes of waste per year between 7.6 billion people. (Figure from sensoneo.com)…..

Slowly – too slowly – we are changing our waste management. Recycling, using less disposable plastics, composting etc. Slowly we are considering our impact on the environment, as people choose to find different ways to travel – or to travel less; as people choose to eat different foods, to plant consciously to enable wildlife habitats. But as we see the Amazonian rainforest disappearing and burning, as we see the Australian bush burning out of control and its wildlife decimated, as we see the effects of climate change in our own back gardens – we know we are too slow to recognise our relationship to the land, our responsibility for its wellbeing, which will impact ultimately on our own wellbeing and that of our descendants.

Jacob speaks to his children, transmitting his ethical will, and we are also forced to ask: what is the legacy and the land that we will pass on to our children and grandchildren? Do we want to pass on a world where the environment no longer supports living diversity? Do we want to hand over a world where natural resources are treated with arrogant disdain and not valued or maintained?

We do not want our children to be forced to migrate because of drought or famine, to be in a world where species are forced into competition for survival; where the air is so toxic that the very breath in their bodies could damage their wellbeing. Jacob’s focus on relationship with the land is a bellwether. We need to be alert to the relationship we have with our world, the impact of our own behaviour and choices. We need to be working so that our own legacy is global sustainability, a world that will be nurtured by our descendants and nurture them in its turn.

 

 

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.

 

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