Tetzaveh Zachor – ways to get out of the cycle of violence?

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Shabbat Zachor – named for the second scroll reading which signals the imminent arrival of Purim –gives us the instruction to “Remember what Amalek did to you by the way as you came out of Egypt. How he met you by the way and struck the last strugglers, all those feeble ones at the back, when you were faint and weary, and he did not fear God.  So it shall be, when the eternal your God has given you rest from all your enemies around, in the land with the Eternal your god gives you as an inheritance, to possess it, that you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven. You shall not forget” (Deuteronomy 25:17-19)

Yet the story in the narrative in Exodus is somewhat different.  “Then came Amalek and fought with Israel in Rephidim. And Moses said to Joshua, Choose men and go out, fight with Amalek. Tomorrow I will stand at the top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand. So Joshua did as Moses had said, and fought with Amalek, and Moses, Aaron and Hur went up to the top of the hill. And it happened that when Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed. And when he dropped his hand, Amalek prevailed. Moses’ hands were heavy; and they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it. And Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on each side of him, so that his hands were steady until the sun set. And Joshua discomfited Amalek and his people with the sword. And God said to Moses “Write this for a memorial in a book, and repeat it in the ears of Joshua, for I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.  And Moses built an altar and called it Adonai Nissi, (God is my banner) and he said “the hand upon the throne of the Eternal. God will have war with Amalek from generation to generation”

So which is it? Did Amalek come and prey upon the weakest individuals at the back of the caravan of people fleeing Egypt?  Or was it an apparently unprovoked attack while they were encamped? Was there a battle between armies, or was it a stealthy marauding and attacking of the most feeble?  Were Moses and Joshua active in some way, strategizing the battle? Or were they barely aware of the attacks at the end of the line of people? And who exactly is at war with Amalek? Is it God or is it the Israelites? And which of them is responsible for blotting out the memory of Amalek –  a persistent requirement down the generations, as persistent as telling the story of the exodus from Egypt,  the covenant accepted at Sinai, the story of Esther, Mordechai and Haman – all of which we are told to retell, to never allow the memory to be forgotten.

We are told that Amalek does not “fear God” –Amalek do not possesses “Yirat Adonai”

When we look closely at this term – fearing God – it appears to be one used particularly in circumstances that involve the choice to behave ethically.  Whenever someone could take advantage of a weaker person and doesn’t, but instead chooses to behave with moral integrity, they are described as having “Yirat Adonai”. So, for example, the Egyptian midwives who defy the order of the Pharaoh and who don’t kill the new-born baby boys are motivated by Yirat Adonai (Ex1:17). When Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and tells them that he will not harm them he says “I fear God” (Gen 42:18). In the “holiness code” is possibly the most clear example – after the warning not to curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling block in front of the blind we are told – “v’yareita me’elochecha – but you shall fear God, I am the Eternal”

The fear of God seems to be the awareness of a higher authority, of something beyond the individual and their desires. While religion is not the only generator of ethics, it is certainly a powerful one, and the idea of an eye that sees and an ear that hears – even if others do not – has historically kept many on a better path than they might otherwise have chosen.

The Amalekites seem not to have this corrective in their world view – they see no reason to behave ethically if that should conflict with their own gain or benefit.  They are the paradigm of amorality – and so it seems that God steps in, and the fight to blot out this life without moral guidance is one that takes place in every generation. The reminder to us that for all time we should blot out the memory of Amalek, to remember always to fight the habit of selfishness, of not caring for the weak or the vulnerable. While this greed and disregard for others is externalised into the Amalekites, the reality is that we all carry the tendency within us.  One of my teachers used to say – “it’s all very well being afraid of what God might think, but most of us are more concerned with what other people might think if they knew what we do – if only we cared as much about what God thinks as we do about what other people think, the world would be a better place!”

Yirat Adonai, the fear of God, is sometimes translated as “reverence” or “awe”, but I rather like the idea that one should be a Godfearer.  Joseph Soloveitchik wrote that we live our lives with all kinds of fears – realistic and irrational. Fear of old age, or pain or illness; of death, of loneliness, of poverty or somehow being “found out”. He said fear was something that confuses us and limits us- we never know what to be legitimately fearful of, what is a pointless fear.

“”Fear seems to be a universal malaise…What kind of fear is it that can overtake us, thereby uprooting all other kinds of fears-fears of failure….of rejection … or of disease? Only the fear of the Eternal God! … [During the High Holydays] We pray that this great fear will free us from all the lesser fears which lurk everywhere, upsetting and embittering our lives”

The Adon Olam has a verse based on psalm 118 – “Adonai Li, lo ira” – God is with me, I shall not fear. It is one of my favourite verses. In the psalm the second half of the verse asks “ma ya’aseh li Adam” – what can human beings do to me?  It is the same view of Yirat Adonai as that of Soloveitchik – Because if we have a secure and certain foundation of Yirat Adonai, of fear of God, then all smaller “mortal” fears fall away.

Talmud also sees Yirat Adonai as a necessary part of our relationship with God and our development as human beings, to become the best we can be.  In tractate 31b we read:

“Rabbah bar Rav Huna said, “Any person who has [mastered] Torah learning but lacks Yirat shamayim (reverence for heaven, or God) is like a treasurer who has been given the keys to the inner chambers, but who has not been given the keys to the outer chambers. How can [the treasurer] enter [the inner chamber]?”

In other words, Yirat shamayim is the necessary condition for us to truly understand what Torah is about. Without it, all our learning , all our worldly achievements are pointless. We might know the texts, the legal conclusions drawn from them, but without the element of relationship with God that is played out in our relationship with God’s creation, they remain cold academic prowess – we have missed the point of why we learn Torah.

The autumn festivals of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are called the Yamim Noraim in Hebrew – Noraim having the same root as Yira – fear or awe.  During the amidah we have the “uv’chen” insertions asking God to send Pachad, Eima and Yerucha on Creation –  all words used for fear/ awe or reverence. It was these prayers that Soloveitchik was referencing – once we understand Who to be in awe of, there is no need to tie ourselves up in pointless worry about other people. Yirat Adonai liberates us to perceive what is true and what is simply our own construction of the world. It allows us therefore to reorient ourselves and if necessary to change how we are living our lives, freed from the pressures that might otherwise distort our authenticity and integrity.

So what is the connection to the Book of Esther and the story of Purim?

Besides the fact that we are told that Haman is a descendent of Agag, and therefore descended  from the Amalekites, we see also that he behaves in an extraordinary and deeply amoral way. From the moment he is angered that Mordechai did not bow to him, he appears to overreact dramatically as he thinks only to revenge his injured pride. Indeed, the whole book is predicated on various modes of revenge. – And the motivation to take revenge on others is possibly the furthest away from the humanity we want to be, behaviour that is the polar opposite of Yirat Adonai.

The Book of Esther is famous also for the lack of both name of God and the presence of God – a reminder to us that without any sense of the God of Yirat Adonai we are vulnerable to the forces that surround us, forces that have no guiding morality with which to mitigate or  soften their actions. It is paradigmatically the book of Diaspora – the Jewish experience of being at best at guest and at worst a stranger in someone else’s land; And like the historical experience of Diaspora, one must always be conscious of treading carefully so as not to upset or provoke the host country, never quite knowing when a comfortable existence may suddenly become a precarious one, as the whims of the governing powers shift unpredictably.

But possibly the most painful connection between Megillat Esther and the command to remember and so blot out the Amalekites, is the violence that vibrates through the whole narrative, culminating in the Jewish uprising against those who would destroy them.

Surely there is more going on here than a fictionalising of the fears of a vulnerable diaspora community – however closely these fears follow a terrible historical reality. There is something in the overreaction of Haman to Mordechai – the desire to destroy a whole people because of the actions of one man – that needs closer examination:-

We know that the Amalakites are descended from Esau: bible tells us And Timna was concubine to Eliphaz, Esau’s son; and she bore to Eliphaz Amalek (Gen 36:12). The Talmud fills in details:

Timna was a royal princess. Desiring to become a proselyte, she went to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but they did not accept her. So she went and became a concubine to Eliphaz the son of Esau, saying, “I would rather be a servant to this people than a mistress of the other nation.” From her Amalek descended who afflicted Israel. Why so? Because they should not have rejected her. (Sanhedrin 99b)

So the enmity between Israel and Amalek is rooted in the far past – and twice the Amalekites were treated badly – when Esau was cheated of the birthright by his younger brother Jacob, and when his daughter in law was rejected for conversion.

This may explain why the aggrieved Amalekites attacked the Israelites shortly after the exodus from Egypt. They are avenging the historical wrong.

But then further reading gives us the story of King Saul who fulfilled the commandment to blot out the Amalekites because of what they did after the exodus  –  and only the king, Agag, survived the massacre. (1 Samuel 15)

Saul was of the tribe of Benjamin. Mordechai was also of the tribe of Benjamin. Was Haman taking revenge not only because of hurt pride, but because he was avenging the massacre of his tribe by the tribal ancestors of Mordechai?

There are a number of literary devices that tie the various stories of the Amalekites and the Israelites to the Book of Esther.( For example the same words are used of the bitter cry of the betrayed Esau, and that of Mordechai when he learns of the plot to kill all the Jews . “ vayitz ‘ak tz ‘akah g ‘dola u’marah”  And he cried a great and bitter cry! ) It is almost as if the generational pain has been programmed into the very DNA of the protagonists.

So when we see the terrible violence play out once again in the Book of Esther, when we consider what it means to remember Amalek so as to blot him out, we see that we too are part of the chain that goes back to the terrible sibling rivalry of the Book of Genesis. It is never truly resolved – Joseph and his brothers find a way through to build a civil relationship but that is scarcely a true and full resolution.

The Book of Esther is a salutary reminder, not only that we are vulnerable to the continued hatred of those who choose not to “fear God”, but we are vulnerable too to playing out the violence in our own generation. It is a chain of attack or be-attacked scenarios, of taking revenge in turn down the generations, with never an end in sight. And the end of the book, with the Jews killing over seventy five thousand of those who hated them and wished to kill them, is not so much a victory as a tragedy.

Maybe we should wipe out the memory of Amalek  by no longer participating in the tit-for-tat violence, but demonstrate our Yirat Adonai by no longer prolonging this hatred. After all, Moses says that the war against Amalek is waged by God – not necessarily by us.

How can we stop the cycles of violence in our world? The Book of Esther provides one way – to fictionalise it, put the acting out into the realm of fancy-dress and carnival. In this way we can fulfil the requirements to remember without bringing the violence into the real world. To remember our ancestral pain without causing hurt to others would truly be acting with Yirat Adonai.

Shabbat Zachor, così denominato per la seconda lettura del rotolo, segnala l’imminente arrivo di Purim e ci dà l’insegnamento: “Ricordati di ciò che ti fece Amalek quando eri in viaggio, allorché uscisti dall’Egitto, che ti assalì sulla strada e colpì tutti coloro che affranti erano rimasti indietro mentre tu eri stanco e sfinito, e non temette Iddio. E quando il Signore tuo Dio ti darà tregua da tutti i tuoi nemici all’intorno nella terra che sta per darti in eredità perché tu ne prenda possesso, cancellerai il ricordo di Amalek di sotto al cielo, non dimenticarlo!” (Deuteronomio 25: 17-19)

Eppure la storia, nella narrazione dell’Esodo, è in qualche modo diversa. “Quindi venne Amalek e attaccò Israele in Refidim. Mosè disse a Giosuè: ‘Scegliti alcuni bravi guerrieri e va’ a combattere Amalek; domani io mi metterò sulla sommità della collina e terrò in mano la verga del Signore’. Giosuè eseguì il comando di Mosè iniziando battaglia contro Amalek, e nello stesso tempo Mosè, Aronne e Chur salirono in cima alla collina. Ora fintanto ché Mosè teneva alzate le sua mani vinceva Israele; quando le abbassava vinceva Amalek. Ma le braccia di Mosè erano pesanti, allora presero una pietra, gliela misero sotto, egli vi si assise sopra a Aronne e Chur sostenevano le sue braccia l’uno da una parte e l’altro dall’altra cosicché le sue braccia poterono sostenersi sino al tramonto del sole. E Giosuè sconfisse Amalek e la sue gente a fil di spada. Il Signore disse a Mosè: ‘Scrivi in un libro il ricordo di questo grande avvenimento e trasmettilo oralmente a Giosuè, ché Io ho stabilito di cancellare la memoria di Amalek di sotto il cielo’. Mosè fabbricò un altare che nominò: Dio è la mia bandiera. E disse: ‘Il Signore pone la mano sul Suo trono, guerra ad Amalek di generazione in generazione”.  (Esodo 17: 8-16)

Quindi, di cosa si tratta? Amalek venne a predare dagli individui più deboli nelle retrovie della carovana di persone in fuga dall’Egitto? O fu un attacco apparentemente non provocato mentre erano accampati? Ci fu una battaglia tra eserciti o avvenne un attacco furtivo con saccheggio verso i più deboli? Mosè e Giosuè furono in ​​qualche modo attivi, pianificando la battaglia? O furono a malapena a conoscenza degli attacchi nelle retrovie della colonna di persone? E chi, esattamente, è in guerra con Amalek? È Dio o sono gli Israeliti? E chi di loro è responsabile di cancellare la memoria di Amalek, una necessità persistente lungo le generazioni, persistente come il raccontare la storia dell’esodo dall’Egitto, del patto accettato nel Sinai, della storia di Ester, Mardocheo e Haman:  tutte cose che ci vien detto di ripetere, di non permettere mai che se ne perda il ricordo.

Ci viene detto che Amalek non “teme Dio”: Amalek non possiede “Yirat Adonai”.

Quando osserviamo più da vicino questa espressione, “temere Dio”, sembra che sia usata in particolare in circostanze che implichino la scelta di comportarsi eticamente. Ogni volta che qualcuno potrebbe trarre vantaggio da una persona più debole e non lo fa, scegliendo invece di comportarsi con integrità morale, viene descritto come “Yirat Adonai”. Quindi, ad esempio, le ostetriche egiziane che sfidano l’ordine del Faraone e non uccidono i neonati, sono spinte da Yirat Adonai (Ex 1:17). Quando Giuseppe si rivela ai propri fratelli e dice loro che non farà loro del male, dice “Temo Dio” (Gen 42:18). Nel “codice di santità” c’è forse l’esempio più chiaro: dopo l’avvertimento di non maledire i sordi, né di mettere un ostacolo davanti al cieco ci viene detto “v’yareita me’elochecha – ma avrai paura di Dio, Io sono l’Eterno”.

Il timore di Dio sembra essere la consapevolezza di un’autorità superiore, di qualcosa al di là dell’individuo e dei suoi desideri. Anche se la religione non è l’unico generatore di etica, lo è comunque in modo potente, e l’idea di un occhio che vede e un orecchio che ascolta, anche quando altri non lo fanno, ha storicamente tenuto molti su un sentiero migliore di quello che avrebbero altrimenti scelto.

Gli Amalekiti sembrano non possedere questo correttivo nella loro visione del mondo: non vedono alcun motivo per comportarsi eticamente quando ciò dovesse entrare in conflitto con il proprio guadagno o beneficio. Essi sono il paradigma dell’amoralità, e quindi sembra che in ogni generazione vi sia l’intervento di Dio e la lotta per estromettere questa vita senza guida morale. Ci viene ricordato che in ogni tempo dovremmo cancellare la memoria di Amalek, ricordandoci sempre di combattere l’abitudine all’egoismo, al non prendersi cura dei deboli o dei vulnerabili. Nonostante questa avidità e disprezzo per gli altri siano esplicitati negli Amalekiti, la realtà è che tutti portiamo dentro di noi questa tendenza. Uno dei miei insegnanti era solito dire: “è cosa buona essere spaventati da ciò che Dio potrebbe pensare, ma la maggior parte di noi è più preoccupata da ciò che gli altri potrebbero pensare se sapessero ciò che facciamo: se solo ci importasse nella stessa misura di cosa Dio pensa di ciò che facciamo così come ci importa di quanto ne pensano gli altri, il mondo sarebbe un posto migliore!”

Yirat Adonai, il timore di Dio, a volte viene tradotto come “riverenza” o “soggezione”, ma mi piace abbastanza l’idea che si dovrebbe essere Timorati di Dio. Joseph Soloveitchik scrisse che viviamo le nostre vite con ogni tipo di paura: realistiche e irrazionali. Paura della vecchiaia, o del dolore o  della malattia; della morte, della solitudine, della povertà o  di essere in qualche modo “smascherati”. Disse che la paura è qualcosa che ci confonde e ci limita: non sappiamo mai di cosa avere legittimamente paura e cosa invece sia una paura inutile.

“La paura sembra essere un malessere universale … Che tipo di paura può sopraffarci, estirpando così tutti gli altri tipi di paure: paura del fallimento … del rifiuto … o della malattia? Solo la paura dell’Eterno Dio! … [Durante le Festività Solenni] Preghiamo affinché questa grande paura ci liberi da tutte le paure minori che si nascondono ovunque, sconvolgendo e amareggiando le nostre vite”.

L’Adon Olam ha un verso basato sul salmo 118: “Adonai Li, lo ira – Dio è con me, non avrò paura”. È uno dei miei versi preferiti. Nel salmo, la seconda metà del verso chiede “ma ya’aseh li Adam – cosa possono farmi gli esseri umani?” È la stessa visione di Yirat Adonai che troviamo in Soloveitchik: perché se abbiamo una base sicura e certa di Yirat Adonai, della paura di Dio, allora tutte le più piccole paure “mortali” svaniscono.

Anche il Talmud vede Yirat Adonai come parte necessaria della nostra relazione con Dio e del nostro sviluppo come esseri umani, per diventare il meglio che possiamo essere. Nel trattato 31b leggiamo:

            “Rabbah bar Rav Huna ha detto: ‘Qualsiasi persona che abbia [padroneggiato] gli insegnamenti della Torà ma manchi di Yirat shamayim (riverenza verso il cielo o Dio) è come un tesoriere a cui siano state date le chiavi delle camere interne, ma a cui non siano state date le chiavi delle camere esterne. Come può [il tesoriere] entrare [nella camera interna]?’”

In altre parole, Yirat shamayim è la condizione necessaria per comprendere veramente di cosa tratti la Torà. Senza di essa, tutto il nostro apprendimento, tutti i nostri traguardi mondani sono inutili. Potremmo conoscere i testi, le conclusioni legali tratte da essi, ma senza l’elemento di relazione con Dio che si gioca nel nostro rapporto con la creazione di Dio, rimangono fredde abilità accademiche: abbiamo perso il punto del perché impariamo la Torà.

Le festività autunnali di Rosh Hashanà e Yom Kippur in ebraico sono chiamate Yamim Noraim e  Noraim ha la stessa radice di Yira: paura o timore reverenziale. Durante l’amidà abbiamo le “uv’chen”,  inserti che chiedono a Dio di inviare Pachad, Eima e Yerucha sulla Creazione, tutte parole utilizzate a significare paura/timore o riverenza. Queste erano le preghiere cui faceva riferimento Soloveitchik: una volta che capiamo di chi avere timore reverenziale, non c’è bisogno di legarci in inutili preoccupazioni per le altre persone. Yirat Adonai ci libera facendoci percepire ciò che è vero da ciò che è semplicemente una nostra idea artefatta del mondo. Ci consente quindi di riorientare noi stessi e, se necessario, di cambiare il modo in cui viviamo la nostra vita, liberi dalle pressioni che potrebbero altrimenti distorcere la nostra autenticità e integrità.

Quindi, qual è il legame con il Libro di Esther e la storia di Purim?

Oltre al fatto che ci viene detto che Haman è discendente di Agag, e quindi discende dagli Amalekiti, vediamo anche come egli si comporti in modo straordinariamente e profondamente amorale. Dal momento in cui si arrabbia per il fatto che Mardocheo non si è inchinato a lui, sembra reagire in modo esagerato, se pensa solo di vendicare il proprio orgoglio ferito. In effetti, l’intero libro è basato su varie modalità di vendetta, e la motivazione del vendicarsi sugli altri è forse quanto più lontano ci sia dall’umanità che vogliamo essere, un comportamento che è diametralmente opposto a Yirat Adonai.

Il Libro di Ester è famoso anche per la mancanza sia del nome di Dio che della presenza di Dio: per ricordarci che senza alcun senso del Dio di Yirat Adonai siamo vulnerabili alle forze che ci circondano, forze che non hanno una guida morale che mitighi o ammorbidisca le loro azioni. È il libro paradigmatico della Diaspora: l’esperienza ebraica di essere nella migliore delle ipotesi ospite e nel peggiore dei casi estraneo nella terra di qualcun altro; E, come nell’esperienza storica della Diaspora, si deve essere sempre consci di procedere con cautela per non sconvolgere o provocare il paese ospitante, senza mai sapere quando un’esistenza confortevole possa improvvisamente diventare precaria, poiché i capricci dei poteri governativi si spostano in modo imprevedibile.

Ma, probabilmente, la connessione più dolorosa tra la Megillat Esther e il comando di ricordare e quindi cancellare gli Amalekiti, è la violenza che vibra attraverso l’intera narrazione, culminante nella rivolta ebraica contro coloro che vorrebbero distruggerli.

Sicuramente qui c’è molto di più che una messa in finzione delle paure di una vulnerabile comunità della diaspora, per quanto da vicino queste paure seguano una terribile realtà storica. C’è qualcosa nella reazione eccessiva di Haman verso Mardocheo, nel desiderio di distruggere un intero popolo a causa delle azioni di un solo uomo, che necessita di un esame più attento:

Sappiamo che gli Amalekiti discendono da Esaù: la Bibbia ci dice “Timna concubina di Elifaz (figlio di Esaù) gli partorì Amalek” (Gen 36:12). Il Talmud dà ulteriori dettagli:

            Timna era una principessa reale. Desiderando diventare proselita, andò da Abramo, Isacco e Giacobbe, ma essi non la accettarono. Così andò e divenne una concubina di Elifaz, figlio di Esaù,         dicendo: “Preferirei essere una servitrice di questo popolo piuttosto che una nobile nell’altra nazione”. Da lei discese Amalek che afflisse Israele. Perchè ciò? Perché non avrebbero dovuto respingerla. (Sinedrio 99b)

Quindi l’inimicizia tra Israele e Amalek è radicata nel lontano passato, due volte gli Amalekiti vennero trattati male: quando a Esaù fu tolto con l’inganno il diritto di nascita da suo fratello minore Giacobbe, e quando sua nuora fu respinta per la conversione.

Questo potrebbe spiegare perché essi, danneggiati, attaccarono gli israeliti poco dopo l’esodo dall’Egitto. Vendicano l’errore storico.

Ulteriori letture ci restituiscono poi la storia del re Saul, che adempì il comandamento di cancellare gli Amalekiti a causa di ciò che fecero dopo l’esodo, e solo il re Agag sopravvisse al massacro. (1 Samuele 15)

Saul apparteneva alla tribù di Beniamino. Anche Mardocheo apparteneva alla tribù di Beniamino. Haman si stava vendicando non solo per l’orgoglio ferito, ma perché vendicava il massacro della sua tribù da parte degli antenati tribali di Mardocheo?

Ci sono un certo numero di dispositivi letterari che legano le varie storie degli Amalekiti e degli Israeliti al Libro di Esther. (Ad esempio, le stesse parole sono usate nel grido amaro del tradito Esaù, e in quello di Mardocheo quando apprende del complotto per uccidere tutti gli ebrei: “Vayitz ‘ak tz’ akah g ‘dola u’marà” E pianse un grande e amaro grido!) È quasi come se il dolore generazionale sia stato programmato nel DNA stesso dei protagonisti.

Quindi, quando vediamo la terribile violenza che si ripete nel Libro di Esther, quando consideriamo cosa significhi ricordare Amalek in modo da cancellarlo, constatiamo che anche noi facciamo parte della catena che risale alla terribile rivalità tra fratelli del Libro della Genesi. Non è mai veramente risolta: Giuseppe e i suoi fratelli trovano un modo per costruire una relazione civile, a malapena una risoluzione piena e autentica.

Il Libro di Esther è un benefico sollecito: non solo siamo vulnerabili al continuo odio di coloro che scelgono di non “temere Dio”, ma siamo anche vulnerabili alla messa in atto della violenza nella nostra stessa generazione. È una catena di scenari “attaccare o essere attaccati”, di vendicarci a nostra volta nello scorrere delle generazioni, senza mai una fine all’orizzonte. E la fine del libro, con gli ebrei che uccidono oltre settantacinquemila di coloro che li odiavano e desideravano ucciderli, non è tanto una vittoria quanto una tragedia.

Forse dovremmo cancellare la memoria di Amalek non partecipando più alla violenza occhio per occhio, e dimostrare il nostro Yirat Adonai non prolungando più questo odio. Dopo tutto, Mosè afferma che la guerra contro Amalek è condotta da Dio, non necessariamente da noi.

Come possiamo fermare i cicli di violenza nel nostro mondo? Il libro di Ester fornisce un modo: mettendola in scena e trasportandola nel regno del costume e del carnevale. In questo modo possiamo soddisfare i requisiti del ricordare senza portare la violenza nel mondo reale.     Ricordare il nostro dolore ancestrale senza causare danni agli altri sarebbe davvero recitare con Yirat Adonai

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

 

 

 

 

Chukkat – how fear can curdle the humanity of societies; or: we won’t forget the heartless Edomites and our heartlessness won’t be forgotten either

It is Refugee Week, the week that takes place across the world around World Refugee Day on 20th June. And while we are horrified by the stories coming from the Mediterranean, with the Aquarius and her sister ships picking up frantic and vulnerable refugees floating on leaky and overcrowded boats in their attempts to seek safety and then desperately looking for a country who will offer them refuge, while we are shocked and appalled by the photos coming from the USA of traumatised and desperate children who have been separated from their parents and caged up in warehouses, while we watch people become dehumanised on our screens or in our newspapers, the bible quietly and insistently sends us a message. Tucked into the more dramatic events in parashat Chukkat come these seven verses:  And Moses sent messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom: ‘Thus says your brother Israel: You know all the travail that has befallen us; how our ancestors went down into Egypt, and we dwelt in Egypt a long time; and the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and our ancestors; and when we cried to the Eternal, God heard our voice, and sent an angel, and brought us forth out of Egypt; and, behold, we are in Kadesh, a city in the uttermost of your border. Let us pass, I pray you, through your land; we will not pass through field or through vineyard, neither will we drink of the water of the wells; we will go along the king’s highway, we will not turn aside to the right hand nor to the left, until we have passed your border.’  And Edom said to him: ‘You shalt not pass through me, lest I come out with the sword against you.’ And the children of Israel said to him: ‘We will go up by the highway; and if we drink of thy water, I and my cattle, then will I give the price thereof; let me only pass through on my feet; there is no hurt.’ And he said: ‘You shalt not pass through.’ And Edom came out against him with much people, and with a strong hand. Thus Edom refused to give Israel passage through his border; wherefore Israel turned away from him (Numbers 20:14-21

A frightened people want to pass near the borders of Edom on their way from misery and torment in one country as they journey to find safety. And they are refused. They try to be diplomatic, they offer to pay for any damage or any resource used, they are desperate to come through this land to get to safety, but not only does Edom refuse to let them do so, they come out with an army to prevent them from coming anywhere near.

What are Edom so afraid of? Why do they chase this group away in such a hostile manner? In what way does it benefit them? In what way might they honestly be threatened?

Edom is understood to be the city of Esau – a close relative, the brother of Jacob. But there is no warmth to be found in this story. The people move to Mt Hor and back towards the sea of reeds, in order to travel around Edom but quickly find themselves in the same position with Sihon, the king of the Amorites.  The story is retold in Deuteronomy, when nearly forty years after the first attempt God reminds the people not to provoke Edom, who have been given this land by God, and this time they are allowed to go through.  But should we expect today’s refugees to wait for nearly forty years to find some peace, put down some roots, get on with their lives?

In today’s world we find that we are living in one of the largest forced displacement crises ever recorded. Over 65 million people are on the move, force to flee their homes and look for safety elsewhere.   Last year, 362,376 people arrived in Europe via sea. Just under half were women and children. About a million people from outside Europe claimed refugee status in the twelve months just gone.. But contrary to the narratives so many media offer, most refugees are actually taken in and cared for by poorer countries than those of Europe. The UN’s Refugee Agency estimates that nearly nine in ten of the world’s refugees are sheltered by developing countries. Take a moment for that to sink in.  Ninety percent of the world’s refugees are taken care of by countries that can themselves barely afford to do so. And yet they do. And meanwhile the richer countries act like the Edomites and refuse even the polite and diplomatic requests to travel through, the offer to pay for resources, to desperate need to be safe – preferring to show force and to send the refugees away to try to find another way to safety

The name Edom is used as rabbinic code for Rome. Rome, the powerful and wealthy head of the huge and spreading Empire which did not care for the vulnerable or the stranger but only for its own status and power. Our tradition speaks of Edom with disdain, it is the model of behaviour that is unacceptable, it is the model we do not wish to be like. Bible reminds us repeatedly to care for the stranger, the vulnerable in society, the ones who have fallen to the bottom of the societal pile.  And yet here we are, watching an American administration quote biblical verses as ‘proof’ of the right to separate children from their parents and lock them up without comfort or care. The Independent Newspaper has reported that up to 2,000 children migrant children have been separated from their families in just six weeks in the USA. We are watching an Italian government minister try to take a census of the Roma community, in order to expel those who do not have Italian citizenship. We know that here in the UK there is still indefinite detention for people whose paperwork is not completely full and in order, we see a terrible rise in xenophobia and people being attacked in public spaces for being foreign. We have a Home Office who is proud of operating a “hostile environment”, and a Prime Minister who was the architect of the policy and remains proud of it, even as we see the how the Windrush Generation were treated with disdain and with no respect, as we hear the stories of families split apart, of people’s live shattered at the whim of some ill though out and  bureaucratic policy. As we mark refugee week, as we read Chukkat with its focus on death and purity, with its narratives of the deaths of both Miriam and Aaron, with its record of the actions of Edom to the vulnerable migrants known as the children of Israel, we weep.

If we had to write a history of the world right now, if we had to write of the 65 million people fleeing violence or war in their own homes, of the talk of locking up people and indefinite detention for those without the right papers, if we had to record the stories of the people picked up on the Mediterranean Sea, in fear of drowning but prepared to take the risk as being less awful than staying put, if we had to record the fear of travelling communities, of people who have been uprooted from their homes – what would the people reading our history say? How would they look on an administration quoting Bible to justify their abuses of power to the most vulnerable? How would they look at a Europe which takes a tiny percentage of the mass of rootless and fearful people, and which squabbles over who is taking enough of the “burden”?

In Chukkat we read of the red heifer, the ashes of which will purify the impure and make impure the pure. It is a chok, a law without reason, done only on the grounds of faith. In refugee week 2018 as we read the parasha we see that there is no reason, only the belief that we must keep people out at all costs – even at the cost of their lives, as we increase the impurity in our world by denying the most vulnerable their dignity.

The antidote to causeless hatred is causeless love. We are a long way from it right now, but we can hope that the outrage will finally be enough to make the necessary changes, that the political will to care for people because they are people will be found, that refugees may soon find places to call home.

Parashat Chukkat reminds us that the world is a scary place, that resources are finite and that death will come to us all. But it reminds us too of the dignity of refugees, of the humanity of the people travelling to find safety, of their connection to us, and that history will record and we will be judged. May that be enough to bring change and rest for those who so sorely need it.

 

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Vayishlach – Dina,objectified and silent, a pawn in the game of male power

The only daughter of Jacob who is recorded in bible is Dina, the daughter of Leah. Born after her mother has given birth to six sons, she is named by her mother as her brothers were, but unlike their naming no meaning is ascribed to the name so given. (Gen 30:21)

We know nothing of her until her father Jacob had taken his family and wealth and left Haran, had had his name changed to Israel at the ford of Jabok,  had encountered and made his peace with Esau his brother, and then settled down, first in Succot and then in the city of Shechem in the land of Canaan, buying land in which to spread his tent and erecting an altar he called “El-elohei-yisrael” (Gen 33:17-20)

And then her presence is made known to us, with a narrative that seems quite separate from all that has happened before.  The story is a difficult one. It begins with the sentence that Dina, daughter of Leah whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to see the daughters of the land.

וַתֵּצֵ֤א דִינָה֙ בַּת־לֵאָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר יָֽלְדָ֖ה לְיַֽעֲקֹ֑ב לִרְא֖וֹת בִּבְנ֥וֹת הָאָֽרֶץ:

And it ends with the voices of her brothers Shimon and Levi asking “should one treat our sister as a prostitute?”    הַֽכְזוֹנָ֕ה יַֽעֲשֶׂ֖ה אֶת־אֲחוֹתֵֽנוּ:

But what happens between these two sentences?  And is this a story about Dina, or is it really a story about the men in the family?

Dina goes out to meet the local women.  We can only guess why she does this and what is in her mind, for she does not ever speak to us in the text nor does the narrative give us an explanation or any insight into her thinking. Her father has settled in the land, he has done business with the local chieftain Hamor, father of Shechem.  They are at peace. So why would a girl with twelve brothers and no sisters that we know of not want to go out to meet the local girls, and why should anyone think she should not have done so, or that she  should even have been prevented from doing so?  Yet after that moment, the story is all about the status of the men.

Shechem, the pampered prince of the area sees her and so the story really begins. For instead of her “seeing” the local girls she herself is seen. He takes her and he lies with her and “va’y’anei’ha”. And his soul cleaves to Dina daughter of Jacob and he loves the girl and he speaks to her heart.

וַיַּ֨רְא אֹתָ֜הּ שְׁכֶ֧ם בֶּן־חֲמ֛וֹר הַֽחִוִּ֖י נְשִׂ֣יא הָאָ֑רֶץ וַיִּקַּ֥ח אֹתָ֛הּ וַיִּשְׁכַּ֥ב אֹתָ֖הּ וַיְעַנֶּֽהָ:  וַתִּדְבַּ֣ק נַפְשׁ֔וֹ בְּדִינָ֖ה בַּת־יַֽעֲקֹ֑ב וַֽיֶּֽאֱהַב֙ אֶת־הַֽנַּֽעֲרָ֔ וַיְדַבֵּ֖ר עַל־לֵ֥ב הַֽנַּֽעֲרָֽ:

Dina is now not described as Leah’s daughter but as Jacob’s. The verbs are to do with sexual intercourse, but there is nothing in the text to say that this is not consensual sex. The problem is really in the process or rather the lack of process. The young prince’s soul cleaves to her, he loves her, he speaks to her heart – but he has had sex with her without first dealing with her family, and this is the meaning of the verb “va’y’anei’ha” here. Ayin Nun Hei  is a root with a number of meanings – to answer, to afflict, to humble, to test, to answer. In this sentence we are clear that by his act he has lowered her status in the eyes of those who prize virginity.  Her bride price will be affected; she is worth less on the marriage market than she was earlier that morning.

It is worth looking at who else is the object of this verb in biblical narrative. Hagar is treated by Sarah in this way, treated in a way that made her feel worthless, and she runs away. (Genesis 16:6)

God treats Israel with this verb (Deut 8:2) keeping them forty years in the wilderness in order to test them, to ensure that they would follow God’s commandments.

In Leviticus we are told to do this to our souls on Yom Kippur – often described as afflicting our souls from which the rabbinic tradition infers that we should fast on that day – it is a day of self-humbling, of recognising that our power and our status are fleeting and that we are dependent on God’s will for our lives.

Tamar uses the word before her brother Ammon rapes her (2Sam 13) but a close reading shows that she is referring  to the shame she will endure, and not to the act which is denoted with the verb h.z.k ‘to seize or overpower’ and which is not used in the narrative around Dina.

The fact that Shechem loves her, speaks kindly to her, wants to marry her – all of this militates against their encounter being a forcible rape. But we don’t know what Dina really thinks – her voice is not recorded nor any action either – she is the object of a story that speaks not about her and her wishes but about the status of the family of Jacob.

The response of her brothers and the anger they show do not bespeak either love or concern for their sister. They are concerned only that she has been made lesser in some way, presumably in terms of her social status and her financial worth. And this will reflect upon them. We only have to think about the wrongly named ‘honour killings’ reported too frequently in our newspapers, which are never about the honour of the woman and only ever about the perceived status of the family to which the woman belonged.

Jacob is silent in the face of all of this, but his sons are not. When the family of Shechem come to organise a marriage they first come to Jacob while the sons are in the fields. He speaks of no anger, he simply waits for the boys to come home. But they are furious – the sexual act between Shechem and Dina is unacceptable to them  “v’chein lo ya’a’seh” This should not be done.

Hamor doesn’t seem to realise how angry the men are, how transgressive the act has been in their eyes. Instead he speaks again of Shechem’s feelings for Dina, asks for her hand in marriage, suggests that the two groups become allies and intermarry their children.  He offers a peaceful future, trading possibilities, living together in the land.  Then Shechem himself speaks – was he there all along? – and he proclaims that whatever they ask as a bride price he is willing to pay. He wants to build a good relationship with them, he wants to marry Dina.

The sons of Jacob answer Hamor and Shechem with slyness – in their eyes their sister has been defiled (t’mei), and the defiler is Shechem. They tell Hamor and Shechem that they cannot marry their sister to an uncircumcised man, so the condition is that every man should be circumcised, and if that is not acceptable they will go away from the land, and take Dina with them. But should they agree, then indeed they will intermarry  and become one people with the family of Shechem.

Shechem and Hamor go back and relay the information to their people. They speak of the peaceable nature of the children of Israel; they say the land is large enough for both groups to be there, they speak of the trade that will ensue between them, and of the marriages that will take place between the two groups.

There is only one jarring note in the text, when Hamor says “Shall not their cattle and their substance and all their beasts be ours?  ”This does not fit with the rest of the narrative which speaks of co-existence and of peacefulness.  There doesn’t seem to be a need for Hamor to increase his wealth by taking on that of the Israelites so what is the sentence doing in the text? It points up that marriage between tribes is always about property and money, they are alliances rather than being about romantic love. And it reads almost as an attempt to justify the actions that will happen shortly – that on the third day after the mass circumcision when the men were in pain, that Shimon and Levi came and slaughtered all of them, including Hamor and Shechem, and took Dina out of their house and, rather poignantly, the text says “va’yetzei’u”, echoing Dina’s original action of ‘tetzei’

They despoiled the city, took captives and all the wealth and the animals belonging to the people, and their father’s only response is to tell them that their actions have made Jacob’s continued position in the land dangerous. Their response ends the story – “should one treat our sister like a prostitute?”

This is a story not about a woman but about male power and identity expressed through their genitalia and the act of sex. It begins just after Jacob has been injured in the groin area by the angel, then comes the sexual act by Shechem who ‘takes’ Dina, then comes the mass circumcision ordered by Jacob’s sons, when the power of the people of Hamor and Shechem is at its lowest, this is followed by the death of Rachel in childbirth, and ends with the story of Reuven sleeping with his father’s concubine Bilha.

The story is sandwiched between the two accounts of Jacob changing his name to Israel – there seems to be some transitional process in which the maleness of the protagonists is both used and also tamed.  The centrality of the male organ can’t be ignored. Milah, the act of circumcision is used both for the male organ, for fruit bearing trees, and for the heart/mind. In bible the act of milah is often followed by increased fertility or life – Abraham only has Isaac after his circumcision for example – an uncircumcised heart does not cleave to God;  and it also curtails unbridled power.

The story of Dina seems to be a pretext on which to hang an ancient and powerful belief that has nothing to do with a young woman and everything to do with establishing and embedding a patriarchy.  Sadly this direction has been continued in midrashic rabbinic teachings – which say everything from blaming her for leaving the house at all, to suggesting she liked to be looked at, had dressed provocatively, had brought the whole thing upon herself. From this quickly comes a whole raft of halachic responsa curtailing the activities and the physicality of women. It seems to be one of the biggest ironies that a sidra dealing with both the fear of male power as symbolised in the male organ and the need to tame and curtail such power has in the midrash and general understanding of the story become one in which the woman is blamed and victimised. Poor Dina. We never find out what happened to her after this, though Midrash marries her to Job, and also suggests that a child born of her encounter with Shechem later marries Joseph in Egypt. The concern once again of the different stories in midrashic imaginings is to rehabilitate her of her ‘sin’ and to bring her descendants back into the chain of tradition. Poor Dina, judged and punished and brought back into the family without ever once having her own voice heard.

 

image Gerard Hoet Shimon and Levy slaying the men of Shechem

Vayetzei: Rachel and Leah show us a thing or too, but we have to look closely to notice

This sidra is rich in narrative tales. Fleeing from the anger of Esau at the theft of his blessing,  Jacob goes to Haran. On the way he dreams of a ladder reaching up to heaven, with angels ascending and descending it. God appears to him and promises him protection, children, and the land on which he is lying. Jacob vows that if God fulfils the promise, God will be his God.

Falling in love with his cousin Rachel, daughter of his mother’s brother Laban he offers to work for seven years in order to marry her, but Laban has two daughters and he switches the bride so that Jacob unknowingly marries Leah.  Told that the older has precedence over the younger  Jacob agrees he will marry Rachel a week later, and work another seven years for her.

Leah bears Jacob four sons, but Rachel does not conceive and so gives her maidservant Bilhah as a concubine. Bilhah conceives two sons then Leah gives Jacob her maidservant Zilpah who also has two sons. Leah bears three more children, two sons and a daughter (Dina).  Rachel finally conceives and has a son, Joseph.

Wishing to return home Jacob agrees with Laban that he will be to build a flock for himself from the herds of Laban as recompense for his twenty years of service, and uses selective breeding in order to build a huge herd. Then, while Laban is away, they flee towards Canaan. But before leaving Rachel quietly steals the household idols. . Laban pursues them but is warned in a dream not to take revenge. A search for the idols proves fruitless as Rachel hides them and claims ritual uncleanness. Jacob promises Laban that whoever took the idols will die. Jacob and Laban make a peace agreement between themselves.

Jacob left Canaan a tricksy but vulnerable young man, exiled to the homeland of his mother for his own safety. By the end of the sidra he is still pretty tricksy and still somewhat vulnerable, but he is also wealthy and the patriarch of a large family of his own.

He leaves Haran, not because his mother has finally sent for him as she promised all those years ago, but because he is increasingly aware of the fragility of his situation.  Married to the two daughters of his uncle Laban and father to eleven sons and at least one daughter, one might think that he has deep roots in the area, but no – he is the object of suspicion and mistrust. He overhears the sons of Laban saying: ‘Jacob has taken away all that was our father’s; and of that which was our father’s has he gotten all this wealth.’  Laban too no longer responds to him as he had before. So God tells him: “Return to the land of your forbears, and to your birthplace; and I will be with you.’

What Jacob does then is very interesting – he calls both sisters out to the fields where his flocks of animals are (calling Rachel before Leah) and he seems to justify to them what he wants to do. He tells them that Laban has changed towards him, but that he has always been a good servant to their father even though Laban had mocked him and continually altered the wages due to him. But God had been steadfastly with Jacob and had organised that whatever Laban had agreed with Jacob in payment had surprisingly turned out in Jacob’s favour so that Jacob had been able to build up a large herd of animals from Laban’s flock. He goes so far as to say that God had ‘redeemed’ the animals and given them to Jacob. (31:9) and that an angel had drawn his attention to the vow at Beit El, and how God had been true to this vow, and that now it was time to go home to the land of his birth.

The sisters appear to believe both in the covenant made with God, and that it was God who had given their husband the great wealth he had amassed.

They  answer together (the verb is singular indicating the unity of the response)  and this reply is revealing.

“And Rachel and Leah answered and said to him: ‘Is there yet any portion or inheritance for us in our father’s house? Are we not accounted by him as strangers? For he has sold us, and has also quite devoured our price. For all the riches which God has taken away from our father, that is ours and our children’s. Now then, whatsoever God has said to you, do.’

וַתַּ֤עַן רָחֵל֙ וְלֵאָ֔ה וַתֹּאמַ֖רְנָה ל֑וֹ הַע֥וֹד לָ֛נוּ חֵ֥לֶק וְנַֽחֲלָ֖ה בְּבֵ֥ית אָבִֽינוּ:  הֲל֧וֹא נָכְרִיּ֛וֹת נֶחְשַׁ֥בְנוּ ל֖וֹ כִּ֣י מְכָרָ֑נוּ וַיֹּ֥אכַל גַּם־אָכ֖וֹל אֶת־כַּסְפֵּֽנוּ: כִּ֣י כָל־הָעֹ֗שֶׁר אֲשֶׁ֨ר הִצִּ֤יל אֱלֹהִים֙ מֵֽאָבִ֔ינוּ לָ֥נוּ ה֖וּא וּלְבָנֵ֑ינוּ וְעַתָּ֗ה כֹּל֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר אָמַ֧ר אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֵלֶ֖יךָ עֲשֵֽׂה:

The sons of Laban had clearly been disgruntled that Jacob was managing to breed a wonderful flock for himself from their father’s animals, his payment for the years of work, although this had not been negotiated in advance – indeed Jacob had originally offered to work in order to marry Rachel.

But the daughters of Laban also had a view about the transaction between their father and their husband. They had been hoping for some inheritance it seems, some part of their father’s wealth; but it has become clear that this was a vain hope, there would be no wealth coming their way. It is not entirely clear whether this is because Laban has been impoverished by the actions of Jacob or whether they had finally understood the way their father used his money to take power, promising but never delivering, changing the terms of the deal on a whim – that while they might continue to hope for it their father would simply not give them anything.

And worse than this, Laban has not behaved properly in the matter of their marriage – they would have expected there to be a dowry for each of them, monies that should be spent on them. While it is true that Jacob came without much wealth, but he worked an unusual and substantial number of years for each woman, earning Laban serious income. That wealth was not put aside for the use of the women; instead Laban had consumed it immediately, leaving nothing for the daughters. He has treated them as possessions and not as family and the women are not happy. They throw in their lot with Jacob and with his God, understanding that God has rebalanced the wealth, taking what should anyway have been theirs from their father and giving it to them and to their children.

Their final phrase: “v’ata, kol asher amar Elohim elecha, aseh” is redolent. It is a foretaste of Sinai when the people say , kol asher dibber Adonai na’aseh (Exodus 19:8) – All that God tells us we shall do.” It echoes the narrative that reminds us that Moses followed the instructions of his father in law Yitro just before Sinai (Exodus 18:24) when we are told that “va’ya’as kol asher amar” – Moses listened to the words of his father in law and did everything that he had said”. It echoes too the instruction to Abraham anxious that he has been told to get rid of Hagar and Ishmael, when God says to him “All that Sarah says to you, obey her voice : kol asher tomar elecha Sarah, shma b’kolah”

Rachel and Leah are not only giving permission, they are giving instructions – “whatever God tells you to do, then you must do it”. It is quite a different relationship than Jacob had had before with God, when he had woken from his dream aware of the presence of God, yet still with enough bravado to hold God to account – “IF you do everything you say and IF you bring me back safely, THEN you can be my God”.

Rachel and Leah are serious protagonists in Jacob’s leaving Haran and returning to Canaan. They are not simply ‘the household’ – indeed they are resisting staying in a place where they are in danger of having to be subservient to their father.

Jacob collects his household and his wealth, puts his wives and sons on camels, and taking advantage of Laban’s absence he sets off for his homeland. But the real action that follows is that of Rachel – she takes the teraphim, the household Gods that we are specifically told were her father’s.

Did she take them for spite? Did she take them because she believed in them? Did she take them because she feared being homesick, or in order to prevent Laban from invoking those gods against her husband and family? Did she take them as a symbol of the inheritance she knew she was not going to receive?  This last question interests me most, for the possession of the teraphim seems to have indicated that the owner would then also possess the power and benefits of the first born in terms of property inheritance. (see Nuzi Tablet Gadd 51 pub 1926 CJ Gadd)

Just as Jacob had stolen the birth right of his first-born brother Esau, Rachel symbolically steals the birth right of her brothers. She is no passive figure here but is looking out for the rights of her children and grandchildren into the future.  She hides the teraphim successfully, taking control of her destiny, and Laban is unable to find them. It is her moment of triumph, safeguarding the future, until she is undermined unwittingly by her husband Jacob. For sadly the tale ends badly, she will die giving birth to her second son Benjamin as in protesting his own innocence Jacob has unwittingly brought a curse down upon her.

When first we read the sidra of Vayetzei we see the powerful chemistry between Rachel and Jacob, we see the terrible pain of Leah who wants her husband to love her and who each time is rejected, we see the usage of the two women concubines Bilhah and Zilpah. It takes a while to look beneath that first appearance of women as objects  and see the subversion and the taking control that is going on.

Rachel hides the teraphim under the saddle of the camel and says to her father “Let not my lord be angry that I cannot rise up before you; for the manner of women is upon me.’ And he searched, but he did not find the teraphim.”

Ki lo uchal lakum mipanecha, ki derech nashim li, vay’hapess v’lo matza et hateraphim

כִּ֣י ל֤וֹא אוּכַל֙ לָק֣וּם מִפָּנֶ֔יךָ כִּי־דֶ֥רֶךְ נָשִׁ֖ים לִ֑י וַיְחַפֵּ֕שׂ וְלֹ֥א מָצָ֖א

אֶת־הַתְּרָפִֽים:

She says to him that she is not able to rise up before him. This can be read two ways – that she cannot get up because she has her period (though why that should stop her getting up is unclear), or that she is unable to rise before him for another reason – and the one she gives is that she has her period. But could it be that she does not want to pay him the honour of rising before him – she is simply unable to offer him such respect now she has seen him for what he is and has rejected him?

He searches, but he does not find the teraphim. Hers is the last place they could be hidden, everywhere else has already been searched. She is unable to show him any respect, he in turn does not find either the teraphim or the reason she does not want to show him any regard. He is blind to any symbolism or deeper meaning, and the control – and the teraphim – remain in Rachel’s hands.

I heard someone recently describe the actions of the women in Genesis as manipulative, devious and unscrupulous. This in response to studying the actions of Jacob’s mother Rebecca, who organised for him to get the blessing by use of clothing and cooking.  The women in bible are indeed active in getting the narrative moving, they sometimes cause it to take an unusual path, they sometimes second guess God, they sometimes even nudge God into long delayed action. But this is not devious or unscrupulous or any negative connotation – the women in bible are active, creative, powerful and thoughtful. They hear the voice of God and they see the hand of God. That the text records their actions, albeit with the spotlight frequently turned away, is important. And it is important that in this generation we return the spotlight to those players who are not always seen on the stage, for they are our models and our matriarchs and they deserve our attention.

 

 

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

Parashat Vayishlach: a bite or a kiss? a messenger or an apology?

In parashat vayishlach we see the moment where Jacob the trickster, the one focussed only on himself and his own needs and aspirations, is able to change. He is on his journey home, a wealthy and powerful man. However he must first encounter his estranged brother Esau whom he had dispossessed from his birthright and from whose terrible pain and murderous anger he had fled all those years ago.

In preparation for the encounter he sent out messengers in order to both impress Esau with his power and wealth, and in order to try to find out what was likely to be ahead of him. The messengers’ report on their return distressed him – they had met Esau on his way to meet Jacob, accompanied by four hundred men. His response – to try to save what he could of his family and possessions by dividing them into two groups, and then he prayed for help, invoking the merit of his ancestors and the promises God had made to him regarding his descendants. Following this, he began selecting groups of animals that he could send ahead as gifts to Esau, in order to appease him before their meeting. Then he says a particularly curious sentence, given what is about to happen:

וְאַֽחֲרֵי־כֵן֙ אֶרְאֶ֣ה פָנָ֔יו אוּלַ֖י יִשָּׂ֥א פָנָֽי”

And after this, I will see his face, perhaps he will raise my face/accept me”

Having taken his family, divided into two camps, across the ford of Jabok and over the stream, Jacob was left alone, yet in the same sentence that tells us  וַיִּוָּתֵ֥ר יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב לְבַדּ֑וֹ that he had been left behind and was completely and utterly alone, we are also told

     וַיֵּֽאָבֵ֥ק אִישׁ֙ עִמּ֔וֹ עַ֖ד עֲל֥וֹת הַשָּֽׁחַר:

And a man wrestled with him until the morning dawned.

He was alone, but he was not alone. He was in the dark of the night. He was wrestling. His struggles through the dark night of his soul changes him forever. He is in liminal transitional time after which he will be transformed and given a new name – though not so transformed that he would lose his old name forever….

Who is Jacob wrestling? The narrator of the text tells us it is “ish- a man.”

The wrestler himself is more complex telling Jacob that he has struggled with God and with men and has prevailed:

כִּֽי־שָׂרִ֧יתָ עִם־אֱלֹהִ֛ים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁ֖ים וַתּוּכָֽל:

Later in the text Jacob seems to believe the fight was with God, as he names the place Peniel, the face of God:

וַיִּקְרָ֧א יַֽעֲקֹ֛ב שֵׁ֥ם הַמָּק֖וֹם פְּנִיאֵ֑ל כִּֽי־רָאִ֤יתִי אֱלֹהִים֙ פָּנִ֣ים אֶל־פָּנִ֔ים וַתִּנָּצֵ֖ל נַפְשִֽׁי:

And he continues “for I have seen God face to face and my soul is preserved”

Traditional explanations are that Jacob is fighting an angel, in particular the guardian angel of Esau who is attempting to weaken Jacob before the meeting, or that ‘the’man’ was Jacob himself, struggling with himself and his own feelings and needs, with the two inclinations all humanity possess – the yetzer ha’ra and the yetzer ha’tov, the inclination to be motivated primarily for one’s own self-interest versus the inclination to be motivated for the good of the community and of others, battling it out for charge of his soul.

There is, I think, a clue to this critical and iconic night of struggle in another part of the sidra. When Jacob meets Esau we find that Esau was coming with a welcoming party not a gang of ‘heavies’, and we are told that far from there being a clash between the brothers there is instead from Esau’s side real emotion and warmth at their reconciliation. We are told that he ran to Jacob and embraced him and fell upon his neck and kissed him:

 וַיָּ֨רָץ עֵשָׂ֤ו לִקְרָאתוֹ֙ וַֽיְחַבְּקֵ֔הוּ וַיִּפֹּ֥ל עַל־צַוָּארָ֖ו [צַוָּארָ֖יו] וַיִּשָּׁקֵ֑הוּ וַיִּבְכּֽוּ:

But written in the Masoretic text over the words “and he kissed him” וַיִּשָּׁקֵ֑הוּ are dots, and these are understood in the midrash to be there to draw attention to the word and to add to its meaning. Rashi quotes midrash (Sifrei) and comments that the dots are there to show that the kiss, while it seemed whole hearted, was actually insincere. But the weight of rabbinic tradition goes even further. In Midrash Genesis Rabbah (78:9) we are told that R.Yannai plays on the word ‘vayeshakei’hu’ and by changing just one letter in the word while keeping the sound, one can translate it as Esau biting Jacob. From this midrash comes the stream of Rabbinic traducing of the biblical Esau, to develop him into an enemy of the Jewish people, eventually becoming Edom, the code for the Roman oppression.

 

I do not like this interpretation, being in fact a big fan of the biblical Esau who just couldn’t somehow get it right, but who clearly loved his parents and who wanted to be the son they wanted. However, I would suggest that what was good enough for R.Yannai is good enough for us – so let us look at another word that could be available to the midrashic technique of creating a homophone with a meaning that can alter our understanding of what is happening. ‘Vayishlach’, the name of the sidra, comes from the root שָׁלַח ‘to send’

One homophone, a letter different, is the root סָלַח ‘to pardon or to forgive’

When Jacob then is sending out messengers, maybe we could see that he is in the beginning of the process of searching out for forgiveness, something he clearly needs to do as he has achieved so much of the material possessions he has desired but has not yet matched this achievement with the facing of what he did that had brought him to Laban as a young and frightened boy, alone in the world after having betrayed his father and brother, effectively excluded from his father’s house and inheritance.

So what happens if we bring this word play back into the text? When Jacob wrestles with a man while all alone, while he recognises that the man is in some way both God and human, he is indeed wrestling with himself and his own inclinations. But what he is wrestling with is not so much his two natures but his desire for pardon and his desire not to have to ask for it, not to have to climb down from his arrogance and his power and admit his wrong doing. In Jungian terms, Jacob is fighting with his Shadow side, the darker side of his own self, the irrational and instinctive and unknown aspect of his personality where a perceived personal inferiority is recognised as a perceived moral deficiency in someone else.

 

We all know the phrase that ‘sorry seems to be the hardest word’. For some people it is so hard that they will do almost anything not to have to say it. They will pass on the blame to others, project their feelings so that they see the reconciler as the attacker, reconstruct their narratives of the past so that they will appear the blameless ones, or even the victims of others. They will blacken the name of someone else in preference to owning up to their own mistakes. They will put obstacles in the way of meeting and encountering the other, so as not to have to face up to the humanity and reality of the person whom they have wronged. They will see the ‘admission’ of an apology as something that makes them vulnerable, lose power, or lose their status and become in some way the loser. Saying sorry might mean taking some responsibility for a problem, diminish them in some way, give others the right to judge…

 

We see this everywhere, from individual human interactions to workplace politics to the way that nations in conflict will absolve themselves from the problem and blame it all on the other side. The midrash that claims that Esau bites Jacob rather than kisses him is a manifestation of it. So the idea that Jacob is wrestling in order to say ‘selicha: I am sorry, please forgive me’, is a nice counterpoint.

 

It takes him the whole night and he is physically damaged in the encounter, leaving it with a permanent limp to remind him of both the struggle and the outcome. He is also changed – he can become Israel, the one who struggles with God- while sometimes reverting to Jacob, the heel and the trickster. Saying sorry isn’t a one-time thing – we can find it hard to repeat the word, or to say it in the next situation we should be saying it having made another mistake.

 

And yet apologising when we are at fault is the beginning of redemption. It is about recognising the effect of our actions and taking responsibility for them in order to change our selves and out behaviours. It is at the root of the idea of teshuva, of return to God, of return to the right behaviour that we would want and expect from ourselves.

It is the moment we can turn from Jacob to Israel, the moment when we stop focussing on our pride in our possessions and begin focussing with empathy on others and their needs.

 

Saying sorry is the pivotal moment when we change, when we notice our negative impact and begin to heal it. It is a lifetime process, a skill we need to practise again and again, the moment when we stop being obsessed with our own power and status and rightness and look around us with empathy and compassion and try to care more about others than about ourselves.

When Jacob wrestles and the dawn breaks, he realises that his struggle has meant that his soul is preserved, the sun comes up, the dark night of the soul is over. How did he preserve his soul? He learned of the importance of recognising his own responsibility in what he had done, he said ‘selicha’ he made his peace with the part of him that didn’t want to admit to any flaw or vulnerability. He took his place in the world and limped out, damaged by the encounter but also blessed by it, into the future.

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

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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)

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both cartoons by the wonderful Jacky Fleming