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

The work of the yamim noraim – our teshuvah and the teshuvah of God

The ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur always have such a strange quality about them.  On the one hand there is the imperative for active introspection – to search, to think, to pray, to critically examine our behaviour over the past year. There is the knowledge that we should be going out of our way to make things better – and at the same time the slight embarrassment about our trying to do exactly that.  Then there is the  awareness that whatever is going on in our heads and our private worlds,  out there in the world people are continuing exactly as normal, indulging in office politics say, or scheming and manoeuvring to be the first or get the most. Salesmen still offer their inflated claims for their products, school bullies continue to rule the playground – whatever our good intentions, the world isn’t going to change because of what we Jews are doing.

We even know that – after all, what is the kol nidrei prayer except an exercise in apologetics, in effect we are saying – “dear God, we are only frail human beings, please don’t hold us to all those good intentions, those promises that we were really going to change this year.”

It is such disjointed time, during which our minds are holding such incongruous ideas, that it is a wonder we don’t simply explode with the effort required to make sense of things; that or give up. Each of us has had our own pain over the past year – whether it was the fracturing of our lives through the deaths of family or friends, illness or lost relationships or work – our worlds can change abruptly and apparently randomly and it surely makes us question the whole point of what we are doing, this uniquely Jewish process of setting aside time for spiritual catharsis and divine forgiveness.   What is the point if we can’t change much, if we can’t protect our loved ones from a seemingly capricious power, if we can’t persuade God that we deserve a measure of guardianship from suffering, if we can’t see a reward for all our hard work?  What kind of God are we returning to when we make Teshuvah? What kind of religion are we affirming as we join together and recite texts which include the apparent attempted murder of a son by a father desperate to show loyalty to God, which include the images of the book of life and the book of death, which include a graphic martyrology section.

We may be uncomfortable with the welter of different ideas all living and growing in our minds.  We may be questioning our reason for being here today, drawn by an atavistic need to be with Jews as the dread day of Yom Kippur begins.  We may be confused or angry with God, we might even be embarrassed by our presence here today, viewing it as a superstitious ritual with no real relevance to our own lives, yet here we all are, and it is our very presence together that matters – it means that we haven’t quite given up, whatever the pressures and the temptations to do so.

Ever since I was quite small I used to wonder, what does God do on Yom Kippur? I used to try to imagine for myself – ‘Is God sitting like some ancient law lord, presiding over the panelled celestial courtroom as each life is weighed in the balance?  Is God enthroned in majestic glory, watching the sad grey souls parade in front of him like sheep?  Will God really know what I am thinking, will God know all the little cheats and lies that I have been party to, and if so what will happen to me?’

It took me years to move behind some of the imagery of the machzor, to stop focussing exclusively on my own petty guilts and to dare to attempt a little dialogue.  But when I did that I began to understand something different about this day, began to forgive a little more.

What does God do on Yom Kippur?

The clue to answering this question is found in the timing of the festival, and is also reflected in the choice of our Torah reading which includes some verses which echo through and through the liturgy.  Yom Kippur is biblically given as a date, the tenth of Tishri, described as a time designated as a day for atonement, for afflicting our souls.  In Temple times it became the focus of a major priestly ritual connecting the people of Israel with their creator.  Since rabbinic times we have used it more personally as a time for reflecting with humility on our lives, upon the fractured nature of our relationship with God – broken, we begin to understand, because of our own behaviour, our own pride and refusal to engage with God.  But this practise of introspection and of trying to make good isn’t an explicitly biblical command – in fact it isn’t all that clear in the bible what Yom Kippur is really for.  Unlike the other biblical festivals it isn’t an agricultural date celebrating the safe ingathering of a harvest, nor does it commemorate an historical or even an obvious theological event.  But there is one tradition – a very early one, (Seder Olam Rabba – 2nd century),  which tells us that the tenth day of Tishri  is the date on which Moses brought down from Sinai the second set of the tablets of the law.

This then is understood to be the date when, after the Children of Israel had sinned with the Golden Calf having feared that Moses had died, and after Moses had returned and angrily thrown down and destroyed the first set of the Ten Commandments, God gave us another chance – and we gave God another chance too.

So what does God do on Yom Kippur? Just like us, God makes Teshuvah – God forgives us for the mistakes we have made, and God creates the opportunity for us to add our pardon to that of the divine creator.

God making Teshuvah – it is a strange, almost frightening concept, yet it is also a vital one if we are to maintain a relationship with God. We do not live in the cosy world of childhood which tells us that if we are good nothing bad can happen to us, that if our parents are present no evil thing can frighten us.  We live in an imperfect world, where disease and accidents can happen, where we do our best to make sense and order but still have to live with the nonsense and disorder that are part of real life.  We live in a world of imperfectly understood mechanisms, of sudden floods or terrible droughts, of bad things happening to good people, of innocent people caught up in situations not of their own making.  We live in such a world because it is an inevitable concomitant of our functioning as full human beings.  If we did not, we would still be in the Garden of Eden and God would still be protecting us by not allowing us to experience our world fully, or take decisions, or be responsible or adult.

In the tradition of the mystic literature, the analogy is made that God has withdrawn or shrunk Godself from our world to make space for us to be in it without being overwhelmed by and subsumed into the presence of God.  And with that lessening of the total presence of God there come the inevitable consequences.

But while it might be said that God is slightly apart from our world, we also know that God has given us abilities and understanding – texts which teach us how to increase the presence of God in the world through our own efforts, souls which contain the spark of God within them, the ability to communicate, to feel, to make relationships with each other, to support and comfort each other, self awareness, moral discrimination, the ability to choose how we are in the world – all these things are gifts from God, and all of them are double edged – we can choose not to use our gifts, or we can choose to distort them or be distorted by them.

We live in an imperfect world because we live in a human one, and that is painful for us as I believe it is for God.  God, having created us and having given us independence of spirit waits for us to seek God.  And at Yom Kippur as we feel the urge to somehow come back, to make Teshuvah, to understand a little of our what our lives  may be about, God too feels the need to turn to us, to help us as we go through the process of self examination, to make the journey that is too hard for us, to make Teshuvah as well.

God forgives us for the mistakes we have made in the past year, allows us the opportunity to acknowledge them, to make amends, to put them behind us. Our scripture tells us about what happened immediately after the episode of the Golden Calf. It would have been so easy for God to give up on us then, to start again with another group, to allow the pain and anger and frustration to dictate the end of the relationship, but that is not what God did.  And it is not something that we can do either.  Confused or angry,  doubtful or deeply hurt – Yom Kippur calls us back to God and demands that whatever our feelings we must engage, must enter the dialogue, must enter the presence of God and struggle with what that means.  As we begin the 25 hours of Yom Kippur, acknowledging that all of us have failed, acknowledging too that we will make mistakes again in the future, wondering what the point might therefore be, it is important for us to simply take the time to consider that the point might reside simply in our actively being here, might be found in our refusal to accept all that the machzor sets out for us, might inhabit our doubts and our negative feelings as much as any sense of spiritual satisfaction.  On this day we turn to God and find that God is already turned towards us, waiting for our engagement with the fundamental issues of our identity, willing us to forgive and to be forgiven, comforting us as well as challenging us, demanding that we live our lives the best way we can, reflecting our creator and bringing about much needed repairs to ourselves and to our fundamentally damaged world.

 

Vayigash: making peace is a process with which we have to keep faith, however unlikely it may seem

Making peace between two hurt and damaged parties must be one of the hardest activities in the world. Often, simply the absence of war must be enough for us, something which may look like peace but which is a far more shallowly rooted plant than we would like to acknowledge.

Sidra Vayigash tells the story of the making of peace between brothers – not a new story in the book of Genesis, and when one looks closely not even a real and complete peace – but at least it is more than the simple absence of war.

The sidra opens with the encounter between the powerful Egyptianised Joseph and his distraught and powerless older brother Judah. Judah cannot bear having to return to his father to tell him that Benjamin, only remaining son of Rachel, is held hostage in Egypt. With an impassioned speech he offers himself as hostage instead. This has an unexpected result – the man before him cries loudly and reveals himself to be the long lost boy who had been so hated by his older brothers they had thrown him into a pit to die a slow and pitiless death, but who had been rescued from that fate and sold into slavery instead. Now he stands before them, the second most powerful man in Egypt, and he is weeping and embracing them and forgiving them and even suggesting that everything had been God’s plan – they bear no fault for what they did.

This is the third meeting of the brothers with Joseph, and one has to ask – what finally prompted him to reveal himself and to effect reconciliation with them? Up till now he had treated them quite cruelly – accusing them of being spies, demanding that Benjamin be brought to Egypt, framing Benjamin as a thief and in an act of summary justice ruling that Benjamin must remain in Egypt, leaving his father totally bereft.

What is the riddle enmeshed within the story for us to untangle here? Is it about revenge? About justice? About the ongoing quest for repentance and forgiveness? And if so, is there real repentance and can we say that there is real forgiveness?

The whole of the book of Genesis speaks of rivalry between siblings, of the terrible situations such jealousy can cause; about the ways that people can continue to live with a partial resolution, and about the quest for a real resolution.

Here in Vayigash comes the resolution par excellence – but even this is not some fairy tale ending, but a qualified and measured response which is part of a longer process.

Joseph meets his brothers three times before he reveals himself to them. Each time he ends in tears which he sheds privately. In the first encounter the brothers have come down to Egypt for food and Joseph is the man in charge of rationing. We are told “when Joseph saw his brothers he recognised them, but he acted like a stranger toward them and spoke harshly to them.” (Gen. 42:7). He accused them of being spies, confined them to jail for three days and then demands that they return to Canaan and bring back Benjamin to Egypt. He is completely unaware of them as human beings – they are objects for his anger and revenge, and tools for him to contact his full brother Benjamin – nothing more. He does not trust them, he does not care about them, he knows nothing much about them and doesn’t try to find out whether they feel bad about what happened to him, or whether they have felt remorse about what their father had suffered with Joseph’s loss.

When he meets them for a second time, Joseph is brought a step closer towards reconciliation. This time he asks some questions which bring him into a connection with his family – he asks about his father’s health. When he sees Benjamin he is overcome by emotion – but he takes care that no one shall see his tears and hurries out of the room to weep in private, then washes his face and returns composed. (Gen. 43:30). It is through Benjamin, his full brother, the one who had not conspired to murder him that Joseph begins to reconnect with his past. But he controls himself and his emotions enough to set a test – in effect he recreates the same scenario that had him sent into slavery as a young boy – he puts the older brothers in charge of the fate of the younger one, what they do will determine his life or death. So he puts his silver goblet in Benjamin’s sack, sends his steward to retrieve the men and discover the stolen goblet – and now how the brothers respond will be crucial – will they let Benjamin be taken into Egypt and lost to his father, or will they try to save him

And so to the third encounter – Judah, wholly repentant and distraught, pleads with Joseph on behalf of his father who has already lost a child dear to him. He offers himself in place of the boy – and Joseph sees that the brothers really have changed, they have made teshuvah and when given the opportunity to sin again they set themselves against it.   Joseph finally gives way to his feelings and sobs so loudly he can be heard all over the palace. He confronts these Canaanite strangers as brothers and forgives them. There is reconciliation and the book of Genesis is able finally to witness a sibling rivalry that is resolved, to show that with repentance comes forgiveness, and so it is possible to move on in one’s life into new and different places.

But there is more to this story than a happy ending – we know that life is no fairy tale, and neither is bible. The reconciliation between the boys is certainly more than we have ever seen before, but we should not forget that it took over 20 years to achieve, that during it there was much pain and anger, thoughts of revenge and retribution, a clear denial of what had gone on and long term suppression of guilt and responsibility. We know that Joseph did not contact his family – not even his father or his beloved younger brother – who lived with the knowledge that he had gone to his death in a horrible way, that there was no certainty however, no possibility of complete and completed mourning. We know too that Joseph had to struggle with his own feelings about his brothers. A gap of 20 years did not automatically resolve the pain and the animosity – just because time had passed it did not mean that time had healed, and anyway there had been such hostility between them for so long that even before they had placed him in a forsaken pit they were unable to even speak civilly with him.

Having forgiven them he set them up in Goshen, far away from the palace where he continued living. When their father lay dying they had to send for Joseph – evidently he was not a frequent and dutiful visitor to his resettled family, and he waited till his father lay dying before introducing his own two sons to him.

The narratives about rivalry between siblings, begun with the murderous anger of Cain against Abel, finally end here with the tears and embraces of Joseph and his bothers. There is forgiveness and some limit to the ongoing anguish, but all is not sweetness and light. It never is and we would find the bible unbelievable if, after all that had gone on, there would be no hint of the shadowlands of pain left as a result of those relationships over so many years. As Ishmael and Isaac could never fully reconcile, as Jacob and Esau were able to weep and kiss and then go their separate ways, so too there is a boundary to this rapprochement. What makes this story different is that it is enough – there is repentance, there is forgiveness, there is insight, there is an element of acknowledgement of wrongs on both sides.

Making peace is never easy, it doesn’t simply happen, it takes time and it takes insight and it takes some unqualified repentance and some unqualified forgiveness. There will be the urge to punish, to take vengeance, to hide one’s tears in private and present a tough and intractable face in public. There will be the urge to accuse the other of all sorts of crimes, to see them as less than valuable. All this is normal and natural and part of the process, but for peace to come about – even for this curious state of cold peace that we are so used to in our modern world – there has to be a willingness to keep faith with the process, to meet the other side again and again, to keep trying.

The person who broke the impasse between Joseph and his brothers was not Joseph, it was Judah, one of the brothers who had been central to the plot to destroy him years before. Judah, who is our named ancestor, from whom the word Jew is derived. It was Judah who put himself on the line for a more important principle, who offered himself as hostage if it would free Benjamin from slavery and return him safely to the old man who was their father. Judah was the one who took the risk, who took the initiative and approached the harshly judgmental and uncompromising Egyptian potentate if front of him. He is our ancestor and he is our role model. He shows us that even in the most unlikely of situations our insight and our willingness to act upon it, will save us. May we continue his work in our own generation, and help to bring about some form of peace in our own time.

Rosh Chodesh Ellul: time to prepare, time to pardon

One of the first words you might hear in Israel – particularly if you mix among the anglo saxim, is the phrase “s’licha” – roughly translated as ‘please’, or ‘I beg your pardon”.  Well, maybe not one of the first, but if you stay in Israel long enough someone, hopefully, will use it after they push past you in a bus queue or tread on your toe in the market.

At this time of year, it is time for us to use the word too – as we pray the Selichot – the petitionary prayers that prepare us for the season of teshuvah – repentance. Tradition teaches that the month of Elul is a particularly good time for repentance, and the mood builds throughout Elul to the period of Selichot – the prayers that are read late on the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah and continue to be read every morning until the very end of Yom Kippur.

Our tradition teaches us that prayer requires preparation, and for most of us the marathon that is Yom Kippur certainly requires training– both the physical preparation such as reducing our caffeine intake to ward off the Yom Tov headaches, and the spiritual preparation to make sure we do more than simply regret past actions, or make ineffectual attempts at damage limitation. Maimonides in his laws of Repentance laid out what might be called the three ‘R’s of the work – Regret, Rejection and Resolution – and this process clearly takes much more time than even a well focused day of contemplation. Hence the build up to the work of the Yamim Noraim – the Days of Awe – so that when we arrive at shul on Yom Kippur we really are ready for it.   There are many variations of selichot services, though they almost always include a recitation of the thirteen attributes of God, and reading Psalm 27 – and portray of God of mercy and compassion. But also a God of whom we should be in awe.  We are told that when Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai lay dying his disciples asked him for a blessing. He replied “May you fear God as much as you fear human beings”. They asked him – “what, no more than that?” to which he answered that that was enough. “do you not know that when we are about to commit a transgression, we forget about God and hope only that no human eye will see us”

As part of the prayers of pardon and petition, we add into the text of the Amidah on Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur a prayer to help us learn to be in awe of God. We tend to fear the opinion of other people far more than we worry about what God might think of us, and we behave accordingly.  The two themes – of a forgiving and compassionate God who is only waiting for us to return, and of a God who is to be held in awe and revered – are not mutually incompatible. The liturgy of this time weaves them in and out of our consciousness – the God who sees and remembers everything we do, both good deeds and bad; and the God who is just waiting for us to say “selicha” – “forgive me” so that we can move on into our lives, lessening the alienation and anomie we feel.