Toledot: the family ties that bind a people together

 Jewish history is told in terms of Jewish family. We chart our progress through the generations, marvelling at how we are able to adapt and to change, to move countries and to begin again, yet never having to begin at the beginning – we take with us the wisdom and the tradition of our ancestors to support and nourish us as we add our own experiences and our own lives to the chain.

We are part of an eternal covenant.  Since Abraham’s first encounter with God that set him off on his journey as an Ivri (one who passes over into a new place), and since the encounter at Sinai when the whole Jewish people – (including all who were yet to be born and all who would willingly join with us) – we have been a family with a powerful tradition that has enabled us to retain our identity despite huge shifts in geography, language, autonomy, and cultural expression.  Whenever one tries to dissect and define Jewish identity, there is immediately a problem that no absolute characterization can be agreed upon – there are secular and religious Jews, culinary and cultural Jews, Sephardim, Ashkenazim, Italkit and Romaniot;  there are Jews who passionately believe in a personal God and others who are passionately agnostic. What binds us is the notion of peoplehood – specifically that of toledot – of family.

The word itself comes from the root to give birth, yet we first find it early on in the book of Genesis when God is creating the world: –  אֵלֶּה תוֹלְדוֹת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְהָאָרֶץ, בְּהִבָּרְאָם:  בְּיוֹם, עֲשׂוֹת יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים–אֶרֶץ וְשָׁמָיִם.:

“These are the generations (toledot) of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the Eternal God made earth and heavens.  (Gen 2:4). 

The term is clearly much more than the physical giving birth – it has to do with developments, with outcomes, with the next stage, and virtually every time it is found in the book of Genesis it has a transitional function, introducing the new and concluding the story of the old.  In the ten passages in which the word is used in Genesis, each time there is an important liminal point –a break but at the same time a kind of continuation.   So for example we have the toledot of the creation of the world which is then left to run, the toledot of Adam whose sons bring chaos into the world, the toledot of Noah, upon whom rest the hopes of mending the world, of the three sons of Noah who are the founding ancestors of the known world, and then the specific genealogy of Shem from whom we descend and which takes us to Abraham. Then we have the generations (toledot) of Abraham, of Ishmael, of Isaac, of Esau and finally of Jacob.

I find it deeply interesting that the bible gives us the generations not only of the line from whom we ourselves descend, but also of those who are connected to us but who are no longer “of” us.  The recording of the other genealogical threads reminds us of what is truly important:- that there is family and family, connections and bonds, and some are closer and others less so, but we are ultimately all one humanity even when our stories and our lineages diverge.

The story today begins with the toledot of Isaac, but is really interested in the fate of his younger son Jacob.  And it is Jacob, shortly to be renamed Israel on account of his own encounter with God, who is the ancestor from whom we generate our own history. In this sidra Jacob is given two blessings by his father: the first is the blessing of the first-born that his father had intended for Esau, the second is given to him as he departed for Paddan Aram to find a wife for himself and to begin a new life. One blessing was about the recognition and importance of the ancestral tradition of covenant, the other was about striking out into new territory. One was concerned with material well being, the other about spiritual direction and the future of the Jewish people.

What becomes clear is the inextricable link between past and future, that to try to have one without the other is to misunderstand the nature of Jewish identity.  And what becomes clear too is that each new generation has to find their journey and their meaning for themselves, building upon what has been given to them by their parents and grandparents, but creating something new as well, to pass on to their children and grandchildren.

Our history really is about toledot – the concluding of the story of one generation and the new story of the next loosely threaded onto it.  With each new generation there is always going to be change, but at the same time we know that the fundamental blessings continue down the years, and that while some of the paths seem to disappear over the horizon and out of our sight, that is only to be expected and accommodated.

We do the best we can in our own generation, and we trust the ones who come after us to have their own encounter to add to the richness that is passed on.  Isaac cannot ever have expected the boy he named from youth as Ya’akov – the bent one, the one who clung to the heel of his brother, the one who delayed – to become Yisrael, the one who struggles with God and overcomes.

 

Vayeshev: the different personalities of Jacob’s sons bring balance to our tradition

The Book of Genesis tells the stories of a succession of families, but the thread of sibling rivalry goes through them all – from Cain and Abel the sons of Adam and Eve, through to Joseph and his older brothers. And it has to be said that the rivalry between Joseph and his siblings overshadows all the other sibling squabbles in the intensity and passion with which it is played out – the near murder and the series of betrayals. From this sidra until we end the book of Genesis, everything, – including the going down to Egypt by Jacob and his family which will lead into slavery and ultimately the redemption by God – emerges directly from this sibling struggle.

On the one side of the conflict we have Joseph, oldest son of his mother Rachel, beloved and spoiled son of his father, the dreamer of dreams. On the other side we have ten of his eleven brothers, including Judah, the oldest son of his mother Leah, the son who loves his father much more than he himself is loved.   The struggle between Joseph and Judah is not only a personal one, it is ideological, and that ideology is played out in our history.

The language of Joseph’s dreams implies that he will travel far from his family’s home into the wide world outside it and live his life amongst other peoples. Joseph dreams universal dreams, and though only 17 years old he senses that his star is rising, he is destined to make his mark on history, and he is keen to go further into the world, to rise above the parochial concerns of his immediate family.

In contrast to the outward looking Joseph, Judah represents the brother who never even dreams of leaving home, nor of wandering very far from his father’s sight. Tradition tells us that he was a studious man, a conserver of traditions, a man who cared deeply for his family and his inheritance, and was not at all interested in any interchange with the world outside – indeed he actively chose to repulse any attempts to ally his family with other groupings.

So which of these streams, the inward Judah or the outward Joseph, represents authentic Judaism?

The truth is that both are, and that both are needed to form the balance that makes Judaism the firmly grounded yet dynamic and responsive religion that it is. Our calendar contains festivals that are particularistic and festivals that are universalistic, our prayer books contain prayers that are particularistic and prayers that are universalistic. Judaism even recognises the possibility of two messiahs – one from the line of Joseph and one from the line of Judah (the House of David) because it understands and acknowledges both aspects of existence – the need to remain rooted in traditions and texts as well as the burning need to reach outwards and upwards – towards other societies and peoples, towards the stars.

Both aspects of Judaism are authentic and both are needed. Our texts and our historical narrative tell us that again and again. The problem we face is that in our day the polarisation between the two is again very strong: part of the Jewish world is increasingly internal, drawing stronger and stronger boundaries against modernity, and part of the Jewish world is choosing to be porous and open to the point of apparent assimilation. We need each other and we need the different ways to be Jewish, and as Jacob and Judah eventually do – but not yet in this sidra – we need to honour each other’s difference and recognise that we are and always will be family.

Vayechi – How we live our lives, and how we live on through how we lived our lives

The book of Genesis comes to a close with this sidra, and many of the themes within it are addressed, if not resolved.  

The stories of sibling rivalry which began in the very first family with the tension between Cain and Abel and which continue down through the patriarchal enerations finally come to some sort of resolution, with Joseph choosing not to use his power over his brothers to hurt them, as even after all these years they fear he still might. His sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, also do not argue with each other, even when the younger is given special treatment by their grandfather Jacob. 

 The themes of blessing – in particular the special blessings from father to son, are also addressed: firstly in the blessing by Jacob of Joseph’s two children and the deliberate switching by the bless-er to give the younger one the more advantageous blessing. Somehow when there is no betrayal or rivalry between the bless-ees this is seen as a kind of concluding of the story of dysfunctional sibling relationship, though of course it does leave room for the jealousy to break out once more in the future. But while Joseph protests, his sons do not and sibling rivalry is not a particular theme of the later books of Torah.

 Blessings and the terrible burdens that can accompany them are also made explicit in the way that Jacob speaks to his sons on his deathbed– Reuben is as unstable as water, Shimon and Levi given to violence, Judah has the vigour and nobility of a lion, Zebulun would have a favourable territory with good coastline, Issachar is a large boned ass – physically strong and placid, Dan will be a judge but also a wily cunning foe, Gad would be constantly raided and raiding others, Asher will be happy and rich, Naftali would be both physically graceful and eloquent of speech, Joseph would be fruitful and honourable in the face of difficulties, someone who would surpass his victimhood, Benjamin would be a ravening wolf – warlike and terrifying.

 Can we say that these are blessings in any sense that we understand today? They seem to be comments on the characters of his children for them to learn from, or aspirations for them to live up to, rather than calling for the protection and support of God for them. 

 It also leads us to ask the question: is the expectation of our parents something that can or should shape our lives?

 Many of the blessings refer to the names given to the boys at birth – Dan, Asher, Gad, Naftali and Joseph all have names which imply characteristics or aspirations. Some of the blessings refer to actions we already know about – Reuben having betrayed his father with his concubine, Shimon and Levi whose violence to the Shechemites when their prince took Dinah has caused real heartache to Jacob that it seems he cannot let go even as he lay dying. Some of the blessings seem to refer to later events that he cannot have even dreamed of. The descriptions contained in these final words have a power and a hold long after their creator has left the scene.

 The deathbed scenes of Jacob and Joseph are narrated dispassionately in Torah. The point is made that both father and son are keen to be buried back in their ancestral home, not in Egypt where they are accorded so much honour. Both remember the promise that has been passed down their family, that God will remember them and will bring about their establishment upon the Land we know as Israel. They are pragmatic about their dying, passing on no material artefacts but certainly transmitting ethical imperatives to their descendants. Connection to the Land and honest evaluation of oneself along with proper thought about how one behaves in life, seem to be the two fundamental lessons they have to give their family. 

 Reading this final sidra in Genesis, named “Vayechi – And he lived” which primarily details the transmission of values after death, we are prompted to ask “What can we leave to our children that will resonate in their lives long after we ourselves are gone?” 

 One answer is the expectations we lay down for our children that they may internalise without our even knowing it – a sense of right and wrong, of honourable and ethical behaviour, of common purpose with our both our particular family and with the rest of humanity. We can teach them about God, about our history, about our connectedness to the other. We can teach them that one life is simply that – a life well lived will provide a strong link to both past and future, that there is a longer time scale than our own conscious existence. We can teach them that actions have consequences, that behaviour shapes character as much as character can shape behaviour. We can teach them that there is a great diversity in the world, and that everyone contributes something of value, be they passive or go getting, be they solid citizens or free spirits. 

 What is important is that we too begin to evaluate honestly our selves and the life we have lived so far, think seriously about what will be read into how we have lived, consider how we will be remembered after we are gone. 

 The end of a book of Torah is always a powerful reminder that endings are part of the cycle, and this particular sidra, with its emphasis on both life and death remind us to take a moment and consider. A lot of the most painful problems in the stories of the human relationships in this book are finally ironed out as people forgive, let go, learn, change. We are ready to face the next book which will take us into a different world, full of people who remember their history and people who have forgotten everything that came before. Winter is here, we are into the last month of the year and we are becoming aware of how the secular year is turning.  Many of us will try to achieve some kind of closure on unfinished problems before embarking on another new year.  But before we do that, there is just time to pause and to remember the stories of the early families in Genesis– Vayechi – how we live will impact on a future we can only imagine.

The Assaulting of Mrs Lot: Parashat Vayera

I have a particular fondness for the bit part players in bible, and Mrs Lot, whose story is told in Vayera, is someone who deserves more attention than she often gets, and she certainly deserves a more appreciative inquiry into her story.

Poor Mrs Lot, who is given no name in the biblical narrative, and who seems to be chained in marriage to one of the less attractive personalities in Genesis.

Lot is the nephew of Abraham, the man who might have inherited from him, except that his behaviour was such that he ruled himself out of the dynasty. Lot shows himself in biblical narrative to be self centred, greedy, and without much common sense. When he leaves Abraham it is because they cannot reconcile their arguments over shared use of the grazing land, and Abraham says “”Let’s not have any strife between you and me, or between your herdsmen and mine, for we are brothers. Is not the whole land before you? Let’s part company. If you go to the left, I’ll go to the right; if you go to the right, I’ll go to the left.” And Lot’s response?  “Lot looked up and saw that the whole plain of the Jordan was well watered, like the garden of the Eternal…Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan and set out toward the east. The two men parted company: Abram lived in the land of Canaan, while Lot lived among the cities of the plain and pitched his tents near Sodom.  Now the men of Sodom were wicked and were sinning greatly against the Eternal”.

When the Angels come to Sodom Lot does have the grace to invite them to his home – he clearly understands that they would be in danger alone in the town, but that is his one understandable action.  Mrs Lot is hidden when they come home. She is not involved in the work of hospitality, but her husband prepares the food. The angels do not seem to know she even exists until the following morning.  She does not go to try to persuade her married daughters to leave with them – Lot does, and his sons in law laugh at him. Presumably his reputation as a fool is known, but maybe Mrs Lot would have had a better chance. She is not consulted when her husband offers their two unmarried daughters as a sacrifice to the rampaging townsfolk who are angry that they cannot make sport with the strangers, and it is the angels who take charge after this extraordinary proposition. Her husband does not hurry to save her and the two daughters – again it is the angels who physically take hold of the family and transport them outside of the city walls. And critically nobody ever tells her not to look back when they flee – Lot was told, but he doesn’t seem to feel the need to pass on the information.

Now Mrs Lot had to die in order for her daughters to believe that no human beings were left and that it was their duty to repopulate the world with their father. She is a device in a narrative, not ever fleshed out or understood. The midrash tries to give her some background, but sadly cannot detach itself from protecting Lot and therefore deciding that she is the baddy in the story. They pun on the word ‘salt’ (melach) suggesting that when the poor came to the door to ask for bread (lechem, same three root letters) she refused them as she had no compassion (chemlah – same root letters). But I prefer to think of her as the victim who got away. The domestic abuse she clearly suffers is ended, and her husband becomes a drunken incestuous figure who fathers the two traditional inimical tribes the Moabites and the Ammonites. But she is free, standing tall and glittering with crystals, still there near the Dead Sea, and the Talmud (Berachot 54b) tells us to say two blessings when we see her – the blessing of God who remembers the righteous, and the blessing of God as the true Judge.  The rabbis who discuss this teaching assume the righteous who was remembered must be Lot, and the blessing “Dayan Emet” is to remind us that her death was a punishment, but in the words of Mandy Rice Davies: “they would, wouldn’t they”.

I like to think that she was the righteous one who had been through enough, had lost her home and two children in the cataclysm and was destined to live alone in a strange place with her abusive and foolish husband and her remaining daughters. God released her from that horrific future.

In life she was unnoticed and treated without honour. But in death she stands proud and dazzling, remembered and blessed long after the disappearance of her unlikable husband. Baruch Dayan HaEmet – Mrs Lot received the blessing of the righteous.