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.

 

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

Sarah, a matriarch whose multifaceted life gives us all something to live up to.

The Matriarch Sarah is the only woman for whom a sidra, the weekly torah reading, is named.  The first wife of Abraham, the mother of Isaac, she is the also the first of the four biblical matriarchs. What do we know about her? No genealogy is given for her when we first meet her as the wife of Avram living in Ur of the Chaldees, although Avram does at a later point say she is his half-sister. (Gen 20:12). Her name when we first meet her is “Sarai” which may be a name derived from the goddess Ishtar who was also called “Sarrat”, and although scholars also suggest it may be a name meaning priestess of that pagan cult, we tend to assume her name comes from the Hebrew for prince or leader –S.R.R.  making Sarah a princess of our people.

The first thing we know about Sarah is that she is unable to conceive a child, and so when she does so at the age of 90, her husband being one hundred years of age, this is clearly because of divine intervention and both parents laugh in disbelief when God tells them. Abraham asks God to give Ishmael the role of heir (Gen 17:17-19) but God is very clear – the covenant with Abraham will be passed down through a son he shall have with Sarah. She is an important and necessary figure in the divine covenant and as proof of this her name is to be changed along with Avram’s and she too is blessed in similar language to the blessing given to Abraham.

The change of names must catch our attention. When Abraham’s name is changed it is to clearly alter his destiny. God tells him “your name will no longer be called Avram (exalted father) but your name shall be Avraham because I have given to you the fatherhood of a multitude of nations”. The letter ‘hei’ has been added to Avram’s name – and this letter, with the numeric value of 5 which is the magical number for protection, is also a letter which symbolically denotes the name of God.

Sarah’s name change is rather different. God speaks not to her but to Abraham, saying “You shall not call her name Sarai, because her name is Sarah. And I will bless her and also give you a son with her. And I will bless her….”

Sarah is already her name – there is no change except that now Abraham will call her by her name. There is no added letter to her name – instead one could argue that part of her name has been taken away, the yod (numerical value ten, symbolically used for the name of God) has transmuted into the letter hei. It has been halved, and one half given to Avram in order to fit him for the role he is to take on. You could say that Sarah is diminished in order to enrich her husband.  Some of her divine spark is taken in order to build him up. She is the woman whose descendants will gain the eternal covenant. She has a special relationship with God – the only woman in torah to whom God talks directly – it is through the merit of Sarah that Abraham is able to achieve his destiny.

Another way of reading what happens to Sarah’s name is that the yod is turned into a hei by the addition of the letter dalet – when a scribe writes the letter hei in a torah scroll, it is by the combination of a yod and a dalet. So while at the same time as creating two hei letters from the yod, one could reason that Sarah had the letter dalet added to her name. The letter dalet is an ideogram for a doorway, as the Hebrew word delet reminds us. So knowing that she is Sarah means that Abraham begins to understand that she is the doorway and the gatekeeper to a deeper spirituality, a way to connect with God not just for himself but for the generations to come. Sarah emerges as liminal, as the connector between two worlds, a woman who transcends experienced reality.

Sarah’s relationship with God is defined by the phrase we use in liturgy – “pokeid Sarah”.  The verb p.k.d has a number of meanings: to attend to, to visit, to muster, to remember, to account, to command.   God remembers Sarah’s desire for a child, God visits Sarah to announce that she will have a child, God appoints Sarah to be the matriarch of peoples, God pays attention to her and tells Abraham to do the same.

Abraham and Sarah were said to have been noticeably hospitable, open and inclusive. Sarah’s tent was said to be open on all sides to welcome desert travellers needing a warm welcome. The midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 60:16) tells us also that as long as she lived the Shechinah hovered over her tent, her challah dough was blessed and her Sabbath lights lasted the entire week until the next Shabbat.

She was also a notable prophet – the Talmud (Yerushalmi Sotah 7:1) tells us that her prophecy was greater than that of Abraham , and that God was referring to her prophetic power when telling Abraham “whatever she tells you, do as she says” (BT Sanhedrin). It also lists her among the seven women prophets (BT Megillah 14a)

Sarah lived to the age of 127, and the way the bible describes this implies she lived a number of different lives in these years. She was a woman of great complexity, a woman of great strength who was destined to become the progenitor and matriarch of many peoples.  It took time for this to be revealed – she is a woman both hidden in the tent and open to the world; a wife who travelled with her husband wherever he went at some real inconvenience to herself and a wife who was living in a different city from him when she died. Her relationship with Isaac was a strong bond – she ensured his protection when she saw that Ishmael was assuming a position of power that might damage him, and he was comforted for her death by the love of his wife Rebecca, a touching phrase which tells us a great deal about the bond between them.

Sarah’s relationship with Isaac is at the core of the text. The covenant of blessing is destined to be the given to the child of both Abraham and Sarah, but Abraham is clearly fond of both boys, even suggesting to God that rather than have another child, Ishmael could take the role. So it is Sarah who must protect Isaac, who must shape and form him ready to take on his destiny. It is Sarah who engineers the removal of Ishmael from the scene, and who having protected her son from a potential rival retires from the fray.

But her protective action did not end the danger. God appears to ask Abraham to offer up Isaac on a specific mountain and Abraham does not argue but takes the boy on the journey, prepares him for his fate and is ready to slice the knife into him as a bound offering to God, only stopped by the urgent cry of an angel of God at the very last moment.

Because of the story of the death of Sarah being reported in bible immediately after this terrible text of the binding of Isaac, the midrash links the two, saying that Satan tricked Sarah into believing that Abraham had indeed killed their only son, and the soul of Sarah flew out of her body in her deep distress as she wished to live no longer. Another somewhat less believable version is that she died of happiness when she realised that she had been tricked and her son was still alive. (Pirkei d’R.Eliezer 32/ Ginzburg Legends of the Jews)

Either way, her life ends much sooner than that of Abraham who goes on to marry Keturah and have more sons, but who has become irrelevant to the purpose of the biblical narrative after that moment on Mount Moriah – except to buy the land in Hebron for her final resting place, the Cave of Machpela which will become the family mausoleum to this day.

The text moves on to focus on Isaac, son of Sarah and Abraham. Isaac will marry Rebecca and he will love her till his death. The love of his mother has made him who he is, a strong but unobtrusive figure perfectly placed between his famous father and his famous son, providing stability and warmth and entrenching the place of the covenant of blessing into the family firmly and steadfastly. The legacy of Sarah provided many things in rabbinic tradition – land properly bought within Israel, many converts to the one God, hospitality, steadfastness, divine merit, but for me her best legacy is Isaac. Often misunderstood and seen as less important than his colourful father and sons, he is a man who has shown himself to be so well loved that he can overcome the trauma of near filicide to build a relationship of love and trust with wife and sons, and to put down roots and live alongside the other tribes. That, I am sure, is the inheritance he got from Sarah. That, and the covenant of blessing which is usually – wrongly – ascribed to Abraham alone. but which was given to him only because of the merit of Sarah. I used to have a fridge magnet that said “behind every successful man is an exhausted woman” – certainly the aphorism that most fits our first and most wondrous matriarch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 046-welfare-state

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

Chayei Sarah: Sarah Imeinu, a flawed and powerful matriarch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Va’yera: the multiplicity of ways our world appears to us, the many lenses through which we choose to view it (or not)

So much happens in sidra Va’yera that it is almost impossible to focus in on it, yet could it be that this rich multiplicity of stories is designed to catch our attention by its very unusual amount of action? Right from the first sentence we are being shown more than one reality, and this is captured in the name of the sidra – Va’yera – meaning “and he appeared”.

The narrative begins with God deciding to appear to Abraham, but as soon as we are privy to that information the perspective changes, and through Abraham’s eyes we see three ordinary men travelling in the desert, and requiring hospitality.

Are they divine messengers? Angels? Ordinary people who somehow will carry out a special function?

And where are they? Standing right over him or at a distance which forces him to run over to them to offer this hospitality?

The confusion carries on right through the narratives here. One verse begins with the three speaking, the next has one (human) voice, the one after is clearly described as the speech of God. Sarah, on hearing the news, laughs inside, yet God hears her… Always a multiplicity of perspectives are woven into the story telling, a little like seeing an event through a variety of cameras, in real time and in flashback, from one angle and then another.

Why is the bible telling these stories in this way, sometimes slowing down the motion so we get almost every footstep of the journey to Mt Moriah and the verbatim conversation between father and son, sometimes speeding up so between Hagar leaving her son at a distance so she could weep, and the angel hearing the voice of the boy, there is barely a blink of the eye?

The Torah readings for Rosh Hashanah are both taken from this sidra – the first day’s text being the story of the abandonment of Hagar and Ishmael at the insistence of the frightened and jealous Sarah; while on the second day we read of Abraham taking of her own son Isaac up Mt Moriah in a terrifying ceremony apparently done at the insistence of God, after which we find that Isaac never speaks to either parent again. What messages are being conveyed in these choices of torah reading? Why are both taken from Vayera?

Could it be that we are being reminded of the many perspectives involved in understanding an event, that sometimes things are hidden and sometimes they are not; sometimes we understand and sometimes we simply don’t; sometimes people do things for the best intentions and get the worst outcome, and sometimes we do things not with good intentions but because we are afraid or territorial or jealous or determined to second guess God.

Could the rabbis who chose these two contiguous chapters have done so to remind us not only of the close relationship we have with Ishmael, but also of the fact that our perspective is not the only one that is important in the story of who inherits the Covenant God made with Abraham. Indeed that God promises Abraham that he should follow Sarah’s demand because “of the son of the bondwoman I will make a nation, because he is your seed.”(21:13)

The more that we read this sidra, the more the puzzlement grows. What is the sin of Sodom? Why does Lot behave as he does when the visitors come? What do Abraham and Sarah see and understand when the three strangers visit them? Why is God telling Abraham of his intentions with regard to Sodom and allowing Abraham to bargain him out of the plan – but only insofar as God allows. Why does God ‘test’ Abraham with the threatened sacrifice of his remaining son, and does Abraham pass the test or does he fail it?

There are so many perspectives given in this sidra, yet we still cannot encompass what is going on – only become aware of the multiplicity of viewpoints, and the complexity of relationships. Maybe that is the lesson in itself – as we form a view of our world and our role in it, we shouldn’t let ourselves look for simple answers, but always be aware of the many threads in the weave, each holding a truth of its own. And each action we take – be it the frankly terrifying decisions that Abraham makes for his sons, or the tragic actions of Lot’s daughters – each action has a consequence and leads to yet more complexity. On Rosh Hashanah it is important we come face to face with our own history and with the multiplicity of perspectives and lenses through which to view it. The rest of the year we shouldn’t lose the lesson – religion isn’t a matter of good versus bad, there isn’t a battle between the forces of light and those of dark, but in each of us there is a complex mixture of views and perspectives, and the choices that emerge from how we value those views will dictate whether our future will be one of resolution and peace or of continuing struggle. We tell ourselves a story about what is happening in the world or in our lives on a daily, even hourly basis. We should remember in our story telling that ours isn’t the only way to tell the story.

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