Vayigash: when our relationships with land and with each other are damaged, we have to look at our own role before we can heal the breach.

L’italiano segue l’inglese

There was no bread in all the land;  the famine was very sore so Egypt and Canaan languished… Joseph gathered all the money found in Egypt and Canaan for the corn they bought; and brought the money into Pharaoh’s house. .all the Egyptians came to Joseph, saying: ‘Give us bread; why should we die because our money fails?’ And Joseph said: ‘Give your cattle, and I will give you [bread] for your cattle’. And they brought their cattle.. Joseph gave them bread in exchange for the horses, the flocks, the herds, and the asses; and  fed them with bread in exchange for all their cattle for that year.  When that year ended, they came to him the second year, and said to him: ‘We will not hide .. that our money is all spent; and the herds of cattle are yours, there is nothing left.. but our bodies, and our lands. Why should we die…both we and our land? buy us and our land for bread, and we and our land will be bondmen to Pharaoh; and give us seed, that we may live, and not die, and that the land be not desolate.’  So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh; every Egyptian sold his field, because the famine was sore; and the land became Pharaoh’s.  And as for the people, he removed them city by city, from one end of the border of Egypt to the other. Only the land of the priests he did not buy, for the priests had a portion from Pharaoh… Joseph said to the people: ‘Behold, I have bought you this day and your land for Pharaoh.  Here is seed, sow the land. And at harvest, you shall give a fifth to Pharaoh, and four parts shall be your own, for seed of the field, and for your food, and for your households..’ And they said: ‘you have saved our lives.. we will be Pharaoh’s bondmen.’  (Genesis 47:13-26)

The bible recounts the fruit of Jacob’s having stored away supplies in the seven years of good harvests, to use in the following seven years of famine foretold in Pharaoh’s dream.  Within a few years he is in control of every resource – money, land, animals, even the people belong to the State. And more than that, he has changed the very nature of relationship between people and land. He transfers the people from the land that they had owned and farmed, and moves them to distant cities.

The Hizkuni (Hezekiah ben Manoach  13thC France) teaches that Joseph does this because he was afraid that the sale of the fields would be forgotten in time, and ancestral claims resurface. So  in order to protect Pharaoh’s ownership Joseph moved the people away from the fields they had sold. Yet the Hebrew says rather more – Joseph transfers the people from the land to the cities, undermining the relationship set at the beginning of the book of Genesis, where people are created to serve and to guard the land, and instead of being the stewards of nature, the people become the servants of the ruling power.

Population transfer, where people lose their relationship to their ancestral lands, where whole communities are forced to uproot themselves and their families and throw themselves on the mercy of the political powers, has been used to keep populations quiet and unable to rebel since time immemorial, becoming seen formally as a human rights violation only in the 20th century. We modern readers find it painful in the extreme, albeit it is small comfort that the people themselves ask to sell themselves to Pharaoh (v19), and that Joseph never agrees to buy them as slaves – as opposed to buying their labour.  Nachmanides comments “They said that they wished to be purchased as slaves to the king to be treated as he saw fit. But Joseph wanted to buy ONLY the land and stipulated that they would be perpetual leaseholders or tenants of Pharaoh. When Joseph told them (v.23) ‘I have this day acquired you and your land for Pharaoh’, he means NOT that he has acquired them as slaves but rather that through their farmland they will serve him. In truth the king should take 80% of the income and leave you only with 20%, but, says Joseph, I will be kind. You will take the (80%) share due to the landowner and Pharaoh will take the (20%) due to the tenant farmer”

The rabbinic tradition is deeply uncomfortable with the actions of Joseph, and one can argue that the bible is also uncomfortable with how he behaves in concentrating all resources and power into the hands of Pharaoh, diminishing the resource and particularly the relationship of the farmers with their land.  One can read this – and the apologetics which are a major component of the classical commentaries – as a textbook reading of how NOT to treat people trying to sustain themselves in areas of drought and famine. Sending supplies/ giving them enough to live from day to day – is of course an an important first step, and Joseph does what is necessary to keep the people alive by giving them bread, and later seeds to plant –  but exploiting the vulnerability of these desperate people is unacceptable, even if they themselves offer to put themselves in the position of being bought and sold.  The Egyptians become workers on the land of the Pharaoh, essentially they are slaves to the Pharaoh. And the whole narrative of the early chapters of Genesis – that humans would feed themselves by working the land, hard but dignified labour where the land would produce under the benign stewardship of the owner/farmer – is subverted in Joseph’s actions. The relationship between land and worker is disrupted deliberately as the original landowners are dispersed from their ancestral places.

The story does not begin at the famine – we see that in the good years that precede it,  food is not saved by those who produced it, but in the storehouses controlled by Joseph, and used to increase the power of the Pharaoh.

This story shows us how slavery becomes normalised, even welcomed as a way to stay fed and alive.  Even if the people themselves suggest selling themselves once they have no more money or other assets, Joseph’s act of population transfer hardens and fixes the reality of the rupture in the relationship between each family and their land. The move away from one’s land and from country to cities loosens the bonds of community, changing relationships further. Everyone becomes a little more vulnerable and a little more alone. The political class concentrates power in its own hands, the population are less able to resist.

So, when the Book of Exodus opens some 450 or so years later, and the memory of Joseph and his part in cementing the ruling powers is forgotten, we find that slavery is an obvious option for the Egyptians to use against the non-Egyptian people living among them.  The powerful are able to manipulate the ordinary citizens, and the stage is set for further misery.

When Joseph interprets the dreams of the Pharaoh and suggests a solution to ensure that the land and people do not perish in the long famine, he never suggests that this should be the lever to remove the agency and power of the grassroots of the people and allow the Pharaoh to become the owner of land and cattle stocks. The agreement was to ensure that people would be fed, that “the land would not perish during the famine”. In going well beyond his brief, in accepting the absolute power given to him by Pharaoh, in naming his children for “forgetting his father’s house” and for “becoming fruitful in Egypt” , Joseph isolates himself from the values of his own tribe and instead allies himself with the values of a society that does not care for the other.

There will be no tribe of Joseph, just the two half tribes of his sons Ephraim and Manasseh. His own dislocation from land is complete – it is the next generations who will begin the healing of both the human and tribal connection to land and the freedom of every person to live in peace upon it. A journey of healing we are all still making.

 

Vayigash: quando i nostri rapporti con la terra e tra di noi sono danneggiati dobbiamo guardare al nostro ruolo prima di poter curare la violazione.

Pubblicato da rav Sylvia Rothschild, il 1 gennaio 2020

 

La  carestia era gravissima, tutto il paese mancava di viveri e l’Egitto così come Canaan ne erano stanchi. Giuseppe raccolse tutto il denaro che si trovava in Egitto e in Canaan per i viveri che compravano e lo fece entrare nelle casse del Faraone. Finito il denaro in Egitto e in Canaan tutti gli egiziani si presentarono da Giuseppe dicendo: ‘Dacci da mangiare; dobbiamo morire qui davanti a te se non abbiamo più denaro?’ E Giuseppe disse: ‘Date il vostro bestiame e io vi darò viveri in cambio di esso’. Portarono il  bestiame a Giuseppe ed egli quell’anno diede loro viveri in cambio di cavalli, bestiame ovino e bovino e asini; e così li sostentò con vettovaglie in cambio di tutto il loro bestiame. Finito quell’anno gli si presentarono l’anno seguente e gli dissero: ‘Non ti nascondiamo … che se il denaro è finito e se il bestiame è presso di te, o signore, non rimangono a tua disposizione che i nostri corpi e le nostre terre. Perché dovremmo perire … e con noi le nostre terre? Acquista noi e la nostra terra in cambio di viveri, e passeremo al servizio del Faraone; e dacci della semente, sì che possiamo vivere, e non morire, e i terreni non rimangano improduttivi’. Così Giuseppe acquistò al Faraone tutti i terreni d’Egitto poiché ognuno vendette il proprio campo, oppressi com’erano dalla fame e la terra divenne proprietà del Faraone. Trasferì la popolazione da una città all’altra, da una all’altra estremità del territorio egiziano. Solo non acquistò la terra dei sacerdoti, poiché essi ricevevano dal Faraone un assegno determinato … Giuseppe disse al popolo: ‘Ecco, io ho acquistato oggi voi e le vostre terre al Faraone. Eccovi la semente, seminate la terra. E al momento del raccolto, ne darete un quinto al Faraone, e quattro parti saranno le vostre, per seminare il campo, per il mantenimento vostro , di chi avete in casa e dei vostri figli…’ E dissero: ‘hai salvato le nostre vite … saremo i servi del faraone’”.  (Genesi 47: 13-26)

La Bibbia racconta gli esiti dell’atto di Giacobbe di immagazzinare scorte nei sette anni di buoni raccolti, da usarsi poi nei successivi sette anni di carestia predetti nel sogno del Faraone. Nel giro di pochi anni egli ha il controllo di ogni risorsa: denaro, terra, animali, anche il popolo appartiene allo Stato. E, oltre a ciò, ha cambiato la natura stessa del rapporto tra persone e terra. Toglie le persone dalla terra che avevano posseduto e coltivato e le trasferisce in città lontane.

Hizkuni (Hezekiah ben Manoach, Francia del XIII sec.) insegna che Giuseppe lo fa perché teme che col tempo la vendita dei campi sarà dimenticata e le rivendicazioni ancestrali riemergerebbero. Quindi, al fine di proteggere la proprietà del Faraone, Giuseppe allontana le persone dai campi che avevano venduto. Eppure l’ebraico dice qualcosa di più: Giuseppe trasferisce la gente dalla terra alle città, minando la relazione stabilita all’inizio del libro di Genesi, in cui le persone sono create per servire e proteggere la terra, e invece di essere l’amministratore della natura, il popolo diventa il servitore del potere dominante.

Da tempo immemorabile il trasferimento della popolazione, con cui le persone perdono il rapporto con le proprie terre ancestrali e intere comunità sono costrette a sradicare se stesse e le loro famiglie e a gettarsi in balia dei poteri politici, è stato utilizzato per mantenere le popolazioni tranquille e incapaci di ribellarsi e, solo nel XX° secolo, viene considerato formalmente come una violazione dei diritti umani. Noi lettori moderni lo troviamo estremamente doloroso, sebbene sia un po’ di conforto che la gente stessa chieda di vendersi al Faraone (v19) e che Giuseppe non accetti mai di comprarli come schiavi ma, al contrario, di comprare il loro lavoro. Nachmanide commenta: “Dissero che desideravano essere acquistati come schiavi dal re per essere trattati come lui riteneva opportuno. Ma Giuseppe voleva comprare SOLO la terra e stabilì che sarebbero stati perpetui locatari o inquilini del Faraone. Quando Giuseppe disse loro (v.23) ‘Oggi ho acquisito voi e la vostra terra per il Faraone’, significa che NON li ha acquisiti come schiavi, ma piuttosto che attraverso i loro terreni agricoli essi lo serviranno. In verità il re dovrebbe prendere l’80% delle entrate e lasciar loro solo il 20%, ma, dice Giuseppe, sarò gentile. Prenderai la parte dovuta al proprietario terriero (l’80%) e il Faraone prenderà (il 20%) la parte dovuta al contadino locatario“.

La tradizione rabbinica è profondamente a disagio con le azioni di Giuseppe, e si può anche sostenere che la Bibbia sia a disagio proprio con il modo in cui si comporta, cioè concentrando tutte le risorse e il potere nelle mani del Faraone, diminuendo le risorse e in particolare il rapporto degli agricoltori con la loro terra. Si può leggere questo, e le scuse che sono una componente importante dei commenti classici, come una lettura da manuale di come NON trattare le persone che cercano di sostenersi in aree di siccità e carestia. Inviare rifornimenti/dare loro abbastanza per vivere di giorno in giorno è ovviamente un primo passo importante, e Giuseppe fa ciò che è necessario per mantenere in vita le persone dando loro il pane e poi i semi da piantare, ma sfruttare la vulnerabilità di queste persone disperate è inaccettabile, anche se loro stessi si offrono e si mettono nella condizione di essere acquistati e venduti. Gli egiziani diventano lavoratori nella terra del Faraone, essenzialmente sono schiavi del Faraone. E l’intera narrazione dei primi capitoli della Genesi, che gli umani si nutrano lavorando la terra, lavoro duro ma dignitoso in cui la terra produce sotto la benigna gestione del proprietario/agricoltore, è sovvertita dalle azioni di Giuseppe. Il rapporto tra terra e lavoratore viene interrotto deliberatamente quando i proprietari terrieri originali vengono dispersi dai loro luoghi ancestrali.

La storia non inizia dalla carestia: vediamo che nei buoni anni che la precedono il cibo non viene salvato da chi lo ha prodotto, ma nei magazzini controllati da Giuseppe, e utilizzato per aumentare il potere del Faraone.

Questa storia ci mostra come la schiavitù venga normalizzata, persino accolta come modo per rimanere nutriti e in vita. Anche se le persone stesse suggeriscono di vendersi quando non hanno più denaro o altri beni, l’atto di trasferimento della popolazione di Giuseppe indurisce e fissa la realtà della rottura nel rapporto tra ogni famiglia e la loro terra. L’allontanamento dalla propria terra e dal paese alle città allenta i legami della comunità, cambiando ulteriormente le relazioni. Tutti diventano un po’ più vulnerabili e un po’ più soli. La classe politica concentra il potere nelle proprie mani, la popolazione è meno in grado di resistere.

Quindi, quando il Libro dell’Esodo si apre circa 450 anni dopo e si perde il ricordo di Giuseppe e il suo ruolo nel cementare i poteri al comando, scopriamo che la schiavitù è un’opzione scontata che gli egiziani possono usare contro il popolo non egiziano che vive in mezzo a loro. I potenti sono in grado di manipolare i cittadini comuni e il palcoscenico è pronto per ulteriori sofferenze.

Quando Giuseppe interpreta i sogni del Faraone e suggerisce una soluzione per garantire che la terra e le persone non muoiano nella lunga carestia, non suggerisce mai che questa debba essere la leva per eliminare il potere della gente comune e consentire al Faraone di diventare proprietario delle terre e del bestiame. L’accordo era di assicurare che le persone fossero nutrite, che “la terra non sarebbe perita durante la carestia”. Andando ben oltre le direttive, accettando il potere assoluto conferitogli dal Faraone, dicendo ai propri figli di “aver dimenticato la casa del padre” e di “diventare fecondo in Egitto”, Giuseppe si isola dai valori della sua stessa tribù e si allea invece con i valori di una società a cui non importa del prossimo.

Non ci sarà una tribù di Giuseppe, solo le due mezze tribù dei suoi figli Efraim e Manasse. La sua alienazione dalla terra è completa: sono le generazioni successive che inizieranno la guarigione della connessione umana e tribale con la terra e la libertà di ogni persona di vivere in pace su di essa. Un viaggio di guarigione che stiamo ancora facendo.

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

 

 

 

 

Mikketz: how knowledge and understanding still requires wisdom if we are to avert environmental disaster

 

Pharaoh dreams of seven fat healthy cows feeding by the river, which are devoured by seven sickly cows; then of seven full and healthy ears of corn devoured by seven thin ears of corn, in each case the devourers looked no fuller or healthier for what they had consumed.  Joseph, the interpreter of dreams, is summoned from prison in order to explain the Pharaoh’s dreams.

They are, he announces, dreams of warning of what God is about to bring to Egypt; seven years of plenty will be followed by seven years of famine. There are two dreams because of the speed in which events will begin.

Joseph then goes further than his brief. He is brought to interpret the dreams, but having done so he adds to the narrative- a chutzpah that could have had terrible consequence

“Now therefore let Pharaoh look out a man discerning and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh do this, and let him appoint overseers over the land, and take up the fifth part of the land of Egypt in the seven years of plenty. And let them gather all the food of these good years that come, and lay up corn under the hand of Pharaoh for food in the cities, and let them keep it. And the food shall be for a store to the land against the seven years of famine, which shall be in the land of Egypt; that the land perish not through the famine.

But luckily Pharaoh is impressed. Having asked (rhetorically) if such a man can be found to fulfil this plan, he turns to Joseph and says:  As God has shown you all this, there is none so discerning and wise as you. You shall be over my house, and according to your word shall all my people be ruled; only in the throne will I be greater than you.’  And Pharaoh said to Joseph: ‘See, I have set you over all the land of Egypt.’

The three qualities –da’at (knowledge), binah (discernment) and chochmah (wisdom) come together in this verse indicating that Joseph doesn’t just know what the dream is saying, but that he can imagine the devastation indicated and can formulate and carry out a plan to mitigate it.

The dreams tell the very worst scenario – not only will extended famine come after the good years, but it will consume every aspect of those good years, they will not be remembered or even be able to be imagined – so say the classical commentators noting that when the sickly cows/corn absorb the healthy ones, there is no increase in well-being, no noticeable change at all. The desolation will be so complete it will be as if there was never anything else.

But the intervention of Joseph, with his combined knowledge, discernment and wisdom, was enough to keep Egypt, and even the surrounding areas, fed in the years of famine. The all-consuming famine was survived by the people – albeit they lost control of their land to Pharaoh as the price they paid for their food.

The Maharal of Prague teaches that the solution to the problem of famine in the dream was itself provided in the dream. The fact that the sickly cows and corn absorbed their healthy counterparts was a key to resolving the oncoming disaster – because it taught that there must be work done in the first seven years that would enable the next seven to be survivable. For him preparation in the face of oncoming devastation would enable the people to survive. His teaching primarily addresses the lacunae in the text – why would Joseph overstep his position and offer a solution? How does Pharaoh know that his interpretation was correct, and recognise both the importance of his plan  and the scale of his abilities? But the teaching gives us hope. We can prepare, we can begin to imagine and to mitigate the oncoming changes in our world. We can ensure that people have the resources to survive and sustain ourselves come what may.

In today’s world we once again face droughts and famines, as the global climate changes and watercourses dry up or rain washes away fertile soil. This is something we know, and we are beginning to understand the longer term consequences of much of our activity of the last century. We have both da’at and binah – knowledge and understanding. But is seems to me we have not yet taken on board the need for wisdom.  Joseph had a plan that did not stop the famine, but did mean that no one went hungry – he was proactive rather than reactive. He could imagine the worst case and worked to avert it. It is a lesson – an a quality – we need to acquire quickly if we are not to be overwhelmed by our own environment.

 

mikketz – seeing ourselves as foreign may enable change; or, how a new perspective can open up a new life

By the time the family of Jacob came to Egypt to find food, their brother Joseph is unrecognizable as the good looking, spoiled young lad who was thrown into the pit at Shechem. He is thoroughly Egyptianised.  His name is changed to Zaphenat Pane’ach, his style of dress is Egyptian, he has an Egyptian wife Asenat and native born children. He has status in the community as right hand man to Pharaoh. It is highly unlikely that the brothers, who think that their brother Joseph had most probably died in the intervening 22 years since they last saw him, will suspect Zaphenat Pane’ach of being anything except he court official he apparently is, yet we have the verse early on in their meeting   – ”And Joseph saw his brothers and he recognised them, but he made himself strange (unrecognisable) to them. (42:7)

ז וַיַּ֥רְא יוֹסֵ֛ף אֶת־אֶחָ֖יו וַיַּכִּרֵ֑ם וַיִּתְנַכֵּ֨ר אֲלֵיהֶ֜ם

Va’yar Yosef et echav, va’ya’kireim, va’yit’nakeir alei’hem

There is a peculiarity of the Hebrew language here – the Torah expressing two opposite meanings by employing the same Hebrew root  נכּר  in two different grammatical voices – one meaning to disclose an identity, to recognise someone, and the other meaning to conceal identity/ to be a stranger/ to be unrecognisable.

Joseph’s purpose in concealing his identity and putting his family through so  much anguish is the subject of a great deal of rabbinic commentary. After all, he charged his brothers with espionage, incarcerated Shimon, demanded the presence of Benjamin in Egypt and finally framed Benjamin as a thief before admitting to his brothers his true identity and inviting the whole family to stay with him in Egypt.  It is pretty horrible to read this apparent abuse of power, and the traditional commentators have had a hard time refuting the charge that Joseph’s motives for such behaviour were vengeful and cruel. They bring three separate explanations for his unbrotherly conduct:

The first is that he manoeuvred in this way so as to bring about the realisation of the dreams he had had in his youth – the dream that his brothers and father would prostrate themselves before him. The second is that he was attempting to teach his brothers the lessons of his own experiences which they had brought upon him by allowing him to be sold into slavery, framed as a criminal and imprisoned. And the third –  that he devised the various experiments and tests so as to assure himself  of their complete change of heart and their repentance.

None of these explanations fully satisfies us about what was in Joseph’s mind when he treated his brothers so roughly, but the end result is worth noting, for it becomes clear that the brothers have indeed changed since they last saw Joseph. They no longer hate Rachel’s sons,  and they are solicitous of their father’s feelings. The way is paved for one of the recurrent themes in bible- for brothers to become reconciled after a period of estrangement.

So what is going on in this verse where Torah uses the same  verb to express the double event of Joseph recognising his brothers  while hiding his own identity?   The pun draws the eye and ear to the text of this verse, yet Joseph’s actions in the rest of the chapter seem to throw no light on why he did what he did – hence the energy used for the rabbinic apologetics – something important must be happening here, and we must try to find out what it is.

Let’s look at the situation from a different angle:-

Joseph recognises his brothers, but he cannot know them, for 22 years have passed since he  last saw them. He already had a foreign persona, and the brothers, described in the text both as Joseph’s brothers and as Jacobs sons will be unable to perceive their relation in Zaphenat Pane’ach: – they will only able to relate to the young vain Joseph as they remember him, not the powerful figure second only to the Pharaoh who sits before them.

Joseph makes himself even more foreign וַיִּתְנַכֵּ֨ר and puts his brothers into uncomfortable situations before finally revealing himself. The extreme foreignness is  the prelude to the reconciliation.   It is almost as if the difference between Joseph and his brothers 22 years earlier, and their situation now has to be exaggerated to prove that all the protagonists in the story are now quite different people  – so that their arguments can be resolved and put into the past;  and only then can reconciliation take place.

Far from revealing himself immediately – “look at me, I’m the same Joseph you lost”, Joseph has to show his new characteristics and persona “look at me – I’ve changed”

The brothers too must display how much they have grown and changed. Sometimes, when a fight and a separation have been too hurtful, it is necessary for a period of separation to be followed by proof of change, before  reconciliation can be attempted and the situation resolved. With all the other stories of brotherly argument and reconciliation, this proof of change was not needed, presumably because the hurt was not quite so life changing as what had been done to Joseph.

It seems that here in the final story of sibling rivalry and reconciliation, we have an extra dimension to our understanding of necessary change  before reconciliation can take place – each side must show they are no longer the people who had been in conflict earlier in their lives but have deepened in their understanding of the other and grown in maturity.  Consequently the extra need for “foreignness” or “strangeness” is emphasised in the story. Joseph is no longer the youthful and untested dreamer who had so hurt his brothers with his arrogance and certainty. And they, having lived with the guilt of his disappearance and the grief of their father,  are no longer his hate filled siblings.

We are reaching the end of the secular year – always a good time to take stock of our lives. And it is a good time to look at our own hurts and estrangements,  as individuals and as a community and as a people, and to question how far we are along our journey towards reconciliations of the hurt and the damage we harbour.  We can look within the Jewish world, with its politics and power games, and we can look at the behaviour of Israel both internally to its peoples and externally to its diaspora, and we see much work to be done, much change to happen before the Jewish people become our best selves.

And each of us as individual human beings has our own list of hurts with which we have been unable to deal yet, and maybe we need to change ourselves before we can begin to address them – we like Joseph, need both to recognise the other and also change ourselves.

Le’hit’nacher – to make ourselves different, to hide parts of ourselves and to develop and prioritise other charcteristics within ourselves, to make ourselves foreign to our past faults. It is all part of the small steps we make towards reconciliation and resolution of our hurts and our mistakes. It is something, like Joseph, we can choose to do, even if, like Joseph, we do it in small steps and out of some fear that nothing has yet changed for us from the outside.

Mikketz means “at the end of”. Every new step has the possibility of ending something with which we are familiar or comfortable – it is why the fear of change is so strongly rooted in us.  But to follow Joseph’s example, to make ourselves different, foreign, changed from our usual narratives – it seems that we might bring an end to some of our hurts, and open a door for ourselves into the future.

sermon given at lev chadash milano 2017

 

 

 

Vayeshev – the transformation from brat to tzadik begins here

The narratives of Joseph occupy a large tranche of the book of Genesis – in the next four weeks we will focus almost entirely on the life and the experiences of this eleventh son of Jacob and first son on Rachel.  By the end of the book of Genesis we’ll know more about Joseph than about anyone else in his family before or since. We’ll know about his dreams, his relationships, his skills, his political exploits, his love affairs, his character flaws and strengths, his successes and his failures; his problems.

The narratives about him are long and somehow ponderous, telling the stories repeatedly, hammering the same points – the sibling rivalry, the parental favoritism, the tricks of hiding precious articles and retrieving them later;   It is hard to understand just why we are told every last detail about the life of this particular man, what we are supposed to make of this weight of information.

Tradition tells us that the stories of Joseph foreshadow the future experiences of Israel.  Reading the text we see that they also reconcile many of the themes that have come before. Joseph acts as a linchpin in the Genesis narratives – reliving and reworking the lives of his ancestors, and finally dealing with some of the issues which had held them back, finishing the business so to speak, and so allowing the people of Israel to move on in their religious journey.

The narratives of Joseph end one chapter of identity and open another.  No longer will individuals know God in the way that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob personally experienced and encountered the Divinity.  With Joseph comes the exile into Egypt which will culminate in Sinai and peoplehood.  A different sort of belonging to God is introduced here – one can not really say people are ‘relating to God,’ because in all of these narratives God is at one remove, a spectator in the story, hardly present except in the shadows at the edge of perception.

The metamorphosis which occurs with the life of Joseph is almost entirely a human one rather than one that speaks of divine interest – though it does have a flavour of fairy tale to it Political rather than theological, the transformation is very much of this world:-  A family changes radically when the favourite child falls victim to his own beliefs.  A poor immigrant succeeds beyond his wildest expectations in his adopted country.  A servant becomes a political master, changing the way the country structures itself and its socio-economic policy.  A slave becomes a prince.  A penniless Jewish refugee with no family or friends builds himself a life amongst a people not his own.

With Joseph we have a new construct with which to view our lives.  He is a Diaspora Jew, maybe even a secular Jew, certainly a political rather than a theological Jew.  Elie Wiesel describes him as “the first person to bridge two nations and two histories, the first to link Israel to the world…. In the context of the biblical narrative he was a new kind of hero heralding a new era…”  (in ‘Joseph, or the Education of a Tzaddik’ – Messengers of God p144/5

So not a patriarch, but certainly a recognizable human being and role model, giving us a different way of being.  Our problem in many ways is that we are far more like Joseph than like anyone else in the narratives – building our world on a political rather than theological basis, allowing God to be a spectator in our lives, at the margins of our identity.  Joseph is a role model with outstanding flaws for us to deal with, focusing so entirely on the present world that he seems to ignore the next one, becoming not so much integrated between two cultures as appearing to be assimilated into one almost without trace of his origins visible.

Yet Joseph is described in tradition as a Tzaddik – a Just and Righteous person.  The weight of the narrative must be trying to tell us something more – Joseph’s position as the mid point between the clearing up of past rivalries and the foreshadowing of future exile and oppression must yield more for us.  Again it is Elie Wiesel who identifies the critical point – “One recognizes the value of a text by the weight of its silence. Here the silence exists, and it weighs heavy…. “ First there is Joseph’s astounding silence during the brutal scene at Shechem, in which all his brothers except Benjamin participated.  When his brothers faced him with their hate – Joseph was mute.  More striking yet is Jacob’s silence – from the day that Joseph was taken we are told, he did not speak for 20 years.  He didn’t even speak to God.  He didn’t search for his son, didn’t go to the place where his son was last seen – he lived instead in a solitary, silent place, only resuming his conversation with and prayers to God after the family reunion, when God encouraged him to go to Egypt.

And what do we make of God’s actions – God too is silent.  Jacob didn’t address God in his interminable inconsolable grief, but neither did God address Jacob.

And Joseph in Egypt, as wealthy political potentate – where were his words, the one’s he could have sent back to Canaan to tell of his life’s story and put his father’s mind at rest?

All the words that began this story, the terrible words that Joseph spoke about his brothers, the words of peace they could barely bring themselves to utter, the words of his dreams, the words he was to bring back to his father – all those words at the beginning of Joseph’s stories descended into silence when Joseph descended into the pit, and the silence became heavier and heavier until the moment of the family reunion in Egypt, until Joseph could no longer suppress the words, no longer restrain himself.  But this time his words were changed, they became the words of a man who had transformed himself, not just from the arrogant sibling who considered that the universe should worship him, into  caring and beneficent brother;    not just from immigrant slave to ruling prince.  The transformation was from spoiled and self-centered brat into Tzaddik, a man able to forgive the wrongs done to him, a man able to transcend his history and reflect not only his humanity, but the reflection of God that is at the core of all humanity.   The heavy silence was not a time of nothingness but a time of real change, change that ultimately allows us to move on from the preoccupations of this world – the rivalries and jealousies, the acquisitiveness and the defence of the self – and move into the book of Exodus, into the beginning of the redemption.

Tradition tells us that Joseph was a Tzaddik.  A Tzaddik not because God had made him one, not because he was brought up to be one, not even because his life inevitably trained him to be one.  Joseph was surely a Tzaddik because in the face of the pain of his conception and the difficulties of his upbringing, in the face of his own weaknesses and drives,  he still managed to overcome his experiences and actually transform himself, actually allow his humanity to develop, to become something he didn’t have to be, without any supernatural help.  Everyone else changed as a result of their encounters with God. Joseph changed despite not encountering God in any observable way.  As a role model, this is the Joseph we should be reflecting – not the assimilated but the searching Jew, who found God in the unlikeliest places because God is there to be found.

 

Serach bat Asher:the woman who authenticated Moses and went alive to paradise. Parashat Vayigash

Last week’s torah portion ended on a cliff hanger. A missing cup is found in Benjamin’s sack. Joseph demands that Benjamin remain in Egypt as his slave. Judah begs Joseph to allow him to take Benjamin’s place as Jacob will not survive Benjamin’s loss. At this point Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers. They are – understandably – astonished that the young frightened boy they left in the pit so many years ago has become this most powerful Egyptian official.  Meanwhile Pharaoh learns that Joseph’s brothers are in Egypt and tells Joseph to invite Jacob and the entire household to come live in Egypt in the land of Goshen. So Jacob and Joseph have an emotional reunion. The family work as shepherds, the famine continues, and Joseph manages the country, selling grain for land until by the end of the famine Pharaoh owns all of the land in the country, except for that owned by the priests. Once the famine ends, Joseph gives seed to all the people telling them that they must repay Pharaoh with one fifth of their harvest.

Joseph is at the centre of the complex threads of the narrative, but look around the stage and other figures come into view. Those who caught my attention this year are the ones who are barely sketched out, yet who are noted in the genealogical lists, and this always bears further examination. There is the Canaanite woman, unnamed, who bears a son – Saul – to Shimon, apparently a different mother than that of his other five sons. She reappears again in the list in Exodus (Ch. 6) as the mother of Shimon’s son Saul, and yet other Canaanite women who bore sons to the family are not singled out like this – we already met the unnamed wife of Judah, introduced only as the daughter of the Canaanite Shua, whose children Er and Onan so dishonoured Tamar in Gen 38, yet she is not mentioned here.

Then there are the other unnamed wives we find in verse 5:  “And Jacob rose up from Beer-Sheva; and the sons of Israel carried Jacob their father, and their little ones, and their wives, in the wagons which Pharaoh had sent to carry him.” And there is the somewhat ambiguous language of verse 7 where we are told of “[Jacob’s] sons, and his sons’ sons with him, his daughters, and his sons’ daughters, and all his seed brought he with him into Egypt.”

Only two ‘daughters’ are mentioned here by name – Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah whose sad story has already been told, and Serach, the daughter of Asher, granddaughter of Jacob and Zilpah, the maid of Leah. Yet the word ‘daughters’ is in the plural – there were clearly other women who were born into the household, even though they remain unnamed and indeed uncounted in the famous statement that seventy souls went down to Egypt with Jacob.  Is the number seventy to be understood literally here, in which case there has to be some creativity with the arithmetic in the names listed here? Or is it the symbolic number it is often used as elsewhere. Seventy is the multiplication of two perfect numbers (seven and ten), it is the number of elders appointed to help Moses (Num 11:16), the number of nations and languages after the flood. Seventy symbolises a whole world, and we know that Jacob brings a whole world of his wives, his children and of his grandchildren – both sons and daughters, yet the listed names show only two female descendants – Dina, and Serach bat Asher.

So who is Serach bat Asher and why is her name remembered? No story remains extant in the narrative, but there are some tantalising intimations.

She appears here in the list of those who left Canaan to go to Egypt, and she appears also in the census at the end of the Israelites sojourn in the desert (in Numbers 26:46).  That is it as far as bible is concerned, but the aggadic literature is intrigued by this woman who apparently lives for over four hundred years and whose name bookends both the leaving of Canaan and the return to the Land.

The first function of Serach bat Asher is to hold memory. She links the generation of the ancestors to the generation of the exodus, from the “family” of Israel to the post-Sinai “people” of Israel.  She is the original “oral tradition”, and the midrash (Pirkei d’rabbi Eliezer) has her validating Moses as the man who will redeem the Israelites from Egypt, as she knew the secret sign given by Joseph to his brothers to signify that divine deliverance was imminent.

So not only does she link the generations and hold the memory of the divinity, she also provides the authority and authenticity of the leadership. The man from whom rabbinic tradition derives its whole substance is essentially given his legitimacy by the woman, Serach bat Asher. Something to think about as we hear the howls of outrage in some quarters when women scholars are finally given the respectful title that recognise their abilities.

According to the midrash Serach was a musician and a singer. When the sons of Jacob wanted to tell him that Joseph was still alive, they feared that the shock of the news might kill him, so they enlisted the talents of Serach who revealed the information to him gently. In response he blessed her, and said “the mouth that told the news that Joseph is alive will never taste death” (see Midrash hagadol on Gen 46 and Targum pseudo Yonatan)  This blessing gave Serach immortality, and like the prophet Elijah some traditions tell of her going to heaven while still living.

Serach was not only the link between the patriarchal generations and the post Sinai people. She was also the possessor of all kinds of hidden or lost knowledge that she would reveal when appropriate. So, for example, she knew the place where Joseph’s body was kept in Egypt, and when the time came for Moses to take the bones out with the people of Israel in accordance with the promise made to Joseph on his deathbed (Exodus 13) it was Serach who could lead him to the coffin. She explains biblical text, in one midrash she corrects a rabbi’s teaching about the splitting of the reed sea, saying that the waves looked like a wall rather than a lattice work. And in the story in the book of Samuel when a wise woman averts a crisis that Yoav, the captain of the army of King David, is not dealing with well – the midrash assumes that this is Serach bat Asher, and gives her the words “I am the one who completed the number of Israel; I am the one who linked the faithful to the faithful, Joseph to Moses” (Bereishit Rabbah)

Serach bat Asher is never married in the midrashic literature. Yet this does not stop Nachmanides suggesting she is named in the census because her descendants would inherit land. The aggadic tradition creates a life filled with miracles and wisdom, with courage and scholarship, a woman whose life extends for hundreds of years and who teaches about redemption. And yet at the same time she barely registers on the awareness of many students of Jewish tradition, and it is Elijah who catches our imagination, who visits every brit milah and pesach seder, whose chariot drives our stories of messianic redemption.

Serach bat Asher does not wander our world, unlike Elijah. And while there is a Sephardic tradition that she died in the twelfth century – there was even a grave site in Isfahan – she disappeared long before she was so conveniently laid to rest.  This confining of her seems to be almost deliberate – she is just too much for the medieval Jewish world to accept, she has been veiled and contained and controlled. Her name – which may well be a cognate of the verb samech reish chet – would mean to be abundant, to be excessive, to go free, to loosen the hair, to roam; yet more often dictionaries suggest that her name is just a variant of Sarah – to be a princess. And we know what happens to princesses in most fairy stories – they end up locked in the tower and hidden.

So may Serach bat Asher find her way back to her freedom to walk in the world, correcting rabbinic teachings which close things down and reminding us of the signs that show who truly speaks the words of God. Her job was to remember, to reveal, to connect us to our foundational stories, to open the world for us. We need her to cut through the thickets that have grown up since those stories were recorded. Serach bat Asher, another woman’s voice in our tradition that was quieted over time, calls to us once more.

 

 

 

 

Tamar: taking her destiny in her own hands she will enable the messiah. Parashat Vayeshev

judah-and-tamar-chagallInserted into the Joseph narratives that take up much of the last half of the book of Genesis, is a chapter about Judah and about his family. It is also a chapter about the actions of a woman who is determined to right a wrong and how she achieves this goal. Situated as it is so discordantly in the Joseph narrative it is easy to turn the page, to ignore the text as we continue to read about Joseph’s troubles and his subsequent elevation. Because it deals with sexual acts, and with apparent impropriety, it is studied much less than it should be. The lens of the narrator is narrow, detail is sparse, but it is a text worth a great deal of attention, for it reminds us that in bible the women were actors in the story and not observers, they were out in the public space, their behaviour often created pivots in the chronicle. The story of Judah and Tamar shouts out “notice me” – the sons of Jacob are yet again challenged by a woman and this time they cannot cheat her or hide from her or marginalise her. Tamar is a risk taker while all the time behaving within the law. She is a model for modern Jewish women, her story reminds us our destiny is in our own hands.

Judah leaves his brothers and marries a Canaanite woman, the unnamed daughter of Shua, and has three sons: Er, Onan and Shelah.  Without comment from the narrator, time passes and he takes a wife for his first born son -Tamar. What do we know about her? Her antecedents are shrouded in mystery though we may assume that she was also a Canaanite woman. There is one tradition that suggests that she is the daughter of Malchitzedek, King of Shalem and Priest to the Most High God, and certainly she behaves in a way that bespeaks confidence and determination to get her rights fulfilled.

Tamar is married to Er, who was “wicked in the sight of God, and God killed him” (38:8). She was then married to his younger brother Onan, specifically (and anachronistically) for him to perform the act of yevamah, to provide a child who would legally be the child of the dead and childless Er.

But Onan knew that the child would not be formally his, as so when he went to her he deliberately spilled his semen on the ground rather than create a child who would inherit the portion of his dead brother, and the bible tells us “Vayera b’eynei Adonai asher assah vayamet gam oto: The thing that he did was evil in the sight of God, and he killed him too” (v10)

What did Er do that was so wicked he deserved to die? Bible doesn’t tell us. While there is a strand of tradition that suggests that the boys die as punishment for the wickedness of their father, so that he should feel the pain of the death of a child as he had caused his father to feel that grief when he did not protect Joseph, the general consensus of tradition is that the sin must have been Er’s and must have been similar to that of his brother. Hence one Midrash suggests that he did not want Tamar to spoil her beauty by becoming pregnant and therefore his relations with her were designed to prevent pregnancy. This I think tells us much more about the commentators than it does about the text, but the reality is that he does not provide a child for his wife before his sudden death.

Onan’s wickedness however is clear, and it is not the sin that bears his name. It is not the spilling of the seed that was the real problem in God’s eyes, it was the fact that he did not want to give his dead brother a stake in the future, a child who would inherit both the name and the material benefit that would have belonged to Er. He denied his dead brother an heir and he denied his wife the protection that having the child would give her.

What we are told and what we are not told in this text is fascinating. The bible is keen to make sure we know that Judah has left his brothers, that he has built a deep friendship with Hirah an Addullamite (va’yet). It tells us of his Canaanite wife bat Shua and his children with her. It tells us that the action takes place in Chezib – and here is the clue to the whole sorry tale, for the name Chezib comes from the root-verb כזב (kazab), meaning to lie, to disappoint, to fail. As an idiom the word is also used to describe a brook or stream that has dried up – a river that disappoints, rather than one that will provide water. Judah has three sons, and yet the likelihood of his having descendants after them diminishes as the disappointment and the lies build up.

The bible signals that the story is about deceptions and disappointment, and Judah as the fourth son of Jacob and Leah is born into deception and disappointment, even while he will ultimately become the ancestor par excellence, the tribe from whom we will descend.

After the deaths of the two older sons, Judah tells Tamar to “stay a widow in the house of your father until Shelah my son grows up” Assuming the practise of yevamah, this appears to be a reasonable request, though why Tamar is kept in her father’s house rather than that of her in-laws bears further examination. But it seems that he is trying to keep her at a distance, for bible continues that same verse with the words “Lest he also die like his brothers”.

The superstition that a woman who loses more than one husband is somehow responsible is dangerous and a killer of men who come close to her has deep roots. It is a classic example of blaming the victim. Widows were economically and socially vulnerable, classed in bible along with orphans and strangers in the land/refugees. There are many exhortations to protect the widows in biblical texts, but in this story in the first book of Genesis, before Torah had been given and before its challenge to established norms, the superstition drives Judah, and sadly his behaviour means that the idea of the “black widow” has permeated into our awareness too.

Widowed now himself, Judah goes to see his great friend Hirah in Timnah. We do not know how much time has passed but Tamar is able to observe for herself that Shelah has grown up and that he has not been given to her as a husband in order to both provide a child in his brother’s names. Tamar is trapped in a situation that does not allow her to marry within the family of Judah nor to marry anyone else. She must feel desperate.

Judah doesn’t tell Tamar that he is travelling near to where she is. He has left her exiled in her father’s home living as a widow and he seems to have no communication with her, nor any interest in her continued well-being.  Someone unnamed tells her that Judah will be travelling through and Tamar takes her chance.

She removes the widow’s weeds she is wearing and covering herself with her veil she sits “petach Einayim” – which could mean “at the entrance to Einayim” but which also means “at the opening of the eyes”. This is a pivot in the story. There has been up till now lies and deception, the suppressing of the reason that God found Er wicked, the betrayal by Onan of his brother’s rights to the future.   Tamar has been hidden from sight in the household of her father, there is no communication between the two households, she is out of sight and out of mind. But here she is, sitting by the roadway Judah will travel, determined to be noticed, to open Judah’s eyes to the injustice done to her.  Her action is eye opening.

Judah certainly sees her. He notices her. At least, he notices there is a woman there and he makes the assumption that she is a prostitute. And the reason for this? Because her face is covered.  Think about this. He reaches his conclusion that this is a woman available for hire for sexual relief because her face is covered. In today’s world a veiled face is supposed to designate modesty, protecting the beauty of the woman from the crassness of the world – yet here in bible the clear assumption is that the veiled face designates woman only as object. She stops being a person. She doesn’t exist as living breathing yearning thinking woman. She is a prostitute, available for the pleasure of men who pay. There is at least some honesty in this approach – the reality of the woman is unimportant in the world of the biblical text, who she is is irrelevant to the man who buys her. In today’s world of extreme tzniut used to oppress women in some communities, the deception is back. Telling women that their covered state and hiddenness from the public space is a way of increasing their holiness, protecting their modesty etc is a lie to hide the fact that their very self is being controlled by others, to keep them as possessions and as subjects rather than as active and authentic people with their own agency.

Judah is polite, he speaks to her with courtesy, not knowing who she is at all. The same verb is used as with his relationship with Hirah – vayet eleha – he turns to her. This could be the beginning of a real connection, but it is not because he does not see someone with whom connection can be made. He sees only the possibility of a sexual moment and this is what he asks for. So she begins the negotiation “what would you give me in payment for sex?” He offers her a future payment, a young kid from the flock, and she counters with the request for a pledge that she can keep until such time as the payment is made. It seems that Judah is unused to this type of negotiation. He asks her what such a pledge should be and she requests three deeply personal and unique items that will be recognisable and indisputably his.  Having given them to her, they have intercourse and Tamar conceives at last.

The interlude over, she leaves and removing the veil she puts on her widows weeds once again. Judah keeps his promise, sending the animal as promised with Hirah his friend, and expecting the return of his pledge, but she is gone, and when Hirah asks around where the prostitute who had been sitting there was, the response is that there had been no prostitute. This he relays to Judah, who doesn’t seem to be at all perturbed by the woman’s disappearance with his personal possessions, and seems rather to hope that by ignoring what has happened he will escape any shame. But how can he just leave his pledge, his signet, cords and staff, as if nothing has happened?  These days we might call it identity theft, we would desperately search for our missing items and try our best to make good the loss. Judah’s response “tikach la, pen nihyeh lavuz” is more than laconic, it is negligent and it is fearful of any shame attaching to him and his friend. Why?

Three months later the news reaches Judah that Tamar is pregnant, and the assumption is that she has prostituted herself. No communication has happened between the two as yet and when she is brought to Judah in order to be punished by burning, she still does not immediately identify the father by name. Instead there is a sort of choreography – she is brought to the household of Judah from her father’s house. She does not appear to meet Judah, instead she sends the pledged items he had given her and says “Clarify please whose are these tokens? The signet the cords and the staff?” It is of course a rhetorical question but it is a dangerous one. For a man who had been trying to avoid shame, Judah could have taken and sequestered the items. She would have been burned to death along with her unborn children. But instead he acknowledged them and speaks of the justice and rightness of Tamar’s act – she had simply been trying to fulfil the requirement for a child for his two dead sons, and in doing that to protect her own vulnerable situation too.

Like Rebecca, Tamar has twins. Like her too the birth is eventful – the first child puts out a hand and then withdraws it but not before a scarlet thread has been tied around it, the second child is then born, and the elder one is fully born second. Their names are given, but not it seems by Tamar. The elder child is named Zerach which means brightness or shining. The younger is Perez – meaning to burst forth, to breach. There are many echoes of Rebecca here, the colour red, the description of the older child in terms of his appearance and the younger in terms of his actions.  There is a clear subtext that these children were designed to be born, they are necessary in terms of the biblical narrative. They would not have been born had Judah followed his plan to keep Tamar in purdah to protect his one surviving son from what he saw was her danger – a superstition roundly exploded in the story, for Judah is not endangered by his encounter with Tamar.

The story is tidied up – both dead brothers have a child to take their place in history. Tamar does not need to marry again, her status is established. Judah has come to realise that his behaviour was not as righteous as that of his Canaanite daughter in law and has acknowledged this.  But the questions arising from the story only multiply. Why this story at all? Why put it here in the Joseph narratives? Why did the children need to be born?

One question is partially answered in the genealogical line given in the book of Ruth, the Moabite woman who also took her status as childless widow into her own hands and had a child by a family member of her dead husband in order both to honour his future and to protect her own vulnerable status. We will learn from this genealogy that King David will descend from the line of Perez – that both Tamar the Canaanite woman and Ruth the Moabite woman will pivot history in order to bring about the birth of the messianic line.   But why does King David and why will his messianic descendant need to be born of such deceptive sexual encounters orchestrated by the women? This is a question yet to be satisfactorily answered.

Why is it in the Joseph narrative? With the themes of clothing to hide identity, of deception and betrayal, of promises made and not kept and of the painful loss of children, with mis-communication and with the lack of communication, with fear and shame and hopelessness and exile –  there is much to connect these narratives.  But Tamar herself is not echoed in the Joseph stories, except maybe in parody when the wife of his master desires him and lies that he tried to sleep with her. Tamar stands alone in these narratives, a woman who is married twice to unworthy and wicked men yet who retains her own integrity and keeps her eye on the future. Blamed as a husband killer when we know from bible that God kills the men because of their wickedness, exiled to her father’s house and marginalised from the narrative, she uses her marginal status and plays out the scene whereby she becomes not-woman, a body, a prostitute for hire at the roadside, and moves her descendants into the centre of the narrative.

One of my favourite lines of any film comes in “My big fat Greek Wedding”. It tells the story of a woman of Greek descent trying to find herself and her place in society outside her father’s home and the struggles she endures as she grows. Her father makes a decree about her future and she is despondent. Her mother tells her that indeed she must obey, the father is the head of the house. In their culture, his word is law. But the mother goes on to say, the father is the head but the mother is the neck, and the head points whatever way the neck dictates.  It speaks to me of biblical narrative, when the men make the decisions and hold the power, but with great regularity the women subvert that decision making, and from Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah onwards they gently manipulate in order to produce the desired outcome. The list of these women in bible is long, yet often they escape our attention as they escape the attention of the men with whom they live. Tamar is a rare exception – by getting herself noticed she will disrupt the course of the narrative and change history.

Sarah: blinded by her outward appearance we miss the person within

Deception and beauty, the bible is fascinated by the interaction of the two.

When Avram, having left Canaan because of the famine, arrived in Egypt he feared that the beauty of his wife Sarai would mean that the Egyptians would kill him in order to take her for themselves, and so he asks her to lie, to say that she is his sister “that it will be well with me for your sake, and so my soul may live because of you”. And certainly his fear is grounded, because the Egyptians see Sarai’s exceptional beauty,“ki yafah hi me’od”. The princes of Pharaoh see her, sing her praises to him, and she is taken into Pharaoh’s house. Pharoah gives a great deal of wealth to Abram as dowry, but God intervenes, plagues Pharaoh and his house on account of Sarai, until Pharaoh understands that he has taken Avram’s wife and arranges for her to go back to him, and for Avram and Sarai to go on their way with their accumulated gains.

This is the first of three wife-sister deception narratives in Genesis, the others being with Sarah and Abimelech and with Rebecca and Abimelech.  The repeated retelling seems to imply that these are not historical reportage, but a motif to give us a deeper understanding of our patriarchs and matriarchs.

Any number of questions emerge from even a cursory reading of this text. We already know that Avram married Sarai (Gen 11:29) yet surprisingly her ancestry is not given, while that of Milcah, who married Nahor Abram’s brother is given her full background. Immediately we are told that Sarai is barren, she had no child – an enormous economic disbenefit for any wife in that society and that she went with her father in Law Terach, with her husband and with Lot the son of Abram’s dead brother, from Ur Kasdim towards Canaan, leaving behind Nahor and Milcah. (Gen 11:29-31)

Sarai’s great beauty is only told to us in the following chapter – which seem surprising if it were really so extraordinary. Her passivity – travelling with the family including the heir apparent Lot – leaving Ur Kasdim to go to Canaan but settling in Haran in the interim – seems to be the expected role of women, yet clearly the family did well, making great wealth, and the plural form is used – “all the wealth THEY had gathered, and the souls THEY had made” from which the midrash develops the idea of Avram and Sarai as the great models of inclusivity and openness, who between them had converted both men and women to the one God of Judaism.

So maybe Sarai was not so passive, but was a valued working partner in the relationship. And yet, as soon as they come near to Egypt she is prevailed upon not only to lie about her relationship to Avram, but essentially to become adulterous in order both to protect his life and increase his wealth.  She does not speak, she does not seem to object, and while one can see what is in the deal for Avram it is not so clear what is in it for her – except maybe that as a widow captured after her husband’s death she may be even more unprotected and powerless than as the sister of a living and wealthy man.

She doesn’t even seem to speak to Pharaoh, who, plagued by God, realises all by himself that the cause of his troubles is that he has taken the wife of another man into his household. Clearly at the beginning if she has bought Avram’s reasoning that this will save his life it is important that she keep the secret, but what about later when it is obvious that something is deeply wrong?  She is returned, as passive as ever, into the safekeeping of Avram her husband, and they are sent on their way, greatly enriched by the whole adventure.

Yet this story, with its overtones of sexual trafficking for gain cannot be left here – there is the repeated retelling with some alterations with a different king Abimelech, and then later with her daughter in law Rebecca and Abimelech. And there is the persistent motif of great beauty and deception.

Others are described in bible in almost the same words as having extraordinary beauty, the most prominent being Sarah’s daughter in law Rebecca, described as being tovat mar’eh me’od (24:16 and 26:7), Rebecca’s daughter in law Rachel about whom we hear “V’einei Leah rakot; v’Rachel hay’ta y’fat to’ar, vi’fat mareh” – The eyes of Leah were soft/ weak,  and Rachel was beautiful of form and beautiful in appearance. (Gen 29:17, and her older son Joseph who is “y’fei to’ar vi’fei mar’eh” (Gen 39:6)

Three matriarchs and the favoured son Joseph all described in bible in terms of their exceptional beauty. And all of them recorded in bible as deceiving in ways that change the narrative profoundly. Sarah and Rebecca are the objects of the their husband’s deception in the wife-sister narratives, but Rebecca goes on to deceive her blind husband in order to gain the major blessing for her favourite son Jacob, when he intends and expects to give it to Esau.

Rachel deceives her father and husband about having taken the household gods when they left Haran, an act that will bring about her early death. And her elder son Joseph, also described as beautiful, deceives his brothers who come to buy food, putting them through a horrible ordeal as they contemplated their father’s devastated reactions.

It is strange that on the whole we don’t know much about the physical appearance of the main characters in the narrative. What does Avram look like? We are not told. Likewise Isaac and Jacob, though we are aware of the physicality of Ishmael and Esau who are earthy,  athletic and skilful hunters.

It seems that only ‘outsiders’ and women are worthy of comment about their appearance. And then, as now, such comment serves to objectify, to limit in some way, to categorise. We no longer see the person, nor do we see their abilities or potential, we see the colour, the gender, the beauty (or lack of) and we make a judgement.

Later on in the narrative we will be able to see Sarah a little better – we will see her as the strong and independently minded woman trying to give her husband his much desired heir, however problematic that intervention is. We will see her as the woman who is visited by God, who laughs on hearing God’s voice telling her and her husband that she too will bear a child, and who speaks directly to God’s challenge to her, albeit to dissemble rather than be upfront with her views. We will see her as the mother determined to protect her child even if it means asking her husband to disown his older child – and ensuring that he does. We will see that her name is changed by God along with that of her husband. We will see that she lives away from her husband after the Akedah until her death when he has to travel to organise her funeral.

Sarah is the matriarch to match Abraham’s role – the promise of the heir who would receive God’s blessing is clearly as much to her as to him – it is Isaac son of Sarah who will inherit the blessing and take on the chain of tradition. She saves Abraham’s life at least twice, she helps him to increase his wealth, she directs the family life.

What is her beauty? The deception of Sarah’s beauty seems to be not so much what she does, but that it hides the strong and independent character within, the personal connection with God that she develops, the innovative and formative life that she lives. Her antecedents are shrouded in mystery, unlike Abraham’s, but their descendants are as much hers as his.

Proverbs tells us “charm deceives and beauty fades” when describing the perfect woman (Eshet Chayil) (31:30) and we should read the narrative of lech lecha with this in mind – if we only see the outward passivity and the blinding beauty that Abraham fears Pharaoh will see, then we miss what is important about Sarah.

Yet plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. Those who only see the outward appearance and the gender will layer on their own perceptions, their own beliefs about what they see, and will miss the gold that lies within.