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.

Vayechi: our life is given to us so that we learn how to die

The narrative opens with the verse “And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years; so the days of Jacob, the years of his life, were a hundred forty and seven years.

Immediately we are plunged into an end of life narrative but for the first time we have an extended view as we see Jacob begin to put his family affairs in order and to secure the succession, as a number of different conversations and scenes are recorded.

“And the time drew near that Israel must die; and he called his son Joseph, and said to him: ‘If now I have found favour in thy sight, put, I pray you, your hand under my thigh, and deal kindly and truly with me; bury me not, I pray you, in Egypt .But when I sleep with my fathers, you shall carry me out of Egypt, and bury me in their burying-place.’ And he said: ‘I will do as you have said.’ And he said: ‘Swear to me.’ And he swore to him.”

When Jacob’s father Isaac had died, the narrative was short and to the point. We are told that: “Jacob came to Isaac his father to Mamre, to Kiriat-arba–the same is Hebron–where Abraham and Isaac sojourned. And the days of Isaac were a hundred and fourscore years. And Isaac expired, and died, and was gathered unto his people, old and full of days; and Esau and Jacob his sons buried him. (Genesis 35: 27-29)

The ‘deathbed scene’ of passing on the special blessing with its accompanying promise of covenantal relationship with God had taken place many years earlier apparently, when his sons were much younger, and Isaac had seemed more concerned with getting a good meal than with the business of settling the family inheritance after his death. “And it came to pass, that when Isaac was old, and his eyes were dim, so that he could not see, he called Esau his elder son, and said to him: ‘My son’; and he said unto him: ‘Here am I.’ And he said: ‘Behold now, I am old, I know not the day of my death. Now therefore take thy weapons, thy quiver and thy bow, and go out to the field, and take me venison; and make me savoury food, such as I love, and bring it to me, that I may eat; that my soul may bless you before I die’ (Gen 27:1-4)

Isaac did not take the responsibility to ensure that things would transition smoothly after his death; he did not call both his sons to his bedside in order to deliver the blessing, but set up a complicated process that in retrospect looks almost wilfully negligent. The outcome was that the boys were set against each other, that Jacob fled and was away for at least fourteen years, and that the doubt as to his legitimacy as heir to his father’s blessing threads through the narrative as he battles angels and debates with God and we are left wondering what was Isaac’s intention in asking “who are you, my son?”

Isaac did not model himself on his own father who had many more children with Keturah after Sarah’s death, but about whom we are told “And Abraham gave all that he had to Isaac. But to the sons of the concubines that Abraham had, Abraham gave gifts; and he sent them away from Isaac his son while he yet lived, eastward, to the east country” (Gen 25:6 )Abraham protected Isaac from inheritance claims and also arranged his marriage into a powerful and protective family (Gen 24:1ff)

And now we have the deathbed arrangements of Jacob, and what a difference as he plans and calculates! First he speaks to Joseph, and he asks that he not be buried in Egypt but with his own father in the Cave of Machpela at Mamre. Then as he declines further, Joseph visits again with his own two sons, named for forgetting his past and for his successful life in Egypt. Jacob summons his strength to tell the story of the covenantal blessing, of the angel who had guarded him, of the death and burial of Joseph’s mother Rachel, adopts both the boys explicitly bringing them into the covenant blessing, and setting the younger (Ephraim) over the older (Manasseh). He gives Joseph what to all intents and purposes is his personal blessing, telling him that God will be with him and will bring him back to his ancestral land, and he offers something else that is outside of the covenant: “Moreover I have given to you one portion above your brothers, which I took out of the hand of the Amorite with my sword and with my bow.‘ (Gen:48:22)

And then finally he spoke to all the twelve sons together, twice telling them to assemble themselves together, and then offering individual blessings to each one. These are not the blessings of the covenant but clear assessments of their personalities and likely futures. Judah is singled out for praise and leadership, and Joseph is given what appears to be the major non-covenantal and personal blessing: “The blessings of your father are mighty beyond the blessings of my progenitors unto the utmost bound of the everlasting hills; they shall be on the head of Joseph, and on the crown of the head of the prince among his brethren.” And then he asks all his sons to make sure he will be buried in the ancestral graves in Machpela, and he too expires and, like Abraham and Isaac before him, he is “gathered to his people”.

It is an exemplary death. All the threads of his life are brought together – his funeral arrangements are made, and he asks ALL his children to take responsibility to take him to the burial site which will bring him – and them – back to his familial roots. He brings his two Egyptian grandchildren into the family fold, he resolves his relationship with Joseph in a number of ways not least taking the responsibility of being the parent rather than being a guest enjoying his son’s hospitality and giving his personal gift separately from the family inheritance. He brings all his sons together so that none have more information than the others, and he is absolutely clear about them and their fortunes in an open and formal setting of deathbed blessing. And having finished his speech he gets comfortably into the bed and he dies.

Many years later we are told a similar story – the death of Rabbi Judah haNasi whom we know to have been in terrible pain and discomfort in his terminal state, but whose process of dying also encompasses the resolving of the important issues of his life. In the Babylonian Talmud we read “At the time of Rabbi’s death he said: I need my sons. His sons came to him and he told them “carefully observe the honour due to your mother……He said to them “I need the sages of Israel. The sages of Israel came to him and he said to them” Do not eulogise me in the towns. But establish a session after thirty days. Simon my son shall be Hacham, Gamliel my son shall be Nasi. Hanina bar Hama shall sit at the head of the Academy.  He said to them “I need my younger son” R. Simon came to him; He transmitted to him the tradition of wisdom. He said to them I need my older son. Rabban Gamliel came to him and he transmitted to him the orders of the patriarchate. ( Ketubot 103a-b)

Rabbi’s death was less peaceful than that of Jacob, indeed it took the intervention of a compassionate maid servant to help ease him from this world when she saw just how much pain he was in, but his thoughtful planning and the passing on of the legacy of his learning and leadership owe much to the story in Genesis. Only when Jacob completes the resolution of the family tensions at his deathbed, rather than hide from the challenge as his own father had done, does the story of lethal sibling rivalry that began with the very first brothers Cain and Abel and was demonstrated down the generations of the Book of Genesis, end. Judah HaNasi faced a similar problem – there was no clear successor of sufficient stature, so he gave to both his sons as well as to R.Hanina bar Hama a role and a title to go forward with. We know that the decentralisation of the rabbinic world began at this time, along with a flowering of other academies – -the new Academy and Patriarchate at Tiberius came to supersede the one at Sepphoris over time. But Judah haNasi did his best to prevent the splintering of authority and both his life and his death contributed to a smoother shift than might otherwise have been.

Most of us will not be leaving anything so valuable an inheritance as these figures, but we will all be leaving other important gifts and it is essential that we learn the lessons of dying well from wherever we can.

The lessons in our texts are a good place to start. To confront the reality that we will die, even if we don’t know when, so that we can plan and work in order to leave behind good relationships rather than complicated or destructive feelings.

The model to avoid is that of Isaac who surprisingly thought more about fulfilling his own immediate needs than smoothing the path for the future. Jacob the trickster cast aside his deceptiveness and spoke to each son individually in the presence of the others. Rabbi spoke with both the Sages of the Academy and then to each of his sons in order to prevent unseemly battles over leadership.

We none of us know the day of our death, but we can most certainly try to live our lives in such a way that we do not leave too much of a relationship mess behind us. If we truly lived as if we might die tomorrow we might say and do the things we should say and do now, and not say or do the things we imagine we can always sort out some time in the future while we focus on our own needs.

If we try to put things right each day, as if it is our last day and this our deathbed process, then we might leave less emotional mess behind. If we tell those we love that we love them, forgive those who hurt us, let people know our wishes -be it organ donation or special bequests; if we give back what we owe and plan for the future so that we do not leave others in the lurch, then we can leave the rest up to God and to the future that we can hope will take care of itself.

Sidra Vayigash:the reassurance of God’s presence in dark times

And Israel took his journey with all that he had, and came to Beersheba, and offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac. And God spoke to Israel in the visions of the night, and said: ‘Jacob, Jacob.’ And he said: ‘Here am I.’ And God said: ‘I am God, the God of your father; fear not to go down into Egypt; for I will there make of you a great nation. I will go down with you into Egypt; and I will also surely bring you up again; and Joseph shall put his hand upon your eyes.’ And Jacob rose up from Beersheba; 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 they took their cattle, and their goods, which they had got in the land of Canaan, and came into Egypt, Jacob, and all his seed with him; his sons, and his sons’ sons with him, his daughters, and his sons’ daughters, and all his seed brought he with him into EgyptGen 46:1-6

Jacob has a number of meetings with God during the night – the first was the dream on the road out to Haran when he was running away from Esau, and a ladder appeared to him that joined heavens to earth, and God delivered a reassuring message to him. The second the dream at the ford of Yabok, when he was returning home to Canaan, wealthy and secure but also anxious about the reception he would get from Esau.  And now here, at Beersheba, God appears in order it seems to reassure him that he will return from Egypt and will become a great nation. It reads to us a little strangely – for we know that Jacob will die in Egypt, and that as a nation they will only leave in over 400 years’ time, having survived a long period of slavery, yet one might read into it that the time in Egypt will be a short respite during the famine. Why? Does God think that Jacob will not cope with the reality of what his descendants will face? Is this vision one that emanates from Jacob’s need for support rather than being a real meeting with God? Is God responding more to the Jacob God first met, the frightened young man who yet was confident enough to tell God that only if God fulfilled the promises made in the dream would he finally believe, rather than to the older man whose world is shaped by the loss of his older son by his beloved wife Rachel; who has been frozen in grief since that time.

Or is the story added into the narrative later as a story to support the enslaved Israelites and ameliorate their suffering?

We have no answers, just as we have no answer for the interchangeable use of the two names Jacob and Israel, so powerful yet so cryptic in this passage. Yet as with all the encounters Jacob has with God during night time journeys, the vision is one we are able to hold on to today – providing reassurance in times of uncertainty, reminding us that we are one link in a chain that goes back into history and will go forward into a future we cannot know.

We are most definitely the children of Jacob rather than those of Abraham or Isaac. Abraham had a stern and all-encompassing faith which seemingly left no room for doubt or anxiety, Isaac lived in the shadow of that faith and his own encounters with God are clearly shaped by it. But Jacob was his own self, a mixture of self-assurance and anxiety, wanting to believe but not being too sure about it, prepared to do a deal with God when it seemed an expedient action.  It is given to few people to believe with certainty, and to fewer still to come to belief through their own experiences, rather than to have it bred into them. Doubt is a colourful strand in the Jewish character, it threads through our narratives and our prayer. Indeed we pray in an aspirational way – hoping to be able to believe rather than asserting that we hold such a conviction.  Whether God ever speaks to Jacob in the night or whether Jacob creates the experience for himself becomes an irrelevant question – what is important is that Jacob is able and willing to create such an encounter (or to believe it when it comes). It is all that is asked of us too – to be able and willing and open to the presence of God when times are at their darkest.

Miketz: the strange case of the disappearing women

Dr Ruchama Weiss points out that sidra Miketz is the first in Torah that is devoid of any stories of women : – she identifies it as the point at which bible begins to actively exclude women from the focus of the narrative. Over the fourteen years that the sidra spans in three and a half chapters of the book of Genesis, women are indeed conspicuous by their absence. The matriarchs have died, the only daughter of Jacob that we know of, the unfortunate Dina, has disappeared following her experiences with Shechem, no other daughters or indeed wives of the sons of Jacob are recorded here. They must have existed, but the biblical author does not see fit to document their presence.

There is in fact one woman who briefly makes an appearance – Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera a priest of On. Our introduction to her is laconic and almost imperceptible, she rates less than a third of the verse in which she appears, coming after the renaming of Joseph and before his status is recorded: “And Pharaoh called Joseph’s name Zaphenath-paneah; and he gave him to wife Asenath the daughter of Potiphera priest of On. And Joseph went out over the land of Egypt.—“(41:5). She reappears five verses later as mother to Joseph’s two sons: “ And to Joseph were born two sons before the year of famine came, whom Asenath the daughter of Potiphera priest of On bore unto him.” (41:50). She doesn’t get to name her sons, up till now the privilege of the mother, nor do we see her relationship with them – all we see is Joseph naming Manasseh and Ephraim in order to make statements about himself: “And Joseph called the name of the first-born Manasseh: ‘for God has made me forget all my toil, and all my father’s house. And the name of the second he called Ephraim: ‘for God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.’ (51,52)

Asenath

Her lonely presence in the sidra, useful only as a wife for Joseph and mother to his children, is picked up in the 6th century pseudepigraphical work “Joseph and Asenath” , though to be honest there too she is still the plaything and chattel of men. A pagan woman, she falls in love with Joseph and gives up her idolatry in a painful and protracted process in order to marry him and have his sons. Later the son of the Pharaoh tries to take her for himself but the plot is foiled, and Joseph takes the crown of Egypt. So there is not much more to her there either. She may be the daughter of a powerful priest of the Egyptian cult, the wife of the most powerful man in the country bar Pharaoh himself, the mother of the founders of the tribes of Ephraim and Menasse, but she is unknowable, mysterious and all but erased from history. Her fleeting presence in the sidra that is filled with the powerful men who control all the resources of the country only really serves to highlight the poignancy of her disappearance. And to complicate matters further, there are those who say that her presence in the sidra at all, inserted quite clumsily into the text as daughter, wife and mother, is only tolerated because she acts as a counterbalance to the physical beauty of Joseph which drives women into a sexual frenzy while he himself remains emotionally detached and essentially sexless. She is there as an answer to the questions about his sexuality, to put paid to any idea that he may not conform to the heteronormative ideal of the Hebrew bible.

This year – 2015 – is the eightieth anniversary of the private ordination of the first woman rabbi of modern times, Rabbiner Regina Jonas; and the fortieth anniversary of the ordination of the first woman to be given semicha by a European rabbinic institution (Leo Baeck College) Rabbi Dr Jackie Tabick.

One of the most shocking things about the life and times of Rabbiner Regina Jonas was how quickly she was forgotten after her death in Auschwitz in 1944. When I was studying at the Leo Baeck College in the 1980’s we knew only of rumours that there had been a woman who may or may not have been ordained Rabbi in Germany – even though some of the teachers and founders of the college had known her well. It was only with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the emergence of some of her papers and photographs from an archive that she once again became real. And now her life and name are being researched and reclaimed, yet there is so much that is lost beyond recall. She disappeared even while there were people alive to remember her. Her story is an object lesson, a cautionary tale, how quickly can the stories of people disappear if there is no interest, no will to record them and to keep them alive.

In the forty years that Rabbi Dr Jackie Tabick has been working as a rabbi the world has moved on. There is less anxiety (at least in the progressive Jewish world) about women working as rabbis, but still there are those individuals who ask for a male rabbi for a life cycle event, or synagogue search committees who worry what will happen to their community if a woman is appointed as rabbi, or as the senior rabbi.

So we should not be complacent and believe that the battle has been won. The erasing of the inconvenient from history goes on everywhere, and it is a truism history is written by the winners. If the narrator of the biblical text is not interested in the women then the stories of the women will not appear. If we don’t have a multiplicity of voices recording history as they see it, then we will have a thin and diminished version of history, seen through the narrowest of lenses. And this too has knock on effects. Because there are so few women fully described and fully voiced in our foundational texts, it is a short leap for some to believe that this must not be a function of the (lack of )interest of the narrator but a function of the divinely inspired status of women in society.

As the societal norms are impacting on Judaism, as the eightieth anniversary of the ordination of Regina Jonas and the fortieth of Jackie Tabick begin to filter into the consciousness of orthodox feminism, and as more Jewish women demand that their voice be heard, there is a corresponding kick back from some in the orthodox world. Only this week A senior haredi rabbi suggested at a conference for high school principals held in Bnei Brak that higher education for women constitutes a more severe blow to the haredi world than the Holocaust and a responsa was given to a man about letting his daughter go to university that “ to do so would be worse than stealing money since material goods may be recovered but the “spiritual damage” of permitting the young woman to achieve higher education could not be undone.”

The spiritual damage envisaged when a woman is allowed to study at a high level, to learn to think and question and understand the world around her is not to the woman herself – it is damage to the structure of a community which relies on unquestioning following of self-appointed sages. When people think for themselves, the artificial consensus breaks, and a real consensus, based on challenge and debate, logical argument and building of agreement is allowed to emerge. In sidra miketz the women are submerged in the narrative with just the flash of one woman’s presence that serves to point up all the absences. We should be warned, there is nothing new under the sun, and women are being ‘disappeared’ from public space in the Jewish world with increasing determination, just as they are in this sidra. In the book of Exodus the presence of women will reassert itself, but their silence as the book of Genesis begins to move towards its close is a telling one. And a nudge to us to take responsibility not to allow it to happen again.