Elisheva: challenging the patriarchal structure with her mixed feelings. Parashat Va’era

Early in the sidra is a partial genealogy, which leads us rapidly to the Levitical line. A genealogy of the Levites takes us from Levi through Kohat to Amram father of Aaron and Moses. Unusually, three women are named in this genealogy:

Amram married Yocheved the sister of his father, and she gave birth to Aaron and Moses (Miriam is not mentioned here).

Aaron married Elisheva, the daughter of Amminadav, the sister of Nachshon; and she bore him Nadav and Avihu, Eleazar and Itamar.

Eleazar Aaron’s son took him one of the daughters of Putiel to wife; and she bore him Pinchas.

It is unusual for the wives to be named in these genealogies and so we must explore this further to see what Torah is trying to tell us.   Amram and Yocheved are nephew and aunt –both descendants of Levi, so Aaron and Moses are, so to speak, doubly Levitical.

It is not clear who Putiel is – he appears only here. Nor do we know how many daughters he had, or the names of any of them.

But Elisheva is given a much fuller ‘yichus’ – she is the daughter of Amminadav, the sister of Nachshon and we know from later in bible that her tribe therefore is that of Judah.  Not much is known of Amminadav, but Nachshon features further in text and tradition.  We learn in the book of Numbers that under God’s instruction, Nachshon ben Amminadav was appointed by Moses as ‘Nasi’, leader/prince of the Tribe of Judah (Num. 1:7), to stand with Moses and to help him lead the people.  We can also see that through Boaz he will be a direct ancestor to King David; and curiously he sits exactly half way in the biblical genealogy that leads directly from Judah to David.

Because of his descent from Judah and his many regal descendants, Nachshon is praised in the rabbinic literature. Most famously – even though the biblical text does not mention him there – he is said to have shown real faith at the Reed Sea. The Israelites having left Egypt after the final plague, found themselves trapped. In front of them was the water and behind them the furious pursuing army. They complained bitterly to Moses asking why he had brought them there only to die in the wilderness.  And while they were standing there, each one angrily refusing to go further, and while Moses was praying to God for help, Nachshon ben Amminadav jumped into the water and when it reached his nostrils, the waters parted. (BT Sotah 36a; Mechilta Beshalach)

This is the brother of Elisheva, a man apparently of great qualities – and as Elisheva is introduced to us as his sister – an unnecessary addition in the generational genealogy- it is assumed that something else is being alluded to here beyond the blood relationship. Elisheva brings into the Priestly line that will descend from her and Aaron the qualities of leadership embodied by her own family which will provide the Royal line.

Elisheva will give birth to the four sons of Aaron, two of whom, Nadav and Avihu, will suffer a terrible and violent death shortly after being inducted into the priesthood. The other two will continue the hereditary line of the Cohanim – the Jewish priests.   She is, with Aaron, the root of the priestly tradition. And she also brings together the two formal leadership roles within the biblical tradition – she brings the royal line of Judah which is already generations old, (Judah having been blessed by Jacob on his deathbed as being the Royal line), together with the brand new line of hereditary priesthood.

Elisheva is understood in tradition to be a woman who had reason for great pride and joy by virtue of her relationships to male leaders:  The Talmud (Zevachim 102a) tells us that on the day of the inauguration of the Mishkan “Elisheva had five additional joys over other daughters of Israel. She was the sister-in-law of the king (Moses), the wife of the High Priest (Aaron), her son (Elazar) was the segan (deputy high priest), her grandson (Pinchas) was anointed for war, and her brother (Nachshon) was a prince of the tribe of Judah [and the first of the twelve tribal leaders to make a gift offering for the inauguration]  One can add to this list that it was Betzalel ben Hur her nephew  of the tribe of Judah, who was the architect appointed by God to build the Mishkan.

Talmud however goes on to note “yet she was bereaved of her two sons”

I find this extraordinary. The Talmudic text is well aware that Elisheva, like Aaron, is bereaved of two of her adult children in a moment – destroyed when beginning their work as priests, but offering strange fire before God. We don’t really understand what happened here – were they drunk? Idolatrous? Inefficient?  Improperly dressed? – but we do understand that they die instantly. And we also understand that while a male response is described to these deaths, (Moses speaks to Aaron about God’s demands for the priesthood, Aaron is silent, Mishael and Elzaphan the sons of Uzziel the uncle of Aaron are instructed to bring the bodies out of the mishkan and put them outside the camp, Elazar and Itamar are instructed about their priestly duties, along with Aaron…) Nothing is said about the response of Elisheva, the mother of the dead boys.

Aaron is famously silent – we are told this and it is understood that he is able to accept that the greater good of the priesthood is more important than the individual fates of his two sons. But his enigmatic silence is at painful odds with the complete erasure of the response of Elisheva. I cannot for a moment imagine that she would have taken the deaths quite so phlegmatically.

In the Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 20:2) we see the situation from the viewpoint of Elisheva. “Elisheva, the daughter of Amminadav, did not enjoy happiness in this world. True, she witnessed the five crowns [attained by her male relatives] in one day…but when her sons entered to offer incense and were burnt, her joy was changed to mourning.”

The Midrash not only allows her mourning, it accepts that the deaths of her sons affected her profoundly so that even the achievements of her other male relatives would not give her any happiness.  Mourning as a parent is all-consuming. It is not ever something that one can recover fro;  the best that can happen is that joy can once again be experienced tinged with sadness, with an awareness that life is incomplete and will remain so.

Elisheva, the woman who brings together the lines of power and leadership – monarchy and priesthood, who is the foremother therefore of all those who have to care for the people, who have to lead it thoughtfully and in is best interest; Elisheva, matriarch and founding spirit of all the leaders whose job is to serve, to provide security, to be thoughtful about the impact of their decisions in the wider world –  brings not only the qualities of power that leadership needs, she brings another quality – the awareness of incompleteness and imperfection that we must live with.

It is a truism that peace/shalom is never fully here – the most we have is an absence of conflict and we must work to stop such conflict breaking out and gaining ascendancy. Our hope for each other uses the prefix le – leshalom, TOWARDS shalom, rather than b’shalom –IN/WITH peace because we are constantly striving towards it – we only reach our individual shalom when we are dead, as the biblical language confirms.  It is also true that every joy we have in life is good but it is temporary and it is always susceptible to change. We live in a world of uncertainty and entropy, change will happen and we must be able to cope with it.

Elisheva had so much in life – she came from a successful and value driven family, she married into another one, she had children and grandchildren, she features (albeit briefly) in bible. But as the midrash tells us, she did not enjoy happiness in this world, she lived in the liminal space where the pain of her mourning, and her awareness of the continuing fragility of the lives of those we love can  tinge, if not overshadow all happiness.

At a Jewish wedding there is a tradition to break a glass at the end of the ceremony. There are many reasons given – to scare away demons who may be lurking and to remember the destruction of the Temple  are two of the most famous, but the most likely is to remind everyone in the room that joy is transitory and good times must be enjoyed when we encounter them.

Life is hard and we shall all encounter a mixture of good and bad, of ease and difficulty, of problems and effortlessness as we go through it.  We will all meet difficulties, many of us will face fear and anxiety, some of us will have to deal with tragedy. We cannot allow fear or pain or sadness to overwhelm us but neither must we suppress the realities that they exist.

Elisheva encountered both extreme highs and lows of life. Bible is silent on her way of dealing with it, but rabbinic tradition uses her as a model, in the full knowledge that the people it is writing for would also face good times and bad, and needed to find resilience beyond that of blind faith. Elisheva lives on after the tragedy of the deaths of her sons, she continues to experience joy and sadness, she is able to experience both but neither of them can be untouched by the other. She is a human being who copes with life.

The name Elisheva can mean either “my God has sworn an oath” or it can mean “my God has satisfied”. What is the oath that is sworn? That God will remain our God through the ages, through good times and bad. And in what way is Elisheva ‘satisfied’? She has had a lot of good in her life, which enables her to deal also with the bad.

We learn from Elisheva that we can both enjoy life and mourn for what we no longer have, or might never have. We must live with the mingling of light and dark, knowing that each will tinge the other but each must be lived through. We learn that holding a constant sense that we are still connected to God, even in the dark times, even when may be afraid or sad or even angry with God, will help us through our lives.

No one gets away with a life that has no loss and no pain. No one escapes pain – it is an elemental human condition and closely allied to the ability to love. The men around Elisheva take refuge in their status, but Elisheva stands out, a scion of the royal line, the mother of priests. She may appear to have everything, but what matters can be taken away in a heartbeat and then the “everything” shows what it truly is – momentary, material, and irrelevant. Elisheva reminds us that relationships not only underpin our lives, they provide connection and the place to be ourselves. Everything else will pass.

Va’era: Does God hear prayer? Does God appear to us when we pray?

When God speaks to Moses at the beginning of the sidra, God says to him “And moreover I have heard the groaning of the children of Israel, whom the Egyptians keep in bondage; and I have remembered My covenant (6:5)

 וְגַ֣ם אֲנִ֣י שָׁמַ֗עְתִּי אֶֽת־נַֽאֲקַת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר מִצְרַ֖יִם מַֽעֲבִדִ֣ים אֹתָ֑ם וָֽאֶזְכֹּ֖ר אֶת־בְּרִיתִֽי:

In Bible, God hears prayer and frequently is recorded responding to the request. Be it Isaac’s prayer for a child for Rebecca (Genesis 25:21) or Jacob asking for deliverance from the avenging Esau (Gen 32:12), be it Moses and Aaron asking for the healing of Miriam’s skin disease (Numbers 12:13) or the desperate request for a child from Hannah. Be it David asking for God’s blessing and support (2Sam 7:18ff) or Solomon asking for wisdom (1 Kings 3:5ff) It seems that people prayed for what they wanted or needed and God reacted.

Jewish traditional texts assume that prayer comes from the heart and finds its way to a divine hearing. Later in rabbinic Judaism, prayer was more formalised, the wording more fixed (or at least the themes of the prayers, their introductions and endings were organised and prescribed) and while there was room for spontaneous prayer there was also a structure of community prayer, with the underlying assumption that the prayers of a community together would somehow strengthen the power of the words, that God would more readily listen to the combined communal prayer. Hence the minyan, the minimum of ten people for some prayers to be recited, and the extraordinary effect it has of creating community and awareness of the needs of others. Jewish tradition teaches that our communal prayer reminds us not just to think of ourselves, that our prayer must be broader, and when we pray in the right way, with our hearts and minds fully engaged and within the community of our peers, that God will hear our prayer.

But this all begs the question – does God hear all prayer? And if so does our prayer make a difference to the outcomes we seek? What does it mean for God to hear our prayer? And what does it mean if it appears that God does not hear us, or at least does not give us what we want?

The Hebrew verb le’hitapallel, from which the word for prayer –tefillah – comes, means in essence to work on oneself and to judge oneself. So the language of prayer is reflexive, we do something to or for ourselves in prayer, albeit in the gaze of the divine. Prayer is not so much for God as it is for us. In one form, alluded to in the English form of the word, prayer, it is indeed about asking for something, usually for God to influence and outcome, but tefillah is much more than this – it is about stepping outside of the normal stream of time and busyness and looking at ourselves in order to decide for ourselves.

And yet we persist in praying as if our prayer is heard by someone outside of ourselves who has the power to effect change for us. Our core texts all assume this to be true, even while our lived experience shows no real evidence. And we continue, despite everything, to pray to God as if such prayer is heard, as if it matters, as if God will be impacted by our words and the world will be different.

The later books of the Hebrew bible record many prayers uttered in desperate times. The book of Psalms can be read as a liturgical resource bank, and it is no coincidence that so many verses from this book are the building blocks of our liturgy and prayers. Prayer is seen as a natural and human response, and Maimonides reminds us in the Laws of Prayer that “It is a positive commandment to pray each day as it is stated, “And you shall serve the Eternal your God (Ex. 23:25) … They taught that “serve,” means prayer, as it is stated, “And you shall serve God with all your heart” (Deut. 11:13). The Sages asked, “What is the service of the heart? This is prayer” (Ta’anit 2a).”

Prayer is understood in tradition as being rooted in the behaviour of our founding Patriarchs, has the status of being a mitzvah, a commandment, and is one of the spiritual pillars upon which the world stands, taking the place of the sacrificial system of Temple worship that brought God closer to our world.

Right up to current responsa, prayer is seen as being the obvious and most basic demonstration of belief in God. R. Moshe Feinstein wrote that “The essence of belief in God is that only God can ultimately guarantee our livelihood or cure our diseases. And when a person does not trust in God and does not pray to God, it is as if he is denying belief in God for the sake of belief in something else…” (Igrot Moshe, Orach Chaim Vol. II, Chapter 24)

Yet if asked, many people of faith, who pray regularly and with kavannah (focus/intention) will still hesitate to sign up to such an idea that it God has such activity within our daily lives so that our livelihoods and our health are entirely at the mercy of the divine. How can we live with a God who can capriciously save some and condemn others? How can we live with a God who sees the righteous suffer, when by an act of will they would not have to do so? How can we live with a God who demands praise even while the world is in pain?

Like so much of Jewish experience, we seem able to live with two contradictory ideas both being true, to be comfortable with the cognitive dissonance of both/and, of eilu v’eilu – that many ways of being can be ways to live a righteous and blessed life. We pray because we have to pray, it is hard wired in our souls. We call to a God we don’t always believe in, a God we are sometimes uncertain might be there. We act ‘kiv’yachol’ – as if our prayer will be heard and answered, and yet at the same time we call it the act of le’hitpallel, of judging ourselves, of working upon ourselves.

Does our prayer change God’s mind? In many ways it is simply the wrong question. Our prayer is essentially the internal dialogue that keeps us true and keeps us aware of the direction our moral compass must direct us towards. Whether God hears and responds, hears and takes note, hears and ignores, or does IMG_1791not hear – who can tell? It is enough that we believe ourselves to be in God’s presence when we judge ourselves and we work to change ourselves. And sometimes, rarely, we suddenly have the encounter, we recognise the presence of God and hear the voice of slender silence resonating in our soul and we know that God is listening, that God is there. And we have the strength to go on.