Parashat Pinchas: #Girlpower; Or: The real stars of the sidra are the five women siblings who transform society and create justice.

‘Va’tikrav’nah b’not Zelophehad’ – the daughters of Zelophehad approached …. so begins one of the most intriguing stories to take place in the wilderness, a story where the bones of the developing society are laid bare for us to see, a rare narrative of the evolution of the legal code, and of the organising principles of our ancestral community.  And how much richer and more rewarding a text than we might imagine – it begins with this proactive and dynamic move – the daughters of Zelophehad, a man whom we have never heard of up until now, a man who is distinguished at this point only through his death – approach Moses and demand what they see to be their, and their father’s right – inheritance of land for them, and continuation of name and memory for  him.

The very first word on the story is unusual – the feminine plural form of any verb is a rarity in biblical Hebrew grammar, which defaults into the masculine with even a hint of testosterone, however many women there are involved.  And this is an active verb – the action of drawing close to another, used routinely in the search for God with the ritual of korbanut – of offering something precious to God as a sacrifice.  The verb one might expect – of simply coming to speak to Moses, is rejected in favour of injecting a sense of closeness – even of implying relationship.  These are no supplicant outsiders, but people whose perception of themselves is of being at the core of the community, who are able to treat Moses with proper respect but without needing to beg.

Machlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah are clearly of interest to the biblical narrator – not only are all their names recorded, but in the book of Joshua they appear again – and once again all the names are listed – to demand that what God had commanded Moses here in the wilderness was honoured once the people reached the land.  They obviously made a huge impression in their determination to inherit the land of their father, and in their determination to work together – five women, siblings, jointly fighting for their principles and their rights.  Given the terrible sibling stories in the bible – the first murder is fratricide and takes place in the very first generation to be born into the world – the relationships each of the patriarchs had with this brothers and the behaviour of Joseph’s older brothers towards him – you might think that it wasn’t even possible to get along with, let alone work with, your peer generation relatives!  There is a vestige of a hint that sisters might get along as long as they weren’t interested in the same man, in the midrash on Leah and Rachel, but actively co-operating with each other for joint good – that is unique I think to these five women.  Small wonder they are remembered with such particular definiteness.

Machlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah break the mould of sibling relationships – but they break other moulds too.  Up until this point no-one has come along with their own interpretation of Torah – God has simply given out commandments, either at reaching a new geographical place or during a social crisis.  At no point has anyone so much as solicited a legal opinion from God on a matter God has not yet discussed, let alone come up with their own innovation.  This is something entirely new in the narrative – for someone to come to Moses with a principled resolve based on what they understand to be the right thing to do, and a clear vision of what a Godly society should do.

Rather than merely following rules which have been transmitted to them, these women are willing to innovate, to change the world in accordance with their own principles.  As other women have done before them:– Sarah persuading Abraham to have a son by Hagar, Rebecca disguising the young goat as venison so as to claim the birthright blessing for her favourite son Jacob – the daughters of Zelophehad have taken matters into their own hands and changed the course of history.  This is a radical shift in the development of the Jewish people.  While one can make the case that since Eve in the Garden of Eden, men have tended to follow the rules which are laid down (or at best to interpret them within a narrow focus), women have brought about disjunction and change, this is the first time that the women’s behaviour has been given the imprimatur of God – ‘ Kein b’not Zelophehad dovrot – the daughters of Zelophehad speak right’  – there is divine approval for the different model of approaching the world, that of creating something new that is not connected with what was already in place, of breaking new ground because one is driven to do so by a sense of justice, of the absolute rightness of the new action.

The story of the daughters of Zelophehad is a story designed to remind us to stand up for rights, even if they are not yet perceived to be rights;  it is a story to remind us that all things might be possible, even with a God who seems to have it all sorted out already, even in a wilderness where the right might seem to be too abstract or too unfulfillable to be relevant.

The daughters of Zelophehad did groundbreaking work, which emerged from their confidence in themselves and the justness of their cause, from their supportive relationship with each other, from the need to link the past with the future and identify themselves within that future.  They established a legal presence and right for themselves and for all women in the future – the right to control their own economic provision.  We know that later on the right was constrained to daughters who married within their own tribe, that while they achieved economic power for women they were still kept away from the more potent power of the time – that of religious decision making – at least within the public and recorded sphere, but that should not change how we view this radical model of behaviour – you  still have to stand up and claim your rights and responsibilities even if you don’t immediately or easily achieve them – you need to challenge even God if necessary, to battle for what you believe to be important, to make your mark upon the world by fighting to make the world a better place.

The world hasn’t changed since the days of Machlah, Noa, Hogla, Milcah and Tirzah – it still seems that generally speaking men tend to operate by following or implementing the rules  and that women work by transforming them.  You only have to look at the impact women have had on the rabbinate to see that generality in action!   The question we need to be asking ourselves is not ‘why is the world so unfair’ but ‘in what way will I change the world because of what I believe in, because of my own faithfully held principles?’

(Adapted from the sermon for my daughter’s batmitzvah parashat Pinchas 2000 – a true disciple of the b’not zelophechad school of women fighting for social justice. Dedicated to the formidable Charlotte Fischer)

 

Parashat Bo: amid the drama and death in Egypt God gives a glimmer of hope for feminism

When Moses wanted to warn of a plague that would affect every single family from the most powerful in the land to the most vulnerable and powerless, he chooses a telling analogy – he tells Pharaoh “and all the first-born in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first-born of Pharaoh that sits upon his throne, even to the first-born of the maid-servant that is behind the mill; and all the first-born of cattle.” (Exodus 11:5)

What do we learn from this? We learn that the normative belief of Moses and of Pharaoh is that the lowest of the low in Egyptian society was the shifcha – the female servant – in particular the one whose job was the physical labour of grinding the corn on the millstones.

In human society this woman who worked behind the millstones, completely unseen, and the product of whose work was the most critical and basic foodstuff – she was at the very bottom of the pile, only above the animal herds.

Midrash notices her – in Pesikta Rabbati (ch 17) we have the question why she should also become a victim of the tenth plague, losing her firstborn child like the rest of non-Israelite society, and unsurprisingly it enters the realm of apologetics, and an explanation supporting this position is devised :“because the children of the slave women were also enslaving the Israelites, and they were happy about their misfortune”

Even in the world of slaves it seems, there is no compassion for fellow sufferers, the hierarchy and the need to enslave others, is assumed.

She seems to me to be a paradigm for women’s work through the ages. She is barely noticed, hidden behind the millstones, her gender and her status as servant both contributing to her concealment. She is the definition of what society has constructed as “worthless”, even while she is doing work that is not only of real value but that is utterly necessary for the society to continue – grinding the flour for the bread is the work on which all other factors build. Women’s work has always been valued as less-than. Be it home making or child rearing, tending to the sick and to the elderly, in service to others or even if it is innovative and creative, society values it less, sees it as inferior. And sadly girls absorb this world view early –gender stereotypes seem to be functioning in children as young as six years old[i]

Yet the biblical text views the shifcha – the bondmaid – in Hebrew society differently – they are not so hidden from view. It seems that the shifcha is the name of the maid given directly to the women by their menfolk in order to help them in their lives.  Hagar is introduced as a shifcha belonging to Sarah (Gen 16:1) though she is called an amah when she has Abraham’s child.  Zilpah and Bilhah are similarly introduced as Shifchot when given by their father to Leah and Rachel on their marriages to Jacob. The shifcha helps her mistress fulfil her work – in these cases she goes so far as to provide children with the husband of her mistress, functioning as a surrogate. It is a status both lowly and without personal identity or autonomy and yet at the same time the shifcha is in the heart of the family, bearing children who are recognised and who will inherit. Her function is to support and build the status of her mistress and in so doing she will herself grow in status.

In the Ten Commandments the status of the servants (admittedly av’decha v’amat’cha) means they also do no work on Shabbat.  Their power may be low and their vulnerability great, but God notices them and cares for them.

And this may explain the disappearance from the text of these women described by Moses as the very lowest of Egyptian society.  For in the very next chapter when the plague he is warning about comes to pass we read “And it came to pass at midnight, that the Eternal smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh that sat on his throne to the first-born of the captive that was in the dungeon; and all the first-born of cattle.” (Exodus 12:29)

The shifcha who worked behind the mill has been replaced here by the captive in the dungeon. And we have to ask why. Is it that Moses got it wrong, that the shifcha was not quite at the bottom of the pile? Is it that the two groups, captives and maidservants, are essentially synonyms?

I don’t think Moses got it wrong, and I don’t think that the two groups fully equate – the imprisoned captive or the hard working servant woman. I have the feeling that God noticed when Moses issued his threat, God saw that these women who were unsung and uncared for but who worked for the society – in their case to feed them –did not deserve this total lack of respect that Pharaoh and Moses assumed. God didn’t buy into the idea that “women’s work” – the kind of work that creates and cooks the food, that ensures there is clean clothing and that the home is functioning and hygienic; the kind of work like cleaning offices when everyone else has gone home or visiting the sick or elderly and helping with their basic needs – God sees the value even when sometimes society doesn’t.

When Moses and Pharaoh demonstrate that they do not see the women because the society in which they lived do not see the women, God has a little extra lesson to give. The story is dramatic, the tenth plague particularly cruel and unfair leading us to much soul searching about what kind of a God could behave like this – but the glimmer of fairness and valuing of someone shows through as God subtly shifts from the warning to the action. And it makes me see a God working in a patriarchal context but refusing to be bound by it.

[i] Bian, L., Leslie, S. J., & Cimpian, A. (2017). Gender stereotypes about intellectual ability emerge early and influence children’s interests. Science, 355(6323), 389–391.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Chayei Sarah: confronting the reality of death, make preparations, do the work

death pic

Confronting the reality of death is always hard, and for Abraham this is no exception. The text that begins with the phrase “the life of Sarah was one hundred and twenty and seven years, these were the years of the life of Sarah, and Sarah died…” is the introduction to a protracted negotiation for her burial place.

In the twenty verses of the narrative, only three touch on Abraham’s emotional state “Abraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her. And Abraham rose up from before his dead, and spoke unto the children of Heth, saying: I am a stranger and a sojourner with you: give me a possession of a burying-place with you, that I may bury my dead out of my sight.’ In the story as first presented we see that he seems to quickly move from mourning and weeping to making the practical arrangements so that the body of his wife can be buried and removed from before him.

Sarah’s is the first documented burial in bible – up until now the narrative has dispassionately informed us of the death of individuals without much more detail. Yet clearly this burial he is arranging is not an unknown rite. The children of Heth recognise his need and open the negotiations with the offer that he may take his choice from their sepulchres, telling him that no one would withhold their own plot from him should he want to use it. So clearly there was already a well- established proactive structure in place of prepared graves by the time Sarah died, not surprising given the need to quickly dispose of the bodies of the dead. Yet our foundational family did not seem to have made this provision. Was it because as an immigrant family they had not got a sense of ‘owning’ the land they had come to? Or because they had not quite struck roots in the land of Canaan and were still travelling? It is odd that Sarah died in Hebron when Abraham was clearly in Be’er sheva. Were they living separately? The midrash tells of Sarah’s death being caused by her horror that her husband would be prepared to sacrifice their son so had she left Abraham in order to strike out alone? Was any previous plan to have a grave left behind in the tangle of confusion that this relationship trauma had caused, and Sarah’s new place of abode forced Abraham into making new arrangements?

It does seem odd that they had not made plans for their deaths. They were a long way from the graves of their ancestors, (and indeed Terach the father of Abraham had also died in Haran away from his homeland of Ur Chasdim) so they would have had to innovate in their new lives in the new country. Were they hoping for some guidance in the moment? Were they wondering if they would be staying in the land or moving onwards again? What was behind the need for Abraham to have to negotiate for a family plot while in the grief of immediate bereavement? If as a Jewish community we have learned one thing, we have learned of the importance of community support in times of death and bereavement. The chevra kadisha (holy fellowship) which is appointed by every Jewish community to care for the dead, goes back at least to the time of Rabbi Hamnuna (3rd Century CE). The Talmud (Mo’ed Katan 27b) tells us This also said Rav Judah as reporting Rav: When a person dies in town, all the townspeople are forbidden from doing work. R. Hamnuna once came to Daru-matha, he heard the sound of the funerary-bugle [and] seeing some people carrying on their work, he said: Let the people be under the shammetha [ban]! Is there not a person dead in town? They told him that there was an Association (chevra kadisha) in the town. If so, said he to them, it is allowed you [to work].”

It provides a fascinating insight into the way the whole community was responsible for taking these practical arrangements from the mourners, and for arranging the dignified care and disposal of the body of the dead. This mitzvah took over from the need to work for everyone in town. There was a notifying sound when someone had died so that everyone would know of the death, and clearly in some places that R.Hamnuna knew, this sound was the prompt to everyone to down tools and go to help. Yet in Daru-matha they were even more organised, having deputed the responsibility to a group of skilled volunteers, much as we do to this day.

This leaves time for the mourner to use more than the 15 percent of time that Abraham was able to give in the narrative, to their grief. They can focus entirely on their loss, on the person they loved, on evaluating and processing and making sense of what has happened. And here Abraham has something very powerful to teach us.

We are told וַיָּבֹא֙ אַבְרָהָ֔ם לִסְפֹּ֥ד לְשָׂרָ֖ה וְלִבְכֹּתָֽהּ:

Abraham came ‘lispod´ for Sarah and livkotah’

Lispod is the word we use for giving the hesped – for speaking of the dead and telling the story of their life, from where they had come and how the journey had been, assessing and evaluating the real life that was lived, rather than eulogising or praising the person- at least not paying fulsome tribute unrealistically or without the fuller context of the way they lived their life. ‘Hesped’ means to cause to cry – in other words to really understand who we have lost and so to really feel the cost and pain of the death. Only after Abraham has done this, comprehended the full meaning of the life of Sarah, and thus the full extent of his loss, does he cry/mourn.

Sometimes when people die we like only to say good things about them – even unrealistic and unbelievable good things, instead of focussing on who they were, on why they had the damage or the pain or the anger they carried, on how they did or did not deal with the hurts and disappointments every life brings. There is a tendency to quote another midrashic gloss taken from the names of three sidrot in the book of Leviticus – “Acharei Mot Kedoshim Emor – After death speak holiness”. And this is a good maxim, but it is not the way of true mourning if we think the holiness /kedoshim means to tell ‘white lies’ or gloss over the reality of the complexity of every lived life.

To truly speak holiness of the dead is to recognise them in their full humanity. To see the flaws as well as the wonders, the spectrum of attributes they held and the way they allowed themselves to be. We need to see the fights they fought, the pain they felt, the love they gave, the achievements they realised, the relationships they worked on, the memories they embodied, the losses and the gains. Whatever the story behind the separation of Sarah and Abraham at her death and the lack of dignified burial space planned for earlier, Abraham teaches us something very powerful. See the person who died, give them their full rights as full human beings who lived fully human lives, and only then cry for yourself and for the loss of them. Confront the reality of them and their deaths, and go on to live your life in the light of that understanding.hevra kadisha(images from Czech republic: Hevra Kadisha building in Prague)