Parashat Vayetse – Bavel and Bet-El

וְהָיָה יְ׳הוָה לִי לֵא׳לֹהִים

Parashat Vayetse begins in earnest the section of Sefer Bereishit dedicated to the narratives of the patriarch Yaakov. The first event of the parashah is the revelatory dream Yaakov experiences while fleeing from his brother Esav to find a wife amongst his mother’s family in Haran. What is fascinating about this is that while it is his father Yitzhak who is thought of as following in Avraham’s footsteps, in this story, and throughout the rest of his narratives, Yaakov seems to be almost a new version of Avraham[1], receiving both the same berakhah and traveling the exact same path, in contrast to Yitzhak. The blessing Yaakov receives in the dream includes the phrase “and all the families of the earth will be blessed through you” (Bereishit 28:14), which is exactly the same phrase that appears in Avraham’s first blessing from (א’ (12:3. In contrast, when Yitzhak is blessed by ‘א he is only told, “All the nations of the world will bless themselves by your descendants” (26:5). Both Yaakov and Avraham are told that they will possess the land in all four points of the compass rose (28:14 and 13:14-15). Similarly, while Yitzhak never leaves the land of Canaan, Avraham and Yaakov both travel from Haran to Shekhem, to Bet-El, to Hevron, and they both build altars in Shekhem and Bet-El. Why are these two patriarchs so similar? And, more importantly, what is unique about Yaakov? What does he bring to the table? The answer to this question lies in the meaning of the revelatory dream, and the ramifications it bears for Yaakov’s relationship to ‘א.

Yaakov arrives at Bet-El as the sun sets and so he lays down to sleep, and he dreams (28:11-15). In this dream he sees a sulam, generally translated[2] as “ladder,” standing on the earth with its top reaching to the heavens. ‘א stands atop the sulam as “messengers of God,” generally understood as angels, go up and down it, and blesses Yaakov that he will have innumerable descendants, the land of Canaan, and that he and his descendants will be a source of blessing to the nations of the world. ‘א also promises to be with Yaakov and protect him. While the blessing and the promise are quite clear, the vision of the sulam at the beginning of the dream is an enigma that midrashim and commentaries have been trying to solve since then.

Perhaps most famous is the midrashic comment[3] stating that the angels ascending the sulam were the angels that protected Yaakov within the land of Canaan and the angels descending the sulam were the angels that will protect Yaakov outside the land of Canaan. This explanation has the advantage of being part and parcel of the message delivered in the second half of the dream. There is another midrash[4] that says that the “messengers of God” were Moshe and Aharon, and that the sulam was really Har Sinai. This midrash is based on literary parallels. The nature of the ladder as “rooted  on the earth” and “reaching to the heavens” is paralleled in Shemot 19:17 and Devarim 4:11, while the movements of the “messengers” are paralleled in Shemot 19:3, 14, 18, and 20. The midrash and the Baal HaTurim also both point out that the numerical values of “סלם” and “סיני” are equivalent. Yet another midrash[5] sees the sulam as representative of the historical stage and the “messengers of God” rising and falling upon it as the kingdoms that would dominate and then crumble throughout history, specifically the four nations that would rule over the people of Israel before the redemption. This midrash has the advantage of explaining the historical relevance, both of this passage in the Torah and of the ancestral promise that Yaakov was now inheriting, to Yaakov’s descendants (Bereishit 28:13-14). These are only a few of the approaches to explaining the vision of the sulam and they all have their strengths and weaknesses, but none of them explain the connection to Avraham. To understand that we have to look at the connection between the sulam and the Tower of Bavel.

The Tower of Bavel and the sulam of Yaakov are incredibly similar in many ways. The two stories are unique in Tanakh in describing structures whose tops reach to heaven[6]. Both structures are intended to bridge the gap between Heaven and Earth. Both stories involve the naming of a place based on a godly event (11:9 and 28:19). The Aramaic name for the city of Bavel, ‘babili,’ means the Gate of the Gods, and Yaakov refers to Bet-El as the Gate of Heaven (28:17). Both stories depict ‘א coming to man, either as a revelatory or destructive force. Both stories are also connected by virtue of contrasts between them as well. The story of Yaakov at Bet-El is pervaded with mentions of the stones there, which Yaakov sleeps on (28:11) and from which he makes a monument there (28:18). The Tower of Bavel was made from bricks that the people baked, as the ground in the part of Mesopotamia is mostly clay without rocks to build with. Yaakov’s dream depicts the messengers of God traveling up and down the sulam, the only movement depicted in the Tower narrative is that of ‘א descending to the city. The story also begins with the people traveling from east to west, to the valley of Shiner (11:1), while Yaakov leaves Bet-El and heads to the East (29:1). There is a clear connection between these stories, as well as a great tension, and investigating the entirety of its meaning is beyond the scope of this composition. However, it is worth noting that many have suggested, based on this connection, that the sulam was not a ladder but a staircase or a ramp of the type that people used to climb a ziggurat like the Tower of Bavel, which also explains why Yaakov is standing up stones as monuments; he’s trying to recreate his dream[7].

Assuming that the dream of the sulam is meant to in some way represent or mimic the Tower of Bavel leads to a very interesting observation. Avraham’s story starts immediately after the Tower of Bavel and is in some ways is a reaction to it. While Yaakov’s story in some ways begins before the dream while still in his parents house, he alone becomes the focus starting with the dream of the sulam[8]. Certainly, the dream of the sulam and the promise and blessing from ‘א therein set up and drive the conflicts of the rest of Yaakov’s narrative[9]. Thus, both Avraham and Yaakov begin their stories after the Tower/sulam. However, they follow after this in opposite manners. Avraham was a reaction against the Tower of Bavel. Where the people of Bavel had forced everyone to work together for a joint idolatrous purpose, Avraham was a single person serving a divine goal that would ultimately benefit all of the individuals (Bereishit 12:1-3). Instead of rejecting the sulam, Yaakov’s story is about affirming it[10]. His job is to embrace a life of relationship with ‘א, not to reject an idolatrous and self-serving life. Yaakov’s life is an affirmation of something good, not a negation of something bad.

We all choose to dedicate our lives to different things, whether it is family, religion, social activism, or one of a hundred other things. However, there are different ways we can approach these things. We can dedicate ourselves to them as a way of avoiding or negating something else, or we can dedicate ourselves to them because of what they are. We can embrace them because everything else is false or bad, or we can embrace them because they possess a deep truth and goodness. Choosing something because of what it is, rather than what it is not, often leads to a much fuller relationship with it, as your energy is invested entirely in the thing itself, not in pushing away other things. This is what Yaakov brings to the stories of the Patriarchs. Instead of Avraham who had the job of creating something new, and Yitzhak who continued and strengthened Abraham’s project, Yaakov represents embracing ‘א and His Covenant because of what it is and not what it is not. And this is what is incumbent upon us to do, to choose who we are and who we want to be, what we want to stand for, and to embrace it because of what it is, not because of what it is not.

[1] For more on the connection between Avraham and Yaakov, see this essay by R’ Yonatan Grossman.

[2] In regard to an alternative possible translation, see below.

[3] Notably found in the commentaries of Rashi and Ramban ad loc.

[4] See Ibn Ezra and Radak ad loc. and Bereishit Rabbah 68:12, 16.

[5] Pirkei D’ Rebbe Eliezer 35, brought in Ramban and Rabbeinu Behaye ad loc. Similar midrashim are found in the Midrash Tanhuma and Pirkei D’Rav Kahanah. Also see Seforno ad loc.

[6] For more on the connection between these two stories, see this essay by R’ Amnon Bazak.

[7] For more on this, see this essay by R’ Dr. Joshua Berman.

[8] Notably, the verses immediately before the dream largely deal not with Yaakov but with Esav (28:8-10).

[9] For and in-depth treatment of this, see chapter 3 of John Anderson’s “Jacob and the Divine Trickster”.

[10] This actually helps understand the odd vow that Yaakov makes after the dream. Yaakov seems to be saying that if ‘א keeps the promise made in the dream, then Yaakov will keep his end of the vow. It would be odd that he is questioning ‘א’s fidelity to His Word, except that this is likely Yaakov’s first experience of prophecy and it came in a dream. Thus he has no way of knowing if it was merely a dream or something more, and his struggle thereafter is to affirm it.

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Parashat Haye Sarah – A Stranger In A Strange Land

גֵּר-וְתוֹשָׁב אָנֹכִי

Parashat Haye Sarah tells the three stories that conclude Avraham’s section of Sefer Bereishit, consisting of his last two narratives and the story of his burial. The two final narratives of Avraham’s life, burying his wife and finding a wife for his son, would seem at first glance to be in tension. When buying a plot of land to bury Sarah, Avraham is very precise in following the local protocol and accepted norms of the Hittite community in the area, making his case to and before the public (Bereishit 23). Then, when he sends his servant to find a wife for Yitzhak, his instructions make it clear that he wants nothing to do with the locals, that a Canaanite woman would be completely unacceptable as a wife for Yitzhak. However, both stories are at the end of the day more complex than that, and both express a larger tension inherent in Avraham’s life, and throughout the history of Bnei Yisrael.

Bereishit 23 begins with Sarah’s death and ends with her burial. The verses in between are spent in a very detailed depiction of the process of Avraham buying a plot of land in which to bury Sarah. Avraham first goes to the Children of Het as a community and asks them to speak on his behalf. Only then does Avraham actually speak to Efron, and the whole thing takes place in the presence of the community. The whole thing strongly resembles ancient Near-Eastern contracts, down to the mention of the trees in verse 17[1]. The larger story reads very much like a story about Avraham joining the community. However, looking at the details of Avraham’s discussion with the Hittites gives a somewhat different impression. In verse four, Avraham asks the community if he can purchase “a burial plot” in which to bury Sarah, and they respond by offering him a grave, “from amongst the choicest of their graves.” In his response, Avraham asks the people to intercede with Efron on his behalf, and in doing so he again states that he is looking to purchase not a grave, but a burial plot. This repeated emphasis on buying a full piece of land in which to bury his wife, instead of just burying her among the dead of the Hittites, demonstrates a strong desire to remain separate and distinct. So while he is more than willing to follow the communal customs and protocols in buying the plot of land, the land purchase itself represents a certain degree of reluctance to actually join the community.

Bereishit 24 depicts the journey of Avraham’s servant to Haran to find a wife for Yitzhak. The servant’s journey is started by Avraham giving him detailed instructions, with the emphasis on the fact that the wife must not be from Canaan, going so far as to make him swear to this. “And I will make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of the earth, that you shalt not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell. But you shalt go to my country, and to my kindred, and take a wife for my son, for Yitzhak” (24:3-4). This would seem to betray a strong desire to remain separate and apart from the Canaanites. But for all that, it is even more important that Yitzhak not be taken out of the land of Canaan. Despite the apparently undesirable nature of the Canaanite society, Avraham wants to make sure that his descendants remain in the midst of it. They came from a different land to a place where the society runs according to norms they could never accept[2]. They are supposed to come to the society as strangers, and then dwell there, despite the fact that it is strange to them.

The idea of being a stranger in a strange land is a trend for the next few generations of Israelite leadership. Yaakov spends 22 years growing and developing his family in the house of Lavan. Yosef is sold into slavery in Egypt where he becomes a leader of the entire society. Perhaps the ultimate manifestation of this is Moshe, who is raised in the Egyptian royal household, while  knowing that he is an Israelite (Shemot 2:8, 4:14), then he is exiled to Midian, where they identify him as an Egyptian (Shemot 2:19), and finally he returns to Egypt, to the house of Paroah, as the leader of soon-to-be liberated slaves. He is at all points in his life a stranger, as emphasized by the fact that he names his first son Gershom (גרשם), literally meaning “stranger there,” due to his having “been a stranger in a strange land” (Shemot 2:22). The only person whose sense of estrangement might be comparable is Rivkah. When she is taken from her family, from the land of her birth, she becomes a part of Avraham’s family, and must take up the family legacy of being part of a community they cannot fully accept. However, her estrangement starts much earlier. When the Torah introduces Rivkah, she is depicted as the very essence of altruistic dedication to the service of others. She spends hours filling up troughs full of water for the camels of a stranger who merely asked for a sip to drink (Bereishit 24:17-19). When he asks for a place to sleep, she offers him food for his camels as well (24:23-25). Her family, however, is only moved by the riches of the stranger (24:30-31), and seems to be totally self-serving, revealing that, growing up, Rivkah would have been a stranger in her own household. This would have made her perfect to marry Yitzhak, who was born in the Canaanite community, and thus would not possess the same degree of natural tension.

The question that then must be answered is, why is this tension important, or even at all desirable? The sensation of alienation Avraham and his family must have experienced living in Canaanite society must have been incredible, and not entirely pleasant. However, it has an important function. Avraham’s family was meant to be involved in the Canaanite society. Avraham helps fight a war (Bereishit 14) and he prays for the Sedom and the surrounding cities (Bereishit 18:16-33), despite their dubious moral character (Bereishit 13:13). Both Avraham and Yikzchak have repeated dealings with King Avimelekh of Gerar (Bereishit 20, 21:22-34). However, they are also a unique entity unto themselves, ‘א’s only covenantal partners in a land of people whose actions ‘א cannot tolerate (Bereishit 15:16). To remain unique is to be alienated. Losing this sense of alienation comes at the price of losing what makes one unique. This is all the more true in modern society, where we as jews are not in total opposition to society’s values. Much of modernity is incredibly valuable and important, and therefore it is that much harder to feel that we should be different, that we must remain separate. But if we as Jews do have something valuable to contribute to society, and we certainly do, letting go of that is a loss not just for us, but for society as a whole. While the pull of unity is great, it often comes at the price of the unique gifts of the individual, and in this it must be resisted. What we have to give is what makes us unique, and thus the way to stay unique is to truly believe in what we have to give. We must embrace what makes us different, not because we reject society, but because otherwise we would have cannot give to society. Embracing what makes us different not only makes us better, but betters society as well.

[1] Nahum Sarna, Understanding Genesis.

[2] The biblical picture of the Canaanites is one of absolute depravity, as per Bereishit 15:16, Vayikra 18:3, etc.

Parashat Vayera – The Covenantal Partner and The Individual

וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו יְ׳הוָה

Parashat Vayera begins with ‘א’s appearing to Avraham as three men[1] in the Terebinths of Mamrei in order to give over the information that Sarah will give birth to a son, Yitzhak. The problem this immediately raises is that the visitation in chapter 18 follows close on the heels of the revelation in chapter 17, the main theme of which was the promise of Yitzhak’s birth. If Avraham has already been informed that Yitzhak is going to be born, then why does ‘א need to come announce it a second time? However, while the two passages share many similarities and are, to some degree, dependent upon each other, they also differ in many distinct ways, and close analysis of these differences shows that each of the passages expresses a very different perspective on the birth of Yitzhak and its meaning, both for ‘א and for Avraham.

The differences between Bereishit 17 and Bereishit 18 begin almost immediately[2]. Bereishit 17 contains the mitsvah of Brit Milah, circumcision (17:9-14), that is the sign of the covenant between ‘א and Bnei Yisrael, going all the way back to Avraham, a command that appears nowhere else in the Torah. It also includes the discussion of the covenant, and the fact that Yitzhak, not Yishmael, will be Avraham’s successor in the covenant (17:19-20), none of which is mentioned in Bereishit 18. The message of Yitzhak’s birth is given with a focus specifically on Avraham in chapter 17 (17:16, 19), even though Sarah will be the one pregnant, while in chapter 18 it is said specifically that Sarah will have a son (18:10). At no point in chapter 17 are we told the setting of the prophecy, while in chapter 18 a great deal is made of the fact that it is occurring at the tent, which is mentioned five times. To top it off, the chapters use different names for ‘א throughout, a strong differentiator. The passages are also clearly dependent on each other, in that Avraham is not referred to by name in chapter 18 until verse 6. Up to that point he is simply referred to by the pronoun “him” and it is only because this passage follows chapter 17 that we know who is being referred to[3]. But for the fact that the two passages share the pronouncement of the birth of Yitzhak, they would be two separate texts dealing with very separate stories.

Despite that, the two passages share many similarities. After briefly mentioning Avram’s age, the prophecy in chapter 17 begins with ‘א appears to Avram (17:1), using exactly the same phrase found at the beginning the next chapter. Bereishit 17:17 mentions that Avraham laughed, just as Sarah does in Bereishit 18:12-15. In both passages Avraham is predicted to give birth to great nations (17:16, 18:18). The two chapters seem in many ways to be telling the same story, and therefore we must answer why the same story is repeated twice in the Torah, one after the other.

Each of these stories forms the context for the announcing of Yitzhak’s birth, and there are certain hallmarks of that story, such as the disbelief of an elderly parent-to-be, that occur in each passage. But each of these stories forms a very different context and therefore lends to the birth of Yitzhak a very different significance.

In Bereishit 17, the announcement of the birth is in context of the covenant between ‘א and Avraham. It is for this reason that it includes the discussion of the covenant and the command for its sign, the Brit Milah. Yitzhak is not primarily Avraham and Sarah’s son but ‘א’s next covenantal partner (as opposed to Yishmael), who happens to be born to Avraham and Sarah. This is also why there is an emphasis on Yitzchak being born to Avraham, as opposed to Sarah, for Avraham is ‘א’s current covenantal partner. Thus even Avraham’s place in the story is subordinate to the focus on the covenant and ‘א’s greater plan, rather than being about Avraham himself.

In Bereishit 18, the focus is on Sarah and Avraham as individuals, as an elderly barren couple instead of as the Bearers of the Covenant. Thus, the emphasis is on Sarah having a child at least as much as on Avraham, which fits with the way the emphasis is on Sarah being barren in Bereishit 11:30, as opposed to Avraham. Moreover, where in Bereishit 17 the need for a covenantal partner to succeed Avraham would require Yitzhak’s birth, regardless of Avraham and Sarah’s personal merit, Bereishit 18 puts a strong emphasis on their personal merit, emphasizing the way Avraham rushed to greet the guests (18:2), the way both Sarah and Avraham helped prepare food for the guests (18:4-8), and the fact that Avraham would teach his descendant to follow ‘א’s path, to be righteous and just (18:19). Bereishit 18 depicts the birth of Yitzhak as the granting of a child to a couple who had long been childless and who, both because of who they were and who they would teach him to be, could not be more deserving.

‘א acts on the level of his great historical purposes, where sometimes the personal merit of individuals is ignored for the good of ‘א’s plan. But he also interacts on the subtle, individual, stage, where He exists in relation to individuals, and their merit is the deciding factor. These two approaches each surface at various times throughout Tanakh. The great teshuvah movement of King Yoshiyahu ends tragically without ‘א relenting from his decree, as Yoshiyahu was told would be the case by the prophetess Huldah (Melakhim II 22). By contrast, in Yehezkal 18 it is repeatedly stated that all that matters is a person’s personal merit, the things they have done right and the things they have done wrong. These two approaches are manifest in Bereishit 17 and 18, respectively. Bereishit 17 is all about the fact that ‘א has a plan that involves Avraham and his successor, Yitzhak. Bereishit 18 is all about the fact that Sarah and Avraham personally merit a child.

This differentiation is emphasized through the way that the two chapters use different names for ‘א. Bereishit 17 refers to ‘א as Elokim, the name associated with divine justice, with ‘א’s orderly plan for creation, while Bereishit 18 refers to ‘א as YHVH, the name associated with divine compassion, with ‘א’s intimate involvement with His world.

It is important for us to understand these two ways in which ‘א interacts with the world, for the sake of understanding ‘א and understanding History. But it is more important for the sake of our understanding our place in History and the significance of our own actions. Bereishit 17 asks us to understand that we are players on the historical stage, that we participate in ‘א’s plan and further His goals. On this level, it is not our personal merit that makes us significant, but the fact we are ‘א’s chosen covenantal partners, and the incredible responsibility this asks us to bear. Simultaneously, we are individuals who are asked to be kind and gracious, piously dedicated and personally responsible. Existing on the world stage does not exempt us from our local responsibilities. Participation in the historical covenant does not mean that we can be rude to the man on the street; in fact, quite the opposite. The way justice and righteousness play out on the personal stage bear great significance for the realization of ‘א’s historical goals (Bereishit 18:19).

[1] The most likely explanation of the nature of the appearance (18:1) seems to be that it is constituted by the visit of the angels. They are constantly referred to as men (18:2, 16, 22, etc.), despite being angels (19:1), as this is how they appeared to Avraham. He only became aware that they were not ordinary men when the primary angel spoke as ‘א (18:13). Such is the explanation of the Rashbam. For more, see R’ Elchanan Samet’s explanation here.

[2] I owe much of the differentiation between the two passages to R’ Yonatan Grossman’s essay “News of the Birth of Yitzchak.”

[3] This dependence is picked up the midrash, quoted by Rashi on 18:1, that says ‘א was visiting Avraham when he was sick after the circumcision as the mitsvah of Bikkur Holim, Visiting the Sick. In theory, the visitation by the angels could have come at any time, it did not need to be immediately after the circumcision, but the language highlights the fact that the two passages are in fact highly connected.

Parashat Lekh-Lekha – Struggling with the Divine Ideal

וְאֶעֶשְׂךָ לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל

Parashat Lekh-Lekha is a seminal moment in Sefer Bereishit, and in the Torah as a whole, marking a narrowing of ‘א’s focus from a more universal approach to a much more particular one. Previously, ‘א was dealing with all of mankind, now he’s working with just one man and his family. The previous attempts to let humanity make something of itself had failed dramatically, always ending in punishment and exile. The punishment for mankind’s first failure was only relieved when ‘א concluded that mankind would not be able to merit the removal of the punishment on their own (Bereishit 8:21). Now ‘א has decided to do something new, to start over with an individual. The question this immediately obligates is why this particular individual. Of all the nations and all the people born since the flood (Bereishit 10, 11:10-26), why this particular individual? Why Avraham (then known as Avram)? Numerous answers have been given to this question throughout history, their great number resulting from the lack of any clear information in the text about it. Avraham’s story begins at the beginning of the twelfth chapter of Bereishit, the beginning of Parashat Lekh-Lekha, when ‘א simply begins to speak to Avraham, commanding him to leave his home and to go to the land of Canaan. Before this we only hear about Avraham as a member of his father’s house, as a character in Terah’s story. Due to this sudden command, most understandings of why Avraham was chosen build off the rich story and character that develop around Avraham in the ensuing chapters. However, Avraham presumably chosen due to being unique in some way, due to something special about him, and by looking at the details of his life in Terah’s house, we should be able to determine what this unique characteristic is, and in doing so determine something about what made Avraham right to be the new start of ‘א’s great project.

The story of the Tower of Bavel in the eleventh chapter of Bereishit is followed by a listing of the line of Shem, son of Noah, culminating in the household of Terah.

27 Now these are the generations of Terah. Terah begot Avram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran begot Lot. 28 And Haran died in the presence of his father Terah in the land of his birth, in Ur of the Chaldeans. 29 And Avram and Nahor took them wives: the name of Avram’s wife was Sarai; and the name of Nahor’s wife, Milcah, the daughter of Haran, the father of Milcah, and the father of Yiscah. 30 And Sarai was barren; she had no child. 31 And Terah took Avram his son, and Lot the son of Haran, his son’s son, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Avram’s wife; and they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldeans, to go into the land of Canaan; and they came unto Haran, and dwelt there. 32 And the days of Terah were two hundred and five years; and Terah died in Haran.

There are numerous things that this depiction tells us about Avraham. We know from here that he was the son of Terah, that he left Ur Kasdim, that he was married, etc. However, none of these things are unique to him. Minimally, they are all shared by his brother, Nahor. What makes Avraham unique is one single characteristic: his wife, Sarai, is barren. The uniqueness of this situation is something that becomes even clearer when looked at in the broader context of the not just the genealogy of Shem at the end of Bereishit 11, but all of the genealogical tables that form the structure of the first 11 chapters of Bereishit, and of Sefer Bereishit as a whole[1].

The genealogical tables of Sefer Bereishit all share a basic structure, such as that which can be seen in the beginning of the line of Shem in Bereishit 11.

10 These are the generations of Shem. Shem was a hundred years old, and begot Arpachshad two years after the flood. 11 And Shem lived after he begot Arpachshad five hundred years, and begot sons and daughters. 12 And Arpachshad lived five and thirty years, and begot Shelah. 13 And Arpachshad lived after he begot Shelah four hundred and three years, and begot sons and daughters.

The genealogical tables are structured such that they introduce a person by way of how old they were when they gave birth to their primary successor, and then it says how many years they lived after that and that they had other sons and daughters. Then their primary successor is reintroduced by way of how old they were when they gave birth to their primary successor, and then it says how many years they lived after that and that they had other sons and daughters. With a few exceptions, this pattern repeats throughout the genealogical tables from Adam (Bereishit 5:1) through Terah (Bereishit 11:26). Then Avraham is introduced and the whole process seems to come to a screeching halt. There could not be a clearer message that Avraham represents a break with everything that came before him. Avraham is unique, he is something new, not because of something he has, but because of what he lacks.

Assuming that the lack of a child, particularly through his wife Sarai, is what makes Avraham unique and creates a common theme and background unifying many, if not all, of the events of Avraham’s life. Avraham twice travels to a kingdom where Sarai is threatened with a life married to the king. While this would be bad enough on its own, against the backdrop of Avraham’s childlessness, it takes on the added significance of a tangible threat to the woman who is supposed to give birth to the descendants that ‘א promised Avraham. Avraham’s nephew Lot serves as a surrogate child[2] filling this gap until Avraham is promised descendants of his own[3], surfacing and disappearing from the story, but always in the role of a potential inheritor. Then Avraham is visited by three messengers, and one of them tells them him that Sarai will give birth in one years time, a much more concrete promise than ever before. This is immediately followed by Avraham being told that ‘א is going to destroy Sedom and Gamorah, and it is up to him to decide if the fact that he does not need Lot as an heir will be a factor in whether or not he argues with ‘א to save Sedom. Avraham’s final narrative is Akedat Yitzchak, the Binding of Isaac. Avraham is commanded by ‘א to sacrifice the son he had finally received. An impossible task for any father, this test is heightened by the way it constitutes a rejection of everything Avraham had longed for all these years. These are just a few of the events of Avraham’s life that work off his being childless, a theme that is heightened dramatically by the counterpoint of ‘א’s promise.

Avraham’s story opens with ‘א promising that He will make Avraham a great nation (12:2). Then upon his arrival in the land of Canaan, Avraham is promised that his descendants will inherit the land (12:7). After Avraham and Lot part ways, ‘א again promises Avraham that his descendants will inherit the land(13:14-17). In Bereishit 15:4 Avraham is promised that his descendants will be more numerous than the stars of the sky. These promises and others highlight the constant tension of Avraham’s journeys, which start with the promise of giving birth to a nation (12:2) and finally ends when his son is married off (Bereishit 24) and when he gives birth to sons and daughters (Bereishit 25). Interwoven with these promises are tests that threaten the likelihood of these promises actually coming to fruition.

Avram is chosen because he feels a lack, a sense that things are not the way they ought to be[4]. Avraham’s journeys transform this into an extended experience of the tension between the reality of his daily life and the divine ideal of ‘א’s promise. It is this tension that brought Avraham to struggle with ‘א on numerous occasions. He challenged ‘א on the grounds that the only inheritor he had was the servant running his household (15:2), in clear contradiction to ‘א’s promise. Avraham was someone who was bothered by the disconnect between the way things are and they way they ought to be. This is further manifest when Avraham prays for Sedom, unable to comprehend how the “Judge of All Earth” could do such injustice (18:25). It is this inclination to struggle that made Avraham the right choice for the start of ‘א’s new project. Being in a relationship with ‘א means living with a constant awareness of the tension between ‘א’s ideal and the living reality, and struggling with that. However, being religious does not mean to give up on either half of this tension, but to embrace it in its entirety. This tension motivates us to try and do something to alleviate it, something to help reality along until it matches with the ideal. It should motivate us to “keep the way of the LORD, to do righteousness and justice” (Bereishit 18:19). To be religious is to be bothered, to struggle, to be dissatisfied with the imperfect nature of ‘א’s world. ‘א promised the forefathers children and yet their wives were barren, because ‘א wants the righteous to struggle with the fact that this world does not match up to what it could be[5]. The essence of faith is to remain dedicated to the divine ideal even when it seems like the real world remains stubbornly unchanged by our attempts at godliness[6].

[1] This is discussed by R’ Menachem Leibtag here. His arguments are not entirely compelling, but there is much he says that is undoubtedly correct.

[2] The idea that Lot would serve in place of Avraham’s children is raised in Bereishit Rabbah 41:5.

[3] Lot’s presence, which is almost painfully obvious when they are leaving Ur Kasdim (11:31) and Haran(12:4-5), is suddenly and mysteriously absent when they journey to Egypt (12:10), reappearing only after the threat to Sarai in Egypt.

[4] This is expressed by a famous midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 39:1) that depicts Avraham first discovering ‘א as a person who happens upon a burning city and is struck by the fact that the city must have a master who should be saving it and, when they voice this concern, the master (‘א) appears.

[5] Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Yevamot, 64a.

[6] Mishna Avot, 2:16

Parashat Hukat – Reasons and Messages

יַעַן לֹאהֶאֱמַנְתֶּם בִּי לְהַקְדִּישֵׁנִי לְעֵינֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

 

Parashat Hukat is chock-full of interesting narratives. It includes several skirmishes with other nations (Bamidbar 21), the deaths of Miriam and Aharon (20), and a cryptic mention of a godly well in “B’Er” (21:16-18).  Perhaps the most well known of these stories is that of the sin of Aharon and Moshe. After Miriam’s death (20:1), Bnei Yisrael gather against Moshe and Aharon to complain about a lack of water (20:2-5), and ‘א commands Moshe and Aharon to bring water forth from a rock for the people (20:7-8). Moshe and Aharon seem to fulfill the command, but the reader is suddenly informed that they have actually failed to live up to ‘א’s expectations in this situation, when Moshe and Aharon receive a sharp reprimand.

“And the Lord said to Moshe and Aharon: ‘Since you did not trust[1] in Me, to make me holy before the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them,” (20:12).

On a first read through, this punishment seems to come out of nowhere, as the nature of Moshe and Aharon’s mistake is not at all clear. This has prompted commentators throughout the Jewish tradition to reread the passage with great attention to detail, finding all sorts of subtle clues, which point them toward the exact nature of the misdeed.

Quoting the Sifrei, Rashi notes that where ‘א had instructed Moshe and Aharon to speak to the rock, when carrying out his command they instead struck the rock. Rambam rejects this and instead argues that Moshe’s sin was in becoming angry with the people. Ibn Ezra states that the problem was that they hit the rock twice instead of just once, as pointed out in verse 11, demonstrating a lack of faith that striking the rock only once would work. Ramban comments that all the above voices are “adding meaningless statements to meaningless statements,” and instead argues that the issue was one of phrasing; Moshe and Aharon’s statements to the people suggested that it was they, and not ‘א, who would bring forth water from the rock. Abarbanel quotes these and six other reasons mentioned by various commentators, including an opinion from the gemara that Moshe and Aharon actually did not sin, before settling on the one he thinks is correct. Topping Abarbanel’s ten, Shadal[2] quotes thirteen different opinions regarding the nature of Aharon and Moshe’s mistake. The number of opinions regarding the nature of Moshe and Aharon’s mistake has increased over time, not lessened, clouding the true meaning of the text.

Shadal, in his comments on the passage, remarked that, “Moshe Rabbeinu only sinned one sin, but the commentators burdened upon him 13 sins and more, for each one invented of his own heart a new sin.” The only evidence the text gives of a mistake on the parts of Moshe and Aharon is the rebuke they receive for it. Once the existence of the mistake has been stated, the reader then has to go back and try and piece together what that mistake might have been from errant clues and seemingly extraneous parts of the text. The only thing that is clear from the text is that the text is unclear. ‘א’s statement in 20:12 that Moshe and Aharon did not trust Him and therefore did not make Him holy in the eyes of the people is confusingly followed by the words of 20:13, “These are the waters of Merivah, where the children of Israel strove with the Lord, and He was made holy with them.” Not only is the nature of the misdeed Aharon and Moshe committed unclear, what effect it might have had is also unclear. The one thing that the text conveys clearly is Moshe and Aharon failed to properly trust in ‘א, and that was the cause of the problem

A comparison can be drawn to a similarly unclear text in the story of Akeidat Yitschak (Bereishit 22:1-19). The biblical text goes beyond its normal silence regarding the persons and places involved, into true silence regarding the nature of this “test”[3] and its taker. Consequently, the range of opinions regarding the actual nature of the test have differed greatly. Rambam, making it a test of tension between ‘א’s will and man’s, says that the command to Avraham came through and absolutely clear prophecy, and that Avraham had merely to follow through with it. The somewhat antinomian Mei HaShiloah says the opposite, that the actual nature of the test was to follow an unclear and questionable prophecy. The debate about the nature of the test is so great that commentators can’t even agree as to whether or not Avraham passed. The Meshekh Hokhmah[4], basing himself on Rashi’s comments on 22:2, actually says that Avraham failed in this test, and many thinkers have since followed in his footsteps. Throughout all of these opinions, however, one thing has remained clear: “Now I know that you revere ‘א” is a positive statement, and is the foundation of the promises to Avraham that follow (Bereishit 22:15-18). The exact nature of the test isn’t nearly as important as the proof of Avraham’s reverence for ‘א. All the more so by the sin of Aharon and Moshe, where the lack of clarity is so much greater, what is important is not exactly what they did that was wrong, but that they did it due to a lack of trust in ‘א.

Moshe and Aharon were put in a tough situation, where it would be difficult for a person to know quite what to do. They even had the benefit of ‘א’s direct guidance, and they still acted incorrectly. Today we are often put in such situations, where the correct path is not clear, and we lack the aid of prophecy to show us the way. As such, the lack of clarity in the text of Bamidbar 20 is not stymying but enervating. It is the same lack of clarity that we face in our everyday lives. While we do not face the same difficulties as the great leaders of generations past, we are posed the same challenge. We can act out of trust in ‘א or we can fail to do so. When the horizon seems darkest we do not know which path to take, but trying to live up to this responsibility, trying to let our actions flow from total trust in ‘א, can be the light that guides our way.

 

[1] Throughout this composition, the hebrew word “אמונה”, generally translated as “faith” or “belief”, has been translated instead as “trust”, which more accurately reflects its meaning in Tanakh, and early Jewish usage.

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shadal

[3] It’s worth noting that Rashbam says “And ‘א tested Avraham,” 22:1, should actually be understood as “And ‘א punished Avraham.”

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meir_Simcha_of_Dvinsk