Va Yeze – On trickery, on teraphim, and on tradition

In this portion we have the story of Jacob falling in love with Rachel but accidentally marrying her sister Leah. Laban their father, a roguish miser, exploits Jacob for his own gain. His daughters represent external as opposed to intrinsic value, and Jacob is the one to pay. We have seen several examples of brothers who rival one another, but this is the first story of a rivalry between sisters. There is no doubt in the text that Leah and Rachel compete with one another for both Jacob’s love, and the honour of bearing his children, but their relationship is more complicated than that. There is a Talmudic midrash that suggests that Jacob, wisely untrusting of Laban, gave Rachel tokens so that he would know her. Rachel, fearing Leah’s shame at her younger sister’s marriage, gave the tokens to her. In our tradition we have the love between sisters, despite their differences, as central to our story.

Jacob does not succumb forever to Laban’s trickery. He learns how to work the land and the flock, thus highlighting the Jewish ethics of labour and closeness to the land. These are skills Laban never has, and when Jacob leaves he therefore takes his riches with him. Rachel also does not allow her father to go unpunished. She steals his teraphim (idols) before they depart. It is notable that, despite the common perception that Judaism is the first monotheistic religion (and the belief by many that it has always been thus), it is clear that our matriarchs (and others) believed in these idols and the power of the gods they represent.

I always find it fascinating when the Torah includes details that run contrary to both our mainstream ideas of Judaism, and other aspects of the Torah itself. Although idolatry is expressly condemned in other places in the text, we see here that Judaism has changed significantly over time. In fact, change is the only constant in Judaism, as elsewhere. When we alter, adapt, or amend Jewish culture to make it relevant for our lives, what we are doing is, paradoxically, both traditional and new.

The incident with the teraphim carries very negative consequences. Jacob, not knowing that Rachel stole the idols, tells Laban that anyone who took them is to be cursed. Jewish scholars have attributed Rachel’s early death (and consequent burial away from the other matriarchs and patriarchs) to the fulfillment of Jacob’s curse. Later prophetic literature will discuss Rachel, her death in childbirth while wandering, and her tears. Her tears become emblematic of the generations of Israelites – they are many but theirs is a difficult road. She is a symbol of the wandering that has come to characterize Jews; she is buried away from home as are so many of her descendants. Her death, if it is indeed related to Jacob’s curse, is related to her defiance. Yet rather than see her defiance as negative, the text upholds her as a woman who knows her rights (and that of her husband and family) and acts to protect them. She uses what she has as a wife and a woman in order to protect what is hers. She is fierce, and for that reason, she is beloved by Jacob. Although the Jewish tradition has not always taken this view of its matriarchs, the text is clear.

Rachel is connected with Rebecca and Sarah (all are barren, all are brave, all define themselves as mothers with a sense of pride and power). These women are not passive; they act to produce the children and future they think is right.

Toldot – On birthing, on blessing, and on bible as literature

In this section we have the by-now familiar trope of the barren woman. Rebecca has trouble conceiving and then has a troubled pregnancy. She goes to God and asks that if procreation is so difficult for her, “Why do I exist?” This type of existential questioning is something to which readers throughout the ages can relate. Many people ask these kinds of questions of a God; we externalize the conversation about life’s meaning because it is scary to imagine that we alone can define the meaning of our existence and the direction our lives will take. Although in this narrative the God-character answers Rebecca, we know that she was already pregnant. One reading of this is that sometimes the answers to our deepest questions and fears, like Rebecca’s baby, are already inside us.

Rebecca is not just mother to her children, but figuratively to our people. Rebecca is the reason the Abrahamic promise can come to fruition. Isaac, a patriarch but one who is painted as both weak and sort of comic in the text, is not responsible for the continuity of the Abrahamic line. He prefers their son Esau (whose progeny become the Edomites), but Rebecca knows that Isaac is the more suited to fulfill the covenant and the promise of the generations.

Another repeated trope in the biblical narratives is the rivalry between brothers and the younger brother’s usurpation of the elder’s birthright. Just as we saw with Cain and Abel and Isaac and Ishmael, Esau and Jacob are conditioned by conflict. Esau gives Jacob his birthright in exchange for a plate of lentils. While Rashi has a beautiful analysis of lentils as symbolic of mourning and tradition due to their round shape, a much more simple reading is that Esau didn’t value his birthright very much if he was willing to give it away for so little. Jacob is the one who values tradition, family, and responsibility. Esau is coarse while Jacob is refined. Rebecca is able to manipulate Isaac so that Jacob can act on the birthright he procured from his brother. As Isaac ages he becomes blind. He sends for Esau in order to bless him, but Rebecca compels Jacob to take his place. Jacob dresses in Esau’s clothes so Isaac will be fooled by the smell, and Rebecca puts pelts on Jacob so that he feels hairy like his brother. Isaac bestows his blessing upon Jacob instead of Esau. Rebecca, having pulled the strings to make all of this occur, is clearly the stronger figure. She does not waver in her preference for Jacob and she is not cowardly about it. She acts. Rebecca is powerful and, although commentators and interpreters take exception to her trickery and deception, valiant.

One aspect of Rebecca’s character that Humanistic Jews find objectionable is her distaste for Esau arising from his choice to marry outside of their tribe. His wife Judith (about which we learn nothing in this text) is forgotten in the Jewish tradition but reclaimed elsewhere. Biblical texts are contradictory when it comes to intermarriage. For Tziporah (a Midianite who marries Moses) and Ruth (in the Book of Ruth) it is celebrated. Here it is condemned. We can have sympathy for a matriarchal figure like Rebecca, whose identity rests in being a mother and a mother to a nation, for wanting to preserve the purity of her progeny. We also know, however, that all genetic lines are strengthened by mixing (culturally but also genetically according to Darwinian thinking), and thus Rebecca’s hatred of the other is one of her poorer qualities. Nonetheless, Rebecca is sympathetic in her power, her love, and her searching for meaning.

Traditional midrash holds various interpretations of how Isaac could be so easily fooled. One is that he secretly prefers Jacob but is too afraid to tell Esau. He therefore lets himself be deceived in order to bless Jacob. This is a lot of twisting in order to maintain the power of the patriarch in the light of this comic (and strange!) story. Those of us who are not invested in the truthfulness of the narrative can see this as a great tale. This vignette in which Isaac is fooled by such a ridiculous charade calls attention to the story’s own narrativity. Any story, especially a comedic one, gets embellished for effect. This narrative is no exception and is a moment in which the literary nature of the text is especially apparent.

The question of whether the bible is literal or literary has been fraught. For Humanistic Jews it is the wrong question altogether. A better question is what these narratives can teach us about our humanity. This parshah teaches us that the matriarchs have been overlooked and deserve more exploration and respect, that power should not be transferred by birthright alone but attained by those who are deserving of it, and that life is significantly enriched by really good stories.

Chaye Sarah – on land, on legacy, and on leading one’s own path

In this parshah we have the story of Sarah’s death, although the name of the parshah is “Sarah’s life.” In this section we also have the betrothal between Isaac and Rebecca, marking the continuation of the line of Abraham and Sarah. Sarah’s death stands in for her life because becoming a mother was her greatest desire, and through her children she continues to live. This is one feminist understanding of the power of motherhood. Although the line is referred to as “Abrahamic,” Sarah as the archetypal mother figure reminds us of the inextricability between women and life, and gives us renewed reverence for the mother figure.

There is a midrash that suggests a continuation from the Akedah story (the binding of Isaac) to Sarah’s death. Tanhuma Vayera 23 fills in the details of the transition between the Akedah to the moment of Sarah’s death. The midrash describes Isaac telling his mother what happened to him on the mountain and, being shocked and outraged at the possibility of her son’s death, Sarah dies before the story concludes. In The Women’s Torah Commentary, Rabbi Rona Shapiro claims that this midrash highlights the difference between Abraham and Sarah. While Abraham felt that the highest ethic would be to listen unquestioningly to God, Sarah knows that no God could command as immoral an act as murdering one’s child. She dies, Shapiro suggests, because she can no longer believe in this God. Shapiro’s interpretation is startling given that the traditional view of the Akedah is positive, and that the birth of Isaac is bound up with Sarah’s fervent desire and prayer. Isaac is born because “God remembers her.” Even the religious viewpoint, when refracted through a feminist viewpoint, struggles with blind faith and ultimate belief. Shapiro’s understanding of Chaye Sarah, then, is that ethics are found in the home /and in the love expressed between parents and children. This is the kind of divinity in which she chooses to believe. For a Humanist, it is not divinity but humanity that imposes the ethics as espoused in the story of Sarah and in her midrash. We cannot accept injustice and immorality – particularly in the name of a God. We focus on life and human relationships, both of which are exemplified through the mother’s story.

The story of Rebecca’s betrothal to Isaac also reminds us that women, as
matriarchs, can be powerful. The parshah states very clearly that when asked if she will “go” to where Isaac is and marry him she states “I will.” We visited the concept of the journey earlier. Just as Abraham was a pioneer and the “Lech Lecha” parshah inspires the idea that to go can be a powerful assertion of one’s will to decide one’s direction, Rebecca also unites her journey with her “will,” She does not rely on parental consent and the typical patriarchal arranging of marriages, but rather she asserts her own selfhood with her betrothal.

Many commentators have long interpreted this parshah in problematic ways. Although it is named for Sarah, and focuses on the story of Rebecca, a male-centred viewpoint is typical espoused through its interpretation. After Sarah dies there is a lengthy discussion of Abraham buying her a burial plot. This connection with the land is used by many to assert a divinely promised connection between the people and land of Israel. While many Humanistic Jews may feel strongly about the land of Israel as a Jewish state, it is not a divine contract that guarantees us this right. If Sarah’s story forms the basis for our connection with the land, it is because it is the land of our mythical origins, as well as our ancestral home. We must honour the mythical and historical forebears of ours and not erase them in an effort to claim a stake in the soil. Sarah should neither stand in for, nor be eclipsed by, the land on which she is buried. Her legacy and memory should go beyond the negotiations over where to put her mythical bones.

Rebecca’s betrothal also does not typically get interpreted in the manner it deserves. Her “will” and her voice are overlooked. Once again, the story of her moving to the land (Hebron) to be with Isaac is used to justify Jewish settlement in the region. The rabbinic law inspired by her betrothal is that one can move to the land of Israel even without/in contravention of parental consent. Note that the more literal reading — that a woman should be able to marry anyone of her choosing without parental consent — does not become the law. So our tradition remains imperfect in the lens through which it interprets, yet it also gives us the stories through which we can make our own meanings. Rebecca is the first woman we have in our foundational stories who so clearly chooses her own path. The following parshah continues to follow her will and her journey.

Va Yera – On homophobia, on hospitality, and on horrific choices

In this section Abraham bargains/pleads with God to spare Sodom and Gemorrah if ten righteous men can be found there. In an absence of such righteousness, God destroys the cities. We have the troubling story of Lot’s family – first his offering up of his daughters to strangers, then his wife’s unfortunate transfiguration into a pillar of salt, and ultimately an incestuous scene between Lot and his daughters. The narrative continues with the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah that they will have
a son and the much commented upon scene of the “Akedah” (binding) of Isaac. So, you know, light and pleasant stuff.

There is much to say about each section of this Torah portion. The idea that
Abraham can bargain with God that he should spare Sodom and Gemorrah gives way to many humanistic insights. We do not take the story literally, but even those who believe in a divine plan must acknowledge here that Abraham attempts to control fate. Implicit in the text is the idea that the moral choices of humans can alter our destiny. What are the
sins of the people of Sodom and Gemorrah? One is homosexual relationships, which is why this section of the Torah is so problematic from a Humanistic and egalitarian perspective. However, it is notable that the strangers who approach Lot’s house demanding access to its male inhabitants are interested in committing rape, not consensual homosexual relations. The text does not pick up on this nuance and neither do most commentators, for it is assumed as in Leviticus that homosexuality itself is “abhorrent.” Nonetheless, even the text makes clear that homosexuality here is not nearly as sinful as a lack of hospitality. The people of Sodom are wealthy, yet they adopt an attitude of stinginess. There is a lack of sharing, a lack of concern for the other, that pollutes the town. Homosexuality is a red herring in the text concerning morality. The clear message is that the people are immoral because they do not care for one another.

There are many feminist interpretations of the sections relating to Lot and his family. Lot offers up his daughters to the strangers in place of the men. Given that we know Lot is perceived by the God-character as the only moral man in the city (the reason he may leave prior to its destruction), it is troubling that his offering of his daughters is not viewed as immoral. The text continues in its sexist vain as Lot’s wife (unnamed and defined only be her relationship with her husband) looks back behind her and turns into a
pillar of salt. She is punished for reflecting on her past when her husband has been commanded only to look forward. Lastly, Lot’s daughters get their father drunk and seduce him, their pregnancies figuring forth the Ammonites and Moabites who become the enemies of Israel. It is a story with Oedipal resonances, chauvinistic gleanings in terms of both gender and cultural superiority, and it is a scene which is confounding in
terms of the moral messaging we might expect given that Lot and his daughters are the only ones to escape the destruction of their cities.

Feminists have reclaimed Lot’s wife. Unnamed, she serves as a signpost – a pillar – to signal that we must all resist the temptation to look behind us too much, as living in the past is unhealthy, but so too must we regard with care the direction we choose to pursue. Some argue Lot’s wife may have intentionally looked back, knowing that the only gift she could give her daughters was to mark the territory of the land from which they had come, to remind them of their roots, even as she helped to show them the way
forward. Some also argue that Lot’s daughters’ seduction of their father is retribution for his offer of them to strangers. This is a minority view, however. The text tells us that the daughters thought that Lot was the last living male on earth after the destruction, and so planned the seduction in order to promulgate the human species. They gave him wine so that he would not remember the incident. The idea here, then, is that his daughters acted as morally as possible in an impossible situation. While the incident is unpleasant, the moral lesson we can glean from Lot’s daughters as well as his wife is that there are times in which it is difficult to tell what the right course of action may be. Moral choices, particularly in an immoral world, are sometimes difficult to discern and even more difficult to practice. Nonetheless, we all must do our best to find our path, to move
forward in spite of whatever wreckage we must leave behind in our past, and still try to act as decently as we know how.

The most notable feature of this week’s parasha is the Akedah; the story in which the God-character asks Abraham to kill Isaac. From incestuous relationships to murderous ones, the Torah is no parenting guide. Why would God give Abraham a son at the age of 100 and then ask him to offer him up to sacrifice? It has been read as a test or temptation by God, but most find it difficult to reconcile this deistic image with a sense of his benevolence. A humanistic understanding of the story might even trouble the near-universal interpretation of the story. Abraham’s unthinking devotion to God is typically praised as the ultimate virtue, where we might see it as blind ignorance leading to unthinkable cruelty. God stops Abraham’s hand and thus we find he is ultimately good and caring. But would a good and caring God set up the test to begin with? A Humanist must find that the traditional interpretation of the story — faith is the
ultimate morality – to be lacking. We must empower ourselves to decide what is right. We are not guided by a deity or his messengers, we must guide ourselves. We are not tested by a deity, although the world will present us with challenges; we must find our way through these challenges ourselves. We are not rewarded by a deity for our good decisions and deeds, we must see goodness as its own reward.

The Akedah is part of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy because the story signals so clearly the idea that rebirth is possible. But Va Yera in a larger context reminds us that we have to strike a balance between our connection with our past and our decisions about our future. Lot’s wife looked back too far; his daughters made a huge sacrifice for the sake of creating future generations. Neither seems to have gotten right the balance. The
near-sacrifice of Isaac serves on the Jewish new year to signal that faith will be the light that carries the Jews forth through the generations. We do not, however, accept this either. These narratives are the foundational stories of the Jewish people. They are our cautionary tales, our origin myths, our literary prefigures, our cultural folkstories. We must not attach ourselves too much to the readings of these stories – our intellectual legacy – we have to decide which truths apply to our lives today. Neither, however,
should we disregard these stories; they themselves implore that to remember one’s past prepares us for the future.

So what meaning can we draw from the story that is applicable to us as
Humanists? Perhaps the value that the story highlights is presence, as opposed to faith. The story actually does not discuss faith or belief. Twice when called by God, however, Abraham answers “ Here I am.” This occurs at the beginning of the story as God is about to command him to sacrifice Isaac (22:2) and also just before God stays his hand (22:11). The repetition signifies the importance of the phrase; those three words are the expression of Abraham’s devotion. Presence is a gift we give one another that should not be taken lightly. This story as part of Rosh Hashanah liturgy reminds us to be present in our own reflections as we take account of our own souls and lives in the pursuit of our own goodness. It reminds us that the gift of presence we offer our loved ones and our community is the most precious gift of all. In times of distress, or loneliness, or pain, what better solace is there than to feel someone is there for us? What more important act, than to say and demonstrate to those in our lives: “I am here.” Most read the Akedah as a call to faith. But I read it as a call to presence: the devotion to self and community that comes out of active, willing, committed, and purposeful presence.