Friday, November 30, 2007

Vayeshev: You call this wisdom?

Vayeshev contains the beginning of what is almost universally called “the Joseph cycle.” This term recognizes the extraordinary literary quality and unity of the narrative that begins here. In contrast to most of the narrative of Genesis, characterized by disorder, inconsistency, and confusion, the Joseph story is orderly and polished. Although it is not free of interruptions, they are few and do not seriously impair the narration.

Jewish tradition refers to Joseph as Yosef ha-Tzaddik: Joseph the Wise. Even though the Bible stories that we often teach to our children emphasize the wisdom of Solomon, it is hard to argue that Solomon epitomizes wisdom. There is the episode of the disputed infant in I Kings 3, which follows immediately after Solomon’s prayer (in a dream) for wisdom, but that incident reflects cleverness rather than wisdom.

The Bible itself refers several more times to Solomon’s wisdom, generally in connection with the long period of peace that Israel enjoyed during his reign and with the resultant prosperity, but it also depicts Solomon himself as profligate and self-indulgent, not at all in keeping with the tone of the so-called “wisdom books” of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. (Although there is a tradition that identifies Qohelet, the self-ascribed author of Ecclesiastes, as Solomon and calls the book “The Wisdom of Solomon,” there is no historical or textual basis for such an attribution.) Biblical and extra-Biblical “wisdom literature” teach a different philosophical stance.

Rather, Solomon’s reputation for wisdom derives predominantly from his patronage of wisdom, in particular the kind of wisdom that was developing in the circles of scribes who constituted his civil service. In other words, it is based on the success of their statecraft.

It is Joseph, of course, who provides the model of a skillful civil servant. His brilliance as an administrator is obvious even when he is in Potiphar’s service; there is some sense that his talents are wasted there and it is not completely surprising that he ends up in charge of all Egypt.

In the beginning of the story, however, Joseph does not seem especially wise. In fact, it would be apt to describe him not as “Joseph the Wise,” but as “Joseph the Brat.” On the surface, the Biblical narrative encourages us to accept the favoritism that Jacob shows him, just as it invited us to agree that Isaac was more worthy than Ishmael, Jacob more than Esau.

And yet we inevitably dislike his prattling about the meaning of the first two dreams. How might the story have gone if he had not antagonized his brothers in this way?

The dream episode nonetheless illustrates an aspect of Joseph’s wisdom that rabbinic interpretation treats as more important than his administrative skill. It is not his ability to interpret dreams as such that matters—dream interpretation seems to have been a major industry in the ancient world, albeit not especially among the people of Israel—but that he attributes the interpretations to God.

That, however, is a characteristic of his interpretations in Egypt, not in this episode. He hasn’t yet achieved true wisdom.

Jewish tradition is largely unfavorable to dream interpretation and fortune telling. The Bible portrays it favorably in the cases of Joseph and Daniel, but they act in foreign lands and for foreign rulers. Even when it’s clear that the interpretation really comes from God, the message seems to be “This isn’t for us.”

Friday, November 16, 2007

Vayetze: Learning from Jacob's dream

Everyone remembers the story of Jacob’s dream, with which this week’s Torah portion, Vayetze, begins. In accord with Isaac’s instructions, Jacob is on the way to Haran to seek a wife from among the daughters of Laban. He stops for the night at “a certain place” and has a dream in which he sees a stairway—or a ramp or ladder—between earth and heaven, on which angels ascend and descend.

This is an easy story to teach because it invites such ready visualization, even though we have no indication from the Torah of what the angels (“messengers of God,” malakhei Elohim) really look like. Beyond that, however, what lessons should we draw from it?

Some modern scholars detach it from the rest of Jacob’s story and focuses on his naming the place Bethel, “house of God.” They read it as a later writer’s attempt to identify Bethel with the God of the patriarchs instead of with a Canaanite god called El with which it might previously have been associated.

Jewish tradition, especially mystical tradition, is more interested in Jacob’s experience of God. His response, “Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!” (28:17) has become a touchstone for the possibility of encountering God in our own lives and a reminder to seek the presence of God everywhere.

The rest of Jacob’s response suggests another interpretation. Jacob proceeds to a highly improper prayer: he vows that if God protects him, gives him food and clothing, and if he returns home safely, then he will worship God (28:20).

In contrast, God’s promise to him, in the dream, was unconditional. It is possible to criticize Jacob for a lack of faith, and we can hardly imagine a similarly conditional vow on the part of Abraham. Rabbi Plaut notes that the vow is a realistic one, coming from his experience rather than from philosophy.

The rest of the parashah reminds us that Jacob’s experience is one of deception, previously as the perpetrator (with his mother Rebekah) and now as the victim, at the hands of Laban. With his own experience as a trickster, he cannot, even in the face of a direct experience of God, believe in the certainty of the covenant that God offers, and thus his acceptance of it is contingent on God’s performance.

The “bed trick” in which Leah is substituted for Rachel is the stuff of high drama. Jewish tradition has generally not accepted Laban’s reasoning, and most traditional texts retaliate by placing the name of Rachel, the younger but preferred sister, before that of Leah. Some Reform prayerbooks are an exception: when they list the matriarchs, Leah is named first.

The parashah ends with the departure of Jacob, Rachel, Leah, and all their children, servants, and flocks from Haran. Their hasty, secretive departure is brought about by a second appearance of God in a dream, saying to Jacob, “I am the God of Beth-el… now arise and leave this land and return to your native land” (31:13).

It entails yet another deception. Rachel steals her father’s household gods (we know that these teraphim existed in Israel into the period of the kings; when David flees from Saul in I Samuel 19, Michal, his wife and Saul’s daughter, places such an idol in the bed to delay the detection of his escape). Jacob thoughtlessly vows to kill the culprit, but Rachel’s deception isn’t detected and this vow, unlike his earlier conditional promise or God’s unconditional promises, is not fulfilled.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Toldot: Jacob the yeshivah bocher

This week’s portion, Toledot, describes “the line” or “the story” of Isaac—that is to say, the line of his descendants. In other words, the birth of Esau and Jacob.

Certain elements of the story are oddly familiar. Like Sarah, Rebekah is barren; we’ll learn that she is like Sarah in other ways as well. And the episode in Gerar at the beginning of chapter 26, in which Isaac passes Rebekah off as his sister, is an almost exact double of one involving Abraham and Sarah, which itself doubles one that takes place with them in Egypt. This version of the story has an interesting wrinkle: there is a famine in the land, but God tells Isaac, “Do not go down to Egypt” (26:2).

The themes of sibling rivalry and of unequal treatment of siblings that were implicit in the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael are more explicit here, because Esau and Jacob are sons of the same mother, in fact twins.

Jewish tradition has struggled with the fact that Jacob obtains Isaac’s paternal blessing through trickery. It expands on the paucity of information given in the text to argue that he was inherently more deserving, or at least preferable to have as the ancestor of our people.

For example, the ease with which he obtains the birthright from Esau in exchange for some lentil stew is often cited to characterize Esau as a person of base and uncontrollable appetites. The text itself suggests a connection between Esau’s ruddiness and the nation of Edom; the names of both Esau and Edom have been used as euphemisms for entire nations that oppressed the Jewish people, especially the Roman empire.

The characterization of Esau as undeserving to be a Jewish patriarch is not too different from the traditional response to another problem involving siblings, the question of why Abel’s sacrifice is preferred over Cain’s. Although modern readers may draw inferences from the differences in the sacrifices themselves, many traditional commentators argued simply that Abel was somehow better.

In the case of Esau and Jacob, much has been made of a single verse: “When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors, but Jacob was a mild man, who stayed in camp” (25:27). The JPS translation, although it probably succeeds in conveying the intended meaning, obscures the literal sense, on which a great deal of midrash has been built.

A more literal reading would be, “a mild man, dwelling in tents,” with tents in the plural. Because a single tent would be sufficient for sleeping, early commentators concluded that Jacob used a second tent as a place of study, a beit midrash, and thereby turned him into the paragon of a yeshivah bocher, even arguing, irrelevantly and without foundation, that Esau was illiterate.

The Biblical text wants us to join it in favoring Jacob over Esau. Furthermore, as teachers we naturally appreciate “mild” students who prefer to stay in the tent of study (the classroom) and are easy to teach. But we’re equally responsible for teaching the students who would rather be outdoors perfecting manual skills, as well as those not-so-mild students who may gravitate to study but who challenge our ideas.

Friday, November 2, 2007

The life and death of Sarah

This week’s parashah is confusingly called “The Life of Sarah.” What makes this confusing is that it begins with Sarah’s death, and turns immediately to the negotiations about her burial, saying nothing about her life.

Imagine that you were called on to deliver a eulogy for Sarah. What would you say? Although Jewish tradition considers Sarah a paragon of both beauty and piety, much of what we know about her from the Torah is neither beautiful nor, by our standards, pious.

The episode that follows the burial of Sarah gives some apparently unwitting clues. It concerns the mission of Abraham’s servant, presumably Eliezer, to obtain a wife for Isaac from among Abraham’s kinfolk back in Haran.

Although this story is most often cited as a proof text opposing intermarriage, its structure suggests other lessons. To a modern reader, the way that the servant’s prayer is promptly and completely answered seems too pat, but to the Biblical mind it must have seemed entirely appropriate. He asks for a sign that he’s choosing the right woman, and God immediately provides exactly the sign that he requested.

But will Rebekah agree to this? Will anyone agree to it? Again, the modern mind recoils from the idea that a young woman would promise to go with a stranger who promises her a husband in another country, or that her family would consent.
Yet within the context of the story, it is seen as perfectly reasonable.

To be fair, it wasn’t so very uncommon, in the America of the nineteenth century or the first part of the twentieth, for an immigrant family to send back to the “old country” for a bride for a son, which is more or less what happens here. But the way it happens tell us a lot about Rebekah.

First, she’s decisive. Second, she’s adventurous. One of our resource books on teaching Torah suggests having students stage a debate between Abraham and Sarah about whether to go to Canaan. But Sarah was already married to Abraham, so Rebekah is even more courageous.

Rebekah seems to be like Sarah in other ways, and there’s a hint of this in the parashah, which tells us, “Isaac then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebekah as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death” (24:67).

The servant’s prayer is one of the earliest examples of petitionary prayer in the Bible. It seems somewhat meretricious, especially because it asks for an external sign. But in context it’s entirely proper, because the servant is praying for God’s help in accomplishing what Abraham believes God wants.