Computing Failures and Babylon

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Exploring Babylon Chapter 16.2

Attempts to calculate the end of exile — by both Belshazzar in Babylon and Ahashverus in Persia — have something powerful in common with the People’s behavior in at the foot of Mt. Sinai in the Torah portion Ki Tisa (Ex 30:11 – 34:35).

Moses Bosheish!

I love spots in the Torah where translators disagree. When a Torah verse is translated by different sources in very different ways, it’s a reminder that translation is never straightforward and that no one translation can tell the whole story, even if scholars agree on what it is. Differing translations are also frequently a clue that more is going on under the surface of any one translation. We have a powerful example in Ki Tisa:

When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.”
וַיַּרְא הָעָם, כִּי-בֹשֵׁשׁ מֹשֶׁה לָרֶדֶת מִן-הָהָר; וַיִּקָּהֵל הָעָם עַל-אַהֲרֹן, וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו קוּם עֲשֵׂה-לָנוּ אֱלֹהִים אֲשֶׁר יֵלְכוּ לְפָנֵינוּ–כִּי-זֶה מֹשֶׁה הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלָנוּ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, לֹא יָדַעְנוּ מֶה-הָיָה לוֹ.
– Ex 32:1, JPS Tanakh, 1985

Based on language alone, there are at least three obvious ambiguities in this verse:

  • Did the People demand gods, plural, or one god? “Elohim” works both ways in Hebrew, referring to God or to human judges, and scholars argue for both possibilities in this context. Because there was ultimately only one Golden Calf created in the story, translators usually employ “god,” singular;
  • What kind of leadership are the People expecting from Aaron? When Moses went up the mountain – which is back in chapter 24 – he told the people that Aaron and Hur would be in charge in his absence. But we have no mention of earlier interactions with the interim leaders – and then there’s the odd failure to mention Hur again, which lead some midrashim to suggest that things were already so dire that Hur had already been killed by the agitated crowd. Still, the language could mean the people are standing opposite Aaron to speak to him or that they are gathering more aggressively.
  • Finally, what, exactly has Moses done to upset the People so severely? A common translation is that he “delayed” or “was so long” in coming down. Robert Alter says he “lagged.” And Everett Fox chooses “shamefully-late.” These three versions reflect a spectrum of angst: something taking “so long” could possibly be neutral or positive, even if excess is implied; “lagged” leaves less room for a non-negative interpretation; and “shamefully-late” might leave room for a positive explanation – helping someone with an emergency concern, for example, rather than forgetting or procrastinating – but it’s still obvious that whoever is waiting is distressed by the delay.

Regardless of translation, commentators spend a lot of energy trying to devise some kind of explanation for the People’s behavior that prompted what comes next: the quick turn to idol worship, Moses destroying the tablets, God threatening to destroy the whole People, and three thousand killed in camp.

004-moses-golden-calf

from freebibleimages.org

 

Shame and Delay

It doesn’t help translation or interpretation that the word central to this narrative, “bosheish,” doesn’t appear anywhere else in the Torah and shows up only once in the Tanakh.

Sisera’s mother, who doesn’t yet know that her son the general, was killed, wonders why his chariot bosheish (Judges 5:28). It’s a heart-breaking scene that might shed some light on the kind of anxiety the People were experiencing.

The related word “bosh,” translated as “shame,” is more common, appearing 106 times in the Tanakh, according to my concordance. Aviva Zornberg, in her discussion of this portion in the Particulars of Rapture, mentions one instance in particular, another verse in Judges, from the odd story of King Eglon, whose servants wait for him ad-bosh, “until they’re ashamed,” after he has been stabbed and retreats to his room, possibly to relieve himself, only the servants soon learn that he is dead(Judges 3:25). Another indication that bosh and bosheish are associated with very troubling – even life and death – situations.

I don’t fully grasp the biblical connection between shame and being late. But I think we’ve all experienced the peculiar state of waiting for someone who was expected at a certain time, terrified that something awful happened and equally, simultaneously ashamed at likely making a mountain out of a molehill.

With this in mind, some Golden Calf midrashim put part of the blame on Moses for being unclear about his return, when he went up the mountain, thereby causing unnecessary angst. The Talmud puns on bosheish and the word for “six,” saying that Moses had announced he would return by the sixth hour – noon, by Talmudic accounting – after 40 days. But the People miscalculated his expected return, because Moses failed to specify that the day he went up did not count as a full night and day.

Uncertainty and ha-Satan

And then, the midrash continues, the satan took advantage of the ambiguity and the People’s concern to convince them that Moses was dead. Thus, they’re so quick to look for another way forward.

There are similar stories, in midrash, in which the satan shows up. At the Akedah, for example: Sarah knows nothing about the journey Abraham and Isaac are taking, so the satan can convince her that Isaac is dead. I have not made an extensive study, but I notice that one key element in Jewish stories where Satan shows up is a disturbing level of uncertainty that can be exploited. The satan even convinces God to test Job based on uncertainty (about Job’s faithfulness). So, I’d to concentrate on the uncertainty in the Golden Calf story.

One way I look at this Torah moment is akin to being on a roadtrip with strangers to parts unknown, when the driver disappears behind a creepy truck-stop: Is he seeking directions or obtaining supplies? In need of privacy – to relieve himself, or meditate, or whatever? Or, given that we’re all relative strangers, can we rule out that he might be doing something nefarious that we’d rather not witness or involved in something that could get us all into terrible trouble?

Unless the instruction before he disappeared were dramatic and very specific – like “give me ten minutes and then come after me” or “wait twenty minutes and then take off, no matter what” – how do we decide what to do and when, as his return is delayed? If the driver left someone else in charge, do we automatically trust them? If relationships among other travelers are stronger than links to a leader, will factions develop? How long do we wait before declaring “enough is enough” and commandeering the car or going our own ways?

I suspect that most of us, at some point, have been in a situation of uncertainty and some gravity which forced us to decide, for safety and sanity, if and when to bail.

Maybe there was also a God factor, that is, a situation in which someone claims to speak for God and all involved have to decide whom to trust, how to discern divine will – assuming such is even possible – and how to move forward, individually and collectively.

Most of this portion does not offer the best model for handling such situations. It does remind us, however, of how frightening uncertainty can be – on our own and within a community – and the Golden Calf story warns us of how dangerous it is to let that fright convince us to jump to conclusions and then launch into action, thinking that we know the answers.

The Perils of Calculus

While the ancient Rabbis had compassion for the People’s precarious state of mind, they had no sympathy for, in essence, trying to out-calculate God.

The futility of this is also decried in Rabbinic writings about predicting the expected end of the Babylonian Exile and rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. One such attempt is by Belshazzar in Babylon. He calculated that the time of exile, prophesied by Jeremiah, was complete but the Jews were not yet rescued, so God had abandoned them (Daniel 5). This results in the “writing on the wall,” followed by Belshazzar’s death and the conquest of Babylon by Persia.

In midrash to the Book of Esther, Ahashverus in Persia tries to avoid Belshazzar’s error with his own calculations, planning to similarly celebrate the Jew’ abandonment by God, because the Temple is not yet reconstructed. But his calculations also fail, and, after a number of reversals, it turns out that “the Jews had rule over them that hated them” (Esther 9:1). (See B. Megillah 11b).

The Golden Calf story and these midrashim about Babylon and Persia all seem to point to Jewish tradition warning against trying to guess the future or what is going on with other people.

A Suggestion

So, what are we supposed to do when faced with uncertainty?

We have a strong suggestion in the aftermath of the Golden Calf incident: God teaches Moses how to pray when in trouble, telling him to recite the 13 divine attributes:

…יְהוָה יְהוָה, אֵל רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן–אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם, וְרַב-חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת
“merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth”
– Ex 34:6

When faced with uncertainty and fear, the way forward, the portion tell us finally, is not to try to out-calculate or second-guess God or other people but to call on God’s attributes and work to help them become manifest in our world.

These remarks were prepared as a dvar torah for Hill Havurah
Calf from FreeBibleImages.org

Lament for Mismatched Glassware

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Exploring Babylon Chapter 16.1

At several points in the Megillah reading, the chant for the Book of Esther shifts to the Lamentations chant. The lament behind some verses seems clear: Mordecai’s introduction as a descendant of Babylonian exiles (2:6) and the decree telling all provinces to destroy the Jews (3:15), for example. It’s less obvious what is lamentable about three words — the whole verse does not change trope, just the three words — describing how banquet guests were served wine:

…וְכֵלִים מִכֵּלִים שׁוֹנִים…
“…the vessels being diverse one from another…” OR
“…beakers of varied design…”
— Esther 1:7

An explanation based on Esther Rabbah 2:11 brings us back to Babylon — although the spirit of Purim seems to cry out for a brief detour to consider the heartbreak of mismatched glassware. (See also note on publication schedule.)

Vessels at the Feast

The Megillah describes the decorations in the palace, the ornate couches, and “vessels of gold” used at the king’s seven-day feast. The text then adds: “Also Vashti the queen made a feast for the women in the royal house which belonged to king Ahasuerus” (Esther 1:8).

There is no mention of the vessels’ origin, beyond the enigmatic “shonim” [“different” or “diverse”]. (Many other explanations have been offered, over the centuries, to explain how the vessels were “different” — a topic, perhaps, for another day.) But Esther Rabbah says the vessels are “different” from ordinary ones in that those used at this feast are the same ones that Nebuchadnezzar took from the Temple in Jerusalem. The passing along of the Temple vessels is also linked in midrash to Queen Vashti.

The Megillah includes nothing about Queen Vashti’s background, although midrash has much to say about her. In terms of lineage, she is described midrashically as Babylonian royalty. She is sometimes identified as Nebuchadnezzar’s daughter (B. Megillah 10b). In one account, she is married to Ahashverus, who was her father’s steward (Esther Rabbah 3:14). Alternatively, she was the daughter of Belshazzar, and Darius married her to his son, Ahashverus, after her father was killed (Esther Rabbah 3:5). The latter story also provides a direct link between Vashti and the vessels in her palace, on the one hand, and, on the other, Belshazzar and the vessels at the “writing on the wall” feast (Daniel 5).

Daniel 5 opens with Belshazzar calling for “the golden and silver vessels which Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken out of the temple which was in Jerusalem.” It is clear, from the text (and midrash) that the party is meant to show contempt for Hebrews and all they hold sacred. The Megillah, in contrast, describes the feasting at the palace of Ahashverus in more neutral terms, while more negative connotations have been added by layers of midrash.

Offspring of Babylon

A strong thread in the negative midrash related to the Megillah stems from identification of Vashti as the “offspring” of Babylon:

וְקַמְתִּי עֲלֵיהֶם, נְאֻם יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת; וְהִכְרַתִּי לְבָבֶל שֵׁם וּשְׁאָר, וְנִין וָנֶכֶד–נְאֻם-יְהוָה.
And I will rise up against them, saith the LORD of hosts, and cut off from Babylon name and remnant, and offshoot and offspring, saith the LORD.
— Isaiah 14:22.

R. Jonathan prefaced his discourse on this section (Book of Esther) with the text, And I will rise against them… (Isa 14:22) [which he expounded as follows]: ‘Name’ means script; ‘remnant’ is language; ‘offshoot’ is kingdom, and ‘offspring’ is Vashti.
— B. Megillah 10b

R. Jonathan’s interpretation of the Isaiah verse can also be linked to the decree about households using the husband’s language (Esther 1:22 — midrash citation to come). Meanwhile, however, Vashti’s brief appearance and then exile have a powerful influence on the rest of the story. (See, for just one example, “The Role of Vashti in the Purim Story,” by Deena Rabinovich — PDF here.) At least one midrash suggests that the language decree, a response to suspicion about Vashti, set up opposition to Ahashverus, resulting, ultimately, in preservation of the Jews (again, citation to come). So perhaps Vashti, as offspring of Babylon, comes to tell us that the past is not so easy to eradicate, and that we are strengthened by preserving lessons — and cultural diversity — brought to us by the past.

Lamentable Banquet Service

This is based very loosely on the “Poetry Game,” created by Zahara Hecksher (9/12/64-2/24/18; her memory for a blessing), and offered in her honor and memory.

Vessels
Instructions:

  • Something in your poem occurs in an alley
  • Refer to a problem in a factory
  • Include the phrase “I remember ____” in your poem

Resulting poem: “Lament for Mismatched Glassware”

Goblets special ordered.
The king wants his display.
“It is time for us to host
A palace feast awash with wine
fine vessels for a toast.”

The queen cannot shake misgivings.
“I remember,” she explains,
“that writing on the wall.
A lavish party, I suspect,
may not end well at all.”

As the date grows near
workshop staff reports the order gone awry.
It appears that no two goblets match.
And not just one odd barrel,
batch after hodgepodge batch.

Palace staff is in the alley
unpacking mismatched wares.
Amid his duties the steward fears.
Royal wrath is a grave concern
as are faux-pas-related tears.

Royal banquet time is nigh.
Guests arriving at the gates.
Will history this night malign?
In trepidation the palace serves
with beakers of varied design.


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Note to subscribers and other followers of “Exploring Babylon” —
Apologies for the hiatus born of flu and weeks of scrambling to catch up with all that was left undone.
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The Five Powers, part 2

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Exploring Babylon 11.1

Episode 10 of #ExploringBabylon began discussing foreign powers associated with Chanukah — Egypt, Seleucid (Syrian-Greek) Empire, Babylon, Persia, and Rome — looking briefly at three of the five. Before the holiday is too distant a memory, let’s look at the remaining powers, Persia and Rome, and the holiday piyyut [liturgical poem] that includes them all.

Ma’oz Tzur [Rock of Refuge]” includes a stanza about restoration and re-dedication of the Temple followed by stanzas reflecting on rescue from each of the five foreign powers. It was composed in Hebrew in 13th Century Germany and credited to “Moredechai,” based on his acrostic “signature.”

The 19th Century song “Rock of Ages” — often confusingly called a “translation” of “Ma’oz Tzur” — adapts the piyyut’s themes of kindling lights and rescue while focusing only on the Chanukah story. The English is credited to two European-born, U.S. rabbis important in the Reform movement, based on an earlier German piece.

For the purposes of #ExploringBabylon, it’s important to note differences between the 13th and 19th Century lyrics in terms of agency, tense, and ultimate aim.

Rock of Refuge, Ages

“Rock of Ages” omits any call for restoration of the Temple, of course, and there is no sense that Jews (some of whom may be “fettered”) are more in need of rescue than any other people. The 19th Century Reform song thanks God for “saving power” (past tense) and then calls on Jews (present, future) to wake and sound their message of universal freedom and an end to tyranny:

“Rock of Ages, let our song, praise Thy saving power;
Thou, amidst the raging foes, wast our sheltering tower.
Furious they assailed us, but Thine arm availed us,
And Thy Word broke their sword, when our own strength failed us.
And Thy Word broke their sword, when our own strength failed us.

“Kindling new the holy lamps, priests, approved in suffering,
Purified the nation’s shrine, brought to God their offering…

“Children of the martyr race, whether free or fettered,
Wake the echoes of the songs where ye may be scattered.
Yours the message cheering that the time is nearing
Which will see, all men free, tyrants disappearing.
Which will see, all men free, tyrants disappearing.”
— Marcus Jastrow & Gustav Gottheil

The 13th Century lyrics, on the other hand, use past tense for stanzas about Egypt, Babylon, Chanukah, and Purim, but open and close with the need for God’s future rescue. The poet ascribes deliverance, past and future, to God alone and continues to beg for help for the beleaguered Jewish community:

Ma’oz tzur yeshu’ati
O Fortress,​ Rock of my salvation​​,
lecha na’eh leshabei’ach,

unto thee it is becoming to give praise:
Tikon beit tefilati
let my house of prayer be restored,​
vesham todah nezabei’ach
and I will there offer thee thanksgiv​ings
Le’eit tachin matbei’ach
when thou shalt have prepared a slaughter​
mitzar hamenabei’ach,
of the blasphemi​ng foe,
Az egmor beshir mizmor
I will complete with song and psalm
chanukat hamizbei’ach
the dedicatio​n of the altar.*

Chasof zero’a kadshecha
vekareiv keitz hayeshu’ah,

Expos​e your holy arm
and bring the end of the redemptio​n.

Nekom nikmat dam avadecha
mei’uma haresha’ah,

Aveng​e the blood of your servants
from the evil nation.

Ki archa lanu hayeshu’ah
ve’ein kaitz leyimei hara’ah,

Becau​se the salvation​​ has been a long time coming
and there is no end to the days of evil.

Dechei admon betzeil tzalmmon
hakeim lanu ro’im shiv’ah.

Push Edom into the shadows
(Others: Thrust the enemy into the darkness of death)
and bring the seven shepherds.”***
Zemirot Database
*translation from Authorize​​​d Daily Prayer Book (1890)
***Zemirot Database contributor translation

NOTE: “seven shepherds” from Micah 5:4 (more, eventually, on this verse)

Zemirot Database provides Hebrew and a public domain translation of all six stanzas of “Ma’oz Tzur.” The Milken Archives offers lyrics, without the last stanza, and a little history. Wikipedia presents lots of useful background plus Hebrew and English for both “Ma’oz Tzur” and “Rock of Ages,” and — serious kudos for this important clarification — identifies the latter as a “non-literal” translation of the former….

Rescue from the Powers

Stanzas 2-5 of “Ma’oz Tzur” thank God for rescue (past tense):

  • God “brought forth the treasured people” and Pharaoh’s army “sunk like a stone”
  • The oppressor “came and led me captive” but “through Zerubbabel I was saved after seventy years”
  • “The head of the Benjamite​ thou didst exalt, but the enemy’s name thou Midst blot out”
  • “The Grecians were gathered against me in the days of the Hasmoneans,” towers were broken and oil defiled, “but from one of the last remaining​ flasks a miracle was wrought for thy beloved”

The final verse, quoted above, returns to the present tense; we’ll leave its call for relief from Edom (Rome) — which was missing from prayerbooks for hundreds of years and is still omitted from many versions — for another day.

We’ve previously touched on other powers described above, but we’ve yet to focus in on Persia.

Persia, Purim, and the Temple

As is common in re-tellings of the Purim story, the stress in “Ma’oz Tzur” is on the evil that Haman intended toward the Jews and the violent end he and his sons met instead; the carnage in the final chapters of Esther, when “Jews smote their enemies” (9:5), is not mentioned. And, as in other stanzas of the piyyut, the only real actor in the Purim stanza is God.

The Purim story is set sometime after the far the Persian conquest of Babylon (539 BCE), when Judeans who had been exiled were allowed to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. Many Jews remained behind in what had been Babylonia, however. And, meanwhile, according to Ezra 4:6ff, permission to re-construct the Temple was rescinded “in the reign of Ahasuerus.”

Rebuilding had stalled during Zechariah’s prophesy. We left off our previous discussion, with the haftarah for Chanukah (Zech 2:14-4:7), as the twin leadership of Zerubbabel — also mentioned in the Babylonian stanza of “Ma’oz Tzur” above — and Joshua ben Jehozadak attempted to rally support for the restoration. Zechariah’s prophesy is specifically dated to 520-518 BCE; it is less clear how we are to understand “in the days of Ahasuerus” (Esther 1:1).

The Book of Esther is set far from Jerusalem, and the text does not mention the Temple. Midrash does, however. For example: Mordechai had been part of a delegation asking the king to allow rebuilding (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer). Ahasuerus rejoices at the Temple’s delay, according to Midrash Rabbah. The king calculated that the Judeans’ exile was exceeding the period prophesied by Jeremiah, and so “brought vessels of the Temple and used them” (BT Megillah 11b).

Persia and Babylon

The vessels used in the king’s feast (1:5) and Queen Vashti’s (1:9) link these festivities to earlier revelry in Babylon, when Belshazzar used the vessels the night of the “writing on the wall” (Dan 5). In this and many other ways, Midrash Rabbah accuses Ahasuerus of prolonging, and sometimes enjoying, Jews’ separation from the Temple begun with Babylonian Captivity. However, the ancient rabbis’ understanding of Babylon as God’s instrument extends to Persia.

Throughout Midrash Rabbah, God is a regular, explicit actor in the Purim story, even though God is not mentioned — except, perhaps, for Mordechai’s comment about help coming “from another place [מִמָּקוֹם אַחֵר]” — in the actual text of Megillat Esther.

Early on in Midrash Rabbah, for example, the apparently superfluous “in those days” of Esther 1:2 is explained by an exchange between God and the angels. The angels complain to God, “Master of the universe! The Temple is destroyed, and this wicked person sits and engages in revelry?!” God responds by saying Redemption had been delayed due to Judeans’ failure to observe the Sabbath:

“Place days opposite days,” thus it is written: In those days I observed in Judah [people] treading on winepresses on the Sabbath (Neh 13:15)
— Esther Rabbah 1:10 (Artscroll, 2011)

Jewish thought over the centuries includes many other views of exile and oppression, but the concept of Redemption coming when God determined it was deserved, so apparent in Midrash Rabbah for Esther, seems to be shared by the writer of “Ma’oz Tzur.” This yields a further blurring of “foreign powers” — beyond Babylon, and its successor, Persia — into a sort of non-specific enemy to be defeated in God’s time. And, while “Rock of Ages” does not hint at oppression as deserved (or list as many previous oppressors), it ultimately points to a similar non-specific tyranny as enemy.

…and that leads, eventually, to the concept of “empire” in Christian commentary. (To take just one example, see Come Out My People! God’s Call Out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond, by Wes Howard-Brook. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2010). More on this, with some Christian and interfaith input, to come….

But there is still “Rome” and far more work, just in clearing up the last bits of Chanukah’s wax, for #ExploringBabylon.


NOTE 1:
A number of sources, including the Reform siddur, Mishkan T’filah (2007), and the Reconstructionist Kol Haneshamah (1994), publish the 13th Century Hebrew side-by-side with the “Rock of Ages” text, calling it a “translation.” It is unsurprising, therefore, that many other educational and music sites follow suit. See, e.g., Teaching Songs, Hebrew Songs), and sadly: My Jewish Learning. “Rock of Ages” is based on an earlier German version and so, in that sense, a translation — just not of the Hebrew.

Some sources, obviously copying Wikipedia — which has enough contributors monitoring Jewish learning pages to pick at any sloppiness — now call “Rock of Ages” a “non-literal translation” of the Hebrew piyyut. A 2010 Reform presentation uses quotation marks: “an English ‘translation.'”

EDITORIALIZING NOTE: Wikipedia is very useful and, as this example indicates, very influential. Many of us make use of it without giving it much consideration, though. ‘Tis the season, however, so please consider saving on 2018 taxes by donating now to this and the other internet resources, Jewish and more general, on which we all rely.
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NOTE 2:
This reflects closely the discussion in B. Talmud Shabbat 21b, which begins with “What is Chanukah?” and goes on to discuss order of candle-lighting and reciting of Hallel, with the briefest mention of the Temple being defiled. In contrast with Books 1 and 2 of Maccabees, which discuss the stories, including military views, of the conflict with the Hasmoneans.
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NOTE 3:
Some contemporary scholars call the Book of Esther a “novella” not linked with specific historical figures; others identify Ahasuerus with Persia’s Xerxes I and its setting to 483-473 BCE (Cf My Jewish Learning) and Jewish Encyclopedia). For the purposes of this discussion, the book’s historicity is not of prime importance.
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Warring Nations, Sibling Tears

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The Torah portion Toldot (Gen. 25:19 – 28:9) illustrates the struggles of nations and individuals. We are simultaneously the inheritors of this mess and the participants – all of them – in the heart-breaking. So, I want to look at the sad state we’re in and see if we can find a way through by considering different aspects of the story.

Opening and Closing Angst

toldotRebecca’s story in this portion is bookended by two moments of terrible angst, both involving her children as individuals and as nations. She cries, “If so, why am I?” and learns that she carries two warring nations in her womb (Gen. 25:22ff).

— not unlike our situation right now, as U.S. citizens, I think.

Toward the end of the portion we are told that Jacob headed off “to Paddan-aram, to Laban the son of Bethuel the Aramean, brother of Rebecca, mother of Jacob and Esau.” (Gen. 27:45)

Her stated hope – that Jacob will remain with Laban just long enough for Esau’s wrath to cool – is not realized in her lifetime. Later, Isaac’s death is reported, but hers is not. So this is the last image in the Torah that we have of Rebecca: an individual who somehow birthed two nations, and then worked to manipulate their fates, now holding out hope for reconciliation between them, as one seethes and the other inherits, and she watches them part.

At no point in this portion do we see the extreme hospitality and generosity she exhibited at the well where she gave Eleazar a drink and watered his camels. We don’t see it from her, it’s not present in Isaac’s wranglings over the wells, and it’s antithesis appears when Jacob refuses to share food with his hungry brother without forcing Esau into a permanent abdication of rights.

Lentil Disaster and Beyond

Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove points out in a 2011 drash:

Jacob and Esau could not share a bowl of lentil soup without provocation, never mind a Thanksgiving dinner. Unlike modern psychology, the Torah does not find the primary shaper of human identity between parent and child, but rather between siblings. — “Brother, Can You Spare a Blessing?

And the state of the siblings in this portion is a deep and painful mess.

In addition to the lentil disaster, there is the deception over the blessing and Esau’s threat to kill Jacob because of it.

We learn from a 19th Century midrash that Rebecca convinced Jacob to flee, saying:

Whichever of you will be slain I shall be bereaved in one day, since one will be no more, slain, and the murderer of his brother will be detested by me as an enemy and stranger, and will be, in my eyes, as non-existing. I will thus be bereaved of both of them.
Em Lemikra: A commentary on Pentateuch (R. Elijah Benamozegh; 1823-1900)
found in Neshama Leibowitz Studies in Genesis: “Mother of Jacob and Esau”

An important midrashic thought to remind us that any murder destroys at least two lives. And I think it suggest that, like Rebecca, we are partially responsible for creating – or allowing – conditions that can lead to murder and we might consider our responsibility to help create better conditions that could prevent murders.

And then, even when murder is avoided, we still have to cope with Esau’s cry.

A Sibling’s Cry

As their story unfolds, we learn – from at least disparate two threads of commentary – that a single cry from Esau had repercussions for Jacob for centuries and into the current day.

After Isaac gave the blessing to Jacob, Esau “cried with a loud and bitter cry” (27:34): וַיִּצְעַק צְעָקָה, גְּדֹלָה וּמָרָה עַד-מְאֹד

Breishit Rabbah points to a similar expression in the Esther story after Mordechai learns of the edict against the Jews (4:1):

Jacob made Esau break out into a cry but once, and where was he punished for it? In Shushan the capital, as it says: “And he cried with a loud and bitter cry.” (וַיִּזְעַק זְעָקָה גְדוֹלָה וּמָרָה*)

*“cry” is spelled differently in the two verses, but Nechama Leibowitz calls the phrases identical, and clearly Breishit Rabbah saw a link.

In this midrash, the twins shift from individual brothers to nations, as retribution for tears of Esau, the man, comes – in God’s own time – to Jacob, the nation of Israel. As Leibowitz explains it: “The Almighty, who takes note of our tears, also takes note of those shed by the wicked Esau. They also are noted and cry out for retribution.” (Note: The “wicked” is Leibowitz’s adjective, one common in traditional interpretations.)

The Zohar also tells us that the tears of Esau do not exist solely within this portion’s narrative: Instead, it is taught that the Messiah will not come until Esau’s tears have stopped flowing. (Zohar II, Shemot 12b; more below)

It seems that both Esau and Jacob are understood as their national selves in the Zohar’s understanding. In both commentaries, however, Esau’s tears blur into a much something larger than one man’s injury.

Sibling Tears Today

As it happens, my older sister, Martha, and I had a chance over the summer to discuss the state of the nation and of our extended family. Martha reminded me that our dad – whose 40th yahrzeit passed in August – used to say that peace, in any kind of communal or national sense, was impossible until brothers learned to get along. And, he said, the bible taught how unlikely that was. Still, we were led to believe, as I recall, that the fate of the world rested on our small shoulders whenever any of the four of us had a minor spat.

While I doubt that our dad knew Breishit Rabbah or the Zohar, he managed to convey a similar sense, on the one hand, of the magnitude and persistence of interpersonal injuries and, on the other hand, of our power to affect change on a communal or national level by improving relationships with those closest to us.

At a recent program on racial justice, held at Adas Israel, an activist and teacher, black woman and a Jew, Yavilah McCoy stressed the importance of being what she calls “proximate” to the people with whom we are struggling for justice – in both senses, that is, those we oppose and those we join in common struggle. Proximity is the only way people learn and change, she said.

McCoy gave an example that stuck with me: If your aunty badmouths your mom, you don’t write to the New York Times about it; you talk to aunty and mom. And that, she said, is how injuries are resolved.

So, that’s what I’d like to discuss:

  • What are our possibilities for resolving very old and very painful circumstances between brother individuals and brother nations?
  • When are we Rebecca? When Esau? And when Jacob?
  • And when are we Isaac, who seems so damaged and confused himself that he lets everyone else do the emotional work?

One last note: Centuries of commentary appear to speak of the persistence of Esau’s tears without claiming that he should have received the blessing or even that anyone in the story should have behaved differently.

Postscript on brothers, etc.

The portion drifts constantly from the personal to the national, beginning with the opening verse –

וְאֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת יִצְחָק, בֶּן-אַבְרָהָם: אַבְרָהָם, הוֹלִיד אֶת-יִצְחָק.
“This is the line” – or: “these are the offspring” – “of Isaac son of Abraham – Abraham begot Isaac” (24:19).

There are several traditional explanations for starting the line of Isaac with “Abraham begot Isaac.” One idea that caught my attention is from the 13th Century teacher, Chizkuni: The odd phrasing emphasizes that Abraham not only sired Isaac but raised him, and he did so after his name and destiny were changed to Abraham, “father of multitude of nations” (Gen 17:5).


The stress on “multitude of nations” is particularly important to consider at this point, poised between the lineage of Ishmael – which includes twelve princes by their nations (25:16) – and that of Isaac, which will include Esau and Jacob, who are both brothers and nations.

NOTES:

In the Midrash it is written: “Messiah, son of David, will not come until the tears of Esau have ceased to flow.” The children of Israel, who are God’s children, pray for mercy day and night; and shall they weep in vain so long as the children of Esau shed tears? But “the tears of Esau” – that does not mean the tears which the people of the earth weep and you do not weep; they are the tears that all human being weep when the ask something for themselves, and pray for it. And truly: Messiah, son of David, will not come until such tears have ceased to flow, until you weep because the Divine Presence is exiled, and because you year for its return.
— Martin Buber. The Way of Man/Ten Rungs, p. 199
NY: Citadel Press, 2006 (Ten Rungs, originally published Schocken 1947)

See also “Tears of Sorrow, Tears of Redemption” by Rabbi Toba Spitzer on Kol Nidre 5762 (shortly after 9/11/2001):

Maybe this is what we can learn out of the depths of the tragedy we have witnessed. That redemption will come when all tears have ceased, when all sources of suffering have been repaired. Our redemption is somehow linked to the fate of even those whom we consider our enemies. Their tears and ours are ultimately not so different.

The human spirit is so large when we allow it to be; the incredible outpouring of bravery and love and money in these past two weeks is testament to that. Let’s not squander this opportunity to make the most of what we’ve learned about ourselves, the good and the bad. Let’s name the sins that need to be named, let’s confess them together, and then let’s come together to begin to imagine a better way. Let’s dry Esau’s tears, and our own, and begin to figure out what it will take to make redemption real.
(Zohar II, Shemot 12b)

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