Ishmael, Isaac, and a Reunion of Cousins

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What can the story of Ishmael and Isaac, especially its conclusion in Genesis 25:7ff, tell us “about renewing the cousinship of Blacks and Jews — and of people who live in both communities — when white nationalists are threatening both”?

The Shalom Center suggests that the Torah reading(s) for Rosh Hashanah, which highlight the endangerment and separation of Ishmael and Isaac, “cry out for turning and healing.” Toward this end, Rabbi Arthur Waskow proposes an additional reading for Yom Kippur: Gen 25:7-11, wherein the two brothers join together to bury their father and “Isaac goes to live at the wellspring that is Ishmael’s home.”

Arthur suggests that reading this tale at the end of the Days of Awe “can remind us as individuals that it is always possible for us to turn away from anger and toward reconciliation.” In addition it can remind us that the descendants of Isaac (Jewish people) and of Ishmael (Islam and Arab peoples) “need to turn toward compassion for each other.” (More on this idea at “5 Offerings for a Deep and Powerful Yom Kippur. The “cousins” paragraph, quoted above, is from a print Shalom Center communication elaborating on this Yom Kippur reading suggestion.)

Renewing Cousinship

Arthur taught at Fabrangen Havurah, probably twenty years ago, on the topic of Ishmael and Isaac jointly burying their father. Since then, I’ve thought many times about this part of the tale and its power to point us either toward reconciliation or toward less helpful paths. I don’t think I ever explored it in terms of “renewing the cousinship” of Black and Jewish communities before, however. And, because this is an on-going and strong concern for me, I plan to pursue this in some detail in the days ahead — for the high holidays and beyond. Our communities are much in need of turning and healing.

I am not yet sure if this is a continuation of last year’s #ExploringBabylon or a new direction. Either way, I hope you will join in, by subscribing if you have not already done so — follow buttons are now at the VERY BOTTOM of posts — and contributing your thoughts.

Life at the Wellspring

“Isaac goes to live at the wellspring that is Ishmael’s home.”

This is what struck me most powerfully in Arthur’s teaching this year. In year’s past, I thought in terms of interfaith understanding, of the wellspring as a fundamental source that Isaac and Ishmael share and a common link to Hagar. Viewing the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael as members of Jewish and Black communities today, however, raised new questions:

  • Beer Lahai Roi is where Ishmael settled after being expelled from the family home. So what does it mean that Isaac is now living there?
    • Is this true brotherly reunion, generally accepted by others in the neighborhood?
    • Or does this look to some like colonization of the exiled brother’s home?
    • Do the brothers fairly share a joint family heritage in the wellspring?
    • Or is Isaac somehow appropriating what had been Ishmael’s?
  •  Beer Lahai Roi is a powerful place of God-connection at times of severe travail for Hagar. So what does it mean that Isaac settled there?
    • Did separate traumas experienced by Isaac and Ishmael lead them, by divine guidance, perhaps, to a joint source of healing?
    • Or did Isaac seek out Ishmael hoping his older brother could guide him?
    • Do the brothers learn from one another?
    • Or do they, with some rare exceptions, like burying their father, retreat into their own pain?

Perhaps midrash — ancient, modern, or newly discovered — will reveal some answers. Maybe some of these questions are best left open.

Rosh Hashanah Torah Reading(s)

In Reform and some other congregations observing one day of Rosh Hashanah, the Torah reading is generally the story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, Genesis 22:1-24. Where two days are observed, common practice is to read the Akedah story on Day Two and the story of Hagar and Ishmael being cast out, Genesis 21:1-34, on Day One.

In midrash, Sarah dies as a result of the near sacrifice of Isaac. So, whether or not Genesis 21 is read at the holiday, these stories highlight endangerment of both sons and both mothers and a family torn apart.

Genesis 25:7ff, when the brothers bury Abraham, is read as part of the regular Torah cycle, parashat Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18) but is not part of the traditional readings for the Days of Awe.
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Babylon and 929

Babylon — in fact, “The Three ‘Bavels'” — is featured this past week on the English portal for “929,” chapter-a-day study in the Hebrew Bible:

The place name, בבל, bavel can refer to: Babel, Babylon, or Babylonia. Each of these ancient “Bavels” suggests a model for the 21st century….

The rise of Bavel/Babylonia was a rejection of Ps 137: it moved Judaism itself from a circle, with the Holy Land at its center, to an ellipse, with two centers defining its orbit. And in creating a second vibrant center, Babylonian Judaism opened up the way for many more “centers” to come, throughout Jewish diasporic history.

These three models – Babel, Babylon, Babylonia – represent three numerical possibilities for sacred centers in our lives…

— “The Three ‘Bavels’: Babel, Babylon, Babylonia” full post

929 is in its second three-year cycle in Hebrew and just launched its first English cycle on July 15, with the help of Drisha Institute in New York. 929 “invites Jews everywhere to read Tanakh, one chapter a day, together with a website with creative readings and pluralistic interpretations, including audio and video, by a wide range of writers, artists, rabbis, educators, and more.” (More at The Forward.)

Follow the English site on Facebook and/or by email. If you land on a page that is all Hebrew and want English instead, look for “EN” at the top left to switch.

Teachers from many corners of the global Jewish community are participating. DC area people might notice that Dr. Erin Leib Smokler, one of the founders of DC Beit Midrash (2002-?), is a contributing author.

Chanukah and the Five Powers

Exploring Babylon Chapter 10

This week in the Jewish calendar, we meet the major foreign powers with which ancient Judaism struggled:

  • In the Torah-reading cycle, Joseph is already in Egypt, setting the stage for the whole clan of Yisrael to move, and eventually become enslaved, there.
  • Chanukah (in 2017: 12/12-12/20), reminds us of events in the Seleucid (“Syrian-Greek“) Empire.
  • The haftarah for Shabbat Chanukah, from Zechariah, is set just after the Babylonian Captivity, during Persian rule.
  • In addition, the game of dreidel is sometimes explained with reference to Roman soldiers, and other aspects of the holiday relate to this later empire.

Egypt, Greece, Babylon, Persia, and Rome. That’s a lot of foreign powers converging on any one week.

And there are aspects of Chanukah that tend to equate or conflate oppressors and different experiences of exile. For example, all five of the foreign powers show up in one of the post popular Chanukah songs, based on the 13th Century piyyut, “Ma’oz Tzur.” (More on this soon.) So, there’s an impulse, on the one hand, to roll all the opponents into one enormous, amorphous threat to scrappy, little Yisrael. On the other hand, there’s a tradition of aiming to universalize the Chanukah story, making it into everyman’s battle against tyranny everywhere. Insights can be gleaned by comparing and combining the foreign powers that turn up together this week. But it’s worth examining each of these empires, and its particular arc through Jewish history and thought, to see what light it sheds — on its own and in conjunction with the others.

Doing a thorough exploration is an enormous job, but perhaps we can start where we are, on this day of the third candle of Chanukah.

One Candle: Mikeitz (Egypt)

Egypt has a lot to say about exile and the challenges of a non-homogeneous society, in this week’s Torah portion (Mikeitz, Gen 41:1 – 44:17) alone:

  • Joseph’s precarious status and employment situation, here taking an upswing (Gen 41:41-46) after slavery, a rise to power and fall into incarceration (and, before the pharaoh who doesn’t know Joseph and enslaves all his descendants);
  • New clothes for a new position;
  • A new, foreign name for Joseph;
  • A new, foreign spouse, read alternatively as Asenath joining Yisrael or as Joseph’s acceptance into Egyptian society;
  • Names for Joseph’s children that reflect experience in exile; and
  • Food issues.

Joseph, “the Hebrews,” and the Egyptians each eat separately, “because it was abhorrent to the Egyptians [כִּי־תוֹעֵבָ֥ה הִ֖וא לְמִצְרָֽיִם]” (Gen 43:32). What was abhorrent? The possibilities are many, including, from various commentators: extremely different customs and manners , snobbery on the part of the Egyptians, and religious taboo (one theory: Egyptians revered animals, like the cow, while Hebrews ate beef).

Two Candles: Mikeitz and Chanukah

The story of the Maccabees is multi-layered, and many scholars point to the twin layers of internal strife within Yisrael and the precipitating Greek pressure:

The power the Greeks sought and the threat they posed was not just military, and so it could not be resolved by military means alone; their threat was as much to the identity, faith, and practice of the Jews. What is more, the threat came not just from the Greeks but from the Jews themselves, many of whom, according to the sources, had opted voluntarily to assimilate or gave in rather than resist Greek orders….
— Gila Sacks, “Creating Light Each Day” (2013)
from JOFA’s Shema Bekolah [her her voice] series

This dynamic has never yet ceased to be relevant to Jewish communities, in- or outside Israel. When this candle’s light is burned side-by-side with the one from Mikeitz, the combine light raises a host of new questions about Joseph’s story.

Three Candles: Mikeitz, Chanukah, and Zechariah

The Haftarah for Shabbat Chanukah is Zechariah 2:14-4:7. The first eight chapters of Zechariah’s prophecy are dated to 520-518 BCE, during the reign of Darius I of Persia. This is just after the conquest of Babylon, when Judeans were permitted to return and rebuild in Jerusalem. Work on the Temple had stalled “when the leadership refused to allow local population to join in the labor…, and this group interfered with the building down to the second year of Darius 1” (M. Fishbane, JPS Haftarah Commentary. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2002, p.163).

Zechariah’s prophecy, which includes several visions, supports a leadership duo for the effort ahead: Joshua ben Jehozadak, heir to the priesthood, and Zerubbabel ben Sheathiel, royal heir. Chapter 4 relates a vision in which Zechariah is shown a complex candelabra of seven lamps, “with a bowl on top of it,” and an olive tree on each side. The prophet asks for the meaning of this, and the angel responds in verses 4:6-14 — beginning with “prologue” (4:6-7) and then interpreting the lamps and trees.

In between, the prophecy includes a comforting declaration: “Zerubbabel’s hands have founded this House and Zerubbabel’s hands shall complete it….Does anyone scorn a day of small beginnings?” (4:9-10).

All of this is part of God’s promise to return from exile along with the people (Zech 1). And the JPS commentary also includes a midrash around the word “gullah [bowl],” that is at the head of the candelabrum (Zech 4:2). One of the themes of Zechariah is that God is at the “head,” but God and the people are united in both “exile (golah)” and “redemption (ge’ulah).”

That’s one aspect of Zechariah, taken on its own. And it can surely lend further light the whole topic of foreign powers. But the Chanukah haftarah stops at what Fishbane called “prologue” above:

Then he explained to me as follows: “This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit—said the LORD of Hosts.
וַיַּעַן וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלַי, לֵאמֹר, זֶה דְּבַר-יְהוָה, אֶל-זְרֻבָּבֶל לֵאמֹר
לֹא בְחַיִל, וְלֹא בְכֹחַ–כִּי אִם-בְּרוּחִי, אָמַר יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת:

Whoever you are, O great mountain in the path of Zerubbabel, turn into level ground!
For he shall produce that excellent stone; it shall be greeted with shouts of ‘Beautiful! Beautiful!’”
מִי-אַתָּה הַר-הַגָּדוֹל לִפְנֵי זְרֻבָּבֶל, לְמִישֹׁר;
וְהוֹצִיא, אֶת-הָאֶבֶן הָרֹאשָׁה–תְּשֻׁאוֹת, חֵן חֵן לָהּ
— Zechariah 4:6-7

In doing so, Fishbane says, the Rabbis not only emphasize that Zerubbabel’s success will be through God’s spirit alone but “transformed the text into a divine warning. Groups wishing to ‘force the end’ through military might, or support projects promising restoration of the Temple, are given divine notice of the futility of their plans” (p.165).

It’s this appearance of Zechariah that shows up this week, with Mikeitz and the story of Chanukah. And taken together, the three candles shed a different light.



NOTES
Note 1:
To avoid confusion, I’m using “Yisrael,” as both the name given to Jacob after his divine wrestling match (Gen 32:22-32) and the name of the ancient people, as distinguished from the contemporary nation of “Israel.”
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Dick Gregory and Rabbis Under Rome

Exploring Babylon Chapter 9.2

Dick Gregory’s Bible Tales with Commentary offers insights on the Joseph Story, begun in last week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev (Gen 37:1 – 40:23).

His remarks begin with notes on dreamers and dreaming:

Joseph found out it’s dangerous to be a dreamer. Just like Joseph’s brothers, society today has three ways of dealing with dreamers. Kill the dreamer. Throw the dreamer in jail (the contemporary “cisterns” in our society). Or sell the dreamer into slavery; purchase the dream with foundation grants or government deals, until the dreamer becomes enslaved to controlling financial or governmental interests. Society tries to buy off the dream and lull the dreamer to sleep. It’s called a “lull-a-buy.”
Dick Gregory’s Bible Tales, p.70 (full citation below)

Gregory (1932-2017) goes on to say, in his 1974 publication, that this country used all three tactics on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., adding: “Dreamers can be killed. Dreams live on.”

Gregory then suggests: “Maybe Joseph was a Black cat. That would certainly explain his taste in clothes and the wild colors he wore.” He relates Joseph’s experience with Potiphar’s wife (Gen 39) to the many Black men in this country “falsely accused of making advances to white women” (Bible Tales, p.72).

Regarding the final story in Vayeishev, Joseph’s incarceration and interpretation of dreams for fellow inmates (Gen 40), Gregory writes:

The butler in the Joseph story symbolizes America’s treatment of Black folks. The butler used Joseph’s talent as an interpret of dreams and he promised to tell Pharaoh about Joseph. As soon as the butler got himself comfortably back in Pharaoh’s palace, he forgot about his word to Joseph.

America was built on the sweat, toil, and talent of Black folks. But when the work was done and the talent utilized, America quickly forgot its debt to Blacks. Black folks helped lay down the railroad tracks, but they could only work as porters after the trains started running. Black slaves picked the cotton, but the garment industry belonged to white folks.
Bible Tales, p.73

Gregory’s commentary struck me as very like the commentary of the Rabbis under Roman rule. One famous example is this teaching of Gamaliel, son of Judah (Gamaliel III):

Be wary in your dealings with the ruling power, for they only befriend a man when it serves their needs. When it is to their advantage, they appear as friends, but they do not stand by a person in his hour of need.
Pirkei Avot 2:3

 

Torah of Exile, Again

The previous episode discussed the “Torah of Exile” and the Academy of Shem and Eber, offering lessons on keeping the faith when the surrounding culture seems alien, even hostile. The above-quoted passages from Gregory’s Bible Tales fit this curriculum in two importantly different ways.

First, dreams and dreamers. People from many communities — in 1974 and today — can relate to Gregory’s characterization of a system that tries to buy dreams in order to squash them. So, his comments on this comprise one kind of “Torah of Exile,” comfort and instruction for exiles.

…Let’s note, before continuing, that an individual might feel exiled around one aspect of life (gender or sexual orientation, for example) while feeling integrated into the surrounding community in other ways….

Second, the butler who “symbolizes America’s treatment of Black folks.” Gregory’s notes on the butler story are more specific to a particular form of exile. It’s not that people outside the Black community cannot relate to being used. But those of us who don’t directly experience what he is describing must pause and be sure to really hear what is said about an experience we don’t share. This is a second kind of “The Torah of Exile”: discomfort and instruction for those who are in relative safety with regard to a particular form of exile.

We should all, of course, seek to learn from many sources. We need all the ancient and contemporary wisdom we can find, and all that’s in between, to help us understand our own exilic circumstances and those of our neighbors. It’s essential, though, that we stay clear on the two kinds of Torah of Exile and be careful to learn about others’ suffering without mistaking it for our own.




Gregory_BibleTales
Dick Gregory’s Bible Tales with Commentary, James R. McGraw, ed.
NY: Stein and Day, 1974

This volume, by the way, is very funny and oddly current.
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Torah of Exile

Exploring Babylon Chapter 9.1

Jacob studied “the Torah of exile” in his younger years, and that helped sustain him during his time with Laban. Joseph, in turn, uses this “Torah of exile” during his decades in Egypt. This idea, based on an odd expression in Gen 37:3, opens up all sorts of possibilities for #ExploringBabylon.

The Family Business

This week’s Torah portion (Vayeishev, Gen 37:1 – 40:23) begins with an odd expression that has engendered a variety of commentary:

כִּי-בֶן-זְקֻנִים
ki-ben-zakunim
— from Gen 37:3

Ben zakunim” is usually translated as something like “child of his old age.” But this failed to satisfy many readers over the centuries, because Joseph is, after all, not the youngest child. Another reading takes zaken (“old”) as a contraction of “זה שקנה הכמה [one who acquired wisdom]” and so identifies Joseph as wise or as one who learned from wise elders: Jacob taught Joseph what he learned in “the Academy of Shem and Eber” (Rashi quoting Onkelos).

The idea of the Academy of Shem and Eber, sometimes two separate “academies,” appears in a number of midrashim. This student essay explains that the academy is used as an explanation for periods of time when someone seems to disappear from the narrative: When Isaac disappears from the text, following the Akedah, he was learning from these elders (Gen. Rabbah 56:11). Fourteen missing years in Jacob’s chronology are attributed to the academy (Babylonian Talmud, Megilla 17a). In addition, when Rebecca went to “inquire of God” about her agitated twins (Gen 25:22), she is said to be visiting the Academy of Shem (Gen. Rabbah 45:10).

These midrashim reflect the Rabbinical propensity to see Torah learning as a useful and desired occupation — the family business, in a way — and even an eternal reward: Shem and Eber join Abraham, Isaac, Moses, and Aaron in the Beit Midrash of the world to come (Shir ha-Shirm Rabbah 6:2), open to all who learn Torah in this world. But there’s another thread here in that Shem and Eber have something specific to teach.

Academy for Exiles

Shem lived through the Flood and the conditions that preceded it. Eber had lived among those who built the Tower of Babel. The lessons they learned in these difficult circumstances, the “Academy” reasoning goes, helped Jacob and Joseph survive, and not assimilate, during their periods of exile.

In addition, Klahr notes in “The First Beit Midrash,” lessons from Shem and Eber helped Isaac “derive the inspiration to remain a committed Jew after he was almost killed for the sake of God.”

Centuries of Jews have faced similar challenges, and many individuals in tough circumstances, in which faith seems irrelevant or too hard, have found themselves, with Rebecca, asking: “Why am I thus!?”

The importance of the Yeshivah of Shem and Eber lies not in its historical accuracy, but rather in its representation of a culture in which one can maintain a relationship with God despite its difficulty….God did not simply appear to the Bible’s heroes. They were not born with deep strength and conviction; rather, the forefathers [and mothers] worked hard to develop their faith. They went to seek advice from those who knew more than they. They spent time contemplating God and life’s meaning.
— “The First Beit Midrash”

To take a different sort of example, consider the role of the Highlander Folk School in mid-20th Century U.S. history.

Academy for Today

Many of us were raised with some version of “Rosa was tired” as the narrative behind the Montgomery Bus Boycott. This makes it sound as though Mrs. Parks was a non-entity, calmly tolerating segregation until one day she just snapped, and that the boycott somehow just materialized after that. The real story, of course, is that the boycott was years in the planning by many people, including Mrs. Parks.

Moreover, before making her stand, so to speak, Mrs. Parks was active with the NAACP and attended the Highlander Folk School, where she made connections and developed resources that helped launch a huge part of the Civil Rights Movement.

For a little background, listen to Studs Terkel talk in 1973 with Rosa Parks and Myles Horton, founder of Highlander, about some of learning and work involved.

(BTW, be sure to check out the existing Studs Terkel Archive, see what’s new for 2018, and learn about WFMT’s call for support.)

What did Shem and Eber teach that we can use for #ExploringBabylon? What do we need for today’s “Academy for Exiles”?



Notes

Benjamin, the last born, is also a child of Jacob’s “old age” — and so this phrase would not explain why Jacob loved Joseph more than his youngest. Some commentators suggest that perhaps Rachel’s death giving birth to Benjamin made it hard for Jacob to relate to his youngest son. Others say that Jacob was already in “old age” when Joseph was born, and that father and son developed a strong bond before Benjamin was born. But these lines of reasoning did not satisfy many readers over the centuries, so other ways of reading “ben-zakunim were suggested. (Not tracking down the citations, sorry, as this is pretty far off-topic.)
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Miriam Pearl Klahr, then a sophomore at Stern College, wrote “The First Beit Midrash: The Yeshiva of Shem and Eber,” for a 2014 edition of Kol Hamevaser, The Jewish Thought Magazine of the Yeshiva University Student Body.

This blog actively avoids choosing non-egalitarian sources for basic Jewish background or for default learning resources. But that practice is not meant to discount learning from any quarter. I found this a powerful and useful essay, and I appreciate the author’s careful attention to citing sources so we can all learn further from them. I definitely recommend checking out the whole article.
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The Babylon Road

Exploring Babylon Chapter 8.1

The biblical Rachel, the last matriarch to join and add to the clan that becomes Israel, is tied to the east in several ways — all leading, ultimately, to Babylon.

Children of Two Lands

Rachel is introduced just after Jacob arrives in the “land of the Easterners [אַרְצָה בְנֵי-קֶדֶם]” (Genesis 29:1, last week’s Torah portion: Vayetze, Gen 28:10-32:3).

The construct “בְנֵי-קֶדֶם, bnei-kedem” — sometimes translated as “people (or children) of the east,” sometimes, “Kedemites” — does not appear anywhere else in the Torah, although it shows up ten times later in the Tanakh (Concordance Even-Shoshan). Many Torah translations leave the expression without comment (cf. Alter, Fox, URJ, Women of Reform Judaism, Gefen Onkelos); the Stone Chumash simply points out that Ur Kasdim and Haran, places associated with Abraham’s family, are east from Canaan.

Some commentators note that eastward is the direction Abraham sent the children of Ketura, whom he married after Sarah’s death (Gen 25:6). The word “kedem” itself means “past,” as well as “east.”

Previous #ExploringBabylon chapters discussed two themes, repeated through much of Genesis:

  • Ur Kasdim and Haran as “Back Home” for the family of Terah;
  • the descendants of Sarah and Abraham as perpetually “from there.”

Both themes appear in Jacob’s story, and both appear, in two quite different ways, in the stories of Leah and Rachel.

Two Sisters

Jacob is urged, separately by Rebecca and Isaac, to leave Canaan, with both parents saying that he should seek out Rebecca’s brother and find a wife from the uncle’s household (“back home”). Isaac echoes Abraham’s earlier words, insisting his son should find a wife “from there [מִשָּׁם].”

In their instructions to Jacob, Rebecca calls her old home “Haran,” while Isaac calls the place “Paddan-Aram.” Jacob goes to Paddan-Aram (Gen 28:5), going out from Beer-Sheva toward Haran (Gen 28:10). Where he arrives, however, is “artzah bnei-kedem.”

Jacob’s grandparents and parents retained a sense of “from there,” while leaving “back home” behind: Sarah and Abraham left there, as did Rebecca. But Jacob’s trajectory is different: He will live decades among the people of kedem. So, even though the plain meaning of arriving “artzah bnei-kedem” is reaching the “east country” or “land of the Easterners” (as JPS has it above), Jacob has also, in a sense, traveled toward his family’s past. And Rachel’s introduction links her to this land in a way that Leah’s does not.

Jacob arrives in the land of the Easterners, where he sees a well and flocks of sheep and then meets locals who tell him his cousin Rachel is on the way. Rachel, whose name means “ewe,” is intricately woven into this landscape and the household of Laban, where she is seen and heard taking an active role.

Leah, in contrast, is not introduced until 29:16 and then only as Laban’s older daughter with tender, or weak, eyes; she is not linked to the land in any way and does not interact with Laban, except as the passive object of his machinations.

Two Stories

The sisters jointly declare themselves “as outsiders” [כִּי מְכָרָנוּ] in Laban’s household, when Jacob proposes leaving (Gen 31:14-16). The Torah: A Woman’s Commentary adds:

By acknowledging their outsider status in the household, Leah and Rachel prepare themselves to journey to an unknown land. They distinguish themselves from their father, citing the egregious manner in which he married them off and then denied them their due.
— Rachel Havrelock’s commentary to Vayetze

But this doesn’t pan out in the same way for both sisters.

Eventually, although we learn nothing about the later stage of her life, Leah does settle with Jacob and the extended family in Canaan; she is buried at Machpelah with Sarah and Abraham, Rebecca and Isaac, and, finally, Jacob (Gen 49:31). We also learn that Dinah, “the daughter whom Leah had borne to Jacob, went out to visit the daughters of the land” (Gen 34:1); this troubling episode is beyond the scope of this project, but it does seem relevant that Leah and Dinah are thus linked, not to the old land but to the new.

Rachel, in contrast, seems to have stronger relationships to the old land and to the old family. She steals the terafim (הַתְּרָפִים [idols, household gods]) from her father’s house (Gen 31:34), which many commentators link to inheritance or clan leadership — although there is great variety in interpreting the meaning of her act. Moreover, when Laban comes in search of his property, Leah is again a cipher in his presence, but Rachel is seen and heard responding to her father.

However the theft is interpreted, Rachel’s act exhibits strong opinions about her native culture and her place in it. She does not simply move on. And she doesn’t simply move into the new land, either, as her story unfolds in this week’s Torah portion (Vayishlach, Gen 32:4-36:43).

Two Bookends

We’ll explore Rachel’s appearance in the Book of Jeremiah more thoroughly later, but it seems important to mention here the second bookend for her story: We saw above how the landscape appeared prior to Rachel’s gradually coming into view as part of it (Genesis Chapter 29). In Jeremiah 31:12, her cry is heard “wailing, bitter weeping,” before we are told that it is Rachel weeping.

Rachel is tied strongly to the land of her birth; she doesn’t leave it easily or have an opportunity to live in the new land, even as she gives birth to the only child of Jacob, tribe of Israel, born there.

And Rachel died, and was buried on the road to Ephrath (Gen 35:19). Why did Jacob see fit to bury Rachel on the road to Ephrath [and not in the cave of Machpelah*]? Because our father Jacob foresaw that they who were to be exiled would pass by way of Ephrath. Therefore he buried her there, so that she might beseech mercy for them. Referring to this, Scripture says, “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children” (Jer. 31:15).
— Sefer Ha-Aggadah 50:87, based on Genesis Rabbah 82:10

*Footnote provided by Sefer Ha-Aggadah: Ramah, near where Jacob buried Rachel, lay north of Jerusalem in the path of the exiles driven toward Babylon. Hebron is south of Jerusalem, and the patriarchs and matriarchs buried there in the cave of Machpelah were out of the way of the exiles going northeast to Babylon.

In this way — and in others we’ll explore soon — the bookends of Rachel’s life and death link her to the Babylon of the past and future and to the precarious nature of Israel’s future on the land.

Jacob’s Dream and What’s Ours

Exploring Babylon Chapter 7.2

In the previous episode of #ExploringBabylon, I shared a pair of midrashim about Jacob’s Dream (Gen 28:12) from Midrash Tanchuma-Yelammedenu Vayetze 2. In Dream “Version #2,” God blames Jacob’s lack of faith, evidenced by his failure to ascend the ladder, for future oppression of Israel by Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome:

…since you did not have faith, your descendants will be oppressed by these four kingdoms with imposts, taxes on their crops, and poll-tax.
— Tanchuma Vayetze 2 cont. (Berman, p.186; full citation in previous post)

Version #2 concludes with a promise that the people will be saved due to the practice of pe’ah [corners], i.e., not harvesting one’s fields entirely, but leaving the corners for the poor (Lev 19:9-10, 23:22). Chapter 7.1 noted a few questions that this raises about the relationship between oppression and taxes, on the one hand, and faith, on the other. Here are further thoughts.

Let’s begin with the commandment of pe’ah, and travel backward through the midrashic territory.

Removing Wealth

1) Pe’ah, we learned, may be compared to withholding tax: “One does not even own one’s income until one has separated out the portion for the poor,” like “taxes that are withheld from income; it never really was yours anyway” (Jeffrey Spitzer, “Pe’ah: The Corners of Our Fields“). The mitzvah of pe’ah, and the associated attitude toward one’s earnings, is what will save the people from annihilation, according to Dream Version #2.

Biblical and rabbinic text focus a great deal on what individuals owe to the community, particularly to the most vulnerable — and pe’ah is just one of many related mitzvot that we might understand, following Spitzer, as akin to taxation for the public good. But ancient “taxation,” in ancient Jewish views, was something else.

2) The oppression, suffered under four kingdoms in Dream Version #2, encompasses “imposts, taxes on their crops, and poll-tax.” These taxes remove wealth from the local community for the needs of empire — be it Babylon, Persia, Greece, or Rome. Removing wealth from subject populations served to support the empire while also reducing the chance of rebellion in the provinces.

Such taxes, imposed from outside, were not viewed in Jewish tradition as commonweal-supporting. In addition, some ancient taxes were specifically designed to be punitive, such as poll-taxes on Jews in the wake of the 1st Century CE rebellion; diverting taxes from the Temple in Jerusalem to instead finance a temple for Jupiter in Rome was seen (and intended) as a particular affront.

3) In Dream Version #2, God announces that the kind of tax-oppression Jews experienced, as subjects of four foreign empires, can be explained by Jacob’s lack of faith and failure to ascend the ladder.

We don’t get Jacob’s side of the story. But we have a small clue in the text that follows the dream. When Jacob awakens, he makes a vow using an “if-then” construction:

And Jacob vowed a vow, saying: ‘If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then shall the LORD be my God…and of all that Thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto Thee.’
— Gen 28:20-22

Most commentators read this, as discussed in “Jacob’s Contract with God,” as conditional only “in the way any contract or agreement is conditional” or as another form of affirming the covenantal relationship God has just announced. But I hear something else.

What’s Ours

Jacob, on the road to Haran, has just lost his home and any mundane sense of security. He hopes the sojourn will be temporary but does not yet know for sure and is not assured of future success, or even of shelter ahead. God’s promise is amazing, but Jacob sins by not grasping it.

“For all this they sinned still, and believed not in His wondrous works” (Psalm 78:32), we read in Dream Version #2. “Jacob” has shifted from a patriarch alone on the road to his national persona, which includes us.

We know from later text and tradition that the covenant God established with Abraham and Sarah, with Isaac and Rebecca, now reiterated with Jacob, obligates us to sharing resources in the ways outlined above, the mitzvah of pe’ah being a prime example. We are meant to acknowledge, all the time, in our thought and in our economic behavior that whatever we have is by the grace of God and not because we’re somehow entitled.

But Jacob, in his vow, sounds very like most of us most of the time: willing enough to give tzedakah, or otherwise contribute to the community, only after our own financial security is assured. This is a luxury denied to many.

And we have a great deal of work to do, as individuals, as communities, and on the national scale in the U.S., to examine what is ours and re-think how “our” stuff is distributed. This holiday of Thanksgiving calls those of us who are not of indigenous descent to carefully examine “ours” in the context of this land and its bounty. We must also look, nationally, at what is “ours” in the context of labor stolen from millions of enslaved people.

This is what I hear in Jacob’s dream. What about you?



“POLL TAX”
When I first encountered the midrash about poll-taxes, I confess my first thought was this was some kind of anachronistic reference to voting rights. For anyone else who may be confused….

“Poll,” meaning “head,” is used in two common, inter-related ways: Poll-taxes, since ancient times, are levied per person, as opposed to taxes on crops (income) or property, and imposed for a variety of reasons; history has seen a number of poll-taxes specifically aimed at Jewish communities. Poll is also used in voting contexts, where each “head” has a say in an election.

These two uses collide in the United States, where poll-taxes — in the sense of taxes on an individual, rather than on income or property — were used as a barrier to the polling place. The 24th Amendment made such use on the federal level unconstitutional in 1964, and subsequent rulings outlawed their use in state elections. Prior to that, poll taxes were used to prevent many people, primarily black citizens of the South, from exercising the right to vote.
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