Babylon and the Beginning

Exploring Babylon: Chapter 2.1

Ancient commentary finds reference to exile, to Babylon in particular, as early as the bible’s second verse:

Now the earth was unformed [תֹהוּ] and void [וָבֹהוּ] and darkness [וְחֹשֶׁךְ] was upon the face of the deep [עַל-פְּנֵי תְהוֹם]; and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the water [וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים, מְרַחֶפֶת עַל-פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם]”
— Gen 1:2

R. Simeon b. Lakish equates “tohu [unformed]” with Babylon and subsequent expressions in the verse with other “powers” (or “empires”) that dominated Israel: Medea/Persia, Greece, and “the Wicked State” (Rome). Finally, he links “the spirit of God” hovering over the water with Messianic spirit and reasons that it’s on account of the water (over which the spirit hovers) — likened to repentance, based on Lamentations 2:19, “…pour out thy heart like water…” — that Redemption will come.[1].

God makes order from chaos. In the beginning of Creation and in Reish Lakish’s day. Four separate kinds of confusion and darkness are but prelude. As in that hovering just before God created light and then divided light from darkness, the dawn of Redemption is just a moment away. Through this allegory, one verse of the Creation story thus encapsulates the People’s history, fears, and faith. And the experience of Babylonian captivity is shapes it all.

Estimated Impact

Jacob Neusner’s introduction to Genesis Rabbah notes that the sages of the time — Christian Palestine of the 4th-5th Century CE (incorporating earlier teachings) — “entertained deep forebodings about Israel’s prospects.” They understood the Torah to be “the story of Israel, the Jewish people, in the here and now,” however, and so read it to speak to the needs of their time:

So the importance of Genesis, as the sages of Genesis Rabbah read the book, derives not from its lessons about the past but from its message for Israel’s present–and especially its future….a prophesy for a near tomorrow.
–Neusner, p.2

Based on the Babylonian exile and subsequent return to rebuild the Temple, “hope persisted that the same pattern would find renewal–and the prophets’ promise of redemption.” (p.4, Jacob Neusner. Confronting Creation: How Judaism Reads Genesis: An Anthology of Genesis Rabbah [Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1991]).

Biblical scholar Rainer Albertz [2] estimates that “half the material in the Hebrew Bible came into being or was substantially shaped” during the Babylonian Exile. A decade or so later, he suggested that “about 70 percent of the Hebrew Bible tackles the questions of how the catastrophe of exile was possible and what Israel can learn from it.”

But Albertz’s method does not appear to extend to readings, like those of Genesis Rabbah, in which verses unrelated to exile on the surface — that is, on a pashat (literal or simple) level — are allegorically linked. So, perhaps the percentage of the Hebrew Bible understood as relating to exile should be raised even further?

Questions for Consideration

Questions posed in Chapter 1.1 touched on feelings of safety and fragility. As we move beyond the sukkah and into the new year’s Torah cycle:

  • Does the vision of Genesis Rabbah, including the precarious nature of the political situation, have resonance for this year’s Torah cycle?
  • Does the notion of being so close to chaos, confusion, and darkness seem ancient or current?
  • What about the idea that Redemption can also be very near?
  • Does repentance, in this context, seem possible?
  • Is reading “(foreign) powers” into the early Creation story disturbing? hopeful?
  • Does a strong focus on exile and return, even for verses that seem unrelated, deepening bible reading? or flatten it?
  • Can knowing that we (and the Presence suffering with us) made it back, or out from under, help us now?

NOTE:

1) R. Simeon b. Lakish said:
Unformed [“tohu” תֹהוּ] = Babylon, because the prophet Jeremiah wrote about the Babylonian exile: “I beheld the earth, and, lo, it was waste [וְהִנֵּה-תֹהוּ]…” (Jer. 4:23). Void [“bohu” וָבֹהוּ] = Medea/Persia; Dark [“hoshech” וְחֹשֶׁךְ] = Greece; the Face of the Deep [“al p’nei t’hom” עַל-פְּנֵי תְהוֹם] = “the Wicked State” (i.e., Rome). Reish Lakish equated the Spirit of God with the Messianic spirit, citing Isaiah 11:2 — And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him [the Messiah].

This teaching closes by asking, “In the merit of what will the Messiah come?” And answering:

[For the sake of that which] hovered over the face of the waters, i.e. in the
merit of repentance which is likened to water, as it is written, Pour out thy heart like water (Lam. 2:19)

–Genesis Rabbah 2:4

R. Simeon b. Lakish (3rd Century CE, Palestine) is also known as Reish Lakish.

Genesis Rabbah is thought to date be the oldest of the Midrash Rabbah collections. A translation by R. Dr. H. Freedman is available via the great Internet Archive.
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2) Rainer Albertz (profile; C.V.) has a Ph.D in Protestant Theology from the University of Heidelberg. He is the son of a Heinrich Albertz (1915–1993), one-time major of (West) Berlin and a pacifist, anti-Nazi Christian minister.

Israel in Exile: The History and Literature of the Sixth Century B.C.E., translated by David Green (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003).

“More and Less than a Myth: Reality and Significance of Exile for the Political, Social, and Religious History of Judah,” IN By the Irrigation Canals of Babylon: Approaches to the Study of the Exile, edited by John J. Ahn & Jill Middlemas (NY: Continuum, 2012).
RETURN

Rivers of His Hands

“The rivers of his hands [נהרות ידיו] poured into his good deeds,” reads the Yehuda Amichai poem “My Father.” The Hebrew Poetry group at Temple Micah discussed this poem on Shabbat, and I later recalled some background which seems related.

Rabbi Meir says in Pirkei Avot:

Anyone who involves himself in Torah for its own sake merits many things…and the secrets of the Torah are revealed to him, and he becomes like an ever-strengthening spring, and like a river that does not stop [וּכְנָהָר שֶׁאֵינוֹ פוֹסֵק]…
— Pirkei Avot 6:1, from Sefaria

In addition, the biblical concept of “נָהָר — nahar” provides further relevant background.

A River Goes Out

River images are pretty common in biblical text. The word “נָהָר — nahar” is used 120 times in the Hebrew bible, with 98 uses translated as “river,” according to this concordance . (The word is also rendered “flood” or “floods” or “streams.” Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance is widely available on the web and very handy; here’s more about this Christian resource.) But the first “nahar” in particular seems related to both the verse from Avot and Amichai’s poem.

“A river comes forth from Eden to water the garden.”
V’nahar yotzei me’eden lehashkot et hagan
וְנָהָר יֹצֵא מֵעֵדֶן
— Genesis 2:10

Noting that the river “yotzei [goes out, comes forth]” from Eden, a contemporary teacher writes:

How ironic. Wouldn’t the river be more likely to water the Garden if it flowed INTO the Garden? The deepest answer is that Torah is compared to lifegiving waters. The more one gives Torah over to others the more watering comes back in return. The more one teaches, the more one learns. The more we give of ourselves to others, the more we get back in return.
blog of Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman

Amichai’s poem, “My Father,” says nothing about Torah. But the images he shares seem consistent with — and I’d argue, built on — biblical and rabbinic ideas of rivers sustained by their “going out.”

Warring Nations, Sibling Tears

1

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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Teapots in Babylon

“This is what travelers discover: that when you sever the links of normality and its claims, when you break off from the quotidian, it is the teapots that truly shock. Nothing is so awesomely unfamiliar as the familiar that discloses itself at the end of a journey.” This week, I’ve been hearing Psalm 137 among these lines from Cynthia Osick’s “The Shock of Teapots” (Metaphor & Memory. NY: Knopf, 1989). The result sounds like this:

How is that we have a teapot,
symbol of normalcy, and even comfort,
amidst all this confusion and fear?
Are we to enjoy and share
cups of tea here
in this strange, oppressive land?

The opening lines of Psalm 137 are primarily about the challenge of expressing joy, and making music in particular, distant from Zion, mocked and alienated from oppressors. But I think we also hear something like the “shock of teapots” — normalcy, even comfort, or celebration here!?

By the rivers of Babylon,
there we sat down,
yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
There, upon the willows, we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked of us words of song,
and our tormentors asked of us mirth:
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’
How shall we sing the LORD’S song in a foreign land?
–Ps. 137:1-4, translation sort of a mishmash based on Old JPS
Complete Old JPS and Hebrew here

MicahNext12Of course, many people, in the US and elsewhere, have long been conscious of living in Babylon. So the puzzlement and shock expressed by so many in this past week is a little surreal to some.**

My personal connection to the language of “Babylon” has been growing for some time as the central liberation story of Judaism — being freed from Egypt — seems unsuited to circumstances where Jews, as individuals often profiting from White privilege, and as a people are too often Pharaoh. See, e.g., “April 22: 1968 and 2016” (Who can say we’ve actually left Egypt?). The “Trouble to See” series from which graphic at right is taken, was published over the summer. And a few years back, “A Mountain Called Zion,” offered thoughts on “Zion” and how close/distant it is, as well as a nice link to Jimmy Cliff’s “Waters of Babylon.”

Most importantly for further exploration, this blog welcomes comments and guest blogs from Jews and non-Jews.

Normalcy on Good Hope Road

Yesterday I posted the following on Facebook:

OK, so I’m walking down Good Hope Road in Southeast DC and there’s this guy standing on the sidewalk with his car doors open blaring that song “FDT” — the one which goes, “…I like white folks, but I don’t like you…” with a chorus of “[expletive deleted] [president elect].” Cheered me right up.
#AnacostiaUnmapped #LoveDC #NotmyPresident

One friend, not a DC resident, asked “why?” and it took me some time to come up with a response other than “maybe you had to be there.” What warmed my heart, I now think, was the normalcy of the scene for Good Hope Road, although the place is undergoing gentrification. Moreover, the song was not something written in a flurry on election night. Folks had been playing the piece, from the rapper/writer YG, for some time:

“You gave us your reason to be President, but we hate yours.”

They were playing it on November 7 and they were playing it on November 10.  The sentiments — which are to the point, if crude (“FDT“) — hadn’t changed with election results. It was a little like discovering a teapot at the end of a journey.

Time to Go!

In one common cycle of Torah readings, this is the week of Lekh Lekha [“Go!” or “Go (to/for yourself),” often transliterated Lech Lecha]. And so, whether this week was a shock to, or a confirmation of, your reality, events are calling us to embark on a new journey, toward better individual and collective selves…maybe even out of Babylon.

**NOTE

Many posts on this blog are “political” in plenty of ways, but direct attention to electoral politics is a rarity. There is no getting around it this week, though. And, here is a powerful and cogent exploration of what was meant by “surreal” above:

 For a lot of people of color, this election was really about trying to find the lesser of two evils. America asked us: “How do you prefer your racism — blatant or systemic?”

— “On ‘Woke’ White People advertising their shock that racism just won a presidency

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Foreign and Familiar

In this week’s Torah portion, two of the central characters receive new names: Abram becomes Abraham (Gen 17:4), and Sarai, Sarah (17:15). God announces this to Abraham as part of a statement of the covenant between them. Both Abraham אַבְרָהָם and Sarah שָׂרָה now have a “ה” (hey) in their names. Thus, each now carries a letter from God’s four-letter name yud-hey-vav-hey, which is fodder for much commentary.

Rabbi Michal Shekel notes, in addition, that Hagar’s name was always spelled with a hey: “There was no reason to change her name, because she already had a measure of the Divine presence.” Shekel adds:

One can read the tradition as saying that Hagar is an outsider, the other, alien to God, by interpreting her name as Hey gar, “Adonai is foreign.” Yet all her actions in chapter 16 prove that this is not so….Hagar is no stranger to God; she is comfortable with God’s presence in a way that is less formal than God’s relationship with Abraham or Sarah….Hagar fulfills the destiny of her name, hey gar, “Adonai dwells” with her.
— from “What’s in a Name?” Lech Lecha
The Women’s Torah Commentary. Jewish Lights, 2000

Might both — the foreignness and the familiarity of God — be true, for us if not for Hagar?

message to the Hebrew

Sandwiched in a Torah portion packed with narrative is “the war of the kings” with Lot’s capture and rescue (Gen. 14). It begins, really, with Abraham and his nephew Lot separating to avoid quarrel over land for cattle herding (Gen. 13). YHVH spoke to Abraham “after Lot had parted from him,” promising “descendants like dust of the earth,” and Abraham dwelt by the oaks of Mamre and built an altar to YHVH.

He is still living by the oaks of Mamre when the fugitive arrives to tell him that his nephew is in trouble, and Abraham sets off to rescue Lot:

And they took Lot, Abram’s brother’s son, who dwelt in Sodom, and his goods, and departed.

And there came one that had escaped, and told Abram the Hebrew [ha Ivri]…”

Does Abraham’s being an “ivri” — a “crosser-over” or “one from the outside” —  have anything to do with expectations about him and his response to Lot’s trouble? Why is this the first time Abraham is called by this name? Does being a Hebrew mean retainining sympathy — and a willingness to help — those on the other side?

NOTE

Lech Lecha (Gen. 12:1-17:27) includes the first “say you’re my sister” incident with Abraham and Sarah (Gen. 12:10-20), the weird episode of the Abraham and the covenant of the pieces (Gen. 15:1ff), and the first installments in the tales of Hagar and Ishmael (Gen. 16, 17:17-27).

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Whence have you come?

An angel encounters Hagar in the wilderness (Gen. 16:7). At this point, she has been introduced to us as maid to Sarah, who has been married to Abraham for ten years without producing a child (16:1). We are told that she was given by Sarah “as wife” to Abraham, that she became pregnant, and subsequently, scorned her mistress (“saw her as lightweight”). Sarah then afflicted Hagar, and Hagar ran away. Out in the wilderness, at the spring on the road, the angel speaks to Hagar.

No one in the story has addressed Hagar before this point. And only after the angel’s inquiry does Hagar speak. These obvious, but easily overlooked points are highlighted in Susan Niditch’s notes in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary and led me to marvel at the power of a few words.

With the fall holidays a few weeks behind us at this point, it’s not a bad idea to pause and (re-)consider* the angel’s query ourselves:

Whence have you come and
where are you going?

But we might also ask: How often have we needed someone to simply inquire and listen? How often do we stop to address someone encountered along the way?

*NOTE

For those observing two days of Rosh Hashanah, the story of Hagar is part of the first morning’s Torah reading.