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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Now What? Exploring Babylon Stage Two

I launched the “Exploring Babylon” project on this blog in October 2017. Stage One was to run for roughly 40 weeks, from Sukkot through Tisha B’av. WordPress statistics tell me that I’ve posted 40 times in the category, “Exploring Babylon,” although not entirely on the weekly schedule I’d originally planned, and Tisha B’av is fast — no pun intended — approaching (eve of July 21 through dark July 22).

Not sure yet what shape Stage Two will take. Comments and suggestions welcome.

Where Exodus Metaphors Fail

Meanwhile, a recent interview with the author of Black Power, Jewish Politics returns us to the basic challenge that impelled me into this project.

When I talk generally with white Jews about why Jews are involved in social justice or civil rights or racial equality, they’ll talk about this shared history of oppression.

And the problem is that American Jewish history and African-American history are 180 degrees opposite on that question. One of my African-American colleagues, he said, “If I ever go to a Seder and the Jews say that they know what it’s like because they too were once slaves in Egypt,” he’s gonna punch ’em.

Because if Jews have to go back to ancient Egypt to get the slavery metaphor, then they’ve kind of missed that American Jewish history is a story of rapid social ascent, and African-American history is the legacy of slavery. That argument is insulting, and it’s very elementary.

And, of course, I found that the people actually involved in the movement in the 50s, they knew that. And they were quite clear that they were not buying into that.
— Marc Dollinger, 6/4/18 NPR interview

In the struggle for racial and other forms of social justice, might the language and history of Exile serve where Exodus metaphors sometimes fail?

And, as we move through the month of Av and on toward a new year, how might we use ideas about exile and Babylon, in particular, to inform us?

As the source of a long intertextual journey, Psalm 137 generates the poetic vocabulary of exile: “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and cried as we remembered Zion.” The pleonastic “there,” repeated in the third verse, calls attention to itself by its very redundancy; syntactically superfluous, “there” defines exile as the place that is always elsewhere. Being elsewhere, being far from Zion, is the pre-text for poetry….(p.9)

With the (re)territorialization of the Jewish imagination in the twentieth century, a radical shift takes place in the relative position of ends and means, of original and mimetic space, of holy and profane, of ownership and tenancy. If exile is narrative, then to historicize the end of the narrative is to invite a form of epic closure that threatens the storytelling enterprise itself–an enterprise that remained alive, like Scheherazade, by suspending endings. Conversely, to claim an absolute place for the exilic imagination is to privilege the story as the thing itself; the map for the territory, language without referent; and to regard “nomadic writing” as the inherently Jewish vocation…. (p.14)
— Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, Booking Passage

Again, comments and suggestions welcome.

May the mourning of the weeks ahead bring us some new light.

NOTES:
Pleonasm
Although it’s pretty clear from context, and maybe everyone else knows, I did look up “pleonasm” for my own edification. Here’s a useful and not overly ad-filled explanation of pleonasm.
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Citation
Ezrahi, Sidra DeKoven. Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000.
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Strange and Familiar

Exploring Babylon Chapter 23

Although just published (May 2018), Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” was completed in 1931, based on work begun in the 1920s. Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon relates the story of a West African and his experience, before, during, and after U.S. slavery. Some of the content, as well as story of its publication, shed light on #ExploringBabylon.

Oluale Kossola (Cudjo Lewis) was born in Benin, West Africa, around 1841. He was captured by Dahomian warriors and temporarily held in a barracoon, before being sold to slavers. He was then transported to the U.S. on the Clotilda, the last known trans-Atlantic slave ship. At age 86, Kossola granted Hurston interviews that became Barracoon. The long trail from Hurston’s work to publication is related in the current volume by its editor, Deborah G. Plant.

One reason the publication did not appear back in the 1930s was Hurston’s refusal to rewrite Kossola’s vernacular speech in more standard English. I find that listening to Hurston’s voice helps set the scene and prepare the reader for her rendering of Kossola’s speech:

Kossula ceased speaking and looked pointedly at his melon rind. There was still lots of good red meat and a quart or two of juice. I looked at mine. I had more meat left than Kossula had. Nothing was left of the first installment, but a pleasant memory. So we lifted the half-rinds to our knees and started all over again. The sun was still hot so we did the job leisurely.

Watermelon halves having ends like everything else, and a thorough watermelon eating being what it is, a long over-stuffed silence fell on us.
— Hurston, Barracoon, p.40-41


Songs and Names in a Strange Land

Oluale Kossola (Cudjo Lewis) explains the naming of his children:

“In de Afficky we gottee one name, but in dis place dey tell us we needee two names. One for de son, you unnerstand me, and den one for the father. Derefo’ I put de name of my father O-lo-loo-ay to my name. But it too long for people to call it. It too crooked lak Kossula. So dey call me Cudjo Lewis.

“So you unnerstand me, we give our chillun two names. One name because we not furgit our home; den another name for de Americky soil so it won’t be too crooked to call.”
— Kossola, Barracoon, p.72-73

Kossola describes for Hurston the funeral of the first of his children to die:

“We Christian people now, so we put our baby in de coffin and dey take her in de church, and everybody come look down in her face. Dey sing, ‘Shall We Meet Beyond De River’. I been a member of de church a long time now, and I know de words of de song wid my mouth, but my heart it doan know dat. Derefo’ I sing inside me, ‘O todo ah wah n-law yah-lee, owrran k-nee ra ra k-nee ro ro.’ [not translated].”
— Kossola, Barracoon, p.74

Exiles in Babylon believed they would one day return home, meanwhile pining: “How shall we sing the LORD’S song in a foreign land?” (Ps. 137:4). Kossola seems to ask, instead: Can we ever sing our own songs in this land from which there seems no escape?

Strange, Familiar, Tales

This parable, among several Kossola shared, was told after the death of his wife:

“’You see Ole Charlie dere. S’pose he stop here on de way to church. He got de parasol ’cause he think it gwine rain when he leave de house. But he look at de sky and ‘cide hit ain’ gwine rain so he set it dere by the door an’ go on to church. After de preachin’ he go on home ’cause he think de parasol at Cudjo house. It safe. He say, “I git it nexy time I go dat way.” When he come home he say to one de chillun, “Go to Cudjo house and tellee him I say sendee me my parasol.”

“’De parasol is pretty. I likee keep dat one.’ But I astee dem all, ‘Is it right to keep de parasol?’ Dey all say, ‘No it belong to Charlie.’

“’Well,’ I say, ‘my wife, she b’long to God. He lef’ her by my door’
— from Kossola’s parables, Barracoon, p.92

This tale comes from a medieval collection of midrash:

[Rabbi Meir is at the house of study, and Beruriah is at home, when their two sons both die suddenly on the Sabbath. After Meir returns home and the Sabbath comes to a close…]

“Rabbi,” she then said, “some time ago a deposit was left with me for safe-keeping, and now the owner has come to claim it. Must I return it?”

“Can there be any question about the return of property to its owner?” said R. Meïr, half astonished and half indignant that his wife should entertain a doubt.

“I did not care to let it go out of my possession without your knowledge,” replied Beruriah, seemingly in excuse, and, taking him by the hand, led him into the room in which the bodies of their two sons were lying on the bed. When she withdrew the cover, R. Meïr broke out in tears and plaints. Gently Beruriah reminded him of his answer to her question about the return of a treasure entrusted to one for safe-keeping, adding the verse from Job (i. 21): “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
— from Proverbs 964, Yalkut Shimoni
as quoted in the Jewish Encyclopedia

I would be very interested to learn if Christian lore includes stories similar to the tale about Beruriah and Meir (2nd Century CE) and Kossola’s early 20th Century parable.

Strangeness in the Story

One more note from Deborah G. Plant’s comments:

In face of Kossola’s recollections, the social constructions of “My People” and “Africans” were deconstructed by the reality of ethnic identifications, which not only distinguished tribes and clans but also generated the narrative distance and the ideological difference that rendered one ethnic group capable of regarding another as “stranger” or “enemy,” and allowed that group to offer up the “Other” to “the Trans-Atlantic trade.”

“One thing impressed me strongly from this three months of association with Cudjo Lewis,” Hurston writes. “The white people had held my people in slavery in America. They had brought us, it is true and exploited us. But the inescapable fact that stuck in my craw, was: my people had sold me and the white people had bought me. That did away with the folklore I had been brought up on – that the white people had gone to Africa, waved a red handkerchief at the Africans and lured them aboard the ship and sailed away.” [footnote]
— Plant, editor, Barracoon, p.124-125

Hurston’s struggle, comparing what she learned from Kossola with what she’d been previously taught, is reminiscent in some ways of David W. Stowe’s comparison of the Exodus story with that of Babylonian Exile.

NOTES

Zora Neal Hurston (1891-1960)
Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo.”
Foreword: Alice Walker. Editor: Deborah G. Plant
NY: Amistad (HarperCollins), 2018.
Interviews were conducted in 1927. Book was completed in 1931.
More on this volume from HarperCollins
Short, clear background piece.
NPR story about the publication
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Footnote in Barracoon cites Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road: An Autobiography. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press [1942], 1984. p. 200
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The Treasure and the Favor

Exploring Babylon Chapter 15.2

Just as the stories of Exile and Return include people of quite different mindsets, Exodus peoples are not monolithic, Rabbi Gerry Serotta told me recently. He suggests that #ExploringBabylon could profitably consider some differences among Egyptians in the Exodus tale and look at related texts, in this portion and earlier, about Egyptians becoming “favorably disposed” toward the Israelites.

Difference

Rabbi Serotta points to three groups of Egyptians:

  • those who left with the Israelites — וְגַם-עֵרֶב רַב — “and also the erev-rav [often “mixed multitudes”; Alter uses “motley throng”]” (Ex 12:38);
  • those who did not join the Israelites but gave gold and silver and “raiment/cloaks” (Ex 12:35; see also “The Powers and the Wealth“); and
  • Pharaoh (and, perhaps, other unrepentant oppressors).

 
He adds that it’s good practice to look for the variety of people and perspectives in biblical narrative because “variety is God’s plan.” We see this in the story of Bavel (Genesis Chapter 11) and in many later teachings about the value of galut [exile] and dispersion.

God’s preference for variety is a hard concept to hold in the midst of a tale with the themes “You are MY people and I am YOUR God” and “Let My people go that they may serve ME.” But it can be found in the Exodus tale and in centuries of Jewish teaching centered around it. Seeking out and naming variety within biblical stories helps us avoid pigeonholing people and stereotyping groups in the text, in history, and in contemporary life. Exploring and amplifying difference-celebrating strands of Jewish teaching, from ancient times to the present, provides a foundation for inter-group understanding and cooperation.

…It is no accident that Rabbi Serotta, who has dedicated his career to interfaith, religious freedom, and peace and justice work, is drawn to teachings on diversity and galut [exile]. He offers additional ideas for #ExploringBabylon that will take some time to research; this week, we gratefully continue to pursue his suggestion to “follow the treasure,” so to speak, which appears in this week’s torah portion (Bo: Exodus 10:1-13:16), and its implications….

Boundaries

As discussed in the last episode, ancient commentaries on the gold and silver — mentioned in Ex 3:21-22, 11:2-3, and 12:35-36 (see below) — included the ideas of back wages/reparations and prior ownership of the wealth given to the fleeing Israelites. One important extension to the latter theme focuses on the prominence of women in this exchange to suggest that women used jewels and other portable wealth to bribe neighbors to overlook, or perhaps hide, their infant boys when Pharaoh decreed they be tossed into the river (exact citation temporarily AWOL, sorry).

Robert Alter notes, in his 2004 Five Books of Moses (see Source Materials), that “neighbor” and “sojourner” in 3:22 are feminine nouns, adding:

[The verse] reflects a frequent social phenomenon–also registered in the rabbinic literature of Late Antiquity–in which women constitute the porous boundary between adjacent ethnic communities: borrowers of the proverbial cup of sugar, sharers of gossip and women’s lore.

Alter goes on to insist, however, that exegesis which sees Egyptian women as lodgers in Israelite houses doesn’t match the plague narrative. (He then describes the overall tale as one of “Israelite triumphalism.” More on this below.)

Benno Jacob (1862-1945) also explores boundary crossing and long-term relationships which he sees as hidden in plain sight in Exodus:

The Israelites had settled as herdsmen, a necessary but disdained occupation in Egypt. The details of our story suggest that they were scattered throughout Egypt, which must have led to many personal friendships; only a systematically encouraged hate propaganda was able to change this.
Jacob, The Second Book of the Bible p.343


Protest and Change

Jacob extensively discusses the wealth exchange in Parashat Bo. He uses linguistic and narrative analysis to support his view that God wanted the Israelites and Egyptians to part on good terms and had repeatedly told Moses that was to be the end result. He argues that the Egyptians had already, before Pesach night, come around to seeking compassion and justice for the Israelites, and the farewell gifts are part of the evidence of a change in position:

The Egyptians’ gifts to the Israelites were a clear public protest against the policies of the royal tyrant. They demonstrated a renewal of public conscience…a moral change; the receptive heart of the Egyptian people was now contrasted to the hard heart of Pharaoh.
— Jacob, p.343

He goes further, insisting that this must be a mutual change of heart, from peoples on both sides of the conflict. Jacob links the opening phrase of Ex 11:2 to the similar expression Joseph used in requesting burial for his father (Gen 50:4) and suggests that this link means God was trying to trigger positive feelings:

[God] knew that some Egyptians recalled Joseph, others would have been impressed by the miracles they had witnessed or now had a high a regard for Moses, so they would seek a friendly farewell….

God’s command Moses [Ex 11:2] simultaneously threatened Pharaoh and searched for peace between the two peoples. These peaceful relations were God’s principal concern during Israel’s last hours in Egypt. This was the true meaning of the farewell gifts which the Israelites sought and the Egyptians willingly gave.
— Jacob, p. 344 (emphasis in original)

Rabbi Shai Held, of Mechon Hadar, includes a poignant addendum on this teaching in “Receiving Gifts (and Learning to Love?): The “Stripping” of the Egyptians.” Held quotes Jacob calling this episode “the most elevated and spiritual reconciliation among people; it was full of wisdom and love of fellow man” (p.339 in the above cited Jacob commentary). He then confesses skepticism as to whether Jacob’s story jives with the plain sense of the text but concludes:

One senses in Jacob’s words the insights of a brilliant exegete but also the pain of a rabbi and teacher in a Germany consumed by hate**….In a world suffused with bigotry and hostility, a world in which people of faith often marshal sacred texts to legitimate acts of cruelty and to extol hatred as a virtue, there is great power in reading Jacob’s words and being reminded: At the heart of the religious enterprise is the attempt to soften, and open, one’s heart, to God and to one-another. If even the Egyptians and the Israelites can be (successfully!) called to love one-another, then perhaps, even in the darkest of times, slim glimmers of hope are available to us.

**Held includes a footnote citing personal communication with R. Walter Jacob (Benno’s son) to confirm that his father was working on the Exodus commentary between 1934 and 1939, while still in Germany.

Two Final Comments

Just so we don’t lose sight of the triumphalist nature of the Exodus story in its basic literary form, here are a few more comments from just one scholar:

Denizens of simple farms and the relatively crude towns of Judea would have known about imperial Egypt’s fabulous luxuries, its exquisite jewelry, and the affluent among them would have enjoyed imported Egyptian linens and papyrus. It is easy to imagine how this tale of despoiling or stripping bare Egypt would have given pleasure to its early audiences.
— Alter, on Ex 3:22

Alter adds that the three “sister-wife stories” of Genesis — Abraham and Sarah in Egypt (12:1-10), Abraham and Sarah in Gerar (Gen 20:1-18), and Isaac and Rebecca in Gerar (26:1-16) — “adumbrate the Exodus narrative,” by portraying the couple as arriving with little and leaving with much. Despoiling, he argues, is “an essential part of the story of liberation from bondage in the early national traditions.”

And, finally, also from Benno Jacob:

The Israelites received gifts from their neighbors when they left the Babylonian Exile in a manner parallel to our narrative; these consisted of gold, silver, etc. Some were in response to the royal mandate and were intended for the rebuiling of the Temple while others were freely given (Ezek 1: 4,6)
— Jacob, p.341




TEXTS

And I will give this people favour in the sight of the Egyptians. And it shall come to pass, that, when ye go, ye shall not go empty;
וְנָתַתִּי אֶת-חֵן הָעָם-הַזֶּה, בְּעֵינֵי מִצְרָיִם; וְהָיָה כִּי תֵלֵכוּן, לֹא תֵלְכוּ רֵיקָם.
but every woman shall ask of her neighbour, and of her that sojourns in her house, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and raiment; and you shall put them upon your sons, and upon your daughters; and ye shall spoil the Egyptians.’
וְשָׁאֲלָה אִשָּׁה מִשְּׁכֶנְתָּהּ וּמִגָּרַת בֵּיתָהּ, כְּלֵי-כֶסֶף וּכְלֵי זָהָב וּשְׂמָלֹת; וְשַׂמְתֶּם, עַל-בְּנֵיכֶם וְעַל-בְּנֹתֵיכֶם, וְנִצַּלְתֶּם, אֶת-מִצְרָיִם.
–Exodus 3:21-22

Speak now in the ears of the people, and let them ask every man of his neighbour, and every woman of her neighbour, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold.’
דַּבֶּר-נָא, בְּאָזְנֵי הָעָם; וְיִשְׁאֲלוּ אִישׁ מֵאֵת רֵעֵהוּ, וְאִשָּׁה מֵאֵת רְעוּתָהּ, כְּלֵי-כֶסֶף, וּכְלֵי זָהָב.
And the LORD gave the people favour in the sight of the Egyptians. Moreover the man Moses was very great in the land of Egypt, in the sight of Pharaoh’s servants, and in the sight of the people.
וַיִּתֵּן יְהוָה אֶת-חֵן הָעָם, בְּעֵינֵי מִצְרָיִם; גַּם הָאִישׁ מֹשֶׁה, גָּדוֹל מְאֹד בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, בְּעֵינֵי עַבְדֵי-פַרְעֹה, וּבְעֵינֵי הָעָם.
–Exodus 11:2-3

Exodus 12:35-36 was copied in “The Powers and the Wealth
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Benno Jacob

The Second Book of the Bible: Exodus, Interpreted by Benno Jacob. Walter Jacob and Yaakov Elman, trans. (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav, 1992).

Benno Jacob was a rabbi and scholar born in Breslau and active in German Jewish life through the 1930s. He spent his last five years in England, where he completed his Exodus commentary in 1940 and continued to revise it until his death, at age 83, in 1945. See short biography (by his son, Walter Jacob) in the Exodus commentary.

We learn know this biography that Jacob was still in Germany when most synagogues were burned; he watched the German Jewish community to which he’d dedicated his life destroyed; he witnessed the deportation (and eventual return) of his son, R. Ernst Jacob, to Dachau; and he lost nearly everything in moving to England in his late seventies.

Jacobs also produced a commentary on Genesis, which is, as I understand it, not fully available to English readers. Nechama Leibowitz, in her New Studies series, often quotes Benno Jacob, based on unpublished manuscripts. Her chapter on the wealth exchange in Bo makes use of Jacob’s 1924 article, “Gott und Pharao.”
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The Powers and the Wealth

Exploring Babylon Chapter 15.1

The battle between God and Pharaoh reaches a crescendo in this week’s Torah portion — Bo (Ex 10:1 – 13:16) — and the denouement includes an exchange of treasure between the Egyptians and the Israelites. Rabbinic lore links these riches back to Genesis and forward through history, ending with the familiar “powers” trope. The trail of this treasure, and the interwoven responsibilities illuminated along the way, sheds a bit of light for #ExploringBabylon.

Travels of the World’s Wealth

The Tenth Plague convinces Pharaoh to let the People go, and the Egyptians give or lend the Israelites “objects of silver and gold, and clothing” to take with them upon departure (Ex 12:35). One Talmudic discussion (B. Pes 119a) begins by noting how Joseph amassed riches for a different pharaoh during a famine: gathering funds from around the world and “all the money that was to be found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan” (Gen 41 and 47). This discussion then goes beyond Torah to list the treasure’s later history, ending — as we’ve seen in many similar stories — in Rome:

The treasure remained [in the Land of Israel] until the time of Rehoboam, son of Solomon….(1 Kings 14:26)…Next Jehosophat came and took the treasure back from the Ammonites (2 Chron 20). It remained in the Land until the time of Ahaz, when Sennecherib came and took it from Ahaz. Then came Hezekiah, who took it from Sennacherib, and it remained in the Land until Zedekiah, when the Chaldeans [Babylonians] came and took it from Zedekiah. Then came the Persians, who took it from the Chaldeans; the Greeks, who took it from the Persians; the Romans, who took it from the Greeks. And the treasure is still in Rome.
Sefer Ha-Aggadah 70:70, from B. Pes 119a

 

Wages Due

Elsewhere (B. San 91a) pursues a different direction in attempting to explain why the Israelites should have such riches:

Another occasion the Egyptians came in a lawsuit against the Jews before Alexander of Macedon. They pleaded thus: ‘Is it not written, And the Lord gave the people favour in the sight of the Egyptians, and they lent them [gold and precious stones, etc. (Ex 12:35)] Then return us the gold and silver which ye took!’…

[Temple doorkeeper Gebiha b. Pesisa asked permission of the Sages to answer the charge and responded as follows:]

‘Whence do ye adduce your proof?’ asked he, ‘From the Torah,’ they replied. ‘Then I too,’ said he, ‘will bring you proof only from the Torah, for it is written, Now the sojourning of the children of Israel, who dwelt in Egypt, was four hundred and thirty years (Ex 12:40). Pay us for the toil of six hundred thousand men whom ye enslaved for four hundred thirty years.’
— B. San 91a; see also Sefer Ha-Aggadah 166:30


Questions to Consider

There are centuries’ worth of commentaries further exploring this treasure in particular, links between Joseph’s actions at the close of Genesis and enslavement in Exodus, and related issues. To begin, however, some questions the texts above raise:

  • Joseph helped pharaoh take advantage of famine conditions, amassing wealth from around the world and even taking land and means of livelihood from the people in exchange for food. Whose, in that light, is that treasure?
  • What (if any) are the implications of the Genesis part of the story for the “wage” argument?
  • What (if any) lessons might be drawn for the need for Reparations for people descended from enslaved populations in the United States?
  • Are there connections, direct or metaphorical, between this treasure and the Temple vessels used in the “writing on the wall” story in the Book of Daniel and in the opening festivities in the Book of Esther?


TEXTS

Ex 12:35-36
The Israelites had done Moses’ bidding and borrowed from the Egyptians objects of silver and gold, and clothing.
וּבְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֥ל עָשׂ֖וּ כִּדְבַ֣ר מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַֽיִּשְׁאֲלוּ֙ מִמִּצְרַ֔יִם כְּלֵי־כֶ֛סֶף וּכְלֵ֥י זָהָ֖ב וּשְׂמָלֹֽת׃
And the LORD had disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people, and they let them have their request; thus they stripped the Egyptians.
וַֽיהוָ֞ה נָתַ֨ן אֶת־חֵ֥ן הָעָ֛ם בְּעֵינֵ֥י מִצְרַ֖יִם וַיַּשְׁאִל֑וּם וַֽיְנַצְּל֖וּ אֶת־מִצְרָֽיִם׃
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Gen 41:56-57
Accordingly, when the famine became severe in the land of Egypt, Joseph laid open all that was within, and rationed out grain to the Egyptians. The famine, however, spread over the whole world.
וְהָרָעָ֣ב הָיָ֔ה עַ֖ל כָּל־פְּנֵ֣י הָאָ֑רֶץ וַיִּפְתַּ֨ח יוֹסֵ֜ף אֶֽת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֤ר בָּהֶם֙ וַיִּשְׁבֹּ֣ר לְמִצְרַ֔יִם וַיֶּחֱזַ֥ק הָֽרָעָ֖ב בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃
So all the world came to Joseph in Egypt to procure rations, for the famine had become severe throughout the world.
וְכָל־הָאָ֙רֶץ֙ בָּ֣אוּ מִצְרַ֔יְמָה לִשְׁבֹּ֖ר אֶל־יוֹסֵ֑ף כִּֽי־חָזַ֥ק הָרָעָ֖ב בְּכָל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

Gen 47:14
Joseph gathered in all the money that was to be found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, as payment for the rations that were being procured, and Joseph brought the money into Pharaoh’s palace.
וַיְלַקֵּ֣ט יוֹסֵ֗ף אֶת־כָּל־הַכֶּ֙סֶף֙ הַנִּמְצָ֤א בְאֶֽרֶץ־מִצְרַ֙יִם֙ וּבְאֶ֣רֶץ כְּנַ֔עַן בַּשֶּׁ֖בֶר אֲשֶׁר־הֵ֣ם שֹׁבְרִ֑ים וַיָּבֵ֥א יוֹסֵ֛ף אֶת־הַכֶּ֖סֶף בֵּ֥יתָה פַרְעֹֽה׃
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Babylon and New Beginnings

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Exploring Babylon Chapter 14

The Joseph Cycle, which closes out the Book of Genesis, has it all, in terms of story-telling: politics, sex, family drama, passages that touch on religious and cultural practices, plus a few dream sequences. The Book of Exodus is quite the drama as well, but it shifts focus to national struggle, while still providing individual stories that keep the scale personal as well as epic. Both books offer ample opportunity to consider themes relevant to #ExploringBabylon. Both the Joseph story and the opening of Exodus, in particular, prompt us to consider the various experiences of enslavement and captivity — with members of the family that becomes Yisrael as both victims and perpetrators.

We are also prompted to compare the Exodus story with that of the Babylonian Captivity — and, of course, with historical experiences of Jewish and non-Jews.

In his book, Song of Exile, David W. Stowe offers some apropos comments. I think his words worth repeating, as the Exodus tale unfolds in the Torah reading cycle and in advance of Passover, so quote here:

We can readily see how the Exodus lends itself to popular culture – Hollywood, for example—in ways that the Exile doesn’t. The Exodus has a strong central character, Moses, who though not without flaws is undeniably cut from heroic cloth. By contrast the Exile features a shifting cast of characters, none of whom seem quite heroic. There are two malcontents, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, who alienate nearly everyone around them and die on what seems the losing side of history. Daniel rises far in Babylon but doesn’t himself lead the Judeans to the promised land. There is no triumphant entry into the Promised Land in the Exile; some of the Judeans slowing drift back to Judah after Babylonia is conquered by the Persians, and eventually the Temple is rebuilt.
— Stowe, p.100

In addition, Stowe points out, the Exile does not have the same “sense of triumphant destiny” as the Exodus story. While this does not make the Exile a Hollywood favorite, he argues, it does make the story a better fit for the complex “diasporic sensibility of so many ethnic and racial communities in North America,” some of whom thought of “North America as a Promised Land or New Jerusalem,” while “many others imagined themselves as temporary sojourners, never forgetting the links that bound the to a homeland” (Stowe, p.103).

There is so much to unpack in considering the United States as “New Jerusalem,” temporary homeland, and “Babylon.” We’ll try to make some inroads as the reading of Exodus progresses and we launch some new directions in #ExploringBabylon.

To Complexity

Meanwhile, just in testament to the amazing complexity ahead, some related words and images from the 1988 movie “Working Girl,” written and set, of course, long before the Twin Towers became central to another aspect of the story.

“Let the River Run” Lyrics by Carly Simon (1988)



NOTE:
Stowe, David W. Song of Exile: The Enduring Mystery of Psalm 137 (NY: Oxford University Press, 2016). Additional information.
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The Five Powers, part 3

Exploring Babylon Chapter 11.2

A few notes on Rome, the last of the five foreign powers associated with Chanukah, to round out the discussion of “Ma’oz Tzur [Rock of Refuge].”

Chapter 11.1 outlined the structure of the 13th Century piyyut:

  • an opening stanza calling for future restoration of the Temple and for God to prepare the “slaughter​ of the blasphemi​ng foe”;
  • four stanzas recalling past-tense rescues (Chanukah, Purim, Egypt, Babylon); and
  • and a final, present/future-oriented stanza asking God to “Aveng​e the blood of your servants from the evil nation” and “Push Edom into the shadows and bring the seven shepherds.”

This structure follows a regular, ancient pattern which recalls previous rescue from foreign powers while calling on God for help now, from the ever-present power of “Rome” in its many forms over the centuries. And this piyyut’s history illustrates another pattern associated with “Rome.”

See below for a note on the “seven shepherds” (hint: not average, peaceful flock ovine-tending folk).

The Persistence of “Rome”

When the Talmud and many early midrashim speak of “foreign powers,” rescue from Egypt and from Babylon, Persia, and the Seleucid empire is past tense, while the Roman Empire — often called “Edom” or “Esau,” sometimes “the evil nation” — remains a present danger. We saw this, for example, in midrashim on the Akedah, Jacob’s dream, and “in the beginning.” The same trope is repeated for centuries, with “Edom” or “the evil nation” standing in for the Catholic Church and non-Jewish political powers.

Meanwhile, the Roman Empire and its successors influenced various aspects of Jewish worship through official censorship by the authorities, intimidation and violence, and related self-censorship by Jewish communities. This dynamic is often cited to explain why the narrative of Chanukah shifted from the military-centered tale (Maccabees 1 and 2, usually dated 2nd Century BCE) to the story of one cruse of oil lasting eight days (B. Talmud Shabbat 21b, hundreds of years later, during Roman rule). This is also a key part of the story of how Ma’oz Tzur‘s presentation in various prayer books changed over the years.

For several hundred years, the harsh sixth stanza of the piyyut disappeared from prayerbooks, although the first stanza remained and garnered many musical settings. (See Notes 2 and 3 below.) The evil nation/Edom verses can be found today in Orthodox prayer books today, while non-Orthodox prayer books and musical collections continue to omit them — very often including even more abbreviated versions of Ma’oz Tzur or and/or substitution of the 19th Century song, “Rock of Ages.”

The sixth stanza’s disappearance is now thought to be the result of self- censorship by Jewish communities during periods when relations with “Rome” were troubled at best. Deciding whether and how to (re-)include the sixth stanza is part of the on-going development of relations between Jews and “Rome.”

Singing with Gusto?

A few years ago, the London-based Jewish Chronicle posted a discussion on including, or omitting, the sixth stanza.

Rabbi Naftali Brawer, from Borehamwood and Elstree (Modern Orthodx) United Synagogue, argued for using the existence of harsher prayers, like Ma’oz Tzur, as teaching moments:

As a responsible teacher you cannot hide this fact from your students. Instead, use these prayers as a springboard to discuss the turbulent nature of Jewish history. These are not speeches calling on faithful Jews to commit violence. They are desperate prayers to God asking Him to remove the threat of danger that hangs over our people.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain from Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue argued to the contrary, noting that “we ask others to remove passages that offend us — such as sections of Christian liturgy that insult Jews,” and declaring that the sixth stanza of Ma’oz Tzur “hardly reflects our understanding of the festival or the positive message of Jewish identity that we derive from it.”

Romain concludes:

The prayer book is the manifesto of Judaism. It is said that the Bible is God’s gift to the Jewish people, and the prayer book is our gift back. It reflects what we believe and stand for. If we are to pray it, then we should mean it.

We should be able to sing Ma’oz Tzur with gusto and without grimacing at the end. Religious values means ditching verse six.

…The two teachers were asked only about the sixth stanza, not about the “slaughter​ of the blasphemi​ng foe” line in the opening stanza. Many progressive congregations do cheerfully belt out the first stanza in Hebrew, with or without a literal English translation nearby; I don’t know what is included in British Reform Jewish siddirum…

Brawer’s position is quite different:

Ma’oz Tzur in particular demonstrates that persecution is unfortunately a recurring theme in our history. Jews must never gloat when an enemy falls and vengeance for vengeance’s sake is distinctly un-Jewish. However, that does not mean we must shy away from asking God to eliminate our enemies. Nor for that matter should we hesitate to celebrate when that happens. That is, after all, the whole story of Chanucah.

But this brings us back to the topic of Chanukah and the ways we tell the story: the Maccabees’ might? Zechariah’s “but by spirit”? The Talmud’s story of lights? And this has always depended, at least in part, on who else might be listening.

Epilogue

This, finally, is the last of three originally-planned posts on Chanukah and the “five powers.” (Apologies for delay and any confusion occasioned by it.) The holiday has been over for awhile now, most likely the wax and wicks finally cleared away as well. But the real point of the holiday — as Gila Sacks writes here — is what we take forward from it:

The lighting of the menorah stands in direct contrast to the dramas of war…..it emphasizes the power of the regular, consistent practice of ritual and law to bring meaning into our lives— rather than waiting for miracles, waiting for enlightenment to find us.

Mai Hannukah? [What is (the reason for) Chanukah?] We focus on the lighting of the menorah, rather than the war that preceded it, to remind us that the real miracles came afterward—in our ability then, and our challenge now, to create an emanating light through small, simple, regular acts of service.
— Gila Sacks, “Creating Light Each Day”
Shema Bekolah: Hear Her Voice




NOTES

NOTE 1: Seven Shepherds
The Book of Micah — dated to the last part of the 8th and first part of the 7th Century BCE — focuses on a the time period around the fall of the Northern Kingdom to Assyria. This prophet is read only once in the liturgical year, as haftarah (5:6-6:8) for the Torah portion Balak (Numbers 22:2 – 25:9). The haftarah includes the famous line (6:8), “You have been told, O man, what is good, and what the LORD requires of thee: only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

The haftarah begins with a positive-sounding message: “And the remnant of Jacob shall be in the midst of many peoples, as dew from the LORD, as showers upon the grass…” (5:6) but goes on to speak of violent retribution, wrecking chariots and destroying idols, fortresses and cities (5-8-14). And just preceding the haftarah are more sword-centered, messianic visions:

“And you, O Bethlehem of Ephrath, Least among the clans of Judah, From you one shall come forth To rule Israel for Me— One whose origin is from of old, From ancient times.
“Truly, He will leave them [helpless] Until she who is to bear has borne; Then the rest of his countrymen Shall return to the children of Israel.
“He shall stand and shepherd By the might of the LORD, By the power of the name Of the LORD his God, And they shall dwell [secure]. For lo, he shall wax great To the ends of the earth;
“And that shall afford safety. Should Assyria invade our land And tread upon our fortresses, We will set up over it seven shepherds, Eight princes of men,
“Who will shepherd Assyria’s land with swords, The land of Nimrod in its gates. Thus he will deliver [us] From Assyria, should it invade our land, And should it trample our country.”
— Micah 5:1-5 (1985 JPS, posted by Sefaria)

Rabbi Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz discusses the “seven shepherds” in the context of Sukkot’s ushpizin [mystical visitors to festival booths]. Micah’s messianic verses are much more popular among Christians. In fact, FWIW, the My Jewish Learning article comes from a Christian press.

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NOTE 2:

Cantor David Berger, of KAM Isaiah Israel in Chicago, gave a 2010 presentation for the Union for Reform Judaism which presents many musical settings and includes history and commentary. His presentation to the URJ used an orthodox source (Koren Sacks siddur) for the six stanzas of Ma’oz Tzur, as well as Reform and other sources for the 19th Century song, “Rock of Ages.” (More on this in the previous chapter of #ExploringBabylon.)

NOTE 3:
Although some scholars suggest that the harsh sixth stanza was a later addition, it seems of a piece with the first stanza’s call for God to prepare the “slaughter​ of the blasphemi​ng foe,” as well as with the “You saved us before, get us out of Edom” trope described above. Berger (in above cited webinar) reports that scholars now believe the sixth stanza original and self-censored.

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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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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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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.