Babylon: Entangled and Free

Exploring Babylon: Chapter 4.1

The ram stuck in the bush*, where Abraham finds him during the Binding of Isaac incident, reminded long-ago teachers of their own situation and their past Captivity in Babylon:

Throughout that day, Abraham saw the ram become entangled in a tree, break loose, and go free; become entangled in a bush, break loose, and go free; then again become entangled in a thicket, break loose, and go free.

The Holy One said, “Abraham, even so will your children be entangled in many kinds of sin and trapped within successive kingdoms – from Babylon to Medea, from Medea to Greece, from Greece to Edom.”

Abraham asked, “Master of the universe, will it be forever thus?”

God replied, “In the end they will be redeemed at [the sound of] the horns of this ram, as is said, ‘The Lord shall blow the horn [shofar] when He goes forth in the whirlwinds at Teman [Edom] [וְיָצָא כַבָּרָק חִצּוֹ; וַאדֹנָי יְהוִה בַּשּׁוֹפָר יִתְקָע, וְהָלַךְ בְּסַעֲרוֹת תֵּימָן]'” (Zech 9:14).
— Bialik & Ravnitsky, The Book of Legends/Sefer Ha-aggadah 42:45**

Like earlier commentary, which found these same periods of foreign control — Babylon, Medea, Greece, and Rome — in the second verse of the Creation story, this midrash promises future Redemption. (See “Babylon and the Beginning.”) Also, as in the previous midrash, everything depends on human repentance.

As Erica Brown puts it, this midrash teaches:

Wrong-doing will always catch us up in its thorny hold….The ram’s horn, the penitential cry of it, will remind us that we need not be stuck in the thicket. We can extricate ourselves.
— Brown, Confronting Scandal: How Jews Can Respond when Jews Do Bad Things. (Woodstock VT: Jewish Lights, 2010). p.125



…and that brings us round again to the original intention behind this blog: The Exodus is, of course, the foundational story of Judaism, and there are many important lessons for our time and place to be gleaned from it and the Genesis stories which lead us there. There’s no escaping, however, that the Exodus is, in essence, the tale of a violent and permanent parting of oppressed and oppressor peoples.

And that metaphor has limits when it comes to trying to work out how people who share circumstances with both the oppressed and the oppressor, and generally have no intention to flee, can envision and work toward a better world.

Our tradition has long offered another metaphor: the far more complex and ambiguous narrative of exile, oppression and redemption. Thus, #ExploringBabylon was launched to consider ways our current realities reflect the multivalent image of Babylon, in the hope that this will help Jews in the U.S. find new visions for the future….

and Free

It is noteworthy that the midrash quoted above — as well as the one based on Genesis 1:2 (cited in the earlier post) — omits the Exodus when speaking of past instances of the people being “stuck.” For the teachers who wrote both midrashim, the Exodus was not in question: God and the people and the Torah remained in relationship born of that experience. What was in question was how the people, who by this time knew how hard it was to honor that relationship amid a complex world, were going to extricate themselves from their current entanglement.

Questions for Consideration

  • Are we, as individuals and communities of Jews, hearing the ram’s horn today?
  • What are some of the thorny communal places we’re being called to address?
  • Is there a role for some kind of communal repentance?
  • Can the larger Jewish narrative, of being entangled and free and entangled again, help us find a way out of the thicket?



* See this week’s Torah portion, Vayera (Genesis 18:1 – 22:24):
“And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in the thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt-offering in the stead of his son.
וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת-עֵינָיו, וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה-אַיִל, אַחַר, נֶאֱחַז בַּסְּבַךְ בְּקַרְנָיו; וַיֵּלֶךְ אַבְרָהָם וַיִּקַּח אֶת-הָאַיִל, וַיַּעֲלֵהוּ לְעֹלָה תַּחַת בְּנוֹ.”
— Genesis 22:13

** This paragraph comes at the end of a three-page commentary on “The Binding of Isaac.” The The Book of Legends footnote cites Pesikta Rabbati 40:6 here. (Pesikta Rabbati is a holiday-based compilation of midrash, which is dated to Land of Israel, c.600 – c.900 CE.) But I cannot confirm the citation — and for all it’s extraordinary benefits, The Book of Legends English version does tend to muff citations — the verse from Zechariah above, e.g., is cited as “9:4” (The biblical reference is correct in the Hebrew version, but there is no chapter/verse with the Pesikta Rabbiti citation — way more than necessary, probably, but there it is.)

Va-yera: Language and Translation

Scholars and translators seem more or less evenly split on reading Genesis/Breishit 22:13 “v’hinei-ayil achar [“and behold-a ram behind”]. Many commentators point out that “behold–a ram behind” is a bit odd. Acharav — “behind him” — would make more sense grammatically.
Continue reading Va-yera: Language and Translation

Va-yera: Great Source(s)

“Let us examine the other figures in [the Akedah], in addition to Abraham and Isaac,” writes Dr. Sander L. Gilman in “The Joy of Waiting.” He suggests turning attention to the servants who also journey to Mount Moriah and wait while Abraham and Isaac climb. ”

These two servants, most probably men, are stock figures…While our eyes follow the central figures in the drama (Abraham and his son Isaac), these two figures recede from our attention (Islamic readings have it that the son is Ishmael rather than Isaac [Qur’an 37:101-13]).”

What is striking when we sit and wait with the servants while Abraham takes Isaac off into the distance, where the silhouette of Mount Moriah looms, is the boredom of every life, the very unmanliness of inaction… (p. 25; p.27 The Modern Men’s Torah Commentary, Jeffrey K. Salkin, ed.*)

In this essay on Va-yera, which is available through the collection’s preview on GoogleBooks, Gilman argues that the ability to wait is part of “a Jewish masculine identity” and “a role to be embraced.”

The act of waiting, for Jews, is not being impotent or passive; it is engaging in meaningful activities of daily life, those so often dismissed as the activities done to pass the time.

…Being Jewish is waiting productively by acting self-consciously in the world, as if we were Abraham’s servants. For remember that Maimonides states in Sefer Ha-mitzvot that the 497th mitzvah is to “help others load their beast” (Deuteronomy 22:4). — p. 29

*See Source Materials, for complete citation and more information. Check out the Gilman essay in the print collection for the endnotes, which include an interesting array of bottom sources — from Joseph Soloveitchik to Woody Allen; the entire collection is worth a look, as well.

Click on the “WeeklyTorah” tag for more resources on the weekly portion throughout the year, or on a portion name for parashah-specific notes. (The series began with Numbers; posts for Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus are being drafted, week-by-week.) You can also zero-in on particular types of “Opening the Book” posts by clicking Language and Translation, Something to Notice, a Path to Follow, or Great Source in the tag cloud.
Continue reading Va-yera: Great Source(s)

The Drash Not Given: “Emissary” and the Akedah



I know that it’s a little peculiar to insist on linking the Akedah, the “binding of Isaac,” with “Emissary,” the pilot episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. I feel I should begin these remarks by saying that. In addition, I am fully aware that the wormhole entities, AKA “the Prophets of Bajor,” to whom we are introduced in this television series are not meant to reflect the God of Genesis. Nonetheless, I am absolutely convinced that Deep Space Nine‘s “Emissary” episode has more to teach about the Akedah, about God-human communication and about teshuvah [“repentance” or “return”].
Continue reading The Drash Not Given: “Emissary” and the Akedah

“Look Behind You”: Akedah 5770

In their great love my parents saved me from disappointment,
from pain and sorrow. Now I am left with their savings
plan the pain I would like to spare my children.
How all those savings have piled up on me!

The 20th Century Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai wrote a number of poems that clearly reference the Akedah [Binding of Isaac, Genesis/Breishit 22]. But I think this section of “My Parents’ Lodging Place” — from the collection, Open Closed Open — reaches the heart of the Akedah as well as anything he – or anyone else – has written about it… even if he didn’t plan it that way.
Continue reading “Look Behind You”: Akedah 5770