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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Lament for Mismatched Glassware

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Exploring Babylon Chapter 16.1

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

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

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

Vessels at the Feast

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

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

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

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

Offspring of Babylon

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

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

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

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

Lamentable Banquet Service

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

Vessels
Instructions:

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

Resulting poem: “Lament for Mismatched Glassware”

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

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

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

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

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


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Note to subscribers and other followers of “Exploring Babylon” —
Apologies for the hiatus born of flu and weeks of scrambling to catch up with all that was left undone.
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Toward a Jewish Bible Reader’s Self-Inventory

Most of us are aware that our individual backgrounds strongly influence how we read anything. But how often do we fall into the trap of thinking that wherever we stand is normal, with other views somehow divergent or marginal?

When it comes to the Bible, we are all reading and interpreting through many layers of influence — personal, family, communal, political, etc. How often, however, do we pause to examine our own filters and those of familiar commentaries and background sources?

Fortress Press Self-Inventories

I recently ran across the Bible Readers’ Self-Inventory in the Peoples’ Companion to the Bible:

The point of the following self-inventory is that none of us comes to the Bible as a “blank slate.” Its goal is to assist you in identifying and reflecting on some of the factors at work in the way you read or hear the Bible and to gain a stronger sense of your own voice as an interpreter of the Bible.
— p. xxix

Working through the inventory helped me articulate choices I regularly make when selecting Bible commentaries to study and cite. It also helped me better understand many of the factors at work in my reading. The self-inventory also prompted me to re-consider some habits that are not necessarily serving my own, newly articulated, reading and interpretation goals.

The self-inventory was also instructive in ways the authors probably did not intend. The Fortress Press inventories were explicitly designed for students in Christian bible or seminary studies. Some of the questions were, as a consequence, a little awkward for an older, non-student. More importantly, answering questions as a Jew required a fair amount of mental gymnastics to translate Christian assumptions about Bible and Bible-reading influences into something that reflected Jewish experience.

In the end, I found the experience worthwhile, and I recommend the basic practice. I’m also grateful to those who designed the inventories and encouraged students to consider factors at work in their Bible reading. But I think we need, for Jewish readers of the Bible, a self-inventory more in tune with Judaism and Jewish community dynamics.

Jews’ Bible Self-Inventory

Here is the PDF: Jews’ Self Inventory for Bible Readers. Jews and other interested Bible readers willing to test-drive this instrument are invited to use it, comment on it, and share results.

A copy is also posted at Academia.edu, and anyone who uses that forum is encouraged to share and/or comment there.

This DRAFT is based – sometimes closely, more often loosely – on the inventories in the Peoples’ Companion to the Bible and Reading from This Place (full citations below). The self-inventory shared here, while indebted to the Fortress Press versions, centers common Jewish encounters with Tanakh [Torah, Prophets and Writings].

If anyone knows of an existing self-inventory aimed at Jewish Bible readers, please advise.

CITATIONS:
“A Self-Inventory for [Christian] Bible Readers” appears in the Peoples’ Companion to the Bible (DeYoung, Gafney, etal., eds. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010, xxix-xxxii.) Find related resources and a link to download “Introduction,” which includes the self-inventory, at this Fortress Press product page.

An earlier version appears in “Framing [Christian] Biblical Interpretation at New York Theological Seminary: A Student Self-Inventory on Biblical Hermeneutics,” by N.K. Gottwald. (Reading from This Place, Vol. 1: Social Location and Biblical Interpretation in the United States. F. F. Segovia and Mary Ann Tolbert, eds. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995. 256-261.)

Find links to both versions and some additional information on this resource page.

Dick Gregory and Rabbis Under Rome

Exploring Babylon Chapter 9.2

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

His remarks begin with notes on dreamers and dreaming:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Torah of Exile, Again

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

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

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

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

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




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

This volume, by the way, is very funny and oddly current.
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Exploring Babylon: Intro

Exile: Babylon and Beyond

Exile saturates Jewish sacred text, practice, and thought. From the first couple’s banishment from Eden, early in Genesis, to the Babylonian captivity, which closes Second Chronicles, the Hebrew bible is filled with themes of loss, wandering, and desire for return. Even the Exodus, Judaism’s foundational tale of escape from human oppression and entrance into service of God, carries a strong exilic theme: “Remember you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

An arc similar to the path of the Tanakh [Hebrew bible] – from Creation, with its seeds of exile, through Revelation, toward Redemption; and then back to exile again – is repeated in practice, over the course of each Shabbat, across the annual festival cycle, and in the schedule of Torah readings.

Deuteronomy closes with the People on the banks of the Jordan, hopeful but not yet home; we never pass this point, in the annual reading cycle (an invention of Jews in exile), instead linking “Never again was there a prophet in Israel like Moses….” immediately to “In the beginning.” Before the very first portion ends, Eve and Adam have already been expelled from Eden.

Moreover, Babylonian captivity infuses centuries of Torah interpretation and Jewish philosophy: After Babylon, Jews can never un-know that, however close to the promised Land we get, exile is always just beyond the horizon….And that holding onto the “Promised Land” will be harder and require a more sustained ethical commitment than we’ve managed so far.

But Babylon has many meanings and values in- and outside Judaism.

In the Torah, Babylon [Bavel] is the site of the Tower and neighbor to town of Ur, from which Abraham’s family set off and later returned in search of spouses. Prophetically, Bavel is both a threat, a consequence for misbehavior, and the city whose welfare we are told to seek (Jer 29:7). Historically, Babylon is a foreign cultural center, the site of one of the ancient world’s longest lasting, most developed, and most diverse settlements. It is also the base of much creativity, including centuries of aggadah [lore] and halakhah [law] still central to Judaism.

For Jews, Babylon eventually becomes a crazy patchwork of motifs: distant origin, traumatic captivity, and creative center. Christians, Rastas, and others bring additional perspectives. In U.S. politics, Babylon has become a cracked mirror reflecting tyrants, colonizers, and oppressors – who, all too often, look disturbingly like us.

More on “Exploring Babylon” project at “A Song Every Day”

MiShebeirach for Circles of Pain

bullet_hole

photo: Treona Kelty

Introduction: Every bullet leaves pain in circles rippling outward, like the diameter of the bomb the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai once described. Amichai’s bomb extends from 30 centimeters to the immediate range of dead and wounded, out to a solitary mourner “far across the sea,” finally encompassing “the entire world in the circle.” (Chana Bloch’s translation.)

Monday’s shooting on Benning Road killed Ayana McAllister, 18, home from college on spring break, and injured her roommate, Aqueelah Brown, 19, who was visiting. It traumatized Ayana’s sister, N’Daja, 19, who was also present. Friends and acquaintances suffer in ripples outward from two family circles that will never be the same, from school communities forever changed, and from Fort Chaplin Apartments, where such shootings are too commonplace. And somewhere in that web of sorrow and confusion are neighboring toddlers who experience, without knowing in any conscious way, the calculations their caregivers make every time they leave the house.

Note: In Jewish tradition, “Mi Shebeirach” [“May the one who blessed…”] prayers use a formula that calls on memory and relationship, a personal-divine history of sorts, to make a request of God. Traditions vary today and have varied throughout history regarding timing and content of such prayers, but requests for healing are a common use in most traditions. There are many articles on the topic. Here’s one interesting piece from Sh’ma written not long after the death of Debbie Friedman (February 23, 1951 – January 9, 2011). Friedman, singer/song-writer and faculty member of the Hebrew Union College, created a musical “Mi Shebeirach” that was extremely popular in the late 20th Century and had a strong influence on how the prayer is perceived and used.

See also related prayers and meditations

Mi Shebeirach for Circles of Pain

May the one who blessed our ancestors,
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah,
and our extended family,
Lot and his kin, Hagar, Ishmael, Esau, Bilhah and Zilpah
– a clan that knew its share of trauma and grief –
bless and heal those recovering from violence, loss, and terror.
May the Blessed Holy One be filled with compassion
for all those experiencing ripples of violence.
May God swiftly send all who need it a renewal of body and spirit.
May our community health be restored
and our collective strength revived.
And let us say, Amen.

Maintaining Self and Struggle

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A meditation linking God’s four-letter name – YHVH (yud-hey-vav-hey) – with the human body/soul can help focus on God’s presence and power in our lives. I have relied on this meditation since Rabbi David Shneyer taught it to me some years ago.

yhvhgraphic
The variation presented here, incorporates a teaching from the prophet Micah on what God requires of us —

הִהִגִּיד לְךָ אָדָם, מַה-טּוֹב; וּמָה-יְהוָה דּוֹרֵשׁ מִמְּךָ,
כִּי אִם-עֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד, וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת, עִם-אֱלֹהֶיךָ.
You have been told, human, what is good,
that is, the traits that God expects from you:
acting justly, a passion for loving kindness, and walking humbly with your God.
– Micah 6:8 (translation from Siddur Eit Ratzon)

It is offered as support for social justice work in difficult times.

Shared here are the bones of the practice, so to speak, along with a PDF with additional graphics, 4-part Meditation, for easy carrying in a pocket or bag. Originally intended for use at the start of the day, this brief practice also serves throughout the day, especially when circumstances threaten to pull us off center, to realign with divine connection and our own strength and flexibility.

Fabrangen West tried a group chant based on this practice at the December 2016 gathering. Several participants more knowledgeable about renewal hasidus and kabbalah found connections between the sefirot and the words of the Micah verse. Further thoughts on this meditation — or on other Jewish practices for times of challenge — are welcome.

As always, “A Song Every Day” seeks comments or guest posts.

(1) Begin

Begin with meditation or chant using the four-letter name to focus on God’s presence before and within:

 

(2) “You’ve been told, human…”

Cycle through first half of verse, Y-H-V-H, head to legs, several times. At each reflection stage, try to release any barriers to embodying those attributes God expects; where appropriate, note areas in need of further attention:

  • (Y) Consider your humanity and connection to God. If you are feeling depleted, this is a moment to be open to the spiritual support you need.
  • (H) Is anything – distraction, anger, injury, e.g. – impeding your ability to reach for “what is good”? If so, can you release the barrier now? Or,should you set aside more time for this, to keep your reach from straying?
  • (V) Are you centered, with YHVH as backbone? What might pull you away? How are you working to stay upright?
  • (H) Are you prepared to pursue what God seeks of you? Does body or soul require attention first? Ready for more instruction? (Or ↑)

 

(3) “…acting justly, a passion for loving kindness,
and walking humbly with your God.”

Cycle through second half of verse, Y-H-V-H, head to legs, several times. Again, at each reflection stage, release barriers if you can and make note of areas where further attention, including assistance from others, would be helpful:

  • (Y) Are you committed to embodying the traits we are told to share with God?
  • (H) Do you join hands with others, or just push your own ideas, in acting justly? Do you need more partners, assistance? To whom can you reach out?
  • (V) Is your spine ready to stand and bend in loving kindness? Do you need help – maybe learning or rest – to avoid damage to yourself or others?
  • (H) Ready to take steps in the world, humbly with your God, and in healthy company with others, in the struggle? (Or ↑)

Brief journaling – either at this point, before closing out the meditation, or shortly afterward – can be helpful.

(4) Close

Return to a chant of the four-letter Name, preparing to bring your newly-aligned self into the outside world and the on-going struggle.

verseandgraphic