Warring Nations, Sibling Tears

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The Torah portion Toldot (Gen. 25:19 – 28:9) illustrates the struggles of nations and individuals. We are simultaneously the inheritors of this mess and the participants – all of them – in the heart-breaking. So, I want to look at the sad state we’re in and see if we can find a way through by considering different aspects of the story.

Opening and Closing Angst

toldotRebecca’s story in this portion is bookended by two moments of terrible angst, both involving her children as individuals and as nations. She cries, “If so, why am I?” and learns that she carries two warring nations in her womb (Gen. 25:22ff).

— not unlike our situation right now, as U.S. citizens, I think.

Toward the end of the portion we are told that Jacob headed off “to Paddan-aram, to Laban the son of Bethuel the Aramean, brother of Rebecca, mother of Jacob and Esau.” (Gen. 27:45)

Her stated hope – that Jacob will remain with Laban just long enough for Esau’s wrath to cool – is not realized in her lifetime. Later, Isaac’s death is reported, but hers is not. So this is the last image in the Torah that we have of Rebecca: an individual who somehow birthed two nations, and then worked to manipulate their fates, now holding out hope for reconciliation between them, as one seethes and the other inherits, and she watches them part.

At no point in this portion do we see the extreme hospitality and generosity she exhibited at the well where she gave Eleazar a drink and watered his camels. We don’t see it from her, it’s not present in Isaac’s wranglings over the wells, and it’s antithesis appears when Jacob refuses to share food with his hungry brother without forcing Esau into a permanent abdication of rights.

Lentil Disaster and Beyond

Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove points out in a 2011 drash:

Jacob and Esau could not share a bowl of lentil soup without provocation, never mind a Thanksgiving dinner. Unlike modern psychology, the Torah does not find the primary shaper of human identity between parent and child, but rather between siblings. — “Brother, Can You Spare a Blessing?

And the state of the siblings in this portion is a deep and painful mess.

In addition to the lentil disaster, there is the deception over the blessing and Esau’s threat to kill Jacob because of it.

We learn from a 19th Century midrash that Rebecca convinced Jacob to flee, saying:

Whichever of you will be slain I shall be bereaved in one day, since one will be no more, slain, and the murderer of his brother will be detested by me as an enemy and stranger, and will be, in my eyes, as non-existing. I will thus be bereaved of both of them.
Em Lemikra: A commentary on Pentateuch (R. Elijah Benamozegh; 1823-1900)
found in Neshama Leibowitz Studies in Genesis: “Mother of Jacob and Esau”

An important midrashic thought to remind us that any murder destroys at least two lives. And I think it suggest that, like Rebecca, we are partially responsible for creating – or allowing – conditions that can lead to murder and we might consider our responsibility to help create better conditions that could prevent murders.

And then, even when murder is avoided, we still have to cope with Esau’s cry.

A Sibling’s Cry

As their story unfolds, we learn – from at least disparate two threads of commentary – that a single cry from Esau had repercussions for Jacob for centuries and into the current day.

After Isaac gave the blessing to Jacob, Esau “cried with a loud and bitter cry” (27:34): וַיִּצְעַק צְעָקָה, גְּדֹלָה וּמָרָה עַד-מְאֹד

Breishit Rabbah points to a similar expression in the Esther story after Mordechai learns of the edict against the Jews (4:1):

Jacob made Esau break out into a cry but once, and where was he punished for it? In Shushan the capital, as it says: “And he cried with a loud and bitter cry.” (וַיִּזְעַק זְעָקָה גְדוֹלָה וּמָרָה*)

*“cry” is spelled differently in the two verses, but Nechama Leibowitz calls the phrases identical, and clearly Breishit Rabbah saw a link.

In this midrash, the twins shift from individual brothers to nations, as retribution for tears of Esau, the man, comes – in God’s own time – to Jacob, the nation of Israel. As Leibowitz explains it: “The Almighty, who takes note of our tears, also takes note of those shed by the wicked Esau. They also are noted and cry out for retribution.” (Note: The “wicked” is Leibowitz’s adjective, one common in traditional interpretations.)

The Zohar also tells us that the tears of Esau do not exist solely within this portion’s narrative: Instead, it is taught that the Messiah will not come until Esau’s tears have stopped flowing. (Zohar II, Shemot 12b; more below)

It seems that both Esau and Jacob are understood as their national selves in the Zohar’s understanding. In both commentaries, however, Esau’s tears blur into a much something larger than one man’s injury.

Sibling Tears Today

As it happens, my older sister, Martha, and I had a chance over the summer to discuss the state of the nation and of our extended family. Martha reminded me that our dad – whose 40th yahrzeit passed in August – used to say that peace, in any kind of communal or national sense, was impossible until brothers learned to get along. And, he said, the bible taught how unlikely that was. Still, we were led to believe, as I recall, that the fate of the world rested on our small shoulders whenever any of the four of us had a minor spat.

While I doubt that our dad knew Breishit Rabbah or the Zohar, he managed to convey a similar sense, on the one hand, of the magnitude and persistence of interpersonal injuries and, on the other hand, of our power to affect change on a communal or national level by improving relationships with those closest to us.

At a recent program on racial justice, held at Adas Israel, an activist and teacher, black woman and a Jew, Yavilah McCoy stressed the importance of being what she calls “proximate” to the people with whom we are struggling for justice – in both senses, that is, those we oppose and those we join in common struggle. Proximity is the only way people learn and change, she said.

McCoy gave an example that stuck with me: If your aunty badmouths your mom, you don’t write to the New York Times about it; you talk to aunty and mom. And that, she said, is how injuries are resolved.

So, that’s what I’d like to discuss:

  • What are our possibilities for resolving very old and very painful circumstances between brother individuals and brother nations?
  • When are we Rebecca? When Esau? And when Jacob?
  • And when are we Isaac, who seems so damaged and confused himself that he lets everyone else do the emotional work?

One last note: Centuries of commentary appear to speak of the persistence of Esau’s tears without claiming that he should have received the blessing or even that anyone in the story should have behaved differently.

Postscript on brothers, etc.

The portion drifts constantly from the personal to the national, beginning with the opening verse –

וְאֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת יִצְחָק, בֶּן-אַבְרָהָם: אַבְרָהָם, הוֹלִיד אֶת-יִצְחָק.
“This is the line” – or: “these are the offspring” – “of Isaac son of Abraham – Abraham begot Isaac” (24:19).

There are several traditional explanations for starting the line of Isaac with “Abraham begot Isaac.” One idea that caught my attention is from the 13th Century teacher, Chizkuni: The odd phrasing emphasizes that Abraham not only sired Isaac but raised him, and he did so after his name and destiny were changed to Abraham, “father of multitude of nations” (Gen 17:5).


The stress on “multitude of nations” is particularly important to consider at this point, poised between the lineage of Ishmael – which includes twelve princes by their nations (25:16) – and that of Isaac, which will include Esau and Jacob, who are both brothers and nations.

NOTES:

In the Midrash it is written: “Messiah, son of David, will not come until the tears of Esau have ceased to flow.” The children of Israel, who are God’s children, pray for mercy day and night; and shall they weep in vain so long as the children of Esau shed tears? But “the tears of Esau” – that does not mean the tears which the people of the earth weep and you do not weep; they are the tears that all human being weep when the ask something for themselves, and pray for it. And truly: Messiah, son of David, will not come until such tears have ceased to flow, until you weep because the Divine Presence is exiled, and because you year for its return.
— Martin Buber. The Way of Man/Ten Rungs, p. 199
NY: Citadel Press, 2006 (Ten Rungs, originally published Schocken 1947)

See also “Tears of Sorrow, Tears of Redemption” by Rabbi Toba Spitzer on Kol Nidre 5762 (shortly after 9/11/2001):

Maybe this is what we can learn out of the depths of the tragedy we have witnessed. That redemption will come when all tears have ceased, when all sources of suffering have been repaired. Our redemption is somehow linked to the fate of even those whom we consider our enemies. Their tears and ours are ultimately not so different.

The human spirit is so large when we allow it to be; the incredible outpouring of bravery and love and money in these past two weeks is testament to that. Let’s not squander this opportunity to make the most of what we’ve learned about ourselves, the good and the bad. Let’s name the sins that need to be named, let’s confess them together, and then let’s come together to begin to imagine a better way. Let’s dry Esau’s tears, and our own, and begin to figure out what it will take to make redemption real.
(Zohar II, Shemot 12b)

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Heel-dom: gods of comfort and power

10599394_717380508311895_7027393843189443889_n“Every 28 hours across America a black person is killed by security guard, police officer or some other executive of the state,” Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson said on the recent “Face the Nation,” adding that President Obama needs to use his “unique position” to explain the rage emanating from Ferguson, MO:

[Obama needs to explain] to white people whose white privilege in one sense obscures from them what it means that their children can walk home every day and be safe. They’re not fearful of the fact that somebody will kill their child who goes to get some ice tea and some candy from a store.”
— Michael Eric Dyson on August 17 Face the Nation

The Torah portion known as “Eikev [heel]” calls us to consider whether we might be, however inadvertently, tugging on the heel of a brother. And Mishkan T’filah‘s adaptation of words taken from this portion demands that we avoid making “gods of own comfort or power.”

Meanwhile, the Torah portion known as “Eikev [heel]” calls us to consider whether we might be, however inadvertently, tugging on the heel of a brother. And Mishkan T’filah‘s adaptation of words taken from this portion demands that we avoid making “gods of own comfort or power.”

If we turn from Sinai

The portion Eikev (Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:25) includes verses that make up the second full paragraph of the Shema. These words, Deuteronomy 11:13-21, are included within tefillin as well. This passage, therefore, appears several times in many prayerbooks. But it’s far less prominent in, or missing entirely from, some liberal prayerbooks.It’s easy to see why a passage that speaks of reward and punishment as a direct result of the People’s actions was omitted or diminished in Reform Prayerbooks. (See, e.g., Richard Sarason on the Three Paragraphs of the Shema.) But Mishkan T’filah (URJ, 2007) includes, as an alternative reading, a thematic paraphrase of the Shema’s second paragraph.

The reading — by Richard Levy, a member of the editorial committee for the prayerbook and an author of many contemporary liturgical pieces — can be found on page two of these Mishkan T’filah sample pages:


But if we turn from Sinai’s words
and serve only what is common and profane,
making gods of our own comfort or power,
then the holiness of life will contract for us;
our world will grow inhospitable.

Let us therefore lace these words
into our passion and our intellect,
and bind them as a sign upon our hands and eyes….
— from Mishkan T’filah, p.67 and p.235

Levy’s is one of a number of approaches to this paragraph that take what theologian Judith Plaskow calls “a more naturalistic” view, focusing on the need to avoid thinking that “we can trample on or transcend the constraints of nature.”

The passage also seems to capture what another theologian, Elliott Dorff, calls the insistence that God is ultimately just. He points out that the ancient Rabbis had trouble with the way reward and punishment are described in this portion. Still, he says, they included this passage as a central part of the prayers because of their “deep faith in the ultimate justice of God as the metaphysical backdrop and support for human acts of justice.”

(Both Dorff and Plaskow quotes are from Jewish Lights’ My Jewish Prayerbook, vol 1: The Shema and its Blessings)

I see this idea reflected in the passage which is recited when laying tefillin on the hand (wrapping around the finger three times):

  • I will betroth you to me forever;
  • I will betroth you to me through justice and rule of law, kindness and compassion;
  • I will betroth you to me in trust, and you will know that I am God

— Hosea 2:21-22

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Vayeishev: Great Source(s)

The birth of Perez and Zerah recalls the birth of Esau and Jacob. The two sets of twins form a chiasmus. The “red hairy mantel” which distinguishes Esau, the oldest, becomes the red thread around the youngest’s wrist. By wearing Esau’s attire, Jacob makes Esau’s distinguishing marking — namely, is “red hairy mantle” — his own. Isaac’s blessing assures Jacob’s superiority over his brother, and the garment becomes the signifier of Jacob’s prominence. Similarly, when Jacob gives Joseph a long robe with sleeves, it symbolizes Joseph’s superiority; and, when the bloodied robe is returned to Jacob, it signals Joseph’s elimination from the line of succession….For Michael Fishbane,* the power of the Jacob cycle is that “it personalizes the tensions and dialects which are also crystallized on a national level at later points: the struggle for blessing; the threat of discontinuity; the conflicts between and within generations; and the wrestling for birth, name and identity.” In the Jacob cycle, garments form the subtext which upholds these concerns. From Jacob to Joseph to Judah to Zerah, the red thread establishes an order of filiation, a metaphorical umbilical cord that relates directly, without he mediation of women, father to son to grandson.Continue Reading

Vayishlach: Something to Notice

The following excerpt, based in part on this week’s portion, is from “Godwrestling: Jacob and Esau,” the first chapter in Arthur Waskow‘s 1978 book, Godwrestling.*

I first learned of Fabrangen** through this book, recommended by Chuck Fager, a Quaker writer who thought Fabrangen had some things in common with unprogrammed Friends. More than a decade after joining Fabrangen in real life, I now find that Arthur’s words capture an aspect of my own experience: “My deepest learning was precisely the process of wrestling itself, not particular conclusions,” and, although I don’t generally write about Fabrangen — or Temple Micah or the Jewish Study Center, I do struggle with how and where to include fellow Godwrestlers in writing they might not necessarily endorse.***

I think this excerpt, and this weekly portion, offer a great reminder for each of us to take note of those who struggle with us to glimpse the “outlines of God’s Face”:

I was learning to grapple with Torah in the midst of a community of Jews….

The community of Jews was, is, called Fabrangen* — the Yiddish for “coming together.” In it people come together around the effort, the hope–sometimes bright, sometimes flickering–to create a modern path of life that draws authentically from Jewish tradition but is expressed in new ways… (pp. 2-3)

We have no rabbi and no rebbe….

From our many different life experiences, we wrestle with each other. And we wrestle with Torah and all of Jewish tradition…. (p.4)

By telling stories about Fabrangen I give Fabrangen a shape. Because the stories are my stories, the shape Fabrangen takes on is, of necessity, the shape I see…

Perhaps I could avoid this problem by simply writing down the result of the process….Leave Fabrangen to an honorable footnote. But that would be unfaithful to my sense that my deepest learning was precisely the process of wrestling itself, not particular conclusions.

…for now this is one of the many struggles in which we are still straining our eyes in the dark before daybreak, straining to see —

…I welcome wrestling partners to this book. Together may we be able to begin to see the outlines of God’s Face. And of each other’s. (p.12)
— from Godwrestling, Arthur Waskow. NY: Schocken, 1978.

* I believe the 1978 version is out of print. A later edition, God Wrestling-Round 2: Ancient Wisdom, Future Paths, was published in 1998.

** “Farbrangen” is a Yiddish word that means “coming together,” as for a meeting. “Fabrangen” — with no “r” — is the name of a Washington, DC, havurah founded in 1971 and focusing on “coming together in joy.” The name might have been a simple misspelling, the result of translating a Bostoner’s pronunciation, or an indication that Fabrangen has no rabbi.

** Now, footnotes — endangered species though they be — are actually among the most exciting spots in some reading material….Did you ever notice, for example, the footnote in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Grammar that begins “Compare the joke”? (I’ve hit the jackpot and he wants to give me lessons) [hypernote]

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The “Opening the Book” series was originally presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group that for many years pursued spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.