The Language of There

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Exploring Babylon: Chapter 5.2

“When I make a word do a lot of work like that,” said Humpty Dumpty,
“I always pay it extra.”

— Alice Through the Looking-Glass, Lewis Carroll (1871, chapter 6)

A few weeks ago, #ExploringBabylon looked at “them” who traveled with Terah from southern Babylon to northern Mesopotamia and a little of what “back there” meant for Abraham. In this week’s portion, we return with the elder servant (later identified as Eliezer) to what Abraham calls “my kindred” or “my birthplace.”

שָּׁם

Abraham is old and telling the elder servant of his household to go
אֶל-אַרְצִי וְאֶל-מוֹלַדְתִּי
“to my country, and to my kindred [or: the land of my birth”]
to get a wife for my son Isaac” (Gen 24:1-2). The servant (later identified as Eliezer) asks what to do, should he find a potential wife who doesn’t consent to return with him: Should he bring Isaac back…

Genesis 24:5
אֶל-הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר-יָצָאתָ מִשָּׁם
…to the land from which you came?

24:6
פֶּן-תָּשִׁיב אֶת-בְּנִי שָׁמָּה
On no account take my son back there

24:7
וְלָקַחְתָּ אִשָּׁה לִבְנִי, מִשָּׁם
…get a wife for my son from there

24:8
לֹא תָשֵׁב שָׁמָּה
…do not take my son back there

In contrast to Gertrude Stein’s “no there there,” there is a lot of “there” here:

  • שָּׁם = “there”
  • שָׁמָּה = “to there” (ending hey makes a locative form)
  • מִשָּׁם = “from there” (beginning mem adds the preposition)

Commentators across the centuries have explored many “there” details: Did Abraham intend a specific place? Specific kin? Why did the servant later say he’d been sent to Abraham’s “father’s house and family” (Gen 24:38)? Why not encourage marriage with neighbor families? Was the union meant to seal some kind of family reconciliation? One of the most salient answers, for this blog’s purpose, stresses basic there-ness:

Abraham was sent away from his country, kindred and father’s house, so that he should have no further contact with them and be a stranger in a foreign clime…Similarly, his son must not marry [a Canaanite]. For this reason he was called Abraham the Hebrew, “that all the world was on one side and he on the other” (ivri means in Hebrew “a person from the other side” usually taken as a reference to Abraham’s origins in Mesopotamia — on the other side of the river).
— Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Breishit, p. 220

Abraham is ivri, from there. As in “not from here.” A key experience that his descendants will repeat — in Egypt, in the wilderness, in later exile. At this point in Genesis, Abraham and his family are becoming separate. That separateness will later help the people survive in Babylonian Captivity.

But this seems to be as much work as “there” is willing to do at the moment, regardless of how well paid.

Babylon fist


This is a palm-map illustrating the #ExploringBabylon journey. We’re just not there yet.
(Think the Little Prince and the boa constrictor digesting an elephant.)

Language

Finally, the Rabbinic stories about Babylonian Captivity being in some sense “back home” for people of Abraham, included an important message about the language of “there”: “R. Hanina said: comment that ‘The Holy One exiled them to Babylonia because the language is akin to the language of the Torah.’ To underscore this, a footnote of sorts:

The very success of Jews in adapting to life in a foreign environment poses problems for the would-be compiler of a Jewish sourcebook. Greek was the dominant language of Diasporan Jews and their personal names were mainly Greek or Latin…
The Jews Among the Greeks and Romans: A Diasporan Sourcebook, Margaret H. Williams (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins, 1998), pp. xi-xii

Mishpatim: Racism and Idolatry

This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim ([Laws], Exodus 21:1-24:18), warns us severely and often about evils of racism. The bible knew no such word, of course, and, ironically, this portion also contains material that appears to accept “bondage” as a normal part of [ancient] life. But messages about racial justice and related concepts are nonetheless there, and quite strong, if we look carefully.

“God’s wrath” and “idolatry”

The biblical expression “divine wrath” is reserved for cases of idolatry on the part of the whole Nation, according to Maimonides and later scholars. And this understanding calls us to avoid afflicting “widows and orphans”:

In our case [Exodus 22:23: “My wrath will burn (וְחָרָה אַפִּי)”], the same expression is deliberately used in order to equate the affliction of the orphan and the widow to idolatry, teaching us that there is no crime greater than this.
New Studies in Shemot/Exodus, Nehama Leibowitz, p.395

Many teachers understand “widows and orphans” as a biblical expression meaning “the most vulnerable among us,” which surely includes victims of hundreds of years of racism in the U.S. From a somewhat more literal perspective, black communities today include too many widows and orphans, as well as grieving mothers and traumatized communities.

Moreover, idolatry and racism are directly connected:

Few of us seem to realize how insidious, how radical, how universal an evil racism is. Few of us realize that racism is man’s gravest threat to man, the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason, the maximum of cruelty for a minimum of thinking.

Perhaps this Conference should have been called “Religion or Race.” You cannot worship God and at the same time look at man as if he were a horse.

“Race prejudice, a universal human ailment, is the most recalcitrant aspect of the evil in man” (Reinhold Niebuhr), a treacherous denial of the existence of God.

What is an idol? Any god who is mine but not yours, any god concerned with me but not with you, is an idol.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, Conference on “RELIGION AND RACE” (14 JANUARY 1963)

Both Heschel and Leibowitz stress, based on ancient tradition, that being silent in the face of oppression is as serious as committing the crime ourselves. (No time to explore this further right now — Shabbat is almost upon us — but will return to this theme.)

Strangers

This portion is also one in which we are warned about not oppressing a stranger, reminded again and again that we were once strangers in Egypt.

In addition, we are warned against “false reports” and “running with the multitude,” both of which seem obviously connected to racism. (Again, time has run out for now. More later.)
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