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.

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, although sometimes available through ABE. 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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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.
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Vayishlach: A Path to Follow

Twice in this portion, Jacob is told he will henceforth be called “Israel”:

“Not Jacob shall your name hence be said, but Israel, for you have striven with God and men, and won out,” Jacob is told after his wrestling match on the bank of the Jabbok river (Genesis/Breishit 32:23-31). In Genesis/Breishit 35:9-10, we read: “God appeared again to Jacob on his arrival from Paddan-aram, and He blessed him. God said to him, ‘You whose name is Jacob, You shall be called Jacob no more, But Israel shall be your name.’ Thus He named him Israel.”

In his Five Books of Moses* (2004), Robert Alter comments on this name change:

It is nevertheless noteworthy–and to my knowledge has not been noted –that the pronouncement about the new name is not completely fulfilled. Whereas Abraham is invariably called “Abraham” once the name is changed from “Abram,” the narrative continues to refer to this patriarch in most instances as “Jacob.”

This is an odd statement, given the plethora of comments — from very different views of Torah, stretching back centuries — referencing the fact that “the pronouncement about the new name is not completely fulfilled.” Here are just a few:

Jacob no more. But in fact the appellation Jacob continues at once. Critics have attempted to distinguish between an “Israel tradition” and a “Jacob tradition.” If these every existed, they have been thoroughly interwoven, and the names have now become interchangeable. — Plaut,* (1981)

Your name is Jacob. Although He was about to give Jacob the additional name of Isreal, God told him that he would continue to be called Jacob (Ramban [16th Century CE Italy]; Sforno [12th Century CE Spain]). From that time onward, the name Jacob would be used for matters pertaining to physical and mundane matters, while the name Israel would be used for matters reflecting the spiritual role of the Patriarch and his descendants (R’ Bachya [Ibn Paquda, 14th Century CE Spain]).

Although both Abraham and Jacob were given new names there is a basic difference between them, for the Talmud states that anyone who refers to Abraham as Abram is in violation of a negative commandment (Berachos 13a), whereas both names continue to be used for Jacob….

Or HaChaim [18th Century CE Italy] explains the reason for the difference. Every name in the Torah reprsents the sould that God emplaced in that person. Consequently, the name “Jacob” represents his soul, while the name “Israel” represents an enhancement of the soul, which Jacob earned by growing and transcending the mission signified by the original name…. — Stone,* (1993)

Alter does elaborate a bit differently (although I’m not sure that it’s a unique perspective):

Thus, “Israel” does not really replace his name but becomes a synonym for it — a practice reflected in the parallelism of biblical poetry, where “Jacob” is always used in the first half of the line and “Israel,” the poetic variation, in the second half.

For more on this rich path, here are just two of the many further avenues to explore: Shefa Gold’s Torah Journey, including a personal spiritual practice, for this portion and/or a discussion of universalism versus nationalism based on the work of
Rav Kook (1865-1935).

*See Source Materials for Torah commentary citations and further details.

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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.
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Vayishlach: Language and Translation

Now Dinah — the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne to Jacob — went out to look over the daughters of the land [lirot bi-banot ha-aretz]. Shechem, son of Hamor the Hivvite, the prince of the region, saw her [va-yareh]; he took her, lay with her, and violated her.

And Dinah, Leah’s daughter, whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to go seeing among the daughters of the land. And Shechem, the son or Hamor the Hivite, prince of the land, saw her and took her and lay with her and abused her. Continue Reading

Vayishlach: Great Source(s)

The uterine struggle between Jacob and Esau [Genesis/Breishit 25:22-26] prefigures the momentous struggle with the angel [Gen. 32:23-31]. It is through wrestling in the night with a divine being that Jacob acquires the nation’s name. “They name shall be no more called Jacob, but Israel,” says the divine opponent, “for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed (Gen. 32:28). Jacob does not become angelic as a result of this nocturnal encounter, but the struggle reveals a certain kind of intimacy with God that is unparalleled.

The nation, not unlike the eponymous father, is both the chosen son and the rebel son, and accordingly its relationship with the Father is at once intimate and strained….Continue Reading