I was perusing the haftarah for Lekh Lekha this week while pre-occupied with other thoughts, not giving my reading the attention it deserved. My eyes chanced upon these words:
Each one helps the other, saying to his fellow, “Take courage!”
The woodworker encourages the smith; he who flattens with the hammer [encourages] him who pounds the anvil.
He says of the riveting, “It is good!”
And he fixes it with nails that it may not topple.” (Is 41.6-7, JPS)
Wow, that sounds like a really positive and encouraging bit of text around which I could build a musing. Instantly I began to think about these words as describing an ideal community of people, helping each other, working together, supporting each other, and securing their efforts to protect them. That’s a nice positive thought.
Then, setting other distractions aside, I began to read more fully the text of the entire haftarah, allowing me to place it in context. It was only after a bit that the light dawned and I realized who the “they” were of which these passages speak, and what the work they were engaged in really was. It isn’t entirely obvious without some thought (although one generally familiar with working with these texts will already be working from a mindset that sees these words in context.)
The first clue is found in the immediately preceding words:
The coastlands look on in fear, the ends of the earth tremble.
Just a passing familiarity with Isaiah is enough to know that these words are not referring to Israel, but rather those who surround and threaten her.
Following verses 6-7, in two, as the scholars call them, oracles, we hear G”d reassuring Israel that they will be supported against their enemies, and they need not fear them.
Having this information, when you go back to look at the text of verses 6-7, you soon realize that they are speaking of Israel’s enemies, and the work of which they are urging each other on is that of creating their idols, and, most telling of all, fixing them in place with nails so they will not fall! A little prophetic humorous barb or jab. The G”d of Israel does not need to be nailed down (and all levels of double, triple, and even more entendre intended. Isaiah may have more more prescient in saying this than he realized. How even more delightfully ironic then, that so often Christian theologians turn to Isaiah as a source of positive foreshadowing. This one is a real kick in the teeth to them, seen in the right light. Now before you get all worked up,I intend no offense. Recall, dear reader, I studied at Vanderbilt Divinity School, and count many Christian ministers, scholars and theologians as colleagues.)
There’s something very Jewish about this little misinterpretation or misunderstanding that I had, initially, about verses 6-7. Surely, encouraging and supporting each other, and working together are good traits. Yet in the Torah’s view there always seems to be two sides to every thing. Consider migdal Bavel (tower of Babel.) The Torah (and G”d’s) view of this working together is not that it is an entirely positive thing. It is, in fact, so dangerous and threatening to whatever it is that G”d is trying to create that G”d directly interferes to eliminate the danger.
Context matters. On an entirely unrelated note to the parasha, but definitely connected to context, is a blog post I read last week from a rabbi once again railing against Halloween and simply dismissing it as not Jewish because the Torah forbids witchcraft and such things.
Need this rabbi be reminded of the many, many examples of magic, sympathetic magic, and other supposedly forbidden things one finds in Torah and Tanakh, and indeed in Jewish culture to this day (hamsas, pictures of “the Rebbe,” spitting and avoiding the ayin hara, attributing misfortune to scribal errors in mezuzot, etc.) Now, I will not quibble that there is some very direct language in the Torah against witches, witchcraft, sorcery, divination, etc. Yet these terms are not clearly defined, and we have oddities like the serpent on Moshe’s staff, the curative solution of the ashes of the red heifer, and the urim and thummim (if not oracles, what are they?) So like everything else in Judaism, the Torah is a bit conflicted when it comes to magic.
The well-worn “do not allow a witch to live” (Ex. 22:17) is, when examined in context, likely related to the Torah’s misogynistic bent and later layers of attempts to ascribe all the blame to women for men’s sexual weakness. It comes, after all, in the midst of text about deflowered virgins and bestiality!
Traditional Judaism gets away with distancing itself from magic, witchcraft, divination, etc. with a simple explanation. If it is in the Torah (see the examples above) then it’s not magic. Magic is what the goyim do. The azazel goat, the waters of lustration, the urim and thummim, kapparot, tashlich – these are what Jews do. It’s a pretty thin veneer covering very deep inconsistencies and contradictions.
Look, there are plenty of reasons to dislike Halloween, and discourage your family from engaging in its rituals. It has become both a celebration of the macabre and selfishness/greed. Greed of children for candy, greed of companies for money. Yet it also has aspects of neighborliness, community-building, fun, and even, to some extent, providing a cathartic way for some people to confront their inner demons through the release provided by donning costumes, living out their fantasies, and partying. (It’s slippery slope, I know, sort of like the argument that violent video games provide an outlet for children and teens to release their aggression ) That’s Halloween in its contemporary American context. Yet neither Judaism nor Christianity has a leg to stand on when it comes to critiques against participation in Halloween festivities based on its supposed roots and connections to witchcraft, sorcery, etc.
Clearly two disparate trains of thought in this musing, but nonetheless there exists a tenuous connection on the basis of context. I’ll hope you’ll place this musing in its own context before you attempt to understand it. Good luck with that. Oops, can we say good luck? Is that Jewish? We do say mazal tov all the time, don’t we. Hmm, what is mazal? Look it up, it has astrological origins!!
©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Lekh Lekha 5771 (5765, 5760) Things Are Seldom What They Seem An Excerpt from the "Journal of Lot"
Lekh Lkha 5770 - Revisiting the Ten Percent Solution
Lekh L'kha 5769 - Of Nodding Heads, Whistling Airs, and Snickersnees
Lekh Lekha 5768 - The Covenant That (Almost) Wasn't - Excerpts from the Diary of Terakh
Lekh Lekha 5767-Penile Pilpul
Lekh Lekha 5766-The Other Siders
Lekh Lekha 5765 - Redux 5760
Lekh Lekha 5764-Ma'aseir Mikol-The Ten Percent Solution
Lekh Lekha 5763-No Explanations
Lekh Lekha 5761-The Intellectual Echad
Lekh L'kha 5758-Little White Lies