Friday, November 17, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat - Toldot 5778 - Like Father Like Son

This was my very first musing on parashat Toldot, written back in 1998. I thought it was due for a revisit after 19 years. No major changes, just a few edits and edge-smoothing - it still speaks for itself.

Random Musing Before Shabbat - Toldot 5778 - Like Father Like Son

Like father like son.

It wasn't enough that Abraham lied to "protect his wife." Isaac had to do it too. And probably with the same King his father tried to fool. It seems, however, that Isaac is not to be honored and taken care of like his father. For this time, in this version of the thrice-repeated Torah tale) it is not G"d that exposes the lie. It is Isaac's own carelessness, foolish enough to be caught fondling his wife where Abimelech could see them! (Now one could argue that G"d made Isaac deliberately stupid-or excessively horny, but to me that seems unlikely.)


Like father, like son.


Isaac redug the wells at Gerar that had once been his father's. He named them with the same names his father had given them. Surely a symbolic act in many ways. Isaac drinking from his father's wells, carrying on the family traditions. Isaac restoring the good name of his father to these wells, a name taken away when they were stopped up after Abraham's death. Isaac drinking from the same spiritual source as his father.


Do the stopped up wells perhaps represent Isaac's estrangement from his father after what happened in Moriah? And is Isaac's restoring them symbolic of some level of posthumous reconciliation?


Isaac then tried digging some new wells in the same general area, only to have the water rights disputed by local herdsmen. So he moved away to a location nearby and tried again-this time successfully. It is only after all these things that G"d finally speaks and tells Isaac him that G"d is with him.


So Isaac had to both recognize his father, and establish his own identity before G"d would speak to him and remind Isaac that G"d intended to fulfill the promise to Abraham-and that Isaac was an instrument in this.


Much is made of how Isaac seems so insignificant when compared to his father and his younger son. In these simple acts Isaac fulfilled his purpose. To be the son of Abraham. To be the father of Jacob.


Surely there are lessons to be gleaned from this.


We can't all be an Abraham, a Jacob, a Joseph, a Moses. Some of us are meant to be Isaacs. To be that link that maintains continuity in an ever changing universe. It is never an easy role, and not a glorious one. Sometimes this link in the chain bears difficult burdens. But its reward should be clear to each of us today. For were it not for Isaac, we would, none of us, be here today. Though he was not sacrificed to G"d by his father, Isaac gave the ultimate sacrifice-himself-the entirety of his long life-so that the line of Abraham could be carried on and G"d's promises fulfilled.


This Shabbat, dig up a few of your ancestor's wells. Start a few new ones of your own. Perhaps then you too will be ready for G"d to talk to you.
Shabbat Shalom,
Adrian©2017 (portions © 1998) by Adrian A. Durlester


Other Musings on this parasha:

Friday, November 10, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Chayyei Sarah 5778–Life Still Goes On

In 5762, I pondered on why the Torah includes the speech of Abraham's servant to Bethuel and Laban, explaining all the instructions that Abraham had given him, and relating what had transpired to bring the servant to this point, seeking Rebekkah as a wife for Isaac. After all, the Torah has already told us all of this-why the need to have it repeated, written out, in the Torah?

Something I didn't notice at that time, but which became strikingly apparent to me the following year, in 5763, is this: When Rebekkah and Isaac meet, the Torah states simply that the servant "told Isaac all the things that he [the servant] had done." (Bereshit 24:66.)

[Here I am years later in 5778, and something compelled me to revisit this particular musing this year. While I’m working on this, I also need to figure out why. Why this particular puzzle, and why this particular response to dealing with that puzzle.]

Fascinating, isn't it? We have this elaborate retelling of the servant's story to Laban and Bethuel. A completely redundant passage. It gives us pause, makes us wonder. Our Torah is quite effective at that, isn't it? Seeing this apparently redundant retelling in print, we are given pause. So we stop and look at the text, and ask questions, and wonder why it is the way it is. Exactly as intended. For every time the text gets us to question the text, the text is doing its job well!

So, after wrestling with the question of why the Torah contains the complete text of the servant's retelling, just this short time later the text presents us with another question.

All this elaborate explanation of how Abraham sent his servant, how Gd guided the servant to kin of Abraham there to find a perfect match for Isaac in Rebekkah. 61 verses in all (24:1-61), including the 15 verses of the servant's retelling the tale (vv34-49.)

Yet the entire story of Isaac and Rebekkah’s first meeting, and their becoming man and wife, is told in just 6 verses (24:62-67). Why isn't verse 66 replaced with another 15 verses where the Torah relates in intricate detail what the servant tells to Isaac about his mission? Why is the consummation of the marriage of the second in line of our patriarchs and matriarchs not given more time in print?

סב וְיִצְחָק בָּא מִבּוֹא בְּאֵר לַחַי רֹאִי וְהוּא יוֹשֵׁב בְּאֶרֶץ הַנֶּֽגֶב: סג וַיֵּצֵא יִצְחָק לָשׂוּחַ בַּשָּׂדֶה לִפְנוֹת עָרֶב וַיִּשָּׂא עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה גְמַלִּים בָּאִֽים: סד וַתִּשָּׂא רִבְקָה אֶת־עֵינֶיהָ וַתֵּרֶא אֶת־יִצְחָק וַתִּפֹּל מֵעַל הַגָּמָֽל: סה וַתֹּאמֶר אֶל־הָעֶבֶד מִֽי־הָאִישׁ הַלָּזֶה הַֽהֹלֵךְ בַּשָּׂדֶה לִקְרָאתֵנוּ וַיֹּאמֶר הָעֶבֶד הוּא אֲדֹנִי וַתִּקַּח הַצָּעִיף וַתִּתְכָּֽס: סו וַיְסַפֵּר הָעֶבֶד לְיִצְחָק אֵת כָּל־הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר עָשָֽׂה: סז וַיְבִאֶהָ יִצְחָק הָאֹהֱלָה שָׂרָה אִמּוֹ וַיִּקַּח אֶת־רִבְקָה וַתְּהִי־לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה וַיֶּֽאֱהָבֶהָ וַיִּנָּחֵם יִצְחָק אַֽחֲרֵי אִמּֽוֹ:

Verse 62-we learn where Isaac is living. Verse 63-Isaac encounters the returning caravan with Rebekkah. Verse 64/65-Rebekkah sees Isaac and asks who he is. The servant tells her it is Isaac, and she veils herself. Verse 66-We learn that the servant tells Isaac all that he had done. Verse 67-Isaac brings Rebekkah into Sarah's tent, consummates the marriage, and finds comfort. All that in six verses? Amazing.

So what is there to be learned from the Torah here giving the Reader's Digest condensed version of the story, yet having just spelled out the events leading up to it in great detail-twice before?

The text, matter-of-factly, proceeds from there to tell us how Abraham took another wife and she bore him 6 more sons.

וַיֹּסֶף אַבְרָהָם וַיִּקַּח אִשָּׁה וּשְׁמָהּ קְטוּרָֽה: ב וַתֵּלֶד לוֹ אֶת־זִמְרָן וְאֶת־יָקְשָׁן וְאֶת־מְדָן וְאֶת־מִדְיָן וְאֶת־יִשְׁבָּק וְאֶת־שֽׁוּחַ:

So what is the lesson here? Perhaps it is "life goes on." Both Isaac and his father Abraham do what they need to do to continue with life after Sarah dies. Isaac mourns the loss of his mother. (How Isaac feels about his father is likely another matter entirely. We've all discussed before the potential mental state of someone whose father tried to offer them up as a sacrifice!)

[I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention how all this might tie in with the thesis of my as yet unfinished biblical fiction book telling the story of how Isaac went to live with Hagar and Ishmael. If my thesis is correct, life for Isaac went on – but away from his parents. With Isaac’s return to the fold after the death of Sarah a new way of making life go on will unfold. I wonder, too, if Isaac would have remained near his father if Rebekkah had not come along while he was back home? The Torah never explicity mentions that Isaac came home to mourn his mother, It only mentions that he had recently arrived from Beer-Lahai-Roi, where he had been settled and living. It doesn’t make clear he has returned to the fold. Is there more to this story than meets the eye. Did Abraham orchestrate all this? Did he time the sending of his servant to find a wife for Isaac with his knowledge that Isaac would be coming to visiting in order to properly mourn his mother? Was this a chance encounter, or an elaborate machination? Was Abraham hoping to bring his son back home through this plan? Had the timing not worked, had Rebekkah not been there for Isaac to see (and vice versa) might Isaac have gone back to Beer-Lahai-Roi and continuing living with Hagar and Ishmael, as I suspect he had been since the akedah?]

Perhaps the Torah omits further detail to illustrate how life must go on. Abraham and Isaac (and Ishmael) must put the death of Sarah behind them. Isaac Must also put behind him the trauma of the akedah, and fulfill his obligation to carry on the lineage by getting married. Not much else needs to be said, so this is perhaps why it isn't said.

Yet, if this is indeed the case, it complicates the question of why the Torah so fully relates the exploits of the servant who retrieves Rebekkah. Why does this aspect of "life goes on" (after all, Isaac had to get married if he was to carry on the story) get so fully explicated when others are not?

It certainly serves to illustrate how and why Rebekkah is really the right person to be Isaac's wife. She and her family demonstrate hospitality much like their kinsman Abraham. However, the Torah could have made this point without all the other details. It could even make the point that G”d clearly had a hand in these events in a lot fewer words. I've taken a stab at a condensation. You might try your own hand at it. It isn't hard to do so and still convey the general story. But what of conveying the message? Could the message the Torah intends to impart truly be conveyed in another way?

It's all a puzzlement. And that's the whole idea. It makes us stop and think. This is not a simple book of history, of stories. The Torah is meant to engage the listener, the reader, to make them wonder why the Torah does one thing in one place and another someplace else. The rabbis worked so hard to try and smooth over the wrinkles in the Torah. And they achieved some amazing results through their midrashim and other interpretations. Yet somehow, I wonder if this misses the point. Need we try to be apologists for these seeming inconsistencies? Do we have to smooth over the rough spots? Are these inconsistencies and rough spots themselves the lessons, the meat of what the Torah is trying to teach us? Life is not perfect. Stories are not perfect. Things happen. Things seem odd. Yet, through it all, life goes on. Sometimes, we learn all the minute details, other times we do not. We simply have to adjust ourselves to this reality and move on.

So, as is often the case, my answer to the question of "what's wrong with the text?" is that nothing is wrong. All is how it is. Let's learn what we can from it and move on with our lives. As did Abraham and Isaac.

[Here I am, in 5778, and I read these words, and can’t believe I was willing to just let things slide like that. On the other hand, maybe the fact that I’m responding with a visceral discomfort to what I had written earlier is really maybe evidence of a current discomfort that I’m failing to recognize. At the same time, there’s a part of me that realizes that “moving on” might be exactly the message I need to hear in my life at the moment, and this why I chose this particular musing to recycle this year.]

Life must go on. Life does go on. Yet we are fortunate in that G”d has given us the vehicle to suspend the inexorable march of life and time-Shabbat. Use it wisely, so that dealing with the reality of life that must go on is made just the little bit easier and sweeter that Shabbat, out of all time and place, can make it.

Shabbat Shalom,

Adrian
©2017 (portions ©2002) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Chayyei Sarah 5777 - Contentment
Chayyei Sarah 5776 - Still Not Warm (Revisited and Revised from 5767's "Never Warm")
Khayyei Sarah 5775 - Revisiting L'kha Dodi Likrat Kala
Hayyei Sarah 5774 - The Books of Hagar and Abishag
Hayyei Sarah 5773 - Still Tilting at Windmills
Hayyei Sarah 5772 - Zikhnah
Hayyei Sarah 5771 - The Book That Isn't - Yet
Hayyei Sarah 5770 - Call Me Ishamel II
Hayyei Sarah 5769 - Looking for Clues
Hayyei Sarah 5768 - A High Price
Hayei Sarah  5767-Never Warm?
Chaye Sarah 5766-Semper Vigilans
Chaye Sarah 5763-Life Goes On
Chaye Sarah 5762-Priorities, Redundancies And Puzzles
Chayeh Sarah 5761-L'cha Dodi Likrat Kala
Hayyei Sarah 5760 - Call Me Ishmael
Chaye Sarah 5757-The Shabbat That Almost Wasn't

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Vayeira 5778–The Unintentional Test

The unintentional test was a better test than the intentional one.

The story of the akeidah, the binding of Yitzchak begins with the statement

וַיְהִי אַחַר הַדְבָרִים הָאֵלֶה וְהָאֱלֹהִים נִסָה אֶת־אַבְרָהָם וַיֹאמֶר אֵלָיו אַבְרָהָם וַיֹאמֶר הִנֵֽנִי

Some time after these things, G”d put Avraham to the test, saying to him “Abraham,” and he answered “Here I am.”

So we’re told from the get-go that this whole scenario is devised by G”d to test Avraham. What is not entirely clear from the rest of the story is whether Avraham passed or failed this particular test. It’s easy, perhaps,  to assume he must have gotten a passing grade, because G”d continued to show favor upon Avraham and keep the promises made to him. However, it could just as easily have been that Avraham did not perform as G”d expected, but G”d learned what G”d wanted to learn from the exercise, and decided to go ahead with Avraham despite any disappointment with the result of the test. Since G”d did not make the desired outcome clear, we can only speculate.

One could perhaps bolster the case that Avraham failed, and that G”d stepped in at the last minute to prevent a disaster, in that G”d had set an earlier precedent in choosing Noah, an imperfect and less than ideal choice, but perhaps the best option available at the time. You work with what you’ve got.

It’s a huge leap from there to Avraham assuming that G”d will destroy the people of S’dom and Gomorrah for their evil ways.

I also think it is foolish to divorce the question of passing/failing in the story of the akeidah from the story of Avraham’s argument with G”d over the planned destruction of of S’dom and Gomorrah. The text makes no argument that this was a test by G”d, but it can surely be viewed in that light.

G”d made the conscious (can we apply that verb to G”d?) choice to tell Avraham that he was planning to go check out the wickedness in S’dom and Gomorrah. It should be noted that at no time does G”d say that S’dom and Gomorroah will be destroyed for their sinful ways. Avraham seems to assume that if G”d find S’dom, and Gomorrah to be as sinful as reported, G”d will punish them with death. Ask yourself why Avraham would assume that. So far, the only real punishment that Avraham has seen meted out by G”d are the plagues and affliction G”d affected Pharaoh for messing around with Sarai with when Avraham tried to save his own skin by pretending she was his sister. When Pharaoh figured out the source of the affliction (and we still have no idea how Pharaoh figured it out, which I wrote about last week) and returned Sarai and sent Avram off with gifts and wealth, G”d relented and stop the punishment – no Egyptians were killed as far as we know. So where does Avraham get off assuming G”d is about to destroy the people of S’dom and Gomorrah?

Avraham, of course, has correctly interpreted G”d’s intentions (or has he?) Avraham challenges G”d asking if G”d will sweep away the innocent with the guilty. G”d doesn’t respond to Avraham saying  “Why do you assume I will destroy them all?” G”d seems to confirm Avraham’s assumption, and simply accepts Avraham’s first offer to save for fifty good people.

Is it possible that G”d had never actually intended to destroy S’dom and Gomorrah, but merely use some other form of punishment to send them a message? Did Avraham assuming G”d’s intentions actually precipitate G”d making that choice? Did Avraham force G”d’s hand in this instance? It’s an intriguing possibility.

Consider a potential inner dialogue of G”d. “OK, this schmuck, to whom I have promised things beyond imagination wants to argue with me, when he really has no idea what I’m planning.  I was just going to bring a plague to the towns, and weed out the wicked. OK, Mr. Wise Guy, be careful what you wish for. Just to make a point, I’ll take your assumption and run with it. Now, argue away, you fool!”

I guess we’ll just overlook the issue of omniscient G”d. Is it fair to bet G”d when G”d knows the results of the wager? Yet G”d lets Avraham try. Toying with him, perhaps?

Because S’dom and Gomorrah were destroyed, we readers assume there weren’t ten good people to be found there. What if G”d had decided to ignore the agreement with Avraham? How would we know? There is also a potential issue of sexism or misogyny here.

Some cite as proof that there were not 10 good people in the town from 19:4

טֶרֶם יִשְכָבוּ וְאַנְשֵי הָעִיר אַנְשֵי סְדֹם נָסַבּוּ עַל־הַבַיִת מִנַעַר וְעַד־זָקֵן כָל־הָעָם מִקָצֶֽה

They had not yet lain down, when the townspeople, the men of S’dom., young and old, – all the people to the last man – gathered about the house.  And they shouted to Lot “where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out, so that we may be intimate with them.

However, if you go back and look at Avraham’s negotiations with G”d, neither party specifies that only men count. They reference only the term “tzaddikim” (righteous people) which in that plural form could refer to men and women.

Avraham may have passed this unintentional test by choosing to argue with G”d to spare the city for the sake of a few righteous people. G”d, however, might have failed to hold up the bargain. S’dom and Gomorrah might have been destroyed even though there might have been at least ten tzaddikim present.

When G”d is the house, maybe it’s not wise to make the bet? I am reminded of these lyrics from the song “Gethsemane” fro JC Superstar: “G”d Thy will is hard, but You hold every card…”

When G”d puts us to the test, it’s hard to know the right answer. When we put G”d to the test, it may be equally hard for us to really know our own desired outcome. (And if G”d is truly omniscient, then free will is a chimera, and our efforts to discern are pointless.)  Despite that, it seems to me that the unannounced and unintentional tests may prove a better way of learning about the testee (and the tester.) I know I learn a lot more about G”d and humanity from the story of S’dom and Gomorrah than I do from the akeidah. How about you?

Shabbat Shalom,

Adrian
©2017 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Vayeira 5777 - He's a Family Guy (?) (Redux and Revised 5769)
Vayeira 5766 - The Price of Giving (Redux/Revised 5766)
Vayeira 5775 - He's a Family Guy (Revised Redux 5769)
Vayeira 5774–Plainly Spoken (Redux & Revised from 5762)
Vayera 5773 - Do Your Own Unpacking
Vayera 5772 - Well?
Vayera 5771 - Density
Vayera 5770 - Not Even Ten?
Vayeira 5769 - He's a Family Guy (?)
Vayera 5767-Revised 5759-Whoops! (or Non-Linear Thinking)
Vayera 5766-The Price of Giving
Vayera 5765-From the Journal of Lot Pt. II
Vayera 5762-Plainly Spoken
Vayera 5760/5761-More From the "Journal of Lot"
Vayera 5759-Whoops! (or "Non-Linear Thinking?")
Vayera 5757-Technical Difficulties