Forth Light Weekly Sedra

Sedra 5783:

Esau has received a bad reputation in Jewish tradition. If we look at the commentary of Rashi, for example, and compare his characterisation of Ishmael and Esau, we can see this character defamation in action. While Ishmael is sometimes reported on favourably, the narratives concerning Esau are always interpreted in a negative light, even when the plain meaning of the text would seem to indicate otherwise. This is, of course, because he was identified with the Roman Empire and the Christian church and their oppression and persecution of the Jewish people. It is clear however, from the text, that Esau does have negative characteristics that cause him to be precluded from inheriting the legacy of Abraham, despite the fact that Jacob is himself not without flaw. Two stories are told about Esau that seem to justify this exclusion. One is the sale of his birthright for a bowl of lentils. While one can still condemn Jacob’s action as reprehensible, it is clear that Esau would not have died had he been forced to prepare his own food. He simply placed his immediate gratification over the future benefit of the birthright, whatever it contained. The other incident is the marrying of local girls, despite the family aversion to doing so. Again, one imagines that Isaac had in his mind to find a wife for Esau from his family as Jacob was sent to do. Yet he is once more not prepared to wait and wanted the immediate benefit of marriage.

If we compare this to Jacob, we cannot imagine Esau, for example, working seven years for a wife, as Jacob did for Rachel. Or having the patience to husband his flocks in such a way as to eventually outwit Laban. This difference, when it comes to the legacy of Abraham, is crucial. The Rabbis interpret Esau’s later move to Mount Seir ‘because of Jacob his brother’ as trying to escape the destiny inherent in possession of the Land of Israel. This inheritance will only be achieved after centuries of oppression and Esau rejects the deal, preferring to give up on the Promised Land for immediate sovereignty in another place. Inheriting the legacy of Abraham means being prepared to wait for the promises given to him to materialise. They are not instant and require patience. Esau showed that he was not prepared to wait and thus could not be the ancestor of G-d’s people. If Jews had been impatient we would have given up long ago. We are an eternal people precisely because we are prepared to wait. Esau may not have been totally bad and Jacob flawless, as sometimes portrayed by later tradition. But Jacob knew how to be patient and defer gratification for the right result and Esau did not; thus only Jacob could receive the blessing and legacy of Abraham.

The central figure in this week’s Parshah is not Abraham nor Isaac nor Rebecca, but Abraham’s servant; generally identified as Eliezer. This prominence occasioned the Rabbinical comment that G-d saw as more important the talk of the Patriarchs’ servants than many important Torah laws. In other words we can learn just as important lessons from the behaviour of our ancestors households as we can from direct Divine imperatives. In this light it is interesting to note that Rabbinical comment does not always look with favour on Eliezer. He is seen as hinting to Abraham that he should look closer to home for a daughter in law; namely to Eliezer’s own daughter. In the Rabbinic literature, this prospect is dismissed by Abraham out of hand as totally preposterous. What, however, is in fact the principal problem with Eliezer, Abraham’s faithful servant, that disqualifies him from adoption into the family? I believe the deficiency can be discovered by closely examining Eliezer’s words in the Parshah. Throughout the narrative Eliezer refers to G-d as ‘the G-d of Abraham my master’. This he does not only when relating his tale to Rebecca’s family but also even when himself asking for Divine assistance.

 

It would appear that his whole spiritual life is tied up with his service to Abraham, and only through him, with service to G-d. He serves the G-d of Abraham but if Abraham served another divinity he may also serve that. This is not what is needed of a mother of the Jewish people. As we see next week, a true Matriarch has her own connection to G-d and follows its inspiration even if it means opposing her husband. This understanding of Eliezer’s spirituality provides an important lesson for us all. Our connection to G-d needs to come from inside ourselves rather than being something imposed from without. Our spirituality must be our own; not what we think society expects of us. One of the main objections to the Hassidic movement was that it replaced personal spirituality through learning and observance of Torah, with a group connection to a Rebbe. Even within the non-Hassidic world, many today look to books for unquestioning guidance or slavishly adopt new strictures because others have. This is not true Judaism. We are all students of Torah and partners with G-d in the Covenant. It is our responsibility to find our own spiritual path so, unlike Eliezer, G-d is truly ‘our’ G-d.

One of the least savoury stories in the Parshah deals with the activities of Lot and his daughters after the destruction of Sodom. Having been saved by escaping to the city of Zoar, they then still do not feel safe and flee to a cave in the mountains. His daughters then suppose that there is no one left for them to marry and so get their father drunk, sleep with him and each have a child. These children later become the nations of Moab and Ammon, respectively. How are we to approach this story? The Rabbis had an ambivalent attitude, seemingly in certain passages partly justifying the daughters’ actions. Possibly because, in the end, the Davidic line came from Ruth the Moabite and thus be traced back to this incident. From a modern psychological point of view we can identify a couple of factors that may explain their behaviour. Firstly, it is hard to understand why they thought that the world had been destroyed since they just came from a living city where they had found refuge. It is possible that what they meant was that as they were now refugees, having lost everything, no one would want to marry them. More likely, they were in such a mental state to not think rationally and in their anxiety, thought that the catastrophe had been more far reaching than it actually was. This also explains Lot’s behaviour in getting drunk on two consecutive nights, when he should maybe have been trying to figure out his families’ future, including husbands for his daughters. Here again, we can maybe see the effect of him having lost everything, including his wife.

In modern terminology, we could thus describe the actions of Lot and his daughters as being conditioned by what is called post traumatic stress. Surviving a catastrophe often leaves people feeling anxious and fearful and causes them to act in ways which are not entirely rational or even extreme. If this stressful condition is not treated properly and promptly it can lead to life long mental illness. It is maybe this understanding that caused the Rabbis, from the perspective of their time, to somewhat exonerate the extremely distasteful behaviour of Lot and his daughters. We may have just seen a similar effect of trauma in Israel. In May 2021 there were serious disturbances and conflict in several Israeli cities between Arabs and Jews, including attacks on synagogues and mosques and a few lynchings. While some of the perpetrators were brought to justice, there seems to have been no real national accounting of what happened and why. Commentators have pointed out that it was precisely in these places that there was a high vote for parties at the extreme, both Jewish and Arab. They have directly linked this vote to what happened last year, even using the word post-trauma to explain it. In other words, failure to properly deal with the fear and anxiety caused by inter-communal violence in these places led to this trauma being expressed at the ballot box. Like the story of Lot and his daughters, these events teach us that trauma untreated will in the end lead to an unhealthy situation and dangerous consequences.

The story of Abraham in the Torah does not begin with the beginning of our Parshah but at the end of last week’s Parshah. This last section describes Abram’s birth and his marriage to Sarai. It also tells of how Abram’s father, Terah, took him and his wife as well as his nephew Lot on a journey towards Canaan, which halted at Haran. The Parshah this week, then begins with G-d’s command to Abraham to leave his home and family and go to the land which G-d shall show him. The connection between these two incidents has been a source of puzzlement and dispute between the commentators. How does the original journey of Terah towards Canaan relate to the later journey of Abraham, executed at Divine command? The Ibn Ezra sees these two incidents as intimately related. The command in this week’s Parshah to leave and go to the Promised Land was given to Abraham before the journey which was related last week. Thus Terah’s journey towards Canaan was in response to the Divine command given to Abraham, and was continued by Abraham after the stop at Haran. Nachminidies and other commentators reject this scenario, seeing Terah’s journey as not related to the Divine command which was given to Abraham in Haran. Terah had earlier moved to Haran or originally intended to move to Canaan for his own reasons. These two understandings pivot around the motivations of Terah and their relation to the motivation of Abraham and the divine instructions given to him. But it is possible to actually see the two incidents as related without necessarily going as far as Ibn Ezra and seeing Terah acting in obedience to a Divine command.

 

This communication from G-d was indeed given to Abraham only in Haran, as a plain reading of the text would indicate, and following this command, Abraham moved to Canaan. Yet the beginning of this process was indeed Terah’s original move to Haran and his seeming intention to move to Canaan. The Torah clearly states that Terah moved with Abraham and Lot, in order to go to Canaan, the ultimate destination that G-d intended. Furthermore, in several places, G-d states that He took Abraham from Ur, not from Haran, in order to give him the Land of Canaan. The conclusion is thus that Terah’s original move, following his own desires and for his own reasons, was in fact part of G-d’s scheme of moving Abraham to the Promised Land. In a similar manner, at the end of Genesis, the brothers sale of Joseph led ultimately to the fulfilment of G-d’s promise to Abraham, made in this Parshah, that his descendants would be oppressed in a foreign land. Thus we can discern in this episode an important principle of the Torah and Jewish belief. G-d’s will can be fulfilled not only by those following direct Divine commands but also by those following their own desires with no reference to any religious motive. Thus Terah and Joseph’s brothers furthered G-d’s plan, even though they were far from consciously doing so. Quite the opposite. In a similar way we have seen in our time how secular Jews who rebelled against traditional Judaism were the agents for the return of Jews to Israel. G-d can use many methods to achieve his purposes and it is not for us to dismiss some of them because they are not ‘religious’ enough.

‘Noah was a righteous man in his generation’. This qualifier of Noah’s probity spurned two different interpretations among the Rabbis, both of which Rashi brings in his commentary on this verse. One, is that Noah was righteous in spite of his generation being particularly wicked and had he lived in another generation he would have been even better. The other sees this qualifier as limiting the Torah’s approval. Noah was regarded as righteous in relation to his sinful contemporaries but if he had lived in the time of Abraham, for example, he would not have been regarded as anything special. These interpretations may seem quite simple but in fact raise other questions. For example, considering the comparison to the generation of Abraham, what is actually being stated? That Noah was not as great as Abraham, something stated elsewhere in the Rabbinic commentary, or that in a not especially wicked generation Noah would be regarded as nothing special. In which case not being particularly wicked in an evil generation would have been enough to be saved when everyone else was destroyed. If we unpack these two approaches we could say that an individual’s moral probity is judged according to two differing standards. One is their basic propensity to do good or evil. This is part of their inner character and is not necessarily related to the environment in which they live.

 

The other is the effect on their actions of the society in which they live, which can either reinforce or counteract their potential moral behaviour. For example, someone may have a propensity to anger or violence. In a normal peaceful society they are able to keep these traits in check and live a basically moral life. However, if they live in a time of war or in a violent society, these negative traits will become amplified and they will be more prone to act on them. Thus Noah may have been a basically decent person in himself, who in the generation of Abraham would not have stood out but in his generation, staying decent was heroic. Or conversely, the energy he had to expend in counteracting the negative influence of his environment in a more moral society could have been used to improve himself and become even more righteous. What all this teaches us is that when judging our behaviour two factors need to taken into account. What traits are intrinsic to our character and how we manage them as well as the effect of our environment on our actions. A good rule of thumb in these matters is that when judging ourselves we should examine our behaviour without reference to extenuating environmental factors while when evaluating others we should always endeavour to put their actions into context. In the end, however, only G-d can truly evaluate which is more important.

This Parshah is one of those where there is a divergence of customs concerning the division of the Parshah into the seven aliyot, or call ups. The most striking difference is whether the Week of Creation is read as one aliyah or three and conversely, whether the story of the Garden of Eden is divided in two or read as one long section. Another interesting divergence is a dispute as to where to end the fifth section. The chapter ends with humans in the time of Enosh ‘then beginning to call on the Name of G-d’. While some commentators see this as a positive development, others interpret it to mean that people began to call other beings or objects by the Name of G-d. Those following this opinion do not wish to end the aliyah on this note and thus end it a few verses earlier.

If we look at both these divergences we can possibly see a different attitude towards the idea of perfection and nuance in our approach to the world. Those who read the Creation story as one complete story and then read the story of the Garden of Eden until the beginning of the story of the Tree of Knowledge, make a distinction between a perfect Creation whole and complete and the mess made of it by humans. Those who divide the Creation story but read the whole story of the Garden of Eden, both good and bad, as a continuous narrative, have a more subtle approach to the world. Even the perfect story of Creation in six days can bear a nuanced examination while both the positive and negative features of the Garden of Eden are part of one holistic conception.

This idea comes to the fore even more strongly in the second divergence in aliyot. The dispute may be not only about how to interpret the verse but how to understand what occurred. One approach sees any deviation from strict monotheism as unredeemable and thus insists on not ending this section on that note. The other opinion may even accept that the verse refers to some sort of idolatrous practice but is still prepared to see it as a positive. The fact that humanity was asking questions about it existence and coming up with spiritual answers, even if they were incomplete or mistaken answers, was in itself the beginning of something greater. Through worship of other forces whether natural or otherwise, humans were striving for the Divine and would eventually come to serve G-d. Thus this verse, rather than describing a catastrophe, actually informs us of a stage on the road to monotheism and thus is an appropriate place to pause.

Thus these divergences in the placing of the Aliyot serve to teach us of different ways of both looking at the world and approaching the study of the Torah.