Saturday, December 25, 2004

Parshat Vayechi

I say this teaching in honor of my teacher Reb Mimi, because I think (hope) she would like it. I'm sure she'll let me know.
This week’s portion, ויחי, begins with a deathbed scene. Someone informs Josef that his father is ill, and Josef takes his sons, Ephraim and Menashe, and goes to visit his father. Jacob stirs himself, and relates to Josef how God blessed him, and tells Josef that he will adopt Josef’s sons as his own, and then he will bless them.

There is a hint of déjà vu in this section: in each generation, the patriarch blesses the younger child over the older, but this time, at the closing of the history of the family of Israel and at the threshold of becoming the nation of Israel, the story is a little different. Josef sees that Jacob is blessing both children, but that he has put his right hand on the younger son – like the past generations, seemingly mixing up the blessing, and giving it to the “wrong” child. But when Josef tries to move his father’s hands, Jacob resists and explains that the younger son will be greater than the elder.

Now, this moment is a curious one for me. As I read, I began to wonder, “What is a blessing?” Based upon what we’ve seen in the Torah so far, a blessing seems to be:

The wish for good things to be bestowed

As an example, we have the blessings of Abraham and Isaac. In those cases, it seems that God wishes upon them increase, a blessing for great numbers of descendants, similarly the blessing of Rebecca’s family to her when she leaves to marry Isaac.

But there is the odd fact that Abraham doesn’t bless his child(ren): There are two comments from Rashi, which I think are rather telling: In parshat Lech-lecha (Gen 12:2), when God tells Abraham, “ואברכך ואגדלה שמך והיה ברכה: I will bless you and make your name great, and you will be a blessing,” Rashi says, “ You will be a blessing means that ‘the blessings are placed in your hand. Until now, they were in My hand. I blessed Adam and Noah, but from now on, you will bless whomever you wish (Beresheit Rabbah)” Yet, in the portion of Chayei sarah (Gen 25:11), it says that God blessed Isaac (not Abraham) and Rashi explains that Abraham was afraid to bless Isaac because he saw that Esau would be his child, and so Abraham said to God, “Let the master of blessings come and bless whomever it pleases him.” So God came and blessed Isaac (Sotah 14).

I wonder what it is that Abraham was afraid of? If blessing is merely wishing good things to someone, then why would Esau’s birth be problematic for Abraham? Or is it that Abraham. Like Josef and Isaac, did not want to bless the younger over the elder, that he somehow saw it as jarring? Perhaps he felt if the blessing couldn’t go to Ishmael, it would go to no one?

But all of this seems to fly in the face of what we think of as blessings. If what a blessing is, is a wish for God to grant good things (or God’s granting good things), then why do we bless God?

The blessings of Isaac to his children, are different from the pattern we’ve seen so far; his blessing is for one child to rule over another, leaving Esau angry and bewildered when Jacob gets the blessing intended for him, and begs his father, pitifully, for at least a little, lesser blessing. One has to feel some sympathy for Esau, asking, “Have you only one blessing, my father? Bless me, too, please father!” (Gen 27:34, 36, 38) and then getting only that he will serve his brother, Jacob, until he can get it together to break the yoke from off his neck. Not precisely what we would consider a blessing.

And this seems reflected here in Jacob’s blessings to his children, as well: that there’s a limited supply of blessing, and the blessing has more to do with who will rule over others, and who will have access to the good things, of which there don’t seem to be quite enough to go around.

So we return to the question: what is a blessing? If we turn to the Talmud for explanation, we see some interesting commentary on when we are supposed to say blessings. The talmud tells us that it is forbidden for a person to enjoy anything of this world without saying a blessing. It explains: to enjoy anything of this world without saying a blessing is like making personal use of things consecrated to heaven, since the Torah says, “The earth is the lord’s and the fullness thereof. Another rabbi continues (R. Hanina b. Papa), To enjoy this world without a blessing is like robbing the Holy One blessed be He, and the community of Israel, as it says in the Torah, “He who robs his father or his mother and says, ‘It is no transgression’ that person is the companion of a destroyer; and father is none other than the Holy One blessed be God… and mother is none other than the community of Israel…”

A story related in the Talmud gives us an example of a very direct kind of blessing to God: it relates that once R. Ishmael b. Elisha once entered into the Holy of Holies (he was the high priest at the time) and God asked him for a blessing. So what did R. Ishmael say? He replied to God: Let it be Your will that Your mercy will suppress Your anger and Your mercy will prevail over Your other attributes, so that You may deal with Your children according to the attribute of mercy and on their behalf stop short of the limit of complete justice. And God nodded to R. Ishmael.

But all of this seems entirely different from the kind of blessing that we’re speaking of in the Torah. Between the Torah and the talmud, we seem to have jumped between two kinds of blessing. In the Torah, we seem to have two options: God blesses the ancestors with increase, or the ancestors bless one of their children with dominating the resources, and their siblings, to boot. By the time of the talmud, blessings have become something somewhat different, something more related to a relationship between God and humans.

The word ברכה (brachah) might come from two different roots: the word ברך (berech), or the word ברכה (with a tsere: breichah). ברך – or knees, (ברכים - bircayim) seems to be more related to the kind of blessing that we see the patriarchs giving their sons. That is, their blessings re the –dubious- gift of having others bend their knees to the one sibling. Of course, this understanding of the word brachah, caused no end of trouble to our ancestors, as the brothers saw hat their fathers had to play favorites, and that there wasn’t enough to go around. Not enough resources, and not enough love. But the other word, ברכה, means an pool overflowing from its source. This seems to be the kind of brachah that God gives to our ancestors, and the kind of brachah that we make today.

In the book Nefesh HaChaim, Rav Chaim of Voloshin explains that brachah is a request to God to be manifest in the world to a greater degree. When we make a brachah, we are asking for a sip from that overflowing pool. Why are we required to make a blessing before we enjoy anything of this world? Because all the good things of this world were created by God for us; once we recognize that all things belong to God, then they are given to us to enjoy (Brachot 35a). So, in essence, when we mke a brachah, we are turning berech into breichah. Instead of berech being one sibling ruling over another, berech is our act of submission to God, recognizing that God is perfect and complete – and more importantly, that once we recognize that perfection, the pool overflows for us, that there is enough love to go around; blessing becomes overflowing. When we bless God, we are asking to see more of God in our lives. With God there is always enough love and there is no need to pick one child over the others. If we bring enough God into the world, there will be enough resources for everyone.

I want to suggest that this week’s portion is where we first begin to see the shift in the understanding of blessing from berech to breichah. Abraham, although blessing was given into his hand, was unable to bless his children, because his vision of blessing was so harsh: one child driven out, and one nearly killed. He couldn’t make the jump from submission and was afraid of what would come out of him. Isaac, in the end, also failed at blessing. He blessed Jacob, yes, but in error, and his blessing of him resulted in enmity between Jacob and Esau, because there wasn’t enough to go around. After Isaac blessed Jacob, he had to scrounge around for something to give the remaining child, and it was clearly leftovers. But Jacob, although he wasn’t able to make the full jump; although Jacob still played favorites – despite all the trouble throughout his life it had gotten him into (and you would think he’d know better by now), Jacob was able to bless more than one: He blessed Josef, and he blessed both (not one!) of Josef’s sons. And although he said that the younger would be greater than the elder, note he did not bless the elder to serve the younger. No, their blessing was different than the blessings so far: Jacob blessed Ephraim and Menashe with the same blessing: “May the angel who redeems me from all evil bless the boys, and may my name be declared upon them, and the names of my forefathers Abraham and Isaac, an may the proliferate abundantly like fish within the land (Gen. 48:16), and then he blessed them “By you shall Israel bless saying, ‘May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe’.”

Although not completely different, Jacob’s blessing is notable for two things: first, it is more like God’s blessing of the ancestors: a blessing of increase and fecundity. He doesn’t bless that Menashe will serve Ephraim – in fact, he simply tells Josef that the younger will be greater, but it isn’t part of the blessing that he gives them – more of a description of character. Second, the second part of the blessing he gives is also like the blessing that God gives to Abraham – God blesses Abraham that nations will bless themselves by Abraham’s name. Here, also, the blessing that Jacob gives to Ephraim and Menashe is that Israel will bless by their names – and gives the formula by which we still do, in fact, bless our sons.

And in this, we have begun to see the shift in our view of blessing. Ephraim and Menashe are the ultimate example of Israel in the world: they themselves were Jewish boys living in the nation of Egypt, like Israel, a nation that lives among other nations, living a Jewish life in order to bring God into the world. “By [them] shall Israel bless:” By following their example, we recognize God’s sovereignty and so become worthy to partake of God’s gifts. By living as Jews – by requesting God’s presence in everything that we do, we make it holy and help to channel that overflowing pool into our world, turning berech into breichah.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

My profile...


In the Torah this week there we read about the story of Joseph sold into Egypt and what happens to him there. After Joseph is sold into slavery, we immediately shift scenes to what seems to be an interruption of the narrative, to Joseph’s brother Judah leaving and going away, where he gets married and has three sons. When the oldest reaches age, Judah finds a wife for him named Tamar.
I think most of us are familiar with the story: God gets peeved at the first brother Er, and he dies, then Judah tells Onan to go do levirate marriage with Tamar so that Er would have an inheritor, but Onan refuses because then Er’s inheritor would get the largest share of Judah’s inheritance (as the son of the first born son) so he spills his seed on the ground. This peeves God, and Onan dies, too. Judah doesn’t realize that God is killing his sons for their wickedness, and thinks it’s somehow due to Tamar, so he sends Tamar back to her father’s house and says he’ll eventually send his third son to her. However when that son reaches the proper age, and Judah doesn’t do anything, Tamar realizes that she has to take matters in her own hands, so she veils herself and goes to a cross roads and acts as a prostitute taking signs from Judah for later payment. She conceives an inheritor for her late husband and goes away. Judah is mystified when he tries to pay off his debt and the prostitute is gone. About three months later, Judah discovers that Tamar is pregnant and he orders her to be killed, but she sends him the signs that he left her, he figures out her ruse to get her levirate offspring ad admits that she is righteous (Indeed he says “She is more righteous than I”). At the end of this section Tamar bears twins.
We then return to our regularly scheduled programming. Joseph is bought by an officer of the pharoah’s named Potiphar. And we all know what happens next: Potiphar’s wife makes a play for Joseph. He rebuffs her, and she cries rape. Very retrograde.
However, the juxtaposition is not accidental! As we know, the Torah does nothing accidentally, and this is no exception. Tamar and the wife of Potiphar are direct contrasts to one another. Potiphar’s wife is married, she lives in the lap of luxury, the powerful wife of an important man; she lacks for nothing. Tamar is the widow of the son of a man in a strange land. As a widow she ranks among the class of the extremely powerless in society. Not only that, but her father-in-law, who is supposed to arrange her security through the levirate marriage, sent her back to her father’s home. Nevertheless, Tamar acts with creativity to ensure her future. She acts, not precisely outside the law, but bends the rules to make them work for her. She is an actor, an agent – she takes her fate in her hand and does what she needs to do.
The great commentator Rashi notes that Where the Torah says, “When she was brought forth, she sent to her father in law saying: By the man whose these are am I with child, and she said, Recognize, please, whose are these, the signet and the cords ad the staff?” the reason that the wording is so tortured is that she did not want to shame Judah in public, and so instead of saying, “Judah is the father,” she said to herself, “’If he will confess by himself, let him confess, and if not, let them burn me and not put him to shame,’ and on the basis of this our rabbis said that a person should rather have themselves thrown in a fiery furnace than put another to shame in public.”
How different is that than the wife of Potiphar who tries to convince Joseph to betray his master who treated him well, to sin against God, and when he didn’t do as she wished, she manipulated the situation, telling different versions of a lie to the other people in the house and to her husband to accuse Joseph of rape. Just the opposite of Tamar, the wife of Potiphar doesn’t act assertively, but manipulatively, lying and putting other people in danger to get her way, and when that fails, to take revenge on the one who refused her. It is no accident that Tamar has a name – the Tamar is the date palm – the extremely productive fruit tree, one which is also a symbol of Israel versus Potiphar’s wife, who has no name, no inner self.
Instead of –like Tamar- not putting someone to shame on pain of death, she falsely accuses. Where Tamar uses sex as a tool for building, Potiphar’s wife uses it as a weapon to destroy.
But that’s simply the surface context. There is another as well. Tamar is one of three women who contribute to the ancestry of David, the house of the Moshiach. The first is an unnamed girl – Lot’s daughter, who became the mother of the nation of Moav, by getting her father drunk and having sex with him when she thinks there are no other people left in the world. Okay, not too savory, but aside from making what seems to be a bit of a snide joke about the ancestry of the Moabites, the Torah doesn’t appear to disapprove of the behavior. In fact, if anything it seems to mildly praise it as a valiant effort, if mistaken. But the more interesting parallel to Tamar is of course, Ruth.
Like Tamar, Ruth is a widow. Like Tamar, she is one of the powerless of society – even more so than Tamar since she voluntarily left her home where her family could protect her, to go with her mother-in-law to a land where she knew no one, and where her mother-in-law, too, was powerless. But like Tamar, she’s assertive: she and Naomi hatch a plan to redeem her late husband’s land by marrying Ruth off to the nearest male relative – the levirate marriage that Tamar was working for as well. And what is this plan – well, Ruth discovers that she is gleaning the fields of Boaz, who just turns out to be the second nearest of these possible marriage partners. He treats her kindly, and so she goes at night and uncovers his feet – a euphemism for some unspecifiedly sexual act. That is, like Tamar, she plays the whore – a risky venture. But one which pays off for her. Boaz, much older, is grateful for Ruth’s attention, and he arranges to meet with the only other possible levirate partner, who realizes that he can’t afford to marry Ruth and turn over the land to her former husband’s inheritor, conceived with Ruth by him, and so gives up the land – and Ruth- to Boaz. Ruth marries Boaz, and the child they have -Oved – is referred to by the neighborhood women as Naomi’s child, and they say of Ruth that she is better to Naomi than seven sons – and Oved becomes the grandfather of King David.
There is a covert connection between this portion and the underlying movements and necessities of Israel’s future redemption. Widows are widely recognized in the Torah as a class of extremely powerless people, and yet they are also, among women, the free-est. Generally in Israelite society, the patriarch had ultimate power in the home and wives were relatively powerless people. Only those women who outlived or were divorced from their husbands had a measure of freedom to at that other women in society lacked. The subtext of Tamar and Ruth is a strange one: it is only when we are most powerless that we are able to act assertively and with strength. The son of Ruth is Oved - "servant." That is, God's servant, ancestor of David. It is from two widows – generally thought of as in the Torah’s language, dried out and without fruit- that comes the family which will redeem Israel. If Israel is Tamar and Ruth, then our message is that if we want redemption, we can’t necessarily look either to the way things have always been done, nor to those who traditionally are the powerful and the fruitful; no, it is the unusual, the creative -and the so-called "powerless" who have within them the seeds of the future.