Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Parshat Vayera 5768: Graduation and Seeing Things

This week we continue the story of Abraham. Abraham is sitting in the heat of the day in his tent. While being visited by God, he sees some strangers, and runs out to them to show hospitality. After a big meal, they tell him that he and Sarah will have a son within a year, which makes Sarah laugh. When these strangers start back on their way towards Sodom, they tell Abraham that they are to destroy Sodom and the other cities of the plain. Abraham has a debate with God if this is a good idea and even bargains down what it will take to save the city. We then cut to Sodom and the experiences of two angels in the Big City, who decide the only one worth saving is Abraham's nephew Lot and his family. They escape, but not without casualties and misunderstandings. Abraham then moves into the land of the Philistines, and once again uses the "sister" excuse describing his relationship with Sara. After this adventure, Sara conceives and has a son, Isaac, which causes more sibling and maternal rivalry with Hagar and Ishmael. The last major story in this section is, of course, God telling Abraham to go to a mountain and to sacrifice Isaac.

The British potter Bernard Leach once watched the Japanese pottery master Shoji Hamada take a lump of clay, pinch it into a smooth pot and fire it in a raku Kiln within half an hour. When Leach remarked on this feat, Hamada objected: “Thirty minutes? No, it took forty years to make that pot!” Similarly it’s taken thirteen years to write this D’var.

The portion starts on a word which becomes a theme through the piece: Vayera. The root of this word means to see. Seeing things becomes critical in understanding the stories here. In this first occurrence, God appears, he causes himself to be seen. In the second, a verse later we read:

2. And he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him; and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself to the ground,[Gen 18:2]

Later, Hagar has a moment when she sees something.

19. And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; and she went, and filled the bottle with water, and gave the lad to drink.[Gen 21:19]

And at the Akedah, Abraham sees something:

13. And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in place of his son.[22:13]

Key to these three places when someone sees is what they see with – their eyes. This should be obvious. Yet, something is done with the eyes in these three cases, lifting up and opening. Is there is difference?

Let’s start with Hagar opening her eyes. We know from the text she is not a happy lady.

16. And she went, and sat down opposite him a good way off, as it were a bowshot; for she said, Let me not see the death of the child. And she sat opposite him, and lifted up her voice, and wept. 17. And God heard the voice of the lad; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, What ails you, Hagar? fear not; for God has heard the voice of the lad where he is. 18. Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him in your hand; for I will make him a great nation. 19. And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; and she went, and filled the bottle with water, and gave the lad to drink.[Gen 21:16-19]

It is not Hagar’s crying but heard the voice of the lad that God reacts to. Similarly in Psalm 28 we read of King David: Hear the voice of my supplications, when I cry to you… Blessed be the Lord, because he has heard the voice of my supplications. What is the difference between Hagar and Ishmael? Hagar is self absorbed, while Ishmael prays. In order for Hagar to see the solution which is right in front of her God has to open her eyes. Sometimes we so self limit ourselves, we are so much on our own issue, we cannot see the things in front of us.

It’s a rare event within Torah to have someone actually have their eyes open. Generally its related to someone we might say is an outsider. Besides Hagar, Baalam for example, also has such an experience within Torah. In these cases to open the eyes is when God directly intercedes. My return to Judaism was such an event, as one on the outside. For a decade, I was involved in Taoism and Zen, not Judaism, even refusing to go to High Holiday services. While on a study abroad program to Rome in early July of 1995 I had a dream. In the dream, A Hasidic rabbi and I were alone in a room freshly plastered, yet without doors. The Rabbi told me to fresco on the walls some passages in Hebrew, though he did not tell me what. Though I did not know how to read Hebrew at the time, I began to write perfectly, and even knew what I was writing: the Shema. As I got through the fresco of the third wall, the room begun to spin, and the letters spun upwards towards Heaven like a tornado.

All I knew at that time was I needed to look into my heritage more. When I returned to the states, I did begin to look into it. That dream opened my eyes, and brought me back to Judaism. Opening of the eyes is for those who do not believe, but need to.

Unlike Hagar, Abraham has his eyes lifted. This expression is a lot more common. People lift their eyes and all of a sudden see things they didn’t before. In this portion, there are two expressions. In this first, we read he lifted up his eyes(18:2). In the last, Abraham lifted up (et)his eyes(22:13). Grammatically, the first is weaker than the second. The first is all pronouns. We could easily assume God lifted up Abraham’s eyes. The second case is a lot stronger, with Abraham as the subject, and the direct object marker et. Why is one weaker and the other stronger?

The dream above was not my only experience in Rome. A year later, I was back and with nothing to do on the Saturday between classes, I went with some people to the former seaport of Rome, Ostia Antica. Unlike Rome itself, where construction for the last two millennia has destroyed much of the ancient city, the ancient streets of 1900 years ago still exist in the ruins of Ostia including many rather intact remains of restaurants and offices and apartment buildings which went out of business in the 2nd century CE. Walking down these streets, I looked up to see an odd looking capitol in the ruins of a building. It had a menorah, etrog and lulav. I was standing in a synagogue. When I think of it now I still wonder if I stood where many a Rabbis stood after disembarking a ship from Israel en route to an audience with the Emperor, or saying tefilat haderech here on their way home. Three days later, I finally had walked into the central synagogue of Rome and visited the small Holocaust museum. I met a few people who were holocaust survivors, some visiting from elsewhere some now living in Rome. I heard their stories. I heard most of these grand synagogues in Italy cannot even get minyans. I wondered, is this our fate, museums in empty synagogues and ruins?

1. And the Lord appeared to him in the plains of Mamre; and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day; 2. And he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him; and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself to the ground,[Genesis 18:1-2]

At the beginning of Vayera, Abraham is recovering from his circumcision. God appears to him, and only after that does he see the three strangers. The weakness in the grammar may indicate Abraham was not acting alone here. God gave a little help in this case, one that the Midrash notes. Abraham was sulking that now that he was circumcised he would have no guests. God replies that before he was circumcised he was only fit to receive the uncircumcised, now he is fit to receive angels, and then he lifted up his eyes to see the three wayfarers. [Gen R. XLVIII:9]

My experience at Ostia and Abraham’s seeing the approaching men are experiences still missing complete commitment. Unlike Hagar, where things are impossible, there is faith, yet still some doubt. By that time I was privately exploring Judaism and Buber’s stories of the Hasidic masters. To actively join a community still seemed difficult for me. Yet the answer seemed much clearer after Italy: I needed to be involved. By Purim, I was attending a synagogue. A year after Ostia I signed up for a beginning Biblical Hebrew class at Spertus College. Abraham and I were alike: we were still working the path out. We needed a little help, and God was there to give that little extra push.

My Hebrew classes led me to take the plunge and enter the Spertus College’s Masters in Jewish Studies Program. It’s been a difficult program, not just in terms of the work load but in my personal, spiritual and professional life. The worst was during the doctoral level class on Jewish continuity. The numbers from the AJIS and NJPS are not very encouraging. Demographic trends put us nearer to museums and ruins, than a thriving culture. The scholarly literature claims the ones to blame the most are our own self destructive tendencies. I wrote the papers and got the A’s always wondering as I wrote if there really was any hope out there. One of these papers I wrote was a model for a new vision of a synagogue to combat the problems and reverse the trends. As I finished the final edits, I attended Shavuot services at a different synagogue, one I had been to only once before for a friend’s farewell party. The first time it did not make an impression. As I spent the evening through the night and then sunrise on a nearby beach at this Tikkun L’eil I lifted my eyes: With a few exceptions, this place was that model.

There are a lot of interpretations of the Akedah. Mine is that Abraham knew the outcome, and that Isaac would not be sacrificed, but he had to do the motions until he saw another solution – he was after the good grade here. That is why he says My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering; in Genesis 21:8. Yet he got to the mountain and didn’t see anything. He’s too busy making sure it all follows the correct procedure, to do what his teacher wanted, and at the same time wondering if there any way he doesn’t have to sacrifice his son. Things are not looking too good as he reaches for the knife…

10. And Abraham stretched out his hand, and took the knife to slay his son 11. And the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham; and he said, Here am I. 12. And he said, Lay not your hand upon the lad, nor do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, seeing that you did not withheld your son, your only son from me. 13. And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in place of his son.[Genesis 22:10-13]

Abraham looked everywhere but behind himself. Only when the angel speaks for the first time, when all the procedures are done, and there is a bit of relief from this tension does he think to look behind himself and there waiting for him is the solution. We learn from the Perkei Avot that the Ram was put there at the twilight of the sixth day of creation.[5:6] The world which God gave us to steward has everything in it already, all we need to know is how and where to look.

When someone opens our eyes, like Hagar we are passive. When one lifts up the eyes it is a personal act, not completely an act of God. Sometimes we have help, sometime we do not. We need to do things to get to that point of opening the eyes, of revelation, of seeing miracle. Miracles are around all the time. The siddur I used at the first synagogue I returned to said it best to be is a miracle. Everything is miracles. If we know what to look for, we will see them appear.

Only after Abraham sacrifices the ram instead of Isaac, we read that the covenant, in the name of God will be fulfilled. It is only then that the trials of Abraham are over. Abraham and Sarah’s want of a child is only fulfilled after Abraham runs out to the strangers. Ishmael is spared dehydration only when Hagar fills a bottle and brings him a drink. It was taking the opportunity that the eyes found that was the key. In each of the three cases we can be given miracles, but what we do with them determines our outcome for the better. When they took action, then they graduated to the next level.

When we understand that, then we graduate. I graduated with a Jewish identity in July of 2005, I graduated into practicing Judaism in July of 2006. I learned a lot in the last few years. As I now graduate with my Master’s Degree, and look forward to July 2008 when I receive my Diploma officially, I now turn my eyes towards action. My learning can help me lift my eye to the opportunities and possibilities out there, but it is up to me to do something with it.

Shlomo Drash’s slogan from Brachot 62a was originally intended as a bit of ironic humor. It is a matter of Torah and I am required to Learn was the first passage of Talmud I ever learned, a joke talking about students barging into bathrooms to watch a teacher’s toilet habits. Yet as I learned in my last class at Spertus, it means something more*. It means that our actions are far more important than our words. As an educator, in everything I do from now on, my actions are critically important to the lesson. And so, with all seriousness I now can say:

It is a matter of Torah and I am required to Learn

*for the full unpacking of the text see the Unpacking Gemara page on

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Parshat Lech Lecha 5768: Out of the Comfort Zone

This week we begin the story of Abraham. While Abram's early life begins at the end of Parshat Noah, it is here that he is told to Lech Lecha, to leave everything behind and go to a new place with his wife Sarai and his nephew Lot in tow. When he gets there he finds a famine, and so he ends up in Egypt, tells his wife Sarai to tell everyone that he is her sister, and ends up very rich when the fallout from that happens. From there, he returns to Canaan, gets into water rights battles with his nephew. Lot moves towards Sodom and Gomorrah. Lot is captured and taken hostage in a battle between local principalities, and in order to rescue him, Abram allies himself with Sodom and Gomorrah, and in a guerilla raid, beats the crap out of Lot's captors, saves Lot and the women of Sodom. Abram makes a strange sacrifice of animals and is told of the future of his progeny. Sarai, who has not borne children, then tells Abram to have a child by Hagar her Egyptian maidservant. This child Ishmael causes some contention between Hagar and Sarai. Finally God tells Abram that he will have a physical sign of their covenant through circumcision, and he will have a son from his wife Sarai. Abram's name is changed to Abraham, and Sarai's to Sarah. We end with Abraham, at age 99 and Ishmael at 13 and the rest of the males of his household getting circumcised.

Yet it is the first few words that many have often tried to understand.

1. And the Lord had said to Abram, Get out from your country, and from your family, and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you; 2. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing; 3. And I will bless those who bless you, and curse him who curses you; and in you shall all families of the earth be blessed. [Genesis 12:1-3]

Yet it is Abram’s response to this which I think is the key.

4. So Abram departed, as the Lord had spoken to him; and Lot went with him; and Abram was seventy five years old when he departed from Haran. 5. And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the souls that they had gotten in Haran; and they went forth to go to the land of Canaan; and to the land of Canaan they came.

Abram, without objection, got up and left. He had no arguments, no quibbling. Unlike Moses, he didn’t try to squirm out of it. He did exactly as God told him to. Moses, when told to get the people out of Egypt responded with fear and excuses. He didn’t go until God was about ready to lose his temper, but instead told Moses that his big brother Aaron would be there to hold his hand at the scary parts.

But not Abram. Just like the Akedah next week, when God says “Lech Lecha” Abram gets up and does it, even though what is going on is very scary or upsetting. As many modern commentators like to note, this is not just about obedience, but about comfort zones. God is asking Abram to completely change his life – And that is not a bad thing.

All too often we do things out of habit. We go to work the exactly same way every day. We listen to the same radio station or go to the same restaurants. In one sense this has the positive effect of giving our lives structure. It also give us a sense of security that what we will get will be exactly what we expect. I always for example go to Disney World as a solo vacation. I’ve had too many bad experiences as a single person at other destinations. Yet Disney has consistently treated me exceedingly well. So I keep going because I know I’ll have a good time there.

Yet as I wrote two years ago for Lech Lecha, Walt Disney World in Orlando Florida also presents a big challenge for me. You see, I’m afraid of thrill rides. I’m not the first in my family, its something that’s been true in my family for generations, so I never learned to ride a rollercoaster when I was young, so I’m afraid of them. Yet, every time I’ve gone to Disney in the last few years, I work on that problem and try another ride I’ve never done before. Almost every time I get on shaking in fear and by the end of the ride I’m laughing. Almost. A few, like Expedition Everest were too intense, though I keep wondering about taking a second ride. Maybe knowing what to expect in that first dark tunnel, it wouldn’t be so bad. Getting on to that ride was one of the scariest and most uncomfortable things I ever done. But every year, step by step I work out my fear.

Fear is an intense emotion, and so is rather tangible to see such working out of the problem. There are more subtle things which are so much habit or part of our self image that it’s not so easy to perceive such things. One personal example is my trying to ask people for things, be it money for the services I perform or even a woman’s phone number. It’s just not comfortable to do such things. If I magnify that a million times to every comfort I have and every assumption I have, I might begin to think of the weight on Abram’s shoulders when God says “Lech Lecha.” Yet, Abram does it.

That said, there a curious phrase in the Genesis 12:5 that intrigued the rabbis, and sheds some light on what Abram did and why he could do it. We read

5. And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the souls that they had gotten in Haran; and they went forth to go to the land of Canaan; and to the land of Canaan they came.

What does the Torah mean by Souls they had gotten in Haran? What kind of souls can one make? Certainly not children as events in the rest of this portion attest to. In Biblical Hebrew, nefesh, Soul, can also mean people. Rabbinic commentators all believe this refers to Abram and Sarai proselytizing and converting some of the residents of Haran to their new way of thinking. Indeed there is one tradition [Avodah Zara 9a] that Abram was 52 years old when he started to proselytize. He left for Canaan when he was 75 [Gen 12:4] so he was preaching his ideas of God, and people were listening for 23 years before he left Haran. The well known Midrash of Genesis Rabbah 38:13 where Abram smashed the idols may not have been a plucky kid, but a middle age man still working in his father’s business with some inspired event marketing. Most people don’t read is the beginning of the story, where he intimidates a customer:

R. Hiyya said: Terah was a manufacturer of idols. He once went away somewhere and left Abraham to sell them in his place. A man came and wished to buy one. ' How old are you? ' Abraham asked him. ' Fifty years,’ was the reply. ' Woe to such a man!’ he exclaimed, ‘you are fifty years old and would worship a day-old object! '. [Genesis Rabbah 38:13]

Who could get away with such a statement? Could a fifty two year old man or a teen? As the rabbis mention in regards to another age issue, could we leave a stain of disrespect on Abraham for being rude to his elders, even if Idolaters? How does that age change the meaning? Abraham was an adult when he smashed the Idols – he knew exactly what he was doing. What this all points to is something about Lech Lecha, about leaving the comfort zone.

The first thrill ride I tried at Disney world was Test Track, the second, Kali River Rapids. Both were lightweights in the world of thrill rides. I worked my way up to the really intense stuff. I prepared my self for each ride by knowing the way I enjoyed the rides I did first, and knowing what to expect. There are times when we have radical change in our lives, yet for many of them we can be prepared. Abraham was prepared for that moment of leaving for Canaan for decades. Although he did leave much behind, it was not a problem to do because the parts that were important to him were coming along; they were as ready for the journey as he was. What he was leaving behind was the parts he was already alienated from.

Jewish thought has a deep emphasis on study and questioning, in part to be ready for such things. Even for Orthodoxy, much of the corpus of the Talmud is not applicable to today’s world. No one directly uses the procedures for sacrifice since we don’t have a Temple, nor does anyone execute false prophets, since we don’t believe there are any prophets anymore. But the study of such things brings us to new questions, and new ways of looking at our world. We, like Abraham proselytizing, become ready for change and moving out of our comfort zones, voluntary or not.

We can move out of our comfort zones, and it can even be fun to do so, to grow into even better human beings that we are now. We just need a little home work first.

So enjoy the homework.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Parshat Noah 5768: What Else was on the Ark?

This week we come to the story of Noah and the flood. God becomes dissatisfied with all flesh on the earth, and thus plans to destroy them. But he does save one family, that of Noah, who was the most righteous of his generation. Noah is commanded to build an ark that will house male and female of every species and a few extra of the clean species. The floods come; everything is wiped out except what is on the Ark. God promises not to do that again, sealing the covenant with a rainbow. Noah, on the other hand, gets drunk and stupid. After the unpleasantness of this incident, a few more generations are born. With only a rainbow as a contract, these later generations don't completely trust God not to wipe them out too. They decide to make a tower at Babel to prevent this sort of thing from happening again. God intervenes, and soon no one can communicate with one another. These peoples are scattered across the world, becoming the various nations of the world. Following the genealogy of Noah's son Shem, we end introduced to some interesting characters: Abram, his wife Sarai, and his nephew Lot.

Prior to the flood God tells us the manifest of animals on the ark:

1. And the Lord said to Noah, Come you and all your house into the ark; for you have I seen righteous before me in this generation. 2. Of every clean beast you shall take to you seven pairs, the male and his female; and of beasts that are not clean one pair, the male and his female. 3. Of birds also of the air by seven pairs, the male and the female; to keep seed alive upon the face of all the earth. 4. For in another seven days I will cause it to rain upon the earth forty days and forty nights; and every living substance that I have made will I destroy from off the face of the earth. 5. And Noah did according to all that the Lord commanded him 6. And Noah was six hundred years old when the flood of waters was upon the earth. 7. And Noah went in, and his sons, and his wife, and his sons’ wives with him, into the ark, because of the waters of the flood. 8. Of clean beasts, and of beasts that are not clean, and of birds, and of every thing that creeps upon the earth, 9. There went in two and two to Noah into the ark, the male and the female, as God had commanded Noah.

Was there anything else on the ark besides animals and Noah’s family? If we go back in the genealogies of last week’s portion, its clear in the flood only the descendants of Seth, Adam and Eve’s third son, survive the flood. Apparently Abel is murdered before he had children. Reading the genealogy of Cain we get some interesting stuff:

17. And Cain knew his wife; and she conceived, and bore Enoch; and he built a city, and called the name of the city, after the name of his son, Enoch. 18. And to Enoch was born Irad; and Irad fathered Mehujael; and Mehujael fathered Methusael; and Methusael fathered Lamech. 19. And Lamech took for himself two wives; the name of one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah. 20. And Adah bore Jabal; he was the father of those who live in tents, and of those who have cattle. 21. And his brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all who handle the harp and pipe. 22. And Zillah, she also bore Tubal-Cain, forger of every sharp instrument in bronze and iron...[Genesis 4:17-22]

All metals technology, musical instruments, and animal agriculture are the products of the sons of Cain, not Seth. Yet all of these people died in the flood, yet those ideas continued. Did the children of Cain perish off the face of the earth? According to one Midrash, the answer is no. If you noted above, I left off the end of Genesis 4:22. The whole verse reads:

22. And Zillah, she also bore Tubal-Cain, forger of every sharp instrument in bronze and iron… and the sister of Tubal-Cain was Naamah.

The birth of girls is not often mentioned in genealogies, which usually indicates they are significant in some way. The Targum Pseudo Jonathan tacks on an extra bit about Naamah:

…and the sister of Tubal-Cain was Naamah, she was the mother of lamentations and songs.

While Jubal was the first musician, Naamah was the first singer. But even with the addition that she was the first to sing, the questions remains: Why does a woman get mentioned in a genealogy which are exclusively men? One rabbi in the Midrash had an answer:

AND THE SISTER OF TUBAL -CAIN WAS NAAMAH. R. Abba b. Kahana said: Naamah was Noah's wife; and why was she called Naamah? Because her deeds were pleasing (ne'imim). [Gen R 23:3]

R. Abba b. Kahana ties our two passages together. While the sons of Cain die, the daughters did not. They survived in Naamah.

One of those things I wanted to do and never had the time to do while in grad school was to leyen Torah. Though I tried and failed due to too little time on several occasions, I’m learning to sing the words of the Torah. It’s an interesting thing singing Torah. You remember the words better when you put a tune to it. Let me give you an example. What is the last word of this phrase: Hine ma tov? If you are like most people you sang the song to get to yachad.

I picked that song in particular because of another interesting thing about song and memory, once accessed it doesn’t go away easily – it’s a sticky memory. For a repetitious round like Hineh Ma Tov once there, you cannot get it out of your head. It’s viral, and like a yawn, if you sing it around others who know the tune then you’ll spread it. The ark did not just contain animals, but contained human memory as well. Much of it stored in a form for easy transport and recall: it was stored in song. Song does not just transmit data, but emotion as well. I’m listening to iTunes right now, and as the player shuffles between Elvis, West African drumming and chant, Home on the Range in Yiddish, Hawaiian ukulele, Cuban sambas, and even the practice passages for my Upcoming Torah reading, you don’t need to know the meaning of the words to get the idea of the songs. The tower of Babel is meaningless when it comes to song. Had they sung to each other, the tower would have been completed.

Genesis 7:11 says it was in the 2nd month on the 17th day the flood began. Genesis 8:14-16 tells us Noah, Naamah and the kids left the ark in the 2nd month of the next year on the 27th of the month. Was there 375 days of silence on the ark? I think there was 375 days of music, some expressing pain and fear, some expressing thanksgiving, some ballads, some ningunim, even an instrumental or two. While they fed animals that sang while cleaning up after animals they sang. When they were just kicking back, then too they sang. Song was there as a release from the terrible things around them, of a world destroyed, and the joy of walking into a beautiful new world safe and sound.

One of the problems of the electronic revolution is how few experience that idea personally. We live with background music, often not paying attention. Before radio and records, iPods and music videos, people played music. Very few were professional, but singing was what you did when working. Picking up an instrument and jamming was what you did when the work was done and the chores for the day were completed. Families and neighborhoods played and sang. Labor unions and congregations sang. They were not worried about winning on American Idol or scoring a big record contract, but being part of a community. They told each other the stories of their world to each other in song, teaching the next generation its values and dreams in both cautionary ballads and joyous songs.

Songs are precious and many are sacred. In the Temple, in a world without amplifiers, the book of Psalms we not muttered, they were sung. It was not just one singer singing, but multitudes with the volume to reach the heavens. The Song of the Sea was sung by all the people, it was not a solo performance by Moses.

Parshat Noah is often about the animals in many synagogues. It’s a time some congregations will talk about protecting animals from extinction due to our carelessness. Although when the Torah reader will read the song of the sea sometime this winter, we call it the Sabbath of Song, every Shabbat should be. All too often I see congregations that let the cantor perform and passively listen. Naamah her husband Noah and their kids sang their way to Ararat, and kept song and memory alive as much as keeping all those species below decks alive.

Woody Guthrie once defined folk music as the music folks sing. This Shabbat, lets not let the folk song called prayer become an endangered species. SING!

Friday, October 05, 2007

Breshit 5768: Who is Lillith?

This week we begin the story over again. As most know, the story begins with chaos and void, God says “let there be light” and there is light, then God takes seven days to create the rest of the world, ending with male and female created in God’s image. After all this work, God takes a well deserved and blessed Shabbos schluff. This is followed by the story of the first man, another version of why the animals were created to keep the man from being lonely, and finally with the creation of the woman. We then find out that one of these creatures is a little more wilily than the rest, and it isn’t the coyote. The snake convinces this woman, now named Eve, to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and in the resulting mess everyone is booted out of Eden. The snake ends up never wearing boots again, sometimes getting made into boots, and sometimes making its home in someone’s pair of boots. This gets followed by the Story of the first kids in this world, with Cain killing Abel. Eve has another son, Seth, and from him everyone is descended, though they are not very nice people.

I got good news and bad news, which might be good news for some. The good news is I finished my last final of my masters. The bad news I have no energy to write, so I’m digging up an oldie but a goodie. So in honor of the creation story, I ‘m going to give you the history of one particular character involved in Genesis 1 and 2 through folklore mostly: Lilith.

Lilith does not actually show up in Genesis, but her own genesis is here. We read in Genesis 1:27.

“So God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female He created them.”

But we also read in Genesis 2:21-22

“And the Lord God made Adam fall into a deep sleep, and he slept; and He took one from his ribs, and closed up the flesh. Then he made the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, into a woman, and brought her to the man”.

The Talmudic rabbis were in a conundrum. How does one reconcile the differences between these two, making them separate in Genesis 1, then from one another from Genesis 2?

Genesis 1:23 continues

And Adam said, This time is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.

Most people would take the “this time” to mean different than the animals that Adam named in the previous verses. But the Midrash Genesis Rabbah XVIII:4 takes it one step further. It introduces the idea of two women. The first was menstruating, and so upset Adam she had to be taken away. The second was Eve who was “this time”. Yet, from that other time, a legend arouse.

The only real biblical mention of Lilith is as a tawny owl, in Isaiah 34:14 one of the only things living, among other night birds, after an apocalypse destroying the enemies of Israel. She is otherwise not mentioned, though there have been archaeological finds of clay images of a woman with owl wings. In the Talmud, Nidah 24b in its rather clinical discussion of aborted fetuses talks about a fetus with wings as looking like a Lilith.

There were other legends of a whole class of demons named Liliths. The tractate Shabbat 151b warns not to sleep in a house alone or be seized by a Lilith. A Lilith would seduce men into nocturnal emissions and impregnate herself with these.

Her legend comes together with a rather strange book, The Alphabet of Ben Sira. The book is a series of folk tales heavily influenced by Midrash and Talmud. Written probably only two to three hundred years after the Talmud, around the 8th or 9th century CE. It was written in Islamic Persia by an unknown author. Given its rather absurd critique of Talmud, it may have been a parody written by bored Rabbis. I have an pet theory the Lillith part of the story of Ben Sira was actually a misogynist’s polemic against the Talmudic rulings of onah, the requirement for sexual satisfaction of one’s wife, which strongly favored women.

In the story, Ben Sira saves the son of Nebuchadnezzar by writing an amulet. Ben Sira explains to the king the story of Lilith. Lilith was Adam’s first wife.

After God created Adam, who was alone, He said, 'It is not good for man to be alone' (Genesis 2:18). He then created a woman for Adam, from the earth, as He had created Adam himself, and called her Lilith. Adam and Lilith immediately began to fight. She said, 'I will not lie below,' and he said, 'I will not lie beneath you, but only on top. For you are fit only to be in the bottom position, while I am to be the superior one.' Lilith responded, 'We are equal to each other inasmuch as we were both created from the earth.' But they would not listen to one another. When Lilith saw this, she pronounced the Ineffable Name and flew away into the air. Adam stood in prayer before his Creator: 'Sovereign of the universe!' he said, 'the woman you gave me has run away.' At once, the Holy One, blessed be He, sent these three angels to bring her back.

God dispatches three angels to bring her back, with a message. If she agrees to come back, then fine and good, but if she does not, a hundred of her children will be killed by the angels every day. Even with this threat she does not return to the garden, and the angels carry out the threat. In vengeance she now kills the children of Adam, the legend goes, for boys until their circumcisions and girls twenty days. But she can be stopped by writing an amulet with the name of the three angels.

Then Kabbalah and the Zohar add to the legend. She roams around particularly on Friday night, killing demons and epileptics created through immodest intercourse. She is still seducing men by the seaside, but she fled when Adam was given a soul in Genesis 2:7, not as Ben Sira claims, after. She cares for not only her own demonic children, but also those created by other seducing she-demons. Lilith, through much of her history, had been the seducer of men, the wife to the prince of demons, the nanny of demons, and the killer of human infants.

Many defenses have been devised against Lilith. One is the ultimate general-purpose demon amulet: the mezuzah. In the Targum to the Song of Songs, written at about the same time frame as Ben Sira, there is line that directly states that mezuzot repel demons. There are also many specific defenses. Lilith cannot stand the color red, so red ribbons or threads worn by infants, or tied to their cribs also repels her. The most powerful, however, is as Ben Sira noted, the amulet with the names of the three angels SNVY, SNSNVY, and SMNGLVF. One famous version found in the magic book Sefer Raziel includes 2 different sets of pictures of the three angels, and the words “Adam and Eve - outside Lilith!”

But in the 20th century, everything changed with the women’s rights movement. Jewish women, as they looked in the texts for an archetype to describe their new identities, had trouble. Given that most, if not all, of the texts are written by men, it became near impossible to find in the Torah or Talmud an archetype for the feminist Jewish woman. This would be someone who could control her own destiny, not be in subservience to her husband. The only one who fits that bill in all of Jewish folklore is the Lilith of Ben Sira, who not only was an equal creature to Adam, but really wanted to be on top every once and a while. But changing at least a thousand, if not more, years of tradition of Lilith as a demon have not been easy. The issue becomes an emotional one, as I’ve learned first hand. One of the worst arguments I ever got myself into was into what really is the identity of Lilith.

The feminist Lilith is one that embodies certain now-noble qualities: gender equality and independence. But the demon is still to be feared, the loss of an infant, one that I was all too aware of as my now 3 year old, but prematurely born niece and nephew grew in strength. We still see the defenses against Lilith as part of tradition, as mothers and grandmothers tie red ribbons to their newborns, and make sure the mezuzah is kosher in the baby’s room.

For me all the stories of Lilith ring true. She is the demon who seduces men and kills babies. She is the independent archetype. She most importantly is story, and how we describe her is how she becomes. We cannot destroy tradition, and the demon will be with us forever, a battle fought at every child’s birth. But we can begin to temper her, to make her a different character in Myth. I've often described her not in Ben Sira’s view that she was arguing with Adam about who’s on top, but in a more tragic manner. Adam actually raped and abused her, because he did not know any better. Adam had not eaten of the tree of knowledge yet. While we tend to think he learned evil from the fruit, he also learned what is good, and where restraint is necessary. Adam’s and Eve’s first act after eating of the fruit was not an evil one but one of modesty, they covered themselves. So before eating, it was in his capability to do evil without even knowing it. And that is what happened to Lilith. She seemed to know better and made a choice of a tragic life instead of an abusive husband.

Lilith is a side character to the creation stories we read this week, something added millennia later to stories that didn’t quite fit together. I cannot write about Lilith without writing about Adam’s second wife, Eve. While many theologians from many religions want to saddle her with bringing evil in the world, some actually claiming she literally birthed it, I like to think she brought something else. As Adam said “this one is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” and in time man will leave his parents and become “one flesh” with his wife. She never made it as the feminist archetype, since she seems to be the subservient one. She is dependent on Adam. But Adam sees things differently. While Lilith and Adam did not work out, it’s because they were too independent from each other - they could never see the other’s view, nor do anything for the other. They could never share. But Adam and Eve have the potential not just for dependence, but interdependence - to once again be one flesh, two sides of the same being united and sharing into a stronger whole. Independence is great but being part of a bigger whole is more. Not until Eve is Adam happy.

While Lilith might be re-written as the archetype of independence, maybe we need to also begin to re-write the story of Eve. Some feminists and Kabbalists have re-written the story where eve and Lilith are now buddies, and Lilith advises Eve. In some of the misogynist Kabbalah versions, Some think Lilith was the snake, or the serpent was Lillith’s 2nd husband, and there was more than talk. Other more modern stories make sure Eve does not fall into the same traps as Lilith when it comes to Adam.

But maybe the next step is not just independence, but interdependence. Adam and Eve are not individual archetypes, but a single one, the first true couple who actually could live together for the rest of their lives. We aspire to this at weddings and the seven days afterwards when the blessing is read “ Gladden the joyful companions and lovers as you gladdened your creation in the Garden of Eden in ancient times.” We find joy in that connection, a joy found no where else, and a relationship like nothing else. Lilith may have been a beginning, but like Eve, our futures belong with completing ourselves and each other.