Thursday, November 29, 2007

Vayeshev 5768: What Colors was Joseph’s Coat?

This week we start the story of Joseph. Joseph, a spoiled brat and tattletale at seventeen, gets the ire of his brothers, who sell him down the Nile into slavery after one too many dreams of superiority over them. But in Egypt, Joseph goes from being a mere slave to running the household of Potiphar the chief executioner. Unfortunately, a case of sexual harassment gets Joseph in trouble. The chief executioner’s wife wants to sleep with Joseph, who refuses. In a turnabout move, Potiphar’s wife frames him for attempted rape, and Joseph is jailed. But even here he ends up running the prison.

Most people know the story of Joseph and his garment that became a flash point for his brothers’ anger and jealousy. Most think they know how to translate the garment, indeed it is the title of an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. The verse this week reads:

3. Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a coat with long sleeves. 4. And when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.

If you read carefully you might have noticed what I did when reading the Socino translation. It does not say coat of many colors but instead coat with long sleeves. What is going on here?

The term in Hebrew is ketonet passim and there is a lot of debate about what it means. The term shows up in one other place, in II Samuel, after the incestuous rape of Tamar by King David’s son Amnon.

17. Then he called his servant who ministered to him, and said, Take now this woman away from me, and bolt the door after her. 18. And she had a long sleeved robe upon her; for with such robes were the king’s daughters who were virgins dressed. Then his servant took her out, and bolted the door after her. 19. And Tamar put ashes on her head, and tore her long sleeved robe, that was on her, and laid her hand on her head, crying aloud as she went. [II Samuel 13:17-19]

One possibility then is Joseph was wearing girl’s clothes. The Midrash also notes some of these tendencies, including eye makeup, curling his hair and lifting his heels. [Gen R. LXXXIV: 7] But lifting the heels is not putting on high heel shoes, but instead a sense of excessive false pride. The rabbis seem to portray Joseph not as a cross dresser but, for lack of a better term as a pretty boy, an immature male who is outwardly vain to the exclusion of all else. The Rabbis give a parable explaining the episode with Potiphar’s wife:

And Joseph was of beautiful form, and fair to look upon [Gen. 39:6]. And this is immediately followed by, His master's wife cast her eyes upon Joseph. It may be illustrated by a man who sat in the street, penciling his eyes, curling his hair and lifting his heel, while he exclaimed, ' I am indeed a man.’ ‘If you are a man,’ the bystanders retorted, ‘here is a bear; up and attack it!" [Gen R. LXXXVII: 3]

The bystanders in this story according to the rabbis are none other than God testing Joseph’s vanity. The bear, Potiphar’s wife, is a difficult opponent to beat even for a strong man. Joseph, until he made his choices at the foot of her bed, was all style and no substance.

Yet this is not the only meaning of the term. A ketonet is mentioned in several places as the white robes of Aaron and his sons. They are described as fine coats of fine white linen of woven work for Aaron [Ex 39:27] and embroidered [Ex 28:39]. The coat itself was an important robe of some kind. As we learn in Leviticus 16, it may have had a protective property to it, as it is required when entering the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur. Yet even the wearing of the ketoret had a basis in the Joseph story according to the rabbis, this time as atonement of sin:

The tunic used to make atonement for bloodshed, as we read, And they dipped the coat in the blood [Gen. 37, 31]. Some say it was for those who wore garments of diverse kinds, as we read, And he made him a coat of many colors [37:3] [Song of Songs Rabbah IV: 8]

Some of the rabbis believe that it is diverse kinds of passim, that the atonement is about. So the other key word here is passim. The Midrash goes into a brain storming session over this word. Some used an allegorical approach, stating that passim was foreshadowing of Joseph’s suffering in a variety of ways. Literal approaches to passim in the Midrash break the word into a plural of the word pas which mean stripes. Pas is also the point on the hand where stripes on the hand meet: the wrist. Thus the coat had sleeves which reached to the wrist, our long sleeved coat. The Targum Pseudo-Jonathan translated the whole term as a royal robe which is either painted or embroidered.

The thing that bugs me it that we assume the coat was colored. There is no evidence that it ever was from the rabbinic point of view. We assume if there were stripes, they were different colors. We assume that if it was embroidered, the embroidery thread was a different color than the material it was made of. Yet, white on white is a possibility. Looking at my palm the stripes on my hand are the same color as my hand. We know Aaron’s robe was white, and we can wonder if Tamar as a virgin would wear a white robe or a multicolored one. The sin atoned in the Midrash to Song of Songs is not about mixing colors, but mixing the two basically white fabrics wool and linen.

When I sat down to write this commentary, I wanted to write a commentary over what colors were used in the coat of many colors. As an artist, I wanted to link the metaphor of a painter’s palette to the colors in the coat. Instead, I end up with the amazing Technicolor dream coat may very well have been linen white. Coming to the conclusion that it wasn’t colored at all is enough of a Drash in itself. Maybe the question is why do we need the multihued coat to be part of the story that it got translated that way by a lot of people?

With a little more research, it was the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the bible that added the word many colors. Where they got it from is not clear, but the Septuagint was written in the Egypt of the Ptolemies, and it is from this I can make an educated guess. White was a common fabric color in Egypt. Indeed much of the white of the Middle East region was imported from Egypt, including the white linen for the fabrics mentioned in the Tanach. As late at the Persian Empire white linen still came from Egypt as we know from the first chapter of the book of Esther. As a production center unrivaled for centuries, Egypt may have suffered from the same problem moderns suffer from, thinking that pure white is a boring color. Yet for most of the ancient world it may have been the most impossible color to achieve – and thus the most precious. There were many off-whites. Indeed the most common word for white, lavan, is the same as Joseph’s deceitful grandpa Laban. White tones, lavan, were easy as is a white lie or white spots on those sticks Jacob swindled his father in law with. The pure white of Egyptian linen, however, was near impossible or as fleeting as snow in a desert – and that made it valuable.

In modernity, white has become cheap. The $5.00 white Bristol board pads I use up monthly Leonardo DaVinci or Michelangelo would have killed for. I’m staring at a white screen as I type. Even the top to my coffee is cheap, brilliantly white plastic. To think of Joseph in a white robe is to minimize his brother’s jealousy. Yet, to think of him in an exquisitely dyed garment increases the garment’s value, and makes the story work better. Yet in each of our minds, the colors of that garment are different, with differing patterns and stripes. In our minds, we design Joseph’s garment differently and no two are the same. Our expression of that garment is an expression of ourselves.

White is the color of the paper I start a painting on. White is the color of the screen on a new Microsoft Word file. Looking at the counter of 46 million works of art posted or a bookstore full of what was once white paper reminds me that both paper and computer screens have the potential to be an infinite number of things. I started with the wrong question. It is not the palette that is of interest, but the canvas. Joseph’s coat is the canvas of our personal painting – it is blank, and we as the reader add the Midrash of color.

So, what is on your canvas?

Friday, November 23, 2007

Vayishlah 5768: The Handmaids’ Tale

This week Jacob gets ready for this inevitable meeting with Esau, and then has an interesting divine wrestling experience. When Jacob finally meets his brother, he finds out that he and Esau actually can be civil to each other. Dinah is raped and then her rapist asks for her hand in marriage. To avenge the rape, Dinah's brothers Simeon and Levi slaughter all the males of the rapist’s town as they recover from circumcision. Rachel dies giving birth to Benjamin, and Ruben sleeps with his step mother, Bilhah. Isaac dies, and is buried by both his sons.

Every once in a while, my ideas for the Drash don’t start with me but are thrust upon me. This week for example, I got one of those signs I couldn’t ignore, and then some. A friend of mine asked a question, and then that question was repeated during a discussion of the new Reform prayerbook Mishkan Tefilah. It was too coincidental to ignore.

The Mishkan Tefilah question was based on the addition of a few decades ago which has spread to many other movements. In the beginning of the traditional Amidah, there is the invocation of the patriarchs with the phrase “the God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob.” The Reform movement added the matriarchs “The God of Sara, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah” But there is still something missing here. We read in this week’s portion:

23. The sons of Leah; Reuben, Jacob’s firstborn, and Simeon, and Levi, and Judah, and Issachar, and Zebulun; 24. The sons of Rachel; Joseph, and Benjamin; 25. And the sons of Bilhah, Rachel’s maidservant; Dan, and Naphtali; 26. And the sons of Zilpah, Leah’s maidservant; Gad, and Asher; these are the sons of Jacob, who were born to him in Padan-Aram.

Two of Jacob’s son’s come from Bilhah and two from Zilpah. Should they not be included as Matriarchs? My friend asked the question more succinctly: What is the status and role of these two women? How did they fit into the picture?

There is lot of evidence they are of lower status. Probably one of the most graphic is the one found at the beginning of the portion.

1. And Jacob lifted up his eyes, and looked, and, behold, Esau came, and with him four hundred men. And he divided the children to Leah, and to Rachel, and to the two maidservants. 2. And he put the maidservants and their children foremost, and Leah and her children after, and Rachel and Joseph hindermost. [Genesis 33:1-2]

If Esau attacks with his 400 horsemen, as Jacob believes, the first to die will be the maidservants and their children. Jacob’s beloved Rachel and Joseph would be the last Esau would reach. People are ordered according to their importance, and Bilhah and Zilpah don’t have enough importance to even be named here. The Midrash points at another example of a lower status for Bilhah.

22. And it came to pass, when Israel lived in that land, that Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine; and Israel heard it. Now the sons of Jacob were twelve;

The text appears to indicate Ruben, Leah’s oldest sleeps with Bilhah. Yet, the rabbis weren’t happy with that possibility, since it presents a bit of hypocrisy later in Deuteronomy, so they come up with a different story:

The truth, however, is that he vindicated his mother's humiliation. For as long as Rachel lived her bed stood near that of the Patriarch Jacob; when Rachel died, Jacob took Bilhah's bed and placed it at the side of his. ‘Is it not enough for my mother to be jealous during her sister's lifetime,’ he exclaimed, ‘but must she also be so after her death!’ Thereupon he went up and disarranged the beds. [Genesis R. XCVIII:4]

Essentially, Jacob promoted Bilhah, the handmaid to the position of wife that Rachel had held until her death. Reuben believed the legitimate wife of Jacob, his mother Leah should have that position. Reuben responds to this by moving the beds around, changing Bilhah’s bed with his mother Leah’s, and such moving of beds is the equivalent of sleeping with Bilhah.

We do have one other text that gives us some identity of who these two women were.

13. And Laban answered and said unto Jacob: the daughters are my daughters, etc. [Gen 31:43]. R. Reuben said: They were all his daughters, for the daughters are my daughters indicates two, while and what can I do for these my daughter's makes four. The Rabbis adduced it from this verse: If thou shall afflict my daughters [Gen 31:50] indicates two; while and if thou shall take wives beside my daughters makes four. [Gen R. LXXIV: 13]

In Hebrew the word “my daughters” is repeated in the two verses discussed. The rabbis conclude this is two sets of daughters. Thus this text implies that all four of the wives of Jacob were daughters of Laban. Rashi explicitly states that Bilhah and Zilpah themselves were the daughters of Laban’s concubines. In that light, there is the comment in Midrash about 17-year old Joseph, gossiping about his brothers:

R. Judah said: They [i.e. Leah’s sons] insult the sons of the bondmaids [Bilhah and Zilpah] and call them slaves.

Joseph as a young man was an annoying tattletale. This report to his father does have some justification, based on this Midrash about Joseph’s dream that the sun and the moon, representing his father and mother, would bow down to him [cf. 37:9-10]

“Rachel is dead, yet you say I and you mother will come to bow down to you”. But our ancestor [i.e. Jacob] did not know that it applied to Bilhah, Rachel's handmaid, who had brought him Joseph up like a mother. [Gen R. LXXXIV: 11]

As Joseph spent more time with the sons of the hand maids than the sons of Leah, it makes sense for him to defend them, though they were silent when he got into trouble. Thus what we know about Bilhah and Zilpah is clear, they were second class citizens and even in the time of the rabbis such people did not have the rights and status of others. Being born from a second class status one inherited the second class status. Some did seek to change that, as did Jacob, promoting Bilhah to Rachel’s position. Yet society demanded things in a correct order, one corrected by Reuben. According to one Midrash by R. Berkiah, He didn’t just move Bilhah’s bed but also Zilpah’s as well away from Jacob’s. They were to be the inferior position to the legitimate wife of Leah.

Yet, interestingly, there is an opposing though minority opinion. One instance is here:

R. Joshua of Siknin said in the name of R. Levi: Why are not the names of the tribes in the same order in all places, but sometimes one takes the precedence and sometimes another? So that you should not think that the children of the wives come first, and those of the hand-maidens last, but to teach you that these were not greater than the others. [Exodus R. I: 6]

Most telling this comment from Midrash Rabbah to Numbers, repeated in the Midrash to Esther, and Midrash to Song of Songs

17. AND THEY BROUGHT THEIR OFFERING BEFORE THE LORD, SIX COVERED WAGONS, etc. [VII, 3). Six corresponding to the six days of creation. Six corresponding to the six Orders of the Mishnah. Six corresponding to the Matriarchs, namely Sarah and Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah. [Numbers R XII:17]

Bilhah and Zilpah, in the view of some rabbis are matriarchs as much as Rachel and Leah. Yet, in the biblical world where women are not equal to men and slaves not equal to free people, Bilhah and Zilpah were in some sense the lowest of the low, even though they were family. We tend to believe we don’t pull this lower status stuff any more, but even in the smallest of ways, it still happens all the time.

As things would have it, I had the chance to face such prejudice this week. After a long day at work all I wanted was a quiet good meal. I went to seafood restaurant I usually go to when I am in that particular suburb and asked for a table for one. The hostess asked me if I wanted to sit at the bar, and I answered no, I really wanted a quiet table. So she sat me at one of the bar tables even though they had an incredibly large dining room. When I explained I wanted one of the dining room seats I was told there were none available, yet I saw couple after couple enter the dining room from the seat which overlooked the hostess station. I got so angry at my treatment; I left the restaurant and ate somewhere else.

Braxton Seafood Grill pegged me for second class status, and I got the second rate tables in the restaurant. This was not the first but the second time this had occurred. Six weeks earlier when I went there to conduct the same business, I got that same bar seat. For some reason, I was not to be allowed in the dining room. Did I not fit the profile of a guest who belongs in the dining room?

Braxton loses a loyal customer this week, who had been eating there eight times a year. I’m sure their competitors will not be upset, as I’ve been known to run up my food tab and tip generously. But the thing that I can do is make a choice. I can go to another restaurant that is very happy to treat me as a good customer. Bilhah and Zilpah did not have that choice, nor do many people today. It was only decades ago I would have been sure that the reason for my treatment in Braxton was anti-Semitism. I don’t believe that is the case this time. There are many people today who still given 2nd class status in some major, but even more minor ways that we are not even aware of. Yet it happens. Why? I’m not sure. I suspect it is about making us feel better about ourselves. It’s an affirmation in the key of lashon hara we are not the most inferior creature in the universe.

Thanksgiving sets off a season of personal interaction between now and New Years Day. Repeatedly, we will be tested to think of people as equals. This particularly is true of salespeople, counter help, and restaurant servers. Most people don’t treat them as equals but as slaves, barking orders at them. Let’s avoid that this year, and treat the people behind the counter as people in a very stressful position.

I did think of one reason I became 2nd class and it’s an ironic one. I treated the host staff like people, smiling, saying hello to not just the one who greeted me but the whole staff at the host desk. I treated them as real people as not as slaves and that got me the 2nd class table in the restaurant – they didn’t know what to do with that (thought they killed that real fast). So I have a prayer and a vision for this Holiday season, my ultimate revenge for this incident is for this to be true:

God of our forefathers and our foremothers, God of Joseph, Aaron, Bilhah, Zilpah and Miriam. Let us remember in this season that we were once slaves in Egypt. In this season we celebrate with light our liberation from the second class status the Greeks imposed on us. Let us remember that all of humanity is B’tzelem Elohim, in Your image. May it be Your will that we see our transgressions between ourselves and others before we do them, and thus choose to not treat our fellow human being like a slave, but as a fellow human being.


Friday, November 16, 2007

Parshat Vayetze 5768: Why I’m not a Rachel Fan

This week we begin Jacob’s journey to Padan Aram and his adventures there. After a divine encounter with a ladder, he meets his beautiful cousin Rachel, and instantly falls for her. After a bit of deception on his father in law’s part, and with a good grasp of genetics, Jacob grows rich and eventually sneaks away from him. His now rather large family of two concubines, two wives, soon-to-be thirteen children and lots of livestock goes with him. But as he starts home, he realizes something: he will have to eventually confront Esau once again.

Unlike the story of his father's dating experience, Jacob goes through a very different wedding experience. After traveling a while, he meets Rachel near a well. Jacob falls in love with this vision of beauty. He meets her father who happens to be his uncle Laban. After settling in, Jacob exchanges seven years of labor for the hand of Rachel. After the seven years, there is a great wedding feast. Laban switches brides at the last minute and Jacob unwittingly marries Leah, Rachel’s older sister. Jacob, although upset at this deception, simply negotiates another seven years to marry Rachel as soon as possible. The day after the mandatory seven days with Leah, he marries and jumps into bed with the prized Rachel.

But who are these two women? The text says Now Laban had two daughters, the name of the older one was Leah, the name of the younger one was Rachel, Leah had weak eyes; Rachel was shapely and beautiful. [Gen.29:16-17] This description has set up most of the folklore and Midrash about these two: an ugly sister and a beautiful one. More literally, a good looking one and one who can’t see.

It is clear Rachel is a good-looking woman. Once again, lovers are destined to meet at a well. But unlike Rebecca offering to water the camels, it is not the host who does the watering, but the guest. We are told by the text watering in this place is a communal event, an event all the shepherds get together and water their flocks together at the well. The well had a capstone, and it is only rolled off when everyone is there. For some commentators it was a matter of being too heavy, as the text says it is big. Yet I think there is something else going on here. Water rights as we have seen in other parts of Genesis is a big deal. A shared well could be a large cause for contention. With the amount of deception going on throughout this story, this might be a way to make sure no one takes more than their fair share of water. Jacob immediately breaks the rules and waters Rachel’s flock, and not the three flocks waiting for everyone. Here’s a case where everyone has been waiting in line for something and someone cuts in and takes for him or her self. No wonder when Jacob tells his story to Laban he says Surely you are my bone and my flesh [Gen 29:14]. Between the well and Esau, Jacob’s proven he’s just as much of a swindler as Laban.

After Leah and Rachel are married to Jacob, Leah pretty much pops out four children in a row, Rueben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah. Rachel throws a hissy fit. Instead of praying to God like her in-law’s did when infertile, she whines to her husband, Give me children, or if not, I die.[Gen 30:1] Later, she steals her father’s idols to take with her to Canaan without telling her husband. She even hides them by sitting on them when Laban searches her tent. So besides everything else, she’s a thief who still believes in idolatry.

In case you can’t tell I’m not the biggest fan of Rachel, yet we often venerate Rachel over Leah. I find Rachel to be one of the more reprehensible women in Torah. Yet this beautiful woman is what Jacob wants. Jacob, like many people in modern society, are only interested in Rachel: the eye candy, the supermodel or centerfold. This person is high maintenance and entirely self absorbed. She’s still a pagan, not believing in the god of her husband and his ancestors, but some small idols which can comfortably fit under her backside. But her physical beauty outshines everything else for Jacob. So he goes for it, and spends his time loving Rachel, who probably in today’s society would have left him or cheated on him the first time something better (i.e. richer) came along. In doing so, he ignores Leah, the one who can truly love him, and understand him.

All we are told of Leah is she feels unloved, and that she had weak eyes. In terms of Jacob’s devouring passion for Rachel, it easy to see why Leah would feel unloved. But it is this “The eyes of Leah were weak” that interests me more. As I mentioned, one easy interpretation of this is that Leah was blind. It wasn’t that she was ugly or had a bad personality, but that she was disabled. Of all disabilities, she has the same as Jacob’s father, Isaac, who had acquired dim eyes, very possibly at the Akedah. The Midrash comments on that weakness as an acquired disability:

That they had grown weak through weeping, for [people used to say]: This was the arrangement; the elder daughter [Leah] is for the elder son [Esau], and the younger daughter [Rachel] for the younger son [Jacob],’ while she used to weep and pray, ‘May it be Thy will that I do not fall to the lot of that wicked man.’ R. Huna said: Great is prayer, that it annulled the decree and she even took precedence of her sister. [Gen. R LXX:16]

The weakness came from the prayer of petition and lamentation. But unlike her sister, Leah prayed according to the rabbis. But weak is only one meaning for racot. It may also mean soft. While I was translating the Song of Songs, there is a line, repeated in several places

How beautiful you are my beloved
How beautiful you are, your eyes are doves [SS 1:15, 4:1]

While I was trying to figure out the imagery of this phrase, I learned a lot about doves. Doves are very strongly monogamous. So much so, they always are found as a pair. They hang out together and they often do not mate, or even find another one after the loss of their partner. Once I even saw an interesting, though sad sight. A dove had been hit by a car, and its mate just walked around it over and over, not matter what came near. It could not leave its partner. Maybe when we say that Leah had weak eyes, she did not see beyond the scope of her partner- she believed deeply in monogamy. Monogamy isn’t just an obligation to one's mate. It is a deep belief in knowing one partner, and investing the time and effort into knowing them well intellectually, physically, emotionally and spiritually. In doing so something deep and connecting happens.

Unfortunately for Leah, she had to get connected with a joke like Jacob, and was, as the Torah tells us, hated compared to her sister. [Gen 29:31] That’s when God takes action.

I’ve mentioned before not to take pregnancy just as having kids when it shows up in the text. Instead look at it as an expression of growth and creative energy in the people involved. It is telling that it is Leah who has the most kids. Rachel has to go the Hagar route and use a surrogate at first, spurring Leah to do the same. But in the end, if one keeps score, it’s Leah with six boys and one girl (Rueben, Simon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulon, and Dinah). Rachel with two: (Joseph and Benjamin), Bilhah with two (Dan and Naphtali), and Zilpah with two (Gad, Asher). In short, if counting Dinah, Leah is more productive than the three others combined. It will be Leah’s children who will lead the people out of Egypt, It will be Leah’s children who are the first into the Red Sea, and the Kings of a united Israel, unhindered by the Philistines, and who build and work in the Temple. What’s more, with the assimilation of the tiny tribe of Benjamin into the whole, it is only the tribes of Leah, Levi and Judah, who survive the entire adventure of the Tanach and who we are named for: Jews.

We are the children of Leah, not the children of Rachel. Thus the text supports the concept of commitment, not the concept of playing the field. In the books of the prophets, or the Song of Songs this applies to God as well. We are intimately connected to God like the song, not harlots who sleep with any old idol as the prophets admonish. While appearance is important to make a connection, ultimately it is our strength of commitment that defines us.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Parshat Toledot 5768: Why I Can’t Write This Title.

This week Isaac and Rebecca are childless. After some praying, Rebecca gets pregnant with twins, who won’t sit still in her womb, and so God tells Rebecca about her two sons. After the Birth of Esau and Jacob, the two are as different as can be, each preferred by opposite parents. Once the kids are older, Esau sells his birthright for a bowl of stew. The family then has to move into Philistine territory for a while, though they are eventually kicked out for Isaac trying the “sister” tactic of his father, though he gets caught when he can’t keep his hands off the lovely Rebecca. There is some trouble at the wells, and then Esau marries someone who his parents don’t particularly like. Finally, Isaac asks Esau to get him some venison, and that he should prepare him a meal, and then Esau will get the blessing. Rebecca helps Jacob trick his father into giving the blessing to Jacob instead of to Esau, which enrages Esau to the point he’s swearing to kill Jacob. Rebecca then makes a timely suggestion to Isaac that it is time to find a wife for Jacob among her family, so Jacob sets out toward Padan-Aram.

I started this week having absolutely no clue what I was going to write about here. In many ways, I felt a lot like our hapless couple at the beginning of our portion, totally childless, and a bit frustrated about that. So I did something with the text I do when so stumped, and walked into quite the story. One interesting thing to do with Biblical text is to note inconsistencies or riddles in the text. The Talmudic Rabbis, who believed all the inconsistencies in Tanach were there for a reason, often used these as the springboard for commentary. For example, we have the verse in the week’s portion:

20. And Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebecca for his wife, the daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Padan-Aram, the sister to Laban the Aramean. 21. And Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and Rebecca his wife conceived. [Genesis 25:20-21]

But we read a few verses below that:

26. And after that came his brother out, and his hand took hold on Esau’s heel; and his name was called Jacob; and Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.

There is a gap of twenty years between Isaac’s marriage to Rebecca, and the birth of Esau and Jacob. Did it take nearly 20 decades of prayer to get the result, or was something else going on? Was this a 20 year pregnancy? Where does this lead us?

One source of commentary is the Aramaic translation to the Torah, the Targums. The Targums often add information to the biblical text to enlighten the reader about what is going on. When I checked Targum Pseudo Jonathan, I not only had a shock, but more of a mystery on my hands:

And Isaac went to the mountain of worship the place that his father bound him. Isaac changed with his prayer the intention of the Holy One Blessed be He from what he decreed concerning his wife. Because she, along with him, was barren twenty two years. It was changed on his account By the Holy One Blessed be He from what he decreed against him that he also was barren then he was able to beget children then Rebecca his wife became pregnant. [T. PsJ Gen 25:21]

Rebecca’s barrenness isn’t the only issue, but Isaac also is barren. To add to the mystery, the Targum says twenty two years, not twenty. What is going on? The Talmud confirms Isaac’s problem:

R. Isaac stated: Our father Isaac was barren; for it is said, ‘And Isaac entreated the Lord opposite his wife.’[Gen 25:21] It does not say ‘for his wife’ but opposite. This teaches that both were barren. [Yebamot 64a]

In this Text, R. Isaac confirms the Targum by noting a linguistic oddity. When someone prays they usually pray for someone. But Isaac prays ‘opposite’ his wife. There word for opposite also means in front of, or facing. R. Isaac relates that they prayed together because both were affected the same way.

But what is the point of Isaac being sterile? One possibility comes up in the Talmud, where there is a discussion of reproductive rights, in this case the right for a woman to bear a child. The Talmud reads:

Our Rabbis taught: If a man took a wife and lived with her for ten years and she bore no child, he shall divorce her and give her her kethubah, since it is possible that it was he who was unworthy to have children from her.[Yeb 64a]

Essentially it is grounds for divorce if a man does not give his wife a baby within ten years of marriage. However, there is no mitzvah that directly states this or that this could be derived from, so the rabbis try to find a story for justification. One they try is Isaac, and it doesn’t work too well. Yet the rabbis in this discussion do relate Isaac’s problem. Key to the issue of why Isaac doesn’t work as an example is that it was twenty, not ten years that Isaac and Rebecca are infertile – they should have been divorced for decade!

The Targum’s assertion of twenty two years of infertility hint at a possible reason. And there is one more hint in our text:

8. And it came to pass, when he had been there a long time, that Abimelech king of the Philistines looked out a window, and saw, and, behold, Isaac was sporting with Rebecca his wife. [Gen 26:8]

Given context of that episode, “sporting” is better translated in this text as fondling. Why is Isaac, in all of Tanach, caught red-handed in foreplay?

It is by calculating ages that the mystery begins to clear. First there are the ages of Sarah and Abraham one year before Isaac’s Birth:

1. And when Abram was ninety nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram…(17:1)

17. Then Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart, Shall a child be born to him who is a hundred years old? and shall Sarah, who would be ninety years old, bear?(17:17)

Of course a year later this comes true with the birth of Isaac when Sarah was 90. Genesis 23:1 tell us that Sara dies at 127. Therefore Isaac was 37 when she died. As we already discussed, the kids are born when Isaac is 60, giving us the twenty years of marriage between their marriage and the birth of the twins, and twenty three years between the time Of Sarah’s death and the birth of the Jacob and Esau. People do not have kids instantly. Subtracting one year for Rebecca’s pregnancy equals the 22 years the Targum mentions.

The death of Sarah, therefore is an important issue in this calculation, and thus must have more meaning. That meaning is related in the Targum passage. Isaac goes to Mt. Moriah of all places to make his prayer, the place of his biggest trauma. There is also a midrash relating to the immediacy after the Akedah that we read of Sarah’s death from grief over the what her husband was doing with her precious son [Gen R. LVIII:8]. Isaac therefore was 37 when Abraham bound him, and he has been infertile since the Akedah on Mt. Moriah.

Aramaic and Biblical Hebrew however do not differentiate between true infertility and impotence. Even though the incident with Abimelech catching Isaac red-handed happens after Jacob and Esau are born, it indicates something else – Isaac, more than any other biblical male knew how to satisfy his wife without intercourse. He had a lot of practice in nineteen years of sexual dysfunction. Isaac must have been impotent, not sterile.

Isaac’s impotency in my mind was a matter of post traumatic stress syndrome. On one single day, his father ties him up and tries to kill him and his mother dies from worrying about that. It had to have had some effect on Isaac. Impotency appears to be one of those things that happened. If we follow the Targum’s story then, we find a very interesting solution to his problem, and it had nothing to do with the v-word which would get this post banned by every spam filter out there. He went back and prayed at the very spot the trauma occurred. Not only him, but Rebecca too went up there with him, to face him -- to be opposite him, to remind each other that this is something they both have to do. As a couple they are strong, and can overcome this problem, as a couple praying for the child they can’t have, and thus succeed.

I started this Drash like Isaac and Rebecca, barren but with a little work I came around to a very rich and interesting commentary on a text. As I discussed a few weeks ago when talking about Lilith, the bible is a place where everyone looks for archetype to validate their own situation. Isaac provides us with an archetype of a man who dealt with a great trauma, was severely affected by it, but healed. Isaac as a PTS archetype still leaves a lot to be explored, but here at least is a beginning. I started barren this week, but now I am pregnant with ideas for dashes to come.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Hayyei Sarah 5768: Is Dating Good for the Jews?

Last week, I mentioned there were a few things at my current synagogue that didn’t fit my model of a synagogue that reverses the trends of a declining Judaism. This week I’m going to let you in on a secret, one of those things that I think could revitalize an important and missing part of synagogue and Jewish life.

This week’s portion named the Life of Sarah, ironically starts with her death. Abraham does some land deals to find a proper burial place for his late beloved wife, and then tells his trusty servant Eliezer to find a wife for Isaac back in the old country. Eliezer, not having a clue what to do decides the best thing to do is pray and to ask for a sign from God. Almost immediately the sign comes to pass, he meets Rebecca, and eventually brings her back to Isaac where she is so blown away by him she falls off her camel. Isaac and Rebecca get married, move into Sarah's old digs, and Isaac is comforted from the loss of his mother. Abraham remarries, (some rabbinic sources say he marries Hagar), and has a few more kids. Even with the death of Abraham, which both of his sons bury jointly, everybody's one happy family until the twins show up next week.

Last week we talked about lifting the eyes, and this is one way to see the miracles around us. In this weeks portion we read about eye lifting again:

63. And Isaac went out to meditate in the field at the evening time; and he lifted up his eyes, and saw, and, behold, the camels were coming. 64. And Rebecca lifted up her eyes, and when she saw Isaac, she got off the camel. [Gen 24:63-64]

In terms of eye lifting, once again it is the miracles involved seeing that is forefront. Yet this miracle is far more powerful. I think it’s a tradition for me to quote the following Midrash every time I comment on this portion, for obvious reasons:

A [Roman] matron asked R. Yose: ' In how many days did the Holy One, blessed be He, create His world?’ ‘In six days,’ he answered. ‘Then what has He been doing since then?’ ‘He sits and makes matches,’ he answered, ‘assigning this man to that woman, and this woman to that man.’ ‘If that is difficult,’ she gibed, ‘I too can do the same.’ She went and matched [her slaves], giving this man to that woman, this woman to that man and so on. Some time after those who were thus united went and beat one another, this woman saying, ' I do not want this man,’ while this man protested, ‘I do not want that woman.’ Straightway she summoned R. Yose b. Halafta and admitted to him: ‘There is no god like your God: it is true, your Torah is indeed beautiful and praiseworthy, and you spoke the truth!’ Said he to her: ‘If it is easy in your eyes, it is as difficult before the Holy One, blessed be He, as the dividing of the Red Sea.’ [Genesis Rabbah 58:4]

Last week, I talked about my graduation, and the graduation of Abraham, and in some sense Hagar. I had a graduation party this weekend at Shabbat services, and I thank everyone who gave me their well wishes who were there or not. But Sunday it hit me big time: What now!?! The answer of course is changing my single status to married. And as R. Yosi points out this is not an easy prospect. Splitting the Red Sea or finishing a Masters Degree is easy in comparison.

One of those papers I wrote for grad school asked the question – Why am I not married? According to the research paper I did, intermarriage is really a symptom of a bigger problem. It is very difficult for Jewish singles to get together. There were several trends in the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-1(NJPS) which I found interesting, and very likely related. One was fertility rates. By age 40, 36% of Jewish American women have not had their first child, compared to 20% for the U.S. as a whole. That led me to the age of marriage. By age 34, 64% of Jewish women are married compared to 70% of The U.S. Population as a whole. Men are worse off with only 48% of Jewish men by age 34 compared to 59% of the U.S. population married. We do catch up a bit by age 44, with Jewish Men at 74% and Jewish women at 85% married at least once. Yet even here there is a gap compared to the U.S.

What I found in my sample population is the trend for Jewish singles to finish college, then start graduate school in their late twenties or early thirties then finish grad school somewhere around their mid thirties. Up until the mid thirties Jewish singles describe the relationship they are looking for as non committal. In the mid thirties they suddenly reverse their objective and look for a mate to have children with. I concluded the two were related, people do not want to start families under the dual pressures of work and graduate school. When that is completed, the number of child-bearing years is limited, and a new emphasis is placed on having a family. Yet with those limited number of years, there may not be time for a large family, and thus less children born. While in their late thirties and forties, women begin to indicate a desire for life partners instead of a parental partner, and the desire for children stabilizes. Such is not true of men. Instead their rate for wanting children continues to soar, This, I inferred, may be one source of intermarriage, as these men now look outside Judaism and into the local population for potential mothers of their children.

This brings us back to Isaac and Rebecca. Abraham was clear in his instructions to Eliezer that was exactly what he didn’t want to happen with Isaac.

3. And I will make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven, and the God of the earth, that you shall not take a wife for my son of the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I live;4. But you shall go to my country, and to my family, and take a wife for my son Isaac. [Gen 24:3-4]

Eliezer faces the problem of American Jewish singles: Where to find this adequate person in a place that is so big, it becomes impossible to navigate. Such is the Jewish American dating scene. It is very different from the medieval Kehilla of our ancestors, where the matchmaker was critical. Parents rather early in adolescence would use a matchmaker to find a partner for their children. There reason for this was rather pragmatic and not what you would expect. Besides the reproductive reasons, a teen with the raging hormones of that age would have a committed intimate partner to sexually express themselves instead of falling into promiscuity. Such young marriages would also be at a time where the child did not have a lot of worldly experience, and thus were more flexible in compatibility with a mate. Modern dating’s search for a committed partner means as much as two decades of experience. This has shaped a personality which has more requirements for compatibility than the pliable medieval teen. That medieval teen also lived in a small intimate community which had a lot of common ground among itself – the limitations of potential partners assured better compatibility. Yet in modernity, our choices of potential people, including dating among other religions, are vast. With less than 2 in 1000 Americans being Jewish adults, and only a minority of those single, this becomes quite the task to find a potential partner. The options are often beyond our ability to choose. The success of Internet sites such as or are in response to this, which gives singles some community with at least a few common attributes.

The success of one particular Jewish author and journalist shows one other problem, also noted in our text by an interesting absence. Moses and Jacob both charmed their potential mates into marriage. According to Midrash, Joshua was so charismatic he hooked the hottest woman in the region: Rahab. But Isaac never says or does anything to attract a mate. He may have had no social skills. The success of Neil Strauss and his book “The Game” points out another deficiency we may have unintentionally created. Strauss writes early in the book that society does not prepare us to meet the opposite sex. Often we are given false images in the media of what it is to date. These idealized or trivialized methods leave us unprepared for the real thing, and may even intimidate enough to keep people single. Strauss took an extreme course of action, becoming a member of the world of the pickup artist in order to learn those skills, and the book is his chronicle of two years in that community. Strauss’ book set off an avalanche of people, both men and women, clamoring for his secrets, of just getting enough knowledge to get a date. The response to this book and indeed the number of books on similar topics sitting on the local bookstore’s Self-help shelf point to how poor many a good Jewish boy’s and girl’s skill at meeting and connecting with potential mates may be.

Given all the obstacles for singles to date, it is a miracle on the order of splitting the Red sea to get two people together. In my mind, dating has not been good to the Jews, yet it is the mating system of the western world. Yet, Isaac and Rebecca did it, as have generations since. Like Isaac and Rebecca, I still believe such the miracle of finding a mate is possible as I begin to tool up my life to the task of finding my beloved. I know the problems. I’m still not sure of the solutions, though I believe one component of that is communities who help Jewish singles get together in a comfortable environment. Getting to the point where I break the glass under the Huppa with my beloved will be quite the journey, harder than the Masters degree by far. But this too will be a journey which is a Matter of Torah, and not only I but the Jewish world needs to learn.