Friday, November 27, 2009

Vayetze 5770: What is are Dudaim?

In this week’s portion Jacob is on his way to Uncle Laban's and on his first night out has a dream telling him everything will be all right. He reaches Laban's lands, falls in love with his cousin Rachel, but is tricked into marrying his cousin Leah first. While not desired by Jacob, Leah apparently is far more fertile than her sister Rachel. So the two sisters begin a furious battle with themselves and their concubines trying to chunk out the kids leading to twelve boys and one girl. Rachel is barren though much of this, and halfway through this battle we have an interesting incident involving Leah oldest son Ruben.
14. And Reuben went in the days of wheat harvest, and found duda-im in the field, and brought them to his mother Leah. Then Rachel said to Leah, Give me, I beg you, of your son’s duda-im. 15. And she said to her, Is it a small matter that you have taken my husband? and would you take away my son’s duda-im also? And Rachel said, Therefore he shall lie with you to night for your son’s duda-im. 16. And Jacob came from the field in the evening, and Leah went out to meet him, and said, You must come in to me; for I have hired you with my son’sduda-im. And he lay with her that night.[Genesis 30]
Leah apparently gets pregnant from this and Issachar is born, followed by Zebulon and finally Dinah. Rachel remains barren until she give birth to Joseph, At the core of this story is the Duda-im, mentioned only one other place in the text
The duda-im give forth fragrance, and at our gates are all kinds of choice fruits, new and old, which I have laid up for you, O my beloved.[Song of Songs 7:14]
The imagery of 7:11-14 is of two lovers running away to a storage shed full of harvested fruits, which the duda-im give forth fragrance. By rabbinic times there was a debate as to what the duda-im were. Sanhedrin 99b has duda-im as mandrakes, violets, or mandrake flowers, which also are purplish in color. The targums all agree it is a mandrake. Taking apart the word duda-im, we have a root of “DVD” which mean beloved or loving. The –im ending indicates a masculine plural. While the Greeks translated it into “love apples” it may be better described as “Male lovings,” referring to the way the roots of the mandrake split into different parts. Many have noted this tendency and the roots tendency to split into what looks like arms and legs, giving the impression of a human being or small child. Legends that go back at least to Josephus tell of the scream of the Mandrake when harvested which could kill a man if he was too close and that mandrakes were harvested by tying them to a dog and having the dog pull them, though this kills the dog.

However the Josephus legend, further spread by the Harry Potter books, may be partially true, though not of sound but of smell. As the Song of Songs indicates the mandrake gives off a smell, The word in Aramic Yavruchin also has the word for smell as its root. Genesis 30, many legends and herbal medicine all describe the mandrake as an aphrodisiac, and there is some evidence to that. However, freshly pulled root might just give off enough aromatic chemicals to kill someone or seriously injure them in an overdose.
What those chemicals are not only give evidence of an aphrodisiac, but a very dark one. In the mandrake root, there are high, and sometimes lethal amounts of Atropine,Hyoscyamine, and scopolamine, all part of the family of Anticholinergics. While in small dosages these are well known pharmaceuticals for a variety of illnesses and conditions, including gastrointestinal illness and seasickness. In larger quantities they can cause an increased heart rate, dementia and hallucinations. It is this overdose that might be the reason mandrakes are aphrodisiacs, but a very dark one. So dark, Arabs called them the Devils apples. Scopolamine in particular has had a rather dark reputation as both a truth serum and as a date rape drug. Finding Mandrakes in someone’s cupboard in the middle ages was enough to get them burned as a a witch. The pulling of a fresh root might have made for some legendary hallucinations and more than a few deaths when inhaled.
While it is clear that they might be one of the darker aphrodisiacs, since there is no fertility component to the mandrake, what did Rachel want them so desperately for? Was it for her own consumption or someone else’s? I’m still not sure. The rabbinic take on the story is that Leah got the kids out of the deal, and Rachel the mandrake. Rachel however remained barren, and as Rachel says herself when Joseph is born “God has taken away my reproach”[Gen 30:23] It was God that did all this, and none of her badgering or cures could change things. The context of the story was fertility, Jacob’s fertility was obviously not in doubt, but hers was. A psychotropic drug for Jacob to love Rachel doesn’t make sense either, he loved Rachel far more than Leah. Several medieval commentaries out of Spain note that Rueben intended them for his Mother's use to increase her fertility. Maybe Rachel was not only planning to use then herself but prevent Leah form using them, A plan which obviously backfired.

Knowing how a mandrake works and its possibility of being a date rape drug at its darkest use left me with speculation, imagination and not any good answers. Was Rachel, known for her impulsiveness and lack of good behavior also a drug addict, addicted to the scopolamine ? Was she going to use the mandrakes on someone to do something? Was this witchcraft -- mind control of someone to do something? Was Reuben's mistake that lost him the birthright really his doing or a mandrake potion? Was Leah going to try to win the love of her husband through a love potion and gain a unfair advantage over here sister? Or was it the simple explanation that while mandrakes do not increase fertility, she believed they did.
I leave it to you to think about.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Toledot 5769: Who are Judith and Basemath?

This week we have the story of the birth of Esau and Jacob, Jacob’s bargaining Esau out of his birthright for a pot of stew, A short trip to Philistine territory to escape a famine and then Jacob and Rebekah trick Isaac out of the blessing, leading to Jacob leaving for his Uncle Laban more out of a fear for his life than to find a wife. By this point Esau has two wives, and Rebekah uses her disgust with these two wives to have Isaac look for a wife far away among her family in Paddan-Aram.
34. And Esau was forty years old when he married Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Bashemath the daughter of Elon the Hittite; 35. And they made life bitter for Isaac and for Rebekah.[Gen 26]
Who are these two women, and why were they such a problem? The answer actually makes for even more confusion.When we read the genealogy of Esau
2. Esau took his wives of the daughters of Canaan; Adah the daughter of Elon the Hittite, and Aholibamah the daughter of Anah the daughter of Zibeon the Hivite; 3. And Bashemath Ishmael’s daughter, sister of Nebaioth. [Gen 36]
In Genesis 28:9 Ismael’s Daughter here is Mahalath, not Basemath. Basemath is now Elon’s daughter. Judith is totally replaced by Aholibamah, who apparently have two fathers, one the son of the other (Gen 38:24-25) The problem is most of the major commentaries don’t give us any idea why this situation happens or why there are five women’s names all married to Esau, even though he had only three wives. One could take the documentary hypothesis and call it a case of bad editing of course, but that give us no insights. It take Rashi to make some sense out of it. Basemath and Adah are the same person according to Rashi. Aholibama and Judith are also the same. Similarly Basemath and Mahalath are also the same person.
Why all these names though? Even in modern society, we all have multiple names. I am my pseudonym and Hebrew name Shlomo, my secular name Steve, and even my Social security number. Each is different, but each is a label placed on me. Yet in biblical texts names are more significant. Issac’s name comes from the root to laugh, indicating the laughter of his mother Sarah when told she was going to have a son, and when he was actually born. Similarly these names according to rabbinic traditions may hold word meanings within them. The word for spices, often used in incense, is basamim. Basemah is a singular feminine ending on the root BSM, meaning Basemath was doing something with spices, probably offering them to idols in Rashi’s view. Rashi also had something to say about the name Bahalath, which associates with the word to pardon. Esau was pardoned from his previous transgression of marrying Caanites, which was prohibited by his grandfather Abraham, by marrying within the family again, in this case his cousin from Uncle Ishmael. Why her name changes to Basemath later is Esau's other wives corrupted her.
Judith, otherwise known as Aholibama is a little more complicated. Aholibama could easily mean my tent is an altar. the Targum Neofiti I suggest that the word for bitter in 26:35 is really licentious -- she was active in idolatrous sexual practices. Rashi comments on both father and son being her father pointing to another idolatrous sexual practice -- incest. To hide this out of bounds sexual nature Esau tried changing her name, though that did not stop Isaac and Rebekah from a lot of stress.
I was trying to find something to redeem Judith and Basemath in the Biblical text, and explain them differently. Unfortunately their names give us some insight into why they were such trouble for Issac and Rebecca. For some who want more logical than literary explanation this might sound weak. Yet, in interpreting Aggadah, such tools are often useful. Whether all these contradictions in names were because of bad editing or were intentionally there to makes us ask the questions, we can gain insight and increase the richness of the stories.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Hayei Sara 5770: Was That a Stupid Sign, or What?

This week we follow the story from the death and burial of Sarah, Isaac's marriage to Rebecca through the death of Abraham.

In the middle of this week's portion{Gen 24} is the story of Isaac getting a bride. When Abraham was old, Isaac is still feeling down about his mother's death. Abraham therefore sends his head of servants to find Isaac a wife. Abraham makes this unnamed servant, who most think was the Eliezer from his commando raid to save Lot, take an oath not to find one of the local girls. Instead he is go back to the old country, find some woman related to Abraham, and bring her back. When Eliezer gets to the old country, he's totally clueless about how to proceed. So he prays for a sign. The maiden who offers to give him water as well as his 10 camels will be Isaacs bride. A soon as he finishes a "good looking maiden, a virgin, no man had known her" [Gen 24:16] named Rebecca does in fact offer to give water to his camels. He gives her some trinkets and asks her name. Dumbfounded, he finds she is a relative of Abraham. She offers lodging for both him and the camels. Rebecca then runs and tells her family all about this stranger. After some storytelling and bargaining over timetables,he convinces her relatives for Rebecca to leave with him as soon as possible. They start out , and when she sees Isaac for the first time, she swoons so much she falls off her camel. They meet, immediately marry, head over to Sarah's tent and live happily ever after, or at least until the twins are born.

Talmud and Midrash notes the request to water camels as one of the five dumbest oaths ever given in Tanach. Yet, unlike any of the the other four, this frivolous line is often repeated in the text of the story. "Drink and I will also water your camels" is repeated four times: three times by Eliezer, and once by Rebecca, who adds "Until they (the camels) finish drinking." Repetition in the text is usually a way of reinforcing.

Camels drink a lot of water, and usually all at once. A camel can drink up to 30 gallons at a time, meaning Rebecca could have drawn 300 gallons of water, if she kept her promise that they have their fill. This is not a frivolous task- it is a task of deep hospitality.

The Midrash tells us the tents were closed after Sarah's death. It was from an open tent that Abraham was able to see the three angels from last week's parsha. Abraham's hospitality was dependent on Sarah's. Note Abraham ordered Sarah to bake cakes. In that hospitality was holiness, and no where is more the place for hospitality than the kitchen- the place of food. I always notice how people, no matter what the event, congregate in the kitchen or around the grill on the patio. In a strange sense, the original temple service was nothing but a big barbecue. Often it is in cooking food that we connect with each other. When there is joy in the kitchen there is holiness in the house.

Abraham's home and hospitality wasn't the same without Sarah. Eliezer knew this and thought that the greatest thing that the next generation could have was the return of hospitality. A woman who would go the extra distance when a stranger approached was the best for Isaac.

Rebecca understood the power of the kitchen. Later in Genesis, there are stories about cooking. She would eventually teach her favorite son Jacob how to cook. He would eventually use his culinary wizardry to get his brother to give him the birthright for a bowl of stew. She would use her own culinary wizardry to help Jacob get the blessing as well. Rebecca knew how to cook, but to go the extra distance she didn't just feed the people, she gave water and offered food to the camels.

At the end of our story Rebecca is taken to Sarah's tent. The Midrash[Breshit rabba 60:16] notes when Sarah was alive, the dough was always blessed, and a cloud resided over the tent. When she died both disappeared, only to return after Rebecca took up residence. To most this cloud was the cloud of the divine presence the Shechina. I think a little differently than this. I've seen that cloud, or more often smelled it. Between Chicago's wind and local environmental laws limiting the amount of particulate matter from ovens, often its hard to see these days. To me its the smell of my true home: the kitchen. Its the smell of good cooking. Good cooking wafts through the air and says "Come on in! Come and get it!" I believe the cloud which is the Shechina can be found is in the cloud of smoke from an oven or stove. When the ovens are alive, the house is holy, for there is the chance for hospitality. Both men and women when they fire up the grills, ovens, ranges, and mixers, only to share that which they make are doing some of the holiest work of all- feeding family, friends and strangers.

Eliezer did not make a frivolous statement at all. It was incredibly pointed. The woman who would feed and give drink to anyone, reguardless of species or the effort involved, that would be the one for Isaac. In our modern lives, what would be the thing we most want our potential mate, or current mate to say to us. What one thing, what "let me water your camels" statement wraps up the values we search for in that person? Eliezer was clear in what he was looking for and with God's help, being so clear he found it immediately. Maybe if we are as clear, with God's help, we will find what we are looking for as well.

Vayera 5770: Is the Akedah Significant Today?

This has been a nightmare to write. It's so difficult to write I could not even get it done in time for last Shabbat. At issue is once again the Akedah, the binding of Issac to be sacrificed,. Abraham's final test by God.

Many might say this is an obsolete story. Many say it lies so contrary to the tradition to want to remove it. Many of course find the actions of both God and Abraham reprehensible to kill a small boy. A lot more have tried to make sense of the story, and midrash abounds on what happened and what was really going on. There is no one answer. The story reflects the times and personality of anyone who approaches it. Maybe that is why such a story makes into the Rosh Hashanah literature: to hold up a mirror to ourselves, an honest assessment of who we are and what choices we would have made on the mountain. Not just as Abraham but as Issac and God as well.

This year I've seen the Akeda in very clearly, and very simply. Abraham is given a choice: Give up your son or give up becoming a people that number like the stars. Give up something you always wanted and worked hard for, you have two: choose one. The reflective mirror of the Akedah has been my plight for a few weeks. While I will not get into many details of my story, it is clear in my mind the Isaac of my story is the son I have lived with for eight years, ands struggled with for eight years. That son of course is not flesh and bone, but is loved by me as much as if he was: this weekly commentary, Shlomo's Drash. I've tried before to give it up, at times others have wanted me to stop. But I never have, because Shlomo's Drash is part of me and is loved by me so much. For so long it had been my deep connection to a way of Jewish thinking I find so rare today in any movement: delving deep into the books of Talmud and Midrash, and seeing the writings of the close to thousand year period of the rabbinic period come to life. It has been an outpouring of my soul as well, an exploration and confession of someone struggling to be a modern Jew.

Yet, on the other hand there is much in the world of flesh and blood I need to support. To support it requires time, time which needs to come from somewhere. In far too many ways, the effort is the realization of dreams and prayers of mine for a very long time. Being there to support and be involved in that effort is difficult. Like a famine on the land, becomes more difficult each passing day, as my own strength begins to fail while those around me are already faltering. In economic bad times, I am sure I am not the only one with this dilemma. For many of us we simply hesitate longer and longer, not making the decision of what to do, hoping that the Angel will come out of a cloud and tell us what to do, or provide us with that ram as an alternative. We are desperately waiting, and yet, there is no answer.

I think that's the question many look at. Many may not know it, I've just realized it myself. the Akedah puts two things we highly value and puts them to us to choose one. Like Abraham picking up the knife, the test does not have any intervention until we act. This choice has paralyzed me for weeks, making it near impossible to write or relate to. But this week, a week after this was supposed to go out, I wonder something else about the text: why did Abraham not see the ram himself? Why did the angel have to open his eyes for him?

I have two answers, one psychological, and one just a little psychotic, but sage wisdom nevertheless. The first is that Abraham was so intent on the choice, that he only saw the two options. And in his case the dream of a people outweighed the love for his son, even if it was a heart wrenching decision. On the other hand, it's because he never studied with the Rabbis. Rabbinic thinking would have found shades of meaning in the dilemma, and also alternatives that many would consider "outside the box." While in their own writing in Midrash they only give interpretation of the narrative, I believe if a Talmudic sage like Raba were stuck in the same situation, they would have seen the ram in the thicket and every other alternative that was at their disposal. The study of rabbinic literature trains the mind to see the other possibilities, to see the ram even when God did not open their eyes, but know that God put it there for them to find.

The closest I have found to my own dilemma is a bit of a compromise: Shlomo's Drash has a 1,000 word limit on it. Unlike this piece, which is my own ramblings, I will also go back to a fundamental precept I did a while ago: explore the Talmud and Midrash and Targums more than I have -- the personal stuff is getting ejected, it gets in the way of writing. I cannot stay still waiting for God to give me the answer, I will choose neither choice, and make up my own based on the ancient writings. In the modern Akedas we find ourselves in, maybe that is the true way to pass the test.

Lecha lecha 5770: We have liftoff.

Note to readers: Yes I know this is very late, but there's been a lot of stress on my time to work on Shlomo's Drash. This and Vayera will be late of course, and hopefully I'll pick up with Haye Sara by Thursday.

This week we read:
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]

It has been said so many times it almost sounds trite. What an incredible thing is was for Abram to leave virtually everything behind and go somewhere completely foreign, unknown and dangerous. Lately I've had a lot to think about in that realm, the latest only minutes before I started to write this. I watched the Ares I- X launch from Kennedy Space Center via the Internet. It is far from clear if the Ares I and V rockets and their respective manned spacecraft will ever be developed. Many believe it a big waste of money that could be better spent here on Earth. When discussing the return on investment what can be developed in space often takes center stage in arguments, which is often lacking. Is it enough to invest in such a program? Should we go to the moon again, the ultimate goal of building these rockets?
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 made in Haran; and they went forth to go to the land of Canaan; and to the land of Canaan they came.[Genesis 9]
Yet what Abraham is doing is not for profit, it's more for prophet. There are many Midrashim about Abraham leaving his home, the one most known is the one about him smashing the Idols. While many think of a precocious teen, reading the the entire passage in GenesisRabbah gives a different view -- he may have been already in his seventies. Yet another Midrash is more significance, commenting on the odd phrase " the souls that they made in Haran," since no one but God can make a soul.
It refers, however, to the proselytes [which they had made]. Then let it say, ' That they had converted ‘; why THAT THEY HAD MADE? That is to teach you that he who brings a Gentile near [to God] is as though he created him. Now let it say, ' That he had made ‘; why THAT THEY HAD MADE? Said R.Hunia: Abraham converted the men and Sarah the women.3

The souls made were men and women who were inspired by Abram and Sari's vision of monotheism.Midrash can only infer such things, it is not written in the biblical text. We can only guess the thoughts of Abram at that time. I can only guess what many people thought of the Apollo moon missions, based on my own experience. I was four years old when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, but by any measure, it completely blew me away, evidenced by the large number of space toys in my room, including my G.I. Joe astronaut, the play rocket ship and my spacesuit helmet. It made a little kid dream Kids older than me could dream too, and I suspect some of them transformed our world, founding such companies as Microsoft and Apple, inventing technology Apollo 11 mission control could not conceive of. . I have no measures, but I have the feeling that the moonshots inspired many young boys and girls to study science and technology, to be one of those people up there in space. Inspiration is far underrated, since where inspiration takes us is immeasurable.

Before Space entered our imaginations, it was the Sea. While the profit margin and prestige to get to the Far East was high, the adventure of getting there was a large part of the battle. Explorers likeDiaz and De Gama made incredible trips to find routes there. There was danger, there was the unknown. THe ability to have the courage to do something that might end in your death if you failed often accompanied such journey.DeGama's expedition did find the route to India past Cape point and around the continent of Africa. Two weeks ago, I visited the lighthouse at cape point, in an air conditioned Toyota minivan after a 12-hour business class plane ride in a Boeing 747 from London. It was nothing like the risk early explorers took. there is very little on the planet which has not been discovered and explored to the point of being safe for tourism.Apollo 1, and the two shuttle disasters underline the danger in exploring space. It is dangerous and that makes it inspiring in ways other things do not.

Abram and Sarai inspired people to think their way according to the Midrash, as they inspire us today. Three faiths trace themselves to this man and his family walking across a dangerous, inhospitable desert to somewhere he has never seen. Space exploration, and the voyages of sea explorers did the same thing once. Sadly, we have lost our sense of awe, our sense of inspiration of entering the unknown. Hebrew uses the same word for fear and awe. We all too often fear and cower from the unknown, instead of feel awe and charge forward. I don't know if we as a people get the WOW! we get watching the Ares launch as the awe watching Apollo 11 head to the moon. Abram andSarai's story is often made literal and trite, the merits lost in the modern criticism for what he did wrong to his family.

I think of wonder and inspiration these days as I'm in such unknown territory myself. Sweetie, who did leave her home her friends and her family to be with me is probably experiencing it to an even greater extent. We both are in in the unknown, the scariest yet most common "lechlecha " -- the one of relationships. The danger of breaking up is always there, as we see in the world around us. Relationships may be the ultimate unknown territory. Abram certainly had his problems, but he did undertake the venture of going to a place God would show him. He was inspiring to anyone trying to do something new, unknown and dangerous.

How many of us do that on a regular basis? How many of us are inspirational to others in our courage to do the unknown and possibly dangerous thing?