Israel and America: Numbers 23 & 24 – Balaam continued

Numbers 23&24 Balaam continued: Israel and America

by

Howard Adelman

It is virtually impossible to binge watch six hours a day for four days in a row, first the Republican Party Convention in Cleveland last week and then the Democratic Party Convention in Philadelphia this week, go to the cottage in between, fulfill one’s day-to-day obligations and appointments as well as write a daily blog. The biggest temptation is to drop the line you have been following and switch to the rich source of material in each of the conventions. I will write about them in more detail, but initially only through a biblical lens.

In my last blog, we were near the end of Chapter 22 of Numbers. The angel of the Lord had just told Balaam: “Go with these men, but the word I will speak to you-that you shall speak.” Balaam went with the messengers of Balak. When Balak greeted Balaam, he also rose up on his high kingly horse and remonstrated Balaam for not coming in response to the previous two summons. Not something likely to endear Balaam to Balak! Balaam then replied: “Behold I have come to you, do I have any power to say anything? The word God puts into my mouth-that I will speak.” I am merely the vehicle for God’s voice, he insists.

After making a sacrifice together, the next morning they went to overlook the encampment of the Israelites, or, at least, part of it. Balaam asks Balak to obtain seven bulls and seven rams to sacrifice on each of seven separate altars. Was this the voice of God instructing Balak through Balaam? After the burnt offerings are made, Balaam insists he has to go off alone so that God might perhaps reveal Himself to him. Then, of course, the details of the sacrifices could not have come from God. And who does Balaam run into by chance? God. So Balaam tells God about the sacrifices he made on the seven altars. Rashi writes that this chance meeting by day meant that, “God appeared to him with reluctance and with contempt.” Meetings between man and God are deliberate events, not chance encounters. God decides when and where to reveal Himself, usually on a mountain top. Further, Balaam was clearly competing with the three patriarchs of the Israelites in building seven altars, as many as Abraham (4), Isaac (1) and Jacob (2) altogether.

When Balaam returned to Balak, he noted that he, Balak, had asked him to curse (מֵהַרְרֵי) the Israelites. (This is the weak sense of curse, the verbal exercise in damning another and not the strong sense, pronouncing that the Israelites were already damned.) Jacob was to be cursed and then the wrath against Israel was to be invoked. Jacob was the old name of the Israelites. They had been reborn as Israel. Why would one be asked to lay a curse on a people that no longer went by that name? And how would cursing the house of Jacob result in invoking God’s wrath against the Israelites? Did Balaam recognize the paradox that God had put into his own mouth? What he uttered was like the trick utterance of a Delphic oracle? Balaam most likely did not understand, but certainly, Balak would not have had a clue.

Then Balaam asks Balak a question. How could I do it? Not how could I lay a curse upon a people that no longer goes by that name. But how can I curse the house of Jacob when God has not cursed them? And if they are not cursed and God is not angry with them, who am I to invoke God’s wrath? Rashi has another fascinating interpretation.

Even when they deserved to be cursed, they were not cursed, [namely,] when their father [Jacob] recalled their iniquity, [by saying,] “for in their wrath they killed a man” (Gen. 49:6), he cursed only their wrath, as it says, “Cursed be their wrath” (ibid. 7). When their father [Jacob] came in deceit to his father [Isaac], he deserved to be cursed. But what does it say there? “He, too, shall be blessed” (ibid. 27:33). Regarding those who blessed, it says, “These shall stand to bless the people” (Deut. 27:12). However, regarding those who cursed, it does not say, “These shall stand to curse the people” but, “These shall stand for the curse” (ibid. 13), for He [God] did not want to mention the word ‘curse’ in reference to them [the people]. — [Mid. Tanchuma Balak 12, Num. Rabbah 20:19]

Rather than invoking God’s wrath, it was the wrath of Isaac that should have been directed towards Jacob, his deceiving son, but, instead, it was the wrath itself that was cursed and the house of Jacob had been blessed. Just as Isaac had been saved from Abraham by offering an animal as a sacrifice, so Jacob had been saved from being cursed because God cursed Isaac’s wrath and thus turned it into a blessing. The turning of something into its opposite had been adumbrated. In other words, though, I have been summoned by you, Balak, to curse the Israelites, they have already been blessed by God, so any curse I utter will be transformed into a blessing. Israeli exceptionalism is being invoked. “God bless America” is the rite that usually comes at the end of every speaker’s invocation after they spoke at the Democratic Convention.

As virtually every commentator has noted, the choice over the last two weeks has been between an America that had been cursed (Donald Trump’s portrait), a nation that lived in fear and terror, weak and torn apart, threatened from without and from within, to repeat, a nation cursed, versus the Democratic vision of a nation blessed and not cursed, the home of the free and the brave and not of cowering, fearful and frightened citizens. Will America, will Israel, be a nation that dwells alone, that remains an exceptional witness to a divine aspiration for humanity, or will it be like other nations that succumb to their fears? Or is the only thing really to fear, fear itself? When listening and watching the Democratic Convention, you cannot help but feel that you are at a very ritualistic mass Bible meeting, one conducted to try to lift a curse that has befallen America, versus the portrait being conveyed by an itinerant snake oil salesman that the nation is indeed cursed and only he can save it, versus a religious revival movement of counting one’s blessings and playing those blessings forward to raise everyone up in a tide of hope.

Balaam too has been sought out to curse a nation, but all his utterances are belied by the reality, that the nation is blessed. And so, though he would spread his curses, his curses would only reveal how blessed is that nation, mostly by being free of demagogues and megalomaniacs like him. You cannot govern a nation or sow a field with an ox looking only at the black soil yoked to a donkey braying into the wind. It is only from the mouth of the donkey, not the bellowing of a bull, that we will hear the words of the Lord. Yoking the two together will mean that the field will not be plowed and the braying and the bellowing will drown out the voices of one another.

Well, as you can imagine, Balak did not respond favourably to what he had been told by Balaam, that the Israelites were indeed blessed. “What have you done to me? I took you to curse my enemies, but you have blessed them!” (23:11) Balaam responded: “What the Lord puts into my mouth that I must take care to say.” (23:12) In other words, the bully of an ox had been made to speak like the braying of a donkey that spent its life in loyal service to another.

Balak did not give up. Three times he had summoned Balaam to come to him. Now he would summon Balaam a second and a third time to curse the Israelites.
וקבנו לי: לשון צווי, קללהו לי:
But Balaam continued to bray like a donkey, revealing, in spite of himself, what a blessed nation the Israelites were and Americans are. The Israelites bred prophets. The Midianites bred a famous soothsayer, Balaam. “For there is no divination in Jacob and no soothsaying in Israel.” (3:23) Soothsayers are oracles who read the equivalent of tea leaves and claim to see the future and curse the present. Diviners and fortune tellers, they are false prophets for they do not point to failures in the present that will result in tragedy in the future, but rather claim that the present is a tragedy. A soothsayer may claim that only he can transform a disaster into a rosy future. A soothsayer is a mountebank, a con artist, a reader of crystal balls, but in this satire worthy of Jonah, this soothsayer reveals himself as a he-ass, a teller of truths while intending to utter curses, but, and this is the irony, the truth told by a soothsayer will turn into a curse. People will believe they are so blessed that they become arrogant and insensitive to their failures.

Balaam praises and describes the Israelites as rising (from their impoverished state) “like a lioness (See Malbim) and raises itself like a lion. It does not lie down until it eats its prey and drinks the blood of the slain.” (23:24) The nation does not just destroy its enemies; it cannibalizes them. It does not just defeat the enemy; it commits atrocities against them. Balak asks Balaam rhetorically: “You shall neither curse them nor shall you bless them?” (23:24) Balaam now rebukes Balak: “’Everything the Lord speaks that I shall do” (23:25) without recognizing what an unwitting, what a witless, diviner he really is.

Well Balaam, in braying like an ass and blessing rather than cursing, saw himself as being favoured by God. He even gave up divination convinced that he had become a true prophet. But you had to know he was not. Because he turned “his face toward the desert,” (24:1), not the promised land, toward a past of idol worship rather than a future as a self-governing nation. Just as his face turned toward the desert, he raised his eyes from staring at the dirty soil beneath his feet. What did he see? The Israelites were blessed as a people and as a nation. Rashi describes the malevolence in his heart as follows: “an evil eye, a haughty spirit, and greed mentioned above (22:13,18). – [Avoth 5:19, Mid. Tanchuma Balak 6, Num. Rabbah 20:10]”

Margaret Atwood in Morning in the Burned House (“In the Secular Night”) wrote:

There is so much silence between the words,
you say. You say, The sensed absence
of God and the sensed presence
amount to much the same thing,
only in reverse.

Balaam said, “The word of Balaam the son of Beor [the beast] and the word of a man with an open eye.” (24:3) What is the word of the man with an open eye compared to the word of a man who prays with his eyes closed? Balaam is like the man who stands in the synagogue and, while everyone is praying with their eyes closed, he has one eye open looking around. Instead of participating in prayer, he looks sceptically upon the others or, not very differently, looks to see and use what he sees rather than presenting himself naked before God. You say. You say. Balaam says. And Balaam says. His words belie any possibility of embracing silence and hearing, and not just mouthing, the words of God. Words cannot bridge that silence. What Balaam utters is meaningless to himself. His words ring hollow because they are hollow, because there is no narrative behind them. They will mean the reverse of what they say. And what we heard over the last four days were stories and not just words, stories of individual Americans and a story of America itself. And the principal story of Hillary herself.

She began with expressing thanks to her daughter, Chelsea, for an introduction that conveyed how Hillary’s words as a mother had served as an anchor for Chelsea’s whole life, providing a grounding for her own understanding of life and its challenges. Hillary gave thanks to her own mother for insisting at the age of four that she not wallow in self pity but go out to face the mob with their harsh words and insults. L’dor va’dor. From generation to generation.

And with Bill? In different words from Margaret Atwood:

You fit into me
like a hook into an eye
A fish hook
An open eye.

A hook into an open eye. Balaam uttered “the word of the man with an open eye,” not the words of a many with both eyes open, as one who hears God and sees the vision, as one who may be stricken, but one who gazes at the world and sees its faults and does not focus his other eye on himself in a continuous series of selfies. Hillary and Bill had been linked together with language, sometimes false language that treated her as a fish caught by Bill with a hook in her eye. They had been through great troubles and tribulations. But they rose above it, helped by the waves of love so apparent in that convention, the waves of love that rise like the ocean tides and can never be mistaken for false sentiment. “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!” (24:5) “Water will flow from his wells, and his seed shall have abundant water; his king shall be raised over Agag, and his kingship exalted.” (24:7)

Balak was incensed with Balaam’s words. Balaam protested: “I was just uttering God’s words. I was not responsible for my actions. I was just a conduit. And Balaam prophesizes what the Israelites will do to the Moabites. But it is a false prophecy for from the Moabites will emerge Ruth, one of the great, if not the greatest, prophet in all of Israel. Verses 15 and 16 repeat:

He took up his parable and said, “The word of Balaam, son of Beor, the word of a man with an open eye.
The word of the one who hears God’s sayings and perceives the thoughts of the Most High; who sees the vision of the Almighty, fallen yet with open eyes.
So Balaam hears God’s words with one eye open and later will understand them when he is cast down and finally both eyes will be opened and he will be able to see the world freed up from his own mindblindness. A ruler shall come out of Jacob, but that ruler will descend from the loins of Ruth, a Moabite. Balaam envisions war throughout the Middle East as each nation is ravaged in turn by Israel. It is an apocalyptic vision, not a vision of Israel serving as a light unto the nations.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Jacob and Esau: Part II The Prize and the Deception

Jacob and Esau: Tol’dot – Genesis 25:19-28:9

Part II: The Prize and the Deception

by

Howard Adelman

In the last blog, I described the character of the two brothers. In this blog, I depict how the dynamic of their relationship works out in Jacob obtaining Isaac’s blessing.

Recall, there are three, rather than two blessings. Actually, as we shall see, there are four, for there is even one referred to before the first, but it is given no descriptive content. The first fulsome blessing, as distinct from the one without any content, was ostensibly meant for Esau; Jacob receives it. “May God give you of the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth, Abundance of new grain and wine. Let peoples serve you, And nations bow to you; Be master over your brothers, And let your mother’s sons bow to you. Cursed be they who curse you, Blessed they who bless you.” (Genesis 27: 29-30)

Then there is the one given as a substitute to Esau, as a consolation prize.

“See, your abode shall enjoy the fat of the earth And the dew of heaven above. Yet by your sword you shall live, And you shall serve your brother; But when you grow restive, You shall break his yoke from your neck.” (Genesis 27: 39-40)

In both blessings, each gets rich. But in the first, one emerges as a ruler.  In the second, the individual will live as a samurai, by his wits and by means of his sword. And never remain willing to be a serf to any other. Esau is too much of a free spirit.

Then, in the next chapter, comes the third blessing given directly to Jacob whom Isaac recognizes as Jacob. “You shall not take a wife from among the Canaanite women. Up, go to Paddan-aram, to the house of Bethuel, your mother’s father, and take a wife there from among the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother, May El Shaddai bless you, make you fertile and numerous, so that you become an assembly of peoples. May He grant the blessing of Abraham to you and your offspring, that you may possess the land where you are sojourning, which God assigned to Abraham.” (Genesis 28:1-4)

Look at the difference between the three blessings. Only in the third does Isaac guarantee that Jacob will be the direct heir to the lineage of Abraham, that Jacob will become the don of this family. Like Isaac before him, Jacob is commanded to travel back to the family homestead, to travel back to the equivalent of Sicily as it were where he will both be safe from the wrath of Esau and obtain a wife from his own tribe, by marrying a cousin, a daughter of his mother’s brother, Laban. Then and only then, only on this condition, will El Shaddai, bless him. Not Isaac, but God Almighty Himself will bless Jacob. And the fallout from that blessing – ownership of the promised land assigned to Abraham.

Contrast this with the first blessing. It is not a promise, but a request. “May God give you…” And what does he get if God blesses him – abundant rain, rich crops from the earth. Supremacy and power over other people, including his own brothers. Most of all, it is a blessing for others, not Jacob, for people will be blessed who recognize Jacob’s worth – an irony for the interpretation that Isaac did not recognize who his son really was. Others will be cursed who curse the Hebrews, the direct and rightful heirs of Abraham.

This could not be a blessing intended for Esau. Esau was not a farmer, but a hunter. Why would he want abundant rain and rich soil? Further, as is clear from the rest of the story that follows, neither brother wants the other to bow before him, even when, each in his own way, seeks reconciliation with the other. Esau is not in search of power over others. However, coercion is the only way Esau knows how to survive. He could become a gunslinger, a lone lawman, a Wyatt or Virgil Earp, a Wild Bill Hickok or one of the less known Western marshals such as Johnny Behan. Jacob will get power inadvertently as people come to respect Jacob for who he is, not because he lords over the people with coercive force. Those who respect and comprehend the worth of Jacob and the people descended from him will he be blessed.

Now look at the second blessing that Esau does receive, the consolation prize. He too shall be a farmer with good rains and abundant soil. Not exactly a prize for a great hunter and adventurer. But Esau is condemned to live by the rule of the sword, through might rather than right. And though condemned to serve his brother, he will grow restive at being a servant and break the yoke that holds him in the position as a military commander and, possibly, a settled farmer. Thus, his energy, his might, his self-assurance, will all be of benefit to him. For Esau will not end up in service. But he is also not destined to win the respect of others, for, unlike Jacob, he will not be recognized as a righteous man, but he will be respected as the fastest gun in the West, a loner in defence of the law. Both Esau and Jacob will receive the blessing that is truest to their character and their role in history, the blessing of liberty, different types of liberty, but, in each case, one favoured by God.

Now I believe we are in a position to understand what happens when Jacob supposedly tricks Esau in receiving the first blessing. Recall who is bestowing the blessing, an old, blind father who was born as a late-life gift to both his parents, but grew up to be a passive character following his father willingly and quietly, ready to be slaughtered simply on the command of God. He was probably most likely traumatized by the effort, a man who weds a beautiful woman who is as wilful as he is not. She falls in love with him at first sight (or, as someone suggested to me, fell off her camel because she was so distraught at the impulsive and wilful (wrong) choice that she made). Isaac follows the pattern of his father and pretends Rebekah is his sister, not his wife, to Abimelech. Isaac is quickly caught and embarrassed, but Abimelech becomes his protector. And Isaac, working hard, makes a go of it and becomes wealthy.

However, when the Philistines challenge him, he does not fight back but moves on to find new wells, or, rather, to restore the wells his father once used. He is clearly not a fighting man; he is passive and perhaps a coward. But Abimelech protects him and God blesses him and promises him many heirs, but not because of who he is and for what he does, but for the sake of his father, Abraham. Isaac, the child born of joy, of laughter, has turned out to be a nebbish. And look who each parent favours. The wilful, independent Rebekah favours the passive, obedient and reflective child. The male parent, the introvert and scholar, favours the elder who is adventurous and can also supply him with wild game to eat.

Suddenly we jump years. Isaac is old. He is blind. He calls to his eldest. Esau replies, “I am here.” Isaac asks Esau to hunt the game he so loves. After that, after he eats the meal prepared from the game, he promises he will give Esau his innermost blessing. Is the promise of abundant rains and rich soil and crops, the supplication of other nations and rule over others, his innermost blessing? Or is the second fulsome blessing the one most suited to Esau, the one innermost in his thoughts, rather than the first, so unsuited to Esau’s personality? Perhaps Esau wanted Esau out of the house and delayed for awhile so he could secretly bestow his blessing on Jacob.

Here, I have to introduce a sidebar on Isaac. Though passive and somewhat of a nebbish, his name is laughter. But we have not seen much of it, certainly in the commentaries or character of Isaac as interpreted by most bookish commentators. They seem oblivious to the lightness of being. But irony and a twinkle even in a blind eye goes a long way to understanding Isaac. Isaac’s character must be read with laughter, with jocundity in mind. One is helped if the story of Jonah is understood as a satire and if one understands Hegel’s or Kierkegaard’s or Northrop Frye’s writings on irony. The misreading of Isaac’s character is akin to Plato’s misreading of Socrates. Aristophanes understood Socrates for he, like Isaac and Jacob, live in The Clouds.

As Kierkegaard wrote:

There is an irony that is only a stimulus for thought, that quickens it when it becomes drowsy, disciplines when it becomes dissolute. There is an irony that is itself the activator and in turn is itself the terminus striven for. There is a dialectic that in perpetual movement continually sees to it that the question does not become entrapped in an incidental understanding, that is never weary and is always prepared to set the issue afloat if it runs aground—in short, that always knows how to keep the issue in suspension and precisely therein and thereby wants to resolve it. There is a dialectic that, proceeding from the most abstract ideas, wants to let these display themselves in more concrete qualifications, a dialectic that wants to construct actuality with the idea. Finally, in Plato there is yet another element that is a necessary supplement to the deficiency in both the great forces. This is the mythical and the metaphorical. The first kind of dialectic corresponds to the first kind of irony, the second kind of dialectic to the second kind of irony; to the first two corresponds the mythical, to the last two the metaphorical—yet in such a way that the mythical is not indispensably related to either the first two or the last two but is more like an anticipation engendered by the one-sidedness of the first two or like a transitional element, a confinium[intervening border], that actually belongs neither to the one nor the other (Kierkegaard, The Concept of Irony, 121).

In the first story of Jacob so easily getting the birthright, seemingly the most important reward, from Esau, we have an example of irony that sets up the action, that serves as a stimulus for reflection, that belongs to the sphere of the mythical, that allows the reader to anticipate and the writer to adumbrate what happens in the seemingly more serious competition for Isaac’s (and God’s) blessing. In the mythical part of the parsha, the action is almost over as soon as it starts. In metaphorical irony, in irony focused and derived from the real interplay of characters, that belongs to plot rather than character portrayal, the stress seems to be on performance, but the meaning is about the suspension of belief, about the suspension of any simple resolution about what is taking place, about preventing any simplistic understanding, and, thereby, about resolving mis-understandings.

Look at how the trickery proceeds. First, it is Rebekah’s idea, not Jacob’s. Second, she tells Jacob that she overheard Isaac tell Esau to fetch him some game. Not a lie. I want, Rebekah says to Jacob, you to take advantage of the long time it will take before Esau hunts down some wild game and prepares a meal to just grab a couple of baby goats and she, Rebekah, will prepare them into a delectable meal. You, Jacob, take it into Isaac to get his blessing.  Did Isaac deliberately send Esau on a task that would take some time? Did Isaac know that Rebekah, just as Sarah overheard God’s messengers in discourse with Abraham, was also standing in the doorway overhearing Isaac’s conversation with Esau? Was Isaac aware or unaware of his wife listening to his conversation with Esau?

However, to understand the second metaphorical irony, we must understand that it consists of negation, of denying what is first put forth on the surface, of the trickery in obtaining the birthright. Getting the blessing, getting the guarantee, not a verbal transfer of a phenomenal prize in exchange for a cup of hot soup, is where we will find the real action. The second tale explicates the meaning of the first.

Jacob objects to Rebekah’s initial proposal. He does not say, “I do not even sound like Esau.” He says, in anticipation of his father feeling his arms, that he lacks Esau’s hairiness. Jacob is smooth-skinned. ‘If my father catches me, I will be revealed as a trickster,’ he tells his mother. Rebekah reassures him that it will work. Anyway, if Isaac finds out, the curse will be on her head for she is the initiator of the ruse, not Jacob. There is no explanation of why the trick will work, why Isaac will be taken in by someone who sounds like Jacob, why simply wearing Esau’s clothes, and hence smelling like Esau, why covering his arms with goat skins, will suffice to trick Isaac.

Initially, it seems that Isaac is onto the trick. Who are you? “Which of my sons stands before me?” (Genesis 27:19) Then Jacob tells an outright lie. “I am Esau, your first-born; I have done as you told me. Pray sit up and eat of my game, that you may give me your innermost blessing.” (Genesis 27:20) It’s unbelievable! Unbelievable that Isaac will be taken in with such a simplistic scam. It is even unbelievable that Jacob would tell an outright lie to his father, even on the direction and command of his mother. Isaac is now even more suspicious. ‘How did you hunt down the game so quickly?’ he asks. Jacob lies a second time. “Because the Lord your [not my or our, but your] God granted me good fortune.” (Genesis 27:21) Even more suspicious, Isaac tells him to approach. He feels his arms and find them to be hairy. He is perplexed. “The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau.” (Genesis 27:23)

Why did Isaac not check Jacob out further? Why did he not call on Rebekah or a servant to verify who stood before him? After all, the person before him sounded just like Jacob and any blind person depends on his ears much more than his sense of smell or touch to decide who or what is in front of him. It was not as Isaac he was about to die. He was in no real hurry. He still had lots of time. Even after he blessed Jacob, he retained his doubt. “Are you really my son Esau?” (Genesis 27:25) Jacob lies a third time. “I am,” he replies.

Talk about identity theft! Isaac then asks for the food and smells his son’s clothes, really Esau’s clothes, and then offers him the first blessing, which is really the second one for the first is given before he eats, but it does not have any content.

Let me ask a number of questions. When did Jacob become so unscrupulous? It seems totally out of character. He is the good son, the obedient son. Jacob’s eldest son will deceive him about Joseph’s death.  That could be excused, for Jacob’s eldest son wanted both to save his own skin (literally) and spare his father pain at the loss of his favourite. But to lie directly to your father and tell him you are the older brother just to get a blessing! For it is clear that he would get a blessing in any case. And why is Isaac literally so unbelievably naïve? And why does Rebekah concoct such an outlandish and virtually preposterous ruse?

I suggest a possible answer. Jacob is the one really being tricked. For what was it all for? Not to supplant Esau to inherit the right of primogeniture. For the blessing he does get, after the empty vessel of the first one, is one of riches. Nations will bow down in gratitude, as the nations do that go to share in the wealth of Egypt thanks to Joseph’s foresight. But those nations do not bow down in servitude, but in appreciation. The only mastery Jacob, and, via Joseph as well, that Isaac will obtain is mastery over his brother.  And even that will not last. For Esau will break the yoke of servitude.

But no nation will bow down to him and his progeny even in just gratitude unless he smartens up, unless he loses his naiveté, unless he learns somehow to become a Machiavellian. As Rav Kook wrote in a commentary on this parsha, “Even negative character traits have their place in the world. Ultimately, they too will serve the greater good.”  And if Jacob can learn to lie boldly to his father, admittedly under Rebekah’s direction, if Isaac is in on the trick and recognizes that Rebekah is correct in her prescience that Jacob is the only choice for the future of the family, then, like Michael Corleone, Jacob must switch course, or be made to switch course, but not as in the case of the Corleone family, by external circumstances, but through the guidance of the parents, primarily Jacob’s mother. He must, as Michael does, learn to acquire the koyach, the strength, the guts, the determination, the will-power, to become the don. Jacob has to learn to be a heel. Bad ways must be aufgehopt to serve a higher purpose. Isaac has to be in on the trick. He may be blind, but he is not stupid. But Jacob is not in on the trick. There is no indication that he recognizes that he is the true spiritual heir, for all he demonstrates is reluctance and his own father’s passivity under the circumstances. But in the process, he learns to tell three very bold lies.

Isaac knows full well that taste and touch and smell cannot be the primary methods of confirmation. Either hearing or sight is needed, and, as well, we recognize that hearing is often, it not always, a better tool for recognizing another’s identity than sight. Isaac knows full well that Jacob will not supplant Esau, except as the don, but he must do it so that the family can continue and thrive, but do it in his own way consistent with his character, but also through a degree of character transformation.

The irony of the story is Isaac’s self-perception, his critically activist role while appearing as a passive dupe. After all, Abraham cannot pass the baton to Jacob except via Isaac. If the key to such a transfer is understanding the positive role of deception, if it requires understanding how getting a birthright cannot simply be accomplished by blackmail, by trading a cup of hot soup in return for becoming the heir to a nation, but requires connivance of a very serious order, connivance which Jacob clearly has to acquire and which we, as Isaac’s progeny, must understand. If the game was as simple as it first appears, then we are the ones who do not understand the sophistication of trickery and its importance, and therefore how we need to proceed as a light unto the nations, as the expression of the lightness of being, by hiding our light, by being seemingly blind, by appearing as a fool and a dupe and, therefore playing the role as one of the wisest of our forefathers.

We will have to see in future blogs whether this interpretation becomes more plausible as we go forward.

Jacob and Esau: Part I Personalities

Jacob and Esau: Tol’dot – Genesis 25:19-28:9

Part I: The Character of the Two Brothers

by

Howard Adelman

The Godfather, the original 1972 movie, not the sequels, is a Francis Ford Coppola academy award winning film (for best picture, best actor – Marlon Brando as Vito, the Godfather – best adapted screenplay). It tells the story of a mafia family. Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is the son evidently chosen not to end up a criminal, but destined for academia or a profession, though he initially appears in a marine uniform that adumbrates that he is not just an ethical and upright person, but one who has the koyach (koach in Hebrew), the strength, the guts, the determination, the will-power, to become the don of the Corleone family.

Michael has an older brother, Sonny (James Caan) who looks like he is an Italian redhead. He is the eldest and presumed heir of Vito, the underboss. He is very tough, but also very rash and not very reflective or calculating. He has an explosive temper. Courage, as Aristotle taught us, is a balance between being rash and being cowardly. Sonny was hot-headed. That characteristic gets him killed by a rival mafia family. (The other brother, Fredo (John Cazale), is the cowardly one who eventually betrays the family when he falls under the wing of Moe Greene (Alex Rocco), in real life, Bugsy Siegel, a Jewish mobster and Las Vegas manager of a gambling casino that he runs in partnership with the Corleone family. The tale is not only a story of a crime family, but an account of the politics of a family in rivalry with other crime families in a world that is “nasty, brutish and short.” Making it long and leaving a legacy requires cunning as well as physical strength, intellectual calculation as well as brute force.

Esau did not have it. His father may have loved him for his courage, for his dashing presence, for the fact that “his hunt was in his mouth.” But it is this very last trait that made Esau unsuitable for the responsibilities he would have to undertake. He did not have the power of speech. For what is important for a leader is what comes out of his mouth, not what he puts into it. And Esau, like Sonny, is too much of a womanizer. In the film, when Sonny speaks out of turn in a meeting with a rival mafia family, Vito rebukes him and suggests his affairs have made him soft.

Jacob is to Esau like Michael is to Sonny, only even closer. On the other hand, though, on the surface, the personalities of each of the pair seem to be similar, key differences in both the characters of each of the brothers and the nature of the relationship are crucial in understanding both the similarities and differences between and the two stories. Sonny saw himself as the protector of his smarter younger brother. But Jacob and Esau are not just brothers, but twins. Further, the struggle with one another supersedes any struggle with rival tribes. As is foretold to their mother, Rebekah,

“Two nations are in your womb, Two separate peoples shall issue from your body; One people shall be mightier than the other, And the older shall serve the younger.” (Genesis 25:23)

One might think that the older one serving the younger would depict the older as the weaker, not the mightier. But the possibility is that the mightier will serve the weaker. So hold your judgement. Esau is the older, and Esau will end up serving the younger. But, as we shall see, Esau will remain the mightier, the one who lives by the sword. But the sword will end up in service to the savant.

Tol’dot is the parsha that tells how that came about. And the story starts with the struggle of the two twins in the womb and then their birth. “When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. The first one emerged red, like a hairy mantle all over; so they named him Esau. Then his brother emerged, holding on to the heel of Esau; so they named him Jacob.” (Genesis 25:4-26) Esau seemed to be like Sonny, rash, impulsive, all strength without the brains to match. Jacob seemed, to a greater extent, akin to Michael Corleone. But similarities can be misleading.

Jacob had his hand on his elder, fraternal rather than identical, twin’s heel. Instead of emerging from the womb after some interval, Jacob is usually portrayed as struggling to supplant and replace his older brother even when in the womb. But that seems to be at variance with the character of Jacob who is portrayed as bookish, retiring and very uncompetitive. In fact, the whole idea of Jacob supplanting his brother comes from their mother, Rebekah, not from Jacob. Jacob’s hand is on Esau’s heel because he will be the one in the end, best able to control and manipulate the passions. (As Rav Kook writes, the heel represents instinctive nature, for the Hebrew words for ‘foot’ and ‘habit,’ regel and hergel, share the same root.) Jacob will be the one able to calculate like his mother, able, as in Plato, to bring the wild horses under the control of the brain through the mediation of real courage.

Jacob means someone who follows at another’s heel. To follow at another’s heel is not the same as following in another’s footsteps and certainly not taking over those footsteps. Some have suggested that the meaning refers to Jacob as “heeled,” that is one who overreaches through cunning. But, as I will try to show, Jacob is initially anything but cunning. Calculating and cautious, yes, but cunning, no. Rebekah is the cunning one, not Jacob. It is she who will conceive the ruse to win Isaac’s blessing. Jacob is the epitome, not of one who insists that “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp. Or what’s a heaven for.” (Robert Browning from his sonnet, Andrea del Sarto) Jacob’ story is not a tale of a character who has zeal, deep passion and an ambitious desire to achieve lofty goals and aspirations. Like many characters in The Torah, he will be chosen to do so in spite of his personality that on the surface makes him out to be quite unsuitable to the task.

Instead, Jacob’s hand took hold of Esau’s heel rather than reaching out on its own towards heaven. Further, though Jacob will win his father’s blessing, he never supplants Esau. The two brothers go their separate ways. Besides, if the Torah meant supplant, then the Hebrew equivalent of the planta, or the sole of the foot, would have been used as a metaphor, not the heel. Jacob does not pursue his older brother’s birthright. He is commanded and guided by his mother to do so. Rather than charging out to beat his brother, Jacob is a momma’s boy. His victories come about by clinging to his brother’s heel, not by supplanting him. They come through some degree of calculation, not by energy and zeal, by obeying his mother’s commandment and not his own inner determination.

Later, he will not emerge as a victor when he wrestles with the angel. He prevails precisely because the match ends in a tie, with Jacob himself wounded and crippled. This is not the portrait of a person whose ambition leads him to supplant his brother. So Jacob is not really like Michael Corleone. When Jacob holds onto the heel of his brother in emerging from the womb, he is not trying to pull Esau back so he can get ahead of him, but clinging to Esau to allow Esau to drag him out of his cozy and protected cave. Jacob is clearly not someone portrayed as overreaching, but someone who depends on another for physical strength.

What about Esau? Is he a Sonny, rash and impulsive, to some degree thick, but very strong? Esau is even often portrayed as the epitome of evil. But there is no evil here. Rather, Esau is the heir of the personality of both Abel – a hunter – and of Cain, who was quick to become angry. Esau combines the traits of those founding brothers and rivals. But, in the tradition of Cain, and like his brother Jacob, Esau will end up a farmer yoked to the land until his restlessness sets him free to once again pursue adventure and daring.

Esau is confident, assertive and competitive, brash but not really rash. Wasn’t he rash in selling his birthright to Jacob in return for a good hot meal? No, he just gave little value to the distant future. He was a man of the moment, someone who liked the hunt and adventure. Aggressive and full of self-confidence, he did not need Jacob’s cautionary approach to ensuring his future. He was assertive and decisive, possessing the typical character of a first-born or only-born. He was a very skilled hunter and loved the outdoors. If he lived today, he might have become a great fighter pilot.

When the boys are grown up and Esau returns from the hunt famished, instead of Jacob simply sharing his meal with him, Jacob insists on a trade, offering him food in exchange for his birthright. Esau seems to have no problem with that. He was totally confident and reliant on his own inherent capacities, unlike his supplicant brother, Jacob. He was skilled in the ways of the world, confident in his ability to make a living. Why would he need to rely on the privileges and rights of primogeniture (bechorah)? He was internally motivated and needed no external props to let him get ahead. Further, the immediacy of life interested him far more than any long-range planning, necessary for one not as well endowed in the ability to make his way on his own. At the moment he was starving, not literally, but hungry for immediate experience of taste, smell and the texture of food. Further, Esau loved his younger brother in a way that Jacob did not reciprocate. As far as Esau was concerned, his brother needed the birthright much more than he did. So he gave it up in exchange for a bowl of hot soup.

This was not so much an impulsive act as a gesture of good will. It was not a rash act, but an action born of someone who is confident, and, unlike Jacob, self-motivated. Esau did not have to ask or rely upon someone else to tell him what to do. Self-reliant, self-motivated, he had full confidence in his own abilities. This did not make him impulsive. A skilled hunter has to be patient, possess highly developed hand-eye coordination, be very earthy and rooted to the ground rather than prone to flights of fancy, esoteric thinking and visionary dreams.

Esau may not have been a profound thinker, but he clearly was no slouch. He just loved action more than reflection, but he had to be of superior analytic skill to be a skilful hunter. He just loved the adrenaline-driven life of action. Essentially, he was a man for whom the excitement of the moment, the smells and tastes of a material and richly embodied life, counted much more than any calculation to protect long-term interests. He loved a driven, fast-paced life, one that led him to marry two Hittite women disapproved of by his parents. Although a hedonist and a materialist, he clearly is quite capable of thinking and reasoning. And there is no evidence of any evil whatsoever.

Further, Esau truly loved his brother. He might have become angry at his brother’s betrayal and his mother’s trickery, but he also proves very forgiving when the two brothers meet up once again after a separation of many years. In fact, Esau proves to be loyal rather than suspicious, trustworthy rather than an opportunist. He may seek to dominate and be restive with service, but that also makes him ill-equipped to rule over others. Esau is NOT evil. Only an elitist bookish nerd might consider him as an evil person. He is simply an extrovert, a man of few words and very driven, pushed by his inner compulsions and instincts more than careful deliberation. He is also very agreeable and personable, in contrast to Jacob, who is somewhat of a coward, calculating and clever in figuring out how to protect himself, but not driven to dominate or have power over others. Esau wants to experience life. Jacob wants to give in service to the future. Esau has a synchronic personality. Jacob has a diachronic one.

Before I try to defend that position any further and my interpretation of how Jacob succeeds through trickery in winning his father’s blessing ostensibly meant for Esau, in the beginning of the next half of this commentary, I will focus on the rewards themselves and analyze each of the blessings.

Divine Acts: Parashat Nasso. Numbers 4:21 – 7:89.17.05.13

Divine Acts: Parashat Nasso. Numbers 4:21 – 7:89 17.05.13

by

Howard Adelman

In this longest parashah I am torn between writing about treating alleged adulteresses like the Puritans in New England in the seventeenth century treated witches, or self-denying puritanical Nazirites, or aesthetics and divine acts, about the long list of accounting entries of the sacrifices brought by the various clans or, finally, about God’s voice and communication to Moses. The first two are what I find respectively most repulsive and attractive in Puritanism. The first about adultery and how to find whether a woman is guilty simply arouses my self-righteous indignation about superstition and magic while the second invites by intense attraction to self-denial and asceticism. The discovery of whether a wife is an adulteress through seeing how the suspected wife reacts physically to eating a mixture that contains dirt from the sanctuary floor is just too offensive to any sense of justice. The characterization of a puritanical Nazirite is intriguing because such behaviour, in the end, of consecrating oneself to God through self-denial is not endorsed, a paradoxical outcome that is worth exploring but has little relevance in today’s world. Accounting entries of sacrifices are simply boring. I was left to choose between God’s voice versus the relationship of God’s acts and aesthetics and opted for the latter.

The key verses are 6:22 – 6:27, particularly the famous, well-known and all too-familiar verses 24-27.
כב וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. 22 And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying:
כג דַּבֵּר אֶל-אַהֲרֹן וְאֶל-בָּנָיו לֵאמֹר, כֹּה תְבָרְכוּ אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל: אָמוֹר, לָהֶם. {ס} 23 ‘Speak unto Aaron and unto his sons, saying: On this wise ye shall bless the children of Israel; ye shall say unto them: {S}
כד יְבָרֶכְךָ יְהוָה, וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ. {ס} 24 The LORD bless thee, and keep thee; {S}
כה יָאֵר יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ. {ס} 25 The LORD make His face to shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee;{S}
כו יִשָּׂא יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם. {ס} 26 The LORD lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace. {S}
כז וְשָׂמוּ אֶת-שְׁמִי, עַל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וַאֲנִי, אֲבָרְכֵם. {ס} 27 So shall they put My name upon the children of Israel, and I will bless them.’ {S}
The Kohanim are required on behalf of God to bless and protect, to make His face shine upon and be gracious to the children of Israel as a collectivity to be blessed and protected, to lift up His countenance to the children of Israel and to bestow upon them peace. What are these six divine acts and why these six? I begin with the question about what a benediction is.
‘Bless’ is both the generic term for all six divine acts as well as the term for the first specific divine act. This beneficence is not bestowed on the Nazirite in spite of his acts of self-sacrifice, the story of which precedes this depiction of divine blessing. Further, as Cain and Abel once did, humans offer sacrifices in the quest for a divine blessing in chapter 7 immediately following. Between these two book ends, we find a depiction of the commandment to the priests to bestow a blessing on the community as a whole and each of the children of Israel, on behalf of God without being asked for a sacrifice of self or an animal. This blessing is freely given. If after death, every Jewish male is awarded the honorific title, zikhrono livrakha and every woman zikhronah livrakha, “of blessed memory,” in this case, the blessing has a divine source and is awarded to the living and the dead. The honour is not given by one’s fellow Jews or Israelites but by God and is radically other than the blessing given by humans to God in the beginning of most prayers: Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam, “Blessed are You, LORD, our God, King of the universe…”

The closest meaning in English to this type of blessing is “grace,” the free and unmerited favour of God invoked by the High Priest to bestow on Israelites a divine presence to reenergize and protect them from temptation, from moral or morale slippage, to sanctify human ordinary behaviour as distinct from extraordinary sacrificial behaviour and to inspire that individual to achieve even more. Instead of man looking up towards the heavens to beseech God for a blessing, God looks up to man, not to beseech but to bestow a beatific spiritual peace. What is bestowed is God’s favour or grace from sheer kindness. This is not the God of wrath and justice but the God of mercy in which God shares with the Israelites His chen, His favour or graciousness, His mercy and kindness for as Exodus 34:6-7 states, the Lord is gracious (chanun).

I myself have been blessed with six wonderful children and nine grandchildren. All, every single one, has been protected from any significant or serious harm. What if they were not? What if Jews were once again stricken by another shoah? Unlike acts of divine punishment bestowed for sins, favour freely given can also be absent. There are no guarantees. When God smiles on you, is there any difference when Sky Masterson in Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls sings “Luck be a lady tonight”? In this passage, there is a difference because grace is bestowed without beseeching for it. Neither is grace a calculation of probabilities.

Each bestowal is but a further specification of a divine blessing – first, blessing in general, then more specifically protecting the community from harm, then smiling upon the community with special favour as when Israel won the Six Day War and when gas was discovered off the coast of Israel, and even more specifically such gifts were bestowed with graciousness and were not to be reciprocated with arrogance and pride or lording over others, and most intriguing, by God lifting up his countenance giving the community an inner peace for grace is rendered with the total surrender of power over in favour of influence from within. Peace is not only given upon the community but within the community to everyone and not just the righteous and saintly. There are no conditions for such favours.

However translated, the three sentences have a wonderful cadence, expanding in the number of words as the request becomes more specific. “May the Lord bless you and protect you; may the Lord smile upon you and be gracious to you; may the Lord lift up his face to you and give you His peace.”

The Lord bless you and keep you!
The Lord deal kindly and graciously with you!
The Lord bestow His favour upon you and grant you His friendship!