The Akedah

The Akedah

by

Howard Adelman

We have a frame. What we lack is knowledge of how the frame informs the content of the Akedah narrative. I will review the narrative and then attempt to tie the frame to explicating the meaning of the story.

The tale is almost too familiar so that when we read or hear it, our understanding is coloured by many assumptions. The bare story, however, is fairly simple and straightforward. Further, it is only 24 verses long (Genesis 22:1-24), and the last four verses are concerned with genealogy rather than the substance of the narrative.

Many questions are raised. What is the test? Who is being tested? What is the purpose and significance of the test? What is the meaning and role of faith? What is Abraham thinking and feeling during the events that unfold? What about Isaac? What are his feelings and thoughts?

Previously, I had referred to the words that came before and argued that these narratives provide the frame to explicate the tale, the text states that “God put Abraham to the test.” God addresses Abraham. Abraham responds in a phrase repeated earlier in Genesis, “Here I am.” (verse 1) In the dominant conventional interpretation, God then issues a command. Just as he ordered Abraham to leave his family in Ur in Mesopotamia, he now instructs Abraham to take his son, explicitly described as his favourite son whom he loves, to the land of Moriah. Further, he is told from the very beginning of the trip that when he arrives at his destination, he is to “offer him as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I (God) will designate.” Heights are not just geographical. The intention is to raise the covenantal relationship to a new height.

From the overlay of centuries of interpretation, the most familiar sense of the text is one of obedience. Will Abraham follow God’s orders? Will he take his favourite son, the one whom he deeply loves, and offer him to God as a burnt offering on a distant mountain top? Questions immediately arise. Did God issue a command or a request. In the Plaut text, the words are translated as, “Take your son…” Rashi translates the same words as: “Please take your son…” (Rashi Commentary, 230) God is making a request, not issuing a command. For Rashi, the inclusion of the particle na’ (naw) suggests an entreaty. God is, in effect, saying that, “I pray that you take your beloved son Isaac…” Or, as I would word it, God is saying, “Abraham, I want you to do something for me please.” Abraham obliges.

There is a clear difference between an entreaty and the expectation that a subject obey unconditionally and without question to what on the surface appears to be an extraordinary – indeed, a most unethical – demand, to sacrifice his most beloved son. One says: “Do this.” The other says: “Please do this for me.” What difference does it make if it is a command or a request if what is commended or requested seems crazy?

There is a difference. If it is a command, then Abraham has no escape. Abraham has agreed to carry out the order to the final degree. However, if it is a request, Abraham can say in his own mind that I will go along with the gig and see what happens. I can always opt out. I trust that God keeps his promises and does not really intend to have me burn my own son. In the command mode, David Hartman writes: “This is the story of the Akedah: the demand (my italics) of God that Abraham sacrifice Isaac, the only son of his wife, Sarah.” Such a demand is indeed in apparent breech of God’s promise to make a great nation through his son, Isaac. As Hartman adds, “Nevertheless, Abraham obediently set off for the land of Moriah as instructed.” (A Living Covenant, p. 43)

Obedience does demand a leap of faith if the commandment is to undertake a travesty, not simply to justice in killing the boy, but a travesty to God’s own promise.  But if it is a polite request to perform a seemingly extreme act, then the issue is not about submission and the terror, or fear and trembling, that would accompany fulfilling such a mission, but an act of obliging another who Abraham has no reason not to trust and whom he always believed would never intend to see Isaac harmed. The test then is not of Abraham’s faith, for Abraham would have to have faith in abundance to go along with the gig. The test is whether Abraham believes that God is a trustworthy partner. For God does not instruct that Abraham slaughter his son, but only that he make an offering of his son. As the commentator Yosef Halle wrote, the text includes the word sham, there. Without that inclusion, the request would indeed mean a request to slaughter his son. With the inclusion of “there,” it means to bring Isaac up and offer him, but does not entail slaughtering him.

Look at the differences.

The Obedience Model                The Request Model

God                       commands or orders                  requests or entreats

God’s intent         to test Abraham’s blind faith    confirm Abraham’s trust

Abraham              obeys                                             agrees

A’s thought           faith against reason                    reasonable trust

Relationship         master and slave                        covenantal partnership

In the first model, God’s command is unintelligible and extremely mysterious. In the second model, God’s intent and plan of action is yet to be revealed; it is just unknown at the time the command is issued. When the time comes, what is now unintelligible will become clear. In the first model, we as readers are dumbfounded that the same Abraham who stood up to God at Sodom and Gomorrah for principles of proportional justice would now accede to a request that had absolutely no iota of justice, but blatantly challenged on a very personal level Abraham’s trust that his God was a just God. For those who believe in homiletics, who believe that faith precedes all else, the first reading is a test of that faith. For those who believe that the text is a tale of ethics relative to the period, it will be a story about establishing a higher morality and rejecting child sacrifice. However, even if the latter solves the puzzle about God’s sense of justice, it does so only by diminishing Abraham’s.

Note that in the tale, when the pair and the accompanying servants reach the foot of the mountain, Abraham says to his servants, “You can stay here with the ass. The boy and I will go up there, we will worship and we will return to you.” There seems to be no doubt in Abraham’s mind that the boy will return with him and not be sacrificed. There seems no intention to mislead the servants. There is no indication that Abraham believes that when he offers his son that God will accept the offer.

How then does one interpret the conversation between father and son when Isaac asks where the sheep is for the offering? Abraham replies, seemingly in full confidence, that Isaac can count on God providing the sheep. Abraham trusts God to provide. Isaac trusts that his father is reliable. Thus, they complemented one another in their trust.

Then we arrive at the dramatic climax. The two prepare the altar. Abraham binds Isaac and places him on the altar. Abraham even raises the knife in the air. Does Abraham ever believe he might be asked to thrust that knife into his son’s flesh? Does Isaac ever believe that his father might? If Isaac suspected such, he could have easily overpowered his frail and aged father for Isaac was not a child but a mature young man. So the climax is the binding of Isaac and raising the knife.

It is then that God calls off the performance. God addresses Abraham as he did at the beginning of the story. Only this time God repeats Abraham’s name twice. Rabbinic commentators have generally interpreted the doubling of names as an expression of endearment, as when a parent says, “John, my dear boy John, …” Abraham replies, as he did at the very beginning of the narrative, “Hinaini,” “Here I am.”

Later in the Torah when Moses asks God for his name (Exodus 3:14), God replies in the most common translation, “I am that I am.” אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה‎, ehyeh asher ehyeh. However, since ancient Hebrew lacked a future tense, an alternative translation is that God answers, “I shall be who I shall be.” The reference is not to Being but to Becoming. God is the one who reveals Himself over time. That is the God in whom one should trust. Abraham, when he answers, “hinaini,” “Here I am.” Why hinaini and not ehyeh poh? The suggestion is that in Abraham’s answer, he is saying, “I am here for you.” I can be trusted. I am a good partner. And I trust that as you reveal yourself to me, trust on my part will be a condition of that partnership, but will be reinforced with every revelation about Yourself.

God now commands and does not request. “Do not raise your hand against the boy.” (22:12) Not, “Do not kill him.” God is remonstrating Abraham for going too far in the partnership. In binding Isaac, Abraham had proven he trusted God would not see Isaac harmed. But in raising his hand with a knife, Abraham has gone too far, for raising the knife is a threat and Isaac then would necessarily be frightened. The climax should simply have been the binding of Isaac, not holding a knife over his bound body. It was sufficient proof of our partnership that you bound Isaac and trusted that I would see that no harm came to the boy, appears to be God’s thought. God remonstrates Abraham.

If God was to continue the partnership in the next generation, Abraham had to enjoin Isaac in the covenant. The first stage began with the circumcision. The completion stage took place when Abraham bound Isaac and Isaac, testing both his dad and God, acceded to being bound. There was no need to raise the knife. Then God repeats his promise that Abraham via Isaac will give birth to a great nation.

Does the frame I already described reinforce or undermine this interpretation?

To be continued.

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Sodom and Gomorrah

Sodom and Gomorrah

by

Howard Adelman

The first side of the frame for understanding the story of the binding of Isaac is the narrative about how Sarah received the message that in her old age she would have a child, a segment I titled “Sarah Laughs” (SL). The second of the four-sided frame is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (S&G). It is revealing if we compare two themes in the two otherwise very very different narratives.

Hiding

  1. In SL, Abraham hid from Sarah the news that God had promised that she would become pregnant and Sarah hides within the tent and eavesdrops on the discussion between Abraham and God’s messengers.
  2. In S&G, God asks (Genesis 18:17), “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?”

Note:

  1. a) One can almost hear God chuckling to Himself fully aware of the irony when He asks the question (and He asks, in contrast to Abraham and Sarah who act) as if He were considering whether He should behave in the same way that Abraham and Sarah did.
  2. b) What considerations go into God offering an answer? Two factors. First Abraham is to become the forefather of a great and populous nation and a blessing for all other nations. Second, Abraham has been chosen to defend what is just and right as a condition of the first – becoming a father of a great nation.
  3. c) We do not get an answer. The question appears to be rhetorical since, when Abraham pleads with God to save the city if a minimum of ten just men can be found within its walls, Abraham has to know God’s intentions just to plead with him. The contrast stands out. While God is totally transparent, Abraham and Sarah hide.

Pleading

  1. In SL, Abraham pleads with the three strangers to be their host.
  2. In S&G, Abraham pleads with God not to destroy the city if only 10 just men can be found who live there.
  3. a) Note the similarities between the two types of plea. In neither case does Abraham’s plea constitute begging. Abraham, in offering his hospitality to the three strangers in SL, does bow down and call himself a servant, but it is as a generous host. Secondly, both pleas are interpersonal; neither involves a formal, let alone written, petition.
  4. b) However, note the radical differences. In SL, the plea is an appeal both to the needs of the strangers and the demands of the norms of hospitality. Abraham entreats the three divine messengers in a most earnest and humble way. “My lords, if it pleases you, do not go on past your servant.” (18:3) In S&G, there is no bowing and scraping on Abraham’s part. Instead, Abraham does not even simply stand before the Lord; he approaches Him. Abraham walks towards God. He was being forward. There was no humility, no begging. Abraham’s intercession, his proposal, was an offer, a plea bargain.
  5. c) In SL, Abraham is successful – he gets the divine messengers to stop, stay and accept his hospitality. In S&G, Abraham is successful, not in stopping God, but in setting the conditions for a reprieve. Abraham does not achieve a stay of execution. Abraham does not even get God to send his angels to investigate. God announces: “I will go down to see whether they have acted in accordance with the complaints against the citizens.” (18:21) Abraham sets the conditions for a possible reprieve – if there are at least 10 just men in the town.
  6. d) Finally, in S&G, Abraham succeeds because of a rational argument rooted in the principle of proportionality. Even if only a few innocents are affected, no punishment should befall the city. But one need not be a purist. Nine innocents may be killed, Abraham establishes, but not ten. The principle of proportionality is determined by absolute numbers, not by a ratio. In SL, Abraham made an emotional appeal that implicitly evoked the principle of hospitality.

What is most noteworthy is that it is Abraham in both cases who establishes the rules of behaviour, not God.

What is the connection between humans hiding and God being transparent while, at the same time, humans are setting the standards for action rather than God? There seems to be no connection. For in one case, Abraham and Sarah (humans) hide and God does not. The second is not a contrast between human and divine behaviour, but between two different types of human behaviour apparently with the same designation.

However, on another level, there appears to be a connection. From God’s side, from the side of full transparency, we are dealing with either impossibilities (Sarah being attractive enough for Abraham to want to have sex with her and Sarah being able to bear children in her old age) or with normally unacceptable behaviour – destroying everyone in a city, infants and children as well, for the sins of their parents. However grave the sin, the destruction seems totally disproportionate.

In contrast, those who hide are fully understandable as actors, whether on the rational or the emotional plain. Their disbelief in the first case seems totally justifiable. Abraham’s offer of a plea bargain also seems to appeal to a higher sense of justification. But the evidence in the first case will be an event that seems impossible. The evidence in the second case – apparently no evidence is found to support Abraham’s conditions, that is, there are at least ten just men in the city – seems very likely, but proves to be impossible to find. These two expressions of the mixture of impossibility and implausibility, so characteristic of some of the best fiction, are what give each of the stories their power.

In the case of SL, the attitudes of Abraham and Sarah on first hearing the promise of a child is totally consistent, not only with their experience, but with ours as readers. In the case of S&L, Abraham’s plea seems most reasonable. It is God’s actions which come across as either totally impossible (SL) or totally unacceptable even if less than 10 non-sinning adults could not be found. If one thinks about it, God’s action seems totally unacceptable.

But why are supernatural events accepted in the first case but remain dubious in the second? The first operates in the realm of scientific possibility and, to go along with the narrative, one has to adopt Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s rule of thumb for the narrative to have any power – “a willing suspension of disbelief.” The second takes place in a realm in which evidence is required, not to support a fact and justify a belief, but to support an act and justify it.

Feasibility is operative in the first case. Desirability operates in the second. In the first, God’s actions disobey natural scientific law; what happens is biologically unfeasible. In the second, God’s action seems legally and ethically unnatural, not only with respect to the likelihood of finding ten innocents within the confines of a city, but with respect to natural ethical norms. In the two cases, the non-natural wins over the natural. But the non-natural in explicitly operating juxtaposed to natural scientific laws and natural ethical and legal norms.

In the SL tale, there are two human actors, Abraham and Sarah. In the S&G narrative, the tale of Abraham bargaining with God over standards for mass killing is succeeded by the story of Lot. Note the differences between the story of the strangers passing Abraham’s tent and the angels and their meeting with Lot.

SL                                     S&G

Number of strangers                 3                                           2

Location                        in front of a tent                  at the gate of the city

Appeal to self-interest   feel refreshed                   so the angels can get

away early

Method                            bow                                     bow, face to the ground

Behaviour                      eat outside                           enter the tent

Staying overnight          acceptance                           rejection

What follows is different in the two cases. In the first, Sarah equivocates.  In the second, an intolerant mob comes on the scene and demands that Lot surrender the strangers. Lot pleads with the mob rather than for divine intervention. But divine intervention comes with a literally blinding light. In SL, there is a promise. In S&G, Lot and his family are offered an escape. In SL, Sarah greets the promise as if it is a joke. When Lot pleads with his sons-in-law to leave, they treat his insistence as a jest. In SL, there is no use of force. In S&G, the angels seize the hands of Lot, his wife and his two unmarried daughters. They are urged to flee to the hills. Lot agrees to go there, but only when the strangers promise that the town be made a sanctuary. Then the annihilation of the population, the city and the vegetation follow.

There are two other differences. Sarah looks back in time and regrets her initial response to the promise. Lot’s wife looks back in space and I s reified as a pillar of salt. Second, Sarah gives birth as a result of sleeping with her husband. Lot’s two daughters each give birth as a result of incest with their father and give birth to nations, not rooted in laughter (Yitzhac or Isaac) with both its negative and positive associations. However, the Moabites and the Ammonites by their very names cannot forget that they were nations born in sin rather than a divine promise, for mo-av means “from my father” and ben-ammi means son of my paternal kin.

When I come back to the story of the Akeda, I will try to use these differences to show how an understanding of the words that came before the Akeda throw light on the meaning of the binding of Isaac story. By then I will have depicted the other two sides of the frame.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

 

 

Sarah Laughs

Towards an Interpretation: The Akedah (Binding of Isaac Genesis 22)

Sarah Laughs

by

Howard Adelman

Of the four classes of interpretation discussed in the last blog, this analysis offers notes for a discussion of which interpretation is best supported by the text. Except for the mystical one. That esoteric re-imaging of the text in terms of, for example, an analysis of the Hebrew alphabet, is omitted as a contender for two very non-objective reasons. First, I neither possess the tools nor the time to master the intricate tools of such an exercise. Second, I have no sympathy for, nor any temptation to, reinterpret Torah to fit an eastern cosmological religious view as offering a path of understanding towards the cosmic union of man and God through the forces of nature. That is not how I read the text nor see any reason to even make the effort. I also have no personal sympathy for esoteric mystical approaches in general.

As for the pietist existentialist interpretation of Sören Kierkegaard and his Jewish very learned cousins, such as Yeshayahu Leibowitz, they require attention. But, as I adumbrated in my last blog, I begin with very little sympathy for a pietist perspective, whether Christian of Jewish. Nevertheless, this type of interpretation is far too important to ignore. It will be relegated to the wings rather than occupying stage front. However, it will emerge to dominate the final scene, but in the opposite way to the one on offer. To begin, I will focus on two main contenders – the dominant traditional version of the text and the ethical evolutionary perspective prevalent in Reform circles and among a significant minority of Orthodox commentators.

Genesis 22:1

א  וַיְהִי, אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, וְהָאֱלֹהִים, נִסָּה אֶת-אַבְרָהָם; וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּנִי. 1 And it came to pass after these things, that God did prove Abraham, and said unto him: ‘Abraham’; and he said: ‘Here am I.’

Instead of the, “It came to pass after these things”, the Plaut text and commentary begins in English with the simple introductory phrase, “Sometime afterward.” Both versions suggest a transition from the previous chapter that simply says “next.” This underplays the significance of the phrase, “אחר הדברים האלה”.

Rashi, however, takes the transition as significant and interprets “devarim” to mean “words” rather than the more generic “things”. He suggests that two references are involved. In his midrash on the text, he speculates that the reference is to the words of God, who, in an argument with Satan along Job lines, makes a verbal bet that if He asked Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son, Abraham would do it. A second reference is to words that Isaac had with Ishmael. Where the latter boasts of his willingness to sacrifice his foreskin at the age of thirteen when the operation is very painful and much slower to heal, Isaac insists that if his father asked him, he would go far beyond a willingness to sacrifice a mere fleshy part of one organ, but would willingly sacrifice his life if his father made such a request.

I take the text as significant. But my reference is not nearly so esoteric. The reference is to the words of the previous stories that preceded this chapter. They offer clues and adumbrate the meaning of the binding of Isaac. The events preceding this narrative set the stage for what is about to happen.

What are those events immediately prior in the words of the text? There are four narratives that serve to frame the story of the binding of Isaac. The first is the tale of the three strangers who pass by and are invited by Abraham to be his guests. The second is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. The third is the tale of Abraham’s interaction with Abimelech. The fourth, the necessary prerequisite to the binding of Isaac, is the miraculous birth of Isaac borne by Sarah when she was very old.

Let’s start with the first story of the three strangers. The portion of the Torah, designated as Vayera, begins with Abraham idling in front of his tent on a hot afternoon when he looks up to see three men standing there. At once upon sighting them, he ran forward to greet them. Bowing before them, he invited them to partake of his hospitality by encouraging them to wash, refresh themselves with a drink and break bread with him. When they agree, Abraham instructs Sarah to bake fresh cakes and even sacrificed a calf to feed the three strangers veal cooked in milk. (Abraham was not kosher.)

After the strangers ate, they asked after his wife by name. How would they know her name? Without a pause, Abraham responds to the question rather than raising the subject of their knowledge of his wife. He replied, “In the tent.” One of the three strangers said, “Your barren wife will have a son” and I will return when the birth is due. Sarah, who had long before had become post-menopausal, laughed (inwardly as we shall see), not so much at the promise that she, at her age, could bear a child, but at the idea that Abraham would have any interest in having sex with herself as an old withered woman.

The stranger who spoke, now explicitly referred to as the Lord, asks Abraham why Sarah was so scornful for no deed is impossible for God to perform. Further, and significantly, God seems to interpret the laughter as focused, not on the ridiculousness of Abraham wanting to lay with her, but on her inability to bear children. God now repeats the promise that Sarah will bear a son. Sarah, in fear and trembling, and frightened for her life at the thought of who was speaking, then lies. She denies she laughed. God insists that she did and tells her, leaving us with the puzzle of how He could address her face-to-face when she hid herself in the folds of the tent.

What are we to make of this story?  What will it have to do with the binding of Isaac? In Genesis 21:6, after giving birth, Sarah says, “And God brought me laughter.” She was overjoyed at the birth of her son at her stage of life. Her laughter was also one of incredulity. She names her son, “laughter,” that is, Isaac. And Isaac will grow into a man bemused by his very existence at the same time as he enjoyed a rich life with two wives and two radically different twins, one, pondering, serious, very physical and very loyal, and the other, a mother’s boy and a schemer.

Abraham, in contrast, in this portion never laughs. But at the end of the previous portion which offers another version of the same tale, it reads that

Abraham threw himself on his face and laughed (vayitzchak) at the suggestion that he and Sarah would have a child, not because he had lost interest in Sarah as a sexual being, but because both were so old. He did not laugh inwardly but was outward and at full volume. His laughter is interpreted traditionally as an expression of wonder and joy in contrast to Sarah’s incredulity and scorn at the idea. But the plain reading of the text provides no indication that Abraham and Sarah’s laughter were expressions of different responses and, if one is not reading into the text, one comes away with the impression that in both cases, both future parents expressed disbelief.

The difference is that in the second account, Sarah denies she laughed. Further, it may be Abraham who insists that she did laugh in spite of her denial. However, unlike Abraham who fell over himself in raucous laughter, Sarah laughed inwardly (bekirbah) and to herself and at her innards, at the thought that her womb could have a placenta, at the thought that she once again in old age could be attractive enough for a man to want to enter into her, and inwardly because she could not laugh freely and out loud. Therefore, she was telling the truth when she denied laughing, meaning she denied laughing in any noticeable way. The absence of open laughter was a sign of a locked womb, a womb not open to the seemingly impossible. The silent laughter recognized by the holy messenger was the opening needed to allow Sarah to become pregnant.

Therefore, when God or the angel insists that Sarah did laugh, he may have been remonstrating Abraham for not telling her so that, like Abraham, she would not have to be surprised when the three angels appeared. Was this a setup to let us know that Abraham had doubted God so much that he never even told Sarah the news such was the extent of his disbelief? If that were the case, then Abraham endorsed the denial. But God knew. God knew that Sarah laughed even though she, unlike Abraham, only laughed to herself.

Why did Sarah deny she laughed and then later embrace that laughter? What was she afraid of? In an orthodox and unimaginative interpretation, Sarah’s denial simply meant humans are not to mock God. But there is no indication she mocked God. Disbelief is not the same as mockery.

When Sarah laughs the second time when Isaac is born and she names him, it is both in celebration and recognition of the absurdity of the whole event as well as the possibility that she herself may become a laughing stock for bearing a child at such an advanced age. The root letters of Yitzhak are tzadi-het-kuf [tz-h-k] – as well as Gen. 18:12-15, see Gen 17:17; 21:6 and 21:9 – unequivocally referring to the sheer joy at the miraculousness of the event. But the celebration is peppered with the previous disbelief and scepticism. Further, the delivery of the child comes at a time in life when she can only expect to enjoy the beginning of her son’s life but not delight in his maturity and in her grandchildren. It is a bitter-sweet moment.

In what way does that laughter and the denial prefigure the Akedah story? Is it possible that Isaac accompanied his father up the mountain in a bemused state? Then Isaac’s behaviour would not so much be an expression of faith in both God and his father, but as a distant amused detachment. More significantly, have we been alerted to reading the Akedah story with the same mixture of disbelief and amazement? If so, why?

My daughter, Rachel, wrote a commentary called “Wise Women: On Laughing and Remembering” published in Project Muse. (https://www.academia.edu/5800266/On_Laughter_and_Re-membering?auto=download) (pp. 230-244) She noted that not only did Sarah laugh to herself, but there is no depiction of any face-to-face encounter with the three supposed angels. So how could they know she laughed? If the three were mere mortals, they would laugh for it would be quite natural and an expected response which would be foolish to deny. Who would not laugh at the idea of a ninety-year-old woman bearing a child? And if they were all-seeing and all knowing, why would they ask about Sarah’s whereabouts?

They could ask precisely because they knew. Sarah, on the other hand, hides herself at the doorway of the tent. Like Eve, she hides when confronted. It is not God who is hidden, but humans who hide from themselves. Even on a relatively very minor response, such as bemusement, one is accountable and transparency is demanded. But rarely given. While Plato focused on the need for people to come into the open and in the sunlight to really know the truth, Biblical tales focus on the hiding, on living in the shadows. There is more truth discovered in exploring those shadows. As Rachel wrote, what we have is not a Kierkegaardian suspension of the ethical, but a coming face-to-face with reality. To believe she would have a child, Sarah would have to embrace a “teleological suspension of the credible.”

But that is precisely what the story is about. Sarah’s laughter adumbrates and sets the stage for that which is incredulous – that Abraham would willingly and without complaint sacrifice his son upon God’s orders, that Isaac, who was far stronger than his old father, would quietly comply with being tied up and lying on an altar to be sacrificed. We are in the arena of the incredulous. And, after all, that is what laughter is about – recognizing the incredulous. And, as my daughter wrote, in order for Sarah to give birth to a child, she had to not only learn to laugh, but to laugh openly and in joy, not in mockery and scorn, but in an expansive, inclusive and joyful way. “God made me laugh, so that all who hear will laugh with me.” (Gen. 21:6) The inner and the outer had to join hands, not in a metaphysical union with a cosmic consciousness, but in a concrete and embodied union of the inner and the outer, not so much the projection thrown by a background light of one’s own image on the wall of a cave produced by others, but in order that one can transcend one’s own self-image.

Halloween has just passed, a night in which children hide themselves behind masks and costumes as they seek out the sweet pleasures of the world. I suggest that the Akeda may be more about family politics and psychology than about the “suspension of the ethical,” that is about the dialectic of the physical and the metaphysical, not to escape this world into a unity with a cosmic consciousness, but to dance with joy in the dialectic of the natural and the supernatural, the physical and the metaphysical.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Jacob’s Character – Part A

And Jacob Fought the Angel – Part A

by

Howard Adelman

To repeat. the relevant verses from Chapter 32 of Genesis are:

כה וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב, לְבַדּוֹ; וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ, עַד עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר. 25 And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.
כו וַיַּרְא, כִּי לֹא יָכֹל לוֹ, וַיִּגַּע, בְּכַף-יְרֵכוֹ; וַתֵּקַע כַּף-יֶרֶךְ יַעֲקֹב, בְּהֵאָבְקוֹ עִמּוֹ. 26 And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was strained, as he wrestled with him.
כז וַיֹּאמֶר שַׁלְּחֵנִי, כִּי עָלָה הַשָּׁחַר; וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא אֲשַׁלֵּחֲךָ, כִּי אִם-בֵּרַכְתָּנִי. 27 And he said: ‘Let me go, for the day breaketh.’ And he said: ‘I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.’
כח וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, מַה-שְּׁמֶךָ; וַיֹּאמֶר, יַעֲקֹב. 28 And he said unto him: ‘What is thy name?’ And he said: ‘Jacob.’
כט וַיֹּאמֶר, לֹא יַעֲקֹב יֵאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ–כִּי, אִם-יִשְׂרָאֵל: כִּי-שָׂרִיתָ עִם-אֱלֹהִים וְעִם-אֲנָשִׁים, וַתּוּכָל. 29 And he said: ‘Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for thou hast striven with God and with men, and hast prevailed.’
ל וַיִּשְׁאַל יַעֲקֹב, וַיֹּאמֶר הַגִּידָה-נָּא שְׁמֶךָ, וַיֹּאמֶר, לָמָּה זֶּה תִּשְׁאַל לִשְׁמִי; וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתוֹ, שָׁם. 30 And Jacob asked him, and said: ‘Tell me, I pray thee, thy name.’ And he said: ‘Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name?’ And he blessed him there.
לא וַיִּקְרָא יַעֲקֹב שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם, פְּנִיאֵל: כִּי-רָאִיתִי אֱלֹהִים פָּנִים אֶל-פָּנִים, וַתִּנָּצֵל נַפְשִׁי. 31 And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: ‘for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.’
לב וַיִּזְרַח-לוֹ הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ, כַּאֲשֶׁר עָבַר אֶת-פְּנוּאֵל; וְהוּא צֹלֵעַ, עַל-יְרֵכוֹ. 32 And the sun rose upon him as he passed over Peniel, and he limped upon his thigh.
לג עַל-כֵּן לֹא-יֹאכְלוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-גִּיד הַנָּשֶׁה, אֲשֶׁר עַל-כַּף הַיָּרֵךְ, עַד, הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה: כִּי נָגַע בְּכַף-יֶרֶךְ יַעֲקֹב, בְּגִיד הַנָּשֶׁה. 33 Therefore the children of Israel eat not the sinew of the thigh-vein which is upon the hollow of the thigh, unto this day; because he touched the hollow of Jacob’s thigh, even in the sinew of the thigh-vein.

“And Jacob Fought the Angel” is the name of Elie Wiesel’s chapter on Jacob in his book, Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends in which he deals with Jacob’s struggle. What is Wiesel’s portrait of Jacob? Wiesel places the event of wrestling with the “angel” in the context of the anticipated meeting with his long estranged brother the next day. When Jacob should have been preparing for that meeting, for Wiesel, he was in fact embarking on a radically different course. As you will see, I interpret the struggle very differently, as a proof text of his character rather than a radical departure from it.

How does Wiesel characterize the wrestling match? Silence. Absurd. Opaque. No reason is offered for why the struggle took place. Was it deliberate or accidental? Only Wiesel, without any justification, characterizes the stranger, the angel, as the assailant, as the aggressor. But how can he make such an assertion when the text is a blank? The only words uttered by the stranger at dawn are, “Let me go, for the day breaketh.”

Wiesel characterizes Jacob’s response as belligerent. “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” Jacob set conditions. That is uncontroversial. Wiesel also inserts the claim that the angel demurred. Certainly, the angel did not offer a blessing right off the bat. But then Wiesel adds another action not in the text: “they clutched each other once more.” I assume that what Wiesel means to say is that they continued to grapple with and hold onto one another. (See Karen Schmidt’s sculpture, “Jacob Wrestling With the Angel”) Jacob did not let go and then grab the angel once again. Further, Wiesel wrote that, after the awesome fight, “in the end they had to give up, neither being able to proclaim victory.” But the clear and unambiguous text reads that the angel conceded that Jacob had prevailed. The “angel” had to give up when Jacob would not. This may not mean victory. It could mean simply that Jacob won because he was willing and able to continue the fight, but after dawn, the angel was not willing to do so. There is no explanation for this unwillingness except that it had to do with the dawning of a new day. Was it the angel of death and darkness that had visited Jacob and Jacob prevailed simply by surviving the battle?

Wiesel claims that Jacob was not the only one injured. So was the angel, but not physically. His sense of self and morale were injured. Again, there is nothing in the text suggesting such a result, but Elie Wiesel’s interpretation entails reading into the blanks and filling out the narrative sketch. Wiesel writes that the two parted friends or at least accomplices. Jacob let the angel go (again called the aggressor by Wiesel) and the angel responded by giving Jacob a new name – Israel. Though there is controversy about the meaning of the name, it is generally taken to mean “he who prevails with God.” “I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.”

Who was the man with whom Jacob fought? For he is named as a man, as “ish”? Was he just a stranger, any stranger, a human-all-too-human? Or was he a messenger of God, an angel? Or was he God Himself as Jacob appeared to declare? Was he Jacob’s imaginary construct of the battle he expected in meeting up with his brother? Or was he really struggling with himself projected as another? When Jacob asked the stranger who he was, the answer was not forthcoming. Perhaps no answer could be offered because part of the struggle entails determining who Jacob’s opponent was in the short tale.

Then there is the problem of the new name. What was wrong with the old one? Why that new one? And why does Jacob continue to be called Jacob and not Israel after the battle? When Abram becomes Abraham, the old name disappears. Jacob keeps both his old and his new name. Wiesel says about this that it is not just a puzzle but unlike the previous questions, with this renaming we are left in total darkness. We do not know who Jacob’s opponent was, why they engaged in a personal struggle or why the outcome was the renaming of Jacob. An enigma within a larger puzzle!

Wiesel then reviews Jacob’s character as it has been revealed in his life narrative up until this point. “Jacob is the least interesting [of the patriarchs] up to this point.” Interesting! His life lacked greatness until this point. His problems were interpersonal and did not rise to a larger-than-life level. Abraham had been a pioneer. Isaac had been an inspired poet. Both had charisma whereas Jacob was an introvert, shy, easily manipulated, fearful, a mediocrity at best even as he accumulated wives, concubines, children and wealth on a far larger scale than either Abraham or Isaac. He was like a very rich man whom adventurers and artists demean, not to mention intellectuals. There is no puzzle about why Isaac preferred his brother Esau. He had neither majesty nor a sense of real tragedy. Nothing controversial in any of this.

Then the surprise. “The portrait as drawn in the Bible – before Peniel – is striking in its pallor. It depicts a man straightforward but unimaginative, honest, but anxious to avoid risks. An introverted, frustrated man given to fits of temper, leading a marginal life. A weakling, manipulated by others. Everyone made him do things – and he obeyed. Such was his nature. Incapable of initiative, he could never make up his mind. His mother – Rebecca – gave him the idea of disguising himself as Esau…He cried but he obeyed. And it was Rebecca who, once the act was played, advised him to go away for awhile, to take refuge with his uncle Laban, and again, it was she who gave him his instructions for the journey, including whom not to marry. Naturally [why naturally???], he promptly fell in love with the first girl he met – Rachel – and blushing like a shy adolescent, wanted to marry her on the spot. Yet somehow he ended up marrying her sister. Doubly unhappy, he loved someone he could not marry and was loved by someone he had married without love. He did not complain about it, not too much.”

Some of this is recognizable. An innocent abroad, manipulated and manipulatable. But guileless? After how he dealt with Laban? But Wiesel’s response might be that the affair with the streaked, the spotted and the mottled sheep was God’s idea, not Jacob’s. But where is the evidence to say he was unimaginative? Is this not a Nobel-Prize-winning writer’s condescension? And, most of all, why honest? Is Wiesel suggesting that Jacob was just a tabula rasa corrupted by others? But surely even one who abets a fraud, let alone is the instrument for perpetrating it, is neither honest nor innocent.

Further, Jacob could not be compared to Lot, generally considered the epitome of the average man. There is no indication that Jacob, though an acquisitor on a grand scale, had a taste for luxury, comfort or pleasure as Lot did. And if Lot is the closest comparable, why does Jacob forgo what seemed to be Lot’s greatest virtue – his hospitality, his sense of decency when he met strangers? Lot invited them in to share his food. Jacob fought with the stranger. Lot was courageous, willing to risk himself to protect his entourage. Jacob held back behind the lines with half his troops when Esau approached with 400 men. If Lot was redeemed by his courage, his indecisiveness, his faint-hearted character, his angst, why would Jacob, who is reborn as Israel, remain risk-averse and reliant on Plan B if Plan A failed?

Look at Jacob compared to Abraham, a coward if there ever was one, saying his beautiful wife was his sister lest he be killed by the nobility he encountered. Instead, he delivered Sarah up, not once but twice. And look at his own father, who played the same game with Abimelach, king of the Philistines. Talk about someone who obeys blindly! Abraham was willing to sacrifice his long-wished-for son simply because God told him to do so. Kierkegaard may have celebrated this act as a profound expression of faith, but I read the story as an expression of Abraham’s supine character that makes Jacob comparatively look like a warrior. And Kierkegaard himself, unlike Jacob, was a coward of the worst order, an ugly man offered the most beautiful woman in Denmark who then breaks his engagement and confesses, “Had I faith, I would have married Regina.” Jacob, unlike Kierkegaard, was not a faithless man, but one who, once he declared his love, was determined to see it through whatever it took. And this is key!

Let’s go back. Who are the main characters in this brief drama? There is Jacob. It is important to get his character right at this point if we are to understand what is going on. Compare Jacob with his father, Isaac. He was not a little child when Abraham took him up the mountain to be sacrificed. He carried the wood for the fire. And he was not an innocent abroad. He had to know what it was all about. He asked where was the animal to be sacrificed. And it is Isaac who in his old age is so easily tricked that rabbinical commentators will twist and turn and go to great lengths to insist he had to be in on the gimmick. But Isaac was the archetypal naïve, passive and submissive son. Jacob was the wily one, determined not to be like his father, but also not to follow in the footsteps of his brother who was the exemplar of a strong warrior son. Jacob was a romantic.

Look at how Isaac gained a wife. A servant did all the work for him in advance. Jacob fell for Rachel when he saw her. It was love at first sight – in contrast to Wiesel’s scepticism about such a process. That was simply the foolish infatuation of a young inexperienced man, according to Wiesel. But if so, why did Jacob love Rachel his whole life? He had another wife. He had two concubines. Rachel took the longest time to conceive. But he loved her without qualification. His love was unstinting. And unlike his father, he never paid a bride price. He worked to gain what he loved. Why does Wiesel ignore this magnificent trait of Jacob’s?

Let us review Jacob’s life and character and spot where Wiesel makes some outlandish claims. Like Sarah before her, Isaac had to plea with Elohim so that Rebecca could conceive. Indeed, she had twins. And the Lord said, “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) Before we know anything about each child’s character, we know their destinies. Each shall father a different nation. Jacob’s children, unlike the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, will remain united, one out of many. Though it is often interpreted that the nation founded by Jacob will be the mightier, I think the test tells us the opposite. It is Esau’s nation that will be the mightier in the double sense – it will be much larger, much stronger, but also in the sense that it will be ruled, not by law, no matter how much law will be integral to its success, but by the principle that might is right.

But the nation of Esau will serve the nation of Jacob. In what sense? This is the real mystery of that story. How will the weaker and far less numerous of the two peoples be a ruler over the other? Why will might serve what issues from Jacob? Jacob is indeed, as Wiesel portrayed him, an introvert, a mild-mannered male, a mother’s boy rather than a sports-loving outdoorsman. TheNadvantage there is the first exchange between them. And it is an exchange. And it is not one initiated by his mother. When Esau came in from the outdoors and Jacob was cooking a stew (a male cooking stew!!!) and asked for some because he was famished, Jacob said, “Sure, but trade me your birthright for the stew.”

There is guile. There is initiative. You are desperate. I will take advantage of your desperation. Further, he does not ask in exchange for a bowl of stew the gift of the next animal that Esau slays. Jacob asks for Esau’s birthright. What is a birthright, a bekhorah, in the Torah? It is what is due to the firstborn. For Jacob, though a twin, was born clinging to the heel of Esau. Instead of the double inheritance, Esau was being asked to give up half of his inheritance and transfer it to Jacob. What chutzpah to ask for such an exchange in return only for a bowl of lentil stew and a small loaf of bread! But a birthright implies more than a material inheritance. It implies a right to become the spiritual leader of a people, Reuben, Jacob’s eldest son, was bestowed that honour even though it was later transferred by God to the children of Levi.

Does this suggest that Jacob was only a passive manipulated character? He was calculating but not tricky. He did not trick Esau into giving up his birthright. He just revealed that Esau with his impetuosity, with his focus on the immediate rather than the long game, was incapable of founding a nation based on the rule of law, the foundation of which was a tort or contract, a willing exchange made between two mature individuals. Already, Jacob revealed he was a keen reader of another’s character. As I indicated in an earlier blog, this is not only a story of the second-born displacing the first-born as the spiritual head of a people, but the character of the second-born intended to rule over the first-born, for civilians to rule over warriors, for intellect and careful and calculated thought to rule over the impetuous, for diplomacy to rule over the resort to war whenever possible. That is also the meaning of the encounter between Jacob and Esau when they come together after twenty years of estrangement.

Look at Rabbi Gunther Plaut’s interpretation. (Gunther, who witnessed my marriage to my wife in exchange for my helping him on his report on refugees, was the editor of the Torah and commentary used worldwide by Reform congregations.) He found Jacob’s actions in this case to be morally reprehensible. I did not. Machiavellianism is integral to political success. In myself, I found I was inadequate to such a task. Not because I was not a good bargainer, but because I could not make the bargain that would so benefit my self and the future look trivial. To be Machiavellian requires that one be such a magician that the observers do not even know you are playing a trick. Jacob was already shown to be brilliant in this way even when he was quite young.

Then comes the story of Jacob’s tricking his father out of the blessing intended for Esau, coached in doing so by his own mother, Rebecca, and obedient in spite of his reluctance, not because of the trickery, but by the fear of being caught by so simple and clumsy a ruse as wearing an animal skin to seem hairy to his blind father. Rebecca urges him on. “Your curse, my son, be upon me! Just do as I say and go fetch them [two lambs] for me,” so that I can prepare a tasty dish that your father loves. And anyone who loves bagels as much as I do does not find it hard to understand why Isaac fell for the trick. Set aside your doubts. Just eat the bagel you were offered.

So what becomes of this mediocrity that Wiesel tries to put forth as an accurate description of Jacob’s character? It evaporates into a mist. It isn’t his adventure at Mount Peniel that makes Jacob. It is who he is that allows him to prevail at Mount Peniel. He doesn’t gain majesty there; he is already majestic. The only question is why when on the surface he appears to be so ordinary.

That revelation comes in the story of his marriages to Leah and Rachel. There is character. There is to be found wisdom. There is to be found decisiveness and commitment. And it will not be based on a cold calculation, but on true love for another. The core of the story of Jacob is his romance with Rachel, his refusal to set aside her older sister Leah even though he was tricked into marrying her, and, most of all, precisely his surrender to the will of women rather than the will of man. Jacob was a mother’s boy. That is his great virtue. He did allow Rachel and Leah to work out between them who would sleep with him each night, one of them or one of the concubines. But nothing, absolutely nothing, diminished his love and commitment to Rachel. This did not make him an infatuated nebbish as Wiesel suggests, but made him worthy of becoming the father of a great nation, the nation of Israel and deserving of the name, Israel.

Jacob was steadfast in his love, but always recognized that it was women who would, and should, determine the future. It was women who laboured in childbirth and were the initiators of what would be, not simply of what could be made through technological progress. Though women certainly have proved to be just as capable in that realm. But it is because of the pact between Leah and Rachel that Jacob’s sons stayed together as one nation. Isaac’s sons never did so, Abraham’s sons certainly failed to do so. Only Jacob had the wisdom and foresight to understand where real power is to be found. It is in family. It is the ones who hold the family together.

So who is the stranger with whom Jacob wrestled?

To Be Continued

Don’t Marry a Shicksa

Don’t Marry a Shicksa – Parashat Chayei Sara פרשת חיי שרה
Genesis 23:1 – 25:18

by

Howard Adelman

The previous section, Vayeira, focused on the immigration experience. This section focuses on integration, more accurately, the refusal to integrate and the insistence on being a nation unto itself, a nation among other nations. This section links three stories: 1) the death of Sarah and the negotiations for her burial plot (chapter 23); 2) Abraham sending his servant back to the place of his birth to find a wife for his son Isaac, the identification of Rebekah and the return to Isaac with Rebekah; (chapter 24); and 3) the juxtaposition of Abraham taking a third woman as his wife, Keturah, her children, the death of Abraham and, most importantly, his leaving the bulk of his wealth to Isaac and not to Ishmael, the son of Hagar, or the sons of Keturah.

Let me begin with the previous Parashat, Vayeira, or at least the theme of immigration in that section. I wrote about it last Friday morning, but was interrupted with busy-ness and did not finish. (Yesterday, my failure to write a blog and fulfill my promise was a result of a totally unexpected emergency, oral surgery in which two of my implants were removed and I received a bone graft and eleven stitches.) I will deal with the theme of immigration first, but not with the full previous parashat.

For a religion that supposedly so reveres its past, that centres its services around the Torah and the study of Talmud, Judaism has a peculiar founding father, Abraham. He was an archetypal immigrant who set out into the world to forge a different path for his family and his children. He obviously rejected ancestor worship and the belief that the greatest wisdom had already been revealed. He so clearly rejected the premise that the past was superior to the future. Instead, he set out on a journey to the West in which neither the path nor the destiny were known in advance.

What forces impelled him to move – famine, economic collapse, civil war, conquest? None of these appear to have been factors. What vision impelled him to leave his immediate family? It did not seem to be riches, though rich he would become. It did not seem to be the vision of the explorer intent on discovering “undiscovered” lands. There was no impulse to prove the earth was round or that the torrid parts of the planet supposedly at the ends of the earth were actually habitable. Nor did his travel seem to be impelled by new transportation technologies – railroads or automobiles – since he still went forth in the traditional way of the nomad shepherd with his camels, walking and following his herds. For such a conservative, he was a very radical individual, though not radical enough to claim that the text in which he would be inscribed was written as a result of the dictation of a divine being. But there is a hint that Abraham could read and write for he entered into contracts.

We in the twenty-first century (at least, but not only, in the Reform movement in Judaism) read our sacred text, which provides the geography of our imagination and the story of the founding fathers, as a literary and not a divine document. But the Torah remains sacred. The preservation of the stories of the past, not just as oral memory, but as an inscribed written body of literature, was revered. But not as a product of the printing press – though copies were available this way – but as hand written scrolls of old. What has this to do with immigration?

Abraham did not leave his extended family in Mesopotamia to make a life better for himself – though he would do that – but to be the founder of nations. He was destined to have children as numerous as the stars in the heaven and as the dust on the earth. And he could not do that unless he had children. But Sarah was barren. Did Abraham have a low sperm count? Did Sarai have a problem with ovulation? The latter is the likely possibility since Hagar had Ishmael and his third wife, Keturah, had many children. So why will the “chosen” bloodline run through Isaac? If you wanted to guarantee that the Israelites would become as numerous as the stars, would you not choose a woman who would show a capacity to bear many children? But Abraham was promised that he would be a father of many nations, not just one. It seems there was no guarantee or even likelihood that the dominant one in terms of numbers would be the Israelites.

People immigrate, not for themselves, but for their children. We just finished an election where immigrants and refugees were a central theme of the campaign. Donald Trump railed against Mexican illegal immigrants and refugees from the Middle East being suspect as terrorists. As well, Donald Trump put down women and people with disabilities. He displayed the fine art of an alpha male as a menace to women. Donald Trump was the first presidential candidate since WWII to run on a platform to restrict immigration.

Further, he outperformed among voters who were concerned with these themes, along with related considerations, such as fears of terrorism and opposition to free trade. In the primary, voters, concerned about immigration and related cultural concerns were the core of his support. In Florida, for example, voters who cared about immigration outscored others by 38 points. In the general election, The Donald outperformed among white voters with no college degree. A huge turnout of this section of the population turned out to vote and won him the presidency in the rural and working-class areas of Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, unless a recount reveals that these victories were offset by other votes.

Let us look at Abraham as an immigrant in a foreign land as perceived through his experience. Did he miss home? Did he miss his family? Did he fit in?

A week ago, Thursday, in the evening, we watched an excellent French comedy, The African Doctor. It was based on a true story of a Congolese man from Kinshasa trained in French medicine who takes his family to become the doctor of a small French village somewhere north of Paris. It is a hilarious comedy in which the new arrivals are initially ostracized, but eventually become heroes in this small town. It is a story about “fitting in” and the difficulties in retaining an inherited identity in a strange land.

If you are a Platonist or a neo-Platonist (Chabadniks for example), death is the ultimate immigration experience, for the migration of the soul is so much more important, and more difficult than leaving the habits of feeding and caring for the body behind. But if the experience of life and death on this earth is the primary concern, then the major issue about the life of the soul will be narrated through the life and death of the body and how that is handled. Caring for the dead body is as important as caring for the living. In terms of the latter position, what better way to illustrate the split in adaptation than with a doctor responsible for caring for the living bodies of native French women and men. Even as he cares for bodies, in his experience, it is his soul and that of the French small town that are at stake, even if cast within the construct of a hilarious French farce.

One message of the movie was that earthly migration is not Platonic. There is no preservation of the soul separate from the body. However, one does NOT forget one’s inherited physical life – food, singing, soccer. It is the opposite message of Platonism – we should not forget who we are as bodies, including being black or white, including whether we eat pickled herring or scones and cream when we migrate. We should and cannot leave our bodies behind, but must take our bodies with us when we migrate. And the body politic into which we move must adapt as well as accommodate us as we as immigrants adapt. The ideal migration is not a Platonic migration that separates body and soul, but one that integrates body and soul on both sides of the earthly divide, the immigrant and the native.

So it is not true that you must abandon your past to move into the future. The “old country” comes with you when you enter the new. Hineini –“Here am I” and not “I am here” – has to be the mantra. For the ‘I’ is a becoming, not an essence who is present. The emphasis is on the here and now without forgetting what the I had become and what the I wants to be.

The parashat on Sara begins with her burial, more accurately, with the purchase of her grave. Sarah is buried among strangers in a plot purchased from the Hittites among whom Abraham lived. Their leaders offered a plot to Abraham as a gift. Abraham refused the gift. He insisted on paying and agreeing in a contract to buy the land in Kiryat Arba, now Hebron. When Abraham initially proposed to pay for the burial site, the Hittite leaders replied: “Hear us, my lord: you are the elect of God among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our burial places; none of us will withhold his burial place from you for burying your dead.” (23:6) This was an act of great generosity. But Abraham turned down the gift. “Let him (Ephron) sell me the cave of Machpelah that he owns, which is at the edge of his land. Let him sell it to me, at the full price, for a burial site in your midst.” (23:9)

Ephron offered the site a second time. Abraham reiterates a second time: “Let me pay the price of the land; accept it from me, that I may bury my dead there.” (23:13) Ephron finally concedes: “A piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver—what is that between you and me? Go and bury your dead.” (23:15) Ephron must have been very exasperated and irritated by this point. What chutzpah of this stranger among us to refuse a gift when it is offered! Further, Abraham’s response was really an insult to the traditions of hospitality of the resident population among whom Abraham lived as a resident alien. Nevertheless, Ephron compromises and agrees to Abraham’s deal – 400 shekels, the market price for the land on which the burial cave is located.

So the story of Sarah’s death becomes, not a tale of weeping at the loss of the companion of his life, though there is a very brief mention of mourning, but about a contention between the peoples among whom Abraham had settled, their generosity of spirit and their act of gift-giving within a shame culture. Abraham insists on holding his own, on paying for the land and obtaining a deed of ownership. Abraham insists on contract law and the principle of guilt when one fails to uphold a contract rather than a reliance on shame characteristic of a culture of generosity.

Abraham adopts from the local population the principle of the spirit of generosity to strangers and incorporates that principle as a mainstay of his religion. At the same time, Abraham insisted on holding onto what would become a characteristic of one nation he was founding, the principle of the social contract and of guilt versus the practice of gift giving and of shame used to bind parties. It is a tale of accommodation and integration of strangers rather than of assimilation.

In that spirit, Abraham will not permit his son Isaac to marry “out”. He insists on sending his servant back to the “home” country to find a bride from his own tribe. And the servant locates a woman of high spirits and generosity, a risk taker willing to leave her family behind and join Isaac whom she had never met and knows virtually nothing about, to participate in this epic journey into the future and in a strange land.

This is a story of all immigrants. Immigration entails leaving one’s homeland behind and coming to a new land. It may even mean carrying into this new land a new spirit and a different set of values, such as that of legal contracts and a guilt culture rather than one of generosity, of gift giving in a shame culture. Abraham and the Israelites will accept the tradition of their hosts of generosity and welcoming the stranger as a central imperative. But they will also insist on founding a nation on the principle of a social contract in which legal contacts are the backbone of the economy.

All immigrants wrestle with the same dilemma – how to maintain one’s family ties and one’s traditions and how to live in the new world, how to adapt but not simply assimilate, and how to teach by example standards which the local population may choose to adopt as well. On the one hand, kith and kin, a kindred spirit and preserving one’s identity as an Iranian or Chinese, as an Indian or a Jamaican, are important to all immigrant groups to different degrees. But so too is adaptation. What values are crucial that you should not surrender to the dominant values of the host population? What values of the host should you integrate into your own culture? The dialectic of accommodation is never easy. But to be successful, a spirit of negotiation, of give and take, is crucial.

What about the third section of the parashat which tells about all of Abraham’s other children, to whom he was very generous in getting them established. However, in his will, he made Isaac his sole heir, Isaac whom he insisted marry from within his clan? And that becomes a crux of passing on one’s heritage. For if the males – and this is changing as females more frequently do so as well – go forth out into the world and marry “out” of the clan, not only does this weaken the family as the core of the body politic of a society for preserving a collective memory and a tradition of values and the means to practice them. It also leaves behind a surfeit of women of one’s own clan, women who will more likely remain barren through no bodily incapacity, though artificial insemination and surrogate fathers may help. A result: the numbers in the clan with ties and commitments to preserving those traditions both weaken and the numbers decline at one and the same time.

This is the dilemma not only of Jews but of all ethnic groups. One way of responding is turning inward, insisting on only marrying in and creating and preserving practices that clearly set one’s group apart. Segments of Jews, Hutterites and Mennonites, all adopt such a strategy. Other Jews turn their backs on all of that. They no longer wish to see the back of God and retain the collective memory of the past. They leave the tribe to become global citizens. Still others try to stand astride both worlds, the world of the new while respecting and preserving the old. They can meet the challenge by avoiding the Scylla of insisting only on inwardness or the Charybdis of opting for marching outward. Or they can try to integrate the outer into the inner by welcoming the stranger into the covenant of Israel while adapting into the dominant nation in which they find themselves.

After all, one of the greatest heroines of Jewish history, if not the greatest exemplar, was not a Jew-by-birth but a convert. Each one has a choice. Each family has to decide how and to what extent it will preserve its heritage. And the practices of burial of the dead, of marriage and of having children will be at the core in making such decisions.

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.