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

Advertisements

Angels and Clouds: B’Shalach Exodus 13:17-17:16

Angels and Clouds: B’Shalach Exodus 13:17-17:16

by

Howard Adelman

To continue the theme of God as a coercive power with an outstretched arm and a mighty hand who defeated all the Egyptian gods, in this section the Israelites are led south along the Red Sea. It will be the tides of the Red Sea that will inundate the Egyptians, not the Sea of Reeds.

The prerequisite is there – unity. They must place a mezuzah on the door posts to recall God’s help and, more importantly, to recognize, as the prayer says on the parchment enclosed in the mezuzah, “Hear, O Israel, the LORD (is) our God, the LORD is One”. (Deuteronomy 6:4) They must be unified with a faith in one God with many attributes rather than gods divided among themselves with different expertise who quarrel among themselves.

B’Shalach refers to God “letting go.” First Pharaoh had to let the people go. Now God must do the same, but not without teaching the Israelites the art of war. The Israelites must now learn to fight their own battles. They must learn to become a military power in their own right. And the terror of war may make them yearn even for slavery as a preferable alternative or authoritarianism rather than fighting for democracy. The latter lesson would come much later.

וַיְהִ֗י בְּשַׁלַּ֣ח פַּרְעֹה֮ אֶת־הָעָם֒ וְלֹא־נָחָ֣ם אֱלֹהִ֗ים דֶּ֚רֶךְ אֶ֣רֶץ פְּלִשְׁתִּ֔ים כִּ֥י קָר֖וֹב ה֑וּא כִּ֣י ׀ אָמַ֣ר אֱלֹהִ֗ים פֶּֽן־יִנָּחֵ֥ם הָעָ֛ם בִּרְאֹתָ֥ם מִלְחָמָ֖ה וְשָׁ֥בוּ מִצְרָֽיְמָה׃

Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, “The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.” (13:17)

But if you are going to fight war, you must learn the basic principles as well as master the practices. The first lesson of war is that you need arms. “Now the Israelites went up armed out of the land of Egypt.” (13:18) Since the only source was the Egyptian army, they had to have stolen arms as well as silver and gold from the Egyptians. But they never had time to be trained in the use of those arms. Thus, a direct battle with the Egyptians at that time was inconceivable.

The second lesson of war is that you must be very well disciplined and trained. A mob cannot fight a war. Wars require visionary leaders (angels) and soldiers very well versed in the military arts. Nothing could be more useless than sending off a philosopher to fight in a war – unless, of course, he was a philosopher of war and could teach the general principles of war and their application to strategy and tactics.

The third lesson of war is that an army never, or, hardly ever, sleeps. An army might need a pillar of fire to travel during the night.

וַֽיהוָ֡ה הֹלֵךְ֩ לִפְנֵיהֶ֨ם יוֹמָ֜ם בְּעַמּ֤וּד עָנָן֙ לַנְחֹתָ֣ם הַדֶּ֔רֶךְ וְלַ֛יְלָה בְּעַמּ֥וּד אֵ֖שׁ לְהָאִ֣יר לָהֶ֑ם לָלֶ֖כֶת יוֹמָ֥ם וָלָֽיְלָה׃

The LORD went before them in a pillar of cloud by day, to guide them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, that they might travel day and night. (13:21)

But why a pillar of cloud by day? Because the Israelites needed a cover. The fourth lesson of war is that daylight offers the real danger for warriors. They must travel in a cloud, in camouflage, dressed perhaps as simple shepherds so that the peoples among whom they pass do not detect them as warriors and prepare a defense.

לֹֽא־יָמִ֞ישׁ עַמּ֤וּד הֶֽעָנָן֙ יוֹמָ֔ם וְעַמּ֥וּד הָאֵ֖שׁ לָ֑יְלָה לִפְנֵ֖י הָעָֽם׃ (פ)

The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people. (13:22)

“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far; when far, we must make him believe we are near.”
― Sun TzuThe Art of War

The fifth lesson of war is to take the safest route, even if it is a long way round. The Israelites were forced to travel, not along the easy route eastward along the Mediterranean from Goshen, but the long circuitous trek southward via Succoth to the south-eastern tip of the Sinai Peninsula.

“He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.”

― Sun TzuThe Art of War

The sixth lesson of war is that when they must camp, and all armies must stop and sleep sometime, it is important where they camp even if it means backtracking to a safe spot where there is a minimal perimeter between them and an enemy.

דַּבֵּר֮ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵל֒ וְיָשֻׁ֗בוּ וְיַחֲנוּ֙ לִפְנֵי֙ פִּ֣י הַחִירֹ֔ת בֵּ֥ין מִגְדֹּ֖ל וּבֵ֣ין הַיָּ֑ם לִפְנֵי֙ בַּ֣עַל צְפֹ֔ן נִכְח֥וֹ תַחֲנ֖וּ עַל־הַיָּֽם׃

Tell the Israelites to turn back and encamp before Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, before Baal-zephon; you shall encamp facing it, by the sea. (14:2)

Pihahiroth “faces” BaalZephon and itself means “mouth of water” because a body of water, a bay, stands between the broad part of the peninsula to the south. To the east, there is water. The Sinai lies to the north connecting the wide part of the peninsula to the Sinai Desert via a narrow neck of land. Thus, Pihahiroth is a peninsula located south of Sharm-el-Sheikh as the southern and most eastern portion of the Sinai desert with a very narrow neck connecting to the mainland and facing Baal-Zephon. The backs of the warriors must be to the sea as they look forward at the isthmus.

http://www.bible.ca/archeology/maps-bible-archeology-exodus-route-pi-hahiroth.jpg

The seventh lesson of warfare is to expect the unexpected. Did Pharaoh and his gods not already suffer devastating defeats? Pharaoh still had a reserve army and he sent 600 charioteers, a cavalry unit and foot soldiers, an enormous army at the time, in pursuit of the Israelite population to recover the stolen gold and silver as well as the stolen arms, but most of all, his army of slaves on which the economy of Egypt had become so dependent. The Israelites still did not have any training in using their arms. One need not go into the question of why God took credit for stiffening the Pharaoh’s heart even further. But it was an excellent war tactic.

“If your enemy is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him. If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest.

― Sun TzuThe Art of War

God wanted more glory via Pharaoh. The news of a military victory in the south-eastern tip of the Sinai between a rag-tag army of poorly armed ex-slaves without any training and the might of Egypt would spread that reputation far and wide beyond Egypt and earn renown throughout the Sinai and even further east among all the Canaanites, the Edomites and the Moabites. The eighth lesson of war is that was is primarily psychological; an army must instill the fear of God among its enemies.

But initially it was the Israelites that stood facing Pharaoh’s huge army at the other end of the isthmus and were frightened out of their wits. As predicted, they wailed to God and Moses. “Why did you take us to this forsaken place? Why did you lead us to escape from slavery only to face the military might of Egypt now threatening to wipe them out?”

יֹּאמְרוּ֮ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה֒ הַֽמִבְּלִ֤י אֵין־קְבָרִים֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם לְקַחְתָּ֖נוּ לָמ֣וּת בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר מַה־זֹּאת֙ עָשִׂ֣יתָ לָּ֔נוּ לְהוֹצִיאָ֖נוּ מִמִּצְרָֽיִם׃

And they said to Moses, “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt? (14:11)

הֲלֹא־זֶ֣ה הַדָּבָ֗ר אֲשֶׁר֩ דִּבַּ֨רְנוּ אֵלֶ֤יךָ בְמִצְרַ֙יִם֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר חֲדַ֥ל מִמֶּ֖נּוּ וְנַֽעַבְדָ֣ה אֶת־מִצְרָ֑יִם כִּ֣י ט֥וֹב לָ֙נוּ֙ עֲבֹ֣ד אֶת־מִצְרַ֔יִם מִמֻּתֵ֖נוּ בַּמִּדְבָּֽר׃

Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, saying, ‘Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness’?” (14:12)

Talk about ungrateful cowards and cry babies! But Moses knew that isthmus was wide when the tide was low. He marched his trembling barely military force forward to fight the Egyptians presumably as the frontline shock troops on the widened but still relatively narrow isthmus and invited the Egyptian chariots to engage in battle. Moses knew two complementary lessons about the tactics of war:

“He who is prudent and lies in wait for an enemy who is not, will be victorious.”
― Sun TzuThe Art of War

“Engage people with what they expect; it is what they are able to discern and confirms their projections. It settles them into predictable patterns of response, occupying their minds while you wait for the extraordinary moment — that which they cannot anticipate.”
― Sun TzuThe Art of War

But the chariots got bogged down in the mud, especially when following in the tracks of the forward chariots that could not spread out. As the army got bogged down, as their thrust was greatly diminished, as their cavalry piled up against the chariots stuck in the mud, the tide began to rise. The army was caught and could neither retreat nor go forward. Meanwhile, the Israeli ragtag collection of ex-slaves stood at the southern tip of the narrow isthmus that was growing narrower by the minute and cheered as the threatening army drowned in the rising waters.

There are two important lessons from this battle. The ninth lesson is pick your battleground with great care to make up for your deficiencies. Turn the very strengths and confidence of the Egyptian army against them so that you do not have to so much seek victory as to prepare for your enemies self-defeat.

There is, as might be expected, a tenth lesson.

יִּסַּ֞ע מַלְאַ֣ךְ הָאֱלֹהִ֗ים הַהֹלֵךְ֙ לִפְנֵי֙ מַחֲנֵ֣ה יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ מֵאַחֲרֵיהֶ֑ם וַיִּסַּ֞ע עַמּ֤וּד הֶֽעָנָן֙ מִפְּנֵיהֶ֔ם וַיַּֽעֲמֹ֖ד מֵאַחֲרֵיהֶֽם׃. וַיָּבֹ֞א בֵּ֣ין ׀ מַחֲנֵ֣ה מִצְרַ֗יִם וּבֵין֙ מַחֲנֵ֣ה יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וַיְהִ֤י הֶֽעָנָן֙ וְהַחֹ֔שֶׁךְ וַיָּ֖אֶר אֶת־הַלָּ֑יְלָה וְלֹא־קָרַ֥ב זֶ֛ה אֶל־זֶ֖ה כָּל־הַלָּֽיְלָה׃

The angel of God, who had been going ahead of the Israelite army, now moved and followed behind them; and the pillar of cloud shifted from in front of them and took up a place behind them, and it came between the army of the Egyptians and the army of Israel. Thus, there was the cloud with the darkness, and it cast a spell upon the night, so that the one could not come near the other all through the night. (14:19-20)

Now was the time, not to throw light onto the battleground, but to disguise oneself, not to look bedraggled, but to become hidden in the mists thrown off by the sea and only appear as a mysterious presence.  The Egyptian army was not only bogged down in the mud, not only threatened by the sea, but became blinded by the darkness and misled by the misty air that clouded their vision so that they could not even see how weak their enemy was. Rashi, by contrast, suggests the pillar of cloud was intended to provide direction.

“Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak,” and “Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night,

― Sun TzuThe Art of War

The Israelite army that initially appeared to move into battle to fight the Egyptians, instead retreated behind the mists and the clouds that hid their weaknesses and allowed them to get back on the higher dry ground of the peninsula. It had learned by far the most important lesson of war.

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”
― Sun TzuThe Art of War

What can be said? It was an enormous victory! God had finally, or so He believed, won the hearts and undying love of the Israelites. Chapter 15 goes on to explain how they sang and danced with joy and pledged eternal fealty to their God. And it became a daily prayer.

עָזִּ֤י וְזִמְרָת֙ יָ֔הּ וַֽיְהִי־לִ֖י לִֽישׁוּעָ֑ה זֶ֤ה אֵלִי֙ וְאַנְוֵ֔הוּ אֱלֹהֵ֥י אָבִ֖י וַאֲרֹמְמֶֽנְהוּ׃

The LORD is my strength and might; He is become my deliverance. This is my God and I will enshrine Him; The God of my father, and I will exalt Him. (15:2)

The God of the Israelites was no longer just the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, no longer the God of Joseph that facilitated the interpretation of dreams and the rise to secular power, but the God was now clearly and unequivocally a warrior God, a God of War. And the people of Israel would sing His praises, would sing the praises of their newly discovered God of War.

יְהוָ֖ה אִ֣ישׁ מִלְחָמָ֑ה יְהוָ֖ה שְׁמֽוֹ׃

The LORD, the Warrior— LORD is His name! (15:3)

But not for long. That, however, must wait another commentary.

APPENDIX

 

Commentary on Commentators

ה’ איש מלחמה means The Lord is a Master of war; just as, (Ruth 1:3) “the איש (i. e. the master) of Naomi”. (Cf. Rashi on that verse). Wherever the words איש and אישך occur they must be translated by בעל; so, too, (1 Kings 2:2) “Be thou strong and show thyself an איש” — a mighty person.

Most rabbinic commentators, Rashi included, were determined to re-interpret a warrior God, not as a coercive Being, but as strong in spirit, “a mighty person.”

Another example follows, but the warrior God is kept but subsumed under a God of mercy:

ה’ שמו THE LORD IS HIS NAME — His wars are not waged with martial weapons but He fights by means of His Name, just as David said, (I Samuel 17:45) “But I come against thee in the name of the Lord of Hosts”. Another explanation of ה׳ שמו — He is a man of war, but His Name is the Lord (the God of Mercy): even at the time when He battles against and avenges Himself upon His enemies He retains His attribute (that expressed by His name ה׳) showing pity to His creatures and feeding all the inhabitants of the world; not as is the nature of the kings of the world each one of whom when he is engaged in war turns aside from all other engagements, and has not the power to do both this and that (cf. Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 15:3).

It should be clear that this commentary is radically different from those of the vast majority of commentators.

 

Lordship and Bondage: Recognition and Divine Cunning

Vayigash (וַיִּגַּשׁ‎ — he drew near) Genesis 44:18–47:27
Lordship and Bondage: Recognition and Divine Cunning

by

Howard Adelman

Last Shabat, in Torah study, our rabbi said that Hebraism in comparison to Hellenism was relational rather than solipsistic. Everything happens in relation to another, especially the development of self-consciousness. It could be said that the main theme of the Torah is recognition.

In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve recognized that they were naked and were ashamed after they had eaten of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Sexual intercourse introduced mutual recognition of the other even as it also introduced shame of one’s bare self, of one’s material self, of a self propelled by drives and passions. In the Cain and Abel story, the two brothers vie for God’s recognition as they sacrifice the best of their labours, whether the fat of his animals in the case of Abel, or the richness of his crops in the case of Cain, the farmer. God grants recognition to Abel. In envy and rage, for what is a man worth if he is not recognized as being near to God, and a sense of injustice, Cain kills Abel. Cain effaces Abel from the surface of the earth.

Skip ahead, though there is much on recognition in between. Jacob wrestles with a stranger/God and afterwards insists that he had come face to face with the Divine. Jacob is then able to come face to face with his brother Esau whom he had cheated out of his father’s blessing and was meeting him for the first time in twenty years. Esau, instead of having held onto his wrath all those years, embraces his brother in joy and rapture even as his brother comes near to him in fear and trembling.

The three patriarchs did what they were told to do or what they needed to do to come nearer the projection of a family legacy, from dor l’dor, from generation to generation. Joseph is the first of our original set of ancestors that does things for their own sake, for his own sake. Joseph is NOT a patriarch. In his narcissism, in his self-centred behaviour, in his knowledge of himself as a dreamer and an aesthete, he will be the first to become a Lord, the first to achieve true greatness in the world of public affairs. When Joseph had a dream prophesying that his brothers would bow down to him as their Lord, and even his father and mother would do so as well, recognition is once again invoked, but it is not the mutual recognition of a man and a woman, it is not the recognition of the Lord of a supplicant, and it is not the reverse recognition of man of his Lord as his equal as when Jacob wrestled with the stranger. It is recognition that combines all three elements – mutuality, lordship and bondage, and self-recognition of the divine within any human.

First and foremost, came the recognition that they are all brothers in one family, equal in stature in the family, in spite of Jacob’s explicit favouritism for the sons of Rachel. The clear responsibility for this was not the father, but the pact between the two sisters who had become Jacob’s wives and were as different as Cain and Abel, and in as different circumstances within the politics of the family. “We your servants are twelve brethren, the sons of one man in the land of Canaan; and, behold, the youngest is this day with our father, and one is not.” (Genesis 44:13) And one is not. Not, we are eleven brothers. Not, we are twelve brothers but one died. But an ambiguous reference to a twelfth brother, who ironically stood lording it over them. For Joseph had not been treated with brotherly love. Though initially intended for death, Joseph was cast out. He “was not” because he was no longer among them. Though they could look him in the eye, he “was not” because they did not recognize him. And the irony. He was above not among them.

Thus, second, there is the recognition of the superiority of one over the many, first of Joseph over the other brothers in terms of wealth and power, and, second, the superiority in a very different sense of Judah over the others in taking responsibility for his deeds, for his thoughts and for others. Without being a saintly figure, Judah saved Joseph’s life, sending him into slavery instead of death. It is Judah who recognized that the loss of Benjamin would be the final straw in breaking their father’s heart, while Joseph, in contrast, and almost in sheer selfishness, insisted that his youngest and only full brother be brought to see him, even though that separation might kill his father. Joseph insisted that his half-brothers bring his younger full brother, Benjamin, to Egypt even when Judah warned him that doing so would kill their father, for Jacob’s soul was “bound up” with Benjamin’s. So, it seemed, was Joseph’s. And the loss of Benjamin to his father would kill Jacob because he did not draw Benjamin near to him, but suffocated him with his love.

Third, Judah offers himself as a bondsman as surety for Benjamin. In contrast, Joseph went too far. Lordship had gone to his head. Joseph dreamt that his father would become his servant and bow down to him. That dream too had to be fulfilled. And it was. In contrast, Judah lived in a rough world and adapted well to it. But, unlike Joseph, Judah was a natural giver. He gave of himself. More than that, when he perceived an injustice, he responded, not by taking a position of moral purity. Nothing he did was morally pure. He was the epitome of morality by coming up with a pragmatic solution that would acknowledge and respect others while turning their efforts into a different direction, even if that direction was far from an ideal one.

Compare Judah to Reuben. Reuben felt the responsibilities of his position in the birth chain. He tried to exercise those responsibilities in the midst of a world of jealousy and envy, competition and regard with the honours owed to one’s father. He was much closer to a purely good man than Judah, even though his father gave him no respect or recognition for who he was and what he did for the family. But, on the ground, he was less successful than Judah who knew somehow almost instinctively how to blend his sense of responsibility to the other, not only the other in need, but the other who denied and refused to recognize that need, and combined it with his own willingness to sacrifice.

This is one of the weirdest parts of the Torah. The ostensible hero, the one whom we read about for four weeks – the only one who surpasses him is Moses – is Joseph. But the real hero, the unsung hero, is Judah. Without Judah, there would be no Joseph.

But look at Joseph’s behaviour. I already pointed out that Joseph was willing to sacrifice his father’s life so that he could be reunited with his own full brother. Quite aside from this indifference to a father who favoured him, who had doted upon him, he treated his father with the greatest disrespect. It is one thing to dream of having your father bow down to you. It is quite another to allow, to even expect him to do so when once again they meet after so many years of separation, after such a long period of his father mourning for his loss. But perhaps it was because Jacob, ever the self-centred calculator, mourned for his loss only because Joseph was the child of his dearly and deeply beloved Rachel. Perhaps Joseph felt his father had never loved him for who he was, but simply because he was his mother’s son. Perhaps this was behind Joseph’s ambitious desire for recognition, for power, for lording over an Other.

Look at how the parshah begins. Not with Joseph coming near, but with Judah coming near. “Then Judah approached him and said, ‘Please, my lord, let now your servant speak something into my lord’s ears, and let not your wrath be kindled against your servant, for you are like Pharaoh.’ (Genesis 44:18) Judah begins by asking to come close to Joseph at the same time as he flatters him and says that Joseph is close to Pharaoh and, in effect, Judah is unworthy of coming close to him. Look at Judah’s cleverness in soothing Joseph lest he become uppity and insulted that his office is not being respected and he unleash his anger at the brothers.

Joseph may be Prime Minister or Vizier of all of Egypt. But Judah is the real politician – a person oriented to the Other, oriented to the public good and with the sensibilities and mastery of rhetoric to convince the Other that what they must do is for their own benefit. Further, as Rashi noted, claiming that Joseph was akin to Pharaoh was not only flattery, but an underhanded insult. The Hebrews, after all, did not really have the highest respect for Pharaoh’s lordly ways even as they paid him all the lip service needed to get by. Their Lord was, after all, far superior to His Lordship.

Can you possibly imagine what happens next? Just think of you being a lowly Canadian or American and being introduced to the Prime Minister or the Speaker of the House in Washington and the first question he asked about you is, “Have you a father or a brother?” (44:19) Not, do you have parents? Not, do you have siblings? Given his sensitivity to others, Judah had to clue in that this situation was distinctly abnormal. Judah and his nine other brothers reply in chorus that we have an old father, a very young brother back home and that his full brother is dead. Now the answer is not the ambiguous, “is not” this time. Joseph is pronounced dead even though the brothers knew he had been sold into slavery. Better dead than red, better dead than a life of perpetual enforced service.

Rashi likes to point out how the answers aroused Joseph’s suspicions. But my attention was drawn to Judah and how he was going to handle it. For I cannot believe, as Rashi does, that Joseph suspected that his brothers had gone down (the Israelite perspective) or came up to Egypt (the view of the Egyptian court) for a nefarious purpose. It just does not make sense to me that Joseph is suddenly concerned about their ambitions – to acquire Egyptian wives. But perhaps. It is possible that Joseph projected on his brothers’ motives for glory and honour and wealth and public recognition desires similar to his own. I, personally, do not have such a cynical view of Joseph as Rashi.

Then comes the very revealing and unveiling line uttered by Joseph. “And you said to your servants, ‘Bring him down to me, and I will set my eye[s] upon him.’” (44:21) The New Testament is full of allusions to eyes. For Matthew, the eye is the lamp of the body. (6:22) By looking into someone’s eyes, you can read their character. But Joseph was not looking to read Benjamin’s character, but to feast his own eyes upon him. Was he also asserting that he, Joseph, was not concerned to see what Benjamin looked like, but was akin to God in wanting to see what was in Benjamin’s heart? (I Samuel 16:2) Was it, in the end, as black as his own and that no one recognized?

I doubt it. One never gets the idea at this stage of the story that Joseph compared himself or saw himself in God’s light. Rather, he portrayed himself as the reflection of the Pharaoh’s. Joseph was more akin to wanting only the most worthy to appear before him. Though he was a brilliant politician and public servant in not only recognizing but anticipating the needs of the people and how they could and should be filled, he was always even more interested in expanding the wealth and glory of the Pharaoh. Hence Joseph’s brilliant efforts, however morally heinous, to give food to the needy middle class, but only in exchange for their lands, for their cattle and for their perpetual serfdom.

If he, as Psalm 101 commanded, only wanted o appear before him what delighted his own eyes, and what delighted his own eyes was not the inner soul of the Other, surely Judah would have picked this up and become suspicious. For Joseph was not asking for his eyes to be opened so the wonders of the world could be open to him. He, after all, was the dreamer, the seer, the wonder of the Egyptian world. Further, unlike Jesus who aspired to open everyone’s eyes in that way, the Israelites were more concerned with whether their tongues spoke the words of their God. For, in the end, it is really through a man’s words that you can read him. Israelites by and large did not believe that eyes were the window into the soul. And Joseph certainly did not, so caught up was he with that which delighted his eyes. He was truly an aesthete.

It is Judah who tests Joseph about his motives. Was he suspicious that Joseph may not only have been gay, but was a man who loved boys, a pedophile? Judah on behalf of his brothers pleaded with Joseph. If we take Benjamin away from his father, it would kill their father. Judah did not betray his suspicions, only his fears. How did Joseph reply? He gave them an ultimatum. “If your youngest brother does not come down with you, you will not see my face again.” (44:23) Not simply you will not see me. You will not see my face. Joseph was assuming the position of the Hebrew God and saying that he would remain hidden from them. Of course, if he did so, they would not get the food and the provisions that Jacob had sent them down to Egypt to buy. Would they surrendered to Joseph’s blackmail in spite of their, especially Judah’s, suspicions.

Their father was devastated. As far as Jacob was concerned, his soul had become totally wrapped up in Benjamin. It was Jacob, not as a pedophile, who would not detach himself from his son just as once he would not let go of the Lord with whom he had wrestled. But all their lives were at stake. Jacob gave in, especially when Judah pledged his own life as surety for the boy’s return. (44:32) But these same words were first offered up to Joseph. (44:30) Joseph would have none of it. He showed little compassion for the situation into which he had put both his brothers and especially his father. While Joseph had expressed the desire to delight his eyes, Judah wailed, “Let me not see the misery that will befall my father!” Joseph needed and wanted to satisfy his eyes. But Joseph, the deep moralist, the one most concerned for the other, could not stand the anticipation of watching his father wail.

Then in Chapter 45, Joseph suddenly changed course. He revealed who he was to his brothers. Why then? Because it was clear that it was Judah’s gauntlet that had won the day. Joseph had threatened them with sending them home without provisions and never allowing them to come to Egypt again to get food. But even at that, Judah would not give in lest his father’s heart be broken.

The most interesting part is how Joseph revealed himself. He cried. He wailed. He broke down so even his servants who had been sent out of the room could hear. So much for maintaining appearances! Joseph gave in to his inner voice and set aside his preoccupations with seeing and being seen. And Joseph uttered those powerful words with which the parshat began. “”Please come closer to me,” and they drew closer. And he said, “I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.” (45:4) One cannot help but weep when you read this verse.

Here is the epiphany. This is where Joseph once again becomes a Hebrew. For he comes to recognize that it is not his skills, it is not his attributes of seeing into the future, but only that he was an instrument of God’s will. He returns to the beliefs of his forefathers. You are not to blame for selling me into slavery. I am not to be credited for achieving such a high position in the world. It is all part of God’s will and how God reveals himself. It is the cunning of history. It is the cunning of the divine spirit. “God sent me before you to make for you a remnant in the land, and to preserve [it] for you for a great deliverance.” (45:7)

This, in the end, is what Judaism is about. No matter whether you are a lowly serf or someone who has achieved the highest honours, you are but an instrument of history, an instrument of God’s will. The rest of the parshat is but the unpacking of this self-discovery, this self-revelation, this coming to recognize God as the ultimate Other, while, at the same time, working His will through our various hearts.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Israel and America: Numbers 23 & 24 – Balaam continued

Numbers 23&24 Balaam continued: Israel and America

by

Howard Adelman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And with Bill? In different words from Margaret Atwood:

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

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

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

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

With the help of Alex Zisman

Balaam as a He-Ass – Numbers 22

Balaam as a He-Ass – Numbers 22

by

Howard Adelman

Understanding Balaam can be a very valuable clue to understanding Donald Trump and the danger he poses. If you are uninterested in biblical exegesis, skip the rest of this week’s blogs. They simply justify the interpretation and the character of Balaam that I use to draw the analogy with Donald Trump.

Rashi, the great mediaeval interpreter of Torah, wrote the following:

“Why did God bestow His Shechinah on a wicked gentile?” [The answer is] so the nations should not have an excuse to say, “Had we had prophets we would have repented.” So He assigned them prophets, but they breached the [morally] accepted barrier, for at first they had refrained from immorality, but he [Balaam] advised them to offer themselves freely for prostitution. — [Mid. Tanchuma Balak 1, Num. Rabbah 20:1]

In Rashi’s analysis, Balaam indeed received God’s shechinah. Why does God reveal Himself in all His glory to a wicked, indeed evil, gentile soothsayer? What is Balaam’s function in God’s plan? Rashi provides a rationale. To the legitimate question of why would God ever choose such a wicked man to be the voice of prophecy for other nations, his only answer is that they could not say we have become wicked because you gave the Israelites prophets but neglected us. Clever! As is usually the case, Rashi is extremely inventive with his interpretations. Making Balaam a prophet removed the excuse of the gentile nations, blaming their desertion of the universal code of morality on God’s failure to give them a prophet. As will be seen, I argue that Balaam was wicked but was not a prophet, except in a very ironic sense.

Look at Rashi’s conclusions on reading the text. Balaam was evil. But Balaam was indeed a prophet. God did choose him. In the only time God provided a gentile nation with a prophet, God deliberately gave them a wicked man. Why? So they could not blame their immorality on the excuse that they lacked a prophet. Sound fishy? Sounds far fetched? Condescending to the gentile nations? But if this is not the case, why would Balaam be chosen to be God’s spokesperson in blessing the Israelites? But did God really choose Balaam? Was Balaam really a prophet? Did Balaam even really bless the Israelites?

Balaam was a vehicle. But for what purpose? Not because God chose him to be a real prophet. But for the sake of the Israelites, not the gentile nations. Because of the stubborn willfulness and failure to acknowledge the true prophets they already had, God instead gave the Israelites a soothsayer who would play on their self-confidence, on their successes and consequent excesses, and verbally lead them further astray by flattering them, by appealing to their sense of superiority. God did not choose Balaam as a real prophet but as a vehicle to demonstrate the Israelite attraction to the misguidance of an evil soothsayer. The role he served was to educate the Israelites, not the gentile nations, to make them skillful in understanding. Balaam in his mouthing the prophesy of Israelite superiority served, in fact, to let them allow their sense of superiority to mislead themselves and believe they could ignore God’s commandments.

Nevertheless, one must admit that Rashi’s interpretation is brilliant. But why might a soothsayer of the enemy, a leader of an enemy nation and an enemy to Israel, have a broad appeal and undermine the morale and strength of the Israelites by pronouncing them strong? That was the direct effect of his blessing the Israelites. They became arrogant. They strayed from the ways of God. The discontented Israelites were susceptible to an appeal that promised their desires would be fulfilled and their own fears stilled if they too fell under the spell of Balaam’s depiction of themselves as all powerful and unbeatable.

That is the overarching thrust of the story. Balaam serves God’s purpose as a lesson to and for the Israelites. But that, of course, is not why Balak chose Balaam even if the outcome might be more beneficial to him than he ever intended or thought. Balak asked, “please come and curse this people for me, for they are too powerful for me. Only then will there be a possibility that they can be driven from the land.” And Balak goes on to flatter Balaam: “for I know that whomever you blessed is blessed and whomever you curse is cursed.” (Numbers 21:6) What an irony! For in his blessing lies a curse. And the curse would really have been the blessing for the Israelites.

How did the Moabite and Midian aristocracy approach this son of a beast to lead them “With magic charms in their hands.” Rashi suggests two possible interpretations. In the first, they did it so Balaam could not refuse them with the excuse that he lacked the magical tools to take up the leadership. In a second interpretation, it was a test. If Balaam accepted the use of the magic they offered, then he would be worthy of becoming their leader and prove that he has bought into their program. But if he refused, then he would be unworthy of the request of those aristocrats anyway. Pretty good. But Rashi was evidently dissatisfied with both interpretations because he never came down on one side or the other.

Let me suggest a third option. The magic tokens offered were not just an enticement and a means of preventing Balaam from offering an excuse to cop out, and not just a test, for they were both. Not just both. For it is hard to believe that the Moabite and Midianite establishment would really understand why offering the magical tools to Balaam would really be so appealing. Excusing himself was no more than a guise, a misleader in the effort to make the best deal. Balaam signaled that he did not need their magic. He did not need their help. He could do it on his own. He was a lone wolf who needed no trinkets that did not belong to him. Sound familiar. It should. Balak needed Balaam. Balak needed a personality that would unite the two normally mutually antagonistic enemies. How else could they defeat a force that seemed supernaturally powerful. They needed a joint leader whose “strength was solely in his mouth,” in his power to use words to rouse the wrath of both peoples and thereby get them to be willing to take on the Israelites.

Balak sent a message to Balaam. “So now, please come and curse this people for me, for they are too powerful for me. Perhaps I will be able to wage war against them and drive them out of the land, for I know that whomever you bless is blessed and whomever you curse is cursed.” The reality will be the opposite. Whomever Balaam blesses is cursed. And whomever he curses is blessed.

What was Balaam’s answer? Let me think about it. Stay the night and I will give you my answer tomorrow. Then the story goes, “God came to Balaam.” Why is it written, “And God came to Balaam,” (טוַיָּבֹא אֱלֹהִים) and not “The Lord spoke…” (וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָֹה)? See, for example, Number V:11. The latter is the usual expression. Or “the word of the Lord was revealed…” ()הָיֹה הָיָה דְבַר יְהֹוָה (Ezekiel 1:3) or Exodus 19:19, “The Lord said…” (וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָֹה). In this portion, God came. But the text does not say, “And the spirit of God was upon…” (וַעֲזַרְיָהוּ בֶּן עוֹדֵד הָיְתָה) (2 Chronicles 15:1) In Exodus 16:20, it is written, “God came down…” “God descended…” Here it is simply written, “God came…”

As a contrast, turn to the prophet, Daniel, Book 9. God does not call, or call on, Daniel. Daniel beseeches the Lord. “And I turned my face to the Lord God. (גוָאֶתְּנָה אֶת פָּנַי אֶל אֲדֹנָי הָאֱלֹהִים) to beg with prayer, sackcloth and ashes.” (verse 3) Daniel prays, confesses his sins and praises God for all his wondrous gifts – the covenant and His loving-kindness for those who love Him and keep His commandments. Daniel humbles himself. The angel, Gabriel, approaches. What for? He says to Daniel, “to make you skillful in understanding.”

Compare this with Balaam. Balaam does not pray to God. Balaam does not beseech God. Balaam does not confess his sins. Balak’s messengers arrive. And the bargaining starts. “I couldn’t do what you want for all the money in the world,” that is, if what you wanted “transgressed the word of the Lord” whom Balaam calls, “my God.” This last should be a clear clue that Balaam is bullshitting in insisting that he cannot act unless he ensures that he has God on his side. For God is definitely not his God. “But stay overnight as my guests. I will take the request under advisement.”

And God came to Balaam. No prayer. No confession. No beseeching. God then spoke and asked a question. “Who are those men with you?” “Balak’s messengers,” Balaam replies. The people who have arrived from Egypt “covered the ‘eye’ of the earth.” Balak wanted me, Balaam, to curse the Israelites. Balak had asked Balaam arhali (22:6), to curse, but Balaam reports to God that he was asked to curse, kbali, the Israelites. Rashi notes the use of two different terms for “curse,” but merely adds that Balaam used the stronger, kbali, rather than the weaker term, arhali, for curse. Why would he use a stronger term if the latter and stronger simply implied more detail as Rashi suggested?

The difference resides in the word “strength,” but stronger does not mean “more detail.” There is a difference between saying, “a curse resided in the land,” or requesting that a curse be put upon the Israelites. The latter presumes that the Israelites are not yet cursed (that is why the term is weaker), but something must be done to make them cursed. The former suggests that Balaam was being asked by Balak to take the initiative and put a curse on the Israelites, a curse that was not there, while Balaam shifts the meaning. There is a difference between asking Balaam to actively ensure that the Israelites become cursed, that Balaam take responsibility for driving them out of the land. Counter-intuitively, kbali is stronger than arhali in that the curse is already completed and only needs to be recognized by a soothsayer. Then Balak would know he would be strong enough to drive them out.

arhali weaker Israel not yet cursed action required by a prophet Balak
kbali stronger Israel already cursed recognition needed by a seer Balaam

God said to Balaam, “You shall not go with them! You shall not curse (active but weaker sense) (תָאֹר) the people because they are blessed.” (22:12) In other words, God said that you, Balaam, cannot make them cursed when they are already blessed. So Balaam rejected the entreaties of Balak’s messengers. The messengers return, but come again and requested that Balaam pronounce that the Israelites are already cursed.

God authorized Balaam to go with his guests, but tells him to only speak the words that God will give him. In the morning, just like Abraham, Balaam saddled his own she-donkey, not any donkey, but specifically a female one. Then God became angry at Balaam for going. But did God not just instruct him to go? Was he not simply obeying God’s will? Yes. But Balaam did not go only after he had reciprocated and entered a covenant to speak only the words God gave him. Balaam had accepted the instruction to go but not the condition that he would go but only to speak God’s words. God said he could go. Balaam did go, but on his own terms.

So God’s angel blocked his way. The angel was not there to instruct Balaam in the way of true understanding but to reveal that Balaam was incapable of such understanding. The donkey saw the angel, but Balaam, the seer, did not. The donkey then left the road to flee into the fields. Balaam beat his donkey to get her to return to the road. But the way was blocked again in the vineyards. Caught between the angel in front and a wall behind, the donkey pressed against the wall and, in the process, crushed Balaam’s leg.

Balaam’s crushed leg was a sign that he would never be able to walk in the footsteps of the Lord. Unlike Jacob who wrestled with the angel and lasted until morning and became Israel (Genesis 32:22-31), Balaam did no wrestling. Balaam never struggled. He simply believed that he had a direct transmission line to God. Jacob who actually wrestled with the angel suffered a twisted hip so that it would always be painful to walk in the path of the Lord. And Jacob would not release the angel even then, but insisted on being blessed. Balaam was simply determined to go forth and do his cursing.

Balaam beat his she-donkey again. Finally, fleeing down a narrow alley, the donkey crouched down. For a third time, Balaam beat his donkey, this time with a stick. And lo and behold, the donkey spoke. And she, not Balaam, uttered the words of the Lord. “What did I do to deserve this?” Balaam replies, “You have humiliated me. If I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.”

The Lord spoke through the donkey. “Have I not served you loyally? Have I ever resisted going forward and cringed and crouched in fear?” Balaam agreed that she had not and with that acknowledgement, his eyes were open and Balaam saw what the donkey had seen all along, the angel blocking the road. Only then did Balaam bow and prostrate himself. God remonstrated Balaam, first for beating the donkey three times when the donkey was thwarting Balaam from going against God’s will and not entering a covenant with God to only utter His words. So God had a she-donkey do so. And that she-donkey, which Balaam had beaten three times, actually deserved Balaam’s thanks for the donkey had saved Balaam from God’s wrath for going ahead without committing to speaking only the words God gave him. Even a she-ass could do that.

So Balaam finally confessed. But did he admit to sinning? Did he admit to mindblindness? No, he just said that if I knew the angel with a sword was standing in my way, I would not have preceded. I recognize a greater power. I do not recognize the blindness within myself. If you are so upset, Balaam tells God, I will go home. I will return home, not because I realize I failed to obey you, that I failed to enter the agreement on offer. I returned home only because an angel stood in the way and physically prevented me from proceeding.

According to one of my readers, there is a saying in Hungarian that she had heard since early childhood: “’He just stood there and stared like Balaam’s donkey’ – which means a really dumbfounded, gobsmacked stupid reaction by a person.” Balaam is shown to be an ass, but a male one.

Let me conclude the analysis of Chapter 22 by comparing the following three passages:

12God said to Balaam, “You shall not go with them! You shall not curse the people because they are blessed.” יבוַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים אֶל בִּלְעָם לֹא תֵלֵךְ עִמָּהֶם לֹא תָאֹר אֶת הָעָם כִּי בָרוּךְ הוּא:
20God came to Balaam at night and said to him, “If these men have come to call for you, arise and go with them, but the word I speak to you-that you shall do.” כוַיָּבֹא אֱלֹהִים | אֶל בִּלְעָם לַיְלָה וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ אִם לִקְרֹא לְךָ בָּאוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים קוּם לֵךְ אִתָּם וְאַךְ אֶת הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר אֲדַבֵּר אֵלֶיךָ אֹתוֹ תַעֲשֶׂה
35The angel of the Lord said to Balaam, “Go with these men, but the word I will speak to you-that you shall speak.” So Balaam went with Balak’s dignitaries. להוַיֹּאמֶר מַלְאַךְ יְהֹוָה אֶל בִּלְעָם לֵךְ עִם הָאֲנָשִׁים וְאֶפֶס אֶת הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר אֲדַבֵּר אֵלֶיךָ אֹתוֹ תְדַבֵּר וַיֵּלֶךְ בִּלְעָם עִם שָׂרֵי בָלָק:

Verse 12: Don’t go. Don’t curse. Because the people are blessed.
Verse 20: Go with them; But the words I speak, that you do.
Verse 35: Go with them. But the words I speak, you speak.

Don’t go, then go but do what I say, then go but say what I say. Each time the command is more restricted, first about non-movement, then permitting going but only if Balaam does what he is told, and then, finally, go but Balaam can only repeat what God says. The soothsayer has been restricted to being a he-ass, uttering only what God tells him. Balaam tells Balak (verse 38) “Behold I have come to you, do I have any power to say anything? The word God puts into my mouth-that I will speak.”

Next blog: Chapters 23 and 24

Thanks to Alex Zisman for his help.

The Mishkan and the Magpies

The Mishkan and the Magpies: Terumah: Exodus 25.1 – 27:19

by

Howard Adelman

For a section of the Torah that is almost all about following directions, directions for constructing the Ark for the covenant, the table, the menorah, the portable tabernacle (the mishkan), the altar, the enclosure for the tabernacle itself, after reading this section of the Torah why am I left so puzzled? It is not as if I am unfamiliar with translating design ideas, even ones not represented with detailed architectural drawings, into actual physical objects – at least overseeing that function since I have virtually no abilities as a craftsman. I may be a philosopher, but ever since my days as a student acquiring and renovating houses as residences for students for our student co-op, I have literally overseen the renovations of dozens of buildings. I love doing it. People hate renovating their own homes. For me it has been a delight. So why do I get exasperated by a section of Torah that is, on the surface at least, about architecture and design?

It is not as if this text is strange. It is so familiar. Have you ever been in a synagogue where you have not seen inscribed somewhere the words engraved in stone or on a plaque or somewhere:

“And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”

וְעָשׂוּ לִי, מִקְדָּשׁ; וְשָׁכַנְתִּי, בְּתוֹכָם

Rashi genuinely tried to offer an explanation. The texts as inscribed are out of chronological order. The story of the Israelites making and worshipping a golden calf, an idol to worship, may follow this text in the Torah, but the events depicted preceded the building of the mishkan. God could not continue to dwell on a mountain top like Zeus or other gods. He had to descend to live among his people so the people could bask in His presence and He could ensure they did not slip into idolatry.

Thus, even though Rashi was an advocate of taking the plain meaning of the text as primary, he was no literalist. He knew that humans at the very least, not God, put the Torah together. Building a sanctuary for the sake of the Israelites so God could live amongst them did not stack up as an adequate motive. For then they make a golden calf just when God is living among them. Talk about chutzpah! Getting them to make a mishkan with the gold and silver and fine fabrics from among all the other loot the Israelites brought out of Egypt after the Israelites built the golden calf makes more sense since it takes these riches out of their possession so they cannot build another idol. And that is something God would do for He was a jealous God.

Very inventive, but not persuasive as far as I am concerned! The evidence is circumstantial rather than providing concrete literal clues to establish that the two stories were put together out of order. What would be the motive for the editor doing such a thing? Besides, the existing order makes a lot of sense on psychological grounds. When God dwelt on a mountain top, the people were full of awe and wonder. But when He deigned to live among the people, that sense of tremendous respect withered away and the Israelites could turn away from Him and adopt idol worship.

If jealousy, early warning and prevention are not adequate as motives, what could qualify? The text seems very clear – “that I may dwell amongst you.” That just begs another question, however. Why? Why does God want to dwell among His people? To be able to watch over the Israelites to observe any transgressions? At the opposite end, to share in the vibes of a growing community with a common purpose, doubly important for a disembodied being who has to live vicariously through the crazy lives of human beings? Or perhaps, somewhat related to the last, because God is lonely way up high upon the mountain top and He wants to live amongst His people, not above them. These are just some of the possibilities.

Let me suggest why it is difficult to discern the real motive or motives. One explanation the text offers is, “That they may know that I am the Lord their God Who brought them out of the land of Egypt,” (29:46) suggesting that the point of living among them is that the Israelites not forget, and, indeed, come to know the living God who dwells in their midst. But the text continues, “that I might dwell in their midst.” (my italics) This possibly inverts the meaning to mean that God brought the Israelites out of Egypt to allow God to live in their midst. Is the purpose for the Israelites to know their God or for God to have a home among his people? Rashi emphasized the latter – the Israelites were brought forth out of Egypt so God could live among them (and could not in Egypt). Ramban leans towards the former interpretation that the Israelites will know God when He lives amongst them.

The two meanings need not, of course, be mutually exclusive. God may deeply need to leave His remote and lonely refuge and “come in from the cold.” The mishkan is the place where He can dwell both among them but separate from them. But the people of Israel also need God to be in their midst both physically in terms of a dwelling place and spiritually. God also has a deep need for physicality, for corporeality, a need which can never be satisfied if you are a Jew, for God manifesting Himself as a physical being would stand against the injunction not to make physical objects idols of worship. God needs a physical presence. The Israelites need God as a spiritual presence in a physical abode. But God inherently cannot be physical. So a mishkan is built to overcome the paradox, a place where God can dwell and be present, but not personally physically present. The motives of God and his people are complementary and fulfilled by the same construction. The two needs, both of God’s and of the Israelites, can be mutually satisfied.

But then why all the luxury? Why gold this and silver that and cloth made of goat’s hair? Look at the list: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other gemstones. Can you imagine a horde of refugees in a camp in a barren wilderness being invited to give gifts of gold and precious stones to build a home for God? For they were all refugees, including God. When the people of Israel were living in Egypt, God too was in exile as well since their destinies were mutually bound together. The exodus from Egypt is a redemption for both. But why the need for a sanctuary to serve both humans and God? And why such a luxurious building when it is presumably only a temporary structure, a portable small home in today’s parlance? But a rich one! How is luxury related to sanctifying both ourselves and God?

I could pull a Bernie Saunders. It was a way of reducing inequality. Take from the rich and build infrastructure for the whole community. Except there was no taking.  Verse 2 at the beginning of the parsha reads: “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.” The only gifts acceptable were gifts brought voluntarily. The giver had to have his heart moved to offer a donation. But that is no obstacle to the explanation. The method of obtaining redistribution need not be compulsory. Charitable giving is an effective mode of redistribution.

Why remove the wealth from the rich who were lucky enough to leave Egypt either with much of their own wealth and/or wealth stolen from the Egyptians? Because the Israelites were all in this together. It was a collective action problem. Too much inequality undercuts the morale needed for dealing with issues as a collectivity. Second, the mishkan could serve as a central bank, much as Fort Knox once did. It could guarantee the tokens of exchange when the Israelites engaged in trade with the other tribes and nations they encountered.

But the best explanation I ever heard was from an old British folktale “A Tiding of Magpies,” birds with a well-renowned and deserved reputation for collecting bright ornaments, but also one of the most intelligent animals in the world, the only non-mammal species able to recognize itself in a mirror test. It also helps to know another folktale, this time a Chinese one called The Weaver Girl and the Cowherd, a love story between Zhinü, the weaver girl, and Niulang, the cowherd. Their love was forbidden. To prevent them getting back together, they were banished to opposite sides of the Silver River (the Milky Way). But once a year, on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month, a tiding (flock) of magpies formed a bridge to reunite the lovers for one day. The 7th lunar month in the Torah is Tishrei (Ethanim) according to Kings 8:2 and the Israelite rather than the Judaic calendar. Rosh Hashanah is the first day of Tishrei. The seventh day of Tishrei is the end of the first week after Rosh Hashanah. So once a year on the 7th of Tishrei counting from Rosh Hashanah, Zhinü and Niulang are reunited with the help of magpies.

Read only vertically at first. The first eight lines of the tiding of this old British folktale reads as follows in the first column:

A Tiding of Magpies

One for sorrow                        the sorrow of leaving Egypt and the trek through the desert

Two for Joy                             in the promised land that beckons

Three for a girl                        all refugees sacrifice themselves for the sake of

Four for a boy                                     future generations

Five for silver                          the means to achieve

Six for gold                             two, three and four above

Seven is for the secret

That never can be told.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman