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

 

 

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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.

Chayei Sarah – The Life of Sarah: Genesis 23:1 – 25:18

Chayei Sarah – The Life of Sarah: Genesis 23:1 – 25:18

by

Howard Adelman

See Rachel Adelman (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wDz_isnR0RI) “Reading Rebekah Unveiled: A Study of the Female Ruse in Genesis” presented at the Harvard Divinity School last spring.

There is nothing original in my interpretation, in contrast to that of my daughter. I simply fuse her innovative reading with those of others and my own. I steal freely from my daughter, but I take full responsibility for what I have written. Though there are differences over the particulars, the general meaning is more or less clear and my take is not idiosyncratic. The parsha is called, “The Life of Sarah,” but it is really about her afterlife and the heritage she left behind, both through her only son Isaac and herself as resurrected in Rebekah. For the parsha is about both Abraham’s negotiations for a burial space for Sarah after Sarah died as well as about obtaining a wife for Isaac and its consequence. It is about the meaning of Sarah’s life as it is revealed in the unveiling of spirit as it is realized in history after her death.

Sarah dies in Kiryat Arba, in Hebron. Sarah is buried there in the Cave of Machpelah with the permission of the local people who offer not only the cave, but the field around it to Abraham who is by then a wealthy and notable person. However, Abraham refuses to accept the grave site as a gift and insists on paying for it. To repeat what I have written before, this is an axial moment of the shift from a shame culture to a guilt culture. Some of the local people of Canaan, specifically the Hittites, may have converted to the belief in a single God. Yet what is now called the West Bank is not seen as a place from which a proper wife can be found for Isaac. Isaac is not allowed to have a bride from the local people. The locals, even when they have adopted the beliefs of the Hebrews, are not into a contractual system. They look askance at getting 400 shekels from Abraham for the burial site. Ephron initially treats the offer as an insult. But Abraham insists on paying the money. He wants a contract, a quid pro quo. With contracts there is guilt, either before the law or in moral terms, for failing to fulfil the terms of the contract.

Yet, Abraham wants a wife for Isaac who does not have initially to be observant, but one who is akin to his own beautiful wife, Sarah, someone from his own homeland. Isaac really loved his mother. Three years after she died, he is still mourning her death. He needs a wife, but he needs a wife to replace and fill his soul as his mother had. His mother had been dedicated to him, her long promised son, born of her old age. But she could not prevent her husband from taking him off to sacrifice him. And she dies when her husband and son return. From the shock of his return? Is that why she dies? Or is she the real sacrifice so that her son may finally leave his studies and his prayers and go in search of a wife to replace the love she had for him. It is ironic that a child named after laughter turns out to be studious, pious and introverted.

Sarah’s death produces in her other-worldly nerdy son a desire for a wife, a desire for a woman that can fill his mother’s shoes. Isaac is a momma’s boy. Sarah sacrifices herself for the future of her son. And Abraham sends his most trusted servant to organize an arranged marriage between Isaac and someone from the homeland, the place of his and Sarah’s birth. Unlike the tradition of arranged marriages, this is a love story, a story of two who contract the marriage themselves in spite of whatever external arrangements have been made.

Eliezer, Abraham’s most trusted servant, travels to Mesopotamia to seek a wife for Isaac. Before Eliezer can arrange a shidduch, organize an arranged marriage, he sees Rebekah at the well at dusk when the women draw their water. Rebekah happens to be the niece of Abraham. the daughter of Bethuel, son of Milkah, who was the wife of Abraham’s brother, Nahor. Rebekah offers Eliezer not only water from her jar, but also water for all his camels. That is about 250 gallons; she has to draw all that water. Camels can really drink water! Eliezer is overwhelmed. Rebekah has passed the test of loving kindness.

Rebekah is unique in the Torah. She is the only one of the matriarchs who is given a family tree and is chosen as the real mother of the Jewish people. She is the essence of the Jewish people – giving to another out of sheer goodwill. Only then does Eliezer learn that she is related to Abraham. Rebekah’s older brother was Lavan. Eliezer tells Lavan of the dowry that awaits Rebekah if he agrees to give Rebekah as Isaac’s wife. But Lavan knows his sister’s character, her independence of mind, forthrightness and wilfulness, even though she is also kind-hearted. He knows he cannot force her to leave her homeland. And he asks Eliezer, what if she chooses not to come? Eliezer replies that it will depend on God’s will, with the implication that God’s spirit will speak through her actions. It does. She is asked whether she will go to a new land, to Isaac. She, without hesitation, says, “I will go.”

She and Isaac fall in love, but not because the two are related. That is only revealed later. But because they are related, the love may have come easier. Isaac falls in love with Rebekah. Rebekah in turn loves Isaac. The love seems instant. But is it? How does it come about?

Look at the way they first see each other. Isaac continues and is heir to the blindness of Adam and in his old age he will actually be physically blind when he has to give the blessing to one of his own sons. For when Isaac first sees Rebekah, he does not actually see her. He sees camels approaching in the distance and the picture is a haze produced by the sand of the camels’ feet. He sees patience and tolerance. He sees long-suffering and endurance. He sees the Ships of the Desert. In that haze is the hidden Rebekah, someone who is calm and collected, direct and responsive on the surface, but underneath is resolute and will never forget. She will protect and eventually realize what is deepest in her heart, not with malice aforethought, but through cunning and subversion. Finally, she will carry that burden of trickery on her shoulders so that her son Jacob will not be burdened with the guilt of tricking his father. She will be the true purveyor of what it means to belong to a guilt culture.

Isaac, on the other hand, is walking with his camels. Rebekah can clearly see him. She is struck in awe. She knows. But knows as Eve knew in a deeper way than requiring any direct test or examination. Though she has the ability of this inner sight, it is she who is attuned to the smell of the camels, the taste of the sand, and the rest of the unforgettable sensuous experience of that first moment.

Rebekah covers her face, but in embarrassment, not in shame. She is awestruck. And the gesture will adumbrate her whole marriage with Isaac. For although she never surrenders her esteem for him, for his holy ways, for his learning, she herself will reveal that she has a more direct access to God. She need not receive instructions or revelations from Isaac. She can get them directly from God. But she must also veil this non-rational, non-deliberative direct intuitive contact with the spiritual world. That part of herself must remain hidden from Isaac. She does not don a naqib because her parents tell her, but to hide her awe, to hide her embarrassment at her flushed cheeks and feelings, and most of all, to hide that SHE KNOWS. For a woman of audacity even as a young teenager, of decisiveness and one who clearly knows her own mind, she also has to hide her superior access to God’s word in spite of her enormous respect for her husband.

One cannot avoid that the story is about love. But what kind of love? For Rebekah it is love at first sight. This is the only real love story in the whole of Torah. Yet the section is called “The Life of Sarah”. Last week I jumped ahead to understand Sarah’s death to comprehend her character and the role she plays. But this tale ends up being about the lifelong love story between Isaac and Rebekah. Isaac loves Rebekah all his life. The parsha is not ostensibly about Sarah. Yet it is called the story of the life of Sarah when it is about what happens after Sarah dies. But it is a story of how love begins and grows between Rebekah and Isaac. He not only never takes another wife, he never sleeps with another woman. What has this love story to do with Sarah’s death?

Because Rebekah is very forthright, though also very modest, she literally falls for Isaac at first sight. She falls off her camel and then puts on her veil to hide her flushed cheeks. She is embarrassed at what she feels. She is also afraid – not of Isaac, but at what she is feeling. Instead of Abraham’s fear and trembling when he takes Isaac to fill the command of the sacrifice, we have awe and embarrassment.

Isaac, is also overwhelmed by her kindness, by her loving kindness, her hesed. Though she is described as beautiful, he cannot see that physical beauty since she wears a veil, but he does see the beauty of her character. The match is beshert. It was meant to be. So though there is an element of preparation, of calculation and judgement by Abraham’s servant, a response to what is observed, what basically happens is that each is struck with Cupid’s arrow. They barely talk to one another. He knows but requires evidence to come to that knowledge, the very evidence Abraham’s servant brings back to Canaan. It is akin to the same type of empirical evidence that will later fool him when he gives his blessing to Jacob rather than Esau. Though they love one another, Rebekah is also the trickster without whom Isaac could not have fulfilled his mission. Requiring evidence is Isaac’s weakness.

Rebekah, in contrast, knows directly. She does not need evidence. But why for Isaac is she the right one? She is a woman from Abraham’s homeland in Mesopotamia and not yet a follower of Abraham’s faith in the belief in the one God. Isaac is religious and sees her after he finished his afternoon prayers. He does not fall in love because she observes the same faith in the one God, but because she comes from the same homeland as Sarah. And because she is a very kind woman. She is sensitive. She can pick up social cues that go beneath appearances. But like Abraham, resolutely and immediately, she decides to leave her homeland as a young teenager to return with Isaac. She is very decisive. She is very straight. She knows what she wants. There is no hesitation. The spirit of Abraham is now to be transmitted through Rebekah even though Isaac is the pious one.

Isaac and Rebekah remain faithful to one another their whole lives. It is indeed a love story. But this is not because they were totally compatible. They are not. They come from opposite poles of human existence. They are two very different characters. Isaac is other-worldly. Rebekah is very grounded. Further, Rebekah has to trick Isaac – this other-worldly nerd – into giving his blessing to Jacob and not to Esau. Isaac is a social conformist who believes in continuing the tradition of bestowing the blessing on the older one. But Rebekah, like Abraham, is the rebel. Primogeniture be damned. She knows what social science and psychology will discover in the twentieth century, that first-borns tend to be rash and adventurous – they become the fighter pilots. Second-borns have a propensity to be more reflective, more contemplative, more cautious.

Rebekah chooses Isaac to get the blessing, not because she does not love Esau, her other twin and older son. But she is the one with common sense who recognizes the child who can best carry the future of a people on his shoulders. Rebekah is not only the epitome of loving kindness, but she is shrewd and calculating, careful to take into account the best interests of her family and both her children. She knows what Isaac can never know even with all his time spent in study.

Rebekah, however, is not the woman who divides her family, but the one who yokes the two different peoples that will arise from her children. As her name suggests, she is the link that ties differences together, between her and her husband and between her two very different sons. She recognizes the real differences between the twins. She is the true visionary. But she will pay for her sin of foresight by assuming the guilt for the trick played on Isaac. She remains to the very end a woman of virtue, a woman wiling to give of herself for the future.

Parshat Vayeira: Genesis 18:1-22:24

Halloween is a holiday of masquerades and disguises, a time of playful exploring and giving oneself an alternative identity. It is an evening of devilish and subversive laughter, of transforming the self – so appropriate to what Sarah had to do to imagine and then once again become a young fertile woman capable of giving birth. Giving birth, more precisely, to Yitzchak, to laughter itself, to an expression of pure joy. As Sarah says after she gives birth (Genesis 21:6) “God made me laugh, so that all who hear will laugh with me”

Parshat Vayeira: Genesis 18:1-22:24

To my daughter Rachel who informed and so inspired this commentary and whose new book, Female of the Ruse: Deception and Divine Sanction in the Bible, has just come off the press. See also Rachel Adelman, “On Laughter and Re-membering” in Nashim 8 (2004), 230-244. However, I take full responsibility for what I have written.

by

Howard Adelman

“What is comical…is the subjectivity that makes its own actions contradictory and so brings them to nothing.” G. W. F. Hegel

This is one of the most important sections in the Torah for the Jewish people. It is a compilation of multiple stories, as are the various series we watch on Netflix or the intertwining plots of novels. In a very short space, those stories include:

  1. The visit of the three strangers to Abraham (Avraham) and the revelation that Sarah would have a son;
  2. Sarah’s laughter at the promise;
  3. Abraham’s bargaining with God over Sodom;
  4. The story of Lot, his two virgin daughters and his wife who became a pillar of salt;
  5. The daughters sleep with Lot and give birth of Moab and Ben-Ammi, the patriarch of Ammon;
  6. Abraham tells Egyptians that Sarah is his sister who becomes a concubine of Abimelech, king of Gerar;
  7. Birth of a son, Isaac (Yitzchak), to Sarah;
  8. Circumcision of Isaac at 8 days old;
  9. Story of Sarah casting out Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness;
  10. Hagar’s weeping and God’s promise to Hagar;
  11. Covenant between Abraham and Abimelech;
  12. Sacrifice of Isaac: , הִנֶּנִּי

This is then followed by the Begats, including the birth of Rebeccah to Abraham’s nephew Bethuel, as the transition to the next parsha.

In an earlier blog I referred to the half lie that Abraham told the Egyptians, that his wife was his sister (she was his half-sister), but he did not tell Abimelech that Sarah was his wife. In this blog, I will concentrate on the visit of the three strangers who promise that Sarah would have a son and then an analysis of her response – inner derision. But I will also jump ahead to one aspect of the sacrifice of Isaac – the Akeida – and, unfortunately, skip the rest.

Chapter 18 begins with a revelation when Abraham is resting in his tent recovering from his own circumcision. Just after he was initiated into the covenant with God in the last parsha, he was personally directly promised by God that he and Sarah would have a son. He rolled over in laughter at the craziness of the idea that he and Sarah, at their ages, could conceive and give birth to a son. At the beginning of this section, three men appear before Abraham. (I will ignore the connection and disconnection between this story and the three wise men who appear before the parents of Jesus in the manger as told in the Christian New Testament.) They are usually interpreted to be three angels, in Midrash – Michael, Gabriel and Raphael. Abraham prostrates himself before them, insists he is their servant and invites them in for food and a fresh bath. He prepares a feast of the finest of his produce and herds.

As the three feasted, Abraham is asked where his wife was. Were they there eager to take advantage of her? Was that why Abraham prostrated himself before them to appease them? Evidently not. For one of the men (angels?) said that he would return in a year and Sarah, who for decades had been barren, in her old age would give birth to a son. This was a promise that God had already conveyed directly to Abraham. Clearly, this message was intended for Sarah who stood hidden in the doorway of the tent, but not in the line of vision of the guests. Sarah, as it is told, laughed inside. Her private and unshared laugh contrasted with that of Abraham when he received the prophecy earlier and guffawed openly and publicly because he thought that his bearing a son at his and Sarah’s age was ludicrous and just the biggest joke that he had ever heard. In this passage, when Sarah heard the prophecy, she did not just see it as a joke. Instead, in her heart she mocked the idea that she, well beyond the age of giving birth to a baby, and Abraham, who was also old, could give birth to a child. Sarah was rebuked, not simply for laughing to herself in derision, but then for lying when she denied that she had laughed.

My daughter in her commentary on this section asked, “Why is Sarah rebuked for having laughed, when Abraham responds similarly with impunity?” God addressed Abraham directly. But it is not clear who rebukes Sarah who was the one who laughed inwardly at the idea, who chuckled inside instead of convulsed on the floor. Among the interpreters, there are three possibilities about who rebuked Sarah – God, one of the angels or Abraham. In the first interpretation, God insists that no miracle is too hard for Him. Sarah denies then that she laughed at the idea, but God insists that he knew that she laughed even though it was a silent mockery. In the second interpretation, the rebuke comes indirectly from God via an angel and God never addresses her directly. In the third interpretation, it is Abraham who rebukes her (Ramban). In all three interpretations, this would mean her transformation was not a self-transformation, but one mediated by another. But an angel lacks such power. And certainly Abraham does. Onlt God could both know and facilitate the transformation.

The story then suddenly turns away to the men leaving and heading for Sodom. Somehow there is a connection between the denial of the responsibility for laughing and the destruction that will be meted out to the sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Recall last week in the commentary on the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, that there too Eve denied what she had done. But for her, it was an overt act. For Sarah, it was just an inner thought and a smile within. But the issue is really not whether what they did could be seen. Sarah and Eve, instead of taking responsibility for how they responded to a commandment, tried to hide their response, cover it up. So Sarah represents a continuity, a refusal to own up to what she did. Are they both passive aggressors, indirectly hostile towards God and His control? After all, God controls her destiny, was responsible for her barren state and now the prospect of giving birth. On the other hand, Sarah represents embodiment, someone who discovers in her old age that she has a body and what it is for. Laughter, after all, is the expression of the joy in life, of celebration for life’s riches as when Proverbs 31:25 says, “she laughs unto the end of days.” But laughter can also be cruel and punitive.

There is another link to the Adam and Eve story. In the latter, Adam saw Eve as a projection of himself. He did not recognize her as an individual, as an Other with desires of her own. And he did not recognize his body as his own but projected it as an Other. He disowned desire in both ways. In this story, it is Sarah who had done the projecting. She sees her own body as barren and projects that infertility onto Abraham. Just as Adam reduced Eve to a projection of himself, Sarah now sees Abraham as a projection of herself. Whereas Adam denied Eve subjectivity and agency, Sarah now does this not only to herself but to Abraham as well. Instead of defining herself in terms of unlimited and unboundaried desire, she has compressed herself into an empty vessel incapable of giving any type of birth. However, whereas both Adam and Eve felt ashamed and engaged in a cover-up, there is no suggestion that Sarah did. Though she initially did not take responsibility for what she did, she could not have transformed herself miraculously into a fecund woman if she had not.

With this foundation, we can jump to the last few stories that circle around and then the famous tale of the Akeida, the sacrifice of Isaac. Is Sarah punished for her inner mockery, for she dies after the Akeida in the next parsha, but Abraham and Isaac do not? The commentators are all over the place on this event. Was she punished then for how she greeted the promise or because she kicked out Hagar and her son Ishmael into the wilderness? Or did she die content knowing that she had served God’s purpose in giving birth to Isaac and that she had always had faith in both God and Abraham, so much so that she left Isaac in Abraham’s hands, knowing and trusting that he would be protected by God when he went out of the household to sacrifice Isaac? Or did she die as a sacrifice for her son, becoming the real substitute for the sacrifice? The ram was only symbolic.

ust re-enact the subsequent scene of the ostensible sacrifice. Abraham has been commanded by God to give up his long-promised son as a sacrifice. Isaac is only told by his father, but willingly accompanies him knowing at least that something is up and that he is at risk. Yet he goes quiescently. Sarah gets the situation without having been told by either God or her husband. Does she think she was being punished for mocking God’s promise? Why is she not described as going into a hysterical fit as her husband and son leave on this ominous journey? Some say she was punished for her lack of belief. Others say she was rewarded in heaven for her stoical performance, a much more difficult role than that assigned to Abraham.

I think the key clue to understanding the story and Sarah’s role in it is comprehending the meaning of her inner mockery. When we mock someone – in this case the someone is God – we smile on the outside and feel contempt on the inside.  We are duplicitous. In Psalm 2:4, it is written that, “He who sits in the heavens smiles, God mocks him.” So if you are in an argument with a raving person who shows no respect for factual evidence or logical reasoning, one may respond with a smirk even more than a smile. Inside you feel only contempt for that person. Was this Sarah’s response to the three men or angels who came by and whom she heard promise Abraham that she, Sarah, would have a baby within a year?

But how is it alright for God to engage in mockery of man? Further, why is God’s mockery aimed at those totally self-contented with themselves as if they were in perfect heaven? Perhaps the three men were neither angels nor even wise men, but men who had perhaps witnessed that Abraham had been given the promise by God and they were taking advantage of the situation and enjoying their indulgence at Abraham’s expense. Further, how could God ever engage in making fun of someone else or even just mentally doing so? Does not justice require empathy and understanding rather than a secret put-down? Is not a just woman one who is forthright about what she sees and hears and not duplicitous about her own feelings and thoughts?

If rolling on the floor laughter is positivity, derisive laughter is negativity. Rebuke and overcoming of that negativity is a negation of negativity and laughter becomes the instrument of the lightness of being, of spirit.

So what are we to make of the original derisive laughter? Is it the case, as they say, that falsehood is the coin and ideological fabric of public life? After all, it is not clear that Abraham has told Isaac where they are going and why, because Isaac asks where the sacrifice is. On the other hand, though Isaac could easily resist his elderly father, he cooperates fully in being tied up and put on the altar. So there is not only an issue of the moral perspective but of the facts, of truth itself. It is not sufficient that Isaac be saved by an external and contingent miracle. There must be a facing of the truth, a very deep understanding of the miraculous, a way in which truth can once again be aligned.

Recall as well that we are in an axial period of transition from a shame to a guilt culture. In mocking the message, Sarah reveals she belonged to a shame culture. While Abraham when he arrived in his new land refused a gift of land lest he be beholden to another and shamed into submission, insisted on buying the land via a contract with terms clearly spelled out. Sarah challenges the shame culture, but in a radically different and even more profound way. For once rebuked, she rebukes herself. God’s voice is her own. She rises to the occasion, transforms herself, accepts the miracle of the promise and fully realizes herself as a sexual and fertile being. This is a true realization of subjectivity, of an elevation of the self and of self-consciousness. Objectively, the transformation is impossible. Nor is the transformation the result of any inter-subjective relation with another person in love or out of friendship. It is a process of self-transformation. But it is not without cost. For when her son, her only son, is taken away to be sacrificed, the pain becomes too much. In a perverse way, she died because she laughed. Abraham and Isaac both survive the Akeida, but Sarah does not. This was the cental message of my play, “Kill Yourself Laughing”.

Sarah was reborn in order both to become pregnant and to give birth. She became fertile and no longer barren because she was enabled to overcome the boundaries and, literally, give birth to real laughter, not scorn and derision, but laughter that is shared. Instead of dying and being reborn, Sarah is reborn, gives birth and then dies. She is the foundational sacrifice on which the Jews will build a nation.