Thursday, November 15, 2007

Vayetze - Why Does Jacob Wake Up Twice?

Consider the story of Jacob’s dream of a heavenly-earthly ladder of angels, in Genesis 28:10-19. In the space of three verses, Jacob seems to be described as waking up two times:

Jacob awoke from his sleep, and he said, ‘Surely there is God in this place, and I did not know!’ In awe, he said, ‘How awesome this place is! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’ And Jacob got up early in the morning, and he took the stone which he had put beneath his head, and placed it as a monument and poured oil on its top. And he called the place Beit El, although Luz had formerly been the name of the place.
(Gen. 28:16-19)

Why two wakings?

Biblicists might argue that what we have here is the weaving of a Priestly agenda (supporting the idea of a central Temple as the earthly ‘gate of heaven’) into an earlier story about Jacob journeying, camping, and staking a claim to the place where he rested. (In such a reading, the original story would be made up of verses 10-11 + 18-19, with a strong suspicion that the particular name, Beit El, ‘House of God,’ was introduced at the Priestly stage of supplementary composition, along with the dream.) Each of the two component stories has its own moment of waking, and we are left with a compound story containing a waking-verse from each.

More prosaically, from a purely narrative point of view, we might say that Jacob awoke with a start after his dream, then went back to sleep, and woke again later, in the morning, to set up his monument.

But this is Sefer Ha-Bloggadah. Midrash is the order of the day, and our Torah reads as it does, however it came to be what it is (and, however that was, there was certainly some integrating intelligence and artistry involved) – and imagine going back to sleep after a dream like Jacob has here! So our question remains: Why does Jacob wake up twice?

Notice the two verbs for waking – and the other verbs that follow each one.

In the first instance Jacob awakens with the verb vayikatz, from a root that connotes a sudden mindfulness – like a warrior shaking off wine, in the simile of Psalm 78:65 – and we might also hear an overtone of ketz in the sense of ‘end.’ This is a moment of transition in Jacob’s inner experience, a certain state of being, on his part, is ceasing to be, and another is beginning. That kind of waking is followed by verbs of ‘saying,’ ‘knowing,’ and ‘being in awe,’ and an implied verb of ‘being’ and 'being present' as well. These are verbs of reflection, verbs of consciousness.

In the second instance, Jacob awakens with the verb vayashkem, which suggests getting up early with a mission to perform, and possibly derives from the root for ‘shoulder,’ shekhem – “to load backs of beasts for a day’s journey,” the Brown Driver Briggs Lexicon proposes, by way of etymology. That kind of waking is followed by verbs of ‘taking,’ ‘putting,’ and ‘pouring,’ verbs of action – and the verb of ‘naming,’ which, if not as physically active, is still transitive, affecting the state of something outside of Jacob’s self.

So at first Jacob becomes conscious, and then he acts, imprinting himself and his experience of God upon the place.

What is the nature of the sudden consciousness that leads to such action?

Here I reach to an already existing midrash, which suggests that the angels of Jacob’s dream were going up and down upon Jacob himself. Nouns are always masculine or feminine in Hebrew, and ladder, sulam, is a masculine noun, and so the preposition bo, ‘upon it (the ladder)’ actually reads as ‘upon him’ – a great opening to midrashic possibilities:

Think for a moment of Jacob, soon to be Israel, as a bridge between heaven and earth.

Another interpretation, along the same lines (in the same segment of Bereshit Rabbah, 68:2) says that the possibility of the angels ‘going up and down’ on Jacob means that they were poking him, prodding him, goading him – jumping up and down on him, in an angelic version of Hop on Patriarch. Why did they do this?

The angels ascended into heaven and saw ‘the image of him,’ says the midrash, and then descended below and ‘found him asleep.’

Like a king enthroned, says the midrash – go up to the palace and you find him sitting in judgment, but go out to the outskirts, and you find the king asleep. (In ancient days, before instant telecommunications, the farther away from the seat of power you went, the more attenuated was the influence of the sovereign, the more the king seemed to be asleep.) So the angels, in this midrash are astonished. They come upon a creature made in the image of God; they go up to heaven to check the likeness; they think of the verse, Israel, in whom I [God] shall glorify myself (Isaiah 49:3); they come back down and they wonder: How can this creature be all that if it is asleep? Wake up, and be what you should be!

Think for a moment of Israel, or Humanity, as the image of God asleep in the world.

We are the image of the Sovereign in these outskirts of heaven, or at least we are part of that Presence. And far too often we are asleep to that possibility. And so, far too often, this is a world in which God seems to be asleep, or distant – because we, creatures who should manifest God’s being in this world, and should take part in the work of divinity, are instead inert – in effect, unconscious.

If we were to wake up to all that we might be, and then rise to the tasks that such consciousness enjoins upon us, and truly consecrate the places of our waking as the abode of God, through action, then this world might not be so unlike heaven.

(I am grateful to Lila Vessid, rabbinical student at Hebrew College, for a conversation in our Beit Midrash this morning about Jacob's two wakings.)

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Sprouting Salvation

"And G!d shall give you from the dew of the heavens and from the fatness of the earth and much grain and grapes." (Genesis 27:28)

Isaac began blessing his son - Jacob, who is disguised as Esau - with precipitation and agricultural plenty. Isaac had lived through famine and had re-dug wells in the face of opposition. Before those episodes, he had another encounter with life-giving water...

After the Akeidah-Binding, Isaac needed to spend some time away from his father. He carried a walking-stick with him, which he had taken from the top of the mountain, from the thicket where the ram had been caught by its horns. It felt comfortable in his hand, supporting him as he journeyed into his unknown future.

Walking through the desert, he came across a well. As he approached, someone grabbed his legs from behind. Isaac toppled forward, snapping the walking-stick. His heart was pounding, but his fear faded when he heard a child's laughter.

"Daddy, you're home!" said a little boy. Isaac turned to look at him. "Oh, You're not my daddy. But your clothes look like his, no one else wears that kind of scarf around here."
"What's your name?"
"I'm Keydar son of Ishmael. This is our well, we call it B'er L'Chai Ro'i. Come and eat with us."
Ishmael greeted Isaac as a brother, and he stayed with Ishmael's family for many days.

Keydar was the center of attention, full of energy, running around and, most surprising to Isaac, rough-housing with his father. However, Ishmael's oldest son, Nevayot was sick. It was a mysterious illness and no one knew what was wrong. Isaac saw how concerned Ishmael was. He watched as Ishmael brought food to his son's bed, staying to talk quietly with him. Isaac wanted to help too, and to feel that closeness, but what could he bring?

Though he was very weak, Nevayot smiled at Isaac as he entered with two cups of tea. He sat down beside the bed.
"I hate being sick," said Nevayot, "Why did G!d do this to me? I don't like being in bed all the time, and I'm lonely. I'm afraid I'm going to die."
"I have a story to tell you," said Isaac, and he told him about the Akeidah. "As I was lying there, all tied up, I thought that I was dead. But G!d gave me life again. My father lifted up his eyes and saw a ram caught by its horns in the thicket, and we sacrificed the ram instead of me. The branches were put there by G!d to save my life."

Nevayot perked up. "That sounds a lot like one of my father's stories. When he had to leave his home, he almost died of thirst, but then his mother lifted up her eyes and saw a well. They were able to drink the water and live. Grandmother remembered another well that she had called B'er L'chai Ro'i, the well of the Life that watches me, so she called this one that too. And that's were we live now."

"When I first came here, your brother tackled me, and the branch I was carrying with me, the one that caught the ram, was broken. I left it there in the dust because I couldn't use it anymore. I went back there today, and through the rain and the dew, G!d made the seeds live again as a new plant. I made you tea from leaves of that plant and water from B'er L'chai Roi. Sometimes G!d makes things die, but G!d also makes us live."

Nevayot did recover, and the whole family celebrated together. Of Ishmael's many children, they each had different personalities and strengths, and Ishmael loved them all.

Isaac went from B'er L'chai Ro'i to pray in the field. It was his favorite time of day, when the sun was on it's way down, before sunset. He composed a blessing:

You are eternally mighty, my L!rd, the Resuscitator of the dead are You; abundantly able to save. He makes the wind blow and He makes the rain descend. He sustains the living with kindness, resuscitates the dead with abundant mercy, supports the fallen, heals the sick, releases the confined, and maintains His faith to those asleep in the dust. Who is like You, O Master of mighty deeds, and who is comparable to You, O King who causes death and life and makes salvation sprout. And You are reliable to resuscitate the dead. Blessed are you G!d, who gives life to the dead. (Second blessing of the Amidah)

Isaac lifted up his eyes and saw his future wife and his new life ahead of him.

And Isaac came from the way of B'er L'chai Ro'i; for he dwelt in the land of the South. And Isaac went out to meditate in the field at the eventide; and he lifted up his eyes, and saw, and, behold, there were camels coming. (Genesis 24: 62, 63)

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Chayyei Sarah: Falling

"Vatisa rivka et eneha vatereh et yitschak vatipol me'al hagamal"
(Rivka looked up, saw Yitschak, and fell off the camel -- Bereshit 24:64)

What made Rivka fall off her camel?

Rivka was privy to some of God's secrets, as it is said, "Vatelech lidrosh et Adonai. Vayomer Adonai lah shenei goyyim bevitnech" (She went for an answer from God, who told her: there are two nations in your belly -- Bereshit 25:22-23).

When she saw her promised husband Yitschak, the next fragile link in the chain that began with a covenant between his father Abraham and the one true God, Rivka foresaw that to safeguard its future she would come to pit her children against each other and deceive her spouse. The woman who had generously offered water to quench the thirsts of strangers and their animals knew that one day she would manipulate her family to the brink of murder. In shock, she lost her balance and dropped to the hard earth. Life was easy as a polytheist. But Yitschak's singular deity came with One family, One heritage, One birthright, One morality, One code of behavior, and One mission. And they didn't all mesh properly. There were internal contradictions and moral ambiguities -- the paradoxes of belief and hypocrisy, and the existential paralysis of ethical dilemmas. So Rivka could do nothing but wipe the dust off her clothes and veil her face to hide her tears after falling from her comfortable high seat, for "falling" connotes intrigue, confusion, and disaster, as we see in the Scroll of Ester (3:7)...

"Hipil pur hu hagoral lifnei haman"
(A pur, a lottery, was cast [literally: made to fall] before Haman)

From Chayei Sarah to Toledot - Three Women

Haftarot (readings from the Prophets) are paired with parshiyot (weekly Torah readings) to raise up themes and issues by way of inter-textual resonance. The prophetic messages amplify or comment upon the substance of the Torah-readings, either directly or by implication.

So it is shocking, at first, to see the biblical story that is paired by our tradition with the Torah’s narrative of Rebekah’s bethrothal to Isaac.

When King David was old and well advanced in years, he could not keep warm even when they put covers over him. So his servants said to him, "Let us look for a young virgin to attend the king and take care of him. She can lie beside him so that our lord the king may keep warm." Then they searched throughout Israel for a beautiful girl and found Abishag, a Shunammite, and brought her to the king. The girl was very beautiful… (I Kings 1:1-3)

Let us recall the way in which Rebekah was discovered, and the criteria by which Abraham’s servant set out to find her. “See, I am standing beside this spring,” says the servant in his prayer, “and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. May it be that when I say to a maiden, 'Please let down your jar that I may have a drink,' and she says, 'Drink, and I will water your camels too'-let her be the one you have chosen for your servant Isaac. By this I will know that you have shown kindness to my master.” (Genesis 24:13-14)

The issues are care and action. Rebekah is chosen by her deeds.

By comparison, the hunt for Avishag is almost pornographic. Avishag’s personality is not at issue, and neither are her actions. The only criteria are virginity, physical beauty, and radiating heat in bed. What is going on here? Is it possible that our tradition is suggesting, This equals that, with regard to the stories of Rebekah and Avishag?

Our answer comes in the person of another woman, Bat Sheva, a wife of David's youthful days. Bat Sheva's actions, in the haftarah of Chayei Sarah, point toward the subsequent parashah, Toledot, and its topic of succession. It is Bat Sheva, in the story of this haftarah, whose deeds resonate with those of the ancestress Rebekah. Just as Rebekah, in parashat Toledot, determines that Jacob and not Esau will receive Isaac’s principle blessing and continue his line, Bat Sheva, in this haftarah of Chayei Sarah, determines which of David’s sons will inherit after the king:

Bath Sheva went to see the aged king in his room, where Abishag the Shunammite was attending him. Bat Sheva bowed low and knelt before the king. "What is it you want?" the king asked. She said to him, "My lord, you yourself swore to me your servant by the Lord your God: 'Solomon your son shall be king after me, and he will sit on my throne.' But now Adonijah has become king, and you, my lord the king, do not know about it. (I Kings 1:15-17)

The scene in David’s room is not just a fateful moment, but a horrible one, from Bat Sheva’s perspective. We must imagine Bat Sheva, coming to plead the case of her son, Solomon, and having to do so, as the text says, with beautiful young Avishag right there in her husband’s bedchamber. Even in a context of polygamy, and even though we are told that David never consummated sexual relations with Avishag, this cannot have been a pleasant moment for the aging queen. She comes to remind David of the promises he made to her in her youth, and all the while she must face the sight of David’s latest youthful female acquisition. We may imagine that Bat Sheva might well have had in mind the way she herself was first found and posessed by King David:

One evening David got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful, and David sent someone to find out about her. The man said, Isn't this Bat Sheva...? (II Samuel 11:2-3)

Bat Sheva and Avishag start out with David in much the same way, as a beautiful objects of desire, as playthings to be acquired. Yet Bat Sheva manages to transit, in her actions, from one pole of possibility to another – from the actionless paradigm of Avishag to the ancestral paradigm of Rebekah. Bat Sheva refuses to accept being put aside and forgotten, along with David’s promises to her, as the next pretty young girl takes her place in the king’s bed. It is as though Bat Sheva were reminding David, I am your partner in this story of Israel, a woman whose voice, like Rebekah’s, will be heard.

Avishag never manages to transcend her position as a chattel. Even after David’s death she remains a passive pawn, a baggage sought by the players jockeying for position in the wake of the great king. Avishag remains a cipher for the prospect of woman as object, without voice or consequential action in a world ruled by men.

At the very moment in which we are introduced to Rebekah, our tradition signals to us that she will not be an inconsequential object. Without waiting the week from Chayei Sarah to Toledot, from the Life of Sarah to the subsequent Generations, the haftarah reminds us, as well, who it is that will act to ensure that these, in particular, will be our toledot, that this will be our heritage.