by Michael M. Cohen
Dec. 1, 2022
Three weeks ago in this space, we explored parashat Lech Lecha: “Who are we? The answer to that question is multilayered and multifaceted. Our names – how we identify to others and how we are identified by others – are one way that question is answered. Before we were Jews, we were Israelites, and before that, we were known as Hebrews.” The rest of the commentary for that parasha examined the name ivri, Hebrew.
This week we are introduced to the seed of the name Jew. Its source is the Hebrew name Yehuda, or Judah, the fourth son of Leah and Jacob. We discover in this week’s parasha, Vayetze: “She conceived again, and when she gave birth to a son, she said, ‘This time I will praise the Lord.’ So she named him Judah” (Gen. 29:35). In this sentence, the Hebrew word for praise, odeh, illuminates that the core meaning of the name Yehuda has to do with praise and thanks – think of toda, the Hebrew word for thanks.
From this we gain the insight that one of the essential qualities of being Jewish is to live in a state of thanks. That aspect can help us cultivate a more positive perspective on how to live our lives and engage the world.
One question we need to ask ourselves is why did Leah choose the name Judah for her son?
The 12 sons of Jacob will become the 12 tribes of Israel. In the course of his life, Jacob will have relations with four women – Leah, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah. So simple math tells us that if each woman gave birth to three children, they could each claim equal partnership in the creation of the 12 tribes. However, once Leah gave birth to a fourth son, the possibility of that equality was lost, as she realized she had the opportunity to be the mother of more tribes than the other women, and so she thanked God for that probability by naming him Yehudah. In fact, she would be the mother of six tribes.
WE PAUSE here and remember that this all occurred in the patriarchal society of its era. For one, Leah also has a daughter, Dinah, but then the descendants of daughters did not count as tribes. In addition, it is mostly accepted that, of the four women, only Leah and Rachel are counted as Matriarchs (along with Sarah and Rebekah), while Bilhah and Zilpah, the lowly handmaidens of Rachel and Leah, are not usually given that status, even though in the Hebrew, when they are given to Jacob to produce children, it says “l’isha,” which means “for a wife” (Gen. 30:4, 9).
There is an interesting exception to this trope in the Midrash (Numbers Rabbah 12:17): “Six corresponding to the Matriarchs, namely Sarah and Rebekah, Rachel and Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah.” However, for the most part within Judaism, the two menial handmaidens, even though four tribes came from them (From Bilhah: Dan and Naphtali; from Zilpah: Gad and Asher), are not given their due.
We can be thankful in our age that these dynamics are getting a different look. In Lilith magazine (March 24, 1995), Rabbi Susan Schnur advocates for the inclusion of Bilhah and Zilpah in the Amida, while Josephine Rosman, in the Jewish Women’s Archive (October 27, 2017), challenges us to reclaim these two women by elevating how they are seen.
THE HEBREW l’hodot, “to thank,” includes an orientation of acknowledgment. It recognizes, among a number of dynamics, that we do not live in a vacuum of existential solitude. It forces us out of a hole we sometimes step into. Saying something as simple as “thank you” produces a shower of recognition, appreciation, worth and affirmation of another person. Saying “thank you” forces us to recognize the other. When we say thank you, we are reminded we need each other.
Giving thanks is a spiral that feeds itself. Recognizing others means they not only are seen with our eyes but are seen in their eyes as well. On the deepest level, we all want and need to be recognized and acknowledged. We hold each other up when we say thank you.
We shall see in a few weeks that Judah’s life is filled with moments when he stands up to others or is unafraid to face the truth. In all these incidents, he is able to draw part of his strength from living a life in a state of thanks: being aware of what he has, and not focusing on what he lacks. It is from that place that he is able to act selflessly beyond himself.
If we understand being thankful as a core value of being Jewish (and, for that matter, being human), it is not surprising to hear the rabbis say we should recite a minimum of 100 brachot, blessings, a day. In the Talmud we find:
“It is taught in a baraita that Rabbi Meir would say: A person is obligated to recite 100 blessings every day, as it is stated in the verse: ‘And now, Israel, what [ma] does the Lord your God require of you’ (Deuteronomy 10:12). Rabbi Meir interprets the verse as though it said mea [one hundred] rather than ma” (Menahot 43b).
Blessings are one way we allow ourselves to take in what we have. It is related, as Mark Koffman noted on a Shabbat morning in my shul, that in one of the morning blessings we thank God for our “needs” and not our “wants.”
We further learn, in the Midrash, about the Messianic Age: “Rabbi Pinhas, Rabbi Levi and Rabbi Yohanan [said] in the name of Rabbi Menahem from Gallia: In the time to come, all sacrifices will be annulled, but the sacrifice of thanksgiving will not be annulled. All prayers will be annulled, but the prayer of gratitude will not be annulled” (Leviticus Rabbah 9:7).
May we all work to bring that age closer by living our lives as Jews, by living our lives like our namesake Judah – the one who is thankful.
by Michael M. Cohen
Nov. 24, 2022
This week’s parasha, Toldot, opens, “Ve’ele toldot Yitzhak ben Avraham” (Gen. 25:19). Most of these words are simple to translate and understand.
“Ve’ele,” “and these,” connects us back to something immediately beforehand – to “Ve’ele toldot Yishmael” (Gen. 25:12). There, the “and” refers us back to the previous paragraph (Gen. 25:7-11), which talks about the life and death of Abraham, and how Isaac (Yitzhak) and Ishmael came together to bury their father.
The word that is not so clear is “toldot.” According to Rashi (1040-1105, France), it means “offspring” or “begettings,” as Edward Fox (b. 1947, US) translates it, and “lineage” as Robert Alter (b. 1935, US) states. Stephen Mitchell (b. 1943, US) reads toldot as “descendants. Ramban (1194-1268, Spain, Israel), more closely aligning with Rashi, Fox, and Alter, translates the sentence as, “And these are the children of Isaac,” with Hertz (1872-1946, England) in a similar vein translating toldot as “generations.” However, Sforno (1475-1550, Italy) says it means “his days gave birth to the history that follows.” Or to put it another way, this chronicles the history that follows the birth of the individual mentioned. Ellen Frankel (b. 1951, US) translates “ve’ele toldot Yitzhak ben Avraham” as “This is the story of Isaac the son of Abraham.”
In this Torah conversation across the generations, we note Rashi, Fox, Alter, Ramban, and Hertz are more focused on the individuals born – Ishmael and Isaac; while Sforno and Frankel are more concerned with their actions as well as those of their descendants. In some ways the former group of commentators/translators are more limited in their understanding of the word “toldot,” while Sforno and Frankel are more expansive.
In this discourse on the meaning of the word “toldot,” our default is applying it in anthropocentric terms. We find it used in a number of ways, in addition to what has been explored above, that affirm that assumption, including references to the descendants of Adam (Gen. 5:1), Noah (Gen. 6:9), Shem (Gen. 10:1; 11:10), Terah (Gen. 11:27), Esau (Gen. 36:1; 9), Jacob (Gen. 37:2), Aaron and Moses (Num. 3:1), and Levi (Ex. 6:16;19).
And yet, the very first mention of the word “toldot” in the Torah does not have to do with humans. We read in the second chapter of Genesis (2:4), “Ele toldot hashamayim veha’aretz,” “these are the products/tale/generations/begettings of the heaven and the earth.”
What an extraordinary opening this presents to shake our normal and accepted way of thinking by introducing the word “toldot” not in connection with humans but, rather, with the world and the universe – nudging us, if you will, to consider a biocentric and not an anthropocentric orientation in how we look at the world and our lives.
This is not the only biocentric message we find in the text. A few sentences earlier we are told, on the sixth day of Creation, after God surveyed the world following the creation of humans God called what God saw “tov meod,” “very good” (Gen. 1:31). This stands in contrast to the other days of Creation, when God says only “tov,” “good.” An anthropocentric reading of the text says the world was created for us, with humans as the pinnacle, causing God to describe what God saw then as “very good.” But there is another reading, which presents a different orientation. It says the world was not created for us; we just happened to be the last piece of the puzzle. The “very good” spoken by God is not directed to us but, rather, to the totality of Creation that does not distinguish between humans and the rest of Creation.
This is also upheld by the order in which the world was created. If certain elements created before humans were to disappear, so would we. In fact, in this case, the contradistinction of “good” and “very good” is not so great. The goodness of all that was created before us, a goodness that was used by God to describe what God saw, lets us know that all the parts of Creation assembled before humans have intrinsic value of goodness separate from how we might classify them.
That godly perspective finds a voice in Kabbalah, as Daniel Matt (b. 1950, US) reminds us in his book The Essential Kabbalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism. He quotes Rav Kook (1865-1935, Russia, Israel):
“The essence of divinity is found in every single thing – nothing but it exists. Since it causes every thing to be, no thing can live by anything else. It enlivens them; its existence exists in each existent. Do not attribute duality to God. Let God be solely God. If you suppose that Ein Sof [the endless aspect of God that permeates everything] emanates until a certain point, and that from that point on is outside of it, you have dualized. God forbid! Realize, rather, that Ein Sof exists in each existent. Do not say ‘This is a stone and not God.’ God forbid! Rather, all existence is God, and the stone is a thing pervaded by divinity.”
One of the many challenges of the climate crisis, an assault on God’s creation, is that too often we approach that task from an anthropocentric vista – a broader biocentric lodestar offers more embracing and divergent insights that can open doors to better solutions, and a greater sense of urgency.
We Began this exploration of the opening sentence of this week’s parasha by noting that “ve,” “and,” connects us to previous events. Rabbi Ellie Munk (1900-1981, France) observes, quoting R. Abahu (279-320, Israel), that in the sentence from the second chapter of Genesis there is no “ve, “and,” at the beginning of the sentence, which means it stands alone, even though we read about Creation in the first chapter of the book of Genesis.
Munk teaches further, drawing from R. Abahu in the Midrash (Exodus Rabbah 30:1):
"God had previously created worlds which had fallen short of the ideal. He destroyed them and returned them to a state of chaos. However, the world we live in does meet the standards for the ideal, and so God says: 'These are the products....' This is a break with the previous worlds whose origins did not last, for they returned to a state of chaos."
Perhaps we find comfort from this Midrash stating that this world stands the test of standards. At the same time, we can also read it as a cautionary tale challenging human hubris. As we all write “the story of the generations,” let us pause, putting down our pen, and consider that our agency derives not solely from being human but from a deeper, fuller, more expansive perspective.
Michael M. Cohen, a reconstructionist rabbi, teaches at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies on Kibbutz Ketura and at Bennington College.
His weekly commentaries can also be found in the Jerusalem Post. Click to open the publication:
Parashat Hayei Sarah:
Keturah, Kibbutz Ketura, and the Arava Institute
by Michael M. Cohen
Nov. 17, 2022
In this week’s parasha, Hayei Sarah, we read that after the death of Sarah “Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah” (Gen. 25:1).
The sentence, unremarkable on one level, states what appears on the surface to be a simple fact. However, as with many verses, we discover that looks can be deceiving.
As though trying to answer a Greek choir singing “Who is this Keturah, worthy enough to replace our first Matriarch Sarah?” commentators have wrestled with different answers to that question.
Ramban claims Keturah was a Canaanite concubine, based on her description in the Book of Chronicles: “And the sons of Keturah, Abraham’s concubine” (I Chron. 1:32). Savina J. Teubal, author of Ancient Sisterhood: The Lost Traditions of Hagar and Sarah, claims Keturah was not a concubine but “was the patriarch’s second wife,” as the verse in Genesis states. These two verses from the Bible point to an ambiguous understanding of Keturah’s identity.
It is not unusual within Tanach to have verses that contradict each other, as we find here. Those contradictions become the cornerstones for a choir of many voices of interpretation and drawn-out lessons.
Rashi recognizes Keturah’s worthiness by saying she was actually Hagar! He does not come up with this astounding answer himself but draws from the Midrash where Rabbi Yehuda says, commenting on Keturah, “This was Hagar” (Genesis Rabbah 61:4).
How does Rabbi Yehuda come up with this answer? One possible explanation is that “Keturah” is related to the word “ketoret,” incense, meaning this was someone who lit incense as part of her idolatrous worship. Who would Abraham have known who fit that description? Hagar. The name Keturah is also related to the word “katar,” meaning to tie. With this understanding Rabbi Nehemiah said to Rabbi Yehuda, “she tied (m’koteret) piety and nobility in herself.”
Centuries later the Zohar wove a variation on the narrative:
“Keturah was none other than Hagar. For we know by tradition that though Hagar, when she left Abraham, went astray after the idols of her ancestors, yet in time she again attached herself to a life of virtue. Hence her name Keturah (lit. attached). Abraham then sent for her and took her as a wife.
“From here we learn a change of name acts as an atonement for sin, since that was the reason that her name was changed.
“The term ‘vayosef’ [the first word in Gen 25:1], literally meaning ‘he added,’ indicates not that Abraham took another wife, but that he took again his former spouse [Hagar] whom he had driven out on account of Ishmael, and who had now abandoned her evil practices, and had made a change in her name [to Keturah] symbolic of her change of life” (Zohar 1:133b).
Behind all of this there appears to be a tremendous, albeit creative, reading of the text, to bring Hagar back into the fold. Her expulsion – for all intents and purposes to go and die in “the Wilderness of Beersheba” along with her son, Ishmael (lit. God has heard) – by Sarah and Abraham is one of the most difficult passages to read in the entire Torah. Hagar “thought, Let me not look on as the child dies. And sitting thus far off, she burst into tears” (Gen. 21:14, 16).
With our 21st-century sensibilities, we are moved by the pathos of this incident. What is interesting, as biblical scholar Rachel Adelman points out, is that the rabbis “seemed disturbed by the poor treatment of Hagar.” This reminds us that while we do see things differently than the generations before us, there are human sentiments that transcend centuries.
Following this thinking of wanting to bring Hagar back into Abraham’s tent, we find other sources that go so far as to say that Abraham, over the years, stayed in contact with Hagar. In Pirke deRabbi Eliezer we read that Abraham visited Ishmael twice:
“Again after three years Abraham went to see his son Ishmael, having sworn to Sarah as on the first occasion that he would not descend from the camel in the place where Ishmael dwelt. He came there at midday, and found Ishmael’s wife.... Abraham arose and prayed before the Holy One, blessed be He, for his son, and [thereupon] Ishmael’s house was filled with all good things of the various blessings. When Ishmael came [home] his wife told him what had happened, and Ishmael knew that his father’s love was still extended to him” (Pirke deRabbi Eliezer 30).
Midrash Tanhuma (Genesis 5.9) seems to suggest that Isaac also maintained a connection with Hagar and Ishmael. This is based on a number of verses that link Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac to a well called “Be’er-lahai-roi... between Kadesh and Bered” (Gen. 16:14). This is the well that saved Hagar, pregnant with Ishmael, the first time she was expelled. We are also told that Isaac spent time “in the vicinity of Be’er-lahai-roi” (Gen. 24:62), and after the death of his father, Abraham, he “settled near Be’er-lahai-roi” (Gen. 25:11). We note two verses earlier that Isaac and Ishmael had come together to bury their father Abraham in the Cave of Machpelah (Gen. 25:9).
While not explicit that Keturah is Hagar, a case is made in a number of traditional sources that they are one and the same – “Hagar and Keturah are the same person” (Tanhuma Genesis 5.9). In essence, the rabbis make a tikkun, a repair, of the text by reversing the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael. The rabbis did not go through such great efforts as an exercise solely in hermeneutics, but, rather, to inform and guide our lives – even to this day.
FORTY-NINE YEARS ago this month, in November 1973, shortly after the Yom Kippur War, and the Shabbat following the reading of this week’s parasha with its mention of Keturah, a kibbutz was established in the southern Arava on the Jordanian border, 48 km. north of Eilat. It was founded by members of the Young Judaea Zionist youth movement and called Ketura.
That, in and of itself, is uneventful in relation to this week’s parasha, except for the sharing of the name Keturah. However, 23 years later, in the fall of 1996, Kibbutz Ketura established the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. Its mission: “to advance cross-border environmental cooperation in the face of political conflict” by bringing together Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews, Palestinians, Jordanians and others to realize that “nature knows no borders.”
In that shared capacity the institute works to repair the land and the relationships between the descendants of Sarah and Hagar. In this way the institute, located on Kibbutz Ketura – Kibbutz Hagar, if you will – is the living embodiment of the repair, the tikkun, the rabbis worked so hard to create.
Interpreting the Akeida
by Michael M. Cohen
Nov. 10, 2022
Through the course of the year, the akeida, the binding of Isaac, is read more than any other narrative in the Torah. It is read as part of this week’s parasha, Vayera, as well as on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. In addition, it is read every day in a traditional siddur, as part of birkot hashahar (blessings of the dawn), the preliminary section of the daily morning service.
The question that needs to be asked is: Of all of the stories in the Bible, why is the akeida – God telling Abraham to slay his son – the story that receives the most prominence? A classic answer is offered by Rabbi David de Solo Pool in his siddur:
This biblical reading recalls Abraham’s unquestioning acceptance of God’s will. At the beginning of each day, the Jew would proclaim to the world the biblical lesson – taught to Abraham and, through him, to his people – that man’s devotion to God is to know no limit.
For many Jews this is a powerful understanding of their relationship with God. There are also Jews who find this unquestioning relationship with God, particularly when God demands the killing of a human being, and in this case one’s child, to be highly problematic. Is there a way this passage can be redeemed?
There are “shiv’im panim ba’Torah,” 70 faces/sides of Torah, the rabbis teach us (Numbers Rabbah 13). On this, the School of R. Ishmael expounds: “As a hammer shatters a rock” (Jeremiah 23:29) – “Just as a hammer subdivides into many different sparks, so does the biblical verse extend into many different interpretations” (Sanhedrin 34a).
The story of the binding of Isaac, the akeida, as we shall explore, is open to many interpretations. Rabbi Norman Cohen in his insightful book Self Struggle & Change: Family Conflict Stories in Genesis and Their Healing Insights for Our Lives, teaches:
We are all like Abraham; each of us is so involved in our outside worlds – our careers, interests, or our principles – that we do not or cannot see that it is our child, or spouse or parent that is bound on the altar. We are so adept at sacrificing that which is truly important to us on the altars we have erected that we may ask whether we are capable of hearing the cry of the angel before it is too late.
Reading this episode as unquestioning loyalty to God can make it a proof text for religious fanaticism and extremism.
And yet, there is a way to see this story in a completely different light. At that moment when Abraham has his arm raised, ready to kill in the name of God; in that moment of uber-religious fervor and fanaticism, Abraham is still able to hear the angel tell him this is not what God wants. This is the test that Abraham passes. He is rewarded not for being a religious fanatic, but, rather, because in the midst of that fanaticism he was open to hear a different voice, a path to a different way.
In this light, we can read the story as an anti-religious-extremism text. An important and timeless message for helping us grow – in our religions, in our societies, in our communities, in our personal relationships.
The story of the akeida is traditionally understood as God testing Abraham. Lippman Bodoff flips that reading of the story on its head. He points out the akeida is full of many details – something rare in a biblical story of only 19 verses. Bodoff asserts that these details slow down the unfolding of the events. That is to say, Abraham wanted to give God the opportunity to change God’s mind. A case in point is Abraham, who is more than 135 years old at the time, saddles his donkey, and does not have his servants do it. In this interpretation, it is not only God testing Abraham, but Abraham testing God, so he would know if he would want to follow God to begin a new religion.
The context of the akeida also needs to be placed within the ancient world where human sacrifice was practiced. To what extent remains a debate among scholars, but human sacrifice was considered by some cultures to be acceptable. In that light, when God approaches Abraham to offer his son as a sacrifice it can be seen as speaking to him in a way he would understand: human sacrifice to a deity. And that is the punch line. At the end, God is saying: You might think I want human sacrifice, from what you may see around you, but that is not what I desire at all. In forming this new relationship with Abraham, God tries to meet him based on normative thinking and behavior, and then offers a radical way to say a relationship with God is going to be different. As Judith S. Antonelli points out, “the akeida represents its rejection (of human sacrifice) and replacement by animal sacrifice. Animal sacrifice... predated human sacrifice and coexisted with it for quite awhile before eventually replacing it in most parts of the world. Some pagan traditions, such as Greek mythology, bear tales indicating such a transition.”
Yehuda Amichai’s poem “The real hero of the Issac story was the ram” challenges us to think in a different, broader perspective. In our anthropocentric reading of the text, we focus on the potential killing of a human, Isaac, Abraham’s son, and not the ram that in the end was offered up as the sacrifice. The poem closes:
The angel went home.
Isaac went home.
Abraham and God had long gone before.
But the real hero of the Isaac story was the ram.
A different interpretation of the akeida developed in reaction to a political event in the United States over 50 years ago. On May 4, 1970, Ohio National Guard troops shot at students at Kent State University protesting the Vietnam War. Of the four killed, three were Jewish. Eight years later Kent State commissioned the sculptor George Segal to create a statue to commemorate the event. Segal chose the akeida.
As he explained, “Basically, the piece calls on older people who have the power of life and death over their children to exercise love, compassion and restraint.” In that light, the akeida can be depicted as a protest against war. Kent State rejected the statue, but it found a home on the campus of Princeton University, where it remains to this day.
In this short exegesis, we have seen vastly different ways the akeida can be understood – a reminder that Judaism stands upon its diversity. In the words of Rabbi Ishmael, the array of interpretations are like “many different sparks.” Those sparks can ignite new ways for us to understand not only the text, but our world and our lives. They challenge us to better grapple with the divergent thinking we encounter in the course of the day through the people we meet and the events of the day.
Parashat Lech Lecha:
Say Our Name
by Michael M. Cohen
Nov. 3, 2022
Every morning in the Siddur, we ask a number of profound questions that go to the heart of who we are and how we live our lives. These questions appeared first in the Neilah service of Yom Kippur (Yoma 87b) and later migrated into the daily liturgy. The first question, Mah anachnu? (what are we) is the ultimate existential question.
It is related to the question, who are we? The answer to that question is multilayered and multifaceted. Our names – how we identify to others and we are identified by others – is one way that question is answered. Before we were Jews, we were Israelites and before that, we were known as Hebrews.
That identity is introduced in this week’s parasha, Lech L’cha, when Abram is called ha’ivri (the Hebrew) (Gen 14:13). Why is he called and identified so? The shoresh (three-letter root) of ha’ivri is ayin-bet-reish. It means to cross over, to come from the other side. In the case of Abram, living at the time “at the terebinths of Mamre,” (Gen 14:13) near present-day Hebron, he was known as having come from the other side, beyond the Euphrates river. On this the Midrash expands:
Rabbi Judah said, “[ha’ivri signifies that] the whole world was on one side (eber) while he was on the other side (eber) [as Abram was the only true believer in the one true God]. Rabbi Nehemiah said, “[It denotes] that he was descended from Eber (Gen 11:10-26). The rabbis say, “It means that he came across the river [based on the verse, ‘And I took your father Abraham from the other side of the river’ Joshua 24:3]; further, that he spoke in the language of the dwellers across the river. (Midrash Rabbah Bereishit 42:8)
Dr. Albert Freidberg points out, “the multiplicity of the Sages’ answers speaks to the slippery nature of the term and its origins.” Rabbi Karyn Keder adds, “‘lech lecha’ means to embark on a journey of self-awareness and manifest your life’s purpose,” while Dr. Yitzhak Feder comments that Avraham was, “a pioneer who crossed cultural and religious boundaries in founding a new faith.” All of these remind us that Abraham carried a new, bold perspective. In that light, Abraham models the importance of fresh thinking.
There is a story from the classroom of Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan at the Jewish Theological Seminary where he taught homiletics for some 50 years and saw the study of the Torah as a lifelong moral education. On Mondays, students would come to class and present a sermon that would be critiqued by Kaplan. On Thursdays, students would return to the class and present the improved sermon based on what Kapan had told them.
ONE WEEK, a student came to class on Monday and presented his sermon, and Kaplan offered his critique. On Thursday, the student returned and gave the sermon incorporating all that Kaplan had said. Kaplan then added fresh criticism. The student was dumbfounded. In response, Kaplan pounded the table and said something along the lines of, “You presume between Monday and Thursday of this week I have not evolved and grown as a person and see things differently.”
To this, Rabbi Ray Artz, who studied with Kaplan at the Seminary comments, “True idealistic pragmatists are always looking to see things in a new way in order to address new problems of which they become aware. Both Kaplan and in his own way, Heschel, were struggling with their understanding of their own existential Jewish meaning. Therefore, they had to create dynamic rhetoric, each in his own way, in order for them to contend with their own doubts and hopes.”
An interesting dynamic of the name ivri is that within the Torah it is not used by Abraham and Sara’s descendants as an identity among themselves; rather, it is used as a way to identify with foreigners or used by foreigners to identify members of the Hebrew tribes. In relation to this, Jeremy Benstein points out in his fascinating book, Hebrew Roots, Jewish Routes: A Tribal Language in a Global World:
“Some even see this as a derogatory term from outside, an ethnic slur that others used, which the Israelites then appropriated for themselves. As biblical scholar Yitzhak Feder notes about the term ‘Hebrew,’ ‘the self-appropriation of the Other’s derogatory term serves as a subversive expression of self-empowerment, comparable to the use (albeit controversial) of [the N word] in hip-hop music.’”
One of the most direct uses of the term for self-identification is by Jonah, who when fleeing from God is confronted by sailors who ask him a number of questions including, “What is your country and of what people are you?” Jonah answered, “I am a Hebrew.” (Jonah 1:8) Similar to Abraham, Jonah takes a journey. That is to say, the name expresses physical movement – one from the other side.
But there is another movement contained within the word ivri: an inner movement including spiritual growth and spiritual wrestling. Abraham not only leaves his birthplace and travels/moves to Israel, he also discovers within himself a radical new way of understanding God. While Jonah, although reluctantly, tries to come to terms with a God who prefers mercy and tshuvah (turning, changing one’s ways to more righteous living) over strict justice and punishment.
Ivri is not about stasis. Rabbi J. Leonard Levy wrote, “Variation is a characteristic of living things... because life and change are co-extensive... Our bodies change; our minds change; our hearts change; the muscles of our bodies change; the capillaries, the arteries – everything changes, and ultimately, we die; for life is made up of a series of progressive changes.”
Change is the constant of our lives (part of the appeal of ritual is it provides an anchor in the sea of those changes). Change affects us in a number of ways. How do we incorporate change into our lives? Are we willing to change when needed or do we put up resistance? How do we feel, how do we adapt to the pace of the many developments in the world – what Popes Francis I and Benedict XVI called “rapidification.”
In response to that constant of change in our lives and in our world, we inherit from Avram haivri, Abram the Hebrew, a reminder that the existential footprint of the journey of our lives is one of internal and external movement.
Babel & Eden: An eternal cautionary tale
by Michael M. Cohen
October 28, 2022
Expelled last week from the tranquility and comfort of the Garden of Eden, humanity appears to find equanimity in this week’s parasha Noah, whose name means comfort. In addition, as Ellen Frankel adds, quoting Rabbi Abba bar Kahana, that Naamah, Noah’s wife name “refers to her pleasing – ne’imim – deeds.” (Gen. Rabbah 23:3) Nothing could be further from the truth in what transpires and the etymology of these two significant names to our parasha. God loses patience not once but twice (the Flood and the Tower of Babel) with humans whom God had created, as the Psalmist reminds us, “a little lower than the angels.” (Psalm 8:5) That lofty reference echoes the description, also in last week’s parasha, saying that were created “in God’s image.” (Gen 1:27)
And therein lies the connection between these two weeks’ Torah readings - a lesson taught in the Garden of Eden will need to be repeated. And what was that lesson? We are created in God’s image, but we are not God. And whenever we forget that important distinction, trouble ensues and there are consequences.
We read last week:
The Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden, and there God put the human whom God had formed. And out of the ground Adonai Elohim made every tree grow that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and bad…Then Adonai Elohin took the human and put them in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the human, saying, ‘Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and bad you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.’ (Gen 2:8-17)
Why are we allowed to eat from one tree, but not from both? Because their combination makes us Godlike. One tree gives us full knowledge and the other gives us immortality. In other words, when eaten together we become like God having complete knowledge and never dying. Once Eve and Adam ate from the tree of knowledge they were expelled from the Garden so they would not have the opportunity to eat from the tree of life and become immortal like God.
That brings us to this week's episode of the Tower of Babel where the people said to one another, “Come, let us build us a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, that we make ourselves a name.” (Gen 11:4) On face value this desire and goal does not appear problematic but on closer examination other ramifications surface. We read in the Psalms, “The heavens belong to the Lord, but God has given the earth to all humanity.” (Psalm 115:16) That is to say, building a tower to heaven violates that division and lessens the difference between us and God. At the end of the sentence the citizens of Babel say building the tower will help them make a name for themselves. This might indicate creating a good reputation. But “a name” in the context of heaven means something else. Often God is simply referred to as Hashem, literally the name. There are many reasons for this, but on one level it is a word that can encompass all aspects of God, Who is beyond all names and descriptions. When the people of Babel say they want to create a name for themselves it can be inferred they want to be Godlike.
Related, Nehama Leibowitz teaches:
Man who has the power to reach these technical heights soon imagines that he is all-powerful…Gigantic buildings, pyramids, marble monuments, impressive squares have always served as the means by which a great dictator has wished to perpetuate and aggrandize his name, likening himself to a god.
Why does God, the Absolute Power of the Universe, need to remind us of that vast difference between image and agency? It was perhaps best said by Jacob Bronowski, while standing at Auschwitz during the filming of the BBC documentary based on his book, “The Ascent of Man:”
There are two parts to the human dilemma. One is the belief that the end justifies the means. That push-button philosophy, that deliberate deafness to suffering has become the monster in the war machine. The other is the betrayal of the human spirit. The assertion of dogma closes the mind and turns a nation, a civilization into a regiment of ghosts — obedient ghosts, or tortured ghosts. It’s said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That’s false — tragically false. Look for yourself.
This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas — it was done by arrogance, it was done by dogma, it was done by ignorance.When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods…We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power.
Nestled next to the directive in chapter two not to eat from “the tree of the knowledge of good and bad,” we are also told, “to till and tend” (Gen 2:15) the Garden. This stands in stark contrast to, in the first chapter, when we are created “in the image of God,” and we are told in terminology, that is absolute, to act with “dominion” over the environment. Therein lies our challenge, we can not escape the immense power we have over the environment and over people. Just as God needs to temper justice with mercy, (Genesis Rabbah 12:15) so we must diminish the absolute with the equivocal.
Too often when we have forgotten about the fine line between being created in God’s image and acting as though we are the Absolute Power or think we have absolute power, we act at our human worst. Created in God’s image human beings have immense power, as Rabbi Joseph Polak reminds us, with the capacity not only to commit genocide, but also biocide. This critical lesson first taught in the Garden of Eden and so quickly forgotten by the time of the Tower of Babel is an eternal cautionary tale, that “the better angels of our nature” need to be continuously cultivated.
Harmony and conflict in Genesis
Should the first words of the Torah be understood as “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” or “When God began to create the heaven and the earth”?
By Michael M. Cohen
October 21, 2022
Was the world created out of nothing or from pre-existing matter?
Like the opening notes of a symphony, the first line of the Torah, “Be’resheet bara elohim et ha’shamayim ve’et ha’aretz,” creates a signature for the underlying tune that will compose the rest of the Torah.
Commenting on those words, Rabbi Art Green teaches: The “readers/hearers of Genesis 1... know of another account of creation [from other Ancient Near Eastern cultures], one of conflict, slaughter and victory, ‘the survival of the fittest’ among the gods. What is striking about this account is precisely the absence of those elements of conflict: Genesis 1 offers a purely harmonistic version of the origin of creatures, one where everything has its place as the willed creation of the single Deity and all conflict has mysteriously been forgotten.”
What a marvelous basis and start for our world – the Torah seems to say harmony without conflict is its cornerstone. And yet, those very first words of the Torah come with a disagreement. To put it simply, there is a dispute about what those first words of the Torah actually mean. Should they be understood as “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” or “When God began to create the heaven and the earth”?
The difference is subtle but vast in implications. The problem arises from a number of Hebrew grammatical rules that crash into each other, making a clear translation complicated. Those different translations in turn change our understanding of a key theological concept – was the world created ex nihilo/out of nothing or from pre-existing matter? The first translation, as understood by Rabban Gamliel, Saadya Gaon and Nahmanides, favors ex nihilo, while the latter, as understood by Philo, Ibn Ezra and Gersonides, favors from pre-existing matter.
The question of ex nihilo goes to the heart of God’s relationship to the worldand, by extension, us. If God created the world ex nihilo, then it says God is “the cause of all that exists” (Maimonides’s “Thirteen Principles of Faith”) and has sovereignty over everything. The Kabbalists will extend that belief to say, “The essence of divinity is found in every single thing – nothing but it exists. Since it causes everything to be, no thing can live by anything else” (Moses Cordovero, Shi’ur Qomah, 206b).
While on the other hand, those who hold that the world was created from pre-existing matter elevate that matter and, by extension, human beings – allowing, for example, humanism to emerge as an existential understanding of who we are.
It was perhaps best said by Rashi: “This verse says nothing, but darshani/clarify me!” (Genesis 1:1). That is to say, the opening line of the Torah is not clear, and it demands that we struggle to understand to the best of our abilities. That opening verse, by not being clear, sets the stage for our timeless wrestling with the text.
Related, there is the question of why did the Torah start with the letter bet, the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and not alef, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. There are many answers to this question. Rabbi Danielle Stillman teaches, “Remembering that we read Hebrew from right to left, if you look at the bet, you will see that it is closed on the top, bottom, and right side, but the side that is facing left — toward the rest of the Torah text, is open. The interpretation of this visual effect is that one is moving forward with the words of the Torah.” And the way we move forward is by encountering a multiplicity of analysis and meaning – the minimum of multiplicity is two, as symbolized by the letter bet, the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
The beginning of the Torah contains another profound conflict as well. The first and second chapters of the Book of Genesis present two vastly different creation stories side by side. They each contain different names of God, different orders of the creation story, different descriptions of God’s actions and the words used to describe how God creates, and diametrically distinctive explanations of the human relationship to the environment.
Some look at these differences and see four different authors throughout the Torah whose different versions were woven together by a redactor sometime in the fifth century BCE. Others, such as Rav Soloveitchik, who believe in the sole authorship by Moses of the Torah, see those differences but come to a different conclusion. For the Rav, those two accounts of creation can be understood as typologies of different aspects of what it means to be a human being – what he describes as homo actus and homo passum, aggressive and passive human, with far-reaching implications for self-understanding.
All of these conflicts within the text point to a paradox of self-contradictions expressing truth. The Latin roots “para” means “beyond,” and “dox” means “opinion” or “thought.” That is to say, paradox is something beyond opinion or thought, something that is beyond explanation. “Paradox” has the same ending as “orthodox.” “Ortho,” “correct,” combined with the suffix “dox” gives us the word “orthodox,” which means correct thought or the correct way to think about things. We usually associate the word “orthodox” with religion, such as an Orthodox Jew, a Jew who thinks in the correct way. This then implies that those Jews who are not Orthodox do not think in the correct way.
One could argue that we should not aspire to be Orthodox Jews or, for that matter, Reform or Conservative or Reconstructionist Jews but rather to be Paradox Jews. To be a Jew (or any religious person, for that matter) is to understand that we cannot explain everything. To be religious is in part to search for meaning and understanding while at the same time know that may not always be possible.
It is only when we have such an understanding that we can then embrace the paradox, the mysterious, by not relying on the immutable and not turn the tablets, the land, the nation, the mitzvot, denominations, into idols. As we have seen, the Torah opens with a contradiction of harmony and conflict. Conflict cannot be avoided in our lives and the world – our challenge is how do we address conflict. Rabbi Shefa Gold teaches that in string and percussion instruments, the music arises out of the tension in the string and the drum. The opening of the Torah reminds us of the need, when possible, to harmonize the different voices of conflict.