In this week’s parasha, Vayera, both Abraham and his nephew Lot are visited by angels. In both cases, the angels are served meals which include bread. Abraham served his guests some sort of cakes. Lot, however, served his angelic guests matza, the unleavened bread we traditionally eat at Passover. Lot seems to be a less good version of Abraham, so it makes sense that he would serve his guests cheaper food. However, the great 11th century French commentator Rashi explains Lot’s serving of matzah in a different vein: it was Passover. That is, Lot served his guests matzah because it was the appropriate food for the time of year.
However, Rashi’s comments are strange in at least two ways. First, why is Lot celebrating a holiday which commemorates the Israelite exodus from Egypt several hundred years later?! Further, the Israelites are distant cousins of Lot’s offspring. If anyone should be celebrating Passover, it is Abraham. Indeed, some midrashim explain that the angels visited Abraham on the eve of Passover. Abraham had to ask Sarah to make cakes for the angelic guests because they were busy with Passover preparations (which I assume means they were out of other bread). But Rashi makes no such comment regarding Abraham. The only person he associates with Passover in our story is Lot in his serving of matzah.
The contemporary Israeli Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun points out several literary parallels between Lot’s escape from Sodom and the Israelite escape from Egypt. Matzah, in his view, is merely a flag for the careful reader to pay attention to the similarities. Both stories begin with hiding in houses. In Lot’s case, the angels pull him inside his own house to protect him from the Sodomites. In Egypt, the Israelites lock themselves inside with blood on their doorposts to protect them from the plague of the first-born. New nations emerge from both stories. For Lot, it is the nations of Amon and Moab, which begin with a horrific sexual encounter created between Lot’s daughters and their father. (I hope to compare this to the Levite experience in Egypt when we get to parashat Sh’mot). The Exodus from Egypt, of course, results in the creation of the Israelite people, from whom we inherit our traditions. So the escape from Sodom did not necessarily occur during our Passover. Instead, when Rashi says it was Passover, he means that it was Lot’s Passover: the time for him to escape and begin a new nation.
I noticed a few other parallels not included by Rabbi Bin Nun. Both of these stories end away from civilization: for the Israelites in the desert, for Lot in the mountains. In both stories, the people involved must move forward at all cost -- even into the sea, rather than look back and become a pillar of salt, as happens with Lot’s wife.
By teaching us that Lot served matzah because it was Passover, Rashi points us towards the literary parallels. His comment illuminates for us the similarities between the national creation stories and the lessons conveyed about the creation of separate identity and peoplehood. If the Torah’s paradigm is taken seriously, the creation of a nation begins in an oppressive environment where all food must be baked quickly. It means having to hide inside, away from the outside environment, and an eventual escape to a frontier where a new people can begin to (re)build. Both stories also teach us that nation-building involves an attempt to include outsiders who might want to join the project. In Lot’s case, the angels urge him to collect anyone else who might be with him in the city (Genesis 19:12). Everyone refuses him, but the sentiment is still there. In the Israelite case, a mixed-multitude (Exodus 12:38) joins the Israelites in leaving Egypt.
This gives us a reason why the Israelite nation does not emerge directly from Abraham and instead needed to spend time in Egypt. While Lot hideS in his house before emerging from Sodom, Abraham sits outside his tent waiting for visitors, to whom he serves a banquet in the open air, away from the tent. Abraham is an accomplished person with little to fear in his world. Even his greatest fear, having Sarah stolen by a man in power, results in his enrichment and adding new allies. Lot’s life, like the Israelites in Egypt, is one that must happen in hiding until a final, miraculous moment of emergence into the wilderness -- and the creation of a new people. The Torah teaches us that new nations usually do not emerge from positions of comfort, but instead from positions of subjugation. And for those lucky enough to be part of an exodus (but unlucky enough to need one), the Torah reminds us that such an endeavor involves including others who might also be committed to the project. Like Lot, however, sometimes we may find no one else willing to join us. We build the nation anyway. And above all, it reminds us to charge forward -- not looking back, like Lot’s wife, but plunging into the sea and the future, like the Israelites under Moses. שבת שלום.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום
The story of Abraham is one of the more detailed, personal stories in the Torah. However, most of what we learn in the Torah only covers the last one hundred years of his life (may we all be blessed to have a last one hundred years). Which leaves a curious question: why did God choose Abraham in the first place? Other than the names of his family members, all we know about him before this week’s parasha, Lekh Lekha, is that his wife is barren and that his father intended to take the family from Ur Kasdim (maybe southern Iraq) to Cana’an (the land of Israel). His father stops short of Cana’an and settles in Charan (maybe in Turkey), although the Torah never explains why. The Rabbinics present Abraham as the first monotheist, attempting to explain why Abraham was chosen by God. However, other Rabbinic sources make it clear that several other monotheists existed in Abraham’s day, many of whom were his elders. The Rabbis teach that Shem and Ever, Noah’s son and grandson, ran a yeshiva in the ancient world. Therefore, Abraham (and Sarah, as we will see) must have done something special beyond being monotheists, which compelled God to choose them.
In Lekh Lekha, the Torah may hint as to why God chose Abraham and Sarah. The retinue which accompanies Abraham on his trip to Cana’an includes the “people that they made in Charan,” (Genesis 12:5). Onkelos, in his traditional Aramaic translation of the Torah, translates “people that they made” as, “Abraham and Sarah pledged the people to Torah.” The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 9a) suggests that Abraham marks the beginning of an era of Torah. However, what Torah looks like in Abraham’s time is unclear. Sarah and Abraham long predate God’s giving the Torah at Sinai. While some sources see it as an innate ability to perform Torah (see, for instance, Babylonian Talmud Yoma 28b), it seems more likely this means a concept of Torah. It might be that the method Abraham and Sarah use to teach to others is an understanding of what Torah is and that which sets them apart from both their predecessors and their contemporaries, even those who are monotheism. This may even be what makes Judaism, the religion of Torah, unique.
Maimonides suggests (Mishneh Torah Laws of Idolatry Chapter 1, Laws 2-3) that Sarah and Abraham are different in that they teach publicly, to the masses, about God. Other monotheists at their time kept to themselves, or maybe had a few select students. Maimonides suggests that Abraham wrote books and passed them on to his children. However, this fails to explain why those before Abraham did not teach publicly or did not write their own books. Nor does this explain what sets Torah apart from other traditions.
When God instructs Abraham to move to the land of Cana’an, God tells him, “Go, yourself, from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you,” (Genesis 12:1). God’s instruction that Abraham leave his father’s house is confusing. Abraham’s father, Terach, was himself headed to Cana’an (Genesis 11:31). God essentially says to Abraham, “Separate from your father by doing exactly what your father was planning to do.” How can Abraham break from his father by following in his father’s footsteps? This break without a break is heightened by the claim of the Tosafot (on Shabbat 10b) that Abraham first went to Cana’an, then back to Charan, then back to Cana’an, the second time at God’s command. That is, Abraham completed his father’s journey on his own and when he abandoned it, God asked him to repeat it.
Perhaps, God chooses Abraham because he knows Abraham is capable of simultaneously breaking from the path of his father and following it at the same time. After all, Abraham already did this on his own. Which might be what separates Sarah and Abraham from Shem and Ever and also what convinces others to follow Abraham and Sarah. While others can teach about God, maybe even publicly, Sarah and Abraham do so while cloaked in tradition. Their message is more palatable because it delivers a radical message, to follow God, while making it seem completely unradical. They make monotheism seem like a natural continuation of Abraham’s father’s path. Which is what makes him the start of Torah. For Torah is an ability to break from the past while making it seem like it is merely a continuation at the same time. Every good change made in Torah is always grounded in a past tradition—a saying, Biblical verse, or the like— as if the Torah always supported this new path. Perhaps it has. May we all merit to inherit such a Torah: where we forge new paths as we, at the same time, make those paths continuations of what always was. In doing so, we inherit the Torah of Abraham.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום
In this week’s parsha, Noah, God makes two promises to Noah after the flood. The first occurs after Noah sacrifices all of the pure animals he brought with him in the ark as offerings to God. God then promises to no longer curse the earth because of humanity. This manifests in God promising to allow the natural cycles of the world to cycle through their appropriate periods. “For the rest of the days of the Earth, the time for planting and harvesting, winter, spring, summer, fall, day, and night will not cease,” (Genesis 8:21-22). The second promise, which is perhaps more famous, is symbolized by the rainbow. God promises to never again wipe out humans and other life on earth, and uses the rainbow as a reminder to God to keep the promise. After some genealogies, the Torah tells the story of the Tower of Babel where the people, all of one language, get together to build a tower. God responds by introducing different languages and scattering the people. The choice of a rainbow as symbol of the covenant gives us insight to the cause of the flood. It also explains God’s motivation for punishing the builders of the Tower of Babel by making them speak different languages.
The Torah teaches us that the sin of the generation of the flood was thievery. The Talmud of the land of Israel explains that people would steal small amounts from one another: so small that the thievery was not contestable in a court (Talmud Yerushalmi Bava Metziah 4:2). Phrased differently, they would disrespect the individual property of another, assuming the boundaries between individuals were not important.
A different sin associated with this generation, midrashically, is that different species, including humans, were engaged in cross species sex (Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 108a). Again, we see a disrespect of boundaries and difference, here between species. In the parasha, we learn that Noah took one pair of every impure animal and seven of every pure animal. There is a midrash (Tanchuma, Buber edition, Noah 11) which explains that the pure animals are those which did not engage in cross species sex. These are the animals which Noah later sacrifices to God, which then prompts God’s first promise to no longer destroy the earth and its cycles. To be clear, this is not a story which promotes segregation of types. After all, the ark is the ultimate example of bringing together every type. Rather, it is a story which warns against the destruction of unique identity, culture, and species.
The story of the Tower of Babel contains parallels to the flood. The entire world comes together with one language and one set of words (Genesis 11:1). This is despite God’s blessing (Genesis 9:1) that people should fill the entire world: that is, to spread out and create individual identities. Instead, the people build up instead of out, creating one national identity, and removing unique qualities of culture and language. God punishes, so to speak, the generation by giving them different languages and different locations. Here the people did not mix inappropriately, but, rather, failed to form differences in the first place. However, those sins seem to be similar, as mixtures are not a category if there are not differences in the first place. And the creation of differences is a fundamental part of God’s creation in Genesis, creating each thing according to its type.
In response to the sins of mixing inappropriately and failing to create difference, of violating identity, God violates the identity of the world. God remixes the separated waters of above and below, as well as the separation between land and water. The punishment matches the crime. When the punishment is finished, God promises to never destroy the cycles again. God is prompted to make this promise when Noah offers those animals that never violated their identities by mixing across species. The rainbow becomes a perfect symbol of this. A rainbow is the result of taking a mixture of frequencies of light (i.e. white light) and separating them spatially. It is a return of colors to their individual identities. The rainbow reminds us that as much as we might which to blend individual identities between people, species, times, and cultures, and languages, there is also a value to maintaining difference and individuality.
However, the Torah teaches that the rainbow primarily serves a reminder to God. While a rainbow is a separation of identity, it is not as discrete as we may originally suspect. It is a actually a spectrum, where the borders between colors are fuzzy. It is a reminder that even in maintaining unique identity, some blurring of boundaries is also a value to be upheld. This reminds God to not be so quick to destroy the world on the basis of identity blending, just as it reminds us to not be too casual with knocking down boundaries. May we all appreciate and keep those qualities which keep us as, both as individuals and groups, different. But may we, and God, also recognize and appreciate those places where differences can and should be blended like the colors of the rainbow.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום
This week’s parasha, B’reishit, famously gives the Jewish view on the creation of the world. Whether or not this is meant to be a scientific accounting, it does seem to be a statement of our tradition’s thoughts on the goals, aspirations, and ideals for the world. While the initial creation story in the first chapter contains many instances of God’s approval, the Rabbis see at least two places where God alters our reality in relationship to God’s original plan. The first change was to insert mercy and compassion into a world initially created based solely on justice. A world based on justice alone, God realized, would be unsustainable. God’s wisdom (as it were) is shown by the first two generations of humanity, both of whom engage in disobedience of God. The second, Cain, goes so far as to undo God’s creation by committing murder. If the world had been created strictly based on justice, God would have needed to wipe out humanity for its crimes rather than forgive Adam, Eve, and Cain. The insertion of mercy into God’s judgement of the world gives all of us a chance to survive and come back from our mistakes. But it also means that sometimes people are not properly punished for their crimes.
A second change in God’s plan was in how God creates people. Two verses, in the first and fifth chapters of Genesis, have a contradiction in describing God’s creation of humanity. The Torah teaches that God created him - the first man - in God’s image, but God created them as male and female (Genesis 1:27). Genesis 5:1-2 similarly states that God created man in God’s image, but created them as male and female and named them “Adam”. More confusingly, the second chapter of Genesis describes God as forming man and then creating woman from man’s side. Rabbi Don Isaac Abarbanel (15th century Portugal) suggests that God created a single person and later created woman from that person’s side. Rebbi Abahu (3rd century Israel) explains, however, that God thought to create two separate people, but in the end only created one.
Rabbi Shmuel Eidels (16th and 17th centuries Poland) writes that, like creating the world only based on justice, creating two separate people with wholly individual identities was the ideal. However, the world would not be sustainable if separate people were created simultaneously. People have a tendency to quarrel, to the point of violence and destruction, over the smallest differences. God thus decided to create one initial person in God’s image so that everyone would be forced to admit to the same origin -- and God hoped that this would lead to more peace in the world. The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5) explains that, because we all descend from the same initial person, no person can claim greater ancestry than anyone else. Further, this also leads us to aspire to close relationships with others -- knowing that we were once meant to be together, we yearn for the recombination of two people into the original one.
As God anticipated, and as we can see in our world today, too often the existence of individual people leads to dominance by one type of person over another. But holding onto the idea of fundamental human unity can be dangerous, too. If we see ourselves only as one person, we can’t draw boundaries, even healthy ones, for ourselves -- or recognize those boundaries in others. If everything came from one original person, someone could abuse this by assuming that others must not have personal space or autonomy. This becomes even more dangerous due to the second chapter of Genesis. Since gender differentiation happens by taking something from the side of the first person - who becomes a man - some people see this as permission for men to encroach on women’s physical space. It is at this point we should remember God’s original plan for the world in our tradition. Rabbi Yitzchak Silberstein (in Chashukei Chemed Eruvin 18a) explains that the idea was for people to have two independent identities not reliant on one another in any way: physically, materially, emotionally. In believing that God created the world with an intention of individuality but with the reality of unity, we should be inspired to find an appropriate balance between these two poles.
However, finding a balance between unity and individuality, as well as finding a balance between justice and mercy, is difficult. We often swing too far one way. Sometimes our society is too inclined to be merciful towards people who violate others’ boundaries -- we are too quick to forgive such transgressions. In such times, we must remember that our tradition teaches that God’s original plan for the world was true justice. In the same way, people can be too inclined towards the results of a creation story where people were created from a single individual. People are too lax with others’ individuality and personal space. This is particularly and often seen in men’s treatment of and dominance over women and women’s bodies. When the world swings too far to that side -- and I believe it has -- we should recall our tradition’s claim of God’s original plan for the world: multiple people with independent and equally valid identities and separate bodies, owned exclusively by themselves and created by God.
We must find the appropriate balance between respecting individuality and union -- we must make up for giving too much weight to the side of allowing the violation of personal privacy and individuality. I hope we can have both the respect of individual worth, which comes from God’s original plan for the creation of person, and the appropriately timed and desired intimacy and friendship, which comes from God’s eventual choice to create us all from the same person. In the same way, I hope we can find the right balance between God’s original plan for a world of justice, with all the fairness it brings, and the actual world God created, which is one where we eventually learn when it is appropriate to be compassionate and forgive.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום