We wander, God wanders: from Mas’ei to Tish’a beAv

We are at an interesting moment on the Jewish calendar, book-ended between two meaningful dates.  Last Shabbat, we finished parashat Matot-Mas’ei, ending with the magnificent recounting of the Israelite wanderings in the desert.  And immediately after our next Shabbat, we begin the fast of Tisha be’Av, commemorating the destruction of our Temple, among other calamities of the Jewish people.  These observances are connected in a very beautiful, literary way.

The Israelite wanderings enumerated in Mas’ei are presented in a rhythmic, seemingly repetitive text.  The verses below are a sample among their forty-two desert stops:

Numbers 33:17-24

An important literary device here is the insistence on listing the name of the departure point, despite the repetition from the previous sentence.  The Midrash Tanchuma reads love into this repetition, imagining that with each aspect of the journeying – the departure as well as the arrival – we are like a king (ie God) and his son intimately reliving a shared path.  But I read a lot of resistance, anxiety, even annoyance (who likes packing up?!) in this repetition, with the Israelites leaving their camps for yet another round of weary wanderings.

Another list of journeys is presented in the same style, but in very different circumstances.  In the Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 31a, the travels of the Divine Presence, Shekhina, as She leaves the Temple in its destruction are described in ten steps:

Like the text in Numbers, the departure point is repeated before the next stop is given.

The ten stops of the Shekhina’s travels are also enumerated in Midrash, in Pesikta d’Rav Kahana. The passage concludes with a wrenching description of a king (again, a metaphor for God) who, leaving his palace, “kissed its walls, embraced its pillar, and said, “Farewell, my home! Farewell, my palace!”   In the Midrashic accounting, God, too, kisses and embraces the Temple’s walls and pillars as God bids farewell.

excerpt, Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 13:11

Tisha be’Av commemorates a day of the greatest distance between God and the Jewish people.  But might the similar literary structure of these narratives soften our alienation?  As we Israelites journeyed through the desert, our departures might have marked moments of loss, fear, and regret.  As we read of God’s last few tender moments in the soon-to-be-demolished Temple, we can empathize. We appreciate the enormous challenges facing both God and the Jewish people when forced to abandon what was familiar and dear. And despite of our losses, we retain hope of future purpose and redemption.

The God who Counts

In this period of Sefirat HaOmer, the counting of the Omer, it’s interesting to investigate when God counts, too.  Here is a passage from Psalm 147, which appears in the morning liturgy during pesukei deZimra:

תהילים קמ״ז:ד׳  ה׳

מוֹנֶ֣ה מִ֭סְפָּר לַכּוֹכָבִ֑ים לְ֝כֻלָּ֗ם שֵׁמ֥וֹת יִקְרָֽא׃

גָּד֣וֹל אֲדוֹנֵ֣ינוּ וְרַב־כֹּ֑חַ לִ֝תְבוּנָת֗וֹ אֵ֣ין מִסְפָּֽר׃

Psalms 147:4-5

He reckoned the number of the stars; to each He gave its name.

Great is our Lord and full of power; His wisdom is beyond reckoning.

The Hebrew includes a word play that the JPS translation acknowledges with its double use of “reckoning”. God moneh mispar (counts, or apportions a number to) the stars in verse 4, while God’s wisdom is ein mispar (infinite, no number). Counting the stars is prelude to naming them, an act of acknowledgement and engagement.

These two beautiful verses prompted me to design and stitch an embroidery:

God Counts the Stars, 2016, Rachel Braun

blackwork embroidery;  photo: Philip Brookman

The embroidery honors God’s act of naming the stars by giving each of the four stars its own embroidery “name” – a set of distinct patterns in its composition.

            The extension of the act of counting to one of engagement and personal distinction is revealed in its root, ספר , linking the words for counting, סְפִירָה  (sefira)  and number, מִ֭סְפָּר (mispar) to book, סֵפֶר (sefer) and story סיפור (sippur).  Embedded in each of these words is the linking of loose elements into a narrative.   Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785 -1865) even relates these words to the Aramaic word for a nation’s border, sfar, denoting a territorial limit in which a society of individuals becomes connected and intact.[1]

            A more mysterious case of God counting appears in the Jerusalem Talmud,  Berakhot 9:2, in the discussion of the blessing mehayeh hameitim praising God for restoring the dead to life. 

תלמוד ירושלמי ברכות ט׳:ב׳:ט״ז

הָעוֹבֵר בֵּין הַקְּבָרוֹת מַהוּ אוֹמֵר בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ײ֨ מְחַיֵּה הַמֵּתִים. רִבִּי חִייָא בְשֵׁם רִבִּי יוֹחָנָן נֶאֱמָן בִּדְבָרוֹ וּמְחַיֵּה הַמֵּתִים. רִבִּי חִייָא בְשֵׁם רִבִּי יוֹחָנָן הַיּוֹדֵעַ מִסְפַּרְכֶם הוּא יְעוֹרֵר אֶתְכֶם הוּא יְגַלֶּה אֶת הֶעָפָר מֵעַל עֵינֵיכֶם. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ײ֨ מְחַיֵּה הַמֵּתִים. רִבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בְּשֵׁם רִבִּי חֲנִינָא אֲשֶׁר יָצַר אֶתְכֶם בַּדִּין וְכִלְכֵּל אֶתְכֶם בַּדִּין. וְסִילֵּק אֶתְכֶם בַּדִּין. וְעָתִיד לְהַחֲיוֹתְכֶם בַּדִּין. הַיּוֹדֵעַ מִסְפַּרְכֶם הוּא יְגַלֶּה עָפָר מֵעֵינֵיכֶם. בָּרוּךְ מְחַיֵּה הַמֵּתִים:

Jerusalem Talmud Berakhot 9:2:16

What says he who passes between graves? Praised are You, Eternal, Who makes the dead live. Rebbi Ḥiyya in the name of Rebbi Yoḥanan: Who is true to His word and makes the dead live. Rebbi Ḥiyya in the name of Rebbi Yoḥanan: He Who knows your number will wake you up and remove the dust from upon your eyes. Praised are You, Eternal, Who makes the dead live. Rebbi Eleazar in the name of Rebbi Ḥanina: Who created You by judgment, fed you by judgment, and removed you by judgment, He will in the future make you live by judgment. He Who knows your number will remove the dust from upon your eyes. Praised be He Who makes the dead live.

God “knows your (plural) number”!  What an odd phrase.   Yode’a mispar kulkhem implies an intimacy and connection of God to these souls, as the word for knowing,  yode’a , is used in Torah for sexually intimate encounters.  Again, as with the verses from Psalm 147, the initial numbering is followed by an action that is engaged and personal: giving a name, waking the dead, and bringing the resurrection.

          As moderns, we know well that counting is about acknowledging/naming individuals and valuing their part in the story of our county.  The imperative of including all stakeholders in the United States Census, for example (or political efforts to undercut the count of less privileged groups), speaks to the power of a counted community.

          Today is the 15th day, that is two weeks and one day of the Omer, 5782.

[1] Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein, https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/emor-when-just-counting-doesnt-count/ , retrieved May 1, 2022

Just the numbers, please.

Last night we counted 11 days of the Omer – one week and four days.  Counting the Omer from Pesach to Shavuot is one of my favorite mitzvot. Of course, that might just reflect my love of numbers.  You get to pronounce numbers, and there’s even a berakha to start it off! 

A few years ago, I thought I might add meaning to my counting by incorporating companion Omer practices.  A bit of “value-added”, if you will.  For example, one year I bought a book of Jewish parables and read one each night.  Another year, I found a compilation of 49 watercolor sketches of beautiful Israeli flowers and looked at one each day.  One year, I participated in a community Omer blog, adding and reading commentaries. Then I realized that actually, I was really quite pleased with just reciting the berakha and saying the number. That was enough.

There are other mitzvot that give that feel: “I’m going to follow this rule, and that’s enough.” I relish the prohibition of shatnez– the mixing of wool and linen.  When I buy new clothes, I love checking the label.  I got very excited years ago when rayon was introduced and started showing up in wool blends.  Wow! What exactly WAS rayon?  Turns out it’s modified wood cellulose, not linen.  (But do consult your local rav, not me, if you have a question about your own clothing.)   I know that there are interpretations of this mysterious hok.  Perhaps deliberately separating products of vegetation from products of the animal world inspires respect for the order of Creation.  But I just like the idea that we’re commanded not to combine the two materials, so…we don’t.

That sensation reminds me of a loss I felt when our family became pescatarians and reverted to milchig (dairy) dishes. (I’m-not-that-righteous aside: I occasionally cheat and have been known, when shopping at Shalom Kosher Supermarket, to pick up a turkey sandwich and eat it in the car.  I like to say I’m a reverse Conservative Jew – only eat meat when I go out.)  While I liked my new milchigs-only diet, adjusting to it was unexpectedly hard.  Specifically: I missed the sensation you get each morning when you reach into a kitchen cabinet for your cereal bowl, and immediately — first thing in the morning! — you have to make a halakhic decision: milchig bowl or fleishig bowl?  It’s straightforward and it’s required. 

Sure, that doesn’t sound like much of an examined religious life. But I like the simplicity and clarity of this genre of mitzvot – counting Omer, checking shatnez, keeping your dishes straight.

It’s more than that, though, with the Omer.  I wonder if by simply counting the Omer, I’m somehow re-enacting that seven-week journey of yetziat Mitzrayim to matan Torateinu: leaving Egypt to receiving Torah at Sinai.  Like the newly freed Israelites, all we have to do is put one foot after another, march on, one step at a time toward Sinai, one number at a time toward 49. Was it like that for them?

They were, after all, in that calendar period when Sinai loomed ahead and Torah was still not in their hands.  There was no need, yet, to remember to forget Amalek…whatever that means. Not yet necessary to fashion an impossible menorah out of a single block of gold.  No requirement to love the stranger, even though the Egyptian strangers had just enslaved everyone.  No imperative to honor a possibly abusive parent.  No obligation to mindfully NOT favor the rich nor the poor while delivering judgement, even after leaving Egypt in pretty poor straits, themselves. No one had been asked to believe that if you just spare the mother bird, you’ll get to live a long life. 

You just had to make the journey (counting days, taking steps) until you arrive at Sinai.

Counting the Omer when I’m not mindfully tying in some spiritual, ethical, or scholarly practice situates me with the Israelites as they prepare to get Torah: na’aseh venishma (Exodus 24:7): we will do and then we listen.  Unlike the other nations in the accompanying Midrash (Sifre, Deuteronomy piska 343), we don’t ask for a preview of the text.  We just hit the checkmark for “accept terms and conditions”. We’re going to do this now and anticipate that some benefit will accrue later.

And that’s what I like about counting the Omer.

War and Freedom

Passover, 5782

One view of the plagues in Egypt deems them components of warfare between the God of the Hebrews and the gods of Egypt.  For example, the Egyptian god of the Nile was overcome by bloodying its waters, the god of the sun was trounced by days of darkness, etc.  Pharaoh was himself considered divine; his first-born and presumed successor was annihilated in the tenth plague.

Where does that leave ordinary Egyptians? As the G/gods duked it out, was their suffering comparable to civilian deaths and suffering in wartime? This year, as we learn more about the targeting of population centers in Ukraine, the question feels especially urgent.

This is a question of theodicy: was the “collateral damage” justified, or, astonishingly, did God commit a war crime?  Midrash provides one solution, implicating ordinary Egyptians in their woes.  For example, the drowning of Egyptians and their horses at the Red Sea was a kind of payoff.  Members of Pharaoh’s court hid those horses when Moses warned them of the plague of livestock death. With this advance information, they chose to merely protect themselves rather than advocate for the Hebrews. Later, those surviving horses were the only ones available to pursue the fleeing Israelites, resulting in the deaths of the courtiers and horses (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael, Beshallah).  

With regard to the tenth plague, the Midrash highlights the inherent evil of the Egyptian populace.  In some families, four or five sons died, because their adulterous mothers had borne, in succession, the firstborn of many different men (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael, Bo).

This second midrash reads particularly tragically.  It suggests an additional loss sustained by the Egyptian populace – particularly women – the revelation of aspects of their lives thought to be private. While adultery and promiscuity among the Egyptians are not to be condoned, should the emancipation of the Israelites be the pretext for punishing them?

Etgar Keret, the Israeli short story writer, investigates one affected Egyptian family in his tale, Plague of the Firstborn. I propose that you take a moment to read it here , but will summarize it.  The story is told from the point of view of a child, listening as his father tells the family saga to him and his older brother, Abdu.  Before their births, the father departed from Egypt seeking economic security for his family.  He left the boys’ mother with their uncle, but at last was able to return to Egypt to start a family and settle down.  He then made a vow never to separate his family nor to leave Egypt, again.  This dad is a good guy, taking risks for his family, working hard, and pledging his loyalty and all his efforts to them.

Because of this vow, he did not flee with other Egyptians as the plagues began.  The family learned to delouse one another, for example, and to cope with each new plague.  As wailing arises in Egypt on the morning of the tenth plague, the boy and his parents rush to Abdu’s room, finding him laying still in his bed.  They embrace each other and weep, contemplating the cruelty of the Hebrews’ God.  But the mother holds out hope – perhaps this God pitied and spared their son. She stirs her son awake and announces that God is compassionate and has granted them a miracle. Here is the ending:

Father peered straight ahead.  His pain gave way to ill-concealed rage. “The god of the Hebrews harbors neither pity nor compassion towards us,” he fumed. “Only truth.  Only truth.”  His bloodshot eyes were like two hailstones, and his gaze filled me with greater fear than all ten plagues. “Why are you angry,” Mother asked.  “Why do you not rejoice? Our Abdu is alive…” “Because he is not your firstborn,” Father cut her short.  He raised his hand, as if about to strike her, but it froze in midair.  Mother fell at his feet and let loose a sob as of one who has suffered an invisible blow.  Thus did the four of us stand – motionless, steady and transfixed, like a cedar about to be felled.  “Cruel indeed is the god of the Hebrews,” Father said. Then he turned on his heel and left the room.

This startling ending reveals another casualty of wartime: the loss of control over one’s own history and narrative. We are left to imagine the mother’s story. Was she indeed promiscuous, as Rabbi Yishmael would have us believe? Was she raped by her uncle when left alone in his household, then bore and perhaps abandoned a child of bitter experience?  Had she concealed an ill-fated relationship of her youth?  Whatever her unknown past, she had since established a family that was loving and secure.  But now, the autonomy and safety of her secret are stripped from her. And her husband was equally powerless to own his narrative! He raised his hand in anger, then despairingly (though fortunately) let it drop. Whatever their prior successes, intentions, and promises, this family is torn apart by wartime’s relentless path, one that reveals their secrets and undermines their carefully pursued, effective functioning.

The freedom we sought as a people in Egypt was the worship of God.  “Let my people go, that they may serve me”, demands Moses (Exodus 9:1). The struggle to liberate the Israelites from Egypt speaks to the precariousness of another freedom, described by the prophet Micah (4:4).  “Each one shall be seated under their fig tree, and none shall be afraid.”

Four who are as-if dead: Parashat Metzorah

                                    in memory of Dottie Braun z”l on her third yahrzeit, 8 Nisan

This week we read parashat Metzorah, which continues last week’s discussion of laws governing the metzorah (a person with a leprous affliction), along with other individuals in states of tum’ah (“impurity”). In the Babylonian Talmud (BT) Nedarim 64b, the metzorah appears in an unusual list.  We read:

What?!  People in poverty, people with disabilities, people living with disease, people encountering infertility – all deserve compassionate responses, and casting them as dead (h.ashuvin meit) seems antithetical to that. 

More clarity might be attained by identifying what these four categories of people share in common. All four experience some degree of loneliness.  In particular, the metzorah is directed “yeisheiv badad” – to dwell alone (Leviticus 13:46)  These are potent words, exactly how Jerusalem is characterized at the beginning of Lamentations.  (“Aikha! Yashva badad… Alas! Lonely sits the city.”  Lamentations 1:1). The metzorah’s desolation is so acute, she is like a precious city under deadly siege.

To access needed support and empathy, these exemplars of isolation, perhaps unfairly, must bring attention to themselves. Prayer is one vehicle.  Rabbi Elie Kaunfer[1] of Hadar notes that in Hannah’s prayer for a child, she appeals to God as the meimit u’meh.aye, the one who deals death and gives life (Samuel I: 2:6). Hannah herself feels the weight of death in her infertility.

The ani, the poor person, must beg for sustenance, seeking attention from those more fortunate.

The metzorah, too, must announce his predicament (Leviticus 13:6, below).  As he moves about, he cries “Tamei! Tamei! (“Impure! Impure!”). The linear text mark “meteg” separates these two words in the Hebrew (observe below between the second and third last words), so the chanter conveys an urgent, staccato impression. 

Rabbi Shai Held[2] calls this passage one of the most disturbing laws of the Torah.  But he quotes BT Niddah 66a explaining that when the leper announces his pain publicly, the community around him will pray for mercy on his behalf (“ve’rabim ve’rabim mevakshim alav rah.amim”). His pronouncement is not a case of stigma or shame, but rather allows him to seek help and compassion and the well listener to grant it.

Does the blind person also fit the attribute of needing to seek attention in order to obtain moral or material support?  A provocative passage in BT Megillah 24b suggests just that.  The context is a debate among the rabbis as to whether a blind person may recite the berakha, “yotzer ha’meorot”, praising God for fashioning the heavenly luminaries.  In Rabbi Yehuda’s view, the answer is no – if the blind person has not seen the sun and moon, the blessing is not genuine.  (Rabbi Yehuda seems not to consider photosynthesis and tides. Oops.)  A baraita from Rabbi Yosei resolves the matter.  We read:

The blind person attains the help she needs by signaling with a torch. Hence, all four categories of individuals identified as thought-dead in Nedarim are able to avert their deathlike isolation by appealing to the broader community.

Is that satisfying? I’m not so sure.  It has a nice “Speak your truth!” ring to it, but places a particular burden on these sufferers.

Instead, let’s focus on their designation as ones “h.ashuvin meit”, thought of as dead.  Think now of how the community treats our dead, the ones truly isolated.  Surely, they can’t plead for help.  Rather, when someone dies, the Jewish community leaps into action.  We transform ourselves into a state of impurity, via contact with a corpse, to properly wash, dress, and bury them.  Even an unidentified corpse, a meit mitzvah, is treated with respect and with alacrity to see to those needs.

Surely, it is a good idea to seek assistance in challenging situations – seeking sustenance if poor, safe passage if blind, God’s compassion if infertile, and the community’s concern if ill or in isolation. 

Even better is a society organized to anticipate those needs and able to provide without being prompted.  When we are asked, regarding the needy, “h.ashuvin meit” –  to think of them as dead, let that be a signal for action rather than a pretext for disengagement.

[1] Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, “Resurrection Revisited: A Closer Look at the Blessing of Giving Life to the Dead (Session2), Community Scholars Program, January 2022.

[2] Rabbi Shai Held, “Embracing Vulnerability: Teshuvah, Ethics, and the Age of Covid (Elul Derasha)”, High Holiday Derashot, Hadar Institute, August 24, 2020.

Golden Calf… the short and the long of it

This week’s parasha , Ki Tisa, reveals a gaping contrast between impatience and perseverance.  Among its stories are the Golden Calf and the revelation of more names of God.

The Golden Calf is the great, great sin of the Children of Israel.  Yeah, yeah, I know that. But when I became a parent, I developed an understanding of — almost a sympathy for!– the Golden Calf incident.  If you have been a parent, perhaps you remember a moment when you were on the phone, or conversing with a friend, or sending a work email.  This consequently demonstrated to your young child that you really didn’t love them, prompting the child to start howling and demanding attention to abate the terrible abandonment.

Well, that’s how I see the Golden Calf story.

Why?  Moses is at the end of his 40-day stay on the mountain, ignoring the Israelites and busy chatting with God.  The Children (emphasize Children) of Israel are having trouble keeping track of the time (Rashi: there is some ambiguity about whether it was 40 full days and nights or whether Moses would be home by noon), so naturally: they feel unloved!  If Moses and God, in their intimate tete-a-… tete? won’t pay attention to them, by golly, they’ll just devise something else that will.

And the Israelites are actually good observers. In crafting the Calf, they mimic behavior that had been presented to them as praise-worthy. Let’s for a moment ignore Rashi’s warning that the Torah is not necessarily chronological, and refer to a parasha from a few weeks ago, Terumah.  In that Exodus reading, the text extols those who bring gifts for the Mishkan, the desert sanctuary, lauding “kol ish asher yidvenu  libo” – anyone whose heart is moved to bring gifts, including gold!

Note, further, the description of the menorah in the passive voice (Exodus 25:31).  The phrasing (“it shall be made”) contrasts with direct instructions about building the rest of the Mishkan.  And so, we have Rashi’s commentary that the menorah, elaborately hammered from one piece of gold, was divinely fashioned.  Rashi relates that God tells Moses to just throw the gold into the furnace, and the menorah would be made on its own.  Hmm…sounds a lot like Aaron’s defense of the Golden Calf: “They gave it to me and I hurled it into the fire and out came this calf! (Exodus 32:24)”.

The context for the Golden Calf, assembled with community gold and magically pulled out of the fire, might look familiar to the very immature, recently very threatened, lonely-for-Moses, and not particularly discerning Israelites — even praiseworthy!  The Golden Calf is the outcome of people who have difficulty seeing beyond their immediate needs and easily sensing abandonment.

God is not like that.  (And didn’t like that.)  God has a long view.  Well, at least ultimately…first Moses had to talk God out of destroying those nasty, impatient Children (Exodus 25:12 – classic “mah yomru hagoyim” reasoning).

Let’s turn now to how God introduces Godself within some of the passages in Ki Tisa and elsewhere in Exodus.

When, at the Burning Bush (Exodus 3), Moses asked God God’s name, God shared “Ehyeh asher ehyeh” – which I think is best translated as “I will be what I will be”.  Yoram Hazony in his book “The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture” is especially partial to the focus on the future tense; he claims that translations that speak to the present tense such as “I am what I am” rely too much on Greek translations of the verse.

In our parasha, God shares other names too, and these are forward-looking as well. God self-describes (Exodus 33:19) as “vehanoti et asher ahon” (I will grant grace to whom I grant grace) and “verihamti et asher arahem” (I will have mercy on whom I have mercy).  Hazony connects these names to the Divine Name, “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh” given earlier.  These introductions have a similar structure, and remarkably, complete identify the Named One with a future Self.  The restless God of Creation still perceives Godself as doing and becoming.

In contrast to the Children of Israel, a God with these names is patient, forward-seeking.

What if the Israelites had taken the long view? 

And can we still, in our day, mimic God by committing ourselves, identifying ourselves, with our evolving future beings?  As people who are always becoming rather than always reacting?  What a better path.

Unlikely Protagonists

This week’s parasha, Vayeh.i, includes the tale of Jacob’s death and burial (Genesis 50).  He has exacted a promise to be buried in the Cave of Machpelah in the Land of Israel.  But in the Midrash, when his sons arrive there from Egypt with his body, they encounter an unexpected complication: the presence of Esau and his demands.

The story

The Babylonian Talmud Sotah 13a: 6-11 , is long but a good read (the bolded words are the words of the original text, regular type indicates text for understanding filled in by Sefaria):


Once they reached the Cave of Machpelah, Esau came and was preventing them from burying Jacob there. He said to them: It says: “And Jacob came unto Isaac his father to Mamre, to Kiryat Arba, the same is Hebron, where Abraham and Isaac sojourned” (Genesis 35:27). And Rabbi Yitzḥak says: It is called Kiryat Arba because there were four couples buried there: Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah. Esau said: Jacob buried Leah in his spot, and the spot that is remaining is mine.

The children of Jacob said to Esau: You sold your rights to Jacob. Esau said to them: Though I sold the birthright, did I also sell my rights to the burial site as an ordinary brother? The brothers said to him: Yes, you also sold to Jacob those rights, as it is written that Joseph stated: “My father made me swear, saying: Behold, I die; in my grave that I have dug [kariti] for me in the land of Canaan, there shall you bury me” (Genesis 50:5). And Rabbi Yoḥanan says in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yehotzadak: The word kira in the verse is nothing other than a term of a sale [mekhira] sharing a similar root, because in the cities overseas they call a sale kira.

Esau said to them: Bring the bill of sale to me, i.e., you can’t prove your claims. They said to him: The bill of sale is in the land of Egypt. They said: And who will go to bring it? Naphtali will go, for he is as fast as a doe, as it is written: “Naphtali is a doe let loose, he gives goodly words” (Genesis 49:21). Rabbi Abbahu says: Do not read it as “goodly words [imrei shafer]”; rather, read it as imrei sefer, i.e., the words of the book, as he returned to Egypt to retrieve the bill of sale.

            (Note that twice we have seen clever Talmudic wordplay to carry forth the tale.)

The Gemara relates: Hushim, the son of Dan, was there and his ears were heavy, i.e., he was hard of hearing. He said to them: What is this that is delaying the burial? And they said to him: This one, Esau, is preventing us from burying Jacob until Naphtali comes back from the land of Egypt with the bill of sale. He said to them: And until Naphtali comes back from the land of Egypt will our father’s father lie in degradation? He took a club [kulepa] and hit Esau on the head, and Esau’s eyes fell out and they fell on the legs of Jacob. Jacob opened his eyes and smiled. And this is that which is written: “The righteous shall rejoice when he sees the vengeance; he shall wash his feet in the blood of the wicked” (Psalms 58:11).

At that moment the prophecy of Rebecca was fulfilled, as it is written that Rebecca said of Jacob and Esau: “Why should I be bereaved of you both in one day?” (Genesis 27:45), as Rebecca foresaw that the future bereavement for both her sons would be on the same day. The Gemara comments: And although their deaths were not on the same day, in any event their burials were on the same day, as Esau was killed and buried on the same day that Jacob was buried.


Note an essential function of Midrash here.  The story fills in the blanks on three seemingly disconnected and possibly ambiguous texts:  the blessing Jacob gives to Naphtali, identifying him as a doe; a line from Psalms that refers to blood at one’s feet; Rebecca’s seemingly unfulfilled lament that she will lose both sons in one day.

Two characteristics stand out for me in this Talmudic text.

The role of the disabled person

Hushim is essential to getting his grandfather rightfully buried. He is initially confused, too hearing-impaired to follow a surely rapid, clamorous argument between Jacob’s sons and Esau.  But Hushim is concerned with bizayon, the degradation of Jacob’s body with a prolonged wait for burial.  A man of action, he decisively removes Esau’s threat, fulfilling the Psalm’s prediction that the righteous (Jacob) will wash his feet in the blood of the wicked (Esau).

A more peaceful resolution would have been achieved by waiting for Naphtali’s return from Egypt with the bill of sale, perhaps mitigating the inappropriate treatment Jacob’s body.  But in this story, the Rabbis of the Talmud allow the disabled person’s experience to inform his fateful actions.  Hushim lives in a world where words, so many of which he misses, are not essential.  Hushim has little patience for wordy negotiations, and he knows how bodily failures easily result in disrespect.  He becomes the hero of the tale.

A nod to Rebecca

Rebecca’s fear of losing both sons is validated.  Her original remark is not treated as a case of overwrought emotion or even hysteria, though that might have been easy for the Rabbis to label.  Rather, Rebecca, who has singularly shaped the future of the Jewish people by assisting Jacob in his pursuit of the birthright, again shows her provenance in predicting the unfolding of Jewish history.  As with Hushim, the Talmudic description of her role gives me pause.  Esau is still her son, and her vision of their simultaneous burials remains her secret until revealed here. But the Midrash again establishes her agency in envisioning the future course of the people Israel.

What a provocative tale for this week’s reading! Unconnected texts are shown to align, and unlikely protagonists are acknowledged and move the plot.  All talents are needed to tend our history forward.

Is it time to cut Esau a break? Some comments on Genesis 25

I’m quite glad that Esau is not my ancestor.  (I’m not thrilled with Jacob’s manipulation and self-pity, either, but he was the better one in the bargain.)  But was Esau really evil?  Did Esau’s missteps render him worthy of being considered the ancestor of Rome (Esther Rabba 3:5)? I think not. With a bit of generosity, it’s even possible to be sympathetic to Esau.  But certainly, it’s imperative to distinguish between “flawed” and “evil”.

Esau and Jacob were born into a Biblical narrative that, starting with Cain and Abel, emphasizes favorite sons, with lesser sons actively decried or even banished.  With his taste for game, Isaac favored Esau (Genesis 25:28), and indeed, Esau’s hunting life provides the pretext for the eventual sale of his birthright. Arriving home famished from an exhausting hunt, Esau declares that he is ready to die (Genesis 25:32).  The text claims that Esau “spurned” his birthright (Genesis 25:34), but no criticism is levied at Jacob’s failure to feed Esau out of brotherly concern. The birthright to the Jewish people includes a culture that admonishes us to feed the hungry (eg  Isaiah 58:10); by his actions, Jacob is the one who spurned this birthright!

Esau is immature, focused on immediate gratification.  Or perhaps he just has a problem with low blood sugar that interferes with his rational decision-making.  I can imagine a student in my Calculus class who is sensitive to food intake.  Student Support Services may call over to ask me for flexibility with my “no food in class” rule – taking a test right before lunch will make it especially hard for him to concentrate.  Would I be lenient with the rule?  Of course.  I’m testing knowledge of calculus, not the student’s brain chemistry.

Esau is given no such consideration. Would I label my student evil, equivalent to the progenitor of Rome?  Of course not!  Yet midrashically, that’s just what happens to Esau.  When Rebecca feels her twins struggle in her womb (Genesis 25:22),  Bereishit Rabba 63:6 provides a tortured explanation.  Jacob moved whenever she passed a synagogue, eager to pray, while Esau squirmed when she passed a place of idol worship.  That road definitely leads to Rome. 

Moreover, making a bad choice due to fear of death is well-established in Patriarchal culture.  Both Abraham and Isaac, fearing death, passed their wives off to Avimelekh and to Pharoah. Tradition cuts them a break. In his famished state, Esau overdramatically fears death, but his decision to sell his birthright is not as easily undone as Abraham and Isaac taking back their wives. No fair. (Also no fair to Sarah and to Rebecca, but that’s another drash….)

Later (Genesis 26:34-35), Esau chooses a Hittite wife –ironically named “Yehudit” — but eventually realizes that the choice has displeased his father.  To curry his parents’ favor, he marries an Ishmaelite woman, Mahalat. His belated desire to please his parents demonstrates some core goodness; his earlier oblivion to their social cues again reveals a deficit in his reasoning but still, not evil in his heart.  After all, even Jacob needed to be told explicitly not take a wife from among the daughters of Canaan (Genesis 28:1).

Finally, in Parashat Vayishlach, we see the brothers reunite.  Esau, ever unaware of his presentation, arrives with 400 men.  He is socially successfully, finally, with a cadre of followers.  I can picture him calling to them in giddy excitement, “Hey gang, line up!  We’re gonna meet my brother!”  Jacob, naturally, sees the arrival of a corps of 400 men as threatening, preparing for the encounter by lining up his entourage with his favorite family members safely tucked in the rear. 

It’s possible to read the stories of these brothers with greater sympathy to Esau – a man seemingly desirous of approval, but immune to social conventions, unaware of how he presents, and in poor control of his hunger pains. Not ancestor material for the Jewish people.  But also….. not evil.

Are we quick to label others evil?  An apt question for 2021.