Monday, December 22, 2008

Vayeshev (Zohar)

Due to circumstances beyond my control, I was unable to present a Zohar selection this week. Instead, I present here some miscellaneous thoughts, both on the parashah and related to issues of the day. For more teachings on the parashah, and on Hanukkah, see the archives to the blog at Decemeber 2005.

The Land is Burning

This past week’s parashah contains some the most violent and unpleasant incidents in the Tanakh, exposing many of the less pleasant sides of human nature—from male hypocrisy and denial of responsibility; through uncontrollable lust whose frustration is followed by malicious, spiteful libel; ending in the arbitrary whims of the high and mighty and ingratitude. But the opening scene, of fraternal hatred and violence, is perhaps most emblematic of all. Strife between brothers, ending in real or potential bloodshed, is a leitmotif throughout the book of Bereshit (Genesis), beginning with Cain and Abel, reappearing in the conflict between Esau and Jacob, and reaching its climax in this week’s parashah, with the story Joseph and his brothers. What is most striking is the petty background for these quarrels—a long-forgotten, trivial exchange in a field; a bowl of lentils; a striped robe—all of which symbolize much deeper, life-long struggles: for love, for parental affection, for that elusive thing called a birthright; or perhaps visceral repulsion from someone’s personality—a spoiled little brother who “puts on airs,” who’s not “one of the guys,” who’s “too clever for his own good.”….

But in this essay I will not engage in textual analysis or in-depth midrash. Over the years I have written much about inner spiritual matters—this year’s topic is doubtless particularly esoteric—and will continue to do so, and only rarely have I commented on actual political events and public affairs. But at this moment I feel that such detachment is a luxury I cannot allow myself. Troubling things are happening here in Israel, and I must bear my heart.

I hardly know where to start. Two weeks ago violence between Jewish settlers and local Arabs seems to have taken a new turn, when settlers in Hebron, in reaction to a court order requiring them to evacuate a certain unlawfully occupied house, turned their wrath against local Arabs: beating, looting, destroying property, breaking storefronts and smashing cars belonging to Arabs—in brief, actions that, if committed by Gentiles against Jews, would be called a pogrom, or simple fascism.

In terms of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Tahadiya, the six-month cease fire between Israel and the Hamas regime in Gaza, has come to an end, and in recent days rockets have again landed in Sederot and other nearby towns, and there are many voices saying that a full-scale military operation on the part of Israel is almost inevitable.

The political scene is also dismaying. The coming Knesset elections promise nothing but more of the same—or worse. Moshe Feiglin, and his militant ultra-right-wing “Jewish Leadership” faction within Likud, won a surprisingly large number of votes in that party’s internal elections. Netanyahu utilized certain technical manipulations to minimize the damage to the “moderate” image of the party mainstream—but what is significant is that such ideas enjoy increasing popularity. There is a feeling of despair in the political system on the part of many, and this is understandable: a peaceful solution, based on reconciliation with the Palestinians, seem more distant than ever. The solutions offered by the Right—which play more on fear, xenophobia, and ethnocentricity than on more positive emotions—speak to many.

I would add that the coming elections seem to mark the further decline, if not demise, of several political movements which, for me, represent the best Zionism has to offer. I was raised on the ideals of Labor Zionism—of Mapai and other democratic-socialist parties that drew much of their inspiration and strength from the kibbutz movement. That movement seems to have died a slow death, both in terms of electoral strength and in terms of ideology. Avodah has long since abandoned both the labor-socialist vision and the active pursuit of peace. The ideology of the so-called Left is a combination of bithonism—a focus on security and a strong military to the exclusion of almost all else; American-style unfettered capitalism (whose literal bankruptcy was revealed by the recent economic crisis); and a penchant for retired generals as leaders.

As a religious Jew, I have long been distressed by the decline of old-style Religious Zionism, which at one time combined a commitment to Torah with a tolerant approach to other Jews and a moderate political platform. This election officially seals the transformation of Mafdal (the National Religious Party) into an uncompromising, ultra-nationalist party somewhere to the right of Likud, with its merger with various other Right-wing parties. Similarly, Meimad, which originated in 1988 (and in whose founding, I am proud to say, I took some part) as a moderate alternative to the NRP, is foundering.

Add to that gangland assassinations in the streets of our cities, with gangsters treated by the media as romantic celebrities (just like in the movies!) rather than as the lowlifes that they are; and tragic traffic accidents rooted in a macho driving culture. A particularly shocking example occurred this past week, when 24 Russian tourists were killed when their bus driver attempted to pass another bus on a hairpin desert curve while going too fast; it turned out that he had a long record of driver violations , which was apparently dismissed with a shrug of the shoulders. Why he was still allowed on the road as a “professional” driver responsible for the lives of others is a mystery.

The common denominator of all these phenomena, as I see it, is a certain acceptance of violence, and the root of this evil—even if it started as a necessity—lies in our ruling another people by force for more than four decades. To reiterate an idea I’ve written in the past: one of the basic causes lies in a certain paradox, or dialectic, innate in Zionist thought. Zionism sought to create a “new Jew,” a culture of men one who knew how to fight, how to stand up and defend themselves. The Galut Jew was rejected as weak, effeminate, powerless; the tzabar was meant to embody more positive, healthy, “normal” qualities. All this was doubtless necessary for the creation of a new nation, especially in as hostile an environment as the Middle East is. But along the way we seem to have lost the abhorrence of violence that was a deeply-rooted part of the Jewish ethos, and the belief that violence is never more than a necessary evil, to be avoided except when absolutely necessary. Moreover, all this has been accomplished many, many times over. To be sure, Israel, must maintain military readiness and superiority against its potential enemies—but along the way we seem to have forgotten how to make peace, and how to perceive that, just as we are frightened and threatened by Arab violence, so are the Arabs threatened and frightened by us. We are caught in a negative cycle from which neither side can break out alone.

In January 1995 I heard a lecture on this subject by none other than the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, at the launching of a forum in memory of Noam Cohen. He began by citing Von Clausewitz’s theory of war, which taught that power is not an end in itself, but a means for accomplishing long-range strategic goals. For Israel, this is, most importantly, the attainment of peace; through awareness of our military might, our neighbor’s will come to understand that we are here to stay. I would continue from that point by saying that, what Israel most needs at this point in our history is not ever-more expensive and sophisticated weapons of attack or defense, but to learn how to make peace. Of course, everyone says that they want peace, but “there’s no partner” and “the time isn’t yet ripe” (after 41 years of occupation!)—but one gets the feeling that this is often not much more than lip service, something to play with indefinitely, knowing that it won’t result in any need to make real concessions—and meanwhile Abu Mazen is such a nice, polite gentleman to talk with. But time is against us; things will only get worse. What is needed is a genuine attempt to build reconciliation, and to ask ourselves, collectively: what can be done to change the atmosphere, little by little, and to make the Palestinians—yes, even the Islamic fundamentalists—into partners in building a modus vivendi in which both peoples can live reasonable lives?

I wrote about some of these issues some months ago in a lengthy essay published here as a supplement to Noah, but I fear I may have lost many readers with the rambling style and lengthy digressions about Arthur Koestler, Hiroshima, and the exposition of various midrashim, etc. So let me reiterate in simple, direct, straightforward fashion the essence of what I wished to say there:

The world is in grave danger. There is a serious crisis of the environment, of global warming, of a world-wide ecological upheaval. But in addition to the gravity of this situation in its own right, it also poses a serious threat of war and conflicts. If millions of people are displaced from their homes by climate changes and disasters, flooding, drought, etc., that will surely exacerbate situation. Humankind, if it is to survive at all, must learn how to resolve its problems in new ways. If the people Israel has a mission in the world, it is surely not to be belligerent and strong, nor even to “do teshuvah” in a purely theocentric, “vertical” way by becoming pious Jews and Torah students, but rather to learn and teach new ways of solving conflicts. Perhaps—thus I found myself musing—Divine Providence has returned us to our ancient homeland in this unexpectedly difficult situation, renewing our sovereignty and facilitating the ingathering of exiles, not to set the stage for apocalyptic pyrotechnics in a war between the “good guys” and the “bad guys,” but to teach us, and the world, a far deeper lesson, to present us with the ultimate ethical test: how to “seek peace and pursue it”—and to persist in this path despite seeming intransigence and unreasonable demands on the other side. (a “heretical” thought: might it be that we appear intransigent to them?).

Last week a gathering was held at the Yedidiah Synagogue in protest against the sort of attitudes found within the religious camp—“our own children,” at least in the collective sense—represented by the trashing and rioting directed at Arabs. Among others speakers, Uriel Simon spoke with particular eloquence. As a bible scholar, he started with Cain and Abel, repeating some of the things that I attempted to quote from memory in my “Aggression” article (HY X: Noah), but more movingly (and, of course, the things are now fresher in my memory).

In essence, he said, the problem is not political, nor of “extremist fringe-elements” within the religious camp, but of a basic human tendency, old as Cain’s fratricide, that needs to be recognized, harnassed, and curbed: the attraction of violence as an easy solution to problems. In this respect, the story of Kain (and of Jacob and Esau, and of Joseph and his brethren) are archetypical, paradigms of human life in every place and time.

What, then, is so attractive about violence (and, as an aside, this may also explain the great popularity, on the sublimated level of entertainment, of movies, TV series, and mystery novels dealing with murder)?

First, it promises quick results, a simple solution to problems: kill your enemy and he is gone (as in the slogans “Kill the Arabs”; “Bomb Iran”; etc.).

Second, in violence one can ignore the long-term results of one’s actions, because one isn’t looking beyond the immediate future. It’s like a chess player who only sees one or two steps ahead, not five or ten. But this is the root of the problem: that in real life, acts have consequences. Even after a war, in which thousands or tens of thousands of the enemy are killed, there is still a situation to be dealt with—and more likely than not it’s no better than the one that precipitated the war, if only because the survivors on the other side are now filled with anger and hatred and the desire to extract vengeance from the “victorious” side. By the way: can anyone list any positive results of the Second Lebanon War?

Third, the dehumanization of the Other. In violence, one doesn’t have to relate to the other as a human being, with feelings, with an ordinary life, with wife and children and family, with life projects; he is simply “the enemy.” To paraphrase Milan Kundera: there is an unbearable lightness to acts of destruction. One ought to contemplate the hundreds, thousands, perhaps millions of hours of human labor that went into building a single square block in a bombed city: the human investment, in the raising and education and perhaps professional training of the people who lived there; the thought and skill and energy that went into the physical objects destroyed—the houses, the furnishings and decorations in each whom, the books—all of which may, perhaps, be destroyed in a fraction of a second. How can people who consider themselves even remotely civilized perform such an act?

Simon added that the current fascination with violence in certain circles (such as those in Hebron) reflects a profound alienation, of dissociation, not only from the Arab as Other, but from secular Israeli life. In certain hitherto Zionist religious circles, one can find today a categorical rejection of the state, expressed in language reminiscent of Neturei Karta, and with it a rejection of any non-religious, “peoplehood–civilization–cultural definition of Jewish identity that might provide a sense of common ground with those who do not accept Torah in traditional ways. There is also a rejection of cautiousness, of self-restraint (a traditional Jewish value—what are all the “thou shalt not”s of the Torah if not lessons in self-restraint and moderation?); those who are not “spontaneous” are seen as weak and freier. Finally, said Simon, there is an alienation from the intellect itself, from common sense, from reason.

But this discussion is not intended to criticize any particular ideological party or group of people. Rather, remembering that the Torah speaks to all people, in all places and all times, it is to impress upon ourselves the power and fatal attraction of violence for all people. Kain is Everyman; there’s a little bit of Simon, of Levi, of Yehudah, in each of us. All the more reason to be cautious of the seductive power and sweet illusions presented by violence.

And, one concluding note: there are many intelligent and moderate and even ethical-thinking people who accept it as axiomatic that Hamas is “beyond the pale,” part of the “axis of evil,” and certainly not people one could talk to. But does not the Torah say, unequivocally, that before waging war against a city one must “call to it for peace” (Deut 20:10 ff.)? Who knows? Perhaps if we sat down and talked, even with them, we might be pleasantly surprised.

NOAH Postscript: Onanism

We now turn to a totally different subject. Some weeks ago, we discussed a Zohar passage on Parashat Noah in which the sin of the Generation of the Flood is identified as masturbation. I remarked there that, when halakhic sources say that this sin is “more serious than any other sin in the Torah,” they are engaging in hyperbole, and that “Torah here is presumably being used in the broader sense of Jewish tradition generally, as there is no biblical verse that specifically prohibits it, notwithstanding the incident of Onan.” One reader responded:

What do you mean “notwithstanding… Onan”? I thought that is the basis for regarding this as a sin de-oraita. My 12-year-old grandson was recently taught this in his “modern-Orthodox” yeshiva and came away greatly disturbed, probably because he realizes that he will never be able to be a truly observant Jew. Needless to say, this disturbs me as well.

Since the incident involving Onan, who “spilled his seed on the ground,” appears in this week’s parashah, as part of the narrative of Tamar and Judah, I shall bring here my response. I wrote then, among other things (with some additions):

Your letter raises an important issue, both in terms of halakhic substance, and that of educational policy—that is, how and whether to teach this prohibition to young children, or to perhaps treat it with “studied neglect.” Torah Temimah on Gen 38:8-9 states that… at times the Talmud uses the phrase hayyav mitah [a person is culpable of the death penalty] when referring to a Rabbinic prohibition, in order to bolster its importance. This clearly seems to be the case here.

Indeed, he cites there various Talmudic passages (all aggadic)—Yevamot 34b and Niddah 13b—which state that Onan was killed because of this sin and that, by inference, whoever “spills his seed in vain” is likewise culpable. But nowhere in the Torah is there a direct statement that it is forbidden to do so, in the same explicit manner in which the Torah presents other prohibitions, such as the sexual rules enumerated in Lev 18, or those of kashrut in Lev 11. In fact, to the best of my knowledge masturbation is not listed as one of the 365 lavim (negative commandments) by any of the “enumerators of the mitzvot,” such as Rambam’s Sefer ha-Mitzvot, Ramban’s glosses on the same, or Sefer Ha-Hinukh. Hence, one is forced to the conclusion that the Onan story is invoked in this regard as an asmakhta be-alma, that is, a verse invoked in support of a certain concept, but not a legal source per se. Indeed, the entry on this subject in Encyclopedia Talmudit (s.v. הוצאת זרע לבטלה) invokes as the biblical source Isaiah 1:15, “… your hands are filled with blood” (i.e., one who masturbates so to speak spills the blood of his future potential children and other descendants). Needless to say, this is a highly metaphorical and non-peshat reading of the verse. …

Incidentally, the act committed by Onan was not what has come to be called “onanism,” but rather coitus interruptus, which only by a great stretch might be described as “intra-vaginal masturbation.” But the real point of the story seems to be that he did so in order to avoid yibbum—an act which the Kabbalah sees as particularly important in that it enables his dead brother’s soul to be reborn….

As for your grandson’s question, my reasoning goes something like this: if the urge to masturbate is so strong that he feels he cannot control it, then his act will fall under the category of שוגג קרוב לאונס: that is, an act that is not fully volitional, but performed as a result of coercion, albeit in this case the coercion is not external, but originates from within—and I believe God will surely forgive him (I leave it to you to translate this into 12-year-old language). I also think that one may invoke in this case the principle used by the Sages elsewhere, טוב שיהיו שוגגין ולא יהיו מזידין (“it is better that they perform a violation out of ignorance and not deliberately”): that is, that in a case where it seems unlikely that those addressed will in fact successfully observe a certain law, it is better to keep one’s silence, for otherwise one risks their seeing the halakhah generally as irrelevant, or lacking in human understanding.

In a letter to some scholarly friends, I added:

The more I examine this issue, the curioser it gets. The phrase in Shulhan Arukh (Even ha-Ezer 23), עוון זה חמור מכל האסורים שבתורה, if read carefully, means that it’s stricter than any Torah prohibition, but that it is itself not necessarily from the Torah at all! Nor is it a “regular” Rabbinic prohibition, in the sense of גזרו א' אתו ב, nor does it specifically state that they made a gezerah unconnected from the danger of any other transgression. Like התרת נדרים, the whole thing is suspended in midair, without any formal halakhic basis at all! It's pure aggadah! The Sages thought it wasn’t a nice thing to do, period.

Also, the first reference in Shulhan Arukh, Even ha-Ezer 23 cites Beraita Niddah and Zohar, neither of which is ordinarily a proper legal source. As Daniel Sperber demonstrates in his book on women’s aliyot [forthcoming in English by JOFA], Beraita de-Niddah is in fact a source of probably Karaite provenance, erroneously accepted for centuries as a source for all kinds of humrot (strictures) regarding women.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Vayishlah (Zohar) + M. Rosen Eulogy

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to the blog, at December 2005.

The Power of Thought

This week’s parasha includes two ugly sexual incidents: the rape of Dinah followed by the massacre of Shechem committed by the brothers in revenge; and Reuven’s lying with his father’s concubine Bilhah. In discussing the latter incident—which both the Talmud and the Zohar interpret as not having literally happened, but as a metaphor for something else—reference is made to various other sexual indiscretions throughout biblical history (e.g. that of the sons of Eli at Shiloh; David’s sin with Bathsheba [in the Talmud]); the Zohar then turns to the conception of Reuven himself. Zohar I:176b:

Come and see: Blessed be the name of the blessed Holy One forever and ever, for all His acts are true, His way just [a conflation of Daniel 2:20; 4:34], and everything He does accords with supernal wisdom. Come and see how decisive human action is! For everything a person does is inscribed enduringly before the blessed Holy One. Look! When Jacob entered into Leah, all that night his heart’s desire focused on Rachel, since he thought she was Rachel. From that conjugal union, from that first drop, from that desire, Leah conceived, as they [i.e, the Rabbinic midrashic tradition] have established. For if Jacob had not been unaware, Reuben would not have attained the count. So he didn’t attain a recognized name, but rather an unspecified name: ראו בן—Re’u ven: “See, a son!” Nevertheless, the action returned to its site. Just as the original desire was enacted for Rachel, that desire reverted to her, for the birthright reverted to Joseph, Rachel’s firstborn. The site of desire was Rachel, and all ascends to its site, since all acts of the blessed Holy One are entirely true and just.

translation from Daniel Matt, The Zohar, Pritzker Edition, III. 65

The moment of Reuben’s conception, Yaakov’s wedding night with Rachel, involved an interesting problem: the halakhah states that a man may not sleep with one woman while thinking/fantasizing about another—even if the latter is also his lawfully wedded life (and all the more so, one might add in our culture, if she is a former paramour, or a media sex-symbol; there is an obvious element of bad faith, insult and even abuse of the woman for the man to imagine he is with someone else while connecting with her bodily).

Offhand, Ya’akov clearly did just that—his heart had been attached to Rachel for seven long years, and during that time he had no doubt anticipated spending this night with her. But that his thoughts were not on Leah, the woman he was with, was no fault of his own; rather, it was due to the act of deceit played on him. Hence, because he did not know what was happening in fact, he committed no sin, and the fetus conceived from that night was without blemish.

The underlying assumption here is that the thoughts each of the partners have during sex exert a spiritual influence on the nature of the fetus. This is already implied in the Talmudic sugya about various improper activities within the marital bed (b. Nedarim 20b)—e.g., having relations while one or another partner is drunk, or sleeping, or unwilling (i.e., marital rape), or angry with the other, or “divorced in one’s heart,” or if one engages in sex out of fear or coercion. That passage is based on a verse from Ezekiel 20:38, interpreted to mean that the offspring of such union will be morally defective (“those who rebel and sin against me”) if one does any of these things.

This idea gains even greater importance in the Zohar and in later Kabbalah. The basic idea of the importance of the thoughts one has during sex is rooted in a conception of the human being as a psycho-somatic unity. Sex is not conceived merely as a biological act uniting genetic material, as in modern scientific, empirical thought. Nor is it only an act of mutual pleasuring and expression of love between the couple in the present—although these are clearly desirable. Rather, the conception is more spiritual: sex is the means of “bringing down” souls from the World of Souls to this corporeal world. It is for that reason that the thoughts one has are so crucial.

The Zohar‘s attitude to sexuality is that unity and harmony between man and woman is the highest ideal, a precondition for attaining holiness, for the Shekhinah residing among human beings. Improper sex acts or masturbation, on the one hand, and celibacy, on the other, are equally violations of this idea, and both of them banish the Shekhinah. Indeed, on the previous page (in a passage I could not bring here due to lack of space), the Zohar states that Jacob knew which of his wives or concubines to sleep with on a given night because he saw the Shekhinah on that bed.

Two more points to be noted here, specifically, about Reuven. First, that the various midrashic sources are in agreement that Reuven was conceived from the ”first drop” of Yaakov’s seed—not only from his first act of intercourse, but that he never even had a nocturnal emission until then. Thus, the phrase ראשית אוני, “the beginning of my vigor/ potency,” in Yaakov’s blessing in Gen 49: 3, is read hyper-literally (see, e.g., Gen Rab. 98.4; b. Yavamot 76a; Rashi at Gen 49:3; and elsewhere). Second, there is a certain ambiguity here about Reuven’s identity: he was conceived and carried by Leah, and indeed, thought of her as his mother in every respect (note his helping her with the business of the mandrakes in Gen 30:14); but Yaakov’s thoughts at the moment of his conception were of Rachel. Thus, in some sense he spiritually, metaphysically, belonged to the latter. Hence, the name Reuven as read as Re’u ven: “See, a son.” Almost all of the children were given names indicating that their birth somehow vindicated their mother in the competition between the two sisters, in which each child born was chalked up to one side or another (see Gen 29:32-35; 30:6-8, 11-13, 18-20, 23-24); but he, Reuven, is in this reading simply a son.


A Man of Prayer: A Tribute to Mickey Rosen

When I moved out of the Emek Refaim neighborhood a little over six months ago, I had planned to write an essay “After Ten Years,” about various aspects of the milieu I was leaving; a large part of which was Yakar, the synagogue and religious-cultural-study community to which I belonged. But somehow, there were a myriad of other concerns, and I kept putting it off. But now events have caught up with me. Two and a half weeks Rabbi Mickey Rosen, the founder and moving spirit behind Yakar, collapsed, and this past Sunday night, 11 Kislev (December 7th), died. The following are some thoughts about the man and his life-project.

Rav Soloveitchik used to say that, whenever someone dies, we suddenly realize how little we know about him; applying the verse, “from afar I saw God,” to the mystery of human personality, he commented that, when someone dies, a person whom we might have seen and met regularly, perhaps every week or even every day and whom we thought we knew, suddenly becomes an enigma. All the more so a leader, a creative personality, one who so clearly forged his own path and bucked the conventional path, as Mickey Rosen. Who was he? And am I at all capable of conveying the wonder that was this man?

Perhaps we should start with the simple fact that, to everyone in the community, he was simply “Mickey”; he never stood on ceremony or asked to be called “rabbi.” He had a deep sense of modesty, that turned the focus away from his own role, standing, and authority, to the goal—the quest for God and knowledge of Torah. Another sign of his modesty, that I discovered while preparing this eulogy, is that a Google search under various possible names failed to turn up a single photograph of him on the internet.

I have entitled this essay “a man of prayer” because prayer was a central part of whom he was. Under his leadership, a special style of prayer was developed within the Yakar community. People sometimes think of Yakar as a “Carlebach minyan.” While Shlomo’s niggunim certainly played a role there (and Shlomo himself taught regularly at Yakar during the last years of his life), the davening there was not simply a string of “happy-clappy” or upbeat songs. Rather, music served as an avenue towards creating a meditative mode that prepared the soul for the act of prayer. Mickey was deeply concerned with the sincerity and authenticity of prayer at Yakar. When he led the davening, he tried with all his being not to strike a false note, steering a path between the Scylla of superficial enthusiasm and the Charybdis of either rote reading of the words or cloying sentimentality. The essence of prayer, for him, was not so much beseeching God for one’s needs, nor praise and extolling God as such. More than anything else, it was the yearning for communion, the quest for God’s presence.

Early on—perhaps the second or third year that I davened at Yakar, when I was just beginning to join the roster of those who led the Shabbat morning prayer—Mickey took me aside and said to me that I was beginning to understand the most essential thing: that the role of the shaliah tzibbur is not to impress others with his vocal power or musical virtuosity, but to lead the community. Needless to say, this vision is diametrically opposed to the usual notion of the cantor as a kind of sacred performer, with a good voice, a broad repertoire of compositions, and an ability to execute difficult compositions. To Mickey, the best hazan was the one who left behind his ego, and davened with simplicity and a whole heart, and was focused on taking the congregation with him.

The night after Mickey fell ill three weeks ago, on a Thursday evening, there was a prayer session at Yakar dedicated to his recovery. Such occasions usually involve the simple recitation of Tehillim aloud. Here, the reading of Psalms, led in turn by his three sons, alternated with the singing of many of the slow, meditative melodies he so loved. I saw in this a kind of tribute to him, and an impressive demonstration of the religious culture of the community he had created. There were, among others, Nishmat kol hay (“the soul of every living thing praises Your name”), which Mickey led every Shabbat morning; Yedid Nefesh; and Peli’ah da’at memeni, from Psalm 139:6ff.—possibly his favorite biblical text, which I think of as a kind of motto reflecting his path (these words are also inscribed in relief on the ceiling molding of the prayer room at Yakar):

It is beyond my knowledge/ It is a mystery; I cannot fathom it/ Where can I escape from Your spirit?/ Where can I flee from Your presence?/ If I ascend to heaven, You are there/ If I descend to Sheol, You are there too!

Mickey was interested in Hasidism, but of a very special type. He sought a Hasidism without the personality cult of rebbes, and without the trappings of a Kabbalistic superstructure; he sought in Hasidism a teaching as to how to be a better person and a better Jew—and found it in the school of Psyshkhe (Przysucha), in the figures of the “Holy Yehudi,” R. Simhah Bunim of Psyshkhe, and in R. Menahem Mendel of Kotzk: a school which demanded a rigorous spirit of truth, of honesty with one’s self, of authenticity, of eschewing conventional models of piety or external ecstasy. Indeed, an important part of his intellectual legacy, at least in the narrow sense of publications, is the book he wrote on this subject, published less than a year ago: The Quest for Authenticity: The Thought of Reb Simhah Bunim (Jerusalem – New York: Urim, 2008).

What is Yakar? Yakar is a unique kind of institution, founded in London in 1982, and begun in Jerusalem ten years later, when the Rosen family came on aliyah; last year a branch was started in Tel-Aviv. The secondary title on its logo, “Center for Tradition and Creativity,” tells much of the story. The idea was of a center that would combine the activities of synagogue; Beit midrash/learning community; a center for arts and music; and an arena for social concern.

One might explain the underlying thread animating this concept in terms taken from this week’s parashah: In Vayishlah, the two brothers, Yaakov and Esau, meet again after a separation of 22 years. Traditionally, this scene is read as one of pro forma reconciliation, colored by a deep-rooted underlying suspicion, with the idea that “you go your way and I go mine,” seen as symbolic of the tense relationship between Jewry and the non-Jewish world. It seems to me that Mickey was one of those who dreamed of a better way: he loved the Western humanistic tradition, and dreamed of a Judaism which drew upon the best that Western culture had to offer; he was committed to the values of democracy, tolerance, and the dignity of very human being, and sought a genuine reconciliation between the children of Israel and the children of Ishmael.

Thus, alongside Shabbat prayers and classes and lectures on various aspects of Judaism, Yakar hosts various cultural events: there is an art gallery, with rotating exhibits, in the upstairs hall; various musical events (I remember once, particularly, a lecture on Shostakovich and the Jews; there is also an acapella choir); poetry slams; and various lectures on the long summer Shabbat afternoons which, alongside series on Jewish thought, have included lectures on notable Jewish fiction authors.

But Mickey was also misunderstood by some people, on several different levels—first and foremost, perhaps, that of his social concerns. In a contemporary Israeli Orthodox milieu that is predominantly nationalistic and hawkish on the Arab-Israel conflict, he was that rarity, an outspoken supporter of peace with the Palestinians, and an advocate of human rights. An important feature of Yakar, both in Jerusalem and in London, was a Center for Social Concern, a forum that sponsored public discussion of controversial issues, and invited spokesmen from all viewpoints. It must have been one of the few places under Orthodox religious auspices in which Palestinian spokesmen were regularly invited to participate in discussions of the burning national conflict here; at one point, Yakar also held a joint Midrasa/Bet Midrash, at which Jews and Muslims together studied sources of both traditions, at an effort at mutual understanding. The Center is headed by a former South African, militantly anti-apartheid journalist, Benjamin Pogrund.

Alongside his political convictions, Mickey believed in principle in pluralism and tolerance, and had a great deal of curiosity about different people and different viewpoints. He seemed to enjoy inviting diverse people to Yakar, and enjoyed the role of interviewer, which he performed with great aplomb.

Another point on which he was criticized by some had to do with feminism. When the new “Orthodox feminism” began to emerge, and particularly with the creation of Shira Hadasha, he was criticized by some for not giving aliyot to women, or even at least having the men and women side-by-side, with a mehitzah running from front-to-back of the synagogue; instead, Yakar maintains the more traditional front and back arrangement of men and women. But while Mickey had the highest respect fur women’s intellect and their spirituality, he never accepted the standard “PC” line on such issues. In essence, his approach to halakhah was rooted in a traditional model of Jewish religiosity, and he clearly was not interested in the “sexual politics” of halakhic change. Women gave shiurim in Yakar, and women were welcome to recite Kaddish for a loved one. But the important thing for him was the spiritual path, the quest for intimacy with God, not political statements or positions about gender.

At the funeral, his wife Gilah (a learned woman and a distinguished Torah teacher in her own right) spoke of certain things which were perhaps not widely known or publicly discussed: that Mickey suffered, through much of his life, from a serious degenerative disease (which may also have hastened his death). Despite the pains and limitations this imposed, he never felt sorry for himself: he saw life as an arena for action, for working, for accomplishing things. To paraphrase her words (I quote from memory): “He dreamed, and he worked and he accomplished; and again he dreamed, and worked and accomplished—until almost the very end. Until a few moments before he collapsed on that Wednesday, he was busy working. He saw each day as a gift from the Almighty, and pushed himself to the maximum.” A small example: he did not have powerful lungs, possibly related to his physical condition, and was unable to project his voice as strongly or as well as others. But this did not discourage him from leading public prayer at Yakar; instead, he developed his own gentle, quiet style of prayer that created a unique ambience.

More than anything, he was his own man, and had his own inner compass; he was a non-conformist, what might be described as an “English eccentric” in Rabbinic garb; oblivious to “trends,” he had a clear vision of what Yakar was meant to be, as a center for a certain type of Jewish cultural, religious and ethical renewal (joining, in his own modest way, the tradition of such people as Rav Kook and Hillel Zeitlin.) May his life-work continue and flourish after him.

May his memory be a blessing.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Vayetze (Zohar)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to my blog, at December 2005.

Jacob’s Vision

This week’s parashah begins with a powerful, striking picture of Divine epiphany, probably the strongest prior to the revelation at Mount Sinai. While God is shown speaking to the patriarchs perhaps ten or more times in the Book of Genesis, only here is there a tactile image of angels going up and down a ladder, a concrete bridge between heaven and earth, and God speaking from its summit. Jacob declares the numinous quality of the place where he has chosen to sleep, “Indeed, God is in this place, and I did not know!” and continues: “this is naught but the House of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (Gen 28:16-17). Hence, it is an obvious occasion for the Zohar to delve into various aspects of prophetic revelation; I shall bring here only a brief selection from its discussion. Zohar I: 149a-b:

Come and see what is written: “He dreamed: Behold, a ladder set up on earth, its head reaching to heaven” (Gen 28:12). He opened, saying: היה היה Hayo hayah. “Happening it happened, that the word of HWVH came to Ezekiel the priest, son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the River Kevar. There the hand of YHVH came upon him” (Ezek 1:3). Hayo hayah, “Happening it happened”—prophecy happened at that particular moment, being essential for exile, since Shekhinah descended among Israel in exile. Ezekiel saw what he saw at that very moment, even though that site was unsuitable. So hayo hayah, “happening it happened.” What is the meaning of hayo hayah? Hayo, above; hayah, below. As is written, “a ladder set up on earth, its head reaching to heaven”—moving above, moving below. Hayo hayah, one above, one below. Come and see: This ladder is planted firmly in two worlds, above and below, “in the land of the Chaldeans by the River Kevar.” “In the land of the Chaldeans”—in a place where exile prevails. But even so, “by the River Kevar.” What is “the River Kevar”? That which was kevar: already, previously. For Shekhinah dwelled in it, as is written: “A river issues from Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four riverheads” (Gen 2:10). This is one of those four rivers, and since She [Shekhinah] dwelled on it previously, manifesting there already, She dwelled there now, revealing Herself to Ezekiel.

This passage addresses itself to with one basic question: One of the axiomatic assumptions of mystical Judaism (see below) is that prophecy, God’s revelation of Himself, can only occur in certain special holy spots—in the Land of Israel or, during the period of the Exodus, whether at the holy mountain of Horev, or from within the Tent of Meeting. How then could He have revealed himself to Ezekiel in exile, in faraway Babylonia? (And, while this is not stated explicitly, this was the very epiphany in which he was shown the Merkavah, the Divine Chariot, the central esoteric image in all of Jewish mysticism!) This question, so it seems to me, is doubly apt in this chapter, where the sense of “place-ness,” of a specific locale being somehow fit for God’s presence, is stated so clearly.

The Zohar’s explanation is twofold. First, that Israel in exile needed this prophecy. (To cope with their situation? To receive encouragement during exile? For moral rebuke in light of some the things they were doing? Or perhaps a little bit of both?) The mention of Shekhinah going into exile—an idea already familiar from the classical Rabbinic tradition of Hazal—may allude to this prophecy somehow taking place “via the Shekhinah.” Second, there was a special feature of this place that made this possible: the phrase specifying Ezekiel’s location is read as drawing a contrast: “the Land of the Chaldeans,” which is impure, and “the River Kevar,” whose very name suggests that it partakes of the timeless, the eternal: the river of “already,” one of the four primordial rivers created at the very Beginning of the world, and thus partaking of the holiness of Creation. (Indeed, there are various Kabbalistic traditions and rituals that give a place of honor to the biblical verses describing the four rivers of Creation)

Two significant side comments: First, the idiom in Ezekiel, היה היה , hayo hayah, expounded here in partial explanation of how this exilic revelation came about, is a hapax legomenon, unique to this verse. The word hayo is used in four other places in the Bible, but in the future form of היו יהיה or היו תהיה, but not in the past tense as היה היה. In contemporary Israeli parlance, this phrase is familiar from its use in children’s stories, in the sense of “once upon a time…”—but this is clearly a modern neologism.

Second: for another, very ancient and interesting use of this double-entendre on the name of the River Kevar/Already, see the fourth century Merkavah text known as Re’uyot Yehezkel, brought by Daniel Matt in his excellent anthology, The Essential Kabbalah (San Francisco: Harper, 1996), in the selection entitled, ”The River of Already,” p. 126. (This book is forthcoming in Hebrew by Olam Qatan; the passage was first published by I. Gruenwald in Temirin I: 111-114.])

In brief, the basic idea here is that prophecy only occurs in certain places, because God ordinarily doesn’t rest, or make his presence known, in a place of tum’ah, impurity. R. Judah Halevi, in Sefer ha-Kuzari, written somewhat less than two centuries prior to the Zohar, elaborates a doctrine whereby prophecy is possible only in Israel, in the sense of both the people and the land—viz., that there can be nor full prophecy outside of the Land of Israel, and that there can be no prophecy to a non-Jew—not even to a righteous proselyte who was not born a Jew!—because he/she does not possess in his soul ‘inyan ha-elohi, “the divine element” unique to this people. Both these points are contested by Maimonides and others of the more rationalist and universal streams within Judaism. Part of the issue here is: how literally does one take the idea of God “dwelling” in a particular place? If He is transcendent, if even the heavens and the heaven of heavens cannot contain Him, how can He dwell anywhere on this earth except in a purely metaphorical sense? (For midrashim and further discussion of this subject, see also HY III: Vayetze [Midrash]). We continue:

Come and see: “He dreamed.” Was She revealed in a dream to Holy Jacob, Consummate Patriarch? In such a sacred site he saw only a dream? Rather, because at that time Jacob was not yet married and Isaac was still alive. Now you might say: Look, even after he was married, it is written, “I saw in a dream” (Gen 31:10)! But there the place [i.e., Paddan-Aram, when he was with Lavan] proved decisive and Isaac was still alive, so dream is mentioned. Later, when he entered the Holy Land together with the tribes, consummating the essence of the house and the joyous mother of children, it is written: “God appeared to Jacob again when he came from Paddan-Aram, and He blessed him” (Gen 35:9). Similarly, “God spoke to Israel in visions of the night” (Gen 46:20)—here dream is not mentioned since this issued from another, higher rung….

Translation from Daniel C. Matt, The Zohar, Pritzker Edition, II: 330-332.

Here another parameter or dimension of prophecy is discussed: the distinction between a vision attained in a dream and a “true” vision, experienced in the waking state. In this passage, the level of prophecy received is a reflection of one’s personal status at the time of receiving the prophecy. The Zohar is puzzled that Jacob, the “Consummate [or: Perfect] Patriarch” (שלימא דאבהן), can only see God in a dream. The answer given is that, because he was not yet compete and thus not ready for full prophecy or apprehension of the Divine. (The idea that a man is spirituality incomplete without a wife, is symbolized in Ashkenazic Jewish observance by the custom of unmarried men not wearing a tallit; needless to say, this refers only to those never married, not to widowers or divorcés.) Once again, this reflects the Zoharic emphasis upon sexual union as a central metaphor for the cosmic task of unifying all forms of polarities and opposites.

As for Jacob’s status being diminished by the fact that his father was still alive, this may be understood in one of two ways. Either, that at any given time in the sacred history of Israel there is one central figure who is the focus of Divine attention; or that anyone belonging to the eldest generation within a given family has a special status of pater familias or patriarch.

Toldot (Zohar)

With deep sorrow and grief, we report the untimely death of Rabbi Michael (Mickey) Rosen, friend and teacher, founder and leader of Yakar. A eulogy will follow.

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to this blog at November 2005.

“Isaac’s Eyes Were Dim”

In this portion, the Zohar explores the meaning of Yitzhak’s blindness (which, on the simple level of the Biblical text, plays a crucial role in enabling Rivkah and Yaakov to deceive him), as contrasted with Abraham’s remaining clear-sighted into old age. This difference is seen as reflecting something essential about the two patriarchs. Zohar 141b-142a:

"When Isaac was old” (Gen 27:1). Rabbi Shimon said: It is written, “God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night” (Gen 1:5). This verse has been established and explained, but come and see! All actions of the blessed Holy One are true entities, reflecting supernal mystery. All words of Torah are words of faith, supernal mysteries, fittingly. Come and see: Isaac was not as virtuous as Abraham, whose eyes were neither blinded nor dimmed. But here is supernal mystery, a mystery of faith, as has been said, for it is written: “God called the light Day”—Abraham, light of day, whose light grows brighter and stronger in the ripening of day. So what is written? “Abraham was old, coming into days (בא בימים)” (Gen 24:1)—into those luminous lights. As he aged, he grew brighter—corresponding to what is said, “shining ever brighter until full day” (Prov 4:18). So “God called the light Day.” “And the darkness he called Night”—Isaac, who is “darkness,” proceeding to absorb Night. As he aged, what is written? “When Isaac was old, his eyes were too dim to see.“ Certainly so! He had to grow dark, cleaving to “darkness,” his rung, fittingly.

In this passage we find an extraordinary use of Kabbalistic symbolism: Abraham is equated with light and day, while Isaac is equated with darkness and night. Where does this come from? In Kabbalistic symbolism, Abraham and Isaac are often seen as corresponding to the Divine attributes of Hesed and Gevurah (see below). Here the Hesed-Gevurah polarity seems to be raised one level, to that between “light“ and “darkness,” Isaac’s blindness being explained as his coming from the “side of darkness,” called “his rung.”

Note the way in which the Zohar introduces this interpretation: “This verse has been established and explained, but come and see! … All words of Torah are words of faith, supernal mysteries, fittingly.” That is, the Zohar knows that it dealing with old, familiar problems, that have already (seemingly!) been fully explicated in the Rabbinic and midrashic tradition—but the Torah is in fact filled with secrets, with “supernal mysteries,” and it is those which the Zohar sets about to explain. Then comes the characteristic phrase used to introduce a new idea: תא חזי (“Come and see!”) Where the Talmud, being in its essence an oral tradition, a tradition of disciples listening to their masters and telling their own students what they have heard, says Ta shema, “come and hear,” the Zohar, through use of the phrase ta hazi, emphasizes seeing: the visual, perhaps even visionary side of experience and perception. (In this, may it be seeing itself as returning to the ancient prophetic, visionary tradition?)

This passage seems to open up the entire question of the correspondence between certain sefirot and various personalities of the Torah: i.e., that Avraham = Hesed, Yitzhak = Gevurah, Yaakov=Tiferet, and so on. In this context, at least on the face of it, we are told that Yitzhak was “less virtuous than Abraham”? What is meant by that? Is it perhaps because of the perfect faith demonstrated by Avraham on the occasion of the Akedah, in which he was the prime actor?

Gevurah or Din (Pahad Yitzhak; Gen 31:53), the quality identified with Yitzhak, is identified with a kind of inner strength, self-restraint, the ability to resist negative forces that might lead one away from the proper path—if you like, a certain stringency, piety, “fear of God.” This is diametrically opposed to Hesed: the flowing, life-giving aspect of the Divine; of loving-kindness, generosity, caring, as human characteristics.

There is a certain passivity, which might be read as a kind of weakness, in Yitzhak’s character: he sits and waits upon God, while Abraham goes out and acts in the world, is subjected to various trials and tribulations, opens his home to the four winds so as to practice kindness and hospitality to all comers—or, to quote the image developed especially by Rambam in Hilkhot Avodah Zarah Ch. 1, went out and preached the message of God’s unity, converting hundreds, thousands, even myriads of people to his belief. Yitzhak, by contrast, is an introverted, meditative type, who sits at home while the faithful family retainer undertakes a long journey to find him a wife.

It has been suggested that some readers might appreciate some basic definitions. To go back a few steps: What are the sefirot? And what are Hesed & Gevurah? Sefirot are described as vessels, as vehicles or instruments created by God used to bridge the gap between the world of the infinite, the undifferentiated unity in which He resides, and this material world, in all its diversity, multiplicity, and corporeality. The sefirot, which correspond to various clusters of ethical-personality characteristics, somehow connect between these two: the Infinite, in all its transcendence and otherness and awesomeness, and the limited natural world.

It is important to remember that the sefirot are not persona of God, analogous to the notion of the Trinity in Christianity; the statement of some extreme critics of Kabbalah, that “they believe in ten gods rather than three,” is based on a deep misunderstanding of this notion. Indeed, a reading of Kabbalistic theoretical and systematic-theology discloses a strong sense of the ineffable nature of Ein Sof, of God in His infinity, as He is in Himself; to be sure, there is more than a little resemblance between such works and Maimonides’ “negative theology.”

To return to the striking image of this passage, in which Yitzhak is equated with darkness: It must be remembered that light and darkness are extremes, but both are ultimately created by God. Neither in “mainstream” Biblical or Rabbinic Judaism, nor in Kabbalah, is there a dualistic world view in which God and the powers of Evil (such as the Good God and the Demiurge / Creator God in Gnostic myth) are diametrically opposed to one another. Darkness is not negative, but only the other side of light—or, in the famous words of Isaiah 45:7, “He creates light and forms darkness; makes peace and creates evil; I, the Lord, do all these.” Even Satan is a servant of God, not an autonomous power of evil.

The Lurianic myth (which developed some 300 years after the Zohar) of the “breaking of the vessels” is a way of accounting for evil, negativity, and destructive powers in a world in which evil is not an enemy, a counter force to God, but part of the Divine system created by God. In primordial history, God somehow lost control, and “the vessels were broken,” scattering unredeemed sparks throughout the universe. The purpose of the mitzvah, of the entire Jewish religious enterprise, is to “lift up” these sparks that are in exile—and Kabbalah sees itself as making the way to do this explicit, and providing kavvanot, direction, how to go about doing so in a specific way.

NB: The above has been no more than an extremely sketchy and condensed survey of some very complex and profound ideas. For proper understanding, as Hillel’s famous adage ahs it: zil gemor! Go and study properly!

Another thought: it has been suggested that Yitzhak coming from “the side of darkness” relates to his character as a mystic, as something of a recluse, who is “blind” to things of this world; he is so much focused on things of eternity that he literally doesn’t see this world. In this, he is perhaps reminiscent of the first beggar in R. Nahman of Braslav’s Tale of the Seven Beggars, who people think of as blind, but simply doesn’t see this world because from his purview it is no more than a “wink of an eye.”

Rabbi Eleazar, his son, came and kissed his hands. He said: Fine, Abraham shines from the side of his rung; Isaac darkens from the side of his rung. But why of Jacob is it written: “Israel’s eyes were heavy from old age” (Gen 48:10)? He replied: Precisely so! It is written, “were heavy,” not “were dim.” It is written, “from old age,” not “from his old age.” Rather “from old age”—from Isaac’s “old age,” from that side they were “heavy.” “He could not see”—see properly, but they were not dim; whereas Isaac’s were really dim, totally, so he turned into darkness, embraced by night, fulfilling “the darkness He called Night.”

—Translation by Daniel C. Matt, The Zohar, Pritzker Edition II: 287-288

In this final section, R. Shimon’s son, R. Eleazar, extends the discussion to Yaakov, who is also shown as having difficulty with his vision in old age—“his eyes were heavy with age”—as in the famous scene where he blesses Ephraim and Manasseh. But this too is explained in keeping with the Kabbalistic notion that Yaakov represents a kind of synthesis between his two predecessors, much as the sefirah Tiferet, with whom he is identified, mediates between Hesed and Gevurah. Hence, the “heaviness” of eyes spoken of here, which would tie him more closely with darkness, is an element he received from his “Yitzhak-side,” and not an innate aspect of his own essence.

HAYYEI SARAH Postscript: the Shalshelet

Reader (and translation colleague) Perry Zamek took up the cudgels in my challenge to find a general explanation for all those places that have a shalshelet note:

Shalshelet: Two of the places describe hesitancy (Vayema’en; Veyitmahmah). Perhaps the shalshelet on Vayishhat also suggests hesitancy on the part of Moshe, since it is the eil miluim that installs Aaron as high priest, and “demotes” Moshe, as it were, to a (mere) Levi. Accepting that, we might posit that Eliezer is hesitant regarding finding a wife for Yitzhak in Haran (cf. Rashi on ulai, spelled eilai —“to me”).

I would add: a well-known midrash states that Joseph was seriously tempted by Mrs. Potiphar’s proposition (he was, after all, a young, hot-blooded, unmarried man in his prime), and was only held back from doing the deed by a sudden vision of his father Jacob’s stern visage.

As for Eliezer’s hesitancy: Perry quotes Rashi, who states that Eliezer secretly hoped that he would not succeed in his mission, and Yitzhak would marry his own daughter! But I wish to add something I learned about this from Rabbi Mickey Rosen, whose untimely death we mourn this week, in the name of R. Simhah Bunim of Psyshkhe (Kol Simhah, ad loc.). The word אולי, “perhaps [the girl won’t come with me…],” appears twice in the story, in vv. 5 and 39; however, it is only the second time that it is written with the deficiently, with the qubutz vowel, as אלי. This was so, because it was only after Lavan and Rivkah agreed to the match that Eliezer became aware of his own ulterior motivations, which had until then been unconscious!

Finally: the long-drawn-out musical nature of the shalshelet (certainly the most elaborate of all the te’amim) itself well expresses hesitation.

TOLDOT: “Tell them you are my sister”

This parasha describes the incident in which Yitzhak tells Abimelech king of Gerar that Rivkah, who is in fact his wife, is his “sister,” so as to avoid being killed by someone who might desire his beautiful wife. (A strange story: risking his wife being abducted and raped in order to protect his own skin!) A perennial problem raised by biblical critics: this is the third such very similar incident recorded in the Bible regarding the patriarchs, suggesting that this is what they call a topos, a literary motif.

This year I tried to figure out what is going on here and, as a first step, decided to compare the three stories, note the differences among them, and perhaps thereby arrive at some insight about this repeated motif.

1. Gen 12:10-20. In Egypt, Abraham simply lies, saying that Sarah is his sister. She is taken into Pharaoh’s house; he and his household are stricken my נגעים גדולים, “great plagues” of an unspecified nature; Pharaoh figures out that this is on account of Sarah, and sends her away unceremoniously and with no little pique at Avraham.

2. Gen 20:1-18. Much the same happens in Gerar with King Abimelech—but here God appears to him in a dream, preventing him from violating Sarah—and also strikes the kingdom with a general plague of impotence and infertility. Abimelech turns to Abraham and asks him: “Why did you do this?” He explains: “I thought there was no yirat elohim (fear of God; meaning—basic morality, human decency) in this place.” Abimelech apologizes, showering him with gifts and telling him that “my country is yours”; he clearly regards Abraham as a holy man, even referring to him after the incident as a “prophet.” The overall atmosphere is one of dialogue, dignity, and mutual respect—as different from that in Egypt as can be imagined. Can it be that this in itself is the point of the repetition?

3. Gen 26:6-12. A generation later, Yitzhak and Rivkah also go to live in Gerar. There is no abduction at any point, but Yitzhak again tells the people that “she is my sister.” One day the king sees them “sporting” together like man and wife (was this actual sex, or in some form of erotic play that was unmistakably that of people accustomed to being lovers? Did it occur in public, or was he a peeping tom —i.e., was the “window” mentioned in verse 8 that of his own palace looking out on some open place, or that of their own home? We are not told). In v. 10 the king expresses the fear that “one of the people” (אחד העם) might have slept with his wife had he maintained this fiction, and issues a royal decree that no one is to touch this man or his wife. There is no expulsion, and the scene ends with Yitzhak enjoying great material blessing.

Those are the basic, raw data of these three sections. A proper analysis must wait for another time.