Friday, October 29, 2010

Hayyei Sarah (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to this blog at November 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009.

Ordinary Family Life

In this week’s parashah we find no “anti-utopias”—i.e., communities whose collective power brings out the worst in human beings—as we did in several of the previous week’s readings. Indeed, there are hardly any communities at all, except perhaps as background. (i.e., the b’nei Het, the “Hittite” group, from among whom Abraham deals with a few individuals). Nor are there any heroic tests of faith or moments of high religious intensity, such as the Akedah or the various covenantal moments between Avraham and God. What we do find here are vignettes of family life, important “lifecycle” events, in today’s jargon, in which Abraham acts to do what must be done: to bury has wife Sarah, after a long and presumably happy marriage; and to find a bride for his son Yitzhak. In these two scenes, he deals, directly or indirectly, with outside factors: he buys a burial plot for Sarah (which will ultimately serve for himself and the next two generations as well) from Ephron the Hittite; and he sends his trusted servant Eliezer to his nephews in “the old country” to find a wife for Yitzhak.

And this is precisely the point. We first learn about community—which, on the simplest level, means interaction with other human beings with whom we have some more-than-momentary bond—from our most intimate circle, the family. Family means love, caring, warmth, security, refuge from the anonymity and competition of an instrumental society—but it also means responsibility. The order of things in the opening verses of Genesis 23 is interesting, and seemingly contrary to Rabbinic halakhah: Abraham is first shown reacting directly, emotionally, to what has happened: he weeps and bewails his beloved wife (the word ספד, used today to refer to eulogizing the dead, to speaking publicly, in a coherent way, of his/her life and virtues, is a later usage; in the biblical lexicon, it simply means to wail or lament), but then he “rises from the face of his dead,” and turns to the practical business of arranging her burial, of finding and purchasing an appropriate burial site.

An interesting nuance of this conversation: Avraham introduces himself as “a stranger and sojourner among you” (ger ve-toshav anokhi imaeehm), but the Hittites refer to him as a “prince/noble man of God among us” (nasi elohim atah betokhenu), to whom they offer, as if magnanimously, “the best grave site we have to offer.” This entire negotiation is conducted in polite, stately, almost courtly language; money is only mentioned later, almost in an afterthought, as if beneath the dignity of such a meeting.

The process of arranging Yitzhak’s marriage is described in similar stately terms, beginning with the servant’s journey, his prayer to God for blessing and success, his meeting the maiden at the well, and finally his presenting his proposal to her family. Interestingly, Abraham’s greatest concern, for which he requires the servant to swear an oath, is that the maiden agree to come to the new land where he lives, and not bring Yitzhak back to her people in Haran.

The parashah ends with Abraham’s second marriage—this too is occasionally part of family life—the birth of a whole new family (six children!), what happens to them, and his own death.

The family, then, is the basic building block of society. This is important because, at this juncture in time, Western culture is experiencing a serious crisis in family life, as marked inter alia by the extraordinarily high divorce rate. While this is, to be sure, affected by socio-economic factors, such as the economic and professional independence of many middle-class women, so that they need not remain with cruel or violent husbands, much of it results from the individualistic ethos: i.e., that the individual perceives himself/herself first and foremost as an individual, and marriage as somehow provisional, lasting only so long as it satisfies the person’s own needs.

To return to our parashah, an interesting aside. As Rivkah approaches her new home, she sees Yitzhak, in many respects perhaps one of the loneliest figures in the Bible, walking in the field, meditating, in almost stark solitude (Gen 24:63). But then, in the final verse of that chapter, we are told that he brought Rebekah “into the tent of Sarah his mother; and he took her, and she became his wife; and he was comforted after [the death of] his mother.” Modern readers tend to see this verse in almost excessively Oedipal terms: Yitzhak’s deepest attachment until that point had been to his mother, and his wife seems to be seen primarily as a replacement for his mother! In our own culture, we expect a young man or woman at a certain point to severe the attachment to their parental home, at least as their basic emotional orientation, and to build a new, mature, very different sort of relationship with one’s spouse: as a life-partner, a peer, an equal, someone freely chosen—and, most important, a relationship of mutuality, of adult responsibility, rather than the unqualified love and giving, nurturing and dependence, symbolized by a mother. Here, we read of a very traditional scheme of things: the surviving parent arranges his son’s marriage, and he, for his part, compares his bride to the dead mother (as does, interestingly, the midrash at Gen. Rab. 60.16, quoted by Rashi, which praise Rivkah for continuing various practices of Sarah that symbolized holiness, purity, hesed, and the Divine Presence hovering over their home). Is all this really so bad? So “unhealthy”? Are we to see Yitzhak as emotionally underdeveloped, stunted or immature for these feelings? Important questions, which we may perhaps explore another time.

Sixteen Years Without Reb Shlomo

Reminder: This Motza’ei Shabbat a special memorial concert will he held in honor of Reb Shlomo’s yahrzeit at the Binyenei ha-Umah in Jerusalem at 8:30 pm. It promises to be a very special and impressive evening. Those interested in attending who have not yet ordered tickets may do so via phone 077-216-4436; fax 02-9918502; USA 516-216-4436; or at website or email

Every year I have written about Rav Shlomo Carlebach on the occasion of his Yahrzeit, which fell this past Sunday, 16 Marheshvan; at times, I feel that, the more I write, the more the man remains a mystery. How did he become what he was? How was it that, coming from the yeshiva world and then from the world of Hasidism, with its intense spiritual, intellectual and behavioral demands and deliberate separation from the American mainstream, did he come to see the spiritual quest hidden within the nascent youth culture of the ‘60s? And where did he get his ability to communicate with people who came from such a different world as that in which he grew up and in which he spent his early adult years?

One of the remarkable things about him was his ability to simplify, to distill the essential message of Yiddishkeit to the audiences he spoke to. More often than not, learned and erudite people, whether within the academy or in the yeshiva–Torah world, find it hard to speak of the essence of a thing, because they live so deeply in the complexity and subtlety and nuances of whatever it is they know. Shlomo, who was no less learned than they, somehow knew how to distill the essence from what he had learned of Talmud, of halakhah, of Hasidut, and to convey it to an audience of those who were totally ignorant of traditional Judaism.

It often seems to me that, in a certain sense, Shlomo revived the teaching of the Baal Shem Tov, of the earliest level of Hasidism. By the twentieth century, Hasidism had largely degenerated, preserving fanatically, even passionately, the external forms—the dress, the beard and peyot, the ritual and ceremony of the Hasidic nusah of prayer, the Shabbat tisch, the courts of the Rebbes—but the inner substance and message of the early masters was largely forgotten. Or else, as in Habad, there was an enormously complex neo-Kabbalistic system that served as guideline for meditative prayer. Shlomo somehow cut through all that, and returned to the basic meaning of it all—more often than not taught, not through theoretical Torahs or homilies, but through song and story. (He may have known more Hasidic stories than anyone else in our day; he was likewise at home in the musical traditions of all the various groups and courts—Lubavitch, Vizhnitz, Modzhitz, Belz, Bobov, etc.—which served as the well from which his own endless flow of melodies drew.)

Shlomo was far from perfect; he was very different from the classical Rabbinic model of the talmid hakham or Hasidic tzaddik every detail of whose life was guided by the Shulhan Arukh. But perhaps it was this every imperfection—what one reader called the “wounded healer model”—struggling with himself, with his failings, with new and often confusing sexual mores, that made him real, that made him a model for a certain type of person for whom the seamless piety of strict Orthodoxy seemed an unattainable and even inhuman goal.

What was Shlomo’s message? It was basically very simple: love and kindness, simple menshlichkeit and caring towards all. Much of liberal discourse today asserts that monotheism leads to hatred, violence, and exclusiveness—i.e., if God is one, then there can only be one way to serve Him, and one must fight, to the death if necessary, for that way (thus the Jihadists; and thus the reading of Dawkins et al). But Shlomo drew the opposite conclusion: if God is one, if He created the universe and all that is therein, than He must love all His creatures—and Shlomo tried in his own life to manifest that love as best he could. In doing so, he exemplified the Abrahamic way we discussed in recent weeks.

A few thoughts about our theme of this year: where did Shlomo stand vis-à-vis community and individual? Shlomo grew up within strictly Orthodox society, and specifically within the culture of the Yekkes, the German Jews, who were known for their strict, even rigid, formal approach to life. There were definite expectations about behavior, and a sense of a strong, tightly-knit community, which criticized and censured deviant behavior.

The 1960’s youth culture, the “Hippies” among whom Shlomo ultimately found a spiritual home of sorts, was the diametrical opposite to that world in almost every way. The Hippies drew the logical, extreme conclusion from the American ethos of individualism, of “doing your own thing,” living a loose, undisciplined, spontaneous life-style, without any fixed daily routine, but taking whatever each new day might bring.

The problem confronted, both by Shlomo’s followers and by the communes of ‘60s generally, was how to create working community without the sense of coercion, discipline, or authority (even of the group as a whole) which they had fled. People wanted freedom, abhorred the artificiality and posturing of suburban, middle-class life—but also knew that they wanted and needed community, albeit of a new kind—but people didn’t quite know how to do it. This quest for a new community was, in a way, the subtext of the Whole Earth Catalogue—and Shlomo’s “Hippy Hasidim” were very much part of that world.

Shlomo himself dreamed of a new kind of community, and of a new kind of yeshiva, a place where mean and women could learn Torah without the heavy, oppressive mood of the “black-hat” world. (In a totally different modality, the Havurat Shalom in Boston, founded in 1968, was also an attempt at creating a new type of Jewish prayer and study community.) In those days he used to say: “San Francisco is the city of tomorrow; Jerusalem is the city of the day after tomorrow.”

Well, forty years have passed, and it is now "the day after tomorrow." The House of Love and Prayer was one daring attempt at creating such a community. Beit Simhah in Jerusalem was another; the settlement at Migdal, near the Kineret, was another short-lived attempt; while Shlomo’s moshav, Me’or Modi’in, is perhaps the closest thing to a fulfillment of his vision. And, like anything in real life, it has had its successes and its failures.

VAYERA—Postscript: On Women

This week my wife raised the question of the strange way women are treated in several of the incidents in Vayera and elsewhere.

The thrice-repeated motif in which one of the Patriarchs (Abraham twice—Gen 12:10-20; 20:1-18; Yitzhak once—26:6-11) go to a strange environment and says that his wife is in fact his sister—in order to protect himself from being murdered by those who might desire her beauty and take her at all cost. But he was thereby exposing his wife to rape and adultery. How could he do such a thing? In two of the three cases, Sarah’s virtue preserved by Divine intervention; in the third, Avimelech saw Yitzhak “sporting” with his wife.

In the Lot story (and its parallel in the “concubine in Gibeah”): we have already discussed the Sodom mob and the possible significance of their demand to “know the men.” But what are we to make of Lot’s/the old man from the hills of Ephraim’s offer of his virgin daughter(s) to the mob, to abuse and rape her as much as they wish? In the case of Lot this was prevented only by miraculous intervention; in the parallel story in Judges, the woman is in fact literally thrown to the lions (the Talmud at Pesahim 49b draws the explicit comparison: “Just as a lion tramples and shamelessly eats his prey, so does a boorish person beat [his wife] and compels sex with her without shame”); she is raped so often and so violently that she dies as a result.

One explanation offered for the “she is my sister” tale is that the word ahot had a special technical meaning in the ancient Near East, indicating a kind of adoption by which the woman enjoyed special protection of the man who was her “brother.” Or one might argue that the brother had special responsibility for his sister (as in the Arab world today), more so even than the husband, which commanded a certain respect and fear. But if such is the case, it seems not to have worked here.

As for offering of one’s virgin daughter or some other woman to protect one’s male guest: in the text, it clearly seems to be rationalized by an extreme code of hospitality. The host owes absolute protection to those who “have taken shelter under my roof” (Gen 19:8) or “after this man has come to my house” (Jdg 19:23)—somewhat reminiscent of the Bedouin code, in which hospitality creates almost unbreakable bonds between people. But even so!? There seems to be a callous indifference to the woman’s own right; both here, and in the earlier motif, it is as if access to the woman’s sexuality is a privilege to be dispensed by her husband/father as he chooses!

Phil Chernovsky, in his Torah Tidbits —a publication that I don’t usually read— says something good: that Lot was a weak personality, who thought he could “have his cake and eat it”—i.e., live in close proximity to Sodom, enjoying the luxuriant fertility of the Jordan valley, even though it was already known to be a wicked city, without being affected. He notes how he gradually draws closer: in 13:12 he is shown “pitching his tents until Sodom” (’ad itself being an ambiguous Hebrew term); in 14:12 we are already told that he “dwelled in Sodom” ; while in 19:1 he sits at “the gate of Sodom”—i.e., he has become one of the respected citizens of the city (‘though as sone as he criticizes them this changes: “one comes to live here and he judges us! We’ll do worse to you than to them!”—v. 9). In brief, Lot gradually learned from their distorted way of looking at things, and the idea is indefensible. “Woe to the evildoer, woe to his neighbor!” (Remembering, also, that according to Rabbinic halakhah sexual licentiousness is one of the acts for which we say יהרג ולא יעבר—one must be killed rather than violate it, and one may kill the perpetrator caught in the act.)


Blogger mike said...

Hi Jonathan
Do you remember me from WUJS Philadelphia 1971 ?- fiddle player/story teller
Would be good to get in touch on

I'm still on the fiddle.
I was the last person to play with Reb Shlomo in Manchester uk 2 days before his untimely death . After the concert we had supper together and a memorable vabreng -mamash a gevalt
Look forward to hearing from you
Mike Tabor

6:52 AM  

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