Thursday, November 18, 2004

Vayetze (archive)

“In a dream, in a vision of the night” (Job 33:15)

This parshah begins a series of four successive Torah portions, each one of which opens with a vision, a dream, or an incident somewhere in the hazy realm between reality and dream. Jacob’s laying his head down to sleep on top of a rock at Bethel and seeing the vision of the angels; his struggle with the mysterious figure at the River Yabbok; Joseph’s dreams; and even Pharaoh’s dreams, which catalyzed Joseph’s release from the dungeon and his ascent to greatness.

What is going on here? Maimonides’ description, at the end of the Guide to the Perplexed, of the various different levels of prophecy, comes to mind: that besides those singular individuals, of whom Moses is the prime and possibly exclusive example, who speak with God “face to face,” there are lower levels of divine communication with man, through dreams and visions—particularly when his mundane, pragmatic, action-oriented day-time consciousness is asleep.

Thus the patriarchs, following Abraham, are seen as visionaries. The common denominator of theses four visions may be that they mark important motifs in Jewish history: the promise of the Land and, according to some midrashim, a vision of the whole sweep of future Jewish history, including subjugation to the “four kingdoms”; the ongoing conflict with Esau and the nations of the world; and the exile in Egypt, which is the necessary prelude to the Exodus and the revelation at Sinai, for which the dreams of Joseph and Pharaoh are the catalyst.

The dreams and visions punctuate the other Torah narratives, which describe real-life events. The late Lubavitcher Rebbe used to emphasize that the title scene of each portion in some sense sets the tone for the whole. Here, the dominant theme seems to be the movement from the first patriarch, Abraham, “the lover of God,” to that of the other patriarchs as visionary prophets. (Although this is already foreshadowed by Abraham at the Brit bein Habetarim, the Covenant of the Pieces, where he is made to fall asleep and the whole mysterious business of God passing by with a torch between the pieces of the slaughtered animals occurs while he is asleep. Or again, Adam, on whom a deep sleep is cast while Eve is created from his rib: suggestive of an equation of the emergence of the feminine with the unconscious; Jung’s theory of the animus and anima, the opposite-sexed counterpart present in each individuals’ unconscious, also comes to mind here).

The Setting

At times it seems that the Torah can be read as a drama, each weekly portion representing a new scene, with its own stage setting, cast of characters, internal dramatic development, and even its own sights, sounds and smells. Vayetze begins with the symbolic crossing over out of the Land of Israel (even though the place we know as Bethel is in its very heartland); the rest of the parshah is set on Lavan’s “turf,” the fertile land east of Eretz Yisrael, somewhere in what is today Syria, in the northern end of the Fertile Crescent. One is overpowered here by the feeling of fecundity which seems to emerge from its dark, rich soil. So we read here of matings and birthings—of people, of flock, as if the fertility of the land spills over into the animal and human worlds. Leah and Rachel’s rivalry to bear Yaakov’s children; the teen-age Reuven’s awareness of the aphrodisiac powers of the mandrake fruit which he plucks for his mother; Yaakov’s manipulation of the sticks at the troughs where his flocks mated; Rachel’s frank reference to her own menstruation (which seems like an excuse, possibly untrue, intended to conceal her culpability in the theft of the teraphim), the like of which I do not offhand recall anywhere else in Tanakh; all these give the feeling that one is dealing here with a world overflowing with fertility and sexuality. Perhaps because these are the concrete problems of the real world with which Yakov needs to deal ...

Mountain, Field and House

In an “old” or “exact” Rashi to verse 28:17 (“this is naught but the house of God”), we are told that Bethel was in fact Jerusalem, and that “because it was the city of God Jacob called it Bethel [lit., House of God]”; this was the same Mount Moriah where Abraham worshipped, and the field where Isaac went out to meditate. It then cites a Talmudic passage from Pesahim 88a (erroneously cited from Sotah): “’Let us go up to the house of God…’ [Isa 2:3]. Not like Abraham, who called it a mountain; and not like Isaac, who called it a field; but like Jacob, who called it a house.”

According to another Talmudic passage, in Berakhot 26b, the three times of the day on which the three patriarchs are said to have characteristically prayed are also the source for our three daily prayers. Another view there sees the three prayers as corresponding to three time-periods in the daily schedule of sacrifices brought in the Temple. This midrash, placing the worship of all three of the patriarchs in Jerusalem, may be seen as harmonizing these two views.

But more importantly, “mountain,” “field” and “house” seem to be significant as appelations for the meeting place of Man and God. I would like to suggest a three-fold typology by way of interpretation. Mountain suggests transcendence: a high, lofty, mysterious place, midway between heaven and earth, where man ascends to encounter the “Wholly Other” God. Field suggests God’s omnipresence: Isaac, the meditative mystic, sees God everywhere, in very flower and every blade of grass, but especially in open, natural settings far from the noise of human society. One is reminded of the Baal Shem Tov, or of the Zohar’s “Melekh basadeh”—the “King in the Field”—as a symbol for the accessibility of the Divine during the Days of Awe. Jacob builds a house for God, which is both: it is both humble and, well, homely, but also has clear limits and boundaries: neither the awesome, numinous quality of the mountain, nor the total openness of the field, but something in between. It is also suggestive of the establishment of fixed religious institutions; a temple, a synagogue, or, for that matter, a church or mosque, are all basically houses: four walls, built to contain and define the holy. Unlike Abraham, the pioneer of a new God consciousness, or Isaac, the mystical contemplative, Jacob was first and foremost the father of the twelve tribes, and thus of the Jewish people. As such, we may see him as concerned with creating suitable vessels for spirituality for all people, and not only for extraordinary individuals.

Portrait of the Patriarch as a Young Man

The account of Yaakov’s life may be read as what the Germans call a Bildungsroman: the story of the development and maturation of a single character over a lifetime, the significant changes he undergoes, and through it all his discovery of the meaning of a life truly and well lived. Avraham faced ten tests in the realm of religious faith; to my mind, Yaakov may be described as facing trials in the area of human relations, learning to deal with a variety of interpersonal difficulties. At the beginning, Yaakov seems like a double of his father, with all of the problematic nature of Yitzhak’s character: playing out with Esau the same initial pattern as did Yitzhak with Ishmael. He stays at home when his brother goes out; he hides behind his mother’s apron strings, and has to be pushed by her into bold and dangerous action. During this phase, his main ways of coping with life getting what he wants are either through deceit and underhandedness, or flight—the typical refuges of the weak. He is not strong enough to confront Esau head on, “man to man.” Once deceit no longer works, he flees to Padan Aram. Again, his mother explains this to his father in a more palatable way, telling a plausible half truth—not that his life is in danger through fratricide, but that she’s worried he might marry a shikse (non-Jewish girl). We again see the conspiracy between mother and son vs. the world of masculine authority, concealing unpleasant facts from father—and in the process perhaps giving the lad the message that adult men are irrelevant fools who can be put off by lies when convenient; hardly an inspiring model for emulation!

The changes really begin when he leaves home. At the home of Lavan, he needs to deal with issues of deceit and underhandedness from the other end of the stick: he confronts a character who uses dishonesty and formal legalistic loopholes, not as the perhaps justifiable refuge of the weak, but as a life tactic of pure wickedness and selfishness. Yaakov starts as “the bright young man,” subservient to Lavan; by the end, he is able to hold his own against him as an equal, as a substantial baalebos (householder) with property and wives and children.

He also has to deal with the world of women—a polygamous household of wives and concubines vie for his attentions and jockey with one another for position. In this setting, one gets the feeling that he is a far cry from the dependent, passive Yizhak seeking to be mothered by Rivkah. One only needs to look at his initial romantic encounter with Rachel to know that he is a very different type. By the time he leaves Lavan, you feel that he is the master of the house, and is definitely in control—of his household and extended family, and of his relations with his father in-law, which are of necessity correct but cold, and protective of his vital interests.

The climax comes in Parshat Vayishalah, with the renewed meeting with Esau—but on that, next week.

Thoughts on the US Elections

The most striking thing I felt after this election was the strange parallel between the USA and Israel. Over the past decade or so people have been talking more and more about how Israel has become divided into two major camps, in which each group represents a distinct bundle of political, cultural, and religious attitudes, socio-economic background, positions on the biggest question facing the society—in our case, the Palestinian problem—and even geographical concentration. On the one hand is the “Left”—middle- and upper-middle class, secular, educated, cosmopolitan, mostly Ashkenazic, favoring peace with the Palestinians and concentrated in greater Tel-Aviv and perhaps the old moshavim and kibbutzim, which provide the power base for Labor, the old-new Meretz-Yahad party, and the centrist-secular Shinui (which is in Sharon’s coalition, and is a bit of a wild card). On the other hand, the “Right”— mostly either Sephardic and/or religious and/or (somewhat surprisingly) new-immigrant Russian, mostly working class or small business people with a smattering of professionals, almost all either traditional or religious (except for the Russians), many of them living in the “periphery,” in Jerusalem, or in the West Bank settlements, fiercely nationalist and some even xenophobic about the Arabs, and voting Likud, the various religious and Haredi parties, or the nationalist ultra-Right.

This election made the US look very much the same way—as a sharply bifurcated country. (See the insightful articles by Ari Shavit and Nicholas Chritopf in ha-Aretz for Thursday, November 4. The two things that must struck me about this US election were: first, how almost the whole center of the country was marked in red, with the three West Coast states, the North East, and a phalanx going across the north to Illinois and Minnesota marked in blue. I don’t remember such clearcut geographical division between the parties at any time in my memory. Second, the exit polls showed a division in what they considered the important issues: 80% of the Democrats felt the most important issue was either the war in Iraq or the economy, taxes, etc.; while 80% of Republican seem to have voted either on the basis of terrorism or “moral values”—a rather vague concept.

This division seems to be symbolized in a very interesting way by two important films of the past year, which are considered unlikely to be even considered for the Oscars, because they are so controversial: Fahrenheit 9/11 and The Passion of Christ. Both of them can really be viewed as cult films, viewing them almost acts of ritual identification with the respective camps—and these two films also reveal their diametrically opposed sensibilities (even if Michael Moore emerged from working class Detroit).

But the two groups differed, not only in the issues they considered important, but in the emotional tenor of those issues: the Democrats seemed more concerned with objective, concrete issues, while the Republicans seemed to vote more on the basis of emotional resonance (terrorism, while a real problem, has been presented, from what I understand, in a highly emotional way, playing to people’s fears about a vague, ill-defined enemy). This connects to another interesting fact: that, despite the fact that Kerry “won” all three debates, it didn’t help him much on Election Day, except in those states where he was already strong. Meaning, that among many Republicans intelligence is seen as something threatening, rather than as something positive and to admired and sought. KISS, “Keep it simple, stupid,” seems to be the implicit motto.

This past summer when I was in the US I picked up an issue of The Atlantic Magazine which had an article analyzing the two candidates’ speaking style. The author had analyzed tapes of Bush’s debates and speeches when running for governor of Texas in the mid-‘90s, and found that he was more articulate, had better thought-out positions, was quicker on the response and sounded better informed, than he is today or was in 2000. Three possible explanations: (a) something happened to affect his mind (unlikely); (b) he felt out of his league when he needed to address complex national issues (possible); and (c), that he made a conscious decision to create a dumb persona for himself, thinking it would be to his electoral advantage to play the role of a simple Texan who is not an egghead (to use a word from the 1950s when Adlai Stevenson was pounded by Eisenhower, inter alia because of his being an intellectual). He no doubt calculated (correctly) that the “liberal” elites on the two coasts wouldn’t vote for him anyway, but his new dumb, image would appeal to Middle America. Makes a certain sense.

So at this point one can pull out all the cliches “our type of people” feel about how scary the election results seem: that it revealed the face of an America which wants a more pious, conservative country; that the “silent majority” is a bunch of Bible-reading, gun-toting crackers, red-necks and hicks who don’t like to think hard about understanding the issues; how easy it is to appeal to a primitive type of nationalism, and to believe “my country right or wrong,” certainly in time of war. In brief, that we are on the verge of a fascist takeover.

But looking beneath the stereotypes, asking what brought us to this pass (and however scathing my antipathy for Bush and his people), I reach the conclusion that the liberal elites have in large measure bright this on themselves. The Democratic Party or, more generally, the “politically correct” intellectual elite, are imbued with a kind of snobbism, a sense of haughtiness and arrogance toward “Middle America,” and a sense of certainty of its own interpretation of the world, that is certain to be off-putting to anyone who is an outsider. Once again, it’s terribly reminiscent of the Israeli Left, the Labor Party and even more so Meretz, which have become parties of elites, and have lost both their socialist ideology and any connection with ordinary working people.

I want to say something about “moral values.” The impression I get from occasionally watching such shows as “Oprah Winfrey” or “Dr. Phil” on cable TV is that “moral values” is not only something vague and nebulous, but actually relates to something very specific. One sees there middle-American parents, black (sorry, African-American) and white, concerned about their children’s involvement in sexual activity, drugs, etc., at ever younger ages; people who have experienced the havoc divorce wreaks on their and their family’s lives; and the longing for a simpler, more wholesome era when these things didn’t seem to happen (Michael Lerner of Tikkun magazine has written some interesting things on this). In brief, there is a probably-justifiable backlash to the “sexual revolution” of the past four decades and the cross-the-board change in sexual and family mores it has wrought. These changes scare and threaten ordinary people in concrete ways, and they associate these changes with the “liberals” and the system of values and ideas they represent. Of course, their solution—a constitutional amendment against homosexual marriage and a conservative Supreme Court which will force abortion underground (so that more young girls can die of backstreet abortions like in the bad old days)—won’t really solve anything, for young girls will still get pregnant so long as men and women are what they are. But firm talk about God and moral values makes people feel good and gives them a sense that there is “strong leadership” that they can trust.

And, I might add, the militant secularism of much of the liberal camp has also been a red-light to many ordinary people for whom religion is an important part of their life, who have come to feel alienated and somehow pushed out of the center because of their faith. Again, I’m not arguing whether or not their agenda is correct, or fair, or democratic, or even constitutional. Just that these are also widespread feelings out there, especially in the “hinterland” of America.

(By the way, in my book Bush is not really a religious person, since for me religious-moral values include such basic things as telling the truth, self-examination, the ability to admit mistakes, etc. A man who talks about having brought “freedom and democracy” to Afghanistan and Iraq is either lying or is dangerously out of touch with reality. Ditto for his failure to provide a straight answer about his lies concerning the non-existent WMDs, or Saddam’s alleged ties to el-Qaeda.)

As for the “War on Terror” and Iraq and all the rest, I recently read an interesting article (really a review of recent books about World War I) in The New Yorker, whose first paragraph follows:

The last century, through its great cataclysms, offers two clear, ringing, and, unfortunately, contradictory lessons. The First World War teaches that territorial compromise is better than full-scale war, that an “honor-bound” allegiance of the great powers to small nations is a recipe for mass killing, and that it is crazy to let the blind mechanism of armies and alliances and trump common sense. The Second teaches that searching for an accommodation with tyranny by selling out small nations only encourages the tyrant, that refusing to fight now leads to a worse fight later on, and that only the steadfast rejection of compromise can prevent the natural tendency to rush to a bad peace with worse men. The First teaches us never to rush into a fight, the Second never to back down from a bully. (Adam Gopnik, “The Big One,” The New Yorker, August 23, 2004, p. 78)

What has all this to do with Bush and Kerry? That, just as the almost automatic reaction of the Right is to be pro-war, jingoistic, war-mongering, saber-rattling. The Left tends to believe that almost all international problems can be solved by peaceful means, by consensus of the international community, moral suasion, social reform, and if need be a certain amount of judiciously applied economic pressure. The point made by the above paragraph is that the history of the last century (both of them within the lifetime of two of the addresses of this letter) teaches diametrically-opposed lessons: that sometimes, maybe most of the time, war is a dire evil, the final recourse to be avoided at virtually all costs, but that at other times there appear on the scene crazy fanatics who cannot be stopped in any other way then force. Do Osama bin-Laden and the radical Islamists belong to the latter category? Are they ideologically motivated fanatics, unwilling to listen to reason, with whom the humanist West has no common language, like the Nazis in the ‘40s? I strongly suspect so. Does Saddam Hussein? Somewhat less certain. Even in light of this fearsome and fanatical enemy, was Bush’s strategy of waging conventional warfare against first Afghanistan and then Iraq the best course of action? Also, in my opinion, open to debate.

By the way, in my view, the crux of the debate in Israel between the “Peace Camp” and the “National Camp” or pro-Settlement is not really about God-given right to the Land vs. rational, pragmatic approach to the problem of the “occupied territories,” Palestinians, but about precisely this question: what is the underlying world-view of our antagonists a/o enemies? Is the Palestinian Liberation movement a normal national liberation movement, like those of Habib Bourguiba in Tunisia, Colonel Houari Boumedienne in Algeria, or Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya, who simply wanted their people to have their own “God’s little acre” and were then willing to make peace? Or do they believe that any non-Muslim presence in this part of the world is an affront to their deepest beliefs? The court is still out on this question. I have been living in Israel for 30 years, and I am still torn between the two interpretations.

(Of course, the truth is that the Palestinians are a nation consisting of several million individuals, some of whom doubtless think and feel one way and some the other. The real question is, which group is predominant and is likely to determine the future, and how do our own actions impact upon that dynamic situation? The coming post-Arafat months are likely to be crucial in shaping the answer to this question.)

To return to the US elections: Where did this division come from? Step One took place when the Southern Democrats became Republicans, almost overnight, after Strom Thurmond switched parties, I think the year of the Kennedy-Nixon election. Step Two was the emergence of fundamentalist Christianity as a formidable political and cultural force, under such names as the Moral Majority. Even though the events happened within my adult lifetime, I don’t quite know where this force came from. What was it that made people, who had been quietly practicing their religion within families and churches, suddenly enter the political arena with such a vengeance? I suppose it was a reaction to everything that happened over the past forty years: the anti-Vietnam demonstrations and the long-haired hippies and the sexual revolution and legalized abortion and gays coming out of the closet, all of which contradicted everything that millions of people had been accustomed to believe to be right and moral and normal, until the dam burst. I see this as an historical earthquake. Somehow, liberals believed that science and economic prosperity and political freedom and individual rights would fulfill human needs; that the culture of secular liberalism would reign triumphant and that religion belonged to a benighted past that was slowly but surely disappearing. The return to religion and traditional values is like a seismic movement that caught people by surprise.

I see some interesting parallels to things and attitudes here in Israel. One of the reasons many secularists were shocked by the teshuvah movement here among some of the intellectual and entertainment elite in the 1970s and ‘80’s was that, according to their theory, such things weren’t supposed to happen; the future belonged to them. Zionism was originally built upon a rebellion to the piety of the ghetto, so when the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the halutzim suddenly started wearing tzitzit and kippot and becoming interested in things like observing Shabbat or studying Talmud, it was simply a shock. (I had similar experiences in my own life. An old aunt of mine, recently deceased, a self-described “progressive” and “liberal,” used to refer to me as a “throwback” when I first became religiously observant in my late teens, and even recently, when I visited her as a middle-aged adult, she said “Your mother must be turning over in her grave” because of my being religious, and insisted on referring to my skull-cap as a “beanie.”)

By the way, I received a very interesting e-mail from some Jewish group I had never heard of, claiming that for many, voting for Bush was a kind of protest vote against “the liberal establishment of the East and West Coasts that showed utter contempt for faith in G-d—my faith and the faith of millions of others.” He then goes on to talk about… the anti-religious bias of liberal thought, going back to Voltaire and the Enlightenment.

I invite your comments.

Toldot (archive)

I would like to propose one or two questions on this parshah, but without giving any definite answers. It centers upon two converging problems, which are really one.

In terms of archetypes, we have here the beginning of the motif of Israel & the world: the idea of an antagonistic relation between Jewry and the other nations, symbolized by Jacob and Esau already struggling in the womb: “when one ascends, the other goes down; when the other ascends, the former goes down.” Esau is viewed by turn as a symbol of the hated Roman empire, of the Medieval Christian Church and, in a post-religious age, perhaps as the Gentile world generally. It is thus in the midrash, and thus in a classic medieval homileticist such as R. Nissim of Gerona, who devotes the 2nd chapter of his Derashot ha-Ran, immediately after the Creation, to this theme.

Secondly, as in the Akedah story, the modern reader is confronted here by profound moral problem: how are we to relate to Jacob’s underhanded methods? Twice in this section Jacob receives that which was due his brother: once, taking advantage of Esau’s weakness, he “buys” the birthright for a bowl of red lentil soup; a second time, using a deliberate, elaborate scheme to deceive his father, he gets the much-coveted blessing. Moreover, the text does not even criticize him; instead, we are told “and Esau despised the birthright” (25:34).

The traditional explanation is that Jacob was merely reclaiming that which was rightfully his, since the birthright essentially implied spiritual leadership, the one who was to continue the Abrahamic covenant with God. Esau is shown here as a grossly physical person, without any sense of moderation, returning from the hunt and saying “If I don’t eat right away, I’ll die!” (One is reminded of the old Yiddish joke of the visitor, asked by his hosts about various common acquaintances, and replying Geshtorben!” “He’s dead!,” finally explaining, “When I’m eating to satisfy my hunger, the whole world is as if dead!”) He even refers to the act of eating using a word usually used for the feeding of animals or fowl: Hal’iteni,” literally “stuff me with that red stuff.” Moreover, Rashi goes so far as to see that, since they were twins, Ya’akov was in any event really the firstborn because he was conceived first, describing the womb as a kind of narrow tube, in which what goes in first comes it last. Notwithstanding all this, for many of us the problems remain real ones. One is reminded too much of the most negative features of the Galut Jewish mentality: all’s fair in love and war where goyim are concerned. (More on the problem of Jacob’s character next week.)

Another question that bears further examination is why, of the little told regarding Isaac’s adult life as such (and sandwitched between the two phases of the Esau-Jacob competition), there are chosen the specific incidents recorded in Chapter 26: the incident in Gerar; the sowing of the land; the digging of wells; the pact with Abimelech.

A few other interesting sidelights: the motif used to explain the Akedah, that in fact God wanted Isaac to be made a sacrifice, but not to be killed, reappears here in two comments of Rashi. Two unique features of Yitzhak’s life, as against the other patriarchs—that he was monogamous, and that he never left the Land of Israel, are explained in terms of his being an “olah temimah”—a whole, pure offering—a status that he evidently retained throughout this life (analogous to that of a Nazirite?). See Rashi on 25:24 and 26:2. (Incidentally, Rashi , who is too often seen as a simple commentary for school children, filled with naive, preposterous interpretations, deserves deeper study. He represents the distillation of the classical old midrashic tradition, just before the multitude of new directions—philosophical, pietistic, scholastic, and Kabbalistic—taken by Judaism in the High Middle Ages.)

“And he smelled his clothing and said, ‘See the fragrance of my son, like the fragrance of the field, which God has blessed’” (27:27). There is something singularly clean and refreshing in this verse: the old man who, in the end, seems to find his way around life through his nose and loves, more than anything else, the vast open vistas of nature (see S. Yizhar et al). One is reminded of 8:21, where God himself mitigates his harsh verdict on humanity after smelling the “fragrance” of Noah’s sacrifice.

Finally, verse 40. After Esau coaxes “one last blessing” out of his father, he is told that he shall enjoy “the fat of the land and the dew of heaven” (there’s evidently enough of that to go around for all), and live by his sword. We then read the concluding phrase: “and when you rebel, you shall throw his yoke off your neck.” It seems interesting that, after being that it is the natural order for Jacob to rule Esau, he is blessed (or is it a simple statement of human nature?) that, in due time, he shall rebel! Perhaps this is my radical youth speaking here, but surely there is some affirmation here of the validity of the human impulse to freedom, of the throwing off of yokes of all sorts—even that of Yisrael Sabba!

Hayyei Sarah (archive)

Scenes from a Marriage

The Book of Bereshit (Genesis) may be read as a series of scenes presenting the archetypes that are the basic building blocks of human life: from the Creation of the universe itself, through the mysteries of human freedom, of sexuality, of the discovery of the lethal potential of violence of one man against another, of the propensity to hubris and challenging God, of the possibility of rank evil; introducing the world of human religious consciousness and spirituality with Abraham, the first God-intoxicated man, and his various tests and the difficult trials on his life path. In Hayyei Sarah (Gen 23-25:18) we encounter the next stage—the beginnings of family life. While Abraham was of course married, and Sarah even plays a pivotal role in certain moments in his life, the subject of marriage and family life per se is somehow peripheral to the concerns of the Abraham cycle.

Unlike the Ingrid Bergman film of the above-mentioned title, and the modern sensibility it reflects, the scenes that the Torah shows of marriage do not make sex—before, during and after—to be the center of marriage (notwithstanding Isaac’s giveaway “sporting” with his wife in 26:8). Nevertheless, marriage is clearly the central theme here. The two central vignettes around which Hayyei Sarah is focused capture, to my mind, the essence of Jewish marriage.

The parshah begins at the end: with the “summing up” (in Somerset Maugham’s apt phrase), the end of Abraham’s marriage to Sarah with her death. We have heard a great deal over the past three decades about how this section teaches us of the Jewish people’s claim to Eretz Yisrael, in general, and to the “city of the patriarchs,” in particular. To my mind, the human situation portrayed here, briefly but profoundly, is no less important. In moving terms, we see the widowed Abraham coming to Hebron “to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her.” (The modern sense of lispod in the sense of “eulogize,” to deliver a hesped, is later and secondary. The original sense is closer to “moaning” or “keening.”) Only then does he proceed to the business of buying the plot of land with the cave on it (contrary to current Jewish usage, where the formal mourning of shivah is specifically after burial). It is as if, with his partner’s death, he too is bereft, without any anchor or fixed point of being in his own life.

We are reminded of the Rabbinic dictum: “No woman dies save to her husband; no man dies but to his wife.” Children mourn for their parents, but in some sense everyone knows and accepts that it is the way of the world for one generation to pass on while another comes into full strength. (Indeed, in olden times it was customary among Jews for a man in his prime to wryly refer to his son as his “Kaddish’l”) At times, parents are bereaved of their offspring: surely that is the most poignant, bitter loss, and one all-too-familiar in contemporary Israeli society; Hebrew even has a special verb, shekhol, to refer to this form of bereavement. But it is the loss of a partner which is perhaps the most wrenching, removing the life companion who has been ones “missing limb.” The death of parents is the final end of childhood; the death of a child is the truncation of the future; but the death of a spouse is for many tantamount to the end of life itself. I remember our own mother, during the months following our father’s death, saying “my own life is over.”

Perhaps the Torah deliberately places this story here to introduce the theme of marriage by way of negation—revealing its centrality through the deep pain involved in its end. It is as if the Torah is telling Isaac: you are about to be married, to have a wife brought to you “on a silver platter,” arranged by your father’s emissary. By observing the mourning, the loss, the look on your father’s face on the day he came to bury Sarah, you may infer how deep and central it was to him: the symbiosis, the sheer mutual interdependence and support of her presence by his side.

For many of us, the figure of the widower has been an emblematic one in the Torah world. Three of the most innovative, dynamic leaders within Orthodox Jewry over the past generation, each of them a leader of a major camp—Rav Soloveitchik, Rav Zvi Yehudah Kook, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe—were widowers for extended periods. One of the most striking images is that of the Rav saying Kaddish for his beloved wife at every public prayer, and reciting Kaddish de-Rabanan at the end of every public Torah lecture (shiur): beginning from the day she died, continuing long past the end of the mourning year had ended, for over a decade, until he himself was no longer able to participate in public worship. The depth of the attachment, and of the loss, seemed to be symbolized in this simple gesture. We can somehow imagine Avraham Avinu in similar light.

As for the other pole: Yitzhak’s marriage to Rivkah. I referred before to “Scenes from a Marriage”; but of course these are really scenes from two different marriages—of Abraham and Sarah, and of Yitzhak and Rivkah. And yet, in one of the psychologically strangest, possibly most strikingly Freudian verse in the entire Torah, we read: “And Isaac brought her [Rebecca] to the tent, [of] Sarah his mother, and Isaac was comforted after his mother” (24:67). Rashi, following the midrash in Bereshit Rabbah (60.16) elaborating on the absence of the conjuctive shel (“of”) between the words “tent” and “Sarah his mother,” reads the verse, “and be brought her to the tent, [and she was] Sarah his mother.” True, he immediately qualifies this, saying that it is to be understood metaphorically: i.e., that she resembled, or assumed, the persona of Sarah, by her actions and by the blessing brought about by her presence in the tent. Nevertheless, the straightforward sense of the midrash is that in some metaphysical or symbolic sense Rebekah actually became Sarah. Isaac’s marriage is not painted in romantic, but primarily in familial colors. The son is dependent upon a maternal figure—even if his own wife. As if, already from the beginning, he was calling her “imma” or “mother,” liked old married couples. If you will (and this is strongly supported by the literal meaning of the verse itself), the wife and the mother in some sense play the same psychological role in a man’s life: most basically, of building a home in which to live. Ishto, zo beito (“His wife is his home”).

One can imagine Abraham and Isaac, during the period following Sarah’s death, living in the manner of bachelors—without the grace and invitingness provided by the proverbial woman’s touch. Busy with their round of masculine pursuits—whether roughly physical, subduing the stubborn intransigence of the material world, or lost in abstract intellectual endeavors, like the withdrawn, contemplative Torah scholar or mystic in which light Isaac is portrayed— they see the tent, the home, as merely a place in which to put their head for the night. Until Rebecca comes, and once again there is a candle burning from Sabbath eve to Sabbath eve, symbolizing domesticity and warmth; a cloud is spread over the tent—symbolizing the Divine presence; the doors are open wide in all four directions, signaling hospitality and a home to the wayfarer; and, finally, there is blessing in the dough.

I am not advocating here a simplistic return to Home and Hearth, or the “three K’s” (Kirche, kuche und kinder) associated with women’s provenance in Germanic culture, but to something deeper. There often seems a tent-like, nomadic aspect to modern culture. Today’s urban centers are so work-oriented, for both men and women, that there seems an absence of the sense of the home as a serious center, as a focus for life energy. This is of course diametrically opposed to the Judaic scale of values.

“And Isaac went out to meditate in the field” (Gen 24:63)

We see here the figure of Isaac as an intensely introverted, inwardly-turning man, going out to meditate in the field towards evening. There is a sense of an inactive, quiet figure; given to long, lonely walks, not overly involved in matters of this world. The Sages use this verse to infer that Yitzhak introduced Minhah, the Afternoon Prayer—perhaps significantly so. Unlike Abraham, who instituted Shaharit —“and Abraham rose early in the morning”— a busy individual, who has plenty to do in the course of a day after davening; Isaac is a dreamy contemplative, whom we can imagine spending long hours spent alone in thought and reflection.

An Orientalist at Bar-Ilan University, Dr. Yosef Drori, has suggested that this passage does not refer to systematic meditation or prayer, or even to “going after his thoughts.” Rather, it was a kind of opening up without any predetermined purpose; walking about in nature to simply feel the presence of God, like the Sufist or other Quietists. (This is apparently suggested by the Arabic root sah).

Abraham and Jacob are familiar human types: Abraham is portrayed, at least in the well-known midrashic image, as the warm, generous hevra’man, concerned about others, caring about their needs, drawing them near, teaching—while constantly focused, on another level of consciousness, on a clear, intimate sense of God’s presence. Jacob is the doer, a somewhat morally ambiguous figure, who undergoes a complex zig-zag path of personal growth and problematic interpersonal encounters in all kinds of situations; an ambitious person, always on the move. Isaac, by contrast, is more difficult—and perhaps there is even something frightening, disturbing in him to other people. He is involved in delving deeply into himself—the symbolism of the wells. His stillness and inwardness is disturbing and hard to comprehend—yet it is the very heart, the very stuff and substance, of his experience.