Each week, find a commentary on something connected to verses of Torah or another source of wisdom
Each week, find a commentary on something connected to verses of Torah or another source of wisdom
The Genesis:3 Project
May El Shaddai bless you, make you fertile and numerous, so that you become an assembly of peoples. Genesis 28:3
When our kids were little our extended family would spend a week or so each summer in Bethany Beach, Delaware. (We have since relocated the vacation to Rehoboth Beach.) The family friendly town has a main street that extends from the ocean to the state highway, and each summer we would explore the old favorites and the new businesses that populated the commercial district.
Of course, there was candy, sunscreen, popcorn, boogie boards, ice cream and beer in most of the same locations each season. But one summer, a Christian book store made a valiant attempt to turn a profit half a block from the beach. I did not do a scientific survey, but I did try to notice if anyone was reading the “Left Behind” series on the sand. Few enough people chose righteous fiction over trash that the store was not there the next summer.
But I did make a purchase in the store. I bought three baseball caps emblazoned with the words “El Shaddai – God Almighty.” At the time, there were three rabbis in our congregation and I figured we could have a gang: the El Shaddais. Somewhere in my closet is that hat, though I do not know if the other two survived moves to Massachusetts and California. The gang never materialized.
In fact, I doubt I wore the hat much. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed a little blasphemous. It is a funny word to come out of me; my sense of humor borders frequently on the inappropriate. I doubt that the proprietors of the store considered the hat to be a joke, even if the logo put the cap in the same category as sports teams, rock stars and even politicians. Wearing a Cubs cap doesn’t make me a member of the team (if only…), but somehow walking around with one of the names of God on my head seemed both presumptuous and disrespectful.
Thinking about it now, I was simply drawing me line in the sand (on the beach?) in a different place. Like much of America, I have become accustomed to vulgarities referencing sexual intimacy and fecal matter and five other words that made George Carlin famous. If George were alive today, he would hear them spoken on television (at least cable). While I applaud the freedom of expression that removes some of the shock from this neighborhood of vocabulary, the familiarization coarse language actually diminishes our ability to express true outrage (in my opinion).
And so the same thing must apply to the opposite end of the spectrum. Though some folks consider prudish the substitution of "gosh" or even "golly" for "god" in exclamations of alarm or surprise, others who try hard to observe literally the mandate of the third commandment remain disheartened by the trivialization of the last letter in "OMG." We are less able to express awe and reverence when our vocabulary for those genuine feelings has been co-opted by Kardashians and presidential tweets.
I am not the right person to offer you instruction in purity of language. But I do want to encourage you to try to recapture the power of both epithet and sacred terms. In many ways, like our current political state of affairs, when people flee to the margins, there is very little sense of boundaries. When "phooey" and "shoot" are considered too juvenile to be serviceable, "goodness" and "gol' durn it" no longer protect the invocation of the divine, even inside the precincts of a house of worship.
Isaac invoked a name of God previously unknown to Jacob's generation. Its origin is the subject of some debate – is El Shaddai meant to convey a sense of nurture or is it a slight mispronunciation of the term meaning "God of the fields?" Its special use added to the blessing this father wanted to convey to his son: prosperity, family, legacy. He rested this name on Jacob's head with reverence and love.
But not as a logo on a baseball cap.
The Genesis:3 Project
Take your gear, your quiver and bow, and go out into the open and hunt me some game. Genesis 27:3
I remember the story that Leonard Fein, of blessed memory, used as an introduction to his book Where Are We? some twenty-five years ago. His telling was wonderful and used extravagant language, but I boil it down to the punchline. A Jew in Europe represented to his non-Jewish friend that Jews were morally superior because they don’t hunt. The non-Jew responded with disdain, “You don’t hunt because we won’t let you have guns.”
I have written before about my friend David Currie from San Angelo, Texas. He is a hunter who has drawn many lessons about life and ethics from his love of hunting. He likely has a much better relationship with the miracles and mysteries at the beginning and end of life because he attends to the well-being of the herds he raises and culls on his ranch. When he reads this verse from the Bible, he understands what Jacob is asking of Esau.
Not me. In the fifty years or so that I have lived in and taught about the Jewish dietary laws, kashrut, I have been unable to imagine hunting as a pastime, let alone a profession. Proponents of hunting (and not just the over-the-top big game sportsmen) may consider me something of a wuss. They might rightly suggest that I am willing to consume the harvest of meat produced commercially but unwilling to participate in the production of that food for myself. Opponents of eating meat at all, on the other hand, may consider me something of a hypocrite. They might rightly suggest that I am willing to rationalize the taking of life for my own enjoyment as long as I don’t have to do it myself.
But I am not alone. Throughout the long, long history of Biblical commentary, Jewish scholars have twisted and turned to explain away Isaac’s request to his son. The faithful rabbis who looked at the verse above could not imagine that Isaac did not keep kosher much the same as they did, even if the dietary laws were not revealed for many generations or refined for many more generations. Isaac, they believed, learned kashrut from his father Abraham, who intuited all of the Torah long before it was delivered to Moses. And Esau, the recipient of the instructions, was reminded by his father of the five steps necessary for kosher slaughter by an extraneous letter at the end of the word for “game,” according to a number of the commentators.
I admire their piety, even if I am possessed of a skepticism about their teachings. They, like me, were repelled by the notion of hunting – even the ones who worked as ritual slaughterers. Likely they believed, like the Jew in Fein’s story, that they were somehow more refined and morally evolved than those who would wage war on innocent animals.
Mind you, there were not many Jewish scholars who suggested that Jews did not fight when necessary. There are probably just as many verses in the Bible devoted to instructions and stories about armed conflict as there are about ritual preparation of animals for food and sacrifice. Our post-Biblical history is filled with examples of Maccabees and anti-Roman guerillas and mercenaries around the Mediterranean. And the past hundred years have seen the resurgence of that Jewish reputation as fierce warriors.
But hunting seemed – I don’t know – somehow gratuitous to them. Combined with the strict prohibition in the Torah against consuming blood, it just mostly isn’t done. Finding Jewish hunters has been rare and finding religious Jewish hunters has been rarer still. When Jews use weapons for sport, they are aiming at inanimate objects, clay discs or digital images.
So does our aversion to hunting that is so deeply ingrained that we offer sacred misreadings of the Bible make us the morally superior human beings that Leonard Fein’s Jew claims we are?
Now it is worth back-filling the story. The conversation with the non-Jew was initiated when the Jew grew weary of speculation about a return to the Holy City of Jerusalem with his Jewish friends. But when they heard the scorn of the non-Jew, they became sudden proponents of returning immediately to the Land.
“We must go there immediately!” they declared. “There we will carry guns as free men and we will show them that even with guns we will not become hunters.”
Of course, the story implies a rueful ending. But it raises intriguing questions. Were we better off with the self-deception that came with lack of opportunity? Are we indeed able to live up to the better angels we claim to emulate? Can we really afford to be so selective about the lessons of our past? I am certain you can think of others.
I have one more. A new friend of mine from my interfaith work is an Evangelical pastor from the deep south. He has done remarkable work in building bridges with Muslims, some of it by taking imams on a hunting trip. The offer will be open to me as he seeks to expand his outreach. It will require me to answer in the singular the question Leonard Fein adapted for his book title: where am I?
The Genesis:3 Project
Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you, and will bless you; for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will fulfill the oath which I swore to Abraham your father Genesis 26:3
I am a complete introvert. People who know me almost very well will find that statement laughable because I have developed an “act” that enables me to engage with just about anyone. But I can’t think of anything less comfortable for me than being in a roomful of people I don’t know. I always feel like a stranger.
It’s my guess that my circumstance is not so unusual. While I have met people who at least appear to be able to initiate and maintain conversations with people familiar and unknown alike, the desire to flee to the safety of a good book or family or a comfortable chair and the TV remote is widespread. The feeling that I don’t quite fit in, I don’t quite belong here is pretty usual.
Even in the most native of circumstances that feeling of being alien can present itself. Middle school is defined by that feeling. The self-assured rabbi, preacher or imam can, with one sermon, turn a small private doubt into fear of excommunication. And if, while sitting through Thanksgiving dinner, a Passover seder or a family wedding, you have not wondered if you were adopted or, perhaps, dropped from another planet, you are likely the only self-assured human being alive today.
Feeling like a stranger, even in a familiar land, is, I think, the normal state of being.
But what if it is not just normal but intentional? That is, what if we are meant always to feel not quite at home?
I have been considering this notion because of a conversation with my very wise wife. As I complained that I was having trouble coming up with the framing of the conversation for our seder, she raised the subject of being strangers. Moses named his son “Gershom,” which means “stranger there,” explaining, “I was a stranger in a strange land.” The declaration from the Torah we read at the seder affirms that my father went down to Egypt va-yagar sham, often translated “and sojourned there,” but really carrying the meaning that he was a resident alien there. But even when speaking to Isaac about remaining in the land, God instructs him, “Sojourn in this land,” the word for “sojourn” again carrying the notion of being a stranger: gur ba’aretz hazot, be not quite a settled resident in this land, which, by the way, has been given to you. The same word appears dozens of times in the Bible, distinctly different from the words that mean “live,” “dwell,” “permanently settle” and, as the Passover story contrasts, “become immersed.”
Not only that, but the instruction to treat the stranger well is, famously, the most-repeated commandment in the Torah. And often included is the reminder that we ourselves know what it is like to be strangers.
It is the human condition – feeling alienated, separated, different from everyone and everything around us. Maybe we weren’t created that way, but since the expulsion from the Garden of Eden we have never been quite at home.
In my research on the question for the seder, I found a remarkable confluence of explanations for this peculiar framing of our circumstances. Only by remaining alienated are we prepared to be liberated. Only by maintaining a level of discomfort are we willing to be redeemed. Only by not settling permanently into our situation – the Haggadah calls it “submergence” – are we ready to be rescued – to “emerge.” Those slaves who were too comfortable in Egypt stayed behind. Those Egyptians who felt like strangers in a familiar land were the “mixed multitude” that joined the departing Israelites.
The lesson is that being a stranger is a blessing. It keeps us from becoming complacent, entitled and insensitive to difference. As much as it provokes a homesickness for an unknown home, being a stranger means always being ready to be redeemed.
I have three conclusions to share with you.
The first is religious. Estrangement from God is known in our tradition by an old-timey name: sin. Being a stranger to God is existentially lonely. Being assured that reconciliation is not only possible but desired through contrition and forgiveness is a powerful way to be lifted up. If God can make the stranger into an intimate, so can we.
The second is political. Only when we see our common state of being with the stranger to our land can we do the right thing. We were all strangers, to coin a phrase. We are all strangers, to modify it a bit. To define the stranger as less-than, as a de facto enemy, is to prevent us from addressing our own alienation.
The third is cosmological. The tiny bit of mass and energy that allows us to stand up, walk around and think we are unique yearns to be reunited with the stardust from which is was separated. And it will be. Being unique means being separated from everything else because that’s what unique is -- different. But there will come a time for each of us when we will no longer be a stranger. I leave it to you to decide if that is cause for mourning or for joy.
The Genesis:3 Project
And Yokshan begot Sh’ba, and D’dan. And the sons of D’dan were Asshurim, and Letushim, and Leummim. Genesis 25:3
If you’re going to be honest, you probably have a somewhat negative attitude toward “brand promotion” these days. Even though names and icons that resonate with a product have been a part of our lives for a very long time, somehow the practice of associating desirable (or undesirable) associations with a personal name has been more than a little overdone of late.
Yet here we are in the very middle of the Book of Genesis, thinking we have long since left the “begats” behind, and Abraham’s second family is abruptly tracked unto the third and fourth generation. Why do we care, especially about names that are NEVER bestowed on Jewish children and sound more like the back-up vocals in a doo-wop song?
According to at least one historical commentary, these offspring of Abraham were not so incidental back in the day (well, way, way back in the day). His sons by the wife of his very old age turned out to be associated with the spice and fragrance trade – frankincense and myrrh and other exotic and expensive commodities were how the boys and their kids made a living. And it was likely a very nice living. When people bought some frankincense to freshen up the tent, they likely knew where it came from as surely as someone today knows who is (at least symbolically) responsible for Chanel No. 5.
Abraham’s brand has always been as the patriarch of the Jewish people. Indeed, when non-Jews convert to our tradition, they are given the title “child of Abraham.” These days, it is the custom to include Sarah as well, but her story is unrelated to his second family. Abraham is claimed as patriarch, physical or spiritual, of Islam and Christianity as well.
But this little nugget of lineage, tucked between the death of Sarah and the transition to the next generation of Hebrews, is good evidence that people have more than one story line in them.
The network of exotic plant and resin merchants created by the offspring of Abraham and Ketura must have resonated with earlier listeners to the stories of Genesis. The spice trade was good business then and still is today. Along with silk, incense and precious gems, routes to distant and unfamiliar centers of commerce allowed the fame of Abraham to spread. The family-based network became as much a model for Jews (and others) as his response to God’s call.
I have to imagine, because I have no evidence, that Abraham impressed on his youngest children and grandchildren the importance of maintaining the honor and integrity of the family name. The Abraham brand was unique – just like God – and easily damaged by misconduct. Yokshan and his brothers (named in other verses) did not grow up as their father built his legacy. It awaited them at their birth, part silver spoon, part albatross.
Then, as now, it was not unusual for a man to have multiple families. (It was much less usual for a woman.) There are all sorts of instructions in the Bible about how a man must treat the offspring of former wives and later wives, recognizing that some marriages don't work out, but that the children must not be made to suffer. Perhaps it is unavoidable in such circumstances that the father will have favorites and, therefore, less favorites. But as a later story involving Abraham's grandson Jacob and his boys will illustrate, nothing good comes of loving one child more than the others.
Still, Abraham protected his estate and his legacy by bequeathing everything he had to Jacob. To his other kids, he gave gifts. Maybe that sounds unfair...or maybe not. To be sure, Isaac was the heir to Abraham's land holdings, material wealth and household. But among the gifts Abraham seems to have given the sons of Ketura was the ability to follow a different path. They did not have to compete with Isaac for Abraham's brand.
Isaac always lived in Abraham's shadow. But the others made their own way, thanks to the life of spice.