Tuesday, July 31, 2018

929- Genesis 13: A Fundamental Difference in Lot & Abraham's Natures

When reading Genesis 13, I was struck by a particular verse. It's Genesis 13:6

ו  וְלֹא-נָשָׂא אֹתָם הָאָרֶץ, לָשֶׁבֶת יַחְדָּו:  כִּי-הָיָה רְכוּשָׁם רָב, וְלֹא יָכְלוּ לָשֶׁבֶת יַחְדָּו.6 And the land was not able to bear them, that they might dwell together; for their substance was great, so that they could not dwell together.

The reason this verse struck me was because it personifies the land. It suggests the land is unable to bear both Lot and Avraham. Why should this be so? The implication that immediately came to mind is that Lot might have already shown signs of problematic (or sinful) behavior. The reason I thought this might be plausible is because we later find out that the land of Israel has special properties and cannot bear sin. See Leviticus 18:24-28.

כד  אַל-תִּטַּמְּאוּ, בְּכָל-אֵלֶּה:  כִּי בְכָל-אֵלֶּה נִטְמְאוּ הַגּוֹיִם, אֲשֶׁר-אֲנִי מְשַׁלֵּחַ מִפְּנֵיכֶם.24 Defile not ye yourselves in any of these things; for in all these the nations are defiled, which I cast out from before you.
כה  וַתִּטְמָא הָאָרֶץ, וָאֶפְקֹד עֲוֺנָהּ עָלֶיהָ; וַתָּקִא הָאָרֶץ, אֶת-יֹשְׁבֶיהָ.25 And the land was defiled, therefore I did visit the iniquity thereof upon it, and the land vomited out her inhabitants.
כו  וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אַתֶּם, אֶת-חֻקֹּתַי וְאֶת-מִשְׁפָּטַי, וְלֹא תַעֲשׂוּ, מִכֹּל הַתּוֹעֵבֹת הָאֵלֶּה:  הָאֶזְרָח, וְהַגֵּר הַגָּר בְּתוֹכְכֶם.26 Ye therefore shall keep My statutes and Mine ordinances, and shall not do any of these abominations; neither the home-born, nor the stranger that sojourneth among you--
כז  כִּי אֶת-כָּל-הַתּוֹעֵבֹת הָאֵל, עָשׂוּ אַנְשֵׁי-הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר לִפְנֵיכֶם; וַתִּטְמָא, הָאָרֶץ.27 for all these abominations have the men of the land done, that were before you, and the land is defiled--
כח  וְלֹא-תָקִיא הָאָרֶץ אֶתְכֶם, בְּטַמַּאֲכֶם אֹתָהּ, כַּאֲשֶׁר קָאָה אֶת-הַגּוֹי, אֲשֶׁר לִפְנֵיכֶם.28 that the land vomit not you out also, when ye defile it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you.
I did a quick search and discovered that the only other place (at least that I could find) where the land is described as being unable to bear two people is when Jacob and Esau are referenced. This appears in Genesis 36:6-8.

ו  וַיִּקַּח עֵשָׂו אֶת-נָשָׁיו וְאֶת-בָּנָיו וְאֶת-בְּנֹתָיו, וְאֶת-כָּל-נַפְשׁוֹת בֵּיתוֹ, וְאֶת-מִקְנֵהוּ וְאֶת-כָּל-בְּהֶמְתּוֹ וְאֵת כָּל-קִנְיָנוֹ, אֲשֶׁר רָכַשׁ בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן; וַיֵּלֶךְ אֶל-אֶרֶץ, מִפְּנֵי יַעֲקֹב אָחִיו.6 And Esau took his wives, and his sons, and his daughters, and all the souls of his house, and his cattle, and all his beasts, and all his possessions, which he had gathered in the land of Canaan; and went into a land away from his brother Jacob.
ז  כִּי-הָיָה רְכוּשָׁם רָב, מִשֶּׁבֶת יַחְדָּו; וְלֹא יָכְלָה אֶרֶץ מְגוּרֵיהֶם, לָשֵׂאת אֹתָם--מִפְּנֵי, מִקְנֵיהֶם.7 For their substance was too great for them to dwell together; and the land of their sojournings could not bear them because of their cattle.
ח  וַיֵּשֶׁב עֵשָׂו בְּהַר שֵׂעִיר, עֵשָׂו הוּא אֱדוֹם.8 And Esau dwelt in the mountain-land of Seir--Esau is Edom.

We know that Esau is seen to be a sinner, or at least to allow sin in his household, even according to the peshat, because he marries women outside of the family construct and religion (see Genesis 26:34-35 and 27:46). This supports my thesis that the land could not bear Abraham and Lot together, not simply because there wasn't enough grass to support both their flocks, but because they were fundamentally different- one was given to sin and one was not.

So then I perused some commentaries and found that the Netziv says exactly what I intuited.

ולא יכלו לשבת יחדו. הוא כפל לשון. ובא ללמדנו דלא משום שלא הספיקה מרעה הארץ לצאנם כמו דכתיב להלן ל״ו ז׳ ולא יכלה ארץ מגוריהם לשאת אותם מפני מקניהם. אלא משום שהיו הטבעים רחוקים ולא היה לוט לצוותא לאברם כי אם מרחוק. אבל יחדיו לא יכלו לשבת. ובאשר היה רכושם רב היו מוכרחים לפגוע זב״ז. והיתה פגישתם למשא על אברם ומ״מ לא מצא אברם עדיין לב להגיד לו להפרד עד.

So now the question is- at this point, what exactly is Lot's flaw? In what way is his nature different from Abraham's? And how can we determine it from this point in the narrative (prior to his having done anything that could be seen as problematic, such as the episode with his daughters?)

My suggestion is that the fundamental difference between Abraham and Lot has to do with how much appearance matters to them. Lot is led astray by his eyes while Abraham is not. Here's what I mean by this.

In Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" there is a scene where Portia's suitors must choose between three caskets- one made of gold, one made of silver and one made of lead- in order to win her. Her portrait is within one of the caskets. Each casket bears a legend. The gold one reads "Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire." The silver one reads "Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves." The lead one states "Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath." The point, of course, is to make sure the suitor is worthy.

Those who choose by appearance alone are caught in a trap. Morocco does so, choosing the gold, and here is what happens:
O hell! what have we here?
A carrion Death, within whose empty eye
There is a written scroll! I'll read the writing.
ReadsAll that glitters is not gold;
Often have you heard that told:Many a man his life hath soldBut my outside to behold:Gilded tombs do worms enfold.Had you been as wise as bold,
Young in limbs, in judgment old,
Your answer had not been inscroll'd:
Fare you well; your suit is cold.
Cold, indeed; and labour lost:
Then, farewell, heat, and welcome, frost!
Portia, adieu. I have too grieved a heart
To take a tedious leave: thus losers part.
We know that Lot chooses his future dwelling place by appearance alone (Genesis 13:10-11).

י  וַיִּשָּׂא-לוֹט אֶת-עֵינָיו, וַיַּרְא אֶת-כָּל-כִּכַּר הַיַּרְדֵּן, כִּי כֻלָּהּ, מַשְׁקֶה--לִפְנֵי שַׁחֵת יְהוָה, אֶת-סְדֹם וְאֶת-עֲמֹרָה, כְּגַן-יְהוָה כְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, בֹּאֲכָה צֹעַר.10 And Lot lifted up his eyes, and beheld all the plain of the Jordan, that it was well watered every where, before the LORD destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt, as thou goest unto Zoar.
יא  וַיִּבְחַר-לוֹ לוֹט, אֵת כָּל-כִּכַּר הַיַּרְדֵּן, וַיִּסַּע לוֹט, מִקֶּדֶם; וַיִּפָּרְדוּ, אִישׁ מֵעַל אָחִיו.11 So Lot chose him all the plain of the Jordan; and Lot journeyed east; and they separated themselves the one from the other.

Lot is not at fault for selecting a place that would be good for pasturing his flock, but one can argue he is at fault for not a) seeking to learn more about the inhabitants of the town prior to moving there and b) not leaving the place once he is able to determine what they are like. Additionally, the very methodology behind his choice (focusing on appearance) is problematic because it is a repeat of the exact sin that Eve commits earlier in Genesis 3:6.

ו  וַתֵּרֶא הָאִשָּׁה כִּי טוֹב הָעֵץ לְמַאֲכָל וְכִי תַאֲוָה-הוּא לָעֵינַיִם, וְנֶחְמָד הָעֵץ לְהַשְׂכִּיל, וַתִּקַּח מִפִּרְיוֹ, וַתֹּאכַל; וַתִּתֵּן גַּם-לְאִישָׁהּ עִמָּהּ, וַיֹּאכַל.6 And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat; and she gave also unto her husband with her, and he did eat.
(I believe Rabbi David Fohrman of AlephBeta addresses this in some detail in one of his video series.)

In contrast to Lot, Abraham is someone who specifically does not look at appearances. Note that when Sarai, his wife, is first referenced in the text, her looks are not mentioned at all (see Genesis 11:29).

כט  וַיִּקַּח אַבְרָם וְנָחוֹר לָהֶם, נָשִׁים:  שֵׁם אֵשֶׁת-אַבְרָם, שָׂרָי, וְשֵׁם אֵשֶׁת-נָחוֹר מִלְכָּה, בַּת-הָרָן אֲבִי-מִלְכָּה וַאֲבִי יִסְכָּה.29 And Abram and Nahor took them wives: the name of Abram's wife was Sarai; and the name of Nahor's wife, Milcah, the daughter of Haran, the father of Milcah, and the father of Iscah.
Only in Genesis 12:11 are her looks mentioned:

א  וַיְהִי, כַּאֲשֶׁר הִקְרִיב לָבוֹא מִצְרָיְמָה; וַיֹּאמֶר, אֶל-שָׂרַי אִשְׁתּוֹ, הִנֵּה-נָא יָדַעְתִּי, כִּי אִשָּׁה יְפַת-מַרְאֶה אָתְּ.11 And it came to pass, when he was come near to enter into Egypt, that he said unto Sarai his wife: 'Behold now, I know that thou art a fair woman to look upon.
יב  וְהָיָה, כִּי-יִרְאוּ אֹתָךְ הַמִּצְרִים, וְאָמְרוּ, אִשְׁתּוֹ זֹאת; וְהָרְגוּ אֹתִי, וְאֹתָךְ יְחַיּוּ.12 And it will come to pass, when the Egyptians shall see thee, that they will say: This is his wife; and they will kill me, but thee they will keep alive.
Why is this? There are a few reasons. The simplest is that Sarai's looks were not relevant to the story line until now, and thus they are only mentioned now. But I think the more compelling reason is that when Sarai and Abram are introduced, the Torah wants to make abundantly clear that Abram is not a base individual. He does not crave, lust after and marry Sarai because she is beautiful. If anything, based on a number of commentaries and Abraham's own admission later, he marries her because she is a member of the family.

What this suggests is a fundamental difference between Lot and Abraham that is portrayed in the Torah from the get-go. Lot is the kind of person who looks at the outside and judges by appearances. Abraham is the kind of person who looks at the inside, judges a person by their worth, and only references the outside appearance when he must.

A person who cares about image and status is someone who looks to appearances and does not do further research. A person who cares about depth and is driven by mission as opposed to image or status is not concerned with appearances.

Abraham continues to demonstrate his focus on meaning and mission as opposed to image and status when, in the next chapter, he categorically refuses to benefit from the profits reaped in saving his kinsman Lot (Genesis 14:22-23) during a battle:

כב  וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָם, אֶל-מֶלֶךְ סְדֹם:  הֲרִמֹתִי יָדִי אֶל-יְהוָה אֵל עֶלְיוֹן, קֹנֵה שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ.22 And Abram said to the king of Sodom: 'I have lifted up my hand unto the LORD, God Most High, Maker of heaven and earth,
כג  אִם-מִחוּט וְעַד שְׂרוֹךְ-נַעַל, וְאִם-אֶקַּח מִכָּל-אֲשֶׁר-לָךְ; וְלֹא תֹאמַר, אֲנִי הֶעֱשַׁרְתִּי אֶת-אַבְרָם.23 that I will not take a thread nor a shoe-latchet nor aught that is thine, lest thou shouldest say: I have made Abram rich;

Indeed, he specifically mentions God (referencing his monotheistic beliefs as opposed to the common idolatrous ones) and credits God with the victory.

If we identify Lot's flaw as his being overly concerned with appearance, and thus image and status, we can come to understand his disturbing thought process when he privileges unknown strangers over his own virgin daughters (Genesis 19:8).

ח  הִנֵּה-נָא לִי שְׁתֵּי בָנוֹת, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדְעוּ אִישׁ--אוֹצִיאָה-נָּא אֶתְהֶן אֲלֵיכֶם, וַעֲשׂוּ לָהֶן כַּטּוֹב בְּעֵינֵיכֶם; רַק לָאֲנָשִׁים הָאֵל, אַל-תַּעֲשׂוּ דָבָר, כִּי-עַל-כֵּן בָּאוּ, בְּצֵל קֹרָתִי.8 Behold now, I have two daughters that have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as is good in your eyes; only unto these men do nothing; forasmuch as they are come under the shadow of my roof.'

To Lot, maintaining the appearance of being a welcoming, hospitable host who upholds guest-right is more important than his daughters' welfare.

Unfortunately, even today there are far too many people who are concerned with maintaining appearances while their own brethren suffer:

Let us hope that we allow for more Abrahams and fewer Lots going forward.

Monday, July 30, 2018

The 929 Post

I am super excited to embark upon my 929 Tanakh Study journey! For those of you wondering what this is, here is a brief introduction:

There are 929 chapters in Tanakh (also known as the Bible, Prophets and Writings). In Israel, the 929 initiative is the initiative to learn one chapter of Tanakh each day five days a week. The goal is for everyone to rediscover their cultural heritage, no matter whether they are observant or an avowed non-practicing atheist. The Tanakh belongs to all of us, and if we are all learning it, we can all discuss it with each other.

In that vein, I am hoping to learn a chapter a day and post up some thoughts, musings and ideas inspired by the chapter. Depending on the amount of time I have, some posts will likely be fleshed out and others will be quite short.

What should make this fun is that when I learn I like to engage with other texts, bring in pop culture, connect the ideas to lyrics of my favorite songs, reference film and otherwise be playful. So if you have any interest in Tanakh or in anything else I just mentioned, bookmark this page- as it's where I hope to update/ include all of my musings on the Tanakh I learn!

Happy learning!


Post 1- Genesis 13: A Fundamental Difference in Lot & Abraham's Natures 
Post 2- Genesis 14: A King of Sodom Who Does Not Embody Middat
Post 3- Genesis 15: Torchbearers
Post 4- Genesis 16: Our Matriarch Sarah, Worthy of Compassion 
Post 5-Genesis 17: Blood Parity

Monday, July 09, 2018

A Theory of Self-Integration

One of the statements Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik makes that I find most profound is found in Halakhic Man, pages 93-94:
The Halakhah, however, rejects such a personality split, such a spiritual schizophrenia. It does not differentiate between the man who stands in his house of worship, engaged in ritual activities, and the mortal who must wage the arduous battle of life. The Halakhah declares that man stands before God not only in the synagogue but also in the public domain, in his house, while on a journey, while lying down and rising up. [Emph mine] "And thou shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thy house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down and when thou risest up" (Deut 6:7).  
 The primary difference between halakhic man and homo religiosus is that while the latter prefers the spirit to the body, the soul to its mortal frame, as the main actor in the religious drama, the former, as has been stated above, wishes to sanctify the physical-biological concrete man as the hero and protagonist of religious life. Therefore, the whole notion of ritual assumes a special form in Judaism. The standard notion of ritual prevalent among religious men-i.e., ritual as a nonrational religious act whose whole purpose is to lift man up from concrete reality to celestial realms- is totally foreign to Judaism. 
 According to the outlook of Halakhah, the service of God (with the exception of the study of the Torah) can be carried out only through the implementation, the actualization of its principles in the real world. The ideal of righteousness is the guiding light of this world-view. Halakhic man's most fervent desire is the perfection of the world under the dominion of righteousness and loving-kindness- the realization of the a priori, ideal creation, whose name is Torah (or Halakhah), in the realm of concrete life. The Halakhah is not hermetically enclosed within the confines of cult sanctuaries but penetrates into every nook and cranny of life. The marketplace, the street, the factory, the house, the meeting place, the banquet hall, all constitute the backdrop for the religious life. The synagogue does not occupy a central place in Judaism. [emph mine]" 
 In Worship of the Heart, pages 167-168, he also writes:
 The prophets protested against the view that man's world is divided into two domains, the secular and the sacred, and that, within the former, man is free to behave as he desires, without subjecting himself to the yoke of commandment and duty. They protested against the view that it is only in the second domain (the sacred) that man must serve God, and that as long as one discharges one's cultic obligations, all is well. The prophets did not tolerate the outlook which says that God requires only one region to be consecrated to His Name, only one region in which man is to unburden himself of the yoke of his many calculations and consecrate himself to the single purpose of worshipping God in holiness. They protested against discontinuity between the secular and sacred domains. [emph mine] They opposed the strange leap from the secular to the sacred, from the defiled to the pure. Against all these phenomena the prophets remonstrated, as well as against the occluded heart that howls sublime utterances and the personality that is insolent outside the Temple, but genuflects and abases itself within its precincts. Any disjunction of the self, any hypocrisy connected with such two-faced conduct, aroused the prophets' abhorrence and revulsion. Worship in the Temple and worship of the heart are both rooted in man's existence as a singular being endowed with identity and continuity. Both prayer and sacrifice are retrospective. The praying person pauses for a moment in his hurried life and looks back at what has been done; if what was done is dishonest and impure, the prayer is an abomination.
Both statements speak to the need for a person to be self-integrated. A person should feel complete. There should not be a divide between the part of themselves they view as secular and the part of them they view as sacred. They are one person, and as one person, they should connect with God. It does not matter where they are - at home or at synagogue. No matter where they are, God is there, too.

However, what I often find is that our students in Jewish day schools feel fractured. They open their sefarim in our Chumash classes but also listen to secular pop music and watch movies. They don't know how to resolve these disparate parts of their identity, so they keep them separate.

My goal as a teacher is to help students become more self-integrated. I do not believe a person can learn Torah, or indeed, truly connect with God, if they do not know who they are or what they stand for. I think students should own their identities- even the parts of them that religious figures might judge. Ideally, what I strive to help students do is to actually use the secular parts of their identity to enhance the religious parts. We are raising sparks, if you will. One of my favorite assignments in class is a playlist project where students have to use the lyrics from music they listen to to depict the relationship between God and Bnei Yisrael in Jeremiah 2. A student said something that struck me: "I liked that I could use the music I actually listen to in this assignment. I feel like with other teachers I would have had to change the music."

This is not an uncommon perception. Many times the Judaic Studies teachers at a given day school are more to the right than their student body. On the one hand, this can be a good thing- it may cause the students to have an encounter with people who are different from them, and this may lead to inspiration or a desire to become more like that individual. On the other hand, it seems to suggest to the students that they are not enough as they are- that there is no way for them to forge an authentic relationship with God if they listen to pop music that includes explicit lyrics, for example. They would need to hide that part of themselves (or indeed, get rid of it) to find God.

It's this message that I reject. We should accept each child as they are. As my friend Jewish Atheist stated long ago, to accept is not to condone. I may not think it is proper to eat dairy at a non-kosher or non-hechshered restaurant, but I can accept and love the child who does so. She doesn't need to hide it from me. It will not get in the way of my ability to teach her. In fact, I think she ought to think about it further. Why does she eat there? Does she truly not think it is wrong- and if so, why is that? How is she interpreting the halachot? Or is it that her friends are going there, and she doesn't want to be the one person who refuses to go along with them? Knowing why she does the things she does will help her to know herself better. Knowing herself better will enable her to form a more honest, real connection to God. It is okay to stand before God and say, "I am not yet doing everything I should be. But here is where I am right now, and please take me as I am." It's also okay to stand before God and say, "I believe I am serving you correctly, and here's why." The point is to make the person think about it- to consider what they do.

It's even better if we can take things that are part of our students' reality which may not actually contravene halakha- music, movies and so on- and show how they can enhance and even reveal biblical and religious themes. Suddenly these aspects of their life which the teenagers assumed were wholly secular reveal hidden dimensions that can resonate in the religious realm.

Teaching students not to be fractured, and instead to be integrated, is important. I hope more people will join me in doing it.