Tag Archives: talmud

Parashah Toldot: Dysfunction, Redemption and Learning to Swim

The story of Yitzhak and Rivkah’s sons Yaakov and Esav is a compelling and difficult one. In this week’s Torah portion Yaakov , the eventual namesake of the people of Israel, is seen committing some very questionable acts. His brother, Esav, is clearly not the brightest human being, and we see Yaakov tricking him out of all of the inheritance that he believed he was to receive from his father. The first time, Yaakov takes advantage of Esav’s ravenous hunger, and makes him pledge his birthright for a bowl of stew. The second time, under his mother Rivkah’s recommendation and with a great deal of her help, Yaakov tricks his now-blind father into believing that he is Esav coming for his deathbed blessing. Not quite the behavior we’d expect or desire from the person who gave his name to Israel.

 

The name of this week’s parshah is Toldot, or generations in English. Prior to the story of Yaakov and Esav, we are given a narrative of Yitzhak repeating almost exactly his own father Avraham’s ambulations around the land of Canaan. On the same theme, our introduction to the story of Yaakov and Esav is focused on parental favoritism, Yitzhak favoring Esav, and Rivkah favoring Yaakov. When looked at from a zoomed out lens, we see what this parsha is really about – trans-generational relationships.

 

If we accept this as being the main theme of Toldot, then we should take a step back and not just look at condemning Yaakov, but instead figure out what the generational factors here are. It is clear that Rivkah pushes him towards some of his behavior, and it is also quite clear that his father’s affections are showered upon his brother and withheld from him. It’s a common trope today, in our post-Freudian world, to focus on how our parents messed us up, and how our foibles and failings can be traced back to their foibles and failings. Looking at Toldot, we see that this certainly isn’t a new idea.

 

So was this behavior Yaakov’s fault? Was it Yitzhak and Rivkah’s? Even Avraham and Sarah’s? Are our own failings ours, or are they our parents’? The Babylonian Talmud teaches us that a father’s responsibility to his son is “to circumcise, redeem, teach him Torah, take a wife for him, and teach him a craft. Some say, to teach him to swim too“ (Kiddushin 29a).

 

The first three responsibilities are the religious traditions of circumcision, redemption of the firstborn from God via paying a Kohen, and teaching Torah, but the last three are quite practical. The Talmud goes on into pages and pages of debating and interpreting what each of these things means, except for the responsibility to teach a child to swim in which there is no debate, only an explanation that “his life may depend on it” (Kiddushin 30b).

 

So it goes with the relationship between parents and children. For every attempt to do the right thing, either by teaching your child correctly, or living up to your parents’ expectations, there is always another way to interpret or debate the outcome. It is always possible to blame yourself for your child’s failings, or take credit for your child’s successes. It is similarly always possible to blame your parents for your failings, or to credit them your successes. In the end, one can never truly know which pieces of their parents’ parenting or their own parenting have affected the eventual outcome. Foresight and hindsight are both almost impossible when attempting to uncover which pieces of these very basic relationships will be highlighted in the future or have colored our lives.

 

I think that we can absolve Yaakov of at least some of his guilt through an acknowledgment of this reality of the relationship between the parent and child. This trickster-like behavior was clearly being taught to him by his mother as a way of gaining the attention and affection of his aloof father. In a way, we can see this parshah as all prelude to the fruition of Yaakov into Yisrael which comes later in Bereishit. By suspending our own judgment we can see the tragedy in the way the portion, which is Yaakov’s entire youth, plays out.

What a child takes from a parent’s attempts at education is out of control of the parent; what a parent does to attempt to educate a child is out of control of the child. In spite of our choices to trick our brothers, push our children to do the wrong thing, or disrespectfully swindle our parents, as we continue to live we gain new chances to do the right thing. The Talmud’s clarity on why it is important to teach your child to swim is clear. In my opinion, though, the swimming that the Talmud is referring to is not simply swimming. It is the knowledge one needs to continue moving forward in the world; to continue receiving the chance to make the right choices that will redeem his or her life. Yaakov’s redemption through his own actions later in the Torah show us that the indiscretion of youth, or the damaging meddling of passive aggressive parents, is not something that stands alone as a root of human development and personality. In Yaakov’s youth and family we can see our own, and in his later redemption we see hope for ourselves and our own families.

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I’m Not My Neighbor’s Donkey’s Keeper!

This week’s portion, Ki Teitze, is a succinct list of basic ethical laws all seemingly focused on “rooting the evil out from Israel.” Much of the legislation found here is actually quite progressive for the time and place of its composition, but as always, we’ve got a few laws laid out that would be quite problematic for us today. In fact, they were even problematic for the rabbis who composed the Mishna.

One law states that a son who is rebellious, drunken, and gluttonous should be taken out of the city gates and stoned to death by the whole community. The rabbis of the Talmud interpret this very plainly written text as being a mere warning, and state that no such rebellious son has ever existed, or ever will. Similarly, this chapter of Deuteronomy gives a very plain and flat limitation of 40 lashes as a maximum corporal punishment. The rabbis, though, legislate 39, and even less for those who show signs of not being able to handle the beating (BT Makkot 22a).

Even earlier than the rabbis we have an inherent contradiction of one of the laws here. A very clear stricture against Moabites joining the people of Israel is laid out in Deut 23:4. With a little bit of close reading of our Jewish sources, we can see that the eponymous heroine of the book of Ruth is a Moabite who becomes an Israelite, and then goes on to be an ancestor of King David!

What we see here in the development of the Jewish tradition is a progressive humanization of relatively harsh law. This is a great trend to investigate and take into account when interpreting similar passages today. If we look at Judaism and the study and interpretation of Torah as a living, breathing, and continually developing tradition we must see this humanizing impulse as important and central to our own understanding of the laws.

On the other hand, the psychology behind some of these laws would be considered overly ethical today. Although upon first glance the law focused on one’s responsibility to one’s brother’s livestock seems very obvious and straightforward, if one actually considers the implication of the law, individual moral responsibility is being legislated to a very high degree. It is a fairly common practice today to look at moral and ethical standards, acknowledge that they exist in theory, and then continue acting as though they didn’t actually apply to real life. The lesson behind these very specific cases cited in Deuteronomy that often make people assume that they are either prehistoric nonsense or are not applicable due to their specificity, is that moral and communal ideals underly the cases, and were expected to be practiced by everyone.

In the case of the livestock a very high level moral principle is displayed. Not only are neighbors not allowed to merely ignore a lost, wandering animal, they are also required to safely secure it in their own home until that neighbor can come and get it. In this day and age of people at the highest level of society being unwilling to take responsibility for their own actions, this responsibility for a neighbor’s belonging could be considered almost revolutionary. How often do each and every one of us simply pretend not to see something happening with our neighbors? How often do we take the steps towards both acknowledging something happening and then doing something about it? As the rabbis of the Talmud did with the harsher laws of this passage, we should now do with the kindest.

The principle of communal responsibility for each other needs to gain new roots in this age of cultural atomization. If the writers of the book of Ruth could forgive the Moabites, can’t we hold ourselves to the ethical standards of communal living? If the rabbis living in Babylonia could find it in their hearts to withhold traditional forms of punishment, should we not find it in our hearts to practice traditional forms of community and personal responsibility?

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Beating a Dead Rock

This week’s Torah portion is called chukat, Numbers 19:1-21:1. It starts very abruptly (much like this blog post) informing the reader that what is to follow is a fixed commandment of the Torah, a rule of divine knowledge for the nation of Israel. Throughout this week I’ve been in an argument on reddit with a Chabadnik about the nature of the relationship between God and the Jews. It is generally understood that the Torah contains, amongst other things, contractual obligations between the Jewish people and God. In fact, the book of Deuteronomy mimics a contractual formula found throughout the ancient Near East used between larger nations who were going to become the rulers of smaller nations. My argument is that much like other contracts, our contractual relationship with God has changed throughout time, resting my proof on the fact that we simply can’t do most of the things we agreed to, as the Temple was destroyed. In my mind, the post-Temple shift is just one instance of our continually changing, developing (dare I say reforming?) relationship with God. The Chabad fellow, though, holds that we are still bound to the exact same covenant as before, but that the Oral Law, which he believes was handed down in an unbroken chain from God, to Moses, to many intermediaries, and eventually written down in the Talmud, is what lays out the practices required of us. It is my belief that the unbroken chain tradition is simply another example of certain religious and political leaders using their authority to proclaim their laws and beliefs as divine.

The Chabad fellow did make some interesting points. A big portion of our conversation, beyond the rifts in our theology, was the question of what it is that Chabad is doing right. They are poaching Jews from synagogues of all flavors all over the world. My home community in Tacoma, WA is one example of this. According to my mom, who still lives there, the Reform synagogue is struggling greatly, while the Chabad synagogue is flourishing. And there simply aren’t that many Jews to go around in ol’ Tacoma. So lets take it as a given that there’s something that Chabad is doing that Reform is not doing that is making Reform (and other) Jews head to Chabad. I’d bet that most of these people haven’t fully adopted the Orthodox strictures of Chabad, but they are at least relying upon to them for their ritual and communal needs.

So what is it? The Chabad fellow claims that people want things that are binding. In short, he’s saying that all of the people leaving Reform synagogues to go to Chabad want to be told, “These and these are the divine rules for the nation of Israel.” Interestingly enough, this week’s Torah portion has a piece of narrative that ends up being deeply related to this. The people of Israel, still wandering in the wilderness, run out of water and complain once again that they’d rather be dead and rather go back to Egypt, the whole shebang. But this time God tells Moses to go talk to a rock, and that it will flow freely with water. Moses and Aaron instead go and say in front of everyone, “You want us to give you water? Here. We’ll give you water,” then, instead of speaking to the rock, Moses hits the rock. This angers God, and he says that Moses and Aaron will die before they reach the Promised Land. In fact, Aaron dies at the end of this Torah portion.

Instead of following God’s directions, Moses and Aaron claimed that they were going to make the water appear, and then Moses hit the rock instead of just speaking to it. As I’ve said before, it appears that God initially chose Moses because he didn’t want the power or the honor. Now we see Moses, the great prophet who speaks with God face to face, given the ultimate punishment for his moment’s hubris. In Moses’ rush to claim this power for himself, he didn’t follow God’s actual instructions of asking the rock for the water. Instead, he leaned upon the past commandment God gave in a different time, place, and circumstance in Exodus 17 where he was told to strike a rock to procure water. Maybe this points to the middle ground to the argument I was having with the fellow from Chabad.

We should not be so quick to rely wholly on our past understandings of God’s expectations of us. The original commandments from and contract with God may have been written in stone back at Sinai, but today, we have no trace of these stone tablets. The Oral Torah is a great treasury of thought, knowledge, and tradition, in the same way that the Written Torah (Tanach/Old Testament) is. But in the same way that the rabbis of the Oral Torah didn’t follow the exact word of the Written Torah, we today need not follow the exact word of either of these documents. Things change. Unfortunately for us, though, we don’t have a direct line to God like Moses did, so there is no way for us to claim a binding commandment from the mouth of God today.  But if we look at Moses’ relationship to the rock in this story, we see someone so caught up in the moment, so ready to do the great act and take the leadership role once again, so ready to quell the herd of whiners and gripers, that he didn’t even stop to think about what he was doing. He fell into the patterns of the past.

So maybe my Chabadnik friend isn’t right about what people want. Just relying upon age-old power structures probably isn’t the answer. Maybe what everyone really wants is something different, something that feels matched to their time and place, and definitely something authentic. Now, authenticity is a huge problem in and of itself, and one form of “authentic Judaism” isn’t something that I think exists. But I do think the feeling of authenticity comes with just the right mixture of knowledge and passion. Chabad definitely has both of those things down. It also has the youthful vigor of a movement just now finding its full stride. As an individual devoted to the Reform movement, I hope that we can find the rocks that we’re still hitting, and instead start speaking to them in a way that can renew our knowledge, passion and vigor to create a way of channeling God and Torah that matches our time, place, and needs as a movement.

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