In this coming week’s portion, yet another patriarch gets a Divine promise that “thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth” (Gen. 28:14). This might be interpreted as another rosy promise, but Sforno has a different spin, one more faithful to Jewish history. He writes that “Only after they seed has reached the lowest depths of misery and degradation and is treated like the very dust of the earth, will salvation come to them.”
But what sort of salvation is he talking about? Jews have known degradation, but it is followed not by long-term salvation, but by a short-term fix followed by more degradation.
First there was the exile in Egypt (degradation) followed by the Jewish state(s) in Israel (short-term fix, with intervals of good and bad times throughout the 700 or so years of Jewish sovereignty) followed by…
the collapse of the Jewish states and First Temple (degradation) followed by the Second Temple (short-term fix) followed by…
the Second Temple collapse and related exile, as well as the mini-genocide after the Bar Kochba revolt (degradation) followed by a few centuries of peace here and there, but then followed by…
Christian and Muslim oppression, culminating in the ultimate degradation of the Holocaust. This was followed by the state of Israel, which may have seemed to salvation to some for a few decades. But the gift-wrapped package of Israel came with some nasty surprises inside, which seemed to have gotten worse in 2014: not just attacks by Arabs (each more outrageous than the last) but now attacks by the Arab diaspora against Jews in Europe.
Where’s the salvation?
In last week’s Torah portion, Esau asks for “that red stuff” (26:30) which the Torah later explains includes lentils (26:34). So naturally I decided to have red lentils (mixed with tomatos and pink salmon to make it a bit more red and less bland- though it still needed mustard to really work as far as that went).
Also lots of other red thingds:
strawberry Eggo waffles
strawberry ice cream
In this week’s Torah portion, God announces that Isaac’s seed will be blessed because Abraham “hearkened to My voice, and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes and My laws” (Gen. 16:5). Because of this apparent redundancy, Rashi interprets this to mean that Abraham was a model rabbinic Jew, keeping the Talmud as well as the Torah (even though even the latter was revealed hundreds of years later, and the Talmud was written over 1500 years after the Torah)- an idea that has led to all sorts of nonsensical contortions by some rabbis.
But other commentators show that you really don’t have to believe such farfetched things to be a frum Jew. Nachmanides finds a more reasonable way of explaining the redundancy: “My charge” means that Abraham believed in God, “My commandments” means obedience to whatever God told him to do (e.g. leaving his father), “My statutes” means general good ethics (e.g. honesty, kindness etc) and “My laws” means the law of circumcision that God commanded Abraham to follow (which, unlike the rulings in the “My commandments” category, Jews still follow today).
This was a parsha related dinner.
To start off, Abraham makes the angels “three seahs of choice flour” (Gen.18:6). I’ve seen “choice flour” interpreted as white flour or semolina, so I had a little of both:
soft pretzels w/cinnamon sugar (frozen, easily available in stores)
semolina flour pancakes w/pears (because I had some lying around) and cream cheese (because 18:8 mentions “curds and milk”)
Also “curds and milk” (18:8) so a bit of dairy: pumpkin mixed with cream cheese (better than ordinary pumpkin!) and a bit of vanilla ice cream mixed with some of the cinnamon sugar
“a calf, tender and choice” (18:7)- obviously I couldn’t have real meat (unless I used fake dairy)* so I just had soy burgers and meatballs.
Also, because Lot’s wife turns into a pillar of salt in this parsha, I tried a recipe from Eating the Bible: diced potatoes encased in lots of salt.
*I think I probably could have had real dairy and just eaten beef afterwards, but that would have been a hassle, esp since I would have had to travel to suburbs to get beef, and also had to subsist on parve dessert.
One of the more obscure incidents in this coming week’s Torah portion is the story of Abimelech, king of Gerar. Abraham goes to Gerar and tells the natives that Sarah is his sister rather than his wife, in order to protect himself in case any of the natives lust after her. Abimelech takes Sarah, and is told by God in a dream to “restore the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, and he shall pray for thee” (Gen. 20:7).
Rashi adds (according to Soncino): “Do not thank that … he will hate her and refuse to pray for you.” In other words, if you make amends by giving him back his wife, he will pray for you.
It seems to me that Rashi is telling us a lesson that is good to remember only a few weeks after Yom Kippur. If you have hurt someone’s feelings, it is easy to say to oneself “Things have already gone too far, so there is no point in me trying to make amends or to apologize.” But Rashi is saying that if Abimelech makes amends, Abraham won’t just take his wife back, he will even pray for you! So for the rest of us, we shouldn’t avoid apologies just because we think they might be futile. (On the other hand, most people we offend aren’t Abraham, so our results may vary!)
Between dinners at Chabad and being out of town, its been a long time since I had a shabbos dinner in my apartment. This dinner is based on something in the parsha (Lech Lecha): “And Abram was very rich in cattle, in silver, and in gold.” (Gen. 13:2).
For cattle, I had kreplach lying around so I thought I’d have it for the “cattle” portion. (I also boiled parve cheese, but it turns out boiling cheese eliminates its taste so I could barely taste it).
For something golden: blueberry blintzes, sweet potato fries, bananas, pumpkin
And for silver: herring (I mixed it with the pumpkin, along with some tomato sauce).
I also tried parve chocolate fudge low sugar jello, which I do not recommend. (Maybe I’ll try the high-sugar version some other week).
The first few paragraphs of this week’s Torah portion are all about place- quite fittingly for me, since I traveled to Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon this weekend, the first time in my life I was ever in the far Southwest of the United States (not counting Amarillo which is sort of southwest and sort of south, or Los Angeles which has a very different climate).
The portion begins with God’s pledge to Abram (not yet Abraham) to make him “a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great.” (Gen. 12:2). Why does God bother to make these promises? Isn’t the voice of God enough? Maybe not, since Abram never heard of Judaism and has no reason to take this deity seriously (assuming that he believes that it IS a deity speaking). So maybe he needs a bribe from God.
Rashi has a different but also interesting explanation. According to the Soncino Chumash, he says that “Travelling hinders the building up of a family; it also diminishes one’s fortune and fame.” In my life, at least some of that has been true. I have lived in 13 cities in the 27 years since I graduated from law school, and held about that number of jobs. It has certainly hindered me from getting married, since few of my jobs were in major Jewish population centers, and because it is hard to date when you don’t know where you will be living in a year or whether you will be employed (at least, it has been hard for me). I’m not sure its hindered me much financially, since I haven’t been unemployed for more than a year or so during those 27 years. Travelling has certainly hindered my “fame” since it takes time to become civically active anyplace; and since some of my jobs had term limits I wasn’t that motivated anyhow. So Rashi is pointing out that the difficulties of moving meant that Abram needed extra assurance from God.
Another place-related issue is posed by 7:6, which states “the Canaanite was then in the land.” Assuming arguendo that Moses is writing the Torah, isn’t the Canaanite still in the land? Nachmanides is creative, stating that, as President Clinton might say, it all depends on the meaning of the word “land.” The Torah doesn’t mean the entire land of Israel, just Shechem (from which the Canaanites were eventually ousted by Jacob). Of course, this still leaves open the question: what happened to Shechem after Jacob left for Israel? Was it retaken by the Canaanites, and does that weaken Nachmanides’ argument?
After the Flood, God pledges “neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done. While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest time, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.” (Gen. 8:21-22).
Some right wing extremists interpret this language to mean that climate change is nothing to worry about. But the medieval commentators interpret this language pretty narrowly; Rashi and Ibn Ezra intepret it to mean that the seasons will continue to exist, that day and night will continue (Rashi) and that there will be no more floods as big as this one (Ibn Ezra). Obviously, these generous concessions are perfectly consistent with some pretty large scale catastrophes, and maybe even with the extinction of mankind. (Sforno suggests that even these limits on Divine destruction are conditional, arguing that if murder becomes rampant enough, the Earth is toast).
Personally, I think that if natural disasters killed, say, 10 percent of the world’s population, that would still be a pretty big deal (since that would be 600 million people, or 100 times the number of Jews killed in the Shoah). Even one percent would be 10 times the number killed in the Shoah.
This week’s portion involves the infamous Flood, including God’s command that Noah bring both clean and unclean animals (Gen. 7:8). This seems a mite confusing, since the Torah does not list “clean” and “unclean” animals until the days of Moses many centuries later.
Soncino lists two very different explanations. Nachmanides has an explanation that makes sense; God told Noah which animals to sacrifice, and the Torah is being succinct as it often is. Rashi has a much more fanciful explanation; he claims that Noah studied the as-yet-unrevealed Torah. For some reason, Rashi seems to prefer the most off-the-wall explanations of the Torah, and rabbis (especially, in my experience, yeshivish rabbis) tend to prefer those explanations.
I don’t quite understand why; do rabbis think that people will accept traditional Judaism only if they are encouraged time and again to suspend their common sense? More likely, they are just passing on the mistakes made by their teachers, who got them from their teachers. But when did this love of nonsense start?