When the Sisters Struggle God, Why is This Torah Little Noticed?

This week’s Torah portion, called “Yayetzei, And he [Jacob] went forth” focuses on Jacob’s sojourn in the home of his uncle Laban, his marriages to his cousins Leah and Rachel and their handmaidens Bilhah and Zilpah, and the competition between them for his love and for bearing his children.

Laban tricks Jacob by giving him Leah as his first wife when he had promised him Rachel, the younger sister – and when Jacob complains, he answers: “ Such is not done in our place, giving away the younger before the firstborn”  -- directly challenging Jacob for stealing his older brother’s birthright.

Leah had many children and Rachel none. So Rachel, perhaps recalling the story of Jacob’s grandmother Sarah and her handmaid Hagar, said to Jacob,

“Here is my slave-girl Bilhah; come in to her, so that she may give birth upon my knees, so that I too may be built-up-with-sons through her.” (Everett Fox transl, The Five Books of Moses (Schocken, 1995).

Through Bilhah she had two sons. The first she said was a proof of justice and she named the boy Dan, Justice. Though we do not know what sex with Jacob was like, we know that as a slave-girl she had no choice. Is this a hint that justice must be born from the suffering of slaves, as happened later in Egypt from the suffering of an enslaved people and may be able to happen in our own country now only through the suffering of a people long enslaved?

Of the second son she said, “A struggle of God have I struggled with my sister; yes, I have prevailed! So she called his name: Naftali/My Struggle.”

This line (Gen. 30: 8) is a pre-echo of a story we will read next week, far more famous, in which Jacob in the midst of a struggle with his brother Esau wrestles with God’s Own Self, “prevails,” and finds his own name changed to Yisrael, Godwrestler. The presence of the pre-echo is no accident. What is Torah trying to teach us?

First, that two women can also have a “struggle of God,” not only two men. Perhaps that is precisely why there is little effort to connect it with the later story. There are two levels of dismissal of the story. One is old-fashioned: grave and pompous men dismiss it because, after all, it is merely a women's story. The second is by more clever, more modern men and women: See, biblical women are so disempowered that the only power they have is to struggle over children. Dismissal in the mask of feminism. But think! The woman in this story says it is a God-struggle to struggle over children! Is she right? Children are the future! 

The verse is a Banner, waving, waving, “Pay attention!” And perhaps we really should pay attention to the teaching that a struggle over children, a struggle over the future, is a Godstruggle. Indeed, the struggle between Leah’s children and Rachel’s turns out to be momentous for the future, cast as the struggle between Joseph (a true child of Rachel) and his half-brothers.

For our own generation, what could be more a God-struggle than the future of our children as Earth reels in pain, croaking, “I can’t breathe”? As we know now, we are pouring so much CO2 into the planet that all its trees and grasses cannot breathe it in and transmute it to oxygen. So it suffocates and scorches us: our Earth can’t breathe, God’s Name can’t breathe, our grandchildren won’t be able to breathe.

As the very last words of the very last of the classical Prophets say, “I [YHWH, the InterBreath of Life] will send you Elijah the Prophet to turn the hearts of the parents to the children and the hearts of the children to the parents, lest I come not as the Breath of Life, not even as the Wind of Change, but as the Hurricane of Disaster to smite Earth with utter destruction!” (Malachi 3: 23-24).

O You Who still Breathe life, give us the love to struggle with You as Rachel did for the sake of our children!

Our “Sodomite-in-Chief’” lives in the White House

How can I use this label of contempt, “Sodomite,” against the President?

Here’s how:

The Bible tells the story of the city of Sodom, destroyed by a Flood of Fire for its sins. (Gen. 18-19) 

What was the sin of Sodom? Almost all Jewish commentary on the story makes clear that the sin of Sodom was not rampant homosexuality (as much of Christian tradition suggests) but rampant rage and violence toward foreigners, immigrants, and the poor.

That line of thought began with the Prophet Ezekiel (16:49-50) who said: “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.”  This understanding has continued in rabbinic thought for two thousand years, till our own day.

There is another strand in the story: what might be called the sin of Lot. He was Abraham’s nephew, an immigrant to Sodom who like his uncle held as a high value the welcoming of foreigners as guests.

 Faced with a mob of Sodomites enraged that Lot had made his home a nest of immigrants and refugees, Lot offered his own daughters to be raped by the mob, in order to calm their rage against his foreign guests.

At first and second and third reading of Lot’s offer to let the mob rape his daughters if they will leave his foreign guests unharmed. we are horrified. Horrified that in order to protect the foreigners he is willing to sacrifice and destroy his own family.

This is exactly Sodom turned upside down. The citizens of Sodom who surrounded Lot’s house and threatened to rape or kill him and his guests are so obsessed with protecting their own city, their own jobs, their own culture that they are willing to wreak havoc upon foreigners.

Lot,  on the other hand, is so obsessed with protecting his guests that he is willing to wreak havoc on his own family.

Neither of these is a just or sacred solution to the tensions that often erupt between some "natives" and some "immigrants."

According to the story, once it becomes clear that not even ten just and decent people live in this hate-filled town, the Divine Breath of Life, the Wind of Change,  becomes a Burning Hyper-Hurricane -- so incensed at Sodom’s hatred of outsiders that the city is destroyed.



Lot survives, but his lot is not so pleasant. His wife dies as collateral damage in the disaster. The daughters whom he had offered up as mere objects think that all the other men in the world have died in the Flood of Fire. So they turn Lot into an object – just as he had treated them --  by getting him drunk to make him father their children.  Another kind of rape!

In the midst of this ugly story, does the Torah have any suggestion as to what a decent outcome might have been?

It does, in the bargaining between God and Abraham over whether Sodom should be destroyed in the first place.

In the underlying argument over whether to protect one's own city and own family at the cost of shattering the lives of immigrants and outsiders, or to protect the outsiders at the cost of shattering one’s own city, one's own family – – the famous tension between "particularism" and "universalism" – – Abraham’s challenge to God hints at a resolution.

And this is exactly what the Torah says God has in mInd. For God begins the process by letting Abraham in on the secret plan to punish the crimes of Sodom -- wiping out the city.

Why has God singled out Abraham? According to the Torah, precisely because God sees Abraham as both the progenitor of a sacred people and the bearer of blessings to all peoples.

And Abraham responds! --  by validating God’s Calling on him to become a blessing to all the families, peoples, cultures of the world. Abraham tries to protect and defend even this nasty foreign city. "What about the decent, innocent folk who live in Sodom?  Should the innocent be punished with the guilty? Is that what justice means? Shall not the Judge of all the world do justice?"

The Abraham who is to be the progenitor of a “particular” community -- Yisrael, the "Godwrestling" folk, the Jewish people.  – is the same Abraham who tries to protect a foreign city from God’s wrath.  

The Torah of Esau and Jacob, Gaza and Israel

This coming Shabbat (December 1, 2012)  of Torah readings completes a three-week saga of the struggle between two brothers –- Esau, older, stronger, rougher; and Jacob, weaker, smoother, sneakier, wilier. This is one of the many-times repeated exploration in the Book of Genesis of the struggle between older and younger siblings – all, I think, to teach the same lesson.  In this third week, the Esau-Jacob struggle is resolved in reconciliation.

Ironically, these three weeks are the same three weeks in which we’ve been suffering the Gaza-Israel War –-  its lead-up, its explosion, and its cease-fire. The cease-fire certainly does not mean Israel and Palestine have yet achieved a reconciliation.  But the arc of our just-lived history and the arc of the Torah story bear some resemblance. Indeed, the Torah story might teach us

Long-term Truce or Another Gaza War?

This Haaretz article raises profound questions about the Israeli government's decision to assassinate a leader of Hamas. It appeared on November 15. Haaretz is often called “the New York Times of Israel.” My own comments will follow the article, both on the realpolitik of today and on how Torah might address these issues.  -- AW
Israeli peace activist: Hamas leader Jabari killed amid talks on long-term truce

Gershon Baskin, who helped mediate between Israel and Hamas in the deal to release Gilad Shalit, says Israel made a mistake that will cost the lives of 'innocent people on both sides.'
   By Nir Hasson      |   Haaretz /    Nov.15, 2012 | 1:55 PM |  38
Hours before Hamas strongman Ahmed Jabari was assassinated, he received the draft of a permanent truce agreement with Israel, which included mechanisms for maintaining the cease-fire in the case of a flare-up between Israel and the factions in the Gaza Strip. This, according to Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin, who helped mediate between Israel and Hamas in the deal to release Gilad Shalit and has since then maintained a relationship with Hamas leaders.

Baskin told Haaretz on Thursday that senior officials in Israel knew about his contacts with Hamas and Egyptian intelligence aimed at formulating the permanent truce, but nevertheless approved the assassination.

“I think that they have made a strategic mistake," Baskin said, an error "which will cost the lives of quite a number of innocent people on both sides."
"This blood could have been spared. Those who made the decision must be judged by the voters, but to my regret they will get more votes because of this,” he added.

Baskin made Jabari’s acquaintance when he served as a mediator between David Meidin, Israel’s representative to the Shalit negotiations, and Jabari. “Jabari was the all-powerful man in charge. He always received the messages via a third party, Razi Hamad of Hamas, who called him Mister J.”
For months, Baskin sent daily messages in advance of the formulation of the deal. He kept the channel of communication with Gaza open even after the Shalit deal was completed.

According to Baskin, during the past two years Jabari internalized the realization that the rounds of hostilities with Israel were beneficial neither to Hamas

Struggling with God, and with Obscurity

[This essay was written for the "People and the Book" section of the Jerusalem Report.]

One of the siblings says, "A God-struggle have I struggled, and indeed I have prevailed." And a new name emerges from the struggle.

Sounds familiar, no? This must be the Godwrestle that Jacob undertakes the night before he is to meet his estranged older brother Esau, which results in his "prevailing" and being renamed Yisrael, Godwrestler (Gen 32: 25-33).
What, then?
It is the God-struggle (naftulai elohim) that Rachel struggles, one of a number of struggles between her and her older sister Leah over their love for Jacob and their desire to bear him children (Gen. 30: 8). Out of it, through her servant-woman Bilhah, she "bears" a child and names him Naftali, My Struggle.
Most English translations for this passage refuse to translate the word "elohim" as God, and instead say "fateful" or "fine" or some similar word of superlative tone – but not "God." And most commentators ignore the striking resemblances between this passage and the one about Jacob's Godwrestle.

Jealous sister, jealous God

Rabbi Phyllis Berman & Rabbi Arthur Waskow, 11/21/2004

[This story about jealousy and compassion, exile and redemption appears in our book TALES OF TIKKUN: NEW JEWISH STORIES TO HEAL THE WOUNDED WORLD (1995). It draws on Midrash Rabbah for the Book of Lamentations, known as Eicha Rabbah (XXIV, pp. 44-49 in the Soncino edition).

[It ends with a midrash on the biblical story of the sisters Rachel and Leah and their marriage to Jacob (Gen. 29: 15-30).

Rachel, Leah, & the First Godwrestle

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, 11/18/2004

Listen to the grim humor of Jacob's weddings to Leah and Rachel. (Gen 29: 15-30) We can all but hear their father Laban muttering to himself:

"You — yes, you, Jacob!! — lied to your father about who was the first born son? Then I'll lie to you about who is the first born daughter. You won what you wanted because of your father's weak eyes? Then you'll win what you don't want — Leah, who has weak eyes.

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