Project 929 Update

This week marks the completion of the sixth week of Project 929. It’s been amazing to hear snippets of conversations about it throughout Israeli society, and to see the breadth of how it’s impacting the Jewish conversation in this country. I love being part of a dialogue that includes all streams of Jewish thought and observance in this diverse country. I’m still finding myself somewhat on the outskirts of this conversation, because much of the dialogue is taking place in Hebrew. While I can get by in Hebrew, navigating the official 929 website is not something I’m confident in on a daily basis. I understand and respect the decision of the organizers of the project not to create an English version of the site at this point, because this experience is meant to be Israeli above all other things. It’s not for the Diaspora Jewish community, making me all the more glad to be living in Israel and to be a part of this experience.

So far, I’m finding joy in the daily reading, and in my reflections. I hope that this feeling continues once the more ‘story’ parts of Tanakh are behind me, and can’t wait to see what continues to unfold.

Here’s the latest article that I’ve found about 929: http://www.timesofisrael.com/would-moses-retweet-that/

Shabbat Shalom!

Bereshit Thirty: Dysfunctional Family #8

This chapter starts with Rachel saying to Jacob “Give me children, or else I die (Genesis 30:1).” She is jealous of her sister, and desperate to have children of her own. However, “Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel; and he said: ‘Am I in God’s stead, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb (Genesis 30:2)?'” It’s sad to see how this couple is struggling with infertility. Rachel is the third in the series of matriarchs who suffer from infertility. Each woman has been desperate for children, and each of their spouses has dealt with it in different ways. While Isaac prayed on Rebecca’s behalf, Jacob seems to be emotionally distraught as well, and unfortunately this manifests in anger.

Like Sarah, Rachel decides that in order to provide her husband with children by proxy, she will offer him her maidservant, Bilhah. So Bilhah becomes Jacob’s concubine, and gives him two more sons, Dan and Naphtali. The politics between the women continue, and Leah, who has experienced a break in her childbearing, gives her maid, Zilpah, to Jacob as well. Zilpah gives birth to Gad and Asher, and in quick succession Jacob now has 8 sons from three women. Finally, it seems like the prophecy of numerous descendants is coming true. Only Rachel is left childless, and it seems like she suffers greatly from her status. When Reuben, the oldest son, “Went in the days of the wheat harvest, and found mandrakes in the field, and brought them to his mother, Leah (Genesis 30:14),” Rachel asked her sister for some of the mandrakes. It seems that mandrakes were fertility boosters in the ancient Near East, and Rachel is willing to try anything to have a baby of her own. We have here another glimpse of the sensitivity of the relationships in Jacob’s family, because Leah responds, “Is it a small matter that you have taken away my husband? Would you take away my son’s mandrakes also (Genesis 30:15)?” Just as Rachel cannot be content with the love of her husband without children, Leah cannot be content with her sons, because she lacks love.

Rachel’s plan seems to backfire, because Leah gives her the mandrakes in exchange for ‘rights’ to Jacob for the night, and winds up conceiving a fifth son, Issachar. She quickly has another son, Zebulun, and then bares the only female offspring explicitly mentioned, Dinah. Then, finally, “God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her, and opened her womb. And she conceived, and bore a son, and said ‘God has taken away my reproach.’ And she called his name Joseph, saying: ‘The Lord add to me another son (Genesis 30:22-24).'” Rachel has achieved her greatest dream, and yet her first thought is to have another son. I think this is such a great commentary on human nature. We’re never content, even if we are lucky enough to get what we want, and we’re always looking ahead to the next thing.

After Rachel gives birth to Joseph, Jacob, now the father of eleven sons, seems to have outgrown the house of his father-in-law. He tells Laban that he wants to leave, to go back to his own country. After many years of work, it comes time for the son-in-law to collect his wages. Sidenote: this story seems to demonstrate why working for family might not be for everyone.

In some kind of magic shepherding, Jacob divides the flocks between himself and Laban, with Laban getting the white sheep and Jacob getting the multicolored ones. However, Jacob’s are the fertile ones, and he decides to divide the sheep between the feeble ones, which he gives to Laban, and the strong ones, which he keeps. Ouch. Jacob is now a father of many children, a man with many wives, and a man of property, and yet he doesn’t seem to have matured at this point. He’s still a trickster, trying to get ahead at the expense of others. But now he’s moving forward in his journey, once again leaving the home of another in search of his own destiny.

Bereshit Twenty-Nine: Love at First Sight

Our third patriarch has now officially taken center stage. Jacob is now on his journey, and is coming of age away from the home of his father and brother. He wanders for a while, and eventually comes to the land of Haran, where Laban, Rebecca’s brother, lives. When he asks about his uncle, he is told that Laban is well, and ironically enough, his daughter Rachel happens to be approaching at that moment.

Here, we have the iconic meeting of Jacob and Rachel at the well. In the previous story of a meeting at a well, it’s the emissary of Abraham that encounters Rebecca, and it is he who tests her to see if she’s the one intended for Isaac. In this iteration of the theme, however, there is no test. Jacob is like a teenager when he sees Rachel. First, he shows off: “And it came to pass, when Jacob saw Rachel the daughter of Laban his mother’s brother, and the sheep of Laban his mother’s brother, that Jacob went near, and rolled the stone from the well’s mouth, and watered the flock of Laban his mother’s brother (Genesis 29:10).” Removing the stone from the well usually requires all of the shepherds to assemble and work together, but in his eagerness to impress Rachel, Jacob does it himself.

“And Jacob kissed Rachel, and lifted up his voice, and wept (Genesis 29:11).”

Jacob’s encounter with Rachel brings up a full range of emotions within him. In one moment, he falls in love with her, wants to proclaim the love, and is overwhelmed by the experience of the moment. It’s a beautiful image of their instant connection and truly seems to depict soul mates. Rachel brings Jacob to her father’s house, and the two men negotiate. Jacob offers to work for Laban for seven years in exchange for Rachel’s hand in marriage. “And Jacob served seven years for Rachel; and they seemed unto him but a few days, for the love he had to her (Genesis 29:20).” Again, Tanakh gives us a glimpse of a true love story, where Jacob is so committed to Rachel and so deeply in love with her that the time literally flies by when he’s in her presence, even without being married.

Now, of course, a wrench needs to be thrown into this biblical fairytale.

“Now Laban had two daughters: the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. And Leah’s eyes were weak; but Rachel was of beautiful form and fair to look upon (Genesis 29:16-17).”

This time, we’re introduced to sibling issues between sisters, instead of the regular family politics between brothers that we’ve seen thus far. It’s clear that in the early stories of Tanakh, older siblings don’t come off very well (Ishmael, Esau, and now Leah). Unlike the men though, Leah isn’t made out to be evil in any way. Instead, she’s a character deserving of pity, overshadowed by her beautiful younger sister. And when it comes time for Jacob and Rachel to finally get married, Laban switches his daughters and gives Leah in her place. According to the basic reading of the text, Jacob doesn’t realize this until the next morning. There are many commentaries that delve into the issues of the deception. Some say that Rachel hid under the bed and spoke the words for Leah throughout the night, so that her sister wouldn’t be embarrassed. Others paint Laban as the clear villain, trying to trick Jacob, and the modern midrash of The Red Tent has Rachel asking Leah to take her place because she was scared.

Regardless of the motivation, I don’t think the parallel between this moment and Jacob’s recent deception of his own father can be ignored. Is this karma bringing him a taste of his own medicine?

Jacob confronts Laban, and agrees to work another seven years in order to marry Rachel as well. But none of the parties in this love triangle seem to live happily ever after. “The Lord saw that Leah was hated, and he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren (Genesis 29:31).”

Who is Leah hated by? We are told that Jacob loves Leah more, but does this correlate to hate? Does Rachel hate her sister? Or do we learn that Leah hates herself and lacks self-confidence and love? Leah is given the gifts of four sons: Reuben, Shimon, Levi, and Judah, while Rachel fails to give any children to her husband. While I see that God could be trying to level the playing field between the two sisters, I wonder how, in this seemingly unique situation, any of them could be truly happy? The innocent love at the beginning of this chapter now has layers of drama, which will only continue to build now that the next generation is being introduced.

Bereshit Twenty-Eight: Jacob’s Ladder

We pick up right where we left off, and Isaac blesses Jacob before sending him to Laban to find a wife. “Arise, go to Paddan-aram, to the house of Bethuel your mother’s father; and take yourself a wife from among the daughters of Laban your mother’s brother. And God bless you, and make you fruitful, and multiply you, that you may be a congregation of peoples; and give you the blessing of Abraham, to you, and to your seed with you; that you may inherit the land of your wanderings, which God have to Abraham (Genesis 28:2-4).” This is a touching moment between father and son, and must have been validating for Jacob, to finally receive a blessing that was actually meant for him, and not one won by deceit and trickery.

Esau, in his ongoing attempts to please his parents, finally notices that they’re not pleased with his wives, and so he leaves too, to go to Ishmael and find more women that have a better chance of pleasing his family.

Jacob, on the other hand, goes towards Haran, to Rebecca’s family. On his way, he stops to rest, and “he took one of the stones of the place, and put it under his head, and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, God stood beside him, and said: ‘I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac. The land where you lie, to you will I give it, and to your seed (Genesis 28:11-13.'”

This is Jacob’s first direct interaction with God, through the prophecy of his dream of the ladder. There’s a tradition in Judaism coming from the Talmud that says that a dream is 1/60th of a prophecy. Jacob’s however, is the direct word of God.

“And Jacob woke up form his sleep, and he said: ‘Surely God is in this place; and I knew it not.’ And he was afraid, and said: ‘How full of awe is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven (Genesis 28:16-17).'” I like this description of Jacob’s response to his first prophecy. As we transition from Isaac as the patriarch and keeper of the covenant to Jacob fulfilling the role promised to him by the birthright and blessing, he’s in awe of God. The fear and wonder that he feels are completely legitimate, and I like that the Torah takes note of the emotions of this moment.

Bereshit Twenty-Seven: Dysfunctional Family #7

Following up on the last verse of the previous chapter, which highlights the issues that Isaac and Rebecca have with Esau’s wives, we are reintroduced to the drama between Jacob and Esau.

“And it came to pass, that when Isaac was old, and his eyes were dim, so that he could not see, he called Esau his elder son, and said unto him: ‘My son’; and he said to him ‘Here am I (Genesis 27:1).'” Many commentators question this description of Isaac, and wonder if it literally means that he’s blind, or if it’s a more theoretical term, meant to indicate his blindness to the faults of his beloved son. Regardless, he calls Esau to him for the blessing that he wants to bestow on him before he dies.

“And Rebecca heard when Isaac spoke to Esau his son. And Esau wen to the field to hunt for venison, and to bring it. And Rebecca spoke to Jacob her son, saying ‘Behold, I heard your father speak to Esau your brother, saying: Bring me venison, and make me savory food, that I may eat, and bless you before the Lord before my death. Now therefore, my son, listen to my voice according to that which I command to you (Genesis 27:5-7).'”

I find the pronouns interesting, and saddening, in this exchange. Both Esau and Jacob, respectively, are only referred to as the sons of one of their parents. Neither of them enjoys the full love of both of his parents, and therefore is left wanting more. In this story, the dysfunction comes mainly from Rebecca, who comes off to me as an instigator who is purposely trying to deceive her husband and cheat one of her sons out of the blessing of his father. Jacob already has the birthright – why does the blessing also need to be taken deceitfully?

Jacob is hesitant to go along with the deception, but his mother insists, and so he covers his arms in skins so they feel hairy like his brother’s, and brings his father food. His father asks him who he is, and he replies “I am Esau your first-born; I have done according to how you asked me. Arise, I pray you sit and eat of my venison, that your soul may bless me (Genesis 27:19).” Isaac suspects a trick, and as Jacob predicted, feels his arms to ensure that he is in fact Esau. Jacob repeatedly lies to his father throughout this exchange, promising that he is in fact the older son. So, Isaac blesses Jacob with the blessing meant for Esau.

“God give you of the dew of heaven, and of the fat places of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine. Let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and let your mother’s sons bow down to you. Cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed be everyone who blesses you (Genesis 28-29).”

This is a blessing that seems to sow the seeds of further angst between the sons more than anything else. Why did the blessing need to qualify the relationship between the brothers? Couldn’t Isaac have blessed “Esau” for himself, rather than in terms of his brother? The blessing seems to be a self fulfilling prophecy that will carry out throughout the rest of Jacob and Esau’s lives.

Immediately following Jacob’s reception of the birthright, Esau comes to his father, eager to receive his blessing. When Isaac discovers the deception played upon him by Jacob and tells Esau, Esau “cried with an exceeding great and bitter cry, and said to his father: ‘Bless me, even me also, my father (Genesis 27:34).'” This is a heartbreaking moment in the life of Esau, the son who is misunderstood and not loved by his mother. He begs for something, even a lesser blessing, from his dying father, who seems to have been the only member of his family to love him.

Isaac answers Esau, “Behold, I have made him your master, and all his brothers have I given to him for servants; and with corn and wine have I sustained him; and what then shall I do for you, my son (Genesis 27:37).”

Esau continues to beg his father for a blessing, and we are told that he begins to weep. Isaac says, “Behold, of the fat places of the earth shall be your dwelling, and of the dew of heaven from above; and by your sword you will live, and you will serve your brother; and it will come to pass that when you will break loose, that you will shake his yoke from around your neck (Genesis 27:39-40).”

Esau hated his brother because of this. It strikes me as interesting of Esau’s character, that when he lost the material wealth of the birthright we aren’t told that he hated his brother. Rather, now, when he has lost the personal blessing that his father designated for him, he hates his brother for taking it from him. Esau vows in his heart to slay his brother in revenge, and knowing this, Rebecca decides to send Jacob to her brother Laban to protect him from Esau. To justify this action to the blind Isaac, she tells him, “I am weary of my life because of the daughters of Heth. If Jacob take a wife of the daughters of Heth, such as these, of the daughters of the land, what good shall my life do me (Genesis 27:46)?” What a sad moment, a lie of omission from this loving couple towards the end of Isaac’s life. At this point, Rebecca has plotted the deceit, but her role hasn’t been found out yet. Instead, she has managed to foster hate between the next generation of brothers, which will continue to play out throughout the book.

Bereshit Twenty-Six: Deja Vu

Once again, the Promised Land is facing a famine. When this happened in the time of Abraham, he went down into Egypt. However, now that we’re in the saga of Isaac, God says to him, “Do not go down into Egypt; dwell in the land which I shall tell you of. Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you, and will bless you; for unto you, and unto your seed, I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath which I swore to Abraham your father (Genesis 26:2-3).” So, Isaac chooses not to go to Egypt, and instead goes to Gerar, the land of King Abimelech of the Philistines.

In a flashback so clear that it must be intentional, Isaac is scared that the men of the land will kill him out of lust for his wife, and tells them that she’s his sister when they ask. Like father, like son.

“And it came to pass, when he had been there a long time, that Abimelech king of the Philistines looked out at a window and saw, and behold, Isaac was sporting with Rebecca his wife (Genesis 26:8).” Isaac’s deception is discovered. On a side note, I really like that the translation says that Isaac was sporting with his wife. This isn’t the usual euphemism for sex in the Torah, so I’m wondering if it truly means that they were somehow playing together. We already know that they have a loving and intimate relationship, and I think there’s something beautifully innocent about them playing together, truly enjoying their shared intimacy rather than just engaging in the act of sex itself.

Digression over! Abimelech confronts Isaac about his deception. Now, I have to ask: is this the same Abimelech who Abraham played the same trick on? If so, why does this guy keep trusting this family? And why does he keep rewarding them?

Abimelech tells all of his people that they will be put to death if they touch Isaac or Rebecca, and they stay in the land. Isaac becomes very wealthy, and eventually is told to leave because of the jealousy that the Philistines feel towards his greatness. He digs a succession of wells, each of which the Philistines claim, and eventually makes his way to Beer Sheva where he digs another well, and makes an altar to God. Abimelech comes and finds him there, and the two men make a covenant of peace.

This chapter ends with the closing of this story. It transitions back into the story of Isaac’s children. “And when Esau was forty years old, he took to wife Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Basemath the daughter of Elon the Hittite. And they were a bitterness of spirit unto Isaac and Rebecca (Genesis 26:34-35).”

The placement of this statement seems odd to me. It would more naturally follow the end of Chapter 25, which deals with Jacob and Esau. However, they haven’t been mentioned in the whole story about Isaac and Rebecca and Abimelech. So my question is, was this story taken out of context? Should it have happened before the introduction of the twins? What does it mean for the Torah if we can think of it as potentially being out of order?

Bereshit Twenty-Five: Dysfunctional Family #’s 5+6

“And Abraham took another wife, and her name was Keturah (Genesis 25:1).”

With Sarah dead and Isaac taken care of, Abraham now decides to take another wife. We don’t hear anything from her, and don’t know her background, but we are told that she gives birth to six sons for Abraham (Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah). After the fertility struggles of Sarah and the drama with Hagar, Abraham finally has a wife who doesn’t seem to have any issues, and provides him with the abundance of children that he longed for.

However, just following the list of the new descendants, we learn, “And Abraham gave all that he had unto Isaac. But unto the sons of the concubines, that Abraham had, Abraham gave gifts; and he sent them away from Isaac his son, while he yet lived, eastward, unto the east country (Genesis 25:5-6).” This seems like very cold parenting. After the struggles that Abraham had sending Ishmael away, and the care that he just put into the search for Isaac’s bride, simply sending away his other sons so that they’re not near Isaac doesn’t seem in character. He hadn’t wanted to do away with Ishmael and had to be told by God to do as Sarah had asked, so why does he, of his own volition, send the other boys away?

Following this event, Abraham dies. “And Abraham expired, and died in a good old age, an old man, and full of years; and was gathered to his people. And Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him in the cave of Machpelah (Genesis 25:8-9).” This story is actually really touching. In spite of the rivalry that their mothers had, and the favoritism of their father, and the influence that this must have had on both sons, Isaac and Ishmael are able to come together as brothers, as the sons of Abraham, to do this honor to their dead father.

We hear the names of Ishmael’s numerous descendants, and of his eventual death. Then, we move back to the new Chosen One: Isaac.

“And Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebecca, the daughter of Bethuel the Aramean, of Paddan-aram, the sister of Laban the Aramean, to be his wife. And Isaac entreated the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord let Himself be entreated of him, and Rebecca his wife conceived (Genesis 25:20-21).” This part of the story continues the romance of Isaac and Rebecca, and is actually really sweet. Isaac doesn’t pray for a son for himself and for the purpose of the continuation of his lineage, but rather prays on behalf of his wife. To me, this indicates that his concern is for her, and the sadness that she must feel about being barren, rather than for himself.

Rebecca has conceived twins, and they struggle while in her womb. God tells her that she will give birth to two nations, and soon, her sons are born: Esau and Jacob. We don’t hear about the childhood of the brothers, but rather find out that “Esau was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. Now Isaac loved Esau, because he did eat of his venison, and Rebecca loved Jacob (Genesis 25:27-28).” Dysfunctional family alert!

While Isaac was raised as the favored son, and therefore it’s understanding to a degree that he is simply repeating the cycle that he experienced, one would hope that he’d break the cycle and not play favorites between his sons. And why does Rebecca, as the mother, follow suit, and choose a favorite?

This sets up the final part of the story: the famous selling of the birthright. Esau has been in the fields, and comes back to the tent, starving. He asks Jacob for the stew that he’s made, and Jacob says “Sell me first your birthright (Genesis 25:31).” Esau reasons that he’s going to die anyway, and so he sells the birthright to his brother in exchange for the food. Biblical commentators use this story as a chance to make Esau out to be a villain, but at least in this moment, I don’t see him that way. I see Jacob’s cunning coming through, much more than anything negative about Esau. Jacob takes advantage of his brother in a moment of weakness. Jacob doesn’t help his brother in his time of need, and instead sets up the next major familial conflict in Tanakh.

Bereshit Twenty-Four: Love Story

“And Abraham was old, advanced in days, and the Lord had blessed Abraham with everything (Genesis 24:1).”

Following the death of his wife, Abraham becomes contemplative, and realizes that, with all of his blessings, he still needs one more thing: to find a suitable wife for Isaac. We’ve had no mention of the relationship between father and son since the Akedah, so we don’t know whether or not Isaac has forgiven Abraham for nearly killing him, whether he understood the circumstances, or if he’s been traumatized by that experience, followed by the death of his mother. Either way, it’s time for him to find a wife, so Abraham sends a trusted servant back to his homeland to find a woman. I find it interesting that Abraham is so adamant about Isaac not taking a wife from among the Canaanites, those who live in the land that was promised to him Unless his homeland has become monotheistic in the last few years, it didn’t sound much better than Canaan in this regard, so I’m unclear as to why the bride must specifically come from there.

Nevertheless, the servant sets out and makes his way to the city of Nahor. He brings his camels to the well, around the time that the women of the city would normally go draw water for their households, and says, “O Lord, the God of my master Abraham, please cause to happen to me today, and perform with loving kindness with my mater, Abraham. Behold, I am standing by the water fountain, and the daughters of the people of the city are coming out to draw water. And it will be, the maiden to whom I say, ‘Lower your pitcher and I will drink,’ and she will say, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels,’ her have You designated for Your servant, for Isaac, and through her may I know that You have performed loving kindness with my master (Genesis 24:12-14).'”

The servant’s test will show that the designated bride is a compassionate woman, not afraid of hard work, and caring of others. Immediately upon this prayer, Rebecca appears (good timing!). Rebecca immediately waters not only the man, but his camels as well. After she does so, he asks who she is, and she says, “I am the daughter of Bethuel, the son of Milcah, whom she bore to Nahor (Genesis 24:24).” This might just be a sidenote, but I believe that Rebecca is the first woman in Tanakh to introduce herself, and I find it interesting that she includes the names of both her mother and her father, whereas men seem to only include their father. Was this customary? Will it happen again? Or does the inclusion of Milcah’s name in this instance indicate some kind of special relationship/status?

Rebecca brings the servant home, and he tells her family his story. They agree to send Rebecca with him as a wife for Isaac, and she gives her consent. At the end of the chapter, Rebecca and Isaac finally meet. “And Isaac went forth to pray in the field towards evening, and he lifted his eyes and saw, and behold, camels were approaching. And Rebecca lifted her eyes, and saw Isaac, and she alighted from the camel.” This moment is adorable in terms of biblical romance. A sunset meeting in the fieldsm both of them seeing each other from a distance, and somehow recognizing each other as bashert.

“And Isaac brought her to the tent of Sarah his mother, and he took Rebecca, and she became his wife, and he loved her. And Isaac was comforted for his mother (Genesis 24:67).”

Bereshit Twenty-Three: Machpelah

“And the life of Sarah was a hundred and seven and twenty years; these were the years of the life of Sarah (Genesis 23:1).”

This chapter begins the Torah portion called Chaye Sarah, the life of Sarah. Ironically, though, this marks the end of the life of Sarah, and opens with her death. If we follow the school of thought that says every word of the Torah is intentional, and nothing in this text is left to chance, then I think that this juxtaposition is meant to introduce the reader to a beautiful concept. Sarah’s death is shown as Sarah’s life. When someone dies, we shouldn’t dwell on the tragedy of death, but rather reflect on their life, and what they contributed to the world and to the lives of others.

When I was in Poland last week, as is expected of Jewish trips to that country, we focused largely on the Holocaust. Even components of the trip that weren’t Holocaust-specific still focused on death, because in a place where there was once a rich Jewish life, the majority of what’s left are graves and markers of death. A comment was made during the trip that all of these people lived unique lives, and yet all we remember of them are their tragic deaths. While the deaths are important to remember and mark, it’s the lives that make the stories come to life. In the story of Sarah, we are given her life, not her death, as her memorial.

So, Sarah dies, and Abraham needs to bury her. He doesn’t own an appropriate piece of land at this point, and approaches the people that he lives amongst with the intention of buying land in which to have a family burial site. He is offered the chance to use the land of his neighbors without buying it, but Abraham refuses. He wants to own the land, and ends up buying the Cave of Machpelah, which becomes the burial crypt for not only Sarah, but also Abraham himself, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, and Leah. Not surprisingly, it’s become one of the most controversial pieces of real estate in the world.

I visited Machpelah, which is located in Hevron, earlier this year. The cave is underground, covered by a massive building that includes a Muslim half and a Jewish half. In the Jewish half, there are various rooms dedicated to each of the couples buried below. It’s a huge undertaking to go visit: it involves bulletproof busses, armed guards, and security checks, all because the very presence of Jews in the city of Hevron is apparently incitement. I’m not particularly religious, and I’m a passionate Zionist. I’m a lover of Tel Aviv, and modern Israel. Yet, the city of Hevron, one where I don’t feel at home and didn’t particularly enjoy visiting, is the one that’s mentioned in Tanakh. The events that happened there are what connects us to this land. I still haven’t found a clear way to reconcile those things, but hope to figure that out as the story unfolds.

Bereshit Twenty-Two: The Akedah

This is one of the most iconic chapters in Tanakh. Jews read it every year on Rosh Hashana, and reference it as a mark of Abraham’s faith. It’s the akedah, the binding of Isaac. From some readings, it’s a testament to the ultimate faith, and from others, it’s the ultimate example of the problems of blindly following orders.

“God put Abraham to the test. He said to him, “Abraham,” and he answered, “Here I am.” And He said, “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you (Genesis 22:1-2).”

So many questions!

Why does God need to test Abraham? Hasn’t Abraham proven his loyalty many times over by this point? Why is the test a human sacrifice, something completely abhorrent? And above all, why doesn’t Abraham respond? Why does he follow along with no hesitation?

Instead of bargaining, like Abraham does on behalf of strangers in Sodom and Gomorrah, he wakes up early in the morning to go fulfill God’s commandment. He doesn’t respond to God verbally, but rather through action, and takes Isaac to the designated place. While he comes close to sacrificing Isaac, the angel of God cries out to him and stops him, saying, “Do not lay a hand on the boy, don’t do anything to him, for now I know that you are a God fearing man, because you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me (Genesis 22:12).'” In this moment, why has the admonition changed from Isaac being the favored son to the only son? What has happened to Ishmael at this point?

My final question is: did Abraham actually pass the test? Was God expecting blind faith and following, or was He hoping for Abraham to stand up on behalf of his son? There’s a rabbinic thought that Abraham actually failed, because while prior to the Akedah, God speaks to Abraham directly, afterwards, for the rest of his life, God only speaks to Abraham through angels and intermediaries. Is this out of anger? Is it a punishment? Why was Abraham so eager to fight for the lives of strangers, but not that of his beloved son?