Monthly Archives: October 2017

Separate from me, for we are kinsmen – Parshat Lekh Lekha

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Disputing is a regular thing among humans. Each one has the capacity and the freedom of holding a personal idea; different convictions may derive in an argument. Arguments may be a source of spiritual enrichment, as well as the development of personality and of interpersonal relations. However they may sometimes derive in conflicts or even fights.

We may define three levels: argument (that can be fruitful and enriching), conflict (where each one is fixed in his own position without respecting the other’s idea) and fight (where the conflict becomes violent: not only there is no respect of the other’s idea, but where the intention is to silence it by physical subjugation).

The first two levels, the argument and the conflict, are based on disagreement about ideas; they are therefore typical human. The fight, on the other hand, adds verbal and physical violence, an animal behavior where ideas are not important, but only physical power to subdue the enemy.

We all risk to fall from conflict to fight, even though it is an animal reaction; we have to do all the efforts to move away from this destructive option.

What about conflict? Shouldn’t we avoid it? Sometimes we manage to do so. But mostly it is easier for us to be fixed in our conceptions and not to bestow substance on the other’s idea. This fixation is the reason of going from an argument to a conflict. We cannot always avoid a conflict. More than avoiding the conflict, it should be more positive and effective to learn how to deal with it without declining into a fight and how to get out of it after having entered the conflict.

Dealing with a conflict in a constructive way depends on the capacity of respecting the other person. Respect means to bestow upon the other meaning, existence, weight. In Hebrew the word respect, kavod, is close to weight, koved. We don’t have to actually agree with the other’s conception, but we must bestow upon it substance and existence. In this way both conceptions, his and mine, prevail.

This is an approach that must be present in both parties of a conflict. Each one must know and accept that one is equal to the other regarding his or her ideas and standpoints, even when they cannot agree on them. If one thinks the other is inferior, vile, deplorable, defective, ignominious… the respect is gone and there is neither a constructive, nor effective conflict dealing. Conversely, if one thinks of himself as winner, superior, hero, accepted, elevated over the other… neither here there is any respect. Even more, if one accepts the other out of mercy, piety, commiseration, it isn’t more than arrogance and patronizing, but no respect: one is regarded as needy, impaired and the other one as complete and prominent.

Sometimes preserving respect requires separation. This is also a solution: both parties acknowledge their limitations and the difficulty of being together. In order to preserve fraternity, love and mutual respect, we shouldn’t force the parties to live under one roof when this tends to create conflict.

The relationship between Abraham and Lot was of this kind. For them it is apparent that common life may be possible when one of them surrenders (nullifies himself) to the other. Wisely Abraham declares: “Let there be no strife between you and me…for we are kinsmen… Separate from me” (Gen. 13:8-9).

The Malbim, in his commentary to these verses, explains that the strife was produced because they were kinsmen. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch points out that the verse does not say “between us”, but “you and me”. I understand by this that Abraham bestows upon Lot the same importance that he does upon himself. He does not say “Don’t quarrel with me”, as if the center of the conflict were Lot; neither he says “between us”, so as to blur the differences. “Between me”, with my conceptions and my existence, “and you”, with your conceptions and your existence. The positions are so opposed that if we continue living together we will end by not respecting one another; we will try to subjugate the other one and to nullify his status.

Does this separation mean severing the relations? No! The proof comes several verses afterwards, when Abraham rescues Lot from captivity. It is rather as Rashi explains: ” ‘If you go to the left, I will go to the right‘: wherever you’ll be, I won’t be far from you and I will help and protect you”.

We had an argument, we were fixed in our conceptions, we developed a conflict, we couldn’t get out of it, but we will always take care of the mutual respect. Therefore, separate from me so as to continue being kinsmen.

When the deeds are nice, then nice to meet! – Parshat Noah

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Who was Noah’s wife? The Torah does not mention her name, while she is one of the silent heroes of the story, together with her sons’ wives.

When somebody is mentioned by name in the Torah, it means he or she has a substantial task either during this specific story, or elsewhere in the Torah. The others, who play no central role or there is nothing special to teach about them, remain anonymous. That happened to the many sons and daughters of the first generations: “and he begat sons and daughters” runs the typical verse summarizing the lists of generations in Genesis. Anonymous sons and daughters, being that their stories, albeit important, are not substantial to the message the Torah wants to teach.

It is also written that Yaakov had other daughters, besides Dinah; they remain anonymous: “All his sons and all his daughters sought to comfort him” (Gen. 37:35) – some say “daughters” refers to daughters-in-law, while others say they are his actual daughters.

In most cases the anonymous remain anonymous. There are certain instances, however, in which our Sages decide to fill what is missing. For example, Abraham’s servant who went to look for a wife for Yitzhak: the Torah simply calls him “Abraham’s servant”, but many midrashim say he is Eliezer the Damascene, Abraham’s house steward. Another example is Pharaoh’s daughter, whom many midrashim identify as “Bithiah, Pharaoh’s daughter”, Mered’s wife as appears in 1 Chronicles 4:18.

The rationale in these two examples is pretty understandable: the two characters played a central role in the history of the Jewish people, even though the Torah does not mention their names.

There is another identification case which is very astonishing: Noah’s wife. Neither has she a name in the Torah, nor has she played a substantial role (important, yes; but not necessarily substantial). Even though it was not crucial to identify her, our Sages decided to link between her and another character: Naamah, Tubal-Cain sister. “Rabbi Abba bar Kahana said: Naamah was Noah’s wife… but the Sages said: it was another Naamah” (Genesis Rabbah, 23:3).

Naamah was Lemekh’s daughter, a descendant of Cain. Why Rabbi Abba bar Kahana thinks that the seed of Cain must have survived the Flood? There is no hint in the Torah pointing to that: Noah’s wife is Naamah, the daughter of Lemekh, a descendant of Cain? That means that the humankind developed not only from Seth, Adam’s third son and Noah’s ancestor, but from Cain too! It would have been much simpler to follow the plain text, leaving Noah’s wife in her anonymity. Why to embroil things? Why to anchor humanity to the seed of Cain the wicked?

Perhaps this is the allusion here: Cain wasn’t wicked. He sinned, yes. He committed a very serious transgression, yes. But perhaps he changed his ways, he tried to repair what may have been repaired, he tried to build instead of perpetuating destruction? We mustn’t forget the rehabilitation Cain tried to go through: God expelled him to a place of wandering: “itinerant and wanderer you shall be on the earth… and he settled in the land of Nod [Wander]” (Gen. 4:12-16). And it is in the land of wandering that Cain builds a city, settles and builds in a place where it seems to be impossible to do that (id. verse 17). Not only does he build, but he calls the city by his son’s name: Hanokh, a name related to establishment, to foundation, to progress and to teaching forth.

Cain does not perpetuate extinction: he has done a terrible thing by killing his brother, but he seeks rehabilitation and restoration. Cain does not repeat the wrong; confronting destruction he and his descendants propose construction, restoration and continuity. His descendants Yaval, Yuval and Tubal-Cain were the developers of civilization: music, settlement, livestock, metalworking, agriculture. They find themselves repairing what their father Lemekh did: he killed and boasts about that, while his sons reply by building and progressing.

And Naamah? She is only mentioned as Tubal-Cain’s sister. And if she is called by name, it means her deeds are substantial… but they are not mentioned at all!

The link between her and Noah’s wife comes, perhaps, to teach us her crucial task in continuing the building despite the extinction. She makes all the efforts, together with Noah, to continue life despite the Flood and the human corruption. She is the one that silently preserves hope of construction despite the evil, cruel and corrupt ways of other humans. She is the one who does not surrender to the destruction urge and struggles against the inclination towards the bad, so as to shed light on darkness. She represents, as a descendent of Cain, the positive impulse the humans have to repent, correct the crooked, struggle against destructive tendencies and to rehabilitate.

Why is her name Naamah? The midrash goes on saying: “because her deeds were pleasant [na’im]”

A responsible responsibility – Parshat Bereshit  

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The first two sections of the Torah, Bereshit and Noah, present one of the basic problems of the human behavior and feeling: the attitude toward responsibility. I call it a problem, since this attitude has ups, downs and failures.

Human beings, we suffer from hypo-responsibility and hyper-responsibility. Sometimes we try to evade our duties and being accountable for our actions. In other instances we exaggerate in fixing limits (to ourselves, as well as to others) acting with disproportionate zeal.

Yes, we also do things with the right, constructive and positive responsibility. But in many areas and many times we all, without exception, fall into the extremes of too high or too low responsibility.

God created the Human Being with the capacity of discerning between values, of measuring causes and consequences and of creating a moral system. This very capacity may become, however, a double edged sword. We may feel we are locked in by these very values and try to escape, avoiding thus our responsibility. On the other hand, we may actually be controlled by the fear of erring, of sinning, fear of not knowing how to discern, remaining thus enslaved by our own axiological behavior.

Parshat Bereshit presents some examples of this human failure in implementing responsibility. Reading this text should be a sort of calling to overcome this failures and to try to learn, as many times as necessary, the subtle art of living in responsibility.

The story of the forbidden fruit, of the tree of knowledge of good and bad, is a clear example of this failure both because of hypo- and of hyper-responsibility. Both attitudes lead to destructive consequences.

God forbids the Human being to eat from the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and bad: “as for the tree of knowledge of good and bad, you must not eat of it; for as soon as you eat of it, you shall die.” (Gen. 2:17). This prohibition was introduced before God divided the Human being into two – a male and a female. The ban is thus valid for both the man and the woman.

The serpent asks a tricky question: “So, God said to you that you shall not eat of any tree from the Garden?” (Gen. 3:1).

Now, a responsible answer should have been: “He has only forbidden us to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and bad”. But the woman, reacting out of hyper-responsibility, adds a restriction and declares: “It is about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said neither to eat it, nor to touch it (id. 3:3). This addendum moves the forbidden thing away… and makes it more tempting. Trespassing this new self-imposed limit will not only have no punishment, but will modify the perception of the original ban, as well. From now on the reasoning may be: “Nothing happened to me when I touched the tree (contravening the self-imposed restriction), therefore nothing will happen to me if I eat the fruit (contravening the original ban)”.

Exaggerating the limits, even though it comes out of the desire to avoid transgression, derives into the saturation and finally the revocation of the original injunction, violating thus the very norm meant to preserve.

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Itzhakee, France 12th ctry.) explains, regarding Eve’s addendum: “She added to the commandment, therefore she was led to diminish from it. That is why it is written (Proverbs 30:6): ‘Add thou not unto His words’ “ (Rashi to Gen 3:3).

We find also in the Talmud that this verse is a clear example of whoever adds, in the end diminishes (BT Sanhedrin 29a).

Now God asks the man: “Have you eaten of the tree from which I had forbidden you to eat?” (Gen 3:11). Why God, being omniscient, needs to ask? He already knows what had happened! God does not ask to know, but to encourage the man to implement responsibility. However, here we see a failure because of hypo-responsibility: “The woman You put at my side—she gave me of the tree, and I ate.” (id. 12). “It wasn’t me!”, says the man, “it was You! And the woman!” The man focuses only on part of the reality to avoid taking any responsibility.

What would have happened hadn’t the women reacted by hyper-responsibility?

What would have happened hadn’t the man reacted by hypo-responsibility?

It is useless to speculate about what would have been. The Torah challenges us, human beings reading it, to take the path on which those primeval beings did not dare walk.

It is upon us to react by a responsible responsibility.