Wednesday, November 25, 2009

For Joseph

Names are always significant in Torah. In the case of Jacob’s wives, the sisters Leah and Rachel, names become a weapon in their rivalry. Although Jacob clearly prefers Rachel, it is Leah who becomes pregnant—multiple times—while Rachel is barren. To rub it in, Leah names her children Reuben (look, a son), Simeon (heard—as in, “G-d heard that I am despised and has given me this one too” Genesis 29:33), Levi (joined or attached, expressing her hope that the three boys will make her husband attached to her), Judah (thanks), Issachar (reward), Zebulun (exalt), and Dinah (justified). I can just imagine what it must have been like for Rachel to hear these children called home for dinner! Finally, G-d heeds Rachel’s prayers and sends her the first of her two sons, Joseph, whose name means “G-d will add.” I have been fiddling with this poem, for my nephew Joseph, since he was born, right around Thanksgiving day nineteen years ago.

When your uncle held me to his chest,
I thought I’d felt the final permutation
of love, that this same encompassing gesture
would extend to those we bore. Instead,
like the different postures they preferred
at the breast, each of my children made the mother
he or she required. Now, lifting you
from the crib, I think the name you bear—
“the Lord will add”—must be a prophecy.
Ask something of me, Joseph; make me new.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Jacob's Ladder

Having helped Jacob steal his brother’s birthright, Rivka worries that Esau will take revenge, and she schemes to have Jacob sent away from home to look for a wife. On this journey, Jacob lays down to sleep on a stone and has the famous vision of a ladder with its top reaching to heaven. When he wakens from this dream, he cries, “Truly, G-d is in this place, and I did not know it” (Genesis 28:16).

Any stone where you have rested your head
might be the boulder rolled across the gate
to heaven. Any morning you might feel
G-d’s healing finger in a ray of sun
reaching beneath your shirt to touch your heart.
Today might be the day you hear a summons
in the whistle of the thrush. Look,
this plant becomes Jacob’s Ladder;
its even rows of variegated leaves,
the stairs; and the blue, bell-shaped flowers,
the skirts of angels ascending and descending.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


The Bible is famous for its “begats,” and this parasha begins with the “begettings” of Isaac (Genesis 25:19). While these long lists are always phrased in terms of a father begetting sons, mothers sometimes intervene in these orderly genealogies, helping to upend the tradition of primogeniture by favoring the younger son. Here, Isaac’s wife, Rebecca (Rivka in Hebrew), has determined that Abraham’s line, traditionally intended to go through the eldest son, Esau, will go through Jacob. She and Jacob connive together to steal Esau’s blessing, not one of the more morally edifying chapters in the Bible.

This is the line of Rivka, gotten
by entreaty, when her womb
was empty as a beggar’s bowl
and the crowded firmament
she prayed to mocked her husband’s promise:

their offspring would outnumber the stars.
Inside her, the boys were the punch line
of the proverb: Be careful what you ask for.
The taut skin of her belly buckled
as they strove, like cats in a bag.

From the moment she saw the younger
clinging to his brother’s heel,
she knew her heir, the yiddishe kop*—
smaller, milder, smart enough
to hitch a ride into the world.

That shrewdness, she cultivated:
He was ready with a mess
of pottage when the burly brother
returned home from the hunt, hungrier
for lentils than for rights of birth;

ready to wear his brother’s skin,
a costume to deceive a father
beyond seeing which son he loved.
This is the line of Jacob,
the twin always too clever by half.

*Literally, a “Jewish head,” but idiomatically, someone quick-witted.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

And He Loved Her

The first mention in Torah of love between a man and woman occurs in this week’s portion. After Sarah dies, Abraham sends his servant Eliezar to find a wife for his son, and Eliezar returns to Canaan with Rebecca. She and Isaac see each other across “a field at eventide” and seem to make an immediate connection. The text says, “And Isaac brought her into the tent of Sarah his mother and took Rebecca as wife. And he loved her, and Isaac was consoled after his mother’s death” (Genesis 24:67).
Mostly in these stories they “know”
each other, and we read the knowing
in quotations, like winking lashes,
for we ourselves are knowing since Adam
knew himself as naked. No matter
how we come together, chest
to slick chest, knowing conjures
something wholly of the head
like antennae tapping, desire
firing the dendritic tree.
But Isaac looked and loved Rebecca,
and she, so overcome she tumbled
from her camel, covered her head
and let her heart go out to him.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Sarah Laughed

One of the joys of reading Torah every year is discovering how the story changes for me as I enter new phases of my life. Before I had children, I never noticed how much of Genesis was about sibling rivalry. Now that I have gray hair and wrinkles, I have a new understanding of Sarah, who, the Bible tells us, laughed when she was told that she would bear a child despite the fact that “the way of women had ceased for her” (Genesis 18:11). Sarah, at least, laughed inwardly. The text says that Abraham fell on his face laughing at the idea. While Abraham is clearly incredulous that Sarah will become pregnant, Sarah’s laughter seems more complex. She asks, “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment—with my husband so old?” (18:13) Reading the passage this year, I thought about what it might be like for a woman my age to have to compete with younger wives or concubines for a husband’s attention.

What surprised her most was not the son
the angels promised but that Abraham
might still be hungry for her shrunken charms
after that disastrous dalliance
with the Egyptian girl,* and now Keturah
insinuating herself like the incense
she was named for under the flap of his tent.
Not that Sarah envied her the work;
these days his tastes ran more to breeding sheep,
telling tales of Ur—an old man’s pleasures.
And what had Sarah left to rouse him with?
Her face was furrowed like a dune; her hair
silver as the cuffs she’d borne each day
since her father gave them as her bride price.
Would her husband suck at her slack breast
let alone a child? Eons ago
their marriage had devolved into a laugh
like one they’d share tonight remembering
this prediction while the desert cooled
like cakes on a brick, and he squinted at her
across the darkness and the cooking fire,
trying to make out the lineaments
of someone he had once desired. Still,
she’d go and wash her hair with henna now,
splash her bosom with Egyptian musk.

*Hagar, Sarah’s handmaiden, whom she “gives” to Abraham in order that he may have a son, Ishmael
*Abraham’s second wife, whom he married after Sarah’s death