Friday, November 14, 2014

One Mean Aramean

Laban,who appears for the first time in this weekend's, Torah portion is an intriguing figure. Unlike Patriarchal antagonists Pharaoh, Abimelech and Esau, we never hear the refrain "He will kill me" concerning Laban. He seems nice. However, in the Haggadah, Laban is presented as our arch-nemesis. On Passover, we would expect Pharaoh to be the Big Bad, but apparently he plays second fiddle while Memphis burns. We read:
Come and learn what Laban the Aramean sought to do to our patriarch Jacob. For Pharaoh issued his edict against only the males, but Laban sought to uproot it all, as it is said (Deut. 26:5), "My father was lost to an Aramean, and he went down to Egypt and he became there a nation, great, mighty and populous."
This is stunning. Pharaoh murders thousands and enslaves millions, but Laban surpasses him for thought crimes?
However, we must bear in mind that the Haggadah is a Midrashic work. In the Midrash, Laban is merely one name for a nigh-immortal character who plagues the Jews repeatedly. You may know him by a different name.
Balaam is Laban, as it says (Deut. 26:5), "My father was lost to an Aramean;" because he sought to eradicate Israel, he is called an Aramean. (Midrash Tanhuma, Vayetze 13)
Now, at least, we enter the same ballpark. Balaam also has bad intentions, but he actually does some damage, as Moses states: (Num. 31:16): "Behold, these, on Balaam’s advice, caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against the LORD in the incident of Peor, and so the plague came among the congregation of the LORD." This plague kills 24,000.
Still, tragic as that event is, can it really compare to the centuries of slavery and genocide courtesy of the Pharaohs?
Interestingly, the Midrash does connect Pharaoh to Balaam's execratory consulting business.
Said R. Hiya b. Abba, quoting R. Simai: "There were part of that council, Balaam, Job and Jethro. Balaam, who counseled, was killed; Job, who was silent, was sentenced to suffering; Jethro, who fled, merited to have grandchildren sit on the Supreme Court." (Talmud, Sota 11a)

The Rabbis taught: "Pharaoh had three counselors, and when he contracted leprosy, he asked the physicians what would cure him. Balaam counseled him to take Jews, slaughter them, and shower in their blood, thereby curing himself." (Midrash Ha-gadol, Exod. 2:23)
These two legends describe the bookends of Egyptian slavery, from the initial "Come, let's deal wisely with them" (Exod. 1:10) to the gruesome finale (2:23), "But the Israelites continued to groan under their burden of slavery. They cried out for help, and their cry rose up to God." Immediately afterwards, God appears to Moses and sends him to Egypt to redeem his people.
Now let's look at that line from the Haggadah again. "For Pharaoh issued his edict against only the males, but Laban sought to uproot it all." Who are "only the males"? This may refer to the baby boys Pharaoh orders cast into the Nile, but those are mentioned later in the Haggadah as "the boys," not "the males." "The males" is usually a term applied to men, those who would be combatants in war (cf. Num. 31:7, Deut. 20:13). In fact, in the verse cited above (Exod. 1:10), Pharaoh identifies the threat in the following way: "Otherwise they will continue to multiply, and if a war breaks out, they will ally themselves with our enemies and fight against us and leave the country." In the previous verse, he explains why he is concerned: the Israelites are "atzum mimenu," "mightier than we." In Numbers 22, King Balak of Moab, Balaam's other royal client, expresses the exact same concern, "atzum hu mimeni," "it is mightier than I." He too speaks of the Israelite threat in military terms: "Perhaps I will be able to strike it and drive it out of the land... Perhaps I will be able to wage war against it and drive it out."
However, Balaam-Laban takes this national-security threat and recasts it as an existential, eschatological fight. After he fails to curse the Israelites and is fired by Balak, he says: "Now I am going back to my people, but come, let me counsel you of what this people will do to your people in the end of days" (ibid. 24:14). If Moab does not destroy Israel, they will be destroyed by them. It is the same approach he used with Pharaoh: Egypt can survive the Hebrew threat only if the Nile turns red with their blood. It is genocide or suicide.
In this light, Laban-Balaam is indeed worse than Pharaoh or Balak. He seeks "to uproot it all," "to eradicate Israel." The king is merely the tool, the means to carry out this plan. It is Laban-Balaam who recasts the military/ national-security threat as an existential clash of peoples, nations and faiths.
These are dangerous times in the Middle East. We have to be vigilant against the forces of Pharaoh. But the true threat is the counsel of Laban, inflaming and inciting all-out war.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Salem for Sale

The past ten days have been quite difficult ones for Jerusalemites. A week-and-a-half ago, a terrorist plowed his car into a crowd waiting for the light rail at Ammunition Hill, immediately killing a three-month-old baby in her grandfather's arms. Four days later, another young soul, an Ecuadoran convert who had emigrated to Israel after discovering her family's Jewish roots, succumbed to her wounds from that horrific attack. Three days after that, Rabbi Yehudah Glick, activist for Jewish prayer rights on the Temple Mount, was shot in an attempted assassination. This is merely the culmination of months of unrest in the capital, leading us to ask: what can make Jerusalem whole (shalem) again?
In fact, Shalem (Salem) is the first name used for Jerusalem, according to Jewish tradition (Onkelos et al.), in a verse from this morning's Torah portion, Lekh Lekha (Gen. 14:18): "And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine, and he was a priest of the Supreme God."
0522melchezidek0010Melchizedek according to the Orthodox. I didn't say which Orthodox.
However, this is not the only Salem in the Torah. Later in the book of Genesis (33:18), we read (following Rashbam's rendering): "And Jacob came to Salem, city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, when he came from Paddan Aram, and he encamped before the city."
So we have Salem as an alternative name for two cities which figure prominently in Jewish history: Jerusalem and Shechem (modern-day Nablus). Indeed, the root shalem yield two important terms in biblical Hebrew: shallem (to pay) and, of course, shalom (peace).
This represents some heavy foreshadowing. Immediately after describing Jacob's arrival in "Salem, city of Shechem," the Torah notes (v. 19): "And he purchased the plot of land where he pitched his tent from the hands of the children of Hamor, patriarch of Shechem, for a hundred pieces of silver." After the taking of Dinah, Hamor and his son have this to say to the citizens of Shechem: "These men are shelemim with us. Let them dwell in the land, and they will trade therein. The land is wide enough for them" (34:21). Now, shelemim here may be taken as "Salemites" or "amenable," but what is clear that this quality indicates that despite the outrage over what has happened to Dinah, her family will forget it all for the right price.
What else is for sale in Shechem-Salem? The story of the sale of Joseph, just a few years later, begins with Jacob's fateful proclamation (Gen. 37:13), "Aren't your brothers shepherding in Shechem? Go, and I will send you to them." The climax of that crime is Judah's famous question (vv. 26-27): "What profit is there in killing our brother and covering his blood? Let us sell him to the Ishmaelites..."
Centuries later, in Shechem once again, the scion of Joseph, Jeroboam, poses a challenge to the scion of Judah, Rehoboam (I Kings 12:4): "Your father was a hard master. Lighten the harsh labor demands and heavy taxes that your father imposed on us. Then we will be your loyal subjects." Rehoboam response is, unsurprisingly: shallem, pay up. “My father laid heavy burdens on you, but I’m going to make them even heavier! My father beat you with whips, but I will beat you with scorpions!” (v. 14) And so the other tribes desert the Davidic dynasty (and murder the man whom Rehoboam sends to collect his super-sized taxes). You would think Rehoboam, a native of Jerusalem, would know better than to head to Shechem for his coronation, considering how badly it ended for the first man who tried to buy the throne of Israel there, Abimelech (Judges 9).

In Shechem-Salem, it's all about the almighty shekel. And it always ends badly.
But Jerusalem-Salem is supposed to be a different place. It is the city of peace, but that peace is not based on getting a piece of the action. Isaiah speaks eloquently of this time after time. "Rise from the dust, Jerusalem, sit in a place of honor... You were sold for nothing, and it is not with money that you will be redeemed" (52:2-3). With what, then? "I will restore your judges as at first, and your counselors as at the beginning. Afterwards, you will be known as the city of righteousness, faithful town. Zion will be reclaimed with justice, and its returnees with righteousness" (ibid. 1:26-27).
It is no coincidence that the king of Salem is named Melchizedek (nor that the first to carry the full title "king of Jerusalem," in the time of Joshua, is Adonizedek). Tzedek (righteousness) is the only currency valid in Jerusalem. It is the only way to make the city whole.
That is why Melchizedek's meeting with Abram interrupts another royal-patriarchal meeting, that of Abram with King Bera of Sodom. Abram famously declares (14:21-23), "Give me the souls, but take the possessions for yourself... I will not take a thread or a bootstrap or anything of yours, lest you say: 'I enriched Abram.'" This comes immediately after his encounter with Melchizedek, as if to say that this priestly king, representing the City of Completion, left an impression on Abram. Decades later, of course, God himself will teach Abram another important lesson in Jerusalem, on Mt. Moriah: that He does not desire blood payment, but the pursuit of righteousness and justice.
The torrential rains of this weekend may have doused the fires in Jerusalem momentarily, but a permanent solution can only be achieved when we realize that this Salem is not for sale. It is only through justice that we can make peace here.