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Shavuot: Does the Book of Ruth Matter?
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V’eleh toldot Terach – Terach holid et-Avram et-Nachor v’et-Haran; v’Haran holid et-Lot – “These are the generations of Terah. Terah gave birth to Abram, and Nahor and Haran, and Haran gave birth to Lot. Then, vayamat Haran al-pnei Terach aviv beretz moladto – “Haran dies in the lifetime of his father in Ur Kasdim”. Okay, so after this story of untimely death, we now have perhaps one of the most confusing verses in the entire Book of Genesis. Vayikach Avram v’Nachor lahem nashim– “Abram and Nahor they take wives”. Who do they marry? Shem eshet-Avram Sarai – “Abram marries Sarai.” Who does Nahor marry? Nahor marries Milcah, V’shem eshet-Nachor Milkah bat-Haran avi-Milkah vaavi Yiskah – “Milcah, the daughter of Haran, the father of Milcah and the father of Iscah.” It’s like so confusing. Who was Milcah and Iscah and all these people, and why do I even care about them? And then finally, we get strange invasion of Sarai’s privacy, Vathi Sarai akarah: ein lah valed – “Sarai, she is barren, she can’t have a child.” Why do I have to hear about this now? I mean I don’t know anything about her and the first thing you’re telling me is that she is infertile? How does this contribute to the story? Is there even a story here at all?
And now, we are off on a journey. Vayikach terach et-Avram beno -“And now Terah takes Abram and Lot and Sarai, apparently leaves Nahor behind and they leave Ur Kasdim, and they are heading to Canaan”. They get as far as Charan, lalechet artzah canaan- “they end up settling there”, then Terah dies. He’s two hundred and five years old when he dies; end of story. Did you hear anything about why Abram should be chosen here? Anything? If you look carefully, there is a little something that maybe is a clue. And that little something takes place in that confusing verse. That confusing verse, the one about Abram and Nahor marrying these women with the strange names that takes place right after Haran died. Haran died, al-pnei Terach aviv - “in the lifetime of his father.” So Haran died young.
Now immediately after that, Abram and Nahor, the remaining children, the brothers of the deceased, they take wives. Who do they marry? Off hand, we don’t know who Abram marry, we just know that she was a girl by the name of Sarai, but we know who Nahor married. Nahor married a girl by the name of Milcah, and we know who she was, she was bat-Haran, she was “the daughter of Haran.” The daughter of Haran. Haran was the child who died. Nahor is marrying his niece, the child of his deceased brother. Now why would he do that?
Later on in the Torah, there is a law like this, yibum, we have the law called Levirate marriage. The idea of yibum is that when a brother dies young, when he dies childless, there is a mitzvah upon the brother to marry the widow of the deceased and have children, v’lo yimcha shmo misrael– “so that the deceased name is not blotted out from among Israel”, so that they can perpetuate his name. It sounds like Nahor is engaging the yibum like kind of act. I mean, Haran has just died; he’s died young. Well it’s true, Haran does have a child; Lot, but presumably he doesn’t have as many children as you might otherwise would think he would have, and right after he dies, here comes Nahor and then marry someone from his family; he marries his daughter.
Now in real yibum, he would marry a widow, in real yibum, there would be no children, but it sounds like yibum, it has that sort of quality to it. Indeed, Nachmanides, the Ramban, suggests that before the Torah was given, in this era which Abram lived, even though the law of yibum wasn’t given, the idea of yibum was still around. People understood that idea and it seems like Nahor is engaged is a proto yibum kind of act. Intriguingly by the way, the Rabbis tell us that this girl who Abrams marry, Sarai, actually has another name too; Iscah. Remember who Iscah is, go back to that strange verse. Abram marry Sarai, Nahor married Milcah, Miclah is the daughter of Haran, Haran is the father of Milcah, and Milcah had a sister Iscah. Haran is the father of both Milcah and Iscah. What the Sages are telling us is Abram is doing the same thing as Nahor is doing, they are both marrying children of their deceased brother.
Rashi explains to us that the word Iscah comes from the language nesichah– princess. The name Sarai also means princess; it actually means “my princess”. Seems to be that the Sages are saying yes, Sarai and Iscah are the same person, perhaps even Sarai terms was Abrams term of endearment for Iscah ; Iscah “the princess”, Sarai, “she is my princess” . God later on says, “No, no, no. I will change her name, she is the princess of the world.” But in any case, both Abram and Nahor are engaged in this yibum like act. And now the question is, “So what?” So you’re telling me that’s a big enough deal to explain the foundation of the entire Torah? Why Abram is chosen is because of what he did a mitzvah? So like why is that mitzvah so wonderful? Maybe if you had told me that Sarai lit candles on Shabbat that would be why they were chosen? If you told me Abram waved a lulav, so okay, he did a mitzvah, wonderful. Why is that so grand? But grand it is indeed, because in order to understand the significance of this particular mitzvah you have to look at context.
I want to suggest to you that this Abraham story has different layers of context; you can keep on looking farther and farther out, and the context gets richer and richer. But the first, the inner most orbit, is the story that takes place right before this, and it’s the story of the Tower of Babel. The Abram and Nahor story is little story; a story about a family. The story about the Tower of Babel, is a story about the large stage of world history; it’s the story of the fragmentation of civilization, of one world civilization with a common culture and a common language becoming fragmented into different families and nations. The story of the Tower is the story that immediately proceeds the Abraham’s story, and it makes you wonder, is it possible to understand the Abraham’s story without understanding the headlines of the day as it were. The story of Abraham takes place in the shadow of the Tower, and in order to understand it, perhaps we really need to understand what was going on in that story of the Tower. The Torah seems to tell us as much with a subtle but eerie language parallel.
When Abram and Terah and Sarai set off on their quest to Canaan, a land that we know will be the Promised Land, even if they do not yet know that, they end up halting that quest; they end up settling in in Charan, not just staying in Charan for a while, but settling in Charan, vayeshvu sham, as if to say that they have abandoned that quest, that quest for the Promised Land. How many times do you think the word vayeshvu sham - “and they settled there”, appears in the five books of Moses? It seems to be one of these phrases that always appears dozens of times, but it doesn’t. It appears twice. This is the second time that it ever appears, there is only one other time that it appears; in the story of the Tower of Babel. Seemingly at this one point, at the point when they stop going to Canaan and gets stuck in Charan, there is an echo of the tower. It’s as if the Torah is saying that there is a question mark here, “Is Abram a tower builder or is he not a tower builder?” This is the very last thing that happens before God says lech lecha – “Keep on going on the quest.” In order to really understand this apparently insignificant little mitzvah of yibum that Abram undertakes, we need to understand the long shadow that the story of the Tower casts upon Abram’s life. Let’s turn to that now.
The story of the Tower of Babel is a puzzling story because it’s not clear what these people did that was so terrible. They built the tower? Did they worship the tower? Were they trying to rebel against God? It doesn’t actually say any of that in the text. They were building the tower, God for some strange reasons decides that he doesn’t like it. What was wrong with this tower? Are there any indications from the text of the Torah itself as to what was wrong with the tower?
Well, one of the first thing you notice when you look at God’s expression of displeasure with the tower, you actually find that God doesn’t criticize them for doing anything wrong at all; it’s more of what might happen, than what is happening. Hen am echad v’safah achat lechulam – “Here it is, one people with one language”, v’zeh hachilam laasot – “and this they’ve began to do?” v’atah lo-yibatzer mehem kol asher yazmu laasot – “And now nothing that they plot to do from here on in will be withheld from them; it’s just going to snowball.” God seems to be concerned about the future more than now. What process has started whose eventual outcome is dangerous? It’s a process interestingly, that has to do with the focus on name building of all things. So what was the reason for building the tower? Was there any utility to the tower? Was it an apartment building? People didn’t live there, didn’t work there, it was just a monument; a monument to themselves.
V’naaseh-lanu shem, they said – “Let’s build ourselves a name”. Let’s think about this a little bit more carefully. The imperative to make a name, to build a name, comes from the consciousness of death. An individual becomes concern about their name when they understand that they are going to die. Yibum is all about perpetuating the name of someone who has died, giving them legacy so they continue in the world. Interestingly, this was the focus of the tower builders, it’s just, it wasn’t individual death that they were concerned about; it was communal death. The reason why they build the tower they say, is Naaseh-lanu shem – “Let us make a name for ourselves”, pen-nafutz – “lest we scatter.” What death is to the individual; scattering is to the community; it’s the end of the line. How are we going to confront the end of the line for us? We’ll build a monument to ourselves; that will solve everything. So what then was the folly of the tower builders? They fell victim perhaps to a great irony; the irony of building a name is that you can’t build it by focusing on it. Building a name is a by-product of doing worthwhile things, good things for others, taking care of others; it’s not something that happens by focusing on name building. Indeed, when you focus overtly on building your own name, on building monuments to yourself, your life is essentially empty; there is nothing there. Life as a tower builder is devoid of meaning; it’s a monument to nothing.
In life, we have two great lists; one of them is our resume, the other is our gravestone. Which matters more? What does it say on your resume? It talks about your power, what you can do. What does it say on your gravestone? – “Beloved Father. Beloved Husband. Beloved Brother.” It’s how you took care of those that mattered in your life. Ultimately, life is about how you harness your power to take care of those that matter. What if power becomes an end in and of itself? Then, you are a tower builder. Naaseh-lanu shem – “Let us make a name for ourselves.” If you succumb to the illusion that your resume, your power is your name, you’ve just gotten locked into a self-referential cycle. Your power, your means to achieve your goals have become your goal and you have no name whatsoever. God looks at the tower and says, ”Where is this going? It’s just going to snow ball.” The overt focus on your own name, we have a word for that, it is narcissism. The tower was the beginning of that all.
Having understood the shadow that the tower casts, let us turn our gaze now back towards Abraham. He is the man who emerges in the wake of the tower building catastrophe. He is the one who found the Jewish people who descendants accepts the Torah, and who’s echoes emerges centuries later in the Book of Ruth. Let’s go back to his story.
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