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Monday, November 8, 2010


Dvar Torah for Parshat Toldot.

One of the hallmarks of great Jewish literature is the ability of its writers to engage in intertextuality. This is a fancy word for taking a word, phrase, or verse from an earlier text of Jewish tradition and weaving it into what you are writing in a creative and meaningful way. An excellent example of this is the refrain from Shir Nechama, The Consolation Song, by the very popular Israeli hip hop group Hadag Nahash, that you can find in your Shabbat announcements. The song is one of many the group has written bemoaning the decline of Israeli society and the attempt to escape all of its pressures. Before we get to that song, let’s look at one telling verse and scene from this morning’s Torah portion. The portion opens with God healing Rebecca and Isaac of infertility, her discovery that she will give birth to twins, God’s revelation to Rebecca that her younger son will rule over her older son, the symbol laden births of the boys, and the favoritism that Isaac shows to Esau, the older son, while Rebecca shows partiality to Jacob, the younger son. One day, Esau the hunter comes in from the fields, famished, while Jacob the homebody is cooking a red lentil stew. Take a look at the first passage in your Shabbat announcements, our verse from Genesis. “And Esau said to Jacob, ‘Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am famished….’” Note the Hebrew words for feeding someone in gulps: hal’iteini na. According to the great Torah sage Avraham ibn Ezra, this word is found only this one time in the entire Tanakh, the Jewish Bible. Note how the word paints this scene for us: Esau is portrayed as an animal who is so hungry he wants his brother to feed him, as if he were gulping down his food from a bucket or a trough, without thought for his behavior or demeanor. This portrayal of Esau, using this rare Hebrew word, accentuates how devious and manipulative young Jacob truly is: he knows his brother very well, and he easily wrestles Esau’s legal birthright as the older child from him by offering him the food in exchange for it. Esau, not one to think too far into the future and convinced he’ll die an early death anyway, gulps down the food along with Jacob’s shrewd offer.

If you look at the second passage in the Shabbat announcements, note how this verb, l’hal’it, to feed a gulping animal, is used by the later rabbis. Remember, of course, that they are living and writing the Mishnah well after the writing of the Torah: “In order to avoid physically exertive behavior on Shabbat, a camel driver may not force feed his camel or cram food in its mouth, but he may feed the camel fully, allowing it to gulp down food. (mal'itin). (Mishnah, Tractate Shabbat, 24:3.)” The rabbis use this verb in a purely legal context –laws concerning Shabbat- to convey once again what the Torah was conveying: human beings eat with decency; animals are fed by their masters by being allowed to gulp down their food.

Now we’ll take a look at how our modern, very secular Israeli protest song takes this same biblical word, hal’iteini, “let me gulp down some food,” and subtly reworks it to make a very important point. Note the words in my translation, and then we’ll look closely at some of the Hebrew:

Sovevuni bash’qalim Surround me with Sheqels.
Hal’ituni ba’kzavim Let me gulp down lies.
Va Ani k’seh tamim I am like an innocent lamb.
Odeini maamin. And I still believe.

In each brief line, Hadag Nahash uses echoes of biblical sources and even a reference from the philosopher, Maimonides, to reinforce their feeling that the average Israeli citizen is manipulated and exploited by society. The Hebrew word, sovevuni, “surround me”, echoes the psalmist who speaks about being surrounded by his enemies who swarm him like bees, yet who he fights off with God’s help. Here, however, the almighty sheqel, symbol of rampant materialism, is the implacable enemy that even God seems unable to fight off. The seh tamim, or innocent lamb, calls forth two images: in the story of the binding of Isaac, suspecting that he is the sacrificial lamb, Isaac asks Abraham, “Ayeh ha she l’olah?” “Where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” The word tamim, meaning unblemished or more figuratively, innocent, often refers in the book of Leviticus to sacrificial animal offerings. By now you should get the picture being portrayed here of a person as a lamb led to the slaughter in a predatory society. The phrase odeini maamin, echoes Maimonides’ thirteen principles of faith, each of which begins with the statement, Ani maamin b’emunah shleimah, “I believe with perfect faith.” Hadag Nahash seems to turn this phrase on its head by asserting, “Go on society, keep taking me for a ride. Like an innocent lamb, I’ll just keep on believing whatever you tell me.”

Finally, we have the phrase hal’ituni ba’kzavim, “let me gulp down lies”. Here, Hadag Nahash out-do themselves as masters of intertextual creativity. Recall what I told you before. This word, hal’iteini, shows up only once in the entire Bible, here in our Torah portion. The group uses the word in its plural grammatical form to reinforce not only the feeling of being deceived, but of being deceived like the biblical Esau, like an animal having food shoved down its throat, as it gulps insatiably, with no sense of anything other than eating!

The magic of Torah is in how successive generations of people, Jews and non Jews, use its words in bold new, creative ways to teach new and important things, as even a totally secular musical group like Hadag Nahash has done. Yet, it is not my place to comment on Hadag Nahash’es critique of Israeli society in this song. As much as I love and support Israel, I am not an Israeli, so I cannot make such comments. Nonetheless, I also read these words of our song’s refrain with the eyes of a proud, patriotic, and somewhat anxious American. Specifically, I have now lived through a fair number of local, state and national elections. I am truly disappointed when I watch our most basic democratic institutions of voting and electioneering being surrounded by and tangled up in big money, fear mongering, false hopes, the short attention spans of the electorate, and frankly lots of lies and deceit. Our political culture has nurtured an impatience for change and a hunger for sound bite quality half truths that, coupled with genuine desperation about our economic woes, turns too many people into Esau: too many of us simply give up thinking critically about the real issues and trying to discern with wisdom the difference between what some politicians say and what the truth is. It is as if we are telling our leaders: “Let me gulp down whatever you have to tell me because I am so confused, so scared, and so unable to figure out what the truth really is that I might as well just swallow whatever you want me to hear. “ Too many politicians –partly out of exploitative cynicism and partly because they are so afraid of losing an election- are all too happy to play the role of young Jacob: “Give me your vote, win me this election, and I’ll tell you what you want to hear and what I want you to hear.” No, I am not another northeastern, liberal elitist who thinks that only the right people with the right degrees should elect political leaders. I am a true populist who sees through the so called populist rhetoric of the current political climate. I think I see what is really going on in America: too many Americans, like Esau, are coming in from the fields famished. They are desperate for work, desperate for stability, desperate for security. They are being fed a lot of rhetoric on both sides of the political divide to gulp down, rhetoric that may boil our collective blood and lead to sweeping midterm changes, but that may offer no substantive change in the long run. Ultimately, no one but a small group of political elites wins, and what they win is the birthright of American prosperity and power that belongs to all of us. In return, what we, deserving, scared, hard working Americans get is pot of stew: hot and tasty in the beginning, but easily consumed and gone forever.

Hadah Nahash,and even more so, the Torah before them had it right: it is way too easy to gulp down whatever those in power decide to hand us, in fulfillment of their promises to restore and nurture the great democratic dream. Let’s watch our politicians and debate our great issues with civility, wisdom and discernment; let’s hold the leaders accountable for their actions and their claims, and not gulp down everything they want to feed us; mostly, let’s be vigilant in not abdicating our birthright of freedom and good governance to them. Let’s learn from Esau’s tragic example.

(Many thanks to Professor Azzan Yadin-Israel of Rutgers University for his review of Hadag Nahash'es new album, 6, and their use of intertextuality, in the most recent edition of The Jewish Review of Books.

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