I’ve had the great opportunity to attend an interfaith torah study group with Rabbi Nahum Ward-Lev for over a year. This deep and poignant piece was read aloud by the author this week. I’m proud to present it with her permission:
Lucy Moore Beit Midrash Feb 15, 2018
“I came to the Bible looking for a fight”
My father railed against religion, all religions. All the other evils in the world – plagues, pestilences, diseases, political wars – nothing could equal the evil of religious wars, the inquisition, the pogroms, the slaughter of one group by another in the name of God. He was a proud atheist. “Make ‘em prove it to you, Lucy,” he would declare. And then with satisfaction, “You’ll see. They can’t! They can’t prove it,” and that was the end of that. My mother was less willing to commit and declared herself an agnostic, admitting that she, too, was waiting for someone to prove God’s existence to her.
They are gone now, and I blessedly don’t have to explain to them what I am doing in a Bible Study Class. But the question remains. What am I doing here?
When I joined beit midrash at Nahum’s urging I felt that there was a big gap in my education. I was living in a society molded by a book that I had never read, whose stories I only knew through popular culture. Something about Adam and Eve and an apple and a snake. Something about Noah and his ark full of pairs of animals. Something about one brother killing another. Something about a baby almost cut in two, a burning bush, a coat of many colors, so many scraps of trivia that had no meaning for me.
Beit Midrash seemed like a perfect setting in which I could read this book for myself, in the company of interesting and compassionate people.
But now after more than six years, I realize that I came to the Bible looking for a fight.
The baggage I brought with me included a deep skepticism. I was ready to find fault in those pages. And I have to say, this has not been hard. I have found many of the characters, including God, seriously lacking in humanity and overdosed on deceit and sneakiness.
Just to recap a few of my grievances: I was an early defender of Cain. Here was a brother who decides to offer God his best gift, the sheaf of grain, beautiful golden grain, I imagine, with long, strong stalks and the plumpest of heads bursting with goodness and nutrition. His brother Abel, not wanting to be outdone, offers a fat lamb. And God, like a father looking at his two sons and their handiwork, declares that Abel’s is the favored and Cain’s fell short. We all know what happens next. I blame God for that. Why couldn’t he have said, “Cain, I really appreciate your gift. It is beautiful. I gave the first place ribbon to the fat lamb because I am partial to meat, but please understand that I love you just as much as I love Abel.”
Cain might have said, “I am so angry. I wanted to please you most. I feel like making my brother pay. I want to throw a rock at him.”
God could have counseled him about anger and jealousy and maybe suggested that he take up weight lifting or javelin throwing to deal with his anger.
And then there was Abraham who out of fear and weakness told his wife to masquerade as his sister so that the Pharoah wouldn’t kill him to get her for his own wife. The Pharoah helps himself to Sarah and boy is he sorry. God intervenes to wreak havoc on him and make sure that Abraham’s caravan leaves a lot richer than when it arrived.
I have problems with Abraham’s sending Hagar and his first born Ishmael out into the wilderness because of Sarah’s jealousy. I have problems with Rebecca’s conniving and covering for her favorite son at the expense of the less favored.
And now we have Jacob about whom I have been grumbling for several months.
After many years he wants to go back home to his father’s land. I understand that but I also yearn for him to be a man, to face his father in law and have a serious talk about what he needs, what he can offer, how to leave on good terms, how to honor the relationship with the man who is the father and grandfather of his family. I yearn for them to really talk.
It almost happened in the dot dot dot passage. I ached over that missed opportunity. The door was open for a real conversation about Jacob’s need to leave. “If you care for me,” Laban says, and depending on your translation the next words are either “please stay,” or there are simply three dots – an opening to a difficult conversation. Jacob is non-responsive and they get sidetracked into the spotted and speckled wars.
I was at the end of my rope in chapter 31, 1-24. Jacob hears rumors, goes into a huddle with his wives, whips them into a frenzy of resentment about their father, tells them God told him to take everything and go, loads the wives, his children and all his goods on camels and sneaks off. Not a word to Laban, who may have his own share of deceit for sure, but does he deserve this? I think not.
But now comes the amazing part. After all my griping and whining, I read what comes next — chapter 31, 25- 54 — and for me the heavens open up, my heart sings, I am filled with joy and hope! Laban has caught up to the fleeing Jacob and what does he do? He marches right up to him and speaks. His words are honest, passionate, from his heart, words of hurt, of love, of sadness, and yes, laced with anger. He speaks the truth, his own truth. “Why did you sneak away? I would have given you a going away party. You robbed me of the chance to kiss my daughters and grandchildren good-bye. I have had to chase you for 10 days to catch up and tell you how I feel about what you did, to tell you about the relationship we have as family.”
“And then there are the stolen images. On top of everything else. I want them back.”
Interestingly Jacob doesn’t respond to Laban’s eloquence about the loss of his daughters and grandchildren. He chooses to address the lost images, telling Laban to go ahead and search the camp and whoever took them will be killed. He’s saying to Laban “I am your son in law, and I will take responsibility for this and make it right.” He doesn’t know how to talk about the emotional pain and loss and hurt part of Laban’s speech, but he is listening and he is responding. They are talking. I am sooooo happy! They are talking about real things.
After a futile search for the images, Jacob levels with Laban. “I have worked for years and years, you manipulated my wages, I earned those speckled and spotted animals fair and square, and now I am going to my father’s land.”
As Jacob didn’t respond to Laban’s message of hurt and loss, Laban doesn’t respond to Jacob’s message of frustration and injustice. And that’s ok. They have heard each other and understood.
So they enter into a male kind of conflict resolution process. They make a pile of rocks, maybe quite a big pile of rocks, and agree that one will go one way and the other the other way. Satisfied, Jacob goes to sleep. Laban lives up to his side of the agreement and prepares to leave that night. But before he goes, he kisses his daughters and grandchildren good-bye. It is a beautiful passage, where family members talk to each other honestly and from their hearts, and in the end Laban is able to have those moments of farewell with his daughters and grandchildren. How sweet were those good-bye kisses!
And I think this is what God wanted. He warned Laban not to judge, at least not too much, and to speak what was in his heart. God wanted the two of them to have a relationship of respect and understanding. He wanted them to talk and they did.
I love God for that.
It’s been a long journey for me these past years and although looking for fights can be exhilarating and has kept me engaged, it also is often exhausting and depressing. I am still ready for a fight when I think about Cain and Ishmael and Esau and the injustices visited on them. But I have found something else in these pages of Genesis. I have found a friend, someone on my side, someone that people call God.
Thank you, dear classmates, for your patience and companionship along the way.