Anyone who looks at the earth can see that it has been differentially altered – in some places carelessly, in other places with imagination, and in still other places with an excess of imagination; that is, in irresponsible fantasy. […] As we study the human use of the earth, moral issues emerge at every point if only because, to make any change at all, force must be used and the use of force raises questions of right and wrong, good and bad in the actors as well as in those who, like geographers, mostly observe and comment on the action. Human beings do not impose alterations on nature merely to survive. They aspire beyond mere survival to the good – good human relations and a good place in which to live. Yi Fu Tuan, Morality and the Imagination (University of Wisconsin Press, 1989, vii-viii)
Doubles and disruptions
In Parshah Toldot (Tol’dot, or Toledot), Isaac and his family famously continue the saga of Abraham’s covenant with God, the various episodes providing frequent doubles of preceding events. Like Abraham and Sarah before them, Isaac and Rebecca are childless and seek divine intervention (Genesis 25:21). After becoming pregnant, Rebecca is troubled by the churning she experiences in utero, and she learns from God that she carries: “Two nations – in your womb, / two peoples from your loins shall issue. / People over people shall prevail, / the elder, the younger’s slave.” (Genesis 25:23), The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary, Robert Alter, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, p. 129). The children are born, Esau first, followed by Jacob “grasping Esau’s heel” (Genesis 25:24-26). Faintly echoing the competing offerings of brothers Cain and Abel, Esau and his success as a hunter are prized by Isaac, while Jacob’s domesticity is preferred by Rebecca; Jacob barters (a vegetable stew) with his famished brother for the first-born’s birthright (Genesis 25: 27-34).
Conjugal doubling follows: Isaac’s marriage survives a wife-sister episode (the third in family history) in which he offers Rebecca as his sister to King Abimelech of the Philistines, for which he is twice-enriched (with material goods given by the Philistines, and with the discovery of water by God) (Genesis 26:1-33). Esau, doubling Ishmael, takes wives from the neighborhood rather than the clan (Genesis 26:34-35). At Rebecca’s direction, Jacob secures Isaac’s special first-born blessing by a costume-trick (Genesis 27:1-29). Esau’s despair is palpable, and Isaac eventually finds a blessing: “Look, from the fat of the earth be your dwelling / and from the dew of the heavens above, / By your sword shall you live / and your brother shall you serve. / And when you rebel / you shall break off his yoke from your neck.” (Genesis 27:39-40; Alter, p. 145). To prevent the fatal consequences of Esau’s vengeance, Rebecca arranges to send Jacob to her family to find a proper wife. Esau, aware of his father’s dislike for his local wives, takes his uncle Ishmael’s daughter Mahalath for a third wife (Genesis 27:41-28:9).
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that this parshah is so seldom illustrated by Jewish artists (the small illumination in the Golden Haggadah and Marc Chagall’s Blessing of Jacob, c. 1939 are the only ones I could find). Commentaries routinely address the narrative’s pervasive emotional turmoil, from the challenges of reproduction, whether for a mother or father, to the conflict governing the lives of these brothers from birth. The consequences of careless speech are a common subject, whether Esau’s “sale” of his birthright (here) or Isaac’s negligent blessing of Jacob (here) An AJWS commentary leap-frogs over the questions raised by Toldot’s wife-sister episode to reach global water challenges from Isaac’s discovery of water. Another explores the consequences of personal trauma (Isaac’s aqedah, Rebecca’s troubled pregnancy), as either an impediment to or motivation of productive action (Isaac’s blindness and hasty benediction of Jacob, Rebecca’s pursuit of divine explanation). A third reading repeats a common line: that the disruption of primogeniture signals the possibility of change in what we perceive to be the unchangeable order of the world. This week, URJ leader Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell offered a particularly savvy feminist approach to the questions of patriarchy and primogeniture this year, uniting the brothers’ separate identities into a single model of leadership (here).
Conflict resolution is another common theme: one author reads the parshah’s sibling rivalry and subsequent reconciliation as occasion for modern Jews to engage in dialogue with Christian brothers. A URJ commentary focuses on sibling rivalry as metaphor for Jewish-Christian intolerance leading to the Holocaust, based on the puzzling view that Jesus is a descendant of Esau (to my knowledge, canonic Christian sources in the Gospels, Matthew 1:2–16 and Luke 3:23–38, both trace Jesus’ lineage to Abraham through Jacob). Readings of Toldot by Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks are no exception to the consistently sophisticated inter-faith lessons he teaches: Sacks reminds readers (here) that God’s preference for Jacob is not a rejection of Esau, but rather reflects degrees of intimacy and responsibility. Sacks also explores the ways in which the future affects our understanding of the past (here); what Rebecca hears as a prophecy of Jacob’s superiority is, in retrospect, an oracle of the possible future, in which Jacob “serves” his older brother to achieve reconciliation, and Esau “serves” Jacob by discarding the yoke of spite.
This year, with conflicts in Israel/Palestine at the boiling point on the eve of the peace conference in Annapolis, I have no taste for The Comic Torah’s satirical reading of the narrative, and Maurice Sendak’s schoolyard taunt (“I saw Esau kissing Kate”) makes me cringe. I cannot settle for even sophisticated apologetics for Jacob, or explanations of leadership, or the deceptions that pervade the parshah; I am unpersuaded by efforts to rehabilitate the moral value of the text by tribal claims on ends in spite of the choice of means. None of the traditional or contemporary commentaries I surveyed come close to dealing with the charge of the conflict that suffuses the parshah. These lives are motivated by not just by the despair of infertility, parenting failures, famine, or exogamy, but by the profoundest breaches of faith between neighbors, brothers, parents and children.
The implications of twinning preoccupy me, of both the twins Esau and Jacob and the twinned episodes, the echoes from the past few weeks. Esau’s ready response to Isaac’s call, “Here I am” (Genesis 27:1-2) duplicates Abraham’s own reply to God before the aqedah (Genesis 22:1-2); how could such filial fidelity warrant the theft of his father’s blessing? (I’ve read a rabbinic response to this issue, but remain disturbed). Similarly, the repeated misrepresentations of wives as sisters endanger willing hosts among the neighboring tribes in time of famine, yet are rewarded by host and God. This legacy of abuse of hospitality calls for an engagement far deeper than the genealogy of survival it traces.
I am amazed at the general silence regarding the ways in which the narrative sets up relationships and conflicts that resonate with the use of and authority over the land. Each parshah in Genesis seems to contain a sequence of encounters with God and promises regarding land (usually belonging to someone else), a family conflict, a famine, a period of sojourning as guests, in which wives becomes sisters, following which water is discovered and pacts and borders are established.
Toldot makes the conflict over resources clear, whether they are prenatal, emotional, alimentary, conjugal, testamentary, or geographic. These twins are bound together in contest, unable to avoid friction, as if still confined to the small space of their mother’s womb, bound together in a tangle of placental vines. Rather than fraternal twins, they seem more like a pair of conjoined or “Siamese” twins, whose connecting tissue makes material the spiritual relationship and challenge described by Torah.
Imagining hyphenated lives
Twins of Greco-Roman epic come to mind, the Remus and Romulus myth a place to start from the world of western antiquity. Contemporary responses to twinning are equally evocative: Phantom Twins (1997) by Irish sculptor Christine Borland invokes the history of childbirth education, echoing Toldot explicitly. But Jacob and Esau are more singular for their role in the genealogy of Jewish tradition. Re-imagining them as conjoined twins rather than fraternal twins raises compelling possibilities.
Conjoined twins are extremely rare, occurring in fewer than one in 75,000 births (or 1 of 200 deliveries of identical twins). Pairs were documented as early as 945 in Armenia, sketched by Albert Dürer in 1512, and separated successfully in Germany in 1689 (images of other conjoined twins here). As natural monsters, they fascinated natural philosophers in the 15th-17th centuries and scientists have frequently surveyed the terrain of their bodies via autopsy, taxonomy, and photography.
Conjoined twins had great entertainment value; indeed, the brothers Chang and Eng (Bunker), the original “Siamese” twins, monopolized the attention of the 19th century. These twins, whose bodies were “hyphenated” by the nearly 5″ bridge of flesh between their chests, were immensely popular celebrities: they starred in the Barnum & Bailey Circus, married sisters Adelaide and Sarah Yates, and fathered 22 children (!) on their jointly-owned North Carolina plantation (more information here or here). Their notoriety prompted the death cast in Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum above (and post-autopsy drawing), literary responses such as Mark Twain’s story, “The Siamese Twins”, in which they fight on opposing sides in the Civil War, and even manage to take each other prisoner. The possibility of corporeal symmetry, like that of Chang & Eng, later inspired imaginary conjunctions created by photographic sleights-of-hand, depicting shared bodies – shells of turtles, lobsters or snails, and brothers reaching for one another’s heels (below left).
Though written texts (Torah, and commentaries) are the starting point for my study, it is the eclectic journey through images that stimulates a response to the challenges of Parshah Toldot. It takes little effort for me to traverse the connections from real or imagined conjoined human twins (rehearsing the deception that characterizes their relationship, grasping at heel, “pulling a leg”), to the geological Siamese Twins formation in the Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs, Colorado, to the iconic boundaries shared by representations of nuclear families (at left: Abraham, Sarah and Isaac flanked by Hagar and Ishmael, and Keturah and her six sons; at right: the brothers Chang & Eng flanked by their respective wives and offspring),
and then to ethical conjunctions of Jewish tradition and the peoples and body of Israel/Palestine.
Tales of Twin Cities
This week a Syrian-Christian acquaintance suggested that I read Arab poetry; I began with some of the work of Mahmoud Darwish, considered by many Palestinians to be their Poet Laureate. An interest in gardens, the environment, and middle-east conflict led me to a line from one of Darwish’s recently translated poems, “The Beloved Hemorrhaged Anemones”, addressing the “people of Canaan”: “it’s your bad luck that you chose the the gardens / near God’s borders, / where the sword writes clay’s tale ….” I heard its memorial lament (the poem is reproduced in its entirety below), and sought to make sense of its allusions: which anemones, how (or why) are they hemorrhaged, near which of God’s borders, inscribed by which battle(s)?
“Hanun” (or “hanoun”) in Arabic, “kalanit” in Hebrew, the anemone (poppy anemone, windflower or crown anemone, Anemone coronaria) is native to the Mediterranean. In the spring (November), the flower blankets the countryside of the north, near Galilee; the effects of urbanization and agricultural practices in Israel have led some to seek environmental protection for it.
And the borders, battles and bloody inscriptions? I located two candidates that speak to me, that read as conjunctions of geography and experience for two communities on the other side of the globe.
On the border between Israel and the occupied Palestinian West Bank territory, the villages of al-Midya and Modi’in Illit share more than the map of the Ramallah district and the music of their names. Al-Midya’s location, to the west of Modi’in, has resulted in the appropriation (1, 2) of Palestinian land to construct a bridge of settlements between Israel and Modi’in, believed to be the site of the tombs of the Hasmoneans (the Maccabees of Hannukah), who resisted Greek Selucid rule in the second century BCE. The blood spilled in that ancient battle is long gone; it takes little effort, however, to imagine the hemorrhaging produced by creation of the settlements that separate al-Midya’s residents and their neighbors from the olive trees, fields, homes and villages lost to Jewish settlements (1, 2).
Little imagination is needed to gain a measure of access to Darwish’s bloody gardens on the border between Israel and Gaza, across which the towns of Sderot and Beit Hanoun face one another. Only a bit more imagination is needed to understand the hyphen of violence that binds these communities as rockets careen east and west across the 4 miles that separate them, across this border they all claim from God, or the hemorrhaging experienced by their residents (reports of the horror they all experience flood the internet, along with international concern about the violence). No imagination is needed to recall the tragic events of November 8, 2006. Only a bit more imagination is needed to understand Darwish’s lament for the people of Canaan, whether the indigenous tribes described in Genesis, the indigenous Palestinians for so many of whom life since 1948 has been their Nakhba, their Holocaust. Little imagination is needed to understand the bridges of texts, traditions, mythologies, propoganda, flesh and blood and tears, and hope, that binds two peoples inhabiting a single geographic body, their God’s body, like Siamese twins.
This d’var Torah on Parshah Toldot is dedicated to the 18 human beings, Palestinian civilians, who died in the gardens on their God’s border on November 8, 2006.
May we all learn to read and re-read what we variously call God’s book (and one another) with much more than a little imagination (and sympathy, empathy, and charity), and may the diverse brothers and sisters of that place find a path to reading themselves not as The Adam of Two Edens, but as two (fraternal, conjoined) Adams in a single Eden, shared somehow rather than destroyed utterly.
The Beloved Hemorrhaged Anemones, Mahmoud Darwish
The beloved hemorrhaged anemones,
And the purple land glittered with his wounds,
the first of its songs: the blood of love shed by gods,
and the last of it is blood . . .
O people of Canaan celebrate
your land’s spring and set yourself aflame
like its flowers, O people of Canaan stripped
of your weapons, and become complete!
It’s your good luck that you chose agriculture as a profession
it’s your bad luck that you chose the gardens
near god’s borders,
where the sword writes clay’s tale . . . .
So let the grain spikes be your eternal army,
and let immortality be hunting dogs
in wheat fields,
and let the stags be free
like a pastoral poem . . .
The beloved hemorrhaged anemones,
and the rocks on the slope yellowed from
prolonged labor contractions,
then turned red,
then water flowed red
in our spring’s veins . . . .
The first of our songs is the blood of love
that gods shed,
and the last is the blood shed by iron gods . . .
This poem is included in The Butterfly’s Burden: Poems by Mahmoud Darwish, translated from the Arabic by Fady Joudah (Copper Canyon Press, 2007); “Anemones” and a few others from this collection are available as a download in parallel Arabic-English edition as recently published in the University of Texas’ Bat City Review.
All images in this essay should be live; clicking on any of them should take readers to the original sources.
9 November 2007
A few weeks ago, with the prospect of a long-anticipated gathering in my home of local Arab- and Jewish-Americans, I began a study of Genesis’ central narratives with an ear (and eye) to the ways in which the text and tradition might inform my understanding of relationship between insiders and outsiders, those inside tribal boundaries and those outside them. This year’s study looks to bring Torah into much closer proximity to current events. Though this site has been viewed nearly 2,000 times since its inception in August, I have received a single comment about this approach to study, from Magpie Ima, on the other side of country. Thank you M.I. for your response, and the confirmation of a (virtual) conversation made possible in this virtual community. I agree that these texts from Genesis are profoundly challenging, especially to contemporary Jews who locate themselves somewhere on the broad liberal-progressive continuum of modern Judaism. I felt the challenge keenly as I grappled with Tol’dot this week, and hope that my reflections responded to your interest.
1 December 2007
When I wrote this essay it never occurred to me that there was a trail on Siamese-twin-ism in Jewish tradition. Apparently there is. According to Aish.com, a case of Siamese twins is mentioned in the Talmud (Menachot 37a), and in recent times, the Rabbi Moshe Feinstein used Talmudic sources advise on a modern case in England – in favor of operating to save the life of the only one of the conjoined twins who had the capacity to survive, according to medical experts.
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