In another century on a vastly different planet, I was taught history as a series of (usually quite unfortunate) events, stressing wars and elections and, of course, centering concerns of European (usually white and landed) men. I’d always been exposed to voices beyond whatever was on the school syllabus, so this wasn’t really question of variety of perspectives. It was more that “history” itself as presented to me as a very narrow enterprise:
- wars and shifts of national borders were “history” and anything in between was “background,” at best;
- weapons and some exports were “aspects of history,” while everyday clothing and food and health care were unremarked;
- property and authority disputes were key to “understanding history,” while human relationships were noise or maybe some added color;
- questioning the content and methods of “history” was for the philosophy department.
My formal education was long completed by the time A History of Private Life and Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, for example, were released (respectively: Paul Veyne, ed, 1987; Elizabeth Wayland Barber, 1994). Perhaps the academic field of history had already expanded, or maybe I’d gone to backward schools or read old-fashioned texts. For me, anyway, these publications were a shock: Of course, we all knew that most people, and almost all women, lived most of their lives in endeavors that were not public or considered worthy of note. But here were scholars claiming space for those endeavors as actual “history” — I remember thinking: Whoa! We’ve been reading this wrong all along.
This week I had a similar thought about Torah.
Last week’s Torah portion, Vayera, is full of well-known and much-studied stories, including the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael, and the Akedah, the near sacrifice of Isaac. We also have a second “she is my sister” episode with Sarah, Abraham, and a local monarch, plus three strange visitors to Abraham, announcement of Sarah’s impending pregnancy at age 90, and then the birth. In between, we see Abimelech and Abraham in conflict over a well, resulting in a covenant between them; that episode concludes:
And Abraham planted an eshel in Beer-sheva, and called there on the name of YHVH, the Everlasting God, “El-Olam.”
וַיִּטַּע אֶשֶׁל, בִּבְאֵר שָׁבַע; וַיִּקְרָא-שָׁם–בְּשֵׁם יְהוָה, אֵל עוֹלָםGen 21:33, translation adapted from Mechon-Mamre (1917 JPS)
After a concluding statement: “And Abraham resided in the land of the Philistines for many days” (21:34), the next verse, Gen 22:1, launches the Akedah story. Vayera (“And he saw”): Gen 18:1-22:24 — see My Jewish Learning.
Most of the commentary I found about that “eshel” in 21:33 was new to me. I hope to post details soon in a separate post. But here are some highlights::
- I learned that this word appears only here in the Torah and then twice more in the Tanakh (both in 1 Samuel).
- I read about Abraham using this eshel — which has been envisioned as an inn, or an orchard, or a specific kind of tree — for the purposes of hospitality and teaching about blessing, letting guests know how all of the bounty is ultimately God’s.
- I explored the roots of the word “eshel ,” which include “glitter.”
- I read about ancient views of sacred spaces and the role of nature, trees particularly, in that.
- I read about trees and shrubs which would have been native at the time of this tale.
- I learned about Rabbi Steven Greenberg’s organization, Eshel, which seeks to “create a future for Orthodox lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals, and their families.”
In short, I experienced a glimpse of how centuries of Jewish teachers have envisioned the everyday life alluded to in this story and what lessons they have crafted around those visions….
…And I nearly dismissed it all.
As much as I enjoyed the learning and found it helpful — and a little bit hopeful at a time when hope seems in such short supply — I had a strong urge to plow on, convinced I had to look elsewhere for “the point.” Whatever is happening with Abraham and his planting of an eshel, however understood, is just background for the main story, right?
Digging around in words of Torah — traveling winding, sometimes deep, sometimes tangled, paths without a clear destination — does not directly address urgent and important issues, near and far: dangerously racist responses to on-going violence in my town; Jews in Israel and elsewhere violating the human rights of Palestinians and others; five — FIVE!! — Black men killed this year by DC’s Metropolitan Police Department; our carceral system; our burning planet; etc….
Moreover, there are so many chapters yet to come, in this grand epic in which Sarah and Abraham will soon be superseded by the next generations, and all of Genesis is prelude to Exodus anyway. Ready or not, the Torah reading cycle is moving on to Chayei Sarah (“Life of Sarah,” Gen 23:1 – 25:18; more at My Jewish Learning). So, if we’re going to learn to read Torah in a way that promotes healing and new ways forward for Jews and fellow travelers, don’t we have to get a move on?
Preparing to leave Abraham at Beer Sheva, I recalled a recent conversation with younger friends about how to build community, in general, and some of the challenges specific to Washington DC where we live. Meeting people, staying centered and reaching out, developing relationships and finding common ground — all themes raised in commentary on the eshel, and I was ready to dismiss this in search of “the point.”
This reminded me of another history-reading epiphany I experienced in my post-school education. Throughout school, I’d been taught the barest outline of “the Civil Rights Movement,” focused on big names and highly visible events largely disconnected from one another. The Montgomery Bus Boycott (which was before my time), for example, was explained with the irrelevant “Rosa Parks was tired.” And then I read about the Highlander Folk School in The Long Haul: An Autobiography (Myles Horton, 1991). This was my introduction, however tardy, to the learning and planning and relationship building behind these big events. I remember realizing that I’d been taught, whether accidentally or on purpose, to treat community and organizing as background to, and less important than, the main event. Another: Whoa! We’ve been reading this wrong all along.
If we start with the intention of learning to build community, how will the questions we ask of Torah change?
What if we stop letting the big events — and maybe even the big themes we’ve been taught to notice — drag our attention ever forward? What if, instead, we sat still at that eshel and wondered…just wondered, conversed with others across town, across the internet, across centuries?
Maybe we haven’t been reading Torah wrong all along. But we know there is more than we’ve discovered so far. And if we do our part, generations to come will be reading a different book.