Shabbat Lech-lecha: Jews and Halloween, October 31, 2014


By: Rabbi Lisa Edwards

When one of our BCC children received her weekly 4th grade public school vocabulary list a few years ago, among the words on the list was “transparent.” When the teacher asked who could offer a definition, our BCC kid was the first to raise her hand, and be called on, and thus long before the new TV series, Transparent, was even conceived, let alone an instant hit, our kid offered up this definition of the word “transparent” — “when one of your parents is transgender?”

In the most quoted scene from the hit new television show Transparent, the 70 year old main character, Maura, comes out as trans to her shocked adult daughter, Sarah, who, seeing her for the first time dressed as a woman, asks,

“Are you saying that you’re going to start dressing up like a lady all the time?” to which Maura laughs and replies, “No, honey. All my life…my whole life, I’ve been dressing up like a man. This is me.”

In this week’s Torah portion, Lech-lecha, God calls Avram and Sarai, soon to be Abraham and Sarah, to become the patriarch and matriarch of the Jewish people. Lech-lecha, Go for your own sake, says God, speaking for the first time to Avram, leave your birthplace and your father’s house and go to a land that I will show you…and be a blessing. [Genesis 12:1-2]

Avram and Sarai choose to follow God’s command, though the text never tells us why they agreed to do so, nor why God chose them. The journey was not an easy one, and I thought on this holiday of Halloween, when disguises and tricks and treats rule, I might take the opportunity to note some of the disguises, the tricks and the treats of our ancestors and of God.

Having already left their homeland, the childless Avram and Sarai, already age 75 and 65, and comfortably dwelling in Haran, pick up at God’s bidding, and head for Canaan, where God promises to make them into a great nation. That was a treat.

But almost immediately they run into difficulty — there is famine in the land, and they leave Canaan and go to Egypt, where Avram worries that Pharaoh, upon seeing how beautiful Sarai is, will kill Avram in order to take Sarai as his own. “Please say you are my sister,” says Avram to his wife, “that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may remain alive thanks to you.” In other words, Avram gives his wife to Pharaoh by pretending she is not his wife. That was a mean trick — though it did preserve their lives, and eventually Pharaoh, also upset when he finds out the truth, lets them all go without punishment. [Genesis 12:10-20] Halloween and Purim aren’t the only time for costumes, it turns out, our matriarch Sarah also pretended to be someone she was not.

Other strange things happen in this Torah portion, about the founding of the Jewish people. Sarai, aware that without children it remains unlikely a great nation could descend from them, or perhaps still angry with her husband for having given her to Pharaoh, suggests that Avram sleep with her maidservant, Hagar, in the hopes they could bring a child into their household in that way. Hagar promptly gets pregnant — a neat trick. And a treat for Avram (who is 85 or 86 at the time), but as it turns out, not for Sarah or for Hagar, who no longer get along.

Hagar runs away. But an angel of God speaks to her (is that a trick or a treat?) — telling her to go back, and submit to Sarah’s harsh treatment, the reward being her son Ishmael.

And then God tells Avram that at long last he and Sarah will give birth to a child together. Avram laughs — at age 100 and 90? he asks, incredulous, can’t you just bless Ishmael instead? “I will bless Ishmael,” says God, and also you and Sarah will have a child. [17:15-22] A promise of a clever trick and treat to come.

And then one last mean trick in this Torah portion — God tells Abraham to circumcise himself at age 99 and his son Ishmael at age 13, and every male in his household. A sign of the covenant God has made to bless this people.

The rabbis of the Talmud, perhaps to distract us from the odd tricks in this Torah portion, offer a surprising new twist to this story of infertility and delayed pregnancy.

In the Talmud, tractate Yevamot 64b, amidst a discussion of the mitzvah of parenting, “Rabbi Ammi states: ‘Abraham and Sarah were originally of doubtful sex [tumtumim they are called in the Talmud — persons whose gender cannot be determined]. . .And Rabbi Nahman in the name of Rabbah ben Abbuha [adds]:

‘Our mother Sarah was incapable of procreation…she did not even have a womb.’” And yet she gave birth to Isaac. We could of course study this strange little commentary in detail, but for now let’s notice two things: one is that these Rabbis of the Talmud claim that the progenitors of the Jewish people – our first patriarch and matriarch – Abraham and Sarah — were of indeterminate gender; and two, the Rabbis seem completely unperturbed by this idea. Could they be more matter-of-fact here? Knowing the Rabbis of the Talmud could take such ideas in stride ought to make it easier for the rest of us, don’t you think?

“No, honey. All my life…my whole life, I’ve been dressing up like a man. This is me,” says the 70 year old transwoman, Maura, in my new favorite TV show, Transparent, who finally, after decades of knowing, decides to be “me,” no matter the consequences.

Elsewhere in Lech-lecha, Avram receives the label ha-ivri. Another term, like lech-lecha itself, ripe for interpretation. Ivri — ayin- beit-resh-yud — the term, ivrit — Hebrew — comes from this — so Avram, the Hebrew, is one way to define it. But the root of ivri also means ‘over’ or ‘on the other side;’ ‘other,’ thus the midrash that says, Avraham stands opposite — the whole world stood on one side and he stood on the other.” [Genesis Rabbah 42:8]

Have you ever felt that way?

Rabbi Lichtenstein, the rosh yeshivah, the head of school of the Orthodox yeshivah Har Etzion, once gave a moving drash about Avraham, ha-ivri, concluding that:

Avraham embodies the proof that it is possible to free oneself from the pressures of society and family and to swim against the current – with great strength. That small grain which for a tiny moment out of eternity broke through the barriers of his family and his society, became the father of a whole nation. 

       This is Avraham’s essence. They go their way – and he goes his. The whole world stands on one side, and he on the other. … The father of the nation teaches us that it is within a person’s power, if he but wills it, to beat his own path, to clear himself a way, to create his own current. This character represents an enormous challenge, and presents a great demand of us.[1]

          At the same time, it also serves as a source of comfort. When a person is overcome with despair at the rushing, tumultuous streams facing him, he can take comfort in the knowledge that he can prevail – if only he wishes to act against them. Perhaps he will not give rise to a new nation – … – but he will find the strength needed for his struggle.

I imagine the debates about Halloween and Jews will continue. Do we let our children participate in practices that spring from religions not our own? But Halloween, like Purim, with its costuming, has become important in our community for adults as well as for children, perhaps more important for adults. Costumes have become a way for us to experiment — sometimes yes, to pretend to be someone we are not, but sometimes to discover who we are — or who else we are — other parts of ourselves we may not have known, or may not have been willing to explore in any other context. And sometimes it helps us to understand one another as well, to walk in someone else’s shoes, literally.

Lech-lecha, lechi-lach, says God to our ancestors in this Torah portion — go, for your own sake, lech lecha, lechi-lach — go your own way, and when you do, suggests God, you will be a blessing.

Shabbat shalom (Happy Halloween)




Avraham the “Ivri”/Summarized by Rav Eliyahu Blumenzweig (Originally delivered on Leil Shabbat Parashat Lekh Lekha 5732. Translated by Kaeren Fish.) Copyright (c) 1996 Yeshivat Har Etzion. All rights reserved.

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