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Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Lekh Lekha Genesis 12:1-17:27

By Shlomo Riskin  

Efrat, Israel - Why was Abraham the first Jew? What was special and unique to Abraham that we do not find in the generations which preceded him?

Adam and Eve were the first two human beings - indeed, they created the first family - but it was a dysfunctional family at best: husband and wife not only sinned by eating the forbidden fruit, but they also added salt to the wounds when, confronted by G-d, instead of attempting to protect each other, they blame each other; what is even worse, their first-born Cain murders his younger brother Abel, uttering the most damning dismissal of responsibility in human history, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Clearly G-d’s first family can hardly be upheld as models worthy of emulation.

Perhaps this is why a study of the genealogical tables listed in the portion of Genesis are remarkably lacking in any form of familial unit. The first genealogical list are the descendants of Cain: “And Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and gave birth to Hanokh; and Cain was building a city and he ceded the name of the City - like the name of his son - Hanokh. And there was born of Hanokh, Irad, and Irad bore Mehuya’el, and Mehiya’el bore Metusha’el, and Metusha’el bore Lemekh” (Genesis 4:17,18). We have here seven generations - and not one woman’s name is mentioned! Indeed, a nameless wife is mentioned only once, in the case of Cain; otherwise, it would seem that the men had the children by themselves! Moreover, Cain’s son Hanokh is given a name which is related to education - a term which connotes an intellectual and emotional relationship between parent-teacher and son-student - but it is used instead as the name of a city which the father Cain apparently gifted to his son; the generations apparently bequeathe objects and real estate rather than ideals and emotions. Hanokh’s son is even named Irad, an eternal city!

Lemekh does have two named wives- Adah and Zilah - but they are named only in order for the text to inform us (albeit in a round-about manner) that they have broken off relations with their husband. Indeed, the Midrash notes that the wives were purely functional in nature, the first for the purpose of child-bearing and the second for the purpose of sexual pleasure (Genesis 4:19-24, Midrash Rabbah and Rashi 4:19). Lemekh can hardly provide us with a model for proper marital relationships.

The genealogy of Shet is even worse from a familial perspective, with the nine generations listed until Noah without any reference to a female whatsoever; the men seem to have “begat” (or bore) their sons through what seems to be a purely masculine enterprise (Genesis 4:26-5:31).

The degeneration of society is then Biblically expressed as a situation in which the sons of the powerful leaders (Elohim, El meaning mighty) grabbed any woman they desired, a shocking picture of the rule of might over right especially in terms of taking advantage of the “weaker sex” (Genesis 6:1-4). This is hardly a fitting atmosphere for developing the ethics of a loving and respectful family life! And even Noah, too - the individual whom G-d favors and who brings G-d comfort because he is righteous - is Biblically mentioned as having had three sons born to him, but it is only thanks to the midrash that we identify his wife as Naamah, the sister of Tuval-Cain (Genesis 5:32, 4:22, Rashi ad loc). Apparently, G-d is not happy with this state of affairs. When the Almighty commands Noah to erect an ark, He instructs him “to take seven pairs from every pure animal, a male and his mate (ish v’ishto, literally a man and his wife, Genesis 7:2); it is as though G-d is pointing out that just as the animals come in couples, so ought human beings establish their lives as husbands and wives together! And so when the Almighty commands Noah to leave the ark, He directs: “Go out from the ark, you and your wife and your sons and your son’s wives with you” (Genesis 8:16). Unfortunately, Noah doesn’t seem to take the hint: “And there went out Noah and his sons, and his wife and the wives of this sons with him.” (Genesis 8:18).

Noah gets drunk, tells the Biblical text, and he exposes himself in the midst of his tent. “And Ham the father of Canaan saw the nakedness of his father” (Genesis 9:22). The Talmudic Sages explain that either Ham castrated his father or sodomized his father (B.T. Sanhedrin 70a). Clearly a society which does not provide definitive male and female parental models will pay a heavy price in terms of the sexual practices - or abnormalities - of its children. And it is no wonder that the genealogical listing of the descendants of Noah are likewise without the women: Ham bears (begats) Kush, and Kush bears (begats) Nimrod. Nimrod initiates the Kingdom of Babylon (Bavel), the land from which Nineveh (Assyria) emanated (Genesis 10:6-12). Nimrod parallels Hanokh’s just as Nimrod is the third generation from Ham, so is Hanokh the third generation from Adam (Adam, Cain Hanokh) - and each build cities, things, rather then relationships and families. Indeed, just as Hanokh eventually led to the flood, so does Nimrod eventually lead to the tower of Babel. A humanity devoid of positive and value-inducing familial relationships is doomed to destruction!

After the tower of Babel - and the separation of people into different nation states and languages - Abraham enters the world scene. And right from the beginning, the Bible tells us, “And Abram and Nahor took for themselves wives, the name of Abram’s wife is Sarai and the name of Nahor’s wife is Milkah..” (Genesis 11:29). We learn that Sarai is barren, and that Abram and Sarai adopt Abram’s orphaned nephew Lot and that they work together in teaching the Gentiles about the G-d of ethical monotheism (Genesis 12:5, Rashi ad loc). Perhaps the clearest expression of the uniqueness of Abraham’s mission is found in G-d’s charge: “And Abraham will become a great and mighty nation, through whom all the nations of the earth will be blessed. I have known (and loved) him in order that he will command his children and his household after him to observe the path of the Lord and to do righteousness and justice” (Genesis 18:18,19). In sum, Abraham, unlike the earlier twenty generations - was a husband and pater-familias, an individual dedicated to his wife together with whom he set out to establish family continuity and world influence. The first Jew must - first and foremost - have the capacity to establish the first committed family! Only from such a family can there emerge a nation which will ultimately perfect the world.

Shabbat Shalom.

A Personal Post-Script

After performing a wedding a number of years ago, a matriarch whom I greatly respected and loved - Mrs. Rita Kaufman (of blessed memory) - came up to me with a reproving and disappointed look in her eyes. “What a sad huppah!”, she said. “The bride and groom were both orphans.” I looked at her in disbelief, because Mrs. Kaufman knew both families, and the two mothers had stood alive and well under the nuptial canopy. “But I heard you read the Ketubah, Rabbi and the mothers weren’t even mentioned!,” she said. I often think of her words - and now include the mother’s names in the Ketubah, when naming babies and calling bnei mitzvah to the Torah, and on tombstones. Only with Abraham do the names of the wives begin to appear in the Bible.


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