Rachel and Her Children


One way of telling the story of rabbinic Judaism is to say that it was born in a conversation between Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and the Roman general Vespasian, in the shadow of a besieged Jerusalem. Rabbi Yochanan had feigned death in order to be smuggled out of the walled city in a coffin despite the opposition of the Jewish zealots, who were not interested in negotiations with the enemy. Vespasian, impressed by Rabbi Yochanan’s bravery and his prediction that Vespasian would eventually become emperor of Rome, asked him what he wanted. Rabbi Yochanan’s famous answer was “give me Yavneh and its [Torah] sages,” thus establishing a center of Jewish learning independent of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Rabbi Yochanan’s foresight transformed the brick-and-mortar reality of a Temple-centered Judaism into the port- able diaspora-ready religion with which we are familiar, and thus granted a powerful second wind to a Jewish nation that might have been otherwise brought to its knees by Roman oppression.

Dara Horn’s mind- bending new novel, Eternal Life, takes place from the perspective of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai’s heretofore unknown mother Rachel. Rachel embodies a gruelingly literal interpretation of Rabbi Yochanan’s lofty project. Like a Judaism that endures beyond destruction, Rachel cannot die because of a vow she took at the Temple in order to save an ailing Yochanan. With the Temple’s destruction she is left in this liminal state, along with her lover, Elazar ben Haninah, the son of the high priest and the child’s real father. The novel, and Rachel and Elazar’s occasionally intersecting lives, span the centuries between Second Temple Jerusalem and modern-day New York…

To read the full review please see the Winter issue of the Jewish Review of Books.

Dancing in Chains: Deception and Destiny in Parshat Toldot

At the heart of this week’s Torah portion lies a kind of riddle “wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” the significance of which echoes throughout the remainder of the book of Genesis, and perhaps even further than that. The riddle in question relates to Jacob’s deception of his father Isaac in order to take his older brother Esau’s blessing. Isaac at this moment is aged and blind, and he plans to give his favored son Esau an important blessing after Esau brings him a meal he has hunted for him. Yet, as we learned earlier in the parashah, destiny is on the side of Jacob rather than Esau. When Rebecca is pregnant, God tells her in a poetic refrain: 

Two nations are in your womb.
Two separate peoples shall issue from your body;
One people shall be mightier than the other,
And the older shall serve the younger.

Despite Isaac’s preference for his oldest son, Rebecca knows very well that Jacob rather than Esau must be groomed for greatness, and she thus encourages Jacob to pretend to be his brother and take the blessing for himself.  When Isaac learns that Jacob deceived him, he is described as being “seized with a violent trembling” and when Esau discovers his brother’s dissimulation he weeps and responds to his father with the agonizing   “Have you but one blessing, Father? Bless me too, Father!” We know from various events throughout the parashah about Esau’s unsuitability for continuing the legacy of Abraham and Isaac. Before this episode, he sells his birthright to his brother Jacob in exchange for a bowl of lentil soup, later on he displeases his parents by taking two Canaanite wives rather than marrying women from his own tribe. Yet it is difficult not to empathize with Esau’s cries here, and we naturally wonder, why couldn’t Isaac have blessed both Esau and Jacob in equal measure? Was Jacob’s guile the only way to address this imperfect scenario, or could an alternative solution have been found?

Isaac Blessing Jacob (Gustave Dore, from the 1865 La Sainte Bible)
Isaac Blessing Jacob  (Gustave Dore, from the 1865 La Sainte Bible)

Continue reading “Dancing in Chains: Deception and Destiny in Parshat Toldot”