I read the text of the Torah like a three-dimensional fractal: at first glance it shows an attractive, but simplistic picture. That top level shows only a child’s conception of the text, what any person might learn by reading the Torah as one might read a novel. But as the reader drills down, the top level peels away to reveal ever-more beauty as you go deeper. The key is that in order to dig deeper, you have to keep asking questions, challenging the text to make sense to you.
The text even helps us find the questions! Because the text is essentially in shorthand, what is and is not there should prompt any critical reader to ask why this is so. Here’s one pertinent example:
Jacob decides to adopt Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Menasseh. He says:
And Jacob said to Joseph, “El Shaddai appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan, and He blessed me, and said to me, ‘I will make you fertile and numerous, making of you a community of peoples; and I will assign this land to your offspring to come for an everlasting possession.’ Now, your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, shall be mine; Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine no less than Reuben and Simeon. … I [do this because], when I was returning from Paddan, Rachel died, to my sorrow, while I was journeying in the land of Canaan, when still some distance short of Ephrath; and I buried her there on the road to Ephrath”—now Bethlehem.
Here is an obvious question: what does the death of Rachel have to do with adopting the grandchildren? It seems to be a complete non sequitur.
Answering the question becomes pretty easy once the question is found and posed. And we do it by peeling away the layers of the text, by looking at what is and is not said.
For example, the text does not tell us that Rachel is buried at the side of the road. She is buried on the road, which is truly odd. You would/could not bury a body on a road, which means the text is telling us it is making a symbolic, not a literal, point.
The other thing to note is that in the Torah, roads are never described in terms of where they come from: instead, they are always focused on where they are going. The direction of travel, not our origin or current location, is always the most important thing to the Torah (and thus to Jews).
When the Torah tells us Rachel died, it matters that she was on the road, but still short of a place called “Efrat.”
And then the answer falls into place. “Efrat” has the same root word as “fruit,” or offspring. Which means that Rachel died on her way to – but still falling short of – fruitfulness. This is the same fruitfulness that Jacob refers to when he starts the explanation with “I will make you fertile and numerous.” In other words, I will make you fruitful.
So when Jacob adopts his grandchildren as his own, he explains it both before and after: On the one hand, the adoption helps make G-d’s promise, that Jacob himself will be numerous and inherit the land, come true. And on the other hand, the adoption of the sons of Joseph (Rachel’s firstborn) helps the departed Rachel reach the destination she fell short of in life: to be fruitful.
[an @iwe, @kidcoder and @blessedblacksmith collaboration]