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Parashat Vayishlah - The Breasted God and the Land Sustains the People


In the mythic narrative of Torah, Divine names offer archetypal insights into the relevance and wisdom of any given passage. In the 19th and 20th centuries there were many academic scholars (and still some today) who come with the critical analysis that the divine name employed in a given passage tells the careful reader of that text's origin - its author, its timing, its location, and its political sensibilities. While I do believe that the Torah was composed over many generations by many hands with many different political and spiritual sensibilities, I also believe that this type of analysis is short-sighted and belies the depth of significance of the divine names found in Torah. What is more, we often misunderstand the implications and archetypal significance of a given name of God because of our own cultural distinctions and differences from those of our ancient ancestors. No name has alluded translators more surprisingly than the name El Shaddai.


In nearly every English translation of the Torah ever endeavored, this name is rendered as "Almighty God," or "God of Might," or something along those lines. What is very strange about this egregious mistranslation is that it is know secret what the word Shaddai actually means. In Hebrew, shaddaim are breasts. I know of no reason other than patriarchy and misogyny as to why this very clear association would be overlooked.


In Parashat Vayishlah, Yaakov has an encounter with the divine and God says to Yaakov (Gen. 35:11):

...אֲנִ֨י אֵ֤ל שַׁדַּי֙ פְּרֵ֣ה וּרְבֵ֔ה גּ֛וֹי וּקְהַ֥ל גּוֹיִ֖ם יִהְיֶ֣ה מִמֶּ֑ךָּ...
...I am El Shaddai - the Breasted God - be fruitful and multiply, a nation, a community of nations, will come from you...

In every instance that the name El Shaddai is mentioned in the Torah, it is *always* coupled with the notion of fertility. In one instance, the name El Shaddai comes in relationship with the notion of compassion, in Hebrew rahum, which is related to the word rehem - womb. The archetypal association could not be more clear, just as a mother's breasts sustains a child so too does the divine sustain humanity.


However, there is another layer of sustaining power that is inherent in this passage. The blessing continues (Gen. 35:12):

וְאֶת־הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָתַ֛תִּי לְאַבְרָהָ֥ם וּלְיִצְחָ֖ק לְךָ֣ אֶתְּנֶ֑נָּה וּֽלְזַרְעֲךָ֥ אַחֲרֶ֖יךָ אֶתֵּ֥ן אֶת־הָאָֽרֶץ׃
The land which I have given to Avraham and to Yitzhak, to you I am giving it; and to your seed after you will I give the land

In this instance, not only is the archetype of El Shaddai associated with fertility, but the same idea of sustenance implied in the name El Shaddai is also associated with the promise of land itself. The juxtaposition offers us this insight: Just as we are sustained in our lives - whether euphemistically or literally - by a mother's breasts, so too are we sustained in our lives by our connection to land - both euphemistically and literally.


However, unlike a benevolent deity or an ideal mother that provides sustenance unconditionally, the land will only sustain humanity if humanity sustains the land. The Torah then reminds us that this is a multigenerational pursuit. That just as our ancestors lived in relationship to land in order to provide sustenance for their descendants, so too must we live in right relationship with land to provide for future generations. That through out connection to land we build community, and through a "community of nations" we build systems of mutual support that can ensure not only future generations being sustained by the land, but also a depth of relationship that itself is spiritually nourishing and life sustaining in this generation.


Many traditional commentators note the shared language in the blessing given to Yaakov here with that given to Creation at the beginning of the Torah. That connection reminds me of this Midrash (Kohellet Rabbah 7:13):


בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁבָּרָא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אֶת אָדָם הָרִאשׁוֹן, נְטָלוֹ וְהֶחֱזִירוֹ עַל כָּל אִילָנֵי גַּן עֵדֶן, וְאָמַר לוֹ, רְאֵה מַעֲשַׂי כַּמָּה נָאִים וּמְשֻׁבָּחִין הֵן, וְכָל מַה שֶּׁבָּרָאתִי בִּשְׁבִילְךָ בָּרָאתִי, תֵּן דַּעְתְּךָ שֶׁלֹא תְקַלְקֵל וְתַחֲרִיב אֶת עוֹלָמִי, שֶׁאִם קִלְקַלְתָּ אֵין מִי שֶׁיְתַקֵּן אַחֲרֶיךָ
When the Holy One created the first human, God took them and brought them around every single tree in the Garden of Eden and said to them: See what I have done? How wonderful and praiseworthy it is! Everything I created, I have created for you. So be conscious not to ruin or destroy my world, because if you do ruin it, there is nobody who will fix it after you...
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