king of salem

I gave this d’var Torah at Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue on October 24, 2015, Shabbat Lech Lecha. I originally wrote it as an assignment for my homiletics class. (If you want citations — not here because this text was for preaching — let me know!)

As a Jew and as a rabbi-to-be, I believe one of my main goals, both personal and professional, is to make meaning of Torah today — to ask, how is this relevant to my life and the lives of others? Put another way, my job is to find myself — and to find us — in Torah.

There are times when this job is harder than others, as in parshat Nasso, when we read the deeply misogynistic text of the Sotah, or on Yom Kippur, when we read laws of purity that have been distorted to justify homophobia.

And there are times when it’s just handed to me on a silver platter, as in this week’s parshah, Lech Lecha, with the appearance of King Malchitzedek of Salem.

This little known figure shows up in our text shortly after Avram and Lot split ways: Uncle and nephew decide to go in opposite directions to avoid competing for resources in the land of Canaan. But soon after, they are reunited, when Avram rescues Lot and his family, taken as prisoners of war in an puzzling episode known as “the battle of the kings.”

This short incident in Genesis 14 has only a tenuous connection to the previous narrative of Avram’s wanderings. Indeed, this chapter has often been noted as unique. It associates the patriarch Avram — not yet Avraham — with pseudo-historical events and presents him as a shrewd and revered military leader, a role unattested for him elsewhere in Torah. The story is of four kings who wage war against five others; after Avram’s successful campaign to recover Lot and his family, he declines the proffer of the defeated king of Sodom.

But the visit of the king of Sodom is interrupted by a brief interlude. He comes out to greet Avram, but the rest of their interaction is postponed by the interpolation of three short verses (Gen. 14:18-20) — about yet a tenth king not mentioned as part of any of the preceding battles.

.וּמַלְכִּי-צֶדֶק מֶלֶךְ שָׁלֵם, הוֹצִיא לֶחֶם וָיָיִן; וְהוּא כֹהֵן, לְאֵל עֶלְיוֹן
And Malchitzedek, king of Salem, brought forth bread and wine; and he was a priest of God the Most High.

.וַיְבָרְכֵהוּ, וַיֹּאמַר:  בָּרוּךְ אַבְרָם לְאֵל עֶלְיוֹן, קֹנֵה שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ
And he blessed [Avram], and said: “Blessed be Avram of God Most High, Maker of heaven and earth.”

.בָרוּךְ אֵל עֶלְיוֹן, אֲשֶׁר-מִגֵּן צָרֶיךָ בְּיָדֶךָ; וַיִּתֶּן-לוֹ מַעֲשֵׂר מִכֹּל
“And blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your foes into your hand.” And [Avram] gave him a tenth of everything.

Only then, after these three verses, does the narrative of King Sodom resume.

Malchitzedek as priest -- with Abel and lamb and Abraham and Isaac. Mosaic at Basilica of St. Vitale in Ravenna, Italy.

Malchitzedek as priest — with Abel and lamb and Abraham and Isaac. Mosaic at Basilica of St. Vitale in Ravenna, Italy.

King Malchitzedek appears out of nowhere, both textually and contextually. I’ve long been interested in this mysterious figure, most obviously for his provenance. Most translations, including the JPS that I just quoted, render מֶלֶךְ שָׁלֵם as “king of Salem.” As you might expect, “Salem” is understood as a name for Jerusalem.

Underscoring the peculiarity of the Malchitzedek story is the fact that the verse in Genesis is the only place in Torah to refer to Jerusalem by name. No other patriarch is connected with Jerusalem. We are told of many places where Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob build altars — “but,” says one Biblical scholar, “there is no association with the one place that was later to monopolize the Judean cult.” As central as Jerusalem becomes in the development of Judaism, the city as such has almost no role in Torah.

As it turns out, it is the invocation of this king in Christian scripture that is the source of my name. In the book of Hebrews, Jesus is repeatedly compared to Malchitzedek. A verse explains, “His name, in the first place, means ‘king of righteousness’; next he is the king of Salem, that is, ‘the king of peace’” (Heb. 7:2). This inspired my parents, and they hoped for a peaceful child, my mom says. As a regular confounder of expectations, I am not sure that is always what I have given her.

And lest you doubt that the universe has a sense of irony, it is pointed out in the Jewish Annotated New Testament that the Letter to the Hebrews, the source of my name, has the dubious distinction of “the New Testament’s most anti-Jewish text.”

Beside the fact of him as my namesake, I’ve also been drawn to Malchitzedek for another reason. As a convert, I sometimes struggle with the idea of Jewish ancestry. Officially I am Rachel Tzippora bat Avraham v’Sarah — but neither of those two of our ancestors particularly resonates with me. When I say the amidah, I include Bilhah and Zilpah — the handmaidens of Rachel and Leah, respectively, and the mothers of four of the later tribes of Israel — because often feel that I relate more to women not native to the Abrahamic line. Though Malchitzedek does not explicitly express belief in Avram’s monotheism, tradition identifies him as a priest of the Hebrew Gd — making him, in Nahum Sarna’s words, “an example of the biblical idea of individual non-Hebrews who acknowledge the one God. Such a one was Jethro; another, Balaam; a third, Job. Melchizedek thus belongs to this category.” In this way, he is sort of proto-convert. One commentator even declares unequivocally that he is Avram’s convert.

A mentor once suggested, as I worked on framing my Jewish journey for a “story of self” for activist work, that Malchitzedek might be a source of inspiration and identification. And so I wondered, is there more than etymology and provenance to recommend this “king of righteousness, king of Salem” to me? Who is this strange figure? What does the Torah mean by including such a singular character in the Abrahamic cycle?

Malchitzedek really comes to life only in rabbinic and later literature, where he is almost universally identified as Shem, one of the sons of Noah. We know almost nothing about him from Tanakh. Besides the passage in Genesis, Malchitzedek only mentioned elsewhere in Psalm 110 (v. 4), where Gd is said to swear:

אַתָּה-כֹהֵן לְעוֹלָם עַל-דִּבְרָתִי מַלְכִּי-צֶדֶק
“You are a priest forever, in the order of Malchitzedek.”

This psalm refers to a royal priesthood: Noting that this hymn has the epigraph לְדָוִד מִזְמוֹר, “a psalm of David,” the rabbis explain that the Shem/Malchitzedek character was a progenitor of the Davidic monarchy, which descended from Judah and Tamar, a daughter (or sometimes granddaughter) of Shem. Also in the line of David? Ruth, the Tanakh’s most famous convert. This convert king, whose convert descendant was the great-grandmother of דָוִד המֶּלֶך, might indeed be a good ancestor for me.

Interestingly, the Christian tradition understands this verse from Psalm 110 as an allusion to Jesus, with its references to the offices of king and priest in one man. All the more reason to recommend him to my Christian parents!

Indeed, in many early Christian traditions, Malchitzedek is Jesus. In one Gnostic text, the king lives, preaches, dies, and is resurrected. The book of Hebrews makes essentially the same point, focusing on the divinity of Jesus, when it claims that Malchitzedek is “without father, without mother, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of Gd . . .” (Heb. 7:3).

Jewish tradition gets similarly carried away: In various sources, Malchitzedek is the son of a virgin who is already dead at the time of his birth; the teacher of Torah to the patriarchs before it was given at Sinai; and is spirited by the archangel Gabriel to Gan Eden to escape Noah’s flood. The rich variety of lore that arose around this enigmatic character speaks to how compelling those three short verses in Lech Lecha have been through the ages and through traditions.

These interpretations are indeed fascinating — and they actually go on and on and on — but I think meaning for us may first be found simply in the placement of the Malchitzedek incident, obviously interposed into the interaction of the King of Sodom with Avram. Abarbanel claims that, in doing so, the text is trying to show the striking contrast between the behavior of the king of Sodom and the king of Salem. Drawing on conventions of war, the Or HaHayyim explains further:

The interpolation regarding Malchitzedek is introduced to reflect credit on the righteous and show the difference between them and the wicked. The king of Sodom went forth to welcome Avraham empty-handed, though he was under obligation to repay him generously. The wicked went empty-handed, whereas Malchitzedek the righteous, with no obligation, behaved generously and welcomed him with bread and wine.

This understanding has much to recommend it: That the king of Sodom acts inhospitably foreshadows the destruction of the city of Sodom a few chapters later.

Though both of these commentators focus on what the incident suggests about the king of Sodom, I am interested in what the incident suggests about the king of Salem: What we do know about Malchitzedek from Torah is that he lives up to his name as a righteous man. Without prelude or pretext, Malchitzedek offers Avram a meal and blesses him — and then blesses their shared Gd, as creator of heaven and earth. Simply and humbly, Malchitzedek honors Avram.

The Yalkut Shimoni draws on the tradition of Malchitzedek as Shem, the son of Noah, to make even more explicit what his interaction with Avram means. The midrash imagines a longer conversation, after the flood:

[Avraham] said to Malchitzedek, “How was it that you [merited] to go out of the ark?”

[Malchitzedek] replied, “Because of the tzedakah that we did there.”

[Avraham] said, “What tzedekah did you do in the ark? Were there poor people there? Isn’t it the case that there was only Noah and his children there? So, for whom did you do tzedakah?”

[Malchitzedek] said, “For the cattle and the animals and the birds. We didn’t sleep for tending to this one or that one.”

Then Avraham said, “Had they not done tzedakah for the cattle and animals and birds, they would not have [merited] to go out of the ark! It was because they did this tzedakah that they went out. If I do so for human beings, who are in the image of Gd, how much more will I [merit]!

And then, we’re told, Avraham acts: Consistent with our understanding of this patriarch as the paradigm of hospitality, he opens an inn for needy travelers, providing them with food, drink, and funeral escort. It’s the king of Salem who first models for Avram this particular act of righteousness, when Malchitzedek acts with unfettered generosity towards a virtual stranger. And, as the midrash teaches us, Avram does the same in turn.

I don’t know that my parents are deep readers of Biblical text: In the church I attended as a child, I was taught that there was always one, literal meaning of any part of scripture. But I can’t believe that King Malchitzedek, King of Salem, King of Righteousness, my namesake, came into my life by accident. This border crosser, this convert, this mysterious figure claimed by both Jewish and Christian tradition, this king of Salem — Malchitzedek is a character that I can see myself in.

This deeper understanding of my name has made me start to think about the markers that our parents set out for us, knowingly and unknowingly. My parents definitely did not anticipate that I would find a spiritual, intellectual, and activist home in Judaism — but in naming me for Malchitzedek, they did bless me with the hope of peace and righteousness. Ultimately, they gave me what I needed to find my own way.

In parshat Lech Lecha, we generally focus on Avram’s call from Gd and his leap of faith.

לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ
“Go forth from your country, and from your birthplace, and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you.”

Avram, we usually say, began his pioneering journey of monotheism, as the first Jew, by literally setting out on a new and unknown path.

But last week, at the very end of parshat Noach, we’re told that it’s actually Terach, Avram’s father, who begins the journey by setting out with his family from אוּר כַּשְׂדִּים. Does Terach know what is in store for Avram? Is Terach helping Avram by initiating the first stage of his wanderings in a new land? We can only guess. Knowingly or unknowingly, like my parents, Terach acts in a way that allows his child to find his own path and identity. Avram develops a relationship with the one Gd and becomes Avraham — and later, Avraham Avinu, the father of us all.

I wonder if Avraham ever realized what Terach had done for him. I like to think he did. I like to think that somewhere along the way Avraham acknowledged that he didn’t actually become who he became through his actions alone. It was Terach, in leaving his home, who first blessed him with the model of fearlessness and faith. I like to think that Avraham spent his life trying to live up to that blessing — as I will strive to do with my parents’ blessing of naming me for King Malchitzedek, King of Righteousness, King of Peace, King of Salem.


One morning in D.C. I met a friend at Caribou Coffee, and I grabbed the restroom key off the bar as soon as I walked in. The barista glanced at me but said nothing. I walked back to the restroom, which was clearly marked: “For Caribou customers ONLY.” A homeless man sat at the table closest to the restroom, sipping his cup of coffee, alternately watching me and his shopping cart of belongings just outside the door.

“If I did that, they’d make me buy something before used the restroom.”

I didn’t know what to say. I muttered that I was going to buy something; I just really had to use the bathroom. But I knew that he was right. My privilege as an upper middle-class white woman (even one dressed in her stinky running clothes) had given me that pass. I look like someone who is going to buy something. Or someone who isn’t going to bathe in the bathroom. Or both.

I don’t see homeless folks where I live in Boston. I know they exist, even in the affluent suburbs where I live and go to school. But besides running or a quick trip to the drug store, I drive everywhere. It’s hard to see anyone from the bubble of my car.

Before I left D.C., the plight of homelessness weighed on me heavily. I walked everywhere, including to and from my office downtown, where there are homeless people on almost every street. In the months before I moved away, I struggled every day with how best to treat these people with humanity. My general policy is to give money — change — to whomever asks, but I feel deeply the inadequacy of that response.


tzedakah box: tiempo israelitico synagogue; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

As I was packing, I decided I didn’t need to schlep a full tzedakah box, which my husband and I had been adding to since we moved to our apartment four years earlier, to Boston. I put the coins in a plastic bag and began doling it out. There was a lot of change, and I began to go out of my way to give it away. I’ll be honest: This increased interaction with some of the most vulnerable residents became a source of stress, as I found myself feeling increasingly helpless in the face of such a daunting social issue. I didn’t know if what I was doing was ultimately helping or hurting, and I don’t know what a better alternative is.

But when a person is asking something from me — a person who my tradition teaches me was created b’tzelem Elohim, “in the image of G-d” — I can’t decline a request for change, something that literally costs me very little to give. Because of this, I am unconcerned, as many are, about how the requesting party will use that money; that is simply not a factor in my thinking about this issue. As often as I can, I look the person in the eye, I smile, and I give.

I arrived at this decision about how to respond to these requests after a text study during a fellowship I participated in. The Jeremiah Fellowship, run by the local D.C. organization Jews United for Justice, was a 10-month program to train the next generation of Jewish social justice changemakers. The text study, “Can You Spare a Dime? Jewish Perspectives on Spontaneous Tzedakah,” which focused specifically on these kinds of street requests, was in three parts: To give or not to give? What about people who aren’t really in need? Are there alternatives to giving money?

We’re told in Vayikra Rabbah 32:2:

Rabbi Pinchas says in the name of Rabbi Re’uven: To anyone who gives a small coin to a poor person, the Holy Blessed One will give many small coins. But is the giver really just giving the poor person a coin? Isn’t she really giving him his life? How so?

If a loaf of bread costs ten coins and a poor person is standing in the market and only has nine, and someone comes along and gives him one [more] coin so that he buys the loaf of bread and eats it and his soul is returned to him [i.e., he is saved from starving to death]. The Holy Blessed One says to the giver, “In your case, too, when your own soul threatens to break loose from your body [i.e., when you’re on the verge of death], I will return it to you.”

The text study (several more pieces besides the one above) had a profound effect on me. I like that the Talmud acknowledges that not everyone who asks is in need (or, by extension, will use the money for the professed need) and suggests non-monetary ways to help those in need — while still affirming our obligation to give even just a little, and to do so with compassion.

sign near occupy dc on k st nw

sign near occupy dc at vermont & k sts nw; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

I know that not everyone agrees with my approach — including some of my fellow Jeremiahs, who looked at the same texts I did. While I lived in D.C. I also made a (small) annual donation to an organization that worked with the local homeless population. Each week my husband bought a copy of Street Sense — a publication by and about those experiencing homelessness — from a vendor near his office. And I spent many a Christmas day repainting various buildings of the Community for Creative Nonviolence, a downtown D.C. shelter.

All of this is to say that I loved being in back in D.C., where homeless folks are visible, even if they are a painful reminder of how short our society falls in an important test. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.”


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