Shabbat VaYetze: Give Me Children Or I Will Die

This week’s parashah finds Jacob leaving home, going to a new community and creating family there. The resonance is obvious here for so many of us, for whom it is natural to expect to create our families and our future in a place different from the one in which we grew up. For Jacob, a short sojourn turns into a generation, during which he marries not one but two women, sisters who are his cousins – his mother Rivkah is sister to their father Laban.
The sisters are close – ancient midrash tells us that they supported each other when the men in their lives were not interested in their well-being, to the point that when Jacob and Laban arranged for Jacob to marry Rachel out of the normal order of things (she is the younger sister), Rachel actually cooperated in an intricate  and intimate deception that resulted in Leah being married to Jacob. (Rachel followed before long.) The Torah demonstrates by way of this narrative that the two sisters have a strong and trusting relationship.
Our text, from the second year of the Triennial Cycle of Torah readings, begins on a less happy note: the two sisters are locked in the “baby wars.” Leah is easily having one strapping baby son after another: Re’uven, Shimon, Levi and Yehudah, in quick succession. Meanwhile Rachel has yet to be pregnant, and, distraught. she confronts Jacob: Give me children or I will die. (Gen. 30.1) Jacob’s response is angry: Am I G*d, to make you fertile when you’re not?
It’s hard to withstand the ancient hard-wiring that moves many women of child-bearing age, to tears, and more, if they are unable to have the children they long for. A famous story about King Solomon describes a woman swapping her dead child for that of her friend in the night; in our narrative, Rachel gives her attendant Bilhah to Jacob as a surrogate. In our own day, entire lives are subsumed by the effort to have a child.
As we see in the parashah, marriages suffer as a result, and also the relationships we have with those we perceive as happier than we in the baby context. And in the intensity of the self-absorbed focus that grows into a monster, one sees Rachel’s cry for what it is. Ironically for a book that demonstrates the power of women over and over again, Rachel is depicted as a woman of no worth if she cannot have children.
For many of us who do not give birth to children, either because we cannot or because we did not, this is a troubling message, and not only because it demeans women, turning anyone with a uterus into a single-issue soul. Jewish tradition clearly expects of all of us that we help to raise the next generation; the Shema is incumbent upon us all, not only women and not only those parents who raise children. You shall teach them to your children is meant for the entire extended community – there was no such thing as the unique torture of the nuclear family, with no relatives to share the raising and tending, then. All Jews help to raise the next generation of Jews, which is why paying taxes for a neighborhood school, or supporting universal health insurance for children, is an obligation and a privilege even when we ourselves do not have children.
For some of us, a traditional way to express our lives would be to humbly recognize that it is not G*d’s will that we bear children in our bodies. To let that single fact define our lives as a life-ending disaster would be an insult to the richness of each human life and the undiscovered country we each inhabit, in our homes and on our ways. Each life is always a gift, every day, and the people we are privileged to spend it with are a delight. On this Shabbat may we each speak to the Rachel in our hearts or in our lives with gentleness and understanding, and with encouragement as well, that a wider focus is possible on all that is being born, and all that we can help to nurture and thrive.
…and finally: on this Thanksgiving weekend, observed by so many as an welcome equalizer of all faiths and orientations, it’s important for us to hold two conflicting truths in mind: while yes, for some of us this holiday is a rare opportunity to join in the general celebration, for others it is a yearly reminder of their exclusion from American-ness. On this Thanksgiving, while we complain about all the food, consider how you can support those among the First Nations of this land who have to worry about their food: Food As Economic Development Among First Nations

Parashat Akharei Mot-Kedoshim: Reason to Live

This week we read a doubled parasha, just as we did last week. The words that provide the title of the first parashah are Akharei Mot – “after the death”. The words refer to the deaths of Nadav and Abihu, Aaron’s two sons who died suddenly, without warning, tragically, only a few verses of Torah ago. The second parashah is named Kedoshim – “holy ones”, taken from
You shall be holy as I HaShem your G-d am holy. (VaYikra 19.2).
Earlier this week I studied these verses with some students preparing to be called to the Torah as a bat or bar mitzvah. 
We looked closely at the verses following the command “be holy”. Just as the command of the Shema to love G-d is followed by the description of how to fulfill that mitzvah, so it is here: the command to be holy is followed by specific acts that make a Jew holy, verse by verse (these are verses 3-8):
Be in awe of your parents
Keep Shabbat
Don’t make other things into G-d
When you offer a sacrifice, make sure it is acceptable
Treat the sacrificial food with respect
If you act cynically toward it, you will be cut off from your people.
The students understood the underlying concept quickly: in Jewish terms, to be holy is to be dedicated to a certain distinct way of life – and that way of life demands self-respect, as well as respect toward the way of life and those who convey it (even one’s parents!). The most interesting part was the last verse: G-d does not cut someone off for disobedience. Rather, the lack of respect, of the capacity for awe and dedication, causes a person to be cut off by his or her own lack of ability to connect. That lack may be because of an inner barrier, or simply a lack of a good role model. 
The punishment for distancing oneself from one’s distinctive people and their practices is precisely that: distance, from a community that offers meaning, safety, and welcome to those who give themselves to it. The reward is the support one receives from linking one’s destiny to that of our people, with its fantastic history and deep sense of committed community.
These children, these students of Torah, with their clarity of vision and sincerity, give us hope. The worst nightmare of all is that of Nadav and Abihu- children dead, suddenly and tragically, in Syria, in Afghanistan, or in Boston. The juxtaposition of these two parshas bids us to take comfort in the promise that all children carry: that if we are open, they will remind us to live in holiness, which is to say in the belief that dedication to our Jewish ideal of standing in awe before G-d in the midst of a meaningful community is possible. Indeed, that belief is what will redeem us all.