Shabbat Toldot: Trust, Despite Everything

In parashat Toldot we read of the birth of the twins Esau and Jacob, born to Rebekah and Isaac after years of trying to get pregnant, and much frustration and difficulty. The family that is created when the children are safely born seems to thrive: their parents succeed in helping their boys to find for each a distinct identity. A family of four, well-off and living at a peaceful time – they look as if all is well.
It all falls apart so fast, in a morality play that seems to demonstrate the damage a controlling parent can do to a child – or, perhaps, the way that deception and betrayal can tear even close families apart. At least, they seemed close.
Those who study the human condition, from ancient Rabbis to modern psychologists, remind us that there is much to be learned not from what we experience, but from how we react to our experiences. Faced with a crisis, Rebekah turns to deception; Jacob ignores his misgivings to go along; Isaac, it is suggested, knows what is happening but shrinks from confrontation; and angry Esau, at the short end, snarls and stomps out, threatening murder.
What if someone had simply spoken directly to the crisis? Why was there no trust among this family’s members? Why did everyone assume the worst?
Consider Isaac, neither the creator of his world – Abraham did that – nor really able to control it. Isaac, who was not killed in the Akedah, who survived his parenting and now is to carry forward their vision. Israeli sociologists speak of the “Isaac generation,” that person or generation that comes of age in the shadow of larger-than-life parents. In the early years of the State of Israel, after the heroes of old founded the state, their children had difficulty discerning how they might make their own contribution to the world. The same is true of any of us whose parent is of an outsize fame or reputation; that identity shadows our own, and it may prove difficult to find one’s own sense of identity.
There is an unfortunately significant attribute of the Isaac generation: its vulnerability to disappointment and cynicism. The first generation carries a great and visionary hope, but afterward, the deconstructionist histories are published, and we learn that all those to whom we had looked up and followed are only human – and some, a great deal worse. Sometimes we might find ourselves driven to punish those who disappoint us in ways that seem to reduce them to the kind of shadow some of us may feel we ourselves are.
Most of us have either felt or can easily imagine the enervation of having our early faith in god-like heroes destroyed. It has been suggested that we ourselves – the people of the United States of America – are part of a great Isaac-generation despair that began with the Vietnam War and sharpened with Watergate. Of course, it is also possible to go back much further, to the infamous Three-Fifths Compromise in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention, which stained United States society and polity from the beginning.
Jewish tradition offers us a radical teaching in the face of all this demoralization: if you feel betrayed by another person, review your own assumptions. Why is it that you are reacting the way you do? What other choices might you have?
Jewish mysticism teaches that while we may not feel that we can always access a sense of faith – in ourselves, in others, in G*d – we can always act out of trust. Our tradition is full of stories of Jews betrayed by life who, bereft of the feeling of G*d’s presence, insist on it. The Piacezsner Rebbi, who led his people in the dark days of the Warsaw Ghetto, taught that even those who feel no faith can reach up to the ladder between heaven and earth and, by sheer force of will, pull themselves toward G*d, and bring G*d’s presence down to them.
Feeling unhappy, betrayed, misunderstood, disappointed? Reach up and pull heaven down into your heart again. All you need is your yetzer hara’s stubbornness, turned toward the lifeline rather than the pit. Then, judge each other, not from a place of demoralization, but from kindness and empathy, and so fulfill the mitzvah of loving your neighbor as you love yourself.
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Shabbat Toldot: What Are We Teaching Our Children?

This parashat hashavua couldn’t be more timely (it happens so very often that I can’t help but get a bit mystical about it). This week we read of the birth of twins to Rebekah and Isaac, and of the oracle that Rebekah receives when she asks after their – and her – fate:

Two nations are in your womb, 

two peoples shall be separated from your body; 

one people shall be stronger than the other people; 

and the elder shall serve the younger.     (Gen. 25.23)

Esav is born first, followed by Yaakov. And upon this birth order hangs a destiny: once again, for the second (and not the last) time in Jewish history, the first born is passed over in the succession. The way it happens this time is through subterfuge: Isaac calls upon Esav to bring him a meal of the kind of wild game that only Esav, the hunter, can provide, and then Isaac will give Esav, his first born, his “innermost blessing”. But Rebekah hears, and devises a ruse so that Isaac will bless Yaakov instead of Esav.  Which is what happens.

Commentators write that Rebekah was only following G-d’s will as revealed to her in the oracle. Some even implicate Isaac, and say that he was in on the deception. Only Esav is left out of this scenario; Esav, who cries bitterly upon hearing of his loss, “bless me too, Father! don’t you have even one blessing left for me?”  Esav’s cry of pain is still difficult for us to hear. Our commentators say whatever they can to prove that Esav was really the bad guy, he was just pretending to be innocent and hurt.

Just as Ishma’el is first born, so is Esav; and just as Isaac inherits his parents’ legacy, so does Yaakov. And so a family pattern is replicated, which records, even in the sacred text which clearly shows that this is how it should be, that it comes at a terrible human cost.

What is Rebekah teaching Esav, and Yaakov? 

A nine-year-old in a local school accuses a classmate of belonging to “that people which is killing other people and taking their land.” Where does a nine-year-old get such an idea? Who did she hear talking?

Many normal human beings of average intelligence tell me that the only way to deal with “those barbarians” is to “kill them all before they kill us”. Why do we generalize in such a terrifying way? And what has led us to say such a thing?

I am reminded of the old “South Pacific” song: “You’ve got to be taught to hate, you’ve got to be carefully taught.” We have all been taught some dangerous beliefs. Some of us put our trust in such ideas as the eternal validity of going to war in order to secure peace. Or that only force will restore order. Or that today’s threat must be dealt with on its face, regardless of its cause.

That approach certainly supports the military industrial complex, and it certainly will cause gun sales to remain robust. But it does nothing to heal the pain. It will only replicate it, for another generation. Violence can never end violence. The truth is more difficult, and it rests in what we learn throughout our entire lifetime. This week’s horrors – murder, torture, and exile – are not the impulse of a day. They are the fruit of deep movements within the psyche, long histories of experience, and the lack of an opportunity to learn how not to despair.

How are we to respond? how are we to choose our acts? Jewish ethics tell us that

Every person has within a spark of G-d

Every person deserves to be judged with the benefit of the doubt

Justice can only be pursued on a first-hand knowledge basis

Here’s the challenge: Jewish ethics are not followed only when we feel powerful, righteous and optimistic from a distance. Anyone can be ethical under those conditions!

Let Ishma’el and Isaac teach us what their parents did not learn. The two men defied the estrangement  ordained for them and, as we see in last week’s parashah, they bury their father Abraham together (and hopefully bury some of what he taught them in his own actions). Let Esav and Yaakov tell us what their parents might have said, as recorded in a parashah only two weeks away, when the two brothers meet again after many years of life and learning:

Esav ran to meet him, embraced him, fell on his neck, and kissed him; and they wept….And Esav said: ‘I have enough, my brother, let that which you have be yours.’ “(Gen. 33.4, 9)

Both Esav and Ishma’el are apparently able to refuse to be overwhelmed by bitterness, even though they have been cheated of what everyone knew was the first-born’s birthright. Esav seems to be able to see that even though he was bereft, now he has enough – he also is blessed. In the course of many years, Esav found the ability to look beyond the destiny imposed upon him and learn something that requires more thought, more emotional maturity, and brings more chance of healing.

We on this planet have much more to learn before we can hear the cry of pain at the bottom of evil. We must keep talking as honestly and compassionately as possible toward each other, and keep trying to help each other forward toward the light at the end of all this darkness.

Shabbat Hayye Sarah: Is the Torah Misogynistic?

This week’s parashah is called Hayye Sarah, “Life of Sarah”. The name is derived from the first verse of the parashah:

  וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה, מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים–שְׁנֵי, חַיֵּי שָׂרָה.  “Sarah’s life was 127 years; these were the years of Sarah’s life.” (Gen. 23.1)

This, however, is the beginning of what we would call Sarah’s epitath. In the next verse we are told of her death. In the parashat hashavua called by her name, Sarah does not appear as a living, acting person. She is, however, a powerful memory which shapes the ensuing acts of her husband and son. Sarah is mourned in this parashah, and in this third year of the Triennial Cycle, Abraham’s most trusted servant has gone back to the home country to find the proper wife for their son, Isaac. It sounds like a typical male-centered text, and the story of finding Rebekah is told with, sure enough, permission being granted by the head of the family in order for her to go and marry Isaac.

Modern Jews often struggle with the gifts of our people’s long memory. Among our inheritances is the gendered Torah text, which skews quite clearly male, both in identifying the Divine and in describing the cultural, social and religious practices of the humanity linked with that vision.

I am not saying “cultural, social and religious awareness”, only “practices”. Please note that we have no idea of the extent to which the Torah clearly describes the actual reality of our most ancient ancestors. The Torah transmits the formative narrative of our people, but it does so through the eyes and ears of those who passed the stories on faithfully from generation to generation. The Torah itself hints at this, by using terminology that expresses awareness that the story happened in earlier times, or is in some other way not fully told.

As a female Rabbi I am sometimes asked whether the Torah isn’t just an outdated misogynistic artifact that we must overcome in order for women and men – and all the genders in between the poles – to be treated as equally valuable, equally necessary, equally filled with the Divine. The answer I often offer comes from my teacher, Dr. Byron Sherwin, who once pointed out to me, many years ago, that rather than be angry at what I knew from the text, it might be advisable to learn more about the text.

That may have been a gentle way to point out to me that I didn’t completely know what I was judging, and he was right. He was also right to challenge me with the following: “Feminists don’t have to find arguments outside the sacred texts in order to rebut them; the texts themselves are diverse enough that you can find whatever you need within them.”

One of our greatest challenges is becoming aware of the assumptions, and baggage, that we bring to Torah. Is there some part of us that wants to stay angry at this central sacred symbol? Do we prefer to stay away from it and the associations we carry? In other words, do you come to Torah only to pick a fight and then walk away satisfied that there is nothing relevant here?

Here’s a case in point. When you look carefully at the story of Rebekah’s engagement to Isaac, you will see that the head of the household which gives permission for her to go is actually female. You can see it in the Hebrew grammar of the text. It seems as if perhaps someone telling the story later, or perhaps the scribe who first wrote it down, must have assumed that the story was meant in a patriarchal context, and so some words were changed. But they weren’t changed thoroughly enough, and you can see the fingerprints of the change all over the story. And then there’s the fact that Rebekah is asked if she agrees to go. She is not sold, or sent away against her will.

And when Rebekah arrives, it is a signal event for the family:

וַיִּנָּחֵם יִצְחָק, אַחֲרֵי אִמּוֹ. “And Isaac was comforted after his mother[’s death].” (Gen. 24.67)

Whatever role Sarah played in this more patriarchal culture than the one she and Abraham came from, she is clearly so central a presence that nothing will be right until there is once again a woman in her place. Attack it as you might, this is not a misogynistic story.

There’s much more just like this in the investigation of this endless book. You’re invited to dive in any time. What you find may dismay and infuriate you at times, but you will also find uplifting courage and kindness – and best of all, you will be challenged to grow.

May Torah always beckon you toward, and support you in becoming, your highest spiritual self.