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: The Unraveling

This Shabbat we read parashat Toldot. Two boys are born to Rebekah and Isaac. Esau and Jacob are twins, born together – Jacob’s name reflects the fact that he is born holding on to his brother’s heel. Surely they will grow up to be close.

But they grow up very differently. Esau loves the outdoors, and learns to track and hunt. He is most alive when immersed in the natural surroundings of their lives. Jacob, the Torah tells us, is a quiet young man who “dwells in tents”, someone who cooks with his mother. Surely, though, their differences need cause no distance between them.

The Torah’s narration of their early lives emphasizes their differences, though, and it seems inevitable that the conflict will occur, as it does. The blessing of the first born can only be given to one of them, and when Jacob manages to steal it from his brother, older by about two seconds, Esau swears to kill him. And so this family is rent asunder, for Jacob must leave home, and Esau is left bereft not only of blessing but of his companion, his twin.

How does this unraveling occur? How might they have stopped it from happening? And what can we learn from this story, so as not to repeat it?

We in this United States of America have long been taught that we are all brothers and sisters, twins so to speak in the opportunities that lie before us, the glowing horizon that beckons us. Why is it that we end up at odds with those who should be our companions? How is it that we end up stealing blessings from each other? Is there not another way, a way in which we might demand that there is enough blessing for all?

In these days as winter closes in and we withdraw to warm dwellings (and may we not forget to look after those who have no place to get warm!), there is much to keep us contemplative and thoughtful. Soon enough we will be called to act – many of us are already active in one way or another. Now is a good time to not only gather together, as we will soon for Hanukkah, but also to settle into learning what we can.

I recommend this book, The Unwinding, that I am settling down to read. I would be interested in your thoughts about it as we continue to meet, and talk, and pray over the questions of what we are called upon to do, and how we might be reconnected to our twins who grew up in this country of promise with us, and yet are so far away from us that some have even spoken of killing – have even killed – those whom they see as in some way stealing from them.

On this Shabbat, may we find learning, and quiet consideration – no conclusions necessarily ripe to be drawn, but perhaps, just maybe, a memory of once long ago, a touch of a hand upon our heel, a grasp of one with whom we were born and with whom we will find our destiny.

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 Toldot: Digging Down to Rise Up

This week’s parashat hashavua describes the difficulty Isaac encounters in establishing himself in the aftermath of his father’s death. Apparently the locals do not respect him as they did his father. 

 Isaac dug again the wells of water that were dug in the days of Abraham his father, for the Philistines had stopped them up after Abraham’s death. He called them after the names his father had called them….the herdsmen of Gerar fought with Isaac’s herdsmen, saying “the water is ours.” He called that well Esek (“contention”)….they dug another well, and they fought for that too, and he called it Sitnah (hatred). He left there and dug another well, and no one fought over it. He called it Rehovot (“wide open spaces”). (Gen.26.18-22).

This is one of the few stories the Torah preserves of Isaac as an adult. In a well, he is establishing his own relationship to the Land of Israel. There is a hint in this story of the perennial Jewish experience in the land of Israel: esek, sitnah, and finally, we hope, rehovot (which is the name of an early modern Zionist Israeli town). 

It is striking that Isaac tries to re-establish his father’s wells, and has to be pushed into digging his own. In Torah study, “digging down” is a common metaphor for seeking insight. Here, Isaac tries to understand his life by following his father’s footsteps, and repeating his acts (he too will journey to escape famine, he too will call his wife his sister, he too will have children who need to be separated). 

But re-digging his father’s wells does not work. In order to understand his own life and live it, he has to find water, and wisdom, on his own. 

What is the way to establish oneself, on one’s own, having moved past the shadow of one’s parents? What is the way to dig which leads to blessing? How do overcome all that we inherit, and find it for ourselves? Where is that living water of wisdom?

 

Sometimes, perhaps, instead of a great sea

It is a narrow stream running urgently

 

far below ground, held down by rocky layers

the deeds of mother and father, helpless sooth-sayers

 

of how our life is to be, weighted by clay,

the dense pressure of thwarted needs, the replay

 

of old misreadings, by hundreds of feet of soil,

the gifts and wounds of the genes, the short or tall

 

shape of our possibilities, seeking

and seeking a way to the top, while above, running

 

and stumbling this way and that on the clueless ground

another seeker clutches a dowsing-wand

 

which bends, then lifts, then straightens, everywhere,

saying to the dowser, it is there, it is not there,

 

and the untaught dowser believes, does not believe,

and finally simply stands on the ground above.

 

Till a sliver of stream finds a crack and makes its way

slowly, too slowly, through rock and earth and clay.

 (excerpted from “The Stream”, Mona Van Duyn, Letters from a Father; NY: Athenaum, 1982)

 

Shabbat is for memory and for musing. On this Shabbat, let memory come to you as water, bringing you closer to the wisdom of our parents that is not inherited until we dig down for ourselves.