Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Good News about Being Part of our Jewish Community is We are Part of a Family… The Bad News About Being Part…

So, you know the one about six, or is it seven, degrees of separation… and we are all connected? I find that in the Jewish community, there’s really no more than 2 ½ degrees of separation, maybe three is a stretch … we really are all part of one huge family. We love each other and we fight with each other; we nurture each other and we destroy each other; we support each other and we hurt each other …. And so it goes. So as we continue to learn and look at these Parshiot of the Dysfunctional Families of Bereshit, we realize that we and our own family constellations fit right in.

In this week’s Parsha, Toldot, we have parental and sibling dissention, parental favoritism, tricking one’s only brother, fighting over family resources, and so on…. Just like in real life. But of course, this is real life, as we understand it. So, why is it that we begin our Torah reading cycle with all of these wonderful examples of complete family discord, including fratricide, sending part of the family off forever, not treating all members of the family equally, and so on? Keep in mind that we haven’t gotten to that idea of given your favorite son a beautiful coat or selling your brother to the Ishmaelites yet. Actually I think one of the most compelling lessons here is that after reminding ourselves of these chapters in our history, we go home and kiss our children and hug our spouses and say, “Hmmm, my family is actually great!” in many cases.

I really do believe that as humans, we are all fallible and have our weaknesses, our preferences, and our challenges. This is certainly true in the family, the most basic of all social units. The Torah is putting a mirror in front of us and asking that we carefully consider how we treat each other and how honorable we are within our family units. What does one parent do when they have information that the other parent does not, for example, about their children?

Consider the following text from Toldot:

כב וַיִּתְרֹֽצֲצ֤וּ הַבָּנִים֙ בְּקִרְבָּ֔הּ וַתֹּ֣אמֶר אִם־כֵּ֔ן לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה אָנֹ֑כִי וַתֵּ֖לֶךְ לִדְר֥שׁ אֶת־יְהוָֹֽה: כג וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהֹוָ֜ה לָ֗הּ שְׁנֵ֤י גֹייִם֙ [גוֹיִם֙] בְּבִטְנֵ֔ךְ וּשְׁנֵ֣י לְאֻמִּ֔ים מִמֵּעַ֖יִךְ יִפָּרֵ֑דוּ וּלְאֹם֙ מִלְאֹ֣ם יֶֽאֱמָ֔ץ וְרַ֖ב יַֽעֲבֹ֥ד צָעִֽיר: כד וַיִּמְלְא֥וּ יָמֶ֖יהָ לָלֶ֑דֶת וְהִנֵּ֥ה תוֹמִ֖ם בְּבִטְנָֽהּ:

And the children struggled inside Rivkah and she asked, “If this is to be so, why am I in such a state?” She went to ask G-d what was going on. And G-d said to her, “There are two nations in your belly and two peoples will come from within you; one will be stronger than the other and the older shall serve the younger one. Her days of pregnancy were fulfilled, Rivkah gave birth and here there were twins in her belly. [Bereshit 25: 22 – 24]

There is much written by the commentaries on what is going on here, with this discussion between Rivkah and G-d. After all, the story that is introduced by this text is in serious need of explaining! Of course, as the boys grow, Yaakov and Esau “have their issues” and on two separate occasions, Yaakov does indeed get, dare we say steal or take under questionable circumstances, the right to the family inheritance, so to speak. Not only that, but both Rivkah and Yitzchak are involved in the family drama, in which a very old and blind, so we are told, Yitzchak is tricked and each parent does have their favorite, Yitzchak bonding with he-man Esau and Rivkah preferring the quieter and calmer studious Yaakov. Now the commentaries definitely work overtime to protect Rivkah and Yaakov, claiming that Esau is really this horrible person.

On this one, I will agree with Rabbi David Hartman of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and so many others who say that to make Esau the awful terrible bad guy and Yaakov the innocent angel might really be to miss the point of the story. We are NOT perfect, we are NOT always acting correctly, and G-d knows (no disrespect intended) we do NOT all get along all of the time. But we are all still members of the larger family … as Jews and as human beings.

So, maybe the lesson here is really to note that as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes in To Heal a Fractured World, we are here to try to fix and put back in order that which we throw into chaos as a result of our actions. This is the nature of human beings. G-d did not, according to Sacks, create a perfect world, precisely because G-d wants us to be partners with G-d in trying to improve and make the world a better place. When we look at these families, we see real people with real problems and making real attempts to right the real wrongs that ensue. Is not that the stuff of human nature?

So, G-d tells Rivkah what is going to happen. Why does G-d do this? If you think about this, Rivkah is being put in a rather uncomfortable position knowing this information. So, what parent does not understand looking at their children and noticing that one has abilities that the other does not have, that one is more talented, more good-natured and so on? This is in fact the nature of being individuals – we know that as no two snowflakes are alike, to be sure no two people are alike, EVEN identical twins (and this I know to be true from experience as a mother of twins that we believe are genetically identical).

Back to our story! As this drama continues, we find Yitzchak believing that Yaakov is Esau and yet, maybe not really so much… Note that the text says:

יח וַיָּבֹ֥א אֶל־אָבִ֖יו וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אָבִ֑י וַיֹּ֣אמֶר הִנֶּ֔נִּי מִ֥י אַתָּ֖ה בְּנִֽי: יט וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יַֽעֲקֹ֜ב אֶל־אָבִ֗יו אָֽנֹכִי֙ עֵשָׂ֣ו בְּכֹרֶ֔ךָ עָשִׂ֕יתִי כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר דִּבַּ֖רְתָּ אֵלָ֑י קוּם־נָ֣א שְׁבָ֗ה וְאָכְלָה֙ מִצֵּידִ֔י בַּֽעֲב֖וּר תְּבָֽרֲכַ֥נִּי נַפְשֶֽׁךָ: כ וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יִצְחָק֙ אֶל־בְּנ֔וֹ מַה־זֶּ֛ה מִהַ֥רְתָּ לִמְצֹ֖א בְּנִ֑י וַיֹּ֕אמֶר כִּ֥י הִקְרָ֛ה יְהוָֹ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ לְפָנָֽי: כא וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יִצְחָק֙ אֶֽל־יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב גְּשָׁה־נָּ֥א וַֽאֲמֻֽשְׁךָ֖ בְּנִ֑י הַֽאַתָּ֥ה זֶ֛ה בְּנִ֥י עֵשָׂ֖ו אִם־לֹֽא: כב וַיִּגַּ֧שׁ יַֽעֲקֹ֛ב אֶל־יִצְחָ֥ק אָבִ֖יו וַיְמֻשֵּׁ֑הוּ וַיֹּ֗אמֶר הַקֹּל֙ ק֣וֹל יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב וְהַיָּדַ֖יִם יְדֵ֥י עֵשָֽׂו:

And [Yaakov] came to his father and said, “My Father.” And [Yitzchak] said “Here I am; who are you my son?” Yaakov answers his father, “I am Esau, your first born, I did what you told me to; now get up please and eat from the meet that I have brought and give me the blessing of your soul.” And Yitzchak said to his son “How is it that you have hurried to do all of this, my son?” Yaakov answered “Because the Lord your G-d has allowed this to happen.” Yitzchak said to Yaakov, “Come close to me so I can feel you, my son and tell if you are really Esau of not.” Yaakov approached Yitzchak his father and he felt him and said “The voice is the voice of Yaakov and the hands are the hands of Esau.” [Bereshit 27: 18 – 22]

Now, it is so clear in this narrative before confronting any commentary that Yitzchak is really sensing that something is not quite right. He asks how “Yaakov” was able to do everything he asked so quickly. Of course the answer is Rivkah overheard (or was this part of G-d’s staging?) Yitzchak ask Esau to go and get and prepare for him the food. Then Yitzchak senses that this is not Esau, for the voice belongs to Yaakov. And so the story continues with deception, plotting and a series of mishaps leading all the way to the point when Yaakov supposedly receives the blessing intended for Esau. Was this really the case, or could this be an example of “Man plans, G-d laughs.” There are so many other explanations, including the notion that we each have our mission to fulfill and our purpose – that is we have our part to play in the family to which we belong.

To be sure, exactly what G-d had revealed to Rivkah in the beginning of the Parsha does transpire but not without fall out. Clearly, there are bad feelings that will continue through this generation and into the next ones from this dysfunctional family unit. This too seems all too real to us. We need to paint each other in black (bad and evil) or white (good and pure) tones. But wait…. Is this really the point? Or, alternatively, perhaps the point is as the Gemara teaches, no one person is wholly good or wholly bad. We all have good and bad within us, different perspectives, different goals, different talents, and different ways of playing our journeys on this earth. The question is to what extent can we, as members of this large Jewish family, agree to disagree and come to an understanding that there is room for all of us and the purposes we are each here to fulfill? Once we figure this out, maybe we will find the good news of being part of the family!

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