Monday, November 24, 2014

D’var Torah, Parshat Toldot 2014 - More Lessons from the Dysfunctional Families of Bereshit

I love going through the narratives of the dysfunctional families of Bereshit and we are still plowing through these stories, replete with important lessons and applications for all of us at this time of the year, as we bring our own families together for so many Hagim and celebrations we share as Jews and Americans. Some of these lessons apply to us and those members of our family with whom we interact, some of these instructions are for us in our communities, and yet others have to do with the larger world in which we live.

I want to begin this discussion with the ending of last week’s Parsha and how we move from family lessons to larger communal and human lessons. We see in the Avraham narratives some important instruction regarding how Judaism and Islam can and should interact. First of all, we know that we are all Children of Avraham, with his son Yitzchak the pivotal Patriarch as we continue on our Jewish journey and his other son Yishmael, the important ancestor to which Islam traces its roots. Additionally there are yet other sons from whom other nations will evolve. We focus on these brothers, however; and as we do so, we note that they are so different and yet simultaneously bound together by parentage and DNA while looking at different destinies! Make no mistake about it, we are literally related within the tradition of Monotheistic religions tracing their beginnings back to the one we credit as being the first Monotheist.

Specifically, let’s look at the end of the Parsha. In Chapter 25, verses 8 – 11 we read as follows:

8 And Abraham expired, and died in a good old age, an old man, and full of years; and was gathered to his people. 9 And Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, which is before Mamre; 10 the field which Abraham purchased of the children of Heth; there was Abraham buried, and Sarah his wife. 11 And it came to pass after the death of Abraham, that God blessed Isaac his son; and Isaac dwelt by Beer-lahai-roi.

So here we have the reunited family, with both sons burying their father together, at the site where Sarah is buried as well. What meaning do we find here? Many of us would say this is not so complicated. We know that in many cases, families that do not communicate for years, decades even, will reunite upon the death of a member of their clan. But Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks suggests that something else is going on here, something much bigger.

He teaches that our sages piece together the following story using meaningful details that the Torah provides, without explaining how Yitzchak and Yishmael appear at their father’s funeral together:

First, the place from where Isaac was coming when Rebecca saw him – Be’er Lachai Ro’ee. Only one previous reference has been made to this place (Genesis 16:14). It is the spot where Hagar, pregnant and fleeing from Sarah, encounters an angel who tells her to return. He adds, “You are now with a child, and you will have a son. You shall name him Ishmael [God hears], for the Lord has heard your misery.” Be’er Lachai Ro’ee is the place associated with Ishmael. Why did Isaac go there? To be reconciled with his stepbrother after his mother’s death! ….

Not only did Isaac feel guilty about the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael. So did Abraham, according to this interpretation. We know that Abraham did not want to send Ishmael away. The text (Genesis 21:11) is explicit on this point. But Sarah was insistent, and God told Abraham to listen to her. Throughout Sarah’s lifetime, reconciliation with Hagar was impossible. After her lifetime, however, Abraham sought her out and brought her back. Hagar did not end her days as an outcast. She returned, in honor, as Abraham’s wife [according to the sages who say that she is actually Keturah]. That is why, at Abraham’s funeral (he died 38 years after Sarah), Isaac and Ishmael were both present. The divided family was reunited.

Sacks concludes his comments on this Parsha by observing how this family lesson translates to a more universal teaching for our time:

Beneath the surface of the narrative in Parshat Chayei Sarah, the sages read the clues and pieced together a moving story of reconciliation between Abraham and Isaac on the one hand, Hagar and Ishmael on the other. Yes, there was conflict and separation; but that was the beginning, not the end. Between Judaism and Islam there can be friendship and mutual respect. Abraham loved both his sons, and was laid to rest by both. There is hope for the future in this story of the past.

Now we come to this week’s Parsha, Toldot. Once we have established, if indeed we have, that Yitzchak has clearly experienced some type of reconciliation with his brother Yishmael, note what happens in his family. G-d, who seems to enjoy speaking to the women at this juncture in our history, comes to discuss Rivkah’s pregnancy with her.

As we begin Parshat Toldot, we read:

21 And Isaac entreated the LORD for his wife, because she was barren; and the LORD let Himself be entreated of him, and Rebekah his wife conceived. 22 And the children struggled together within her; and she said: 'If it be so, wherefore do I live?' And she went to inquire of the LORD. 23 And the LORD said unto her: Two nations are in thy womb, and two peoples shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger. 24 And when her days to be delivered were fulfilled, behold, there were twins in her womb. 25 And the first came forth ruddy, all over like a hairy mantle; and they called his name Esau. 26 And after that came forth his brother, and his hand had hold on Esau's heel; and his name was called Jacob. And Isaac was threescore years old when she bore them. 27 And the boys grew; and Esau was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. 28 Now Isaac loved Esau, because he did eat of his venison; and Rebekah loved Jacob.

Once again, we have very different children; only this time they are twins and from the same mother, the same Rivkah who brought comfort to Yitzchak after the death of his mother. Once again, there is conflict and we will have two different destinies evolve, that of the Jewish nation through Yitzchak and the Edomites through Esau. Once again there will be conflict and yet we are instructed in Devarim 23.7 to not hate the Edomites precisely because they are part of our family. There will be many battles for superiority between these two people through the years and eventually the Jewish nation will outlive the Edomites as a power to be contended with in the world. Yet, the connectedness between these two different sons – nations – destinies is clear.

We are well aware, as well, that in our Parsha, G-d instructs Rivkah in a way that does insure that Yaakov will prevail in the end. The birthright is sold by his brother to a very tired and spent hunter as Esau comes in from a day’s work; and then later each son is given the blessing intended for the other, or so it appears. Here we have a somewhat different dynamic – where the mother and father are both fully parents of these brothers; G-d speaks to the mother as G-d/G-d’s angel spoke earlier to Hagar, and the enmity between the brothers will be profound, with an attempted reconciliation in which the trust level is clearly minimal.

Further, we see another similarity, namely barrenness (AKARA) playing a role in both of these generations. The Maharsha wants us to know that in this case, we are to suspect that both Yitzchak and Rivkah are barren and that it is only through G-d’s plan and intention that they will ultimately give birth to a child – and twins at that, who will then represent various nations as was the case with Yitzchak and Yishmael and their other siblings, as reported at the end of Toldot. There is yet other unfinished business here. Rashi teaches that it is Yitzchak’s prayer that is answered for children, not Rivkah’s prayer. Why – to teach that Yitzchak was a “tzadik ben tzadik” – that is, a righteous person who is a child of a righteous person; while Rivkah was a “tzadik bat rasha” – that is, a righteous person who is a child of a wicked person, Bethuel. We are taught that the request of a tzadik ben tzadik is given priority over that of a tzadik ben (or bat, in our case) rasha in Yevamot 64a.

So what exactly is G-d setting in place here? We have families who are not easily granted or achieved and then greatly rejoiced when granted, can’t get along when born and growing up, and ultimately end in enmity…. Or maybe the point is this is NOT the end, but only the rocky beginning. It is coming generations who still have the work to complete the process – to get us back to co-existence, caring about each other and nurturing each other.

In his book, Covenant and Conversation, Rabbi Lord Sacks teaches that peace is a most difficult goal to achieve and that it is not even consonant with man’s nature. To fight, to disagree, to stand up for one’s position – all of this is much more natural to the human being than to compromise, to see the point of view of the other, and to yield on what one knows to be true. It is supremely difficult for us to accept that You Don’t Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right, the actual title of Brad Hirschfield’s book.

Can’t we understand that Avraham, Sarah and Hagar and perhaps other wives gave birth to many nations from which can come creativity, cooperation and sharing instead of enmity, killing each other, and hatred? Can’t we accept that we need hunters and scholars; that is, we need both Esau and Yaakov? Can’t we come to terms that twelve brothers will NEVER agree, but we need to be invested in and concerned about each other, as will happen in our continuing Bereshit narrative?

Otherwise, what do we have and what legacy is left for us and do we leave for those to come?

I remember years ago, we had a secular Israeli young man living with us for a few weeks during the summer. His name, interestingly enough, is Ro’ee, as in Be’er Lechai Ro’ee in our Torah narrative. We were all sitting at the Shabbat table and Ro’ee who came from the Northern Galilee just simply made the statement that he thinks that the rest of Israel and the world would do far better without Yerushalayim, which is the seat of so much hatred and contention. I must say that my entire family almost had simultaneous choking spasms. WHAT DID HE SAY? But let’s think about this… it is not the place per se but the enmity that has become so associated with it and all it stands for. How sad; clearly this was NEVER intended. YERUSHALAYIM is supposed to be IR SHEL SHALOM, the city of peace, and yet… look at what we have.

As we established, the word for barrenness in Hebrew is AKARAH. From years, decades even of barrenness came our Patriarchs, Yitzchak and Yaakov, and later Yosef as well, with so many dreams and hope. The word for core in Hebrew is IKKAR – same letters and same root (Ayin-Koof-Reish) – OUR CORE AND OUR ROOTS WERE FOUND IN BARRENESS and then G-d granted life and all that it can bring. Are we using this life we are given for good; are we acting as tzaddikim b’nai tzaddikim in bringing this peace, as difficult and challenging as it is to achieve, to our world?

Will we be able to come together with those with whom we disagree, and NOT just at funerals? We have been taught that anything that is worthwhile will never be completed in one generation. Clearly the resolution of these contentious relationships has eluded all of us for much too long and maybe “hazeman hegi’ah” – Let us intentionally work to bring together Yitzchak and Yishmael in our world; Yaakov and Esau – this is that hard peace we are trying to achieve, but we need it so badly, too much depends on it!

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