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Thursday, November 24, 2011

Parashat Toldot: A Collision of Fate

Claude Monet: Gare Saint Lazare, 1877

The years turn and turn, slowly at first, like the wheels of a train as they roll from the station. Bit by bit, momentum gathers. In the window, scenery starts to flicker and flit. We catch glimpses of a gray mountain capped with snow, a shanty red barn long abandoned. The train hurtles by a lake so still that it casts an unearthly reflection of the heavens, and then it, too, is gone. Suddenly, the train lurches. It pulls up to a platform. We disembark. Behind the train, twin tracks of silver vanish in the distance. We’ve traveled far and traveled quickly. “It went by so fast,” we say.

But the tracks point the way back. We know the train’s path. We can retrace our steps and measure gain and loss, joy and ache. To search the past, though hard on the soul, is easy on the eyes. Hindsight is 20/20, we say. But what of the future? What of looking upon the tracks ahead — instead of those behind — and studying them like a travel guide before a journey? When we know what lies ahead, are there parts of life we savor more? Are there traps and pitfalls we might circumvent? 

This week’s Torah portion, Toldot, begins with a prophecy. Rebecca, after 20 years of unrequited prayer, is finally with child — twins in fact: Esau and Jacob. But the pregnancy is unbearable. “The children struggle together within her.” Fearing she may lose the pregnancy, she cries out: “If it be so, wherefore do I live?” (Genesis 25:22; Malbim’s Commentary).

The Lord responds to her outcry: “In your womb are two nations; two peoples shall your bowels disperse. One people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23). Although her fear of miscarriage is allayed, another anxiety dams her heart: How does one raise two siblings who already contend in the womb and whose own children will contend long after they die?

It comes as no surprise that Esau and Jacob are nothing alike. Esau is a wild bear of a man, “a cunning hunter in the fields.” Jacob is an “innocent” who prefers to “dwell among the homely tents.” Yet, what does surprise us is how Rebecca and Isaac raise their sons. Instead of trying to bridge their differences, they widen the chasm and add bitter spices to the boiling stew of strife. “Now Isaac loved Esau, because he ate of his venison; but Rebecca loved Jacob” (Genesis 25:28).

Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoah, the medieval French commentator, points out that Isaac’s love was inconstant and conditional; he would express his approval of Esau in return for a helping of freshly hunted meat. In contrast, Rebecca’s love for Jacob was constant and unconditional, flowing to Jacob without preemption (Hizkuni on Genesis 25:28).

Atop favoritism and asymmetric love, there is the added sorrow for what each boy lacks. Jacob grows up longing for his father’s approval. Esau, on the other hand, is deprived the wholehearted love of his mother. Jealousies abound. Each train, it seems, has left the station, and the tracks are surely crossed.

Rabbi J.H. Hertz, the late U.K. chief rabbi, suggests that had Isaac and Rebecca raised their sons differently, spreading their love out more evenly, the whole saga of stolen birthrights and blessings may have been averted (Soncino, Genesis 25:28). But before we judge, we ought to ask ourselves if we are any better. When we think on the future, near and distant, can we, with a little effort, anticipate the mistakes we will undoubtedly make? Knowing our likes and dislikes, fears and faults, can we predict the pitfalls that will trip us up? And yet, though we know where the train tracks surely lead, how many of us still board the train, crowding the carriage with our lapses in judgment? 

Sometimes, though, we are afforded a second chance. The heart senses the wrongness of the way; the eyes search ahead and see what difficulties await. There is hope. Train wheels turn slowly at first; perhaps there is time to step back onto the platform.

Rabbi Yehuda Hausman is a Modern Orthodox rabbi who teaches in Los Angeles. He writes about the weekly parasha on his blog,

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Parashat Vayera: Young At Heart

James Tissot: Abraham's Counsel to Sarai circa: 1896-1902

‘And the Lord appeared unto him by the terebinths of Mamre, as he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day.’ (Genesis 18.1) 

It is not strange to find an old man, ninety-nine years of age, sitting at the entrance of a tent, soaking up the day’s heat. For such a man would appear to be resting. The midday siesta is an ancient custom still observed in many lands. All are entitled to a little respite from toil under the sun. Why should this man be any different? (Shadal on Gen. 18:1; II Samuel 4:5)

But this elderly man is no ordinary man, for he is our Patriarch Abraham—who left the substance and security of his native country for an elusive promise and an ethereal dream. Indeed, this is the husband of Sarah, the rescuer of Lot, the binder of Isaac, and the father of faith. Far be it to imagine such a man dozing in the middle of the day!

Naturally, some of our Sages taught otherwise. Abraham was not resting so much as recuperating, for he was circumcised just three days before. (Cf. Gen. 17:24) Thus God appears, so to speak, ‘to visit the infirmed.’ Moreover, the strange messengers that Abraham entertains in the opening scenes of this week’s portion may have been partly sent to distract Abraham from residual pain. (Rashi 18:1; Cf. Baba Metziah 86b)

Either way, what unfolds is as incongruous as snow in Los Angeles or dolphins with feathers and wings. Lifting his eyes and sighting these three strangers in the distance, Abraham rouses himself from his afternoon lethargy, from the weariness of age, or from incapacitating pain….and he begins to run. He dashes toward these travelers to entice them with promises of wash-water, good food, and shade. He then races to the tent, to Sarah, and harries her with breathless instructions to make cakes. “Make ready, quickly, three measures of fine flour, knead it, and make cakes!” (Gen. 18:6)

It’s perhaps the funniest scene in Genesis…Sarah certainly knows how to make cakes! She is ninety years old. (There is little she doesn’t know.) But before Sarah can retort, Abraham has darted away and gone ‘running to slaughter a calf.’ (18:7)

Where does Abraham get the energy? How does a man of ninety-nine, flit and fly like a boy of nine? Never mind the incongruity of the very old acting like the very young—is Abraham’s behavior even possible?!  
Many rationalists of the Middle Ages argued that the entire episode of Abraham and the three messengers took place in a vision or dream. (Guide of the Perplexed II.42) Thus Abraham, the centenarian, never ran about like a kindergartener at recess; instead, what occurred took place in his mind’s eye, as ‘he dozed soundly in the afternoon sun.’ (Radak 18:1; Cf. Ibn-Kaspi  Num. 22:23)

Though rationalists have a habit of stripping religion of the otherworldly and the mythical—not always to our liking—in this case, the rationalists may have done us a service. For if dreams say anything about our souls, Abraham’s dream tells us that he is young at heart. He dreams himself running about in youthful exuberance, chiding his wife like a recent bridegroom in a new home. His bones may be weary, but his spirit races…his soul skips between the tents and terebinths of Mamre.

I leave you with a few words of W.B. Yeats:

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hand and sing, and louder sing…
(Sailing to Byzantium - 1928)