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TABLE FOR FIVE: Five Takes on the Weekly Parsha

PARSHA: TOLDOT, Genesis 25: 21-23

“Isaac pleaded with the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord responded to his plea, and his wife Rebecca conceived. But the children struggled in her womb, and she said, ‘If so, why do I exist?’ She went to inquire of the Lord, and the Lord answered her:

Two nations are in your womb,

Two separate peoples shall issue from your body;

One people shall be mightier than the other;

And the older shall serve the younger.”

Tova Hartman
Dean of Humanities at Ono Academic College, Israel

As we continue to read through Genesis, we realize that the “original sin” of the book is not the use of “seduction” by Eve, but our matriarchs’ collusion in a tragic zero-sum game. This becomes especially evident in these verses, which introduce the tumultuous saga of Jacob and Esau. There, the Lord informs Rebecca that two nations are warring within her previously barren womb and that when they emerge, “one people shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger.”

Just as Sarah expels Hagar because there is not enough room for both Isaac and Ishmael, Rebecca accepts the fact that one of her sons, mightier than the other, will crowd out his brother. She ensures the outcome by helping Jacob deceive his father. Esau alone resists this world order. When he returns from hunting to learn that his father already has given away his blessing to Jacob, he does not accept Isaac’s action as a fait accompli.

Instead, Esau asks the fundamental question: “Have you but one blessing, father?” (Genesis 27:38).

In this alternative theology, Esau teaches that there could be more than one blessing. In fact, the zero-sum mentality is one of the tragedies of our world. This is especially so in Israel, where we almost habitually presume one people’s claim to the land to the exclusion of all others. Why not dignify both claims, both histories? “Does God have only one blessing?” asks Catholic theologian Mary Boys. The God I choose to believe in does indeed have multiple blessings.

Rabbi Noah Farkas
Valley Beth Shalom

Often when we try to explain our way out of suffering, we cause more pain — even if we never intend to do so.

God is still getting to know the human heart in Genesis and perhaps oversteps in the case of Rebecca. What we know clearly is that Rebecca, the mother, suffers inexorably. God tries to placate her with a political explanation, but the text never says that she was consoled by God’s words. In fact, one easily could say that God adds to her suffering, because the conflict between the brothers will become an eternal conflict between whole nations. From this perspective, Rebecca actually suffers twice in God’s eyes: once for her pregnancy and once for her children’s fate.

The Chasidic master Levi Yitzchak is helpful here. In her travail, Rebecca utters the word anochi, which mystically seems to refer to God’s utterance of anochi (I am) in the first of the Ten Commandments. The “I am” of God is linked to the “I am” of Rebecca. In her pain, Rebecca displaces God’s explanation of suffering even before it is taught to her. She teaches us that we should never treat suffering as a means, but instead as an experience unto itself.

To explain away suffering is to actually cause more suffering. The way out of suffering is not through reasoning or explanation but through presence and response. Thus, the cry of the mother is heard louder to me than the voice of Father in Heaven. Like God’s, Rebecca’s cry is a commandment of sorts, for us to respond to woe not by rational explanation but in love and presence.

Rabbi Ari Schwarzberg
Shalhevet High School

The struggle in Rebecca’s womb typifies the pattern of sibling rivalry throughout Genesis. Beginning with Cain and Abel and ending with Joseph and his brothers, the book depicts a cycle of fraternal strife in which the younger child repeatedly emerges as the torchbearer of Abraham’s legacy.

But if we take a closer look at this theme, the chosen status of the Abrahamic line is not granted willy-nilly to the younger sibling. The right to the family name is earned through the refinement that comes from enduring trying moments and traumatic events. Isaac encounters death at the Akedah while Jacob and Joseph spend years of their lives exiled from their families. Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel battle with infertility, and Leah lives much of her life in the shadow of her younger sister.

In sum, our matriarchs and patriarchs do not live lives of tranquility, nor is their status achieved merely by virtue of their genetic code. Perhaps this is the meaning behind God’s response to Rebecca. Yes, God says, struggle will forever be part of the human condition. But inherent in that struggle is the capacity for growth and change. Each of our ancestors faced adversity, and through those experiences they were transformed into our patriarchs and matriarchs — indeed, the younger child became the exalted one. As we read these stories, let us also commit ourselves to God’s promising destiny that our challenges and difficulties need not seal our fate as being perpetual “younger siblings.”

Rabbi Denise L. Eger
Congregation Kol Ami

Amazing! Prayers are answered by God. Isaac and Rebecca cry to God about their infertility. And God answers with the promise of twins. For most of us, prayers are not answered so quickly — especially prayers about infertility issues. Often, those who want children cannot ride the roller coaster of trying to get pregnant using available science and technology.

We don’t talk enough about the pain of infertility. We should. We Jews tend to marry at older ages, following extensive education and professional tracks. Marrying late, or not finding Mr. or Ms. Right, can make conception more difficult, time-consuming and expensive. Infertility treatments can take the romance out of the process. As a result, many Jews have fewer children than did their forebears.

For a community concerned with continuity, this issue demands attention. The Jewish Free Loan Association in Los Angeles offers interest-free loans for the great expense of in vitro fertilization, a technique used to overcome infertility. We ought to lift up more opportunities for adoption and assistance for families adding to our numbers through a variety of possibilities. Rebecca and Isaac prayed to God. We should, too. But some help and attention from the organized Jewish community could shed important light on this issue.

Infertility and solutions available now shouldn’t be left to prayer. They should be on our communal agenda. Let’s help families grow rather than see infertility as a badge of shame. That is my prayer. I hope it is answered.

Rabbi Haim Ovadia
Magen David Sephardic Congregation, Rockville, Md. 

Isaac was not the most talkative man, making it difficult for Rebecca to communicate with him. He loved her deeply and focused his prayer not on himself as childless, but on her. Rebecca loved and respected Isaac, but her experience taught her that a woman’s voice is not heard in a man’s world.

Her parents arranged her marriage without consulting her, retracting only when not offered a fair price. Rebecca bypassed established practices and spoke to God directly, probably never revealing details to Isaac. God tells her that she will be the progenitor of two great nations that will struggle for hegemony. One of these nations, God says, will overpower the other. Up until this point, everything was clear, but the problem started with the last three words of verse 23. Those words can be understood as saying that the greater will serve the smaller, or that the greater will be served by the smaller (compare with Job 14:19).

It is also not clear what the yardstick is for greatness or smallness. Is it age, physical stature or future political and military prowess? Even if she had told Isaac about her prophecy, the two of them might not have agreed about who is great and who is small. Isaac might have also argued that he needed to obey the natural flow and the let the boys shape their own identities and destinies.

Rebecca decided to take matters into her own hands and guarantee the fulfillment of the prophecy, plunging her family into rivalry, distrust and chaos.

Photo from Pixnio.

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five Takes on the Weekly Parsha

PARSHA: CHAYEI SARA, Genesis 24:63-65

“And Isaac went out walking in the field toward evening and, looking up, he saw camels approaching. Raising her eyes, Rebecca saw Isaac. She alighted from the camel and said to the servant, ‘Who is that man walking in the field toward us?’ And the servant said, ‘That is my master.’ So she took her veil and covered herself.”

Rabbi Richard Camras 
Shomrei Torah Synagogue, West Hills

“Isaac went out walking in the field.” According to Rashi, the word “walking,” lasuach, is translated as supplication or prayer. Tradition holds that Isaac went out to meditate and pray for the success of Abraham’s servant, who had been sent to find a wife for Isaac. From the verse that follows, we infer that his prayer immediately was answered with the appearance of Rebecca.

If only prayer had such immediate efficacy. Our own experience with prayer is vastly different. Even with the greatest of kavannah, or intention, we often find that our prayers feel futile — haltingly and stutteringly difficult. It is not for words that we are wanting — our liturgy is filled with voluminous ways to express what we desire our hearts should feel. How can we bring those words to move us, so that our prayer experiences are not empty, squandered moments deficient of meaning and gratification?

Perhaps like Isaac, who our sages explain established the afternoon Mincha service, we need to establish regular moments of reflection. As Abraham Joshua Heschel reminds us, “Prayer is not a stratagem for occasional use, a refuge to resort to now and then. It is rather an established residence for the innermost self…. [A] soul without prayer is a soul without a home.” Prayer, for Heschel, “serves to save the inward life from oblivion … to alleviate anguish … to partake of God’s mysterious grace and guidance.” May we have the wisdom to find a heart and soul open to such prayer.

Rabbi Heather Miller 
Congregation Beth Chayim Chadashim, Los Angeles

Rebecca is a woman of action. She is introduced as a bearer of water in the ancient world. A servant tells her that he was sent to find a wife for his master’s son, and she decides to meet him. In this selection of text, she raises her eyes, she alights from her camel, and she inquires as to the identity of the man in the field.

Her final action here is to take her veil to cover herself. At first, it may appear that she has become uncharacteristically submissive, as if to shy away from her intended. But midrash suggests that in that field Isaac is praying.

Rebecca, in turn, makes the conscious decision to cover herself so that when Isaac first sees her, she has the appearance of a veiled Torah. In this way, she avoids a male gaze that might otherwise objectify her, and instead becomes sacred, holy and full of allure. So, he relates to her this way, taking her into his mother Sarah’s tent — a Tent of Meeting of sorts, not unlike the tabernacle — to commune with her. There, his prayers are answered. He is comforted after the death of his mother, he finds the woman his father prayed he would find, and he is no longer lonely.

This is the story of an independent woman who asserts her agency and answers many prayers.

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld
Ohev Sholom–The National Synagogue, Washington, D.C.

When Rebecca sees Isaac, she commits to marriage and covers herself out of modesty. It is axiomatic to marriage that intimacy be associated with privacy. For much of Jewish history, this was also the principal approach to women’s participation in public religious leadership roles.

This is no longer a tenable position. Recently the Orthodox Union (OU) argued that every synagogue should have on staff women who are religious teachers. But the OU has not endorsed the notion of women clergy. Thus, it is not exactly where our shul is right now, but it is getting much closer (despite the fact it may toss us from its organization for being out of compliance).

Having had the privilege of working with a maharat — a female clergy person — for several amazing years, I am convinced that it is essential that every synagogue (that can afford to) have male and female professional clergy. Just as a congregation would not hire a rabbi who does not have formal training, so too a synagogue should seek to hire a female spiritual leader with advanced, formal training. It is clear that it is just a matter of time before the OU champions our shul’s position that a woman can serve as a full member of clergy in an Orthodox shul. Maybe not tomorrow, but someday soon.

Rabbi Cheryl Peretz
Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University

In life, there are moments of great significance so extraordinary that we are forever changed. So, what’s so important about this one? Isaac goes lasuach (to walk?) in the fields, looks up and sees Rebecca on the camel. Rebecca looks at Isaac, and literally falls off the animal. Finding out that the man she sees is Isaac, she covers herself in a veil.

According to the rabbinic midrash on the tale, lasuach — a verb that appears just this one time in the entire Bible — means “meditate” or “talk.” In other words, the first moment Rebecca sees Isaac, he is praying. As a result, Rebecca loses it. She’s so caught up in the moment of their eyes meeting that she literally falls for him. Perhaps this is the origin of the idea of love at first sight.

I like to think that Rebecca was so taken with what she witnessed in Isaac, based on another rabbinic interpretation of the same word to mean “walk among shrubs.” In the words of songwriter Naomi Shemer’s “Song of the Grasses”:

Know that each and every shepherd has his own tune.

Know that each and every grass has its own song.

And from the song of the grasses the tune of the shepherd is made …

And from the song of the grasses, the tune of the heart is made.

In that moment, Rebecca and Isaac understood that nature inspires prayer. And that prayer inspires connection. In that one, extraordinary, shared experience, they saw and knew that their destinies were forever linked.

Rabbi Yael Ridberg
Congregation Dor Hadash, San Diego

Rebecca is the most three-dimensionally drawn of the matriarchs. She is kind, generous and beautiful, as well as independent, driven and creative. The story that precedes these verses showcases all of those attributes, as Rebecca exceeded Abraham’s servant Eliezer’s criteria and expectations for a wife for Isaac. While we don’t know anything about Rebecca before this encounter at the well, her confidence and compassion were evident from the moment she entered the story.

As Rebecca approached Sarah’s tent, she saw Isaac, literally, with her eyes, but also in a deeply emotional way. She lifted her eyes, indicating that she saw beyond what was directly in front of her. She inquired as to the identity of the man walking toward her, giving attention to detail and revealing her interest beyond herself. And her instinct to cover herself reflected her choice in Isaac, and secured the power of her emotion for herself as a woman in the world.

Later Torah texts will recount Rebecca’s despair over her infertility, her appeal to God for help and her determination to fulfill a divine promise. But these two verses invite us to understand that beauty and desire are born on the inside, and are sacred to human growth and development. Rebecca was not self-absorbed or in a hurry when she offered assistance to the stranger at the well — she already knew the importance of hospitality and generosity. It is no wonder we invoke her example as a role model for our children.

Finding meaning in the ram

No story in our culture is more enigmatic and iconic than the Binding of Isaac, which we read on Rosh Hashanah. The akedah, or “binding,” is found in the 22nd chapter of Genesis and is only 19 verses long, containing just over 300 words. Yet this very short story has compelled writers from Maimonides to Wilfred Owen, from St. Augustine to Bob Dylan.

Throughout history, thinkers and writers focused on the varying characters of the story. In the medieval period, philosophers focused mainly on God and free will with questions such as, “What could God learn from Abraham’s test, if the all-knowing God knew that Isaac would not be killed?” During the crusades, the focused shifted to Isaac, who was widely viewed in that time period as a model for martyrdom. In the modern period, the shift of focus was to Abraham with questions such as, “How does someone like Abraham live with a God who commands such terrible things?” Later, the feminists finally give voice to the silenced Sarah by asking, “How would Sarah respond to God’s wish?” 

But the most unsung hero of the akedah is not Abraham, or God, or Sarah. It’s the ram.

The basic narrative of the akedah is that God asks Abraham to take his son, Isaac, up to Mount Moriah and sacrifice him to God. Abraham and Isaac climb the mountain together. At the peak, Abraham binds Isaac to the altar and unsheathes the knife. As he lifts the blade into the heavens, the Angel of God appears and stays his hand. A ram caught in the brambles by its horns — which Abraham sees for the first time — becomes the substitute sacrifice for Isaac. 

The ram is the only character mentioned in the story that doesn’t speak, that doesn’t choose to be there and finds itself drawn into events of the akedah simply because it was in the right place at the right time. More than any other character in the story, the ram is the truest reflection of the spiritual moment that we live in today. Perhaps that’s what the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai had in mind when he wrote of the ram, “He had human eyes.”

Each of us is just like the ram. There is much in our lives we don’t choose and in truth cannot control. Our parents’ dreams for us began months before we were born. They chose our clothes, our schools, even our friends, when we are young. As adults, we have the opportunity to craft life for ourselves, but we have moments in which we hear our mother’s or father’s words come out of our mouths.  

As we grow up, many of us become workaholics and believe that we can control every facet of life by dint of our own powers. We convince ourselves that we can solve any problem or overcome any obstacle if we just work harder and do more. We think we can control every aspect, every moment, as if everyday living is a filtered Instagram image. 

Then, at some moment not of our own choosing, the enormity of life catches us unaware. We lose a job, or someone we love becomes terminally ill. We hear the cries of a new baby for the first time, or that child comes home to tell you he’s getting married. These are the moments when we have unwittingly climbed Moriah and life catches us in its thorns, and, like the ram, we have no control over them. We wake up to a world that cannot be designed or curated; it is life in its most unpolished truth, and, like the ram, many of us just don’t have the right language to respond. 

The religious energy of the ram saturates the High Holy Days. We begin with the new moon of Elul, the Hebrew month that precedes Rosh Hashanah. Every morning we blow the shofar, the ram’s horn, as a symbolic wakeup call to attune ourselves to the spiritual drama that unfolds around us every day. The shofar gives shape and tone to our experience of life’s most precious moments and reminds us that there is so much in life we cannot control. We are told to calibrate our lives to the shofar’s call as we prepare for the spiritual encounter of Rosh Hashanah. In the ram’s song, its soulful blast vibrates in the chambers of our hearts, waking us up to the fragility of life and teaching us to respond with love and awe in each other.  

As the holiday season falls upon us, we begin the journey, like the ram, up the winding paths to Moriah, where each of us allows ourselves the space to break down life to its most basic elements. How will I be in the coming year, and where will life take me? In the Unetaneh Tokef, we encounter God at the peak of the mountain. The author imagines us passing before the open gates of heaven like the sheep of the herd to be counted by God. As we take our turn before God, like the ram, we become our most vulnerable selves by laying bare our successes and failures. We look at our lives and see that that we don’t own them outright because we are entangled in the lives of other people. We look again and see that there are so many things over which we don’t have control. In that Moriah moment, we give ourselves over, like the ram, to the flow of the world. 

At Moriah’s peak, we are the ram, giving ourselves over to a higher purpose. This act of giving over is a sacrifice where we draw nearer to both God and the world. In the Torah, the ritual of sacrifice is an act of substitution. The idea of substitution typically moves us away from the realness of life. Most of us have a hard time saying, “I’m sorry that your mother died.” Instead, we substitute, “I’m sorry for your loss.” The substitution makes the experience of death palatable by backing away from the harshness of death. 

In the akedah, however, as with other sacrificial rituals, the move is exactly the opposite. In Hebrew, the word korban, which means sacrifice, shares the Hebrew root with the word karov, which means to draw close. This act of substitution in the akedah draws us nearer to, not further from, life’s most powerful truth. Even though we don’t sacrifice animals today, when we commit an act of sacrificial prayer, through our meditations and rituals, we say that we are willing to engage with the realness of life. We come to know that our lives, like the ram’s, are enriched when we view our days on earth as an offering — a gift — to be shared with the universe.  

Which leads us to the last crucial point about who we are and who we should be. It was the ram who went to the altar to spare Isaac’s life. An act of substitution such as this is what the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas says is an act of taking ethical responsibility. The ram in this light took responsibility for the entire endeavor of the akedah, for faith and for the covenant. The final teaching of the ram is that it is not enough to climb the mountain on the High Holy Days and realize that our lives are embedded in an awesome universe that we cannot entirely control. We must take responsibility for the world and make it more just and loving. As we draw close to God through the ram’s korban, our joy becomes God’s joy. Our pain becomes God’s pain. In our closeness to God, we become God’s partner, sharing in the task of the global responsibility for justice. To take up the shofar’s call is not only to feel the wonder of the world, but to feel its pain. The babes of others, even those we consider our enemies, deserve our tears as much as do our own children. To understand what it means to be the ram is to understand that we as Jews have a global responsibility to leave our sacred enclaves and go out in the world and stand in the breach of injustice.

This is the secret of the akedah. Today we are all the ram, caught up with one another, tangled in one another’s horns. We need each other, we need to be together, and we need to believe that our togetherness can craft a world worthy of our highest aspirations. The akedah is not simply a test of Abraham’s irrational faith, but a call to partnership with God in the messiness of life. 

In one last midrash, the rabbis say that the ram’s two horns were of different sizes. The first is smaller and was blown at Mount Sinai when God revealed the Torah to the Jewish people. The second is larger and more powerful, heralding the coming of the messianic times. Thousands of years ago, we heard the first blast of the ram’s shofar. As we take our journey up to Mount Moriah on this High Holy Days season, it is time to wake up to the spiritual drama around us, realize that we are all bound together in life, and focus our minds and hearts on hearing the messianic call of a better tomorrow.


Noah Zvi Farkas is associate rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom Synagogue in Encino and founder of Netiya, a faith-based network that advances urban agriculture in synagogues, schools and nonprofit organizations in Los Angeles.

Tree felled by Sandy kills Jewish teacher, college student

Two young Jews were killed in Brooklyn by a falling tree during superstorm Sandy.

The pair were out walking a dog Monday night in the storm's high winds.

The dead were identified by The New York Observer as Jessie Streich-Kest, 24, who worked as a high school teacher in the city, and Jacob Vogelman, a student at Brooklyn College. The two had been friends since middle school, according to the Observer.

They were discovered dead Monday, crushed by the fallen tree. The dog was taken to an emergency veterinary clinic.

At least 45 people in the United States and 68 outside of the U.S. have been killed in the one-of-a-kind storm, and more than 7 million people in 13 states were without power.

Meanwhile, Jewish institutions on the East Coast began to open up again. The UJA-Federation of New York announced on its website that its offices in Manhattan and Westchester would reopen, though its Long Island office would remain closed.

John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and Newark International Airport in New Jersey were scheduled to reopen at 7 a.m. Wednesday with limited service, though New York's LaGuardia Airport remained closed.

Thousands of Israeli airline passengers and Americans in Israel trying to return home had their flights to the U.S. canceled on Monday and Tuesday. Israelis trying to get home also remained stranded in New York, New Jersey and the D.C. area. In all  more than 14,000 flights reportedly were canceled due to Sandy.

The greater New York area, home to the largest population of Jews in North America, was hit hard as severe winds and flooding toppled trees, knocked out electricity and flooded public transportation systems.

Jewish institutions throughout the eastern U.S. remained closed Tuesday.

Stuck in the middle

My name is Isaac. You think you know me, but you really don’t.

I am stuck in between two generations, constantly overshadowed by my father, Abraham, and my son, Jacob. If you ask anyone to name the nation that eventually came from my family, they either refer to them as “the offspring of Abraham” or, more commonly, “the children of Israel.” You never hear anyone refer to this nation by my name: Isaac.

It’s not that my name isn’t mentioned in the Bible. My name actually appears 108 times, yet, virtually all of the stories where my name is mentioned and where I am involved as a character are told from someone else’s point of view, completely ignoring my perspective.

When I was just a little boy, I was out playing with my half-brother, Ishmael. The next thing I know, my mother throws him and his mother, Hagar, out of the house. To this day, I have no idea why this happened, and nobody ever asked me how I felt about losing my play partner. The next and only other time I saw Ishmael was when we buried our father, Abraham.

Some years after I lost my half-brother, there came what many of you call the “big test.” You have certainly heard about the most famous of stories that contains my name, “The Binding of Isaac.” The irony of having my name in the title of this story is that this story isn’t really about me at all. It’s all about my father: “After these events, God tested Abraham.”

Not once throughout this “big test of faith” is my voice ever heard, except when I asked my father why he forgot the sacrificial lamb. His answer: “God will provide.”

So there I was, bound on an altar, the fire burning and my father’s knife to my throat. Yet when it’s all over and God’s angel saves my life, only my father emerges as a heroic figure. Not once do we hear how I — Isaac — felt throughout this ordeal.

In case you’re wondering, I’ll start by asking if you ever noticed that after my akeidah, there is never again recorded in the Torah one single conversation between my father and me. Let’s add to this that when we came home, we found that my mother had died from the shock upon hearing what my father had done. So perhaps from your perspective, the akeidah crowned my father the “ultimate hero of faith.” As for me, my relationship with my father was ruined, I lost my mother and I spent the rest of my life traumatized. Not quite a “all’s well that end’s well.”

My father’s last act on earth was to send his servant to arrange my marriage. Funny, nobody asked me if I wanted to get married, and if I did, do you think I would have a say in who I would marry?

I ask this question because, yes, I did love my wife, Rebecca, but I have a hard time getting over how she went behind my back and convinced my son, Jacob, to deceive me. I favored Esau, and I have my own reasons for that. But once again, my feelings were not taken into account, and what should have been “Isaac Blessing His Sons” became “Jacob Deceiving Isaac.” My own blessing to my kids became the matter of a sibling rivalry and a sneaky plot by my wife. I had no say in the matter.

Please don’t get me wrong. I am not writing all of this in order to invite your pity, because there is one story recorded about me for which I will forever be proud. It is the one and only story in the Torah that is all about me.

As you know, both my father and son were faced with severe famines in Canaan, and, as a result, both of them left and went down to Egypt. I, too, was faced with a “famine in the land,” but I did not leave. I stayed in Canaan, and I dug wells.

Perhaps I gained something when I was bound up on Mount Moriah. I became a survivor, and despite the trauma, I learned to tough things out. I am the only one in my family to never leave the land.

Throughout our history, my family’s descendants have been mistreated, traumatized and deceived (just like me), yet somehow, we always survived. We always insisted, either physically or metaphorically, on “staying in the land and digging wells,” despite “the famine.” So perhaps our people refer to themselves by the names of my father and son, but their inner character and strength as tough survivors comes from me, Isaac. It is my story — the story of a survivor — that is really their story.

Daniel Bouskila is the rabbi at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.

Is This Marriage Made in Heaven?

The night I met my husband was a warm evening in April and the smell of orange blossoms permeated the air. The date was “arranged” by mutual friends but I had lots of doubts about meeting their old college friend, a nice Jewish doctor from Los Angeles.

“If he’s such a great guy, why is he 31 years old and not married?” I asked myself as I pulled into the parking lot, totally missing the irony of my own unmarried situation.

I knew, even before the chips and salsa arrived, that my children would have his eyes. Deep, calm, caring eyes that had me convinced in less than a minute that I had come home to the place I had been traveling 27 years to find.

I didn’t know what it was called at the time but according to Jewish tradition, I had found my beshert, my true soul mate.

What is a soul mate? Is it a New Age concept that defines true love? Is it a catchy phrase used by romance novelists and publishers to sell books? Or does it mean something deeper and more essential, a spiritual bond between two people that is essential to fulfilling our heart’s destiny?

The Bible gives us a glimpse of the origins of a soul mate in Genesis 2:18 when God said: “It is not good for man to be alone; I will make him a helper corresponding to him.”

Loneliness is God’s first concern about us as human beings. There is a sense that we will not be happy alone; that we need to be connected to another human being to experience companionship, support and the struggles inherent in a relationship if we are to achieve personal fulfillment and reach our highest potential. Adam, the first man, may have been complete in his physical being but without someone to love, without a partner with whom to relate, he was spiritually and emotionally incomplete.

In the story of Isaac and Rebecca, we watch as Divine guidance directs the meeting of two people destined for one another when Abraham’s servant, Eleazar, prays to God for a sign. Eleazar barely finishes his entreaty when Rebecca appears and provides the exact sign that Eleazar had prayed for: She offers him and his camels water to drink. This is seen as more than a lucky coincidence; it is viewed as an act of Divine providence guiding Isaac to his true love.

The idea that heaven plays a part in the destiny of our hearts also appears in the Talmud, which describes a soul mate as someone who is chosen for us even before we are born. “Forty days before a child is born, a voice from heaven announces: ‘The daughter of this person is destined for so-and-so'”(Sotah 2a).

How does one find their soul mate? Jewish history provides us with several answers. Abraham’s servant, Eleazar, is our first example of a Jewish matchmaker, a man on a mission to find the right wife for Isaac. During the 12th century in Europe and Asia, it became customary to hire an intermediary, or shadchen, to find a suitable marriage partner. While this custom is no longer widely practiced, it is still followed in traditional Orthodox Jewish communities today.

Another answer has emerged from the world of technology. Jewish matchmaking in cyberspace is now a vibrant industry consisting of numerous Web sites offering successful matchmaking services for Jewish singles.

Not finding one’s soul mate does not mean that one will live a loveless life. There are many forms of love and many types of loving relationships that nourish the heart and elevate the soul. Although different from a soul mate, a soulful relationship is one born out of true knowledge, caring, respect and love for another person that imbues life with emotional and spiritual meaning and purpose. Soulful relationships can occur throughout our lives with friends, co-workers, respected teachers and family members, as well as in our efforts to know and love God. In all cases, it is through our search for love and the belief and faith that we will find it that we open ourselves up to finding soulful relationships, as well as our true beshert.

My husband and I will celebrate our 23rd wedding anniversary this year. While some may view ours as a “marriage made in heaven,” we both know how hard we have struggled, worked, negotiated and compromised to make it a strong and loving relationship here on earth. When I look into his face and see the light reflected in the eyes that so closely resemble those of my children, I am reminded of a wonderful Jewish saying from the Chasidic rabbi, the Ba’al Shem Tov:

“From every human being there rises a light that reaches straight to heaven. And when two souls that are destined to be together find each other, their streams of light flow together and a single brighter light goes forth from their united being.”

Amy Hirshberg Lederman is a nationally syndicated columnist, Jewish educator, public speaker and attorney. She can be reached at


Madonna and the Elusive Isaac

Madonna and scandal have been virtually synonymous from the start of the pop star’s career more than 20 years ago. There were songs about being like virgins touched for the very first time and girls getting pregnant and telling their fathers that they wanted to keep the babies. There were music videos of Madonna employing Jesus’ stigmata on her own hands, and everything was augmented by conical bras and crotch-rubbing dances.

But since Madonna’s famous conversion to kabbalah, she has been using Jewish religious iconography to shock — or at least to make her point. In her “Die Another Day” video she wore phylacteries and had Hebrew letters tattooed on body.

Now, on her latest album “Confessions on a Dance Floor,” the track that is receiving the most attention and critical acclaim is one called “Isaac.” About a month before the CD’s release on Nov. 15, rabbis in Israel claimed the song was about Rabbi Isaac Luria, the 16th-century kabbalist better known as the Arizal, and they blasted Madonna for using his holy name for profit.

“One can feel only pity at the punishment that she [Madonna] will receive from Heaven,” Rabbi Rafael Cohen told the Israeli newspaper Maariv.

But Madonna swung back, claiming the song was not about the Arizal at all, but rather was named after Yitzhak Sinwani of the London Kabbalah Centre, who sings the Hebrew incantation on the song and provides the mumbled spoken word explanatory interlude at the end.

So what is “Isaac” about? It is hard to say, although it is clear that on this album it is the song most inclined toward Madonna’s spiritual leanings. The beat throbs to the Hebrew lyrics, sung by Sinwani in a wailing rhythmic chant. The lyrics -“Im In Alo, Daltei Nadivim, Daltei Marom, El Hai, Marumam Al Keruvim Kulam Be-Ruho Ya’alu.”

Translate as “If it is locked, the gates of the giving, the gates of heaven, God is alive, He will elevate the angels, and everyone will rise in His spirit.”

In the verses, Madonna sings earnestly “Wrestle with your darkness…. All of your life has all been a test/ You will find the gate that’s open…,” and at the end, Sinwani intones, in what seems like an unrehearsed and unedited addition “The gates of heaven are always open, and there’s this God in the sky and the angels, how they sit, you know, in front of the light, And that’s what its about.”

Hmm … what exactly does all this mean? An attempt to reach Sinwani in London reached only his secretary, who said he is not talking to the press. The Kabbalah Centre in Los Angeles was equally unresponsive and did not return calls for comment.

In the meantime, critics and listeners are praising the song (London’s “The Sun” called it “Stunning”) and Madonna herself has said the song moved her to tears.

“I had tears in my eyes and did not even know what he was singing about,” she told Anthony Kiedis in an interview on AOL. “Then he told me and I cried even more.”


Different Yet Identical

In introducing us to the patriarchal family of Isaac, son of Abraham, this week’s Torah portion of Toldot begins: "And these are the offspring of Isaac son of Abraham — Abraham begot Isaac." Since Torah is not given to redundancy, this opening passage raises the question: Once we’re told that Isaac is the "son of Abraham," what is the point of then stating "Abraham begot Isaac?"

The Midrash explains that the statement "Abraham begot Isaac" represents Divine testimony that Isaac was indeed the biological son of Abraham. That in the face of ridiculers and rumormongers who sought to claim that Isaac had been fathered by the Philistine king, Avimelech, God formed the physical features of Isaac in striking resemblance to those of Abraham so that there would be no room for doubt — "Abraham begot Isaac."

Another midrashic comment extrapolates upon this point by saying that this physical resemblance between Abraham and Isaac was a reflection of their spiritual resemblance; that the merits, the lofty pursuits, indeed the spiritual DNA, of father and son were likewise completely identical.

Now this declaration of spiritual similarity — let alone resemblance — is most curious.

We’re taught that Abraham’s primary mode of service was via the attribute of chesed (loving kindness). This was repeatedly and poignantly demonstrated by his incessant acts of hospitality, compassion and benevolence. He opened his home to hungry wayfarers. He reached out and taught others with delicate softness and patient sensitivity.

Isaac’s primary service, on the other hand, was via the attribute of gevura (severity and restraint). He was a much more demanding sort of fellow. This was demonstrated by his defiant and relentless digging of wells. Even as his enemies kept filling and destroying them, Isaac dug away the rocks and the dirt to uncover the waters beneath. With sharpness and strength, he dug away at the shmutz — the evil and the falseness that was seen on the surface — so as to unearth the reservoirs of goodness and truth buried deep within.

Indeed, everything we learn about Abraham and Isaac seems to cry out: Different! That if ever there was a father and son who seemed so unlike one another, it was these two highly individualized personalities. Yet the Midrash states that, in fact, Abraham and Isaac resembled one another — in every way!?

Within this paradox, seen at the inception of the family of Israel, lies the true beauty of our people. Different situations require different solutions. In the days of Abraham — during which unawareness of a Divine presence was rampant — the world needed an Abraham-like personality. In the days of Isaac — especially with hostilities looming on the horizon — the world needed an Isaac-like personality. Yet, these very different individuals — firmly embarked on their very different missions with their very different methods and characteristics — are deemed spiritually (and essentially) identical because their ultimate focus and goals were one in the same. Their core principles, values and underlying devotion to God were completely indistinguishable from one another. They blazed different trails, but both trails led to the same place: toward making their environment a more holy and moral place to live.

The great Chasidic master, Reb Zushe of Hanipoli, once remarked that when he thinks about the interrogation that might await him after his days on earth are done, he is not worried that he might be asked: "Zushe, why could you not attain the heights of an Abraham, a Moses or a King David?"

Such concerns did not trouble him. His one and only source of trepidation was that the question would be posed; "Zushe, why were not as great as Zushe?"

You are expected to rise to the heights of your own very special and unique potential — no more, no less.

Judaism, and its Torah way of life, celebrates individuality. We are each endowed with our own gifts and talents, our own passions and modes of expression. In terms of personality and character, none of us are truly alike. This is the way God created us for it is only through the diverse expression of the multitudes that His true intent in creating this world can be realized.

Each and every Jewish man, woman and child plays his/her own special instrument within the symphony that is Yiddishkayt. Within the context and framework of halacha and tradition are endless means and modes of service to the Almighty. From the intellectual to the emotional, from the ritualistic to the artistic, we are called upon to experience it all, even as we shine in some areas more than others. What inspires, stimulates and intrigues some may not do the same for others. Yet, at the pinnacle of it all, is that special place in which we are, and must remain, identical. Within the essential goals — of living and being true to the principles of our Holy Torah — is where there is beautiful resemblance among all of the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Let each instrument of the orchestra contribute its own special notes with its own special sound and rhythm. Yet, let us make certain that we are playing the same piece of music — as guided by that One and Only conductor — so that rather than a cacophony of disjointed noise, we have a beautiful symphony of harmonious diversity.

Rabbi Moshe Bryski is executive director of Chabad of Agoura Hills and dean of the Conejo Jewish Academy.

What are you? An Innovator, A Developer Or An Adventurer

There are three patriarchs in the Bible: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Which of the above were they? Well, Abraham created a new religion. He was an innovator. Jacob spent his life traveling and encountering adventure after adventure. He brought the God of Israel’s religion to all the places he went. He was an adventurer. And Isaac? We don’t know much about him — except that he was almost sacrificed and that his son Jacob "tricked” him into giving him the blessing that was supposed to be reserved for the oldest son, Esau. But maybe he wasn’t really tricked. Maybe he just played along, because he understood God’s larger plan and knew that he was part of its long-term development. And that makes him a developer. Not only did he not stand in the way of God’s plan to make the Israelites God’s chosen people, but he also helped it happen. So, which one are you? Abraham, Isaac or Jacob?