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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.

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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.

Outside the tent or in — what would Matriarch Rebecca have said?

This past week I have been reflecting on something important. Is there a red line that propels someone beyond the pale and out of the tent if they cross it? It is a fundamental question for all of us, and particularly for a rabbi, whose job as a representative of Judaism is to be a benign and inclusive presence, so that as many Jews as possible can feel at home in a Jewish environment and more inclined to be faithful to their roots.

I was lucky enough in my teens and early twenties to spend a considerable amount of time with the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, whose twenty first yahrtzeit we observed a couple of weeks ago. No one epitomized the broad tent approach more than him. His genuine affection for every Jew – and indeed, every human being – was nothing short of breathtaking. One of the most remarkable aspects of his personality, and one that I always marveled at, was his desire and ability to remember people’s names, even many years after he had met them.

“Do you remember me?” people would invariably ask him. He would look at them for a moment, his face pensive. Then he would break into a smile. “Sure I remember you,” he would say, “you’re Moshe, and we met in Cleveland at a concert in 1981,” or something similar. He was almost always right. It was the mark of a man who loved people enough to make the effort not just to remember their names when he first met them and for that day, but to file their names away so that he might delight them by recalling it to them many years later.

In my own interactions with people over the years I have tried hard to emulate Reb Shlomo. His openness, his refusal to judge someone who didn’t share his views, his determination to ensure that everyone felt comfortable within a Jewish setting – these qualities have been my inspiration. But is there a point at which unconditional tolerance becomes self-defeating? I want to believe that no Jew should ever be rejected or excluded. After all, whatever they do, they are still part of the family. Or are they?

Take Gideon Levy, for example. Levy, born in Israel in 1953, is on the left edge of Israeli politics and writes a regular column for Haaretz. He considers himself to be an Israeli patriot forced to blow the whistle on his country’s ‘crimes’ against the Palestinians. Just as an example of what this means, in a recent article he decried the indifference of ordinary Israelis towards the killing of Arab knife murderers, whom he astoundingly refers to as brave and courageous. For Israelis, he writes, “the bleeding body [of a dead stabber] on the street is not the body of a person; it is, in the eyes of many, a carcass. But a few minutes earlier it was still a human being, with desires, feelings and dreams……how many Israelis even think about this?” Aside from the fact that this characterization is utterly preposterous, I find it incredibly ironic that he accuses Israelis of dehumanizing Arabs when it is the dehumanization of Jews that has resulted in knife-wielding Arabs seeing every Jew as a ‘Temple Mount defiler’ and a murder target, even if they are a 72-year-old woman or a 13-year-old boy.

But the greatest irony of this ‘patriot’ is his sympathy with BDS and wholehearted support for a ‘one-state solution’. Isaac Herzog, leader of Israel’s left wing opposition, is not a Levy fan. He recently wrote in Haaretz: “Levy…. wants the Jewish minority between the Jordan and the sea to be swallowed up by the Arab majority, so that after 67 years we turn the lights out on the state.”

So do we include Gideon Levy in our tent? Must we unquestioningly embrace him as a family member, despite his views? Let’s take a look the intriguing Bible narrative that describes Isaac’s blessings for some help. There is almost no story in the Torah that is more disconcerting and disturbing than the narrative describing Isaac’s blessings. At face value it appears as if the blind, helpless patriarch was duped by Jacob, with the help of Rebecca. Isaac had designated Esau as the recipient of the legacy blessings – the formal passing over of Abraham’s covenant with God to the next generation. But through a carefully orchestrated deception it is Jacob who gets the blessings, not Esau.

Does this understanding of the story make any sense? I think not. The most obvious flaw is that if Jacob was not meant to receive the blessings why didn’t Isaac simply revoke what he had done, and redirect them back to Esau? Instead, as soon as he discovers what has happened he confirms his blessing of Jacob. In other words, notwithstanding the subterfuge, Jacob would still inherit the mantle of Abraham, and Esau was out.

So what was really going on? The nineteenth century bible commentator, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, offers an exquisite explanation. Isaac and Rebecca were engaged in a crucial debate about inclusion and exclusion. Isaac, only wanting to see the good side of Esau, felt that he had a role to play in Abraham’s legacy – as the ‘man of the field’ who would provide for Jacob. Rebecca disagreed. She had observed how Esau sold his birthright and then married idolaters. If he remained within, Abraham’s legacy was doomed. Only by demonstrating that it was possible for one person to embody both the ‘voice of Jacob’ and the ‘hands of Esau’ would Isaac understand his mistake.

Gideon Levy, by giving up his birthright and cavorting with idolaters, has demonstrated that he is outside the tent. He has lost the plot and joined the other team. Such a person, and anyone like him, can never be included in the tent, and it is our duty to ensure that they never are.


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