September 16, 2019

Torah portion: Somebody else’s dream

I had the pleasure last week of a reunion with an old friend. Through a leisurely evening of reminiscing, we recalled the moments of profound influence each of us had made on the direction of the other’s life. 

My friend remembered that in a wary moment 28 years ago, I encouraged her to stop doubting and pursue a relationship with a woman she had recently met. The two of them are about to celebrate their 27th anniversary. 

Her part in my life is equally profound. About as many years ago, she took me out to breakfast one morning to tell me of a dream she’d had the night before: “You and I were studying in a yeshiva,” she said, “and you really loved it. Me, not so much.” (By the way, my friend isn’t Jewish.) Then she paused, looked at me, and asked, “What are you doing with your life, anyway?” Within a month, I was applying to rabbinical schools — something I had thought about off and on through the years, but had not taken seriously before her dream rekindled my own.

Perhaps it was the reveries with my friend that also set me noticing a phrase in this week’s Torah portion. It comes near the end of the troubling story of Rebekah and her son Jacob conspiring to “steal” for Jacob the blessing his father Isaac intended for Jacob’s twin brother, Esau. 

After the poignant scene in which Esau cries out, “Have you but one blessing, Father? Bless me too, Father!” (Genesis 27:38), Rebekah discovers that Esau is so angry with Jacob that he plans to kill him. She warns Jacob of Esau’s murderous anger, telling him to flee to her brother Laban in Haran, saying, “Stay with him awhile (yamim akhadim), until your brother’s rage cools down … then I’ll send for you” (Genesis 27:44-45).

Yamim akhadim is an idiom for “a little while” or “a few days.” But Jacob does not leave for a few days — he is gone for two decades. He apparently never sees his mother again (in fact, we hear of Rebekah again only in Genesis 49:31, when Jacob, near death and giving instructions to his sons for his own burial, lists her as being buried in the Cave of Machpelah, along with Sarah, Abraham, Isaac and Leah). And though Isaac remains alive during those two decades, we don’t hear of him again until his death in Parashat Vayishlach, when Jacob and Esau (like Isaac and Ishmael before them) come together to bury their father (Genesis 35:27-29).

From the moment Jacob leaves for yamim akhadim, his life takes extraordinary twists and turns that we read about in the coming portions, including his famous ladder-to-heaven dream; a 20-year sojourn with his uncle Laban; marriage to Leah and Rachel; 13 children with them and their concubines, Zilpah and Bilhah; his midnight “wrestling match” with the mysterious stranger; a name change to Israel and a moving reconciliation two decades hence with his brother, Esau. 

How did Rebekah’s scheme to get a blessing for her favorite son turn into sending that son away from her forever? How did yamim akhadim, a few days, turn into 20 years and counting? How did a family “fight” reroute everyone’s life so dramatically? Torah does not tell us if Rebekah’s behavior was part of God’s plan, although there are commentators and midrash writers who think so.

What’s true in Torah seems also true in real life, doesn’t it? My dreamy friend all those years ago didn’t really know she was about to turn my life upside down (or was it right-side up?); she was just responding to something she saw in me. When I insisted she get over herself and go forward in her new relationship, I certainly wasn’t thinking ahead 27 years; I was just responding to what I heard from her.

“It’s just the way life happens,” someone said to me when I asked what to make of the ramifications of this biblical story. “It’s full of choices and random events and you never know which ones will change everything.” 

But someone else remembered Anita Diamant’s observation in her book “Choosing a Jewish Life” that, for many people, at some point in their lives, events, relationships and coincidences “begin to seem more like signposts than accidents.” Diamant is writing specifically about people’s paths to Judaism, but perhaps her comment will ring true not only in thinking about what Torah comes to teach us through the stories it tells and the ways it tells them, but also what it might tell about our own lives.

Were there happenstances in your life that turned into signposts? Were there yamim akhadim — “little whiles” or dreams, advice or questions — that turned into life-altering journeys? If so, we might well ask ourselves, who posted those signs? What made me notice them? And perhaps more important, what have I come to understand about my own life, my own path, from the signs and wonders that came to me along the way?

Rabbi Lisa Edwards is senior rabbi of Beth Chayim Chadashim (