Friday, December 24, 2004

Vayechi 5765: Knowing Who You Are

Eight years ago, I went to Israel for the first time in my life. I spent exactly one day at She'arim College of Jewish Studies for Women learning Torah in Israel. The class I most remember, taught by She’arim’s Director, Rebbetzin Holly Pavlov, was about this week’s parsha. Rebbetzin Pavlov went through the brachot, the blessings, that Yaakov (Jacob) bestowed upon his sons. When we think of a parent blessing a child, as many Jews have the custom to do at the Shabbat table on Friday nights, we imagine parents conferring all manner of exceptional wishes for a first-rate future.

When we examine some of Yaakov’s brachot, Rebbetzin Pavlov taught, they seem to be far less than ideal. In language that has to be unlocked by studying rabbinic commentary, Yaakov blesses his sons one-by-one, often by comparing them to animals. Judah is a lion's whelp (49:9). Naftali is a hind let loose (49:21). Issachar is a large-boned ass, couching down between the sheep-folds (49:14). Gee, thanks Dad! What kind of bracha is that?

But upon closer examination, we see that Yaakov wasn’t simply wishing his sons well for their future. He was telling them who they are. He was identifying for them their strongest characteristics and, in that way, helping them to know themselves and their roles better. In this way, Rebbetzin Pavlov taught, Yaakov gave them each the greatest bracha of all – the blessing of self-awareness.

Have you ever wondered about your own distinctiveness? Have you ever asked yourself what your personal role is in the world? Have you ever wondered why you, specifically, were created? Yaakov’s bracha to his sons was to hold up a mirror and let them know themselves. The rest of us have to figure it out the hard way.

Which brings me to our most recent trip to Israel. Each trip has its own flavor. This time, we saw many important and historic sites. But what most impressed me most was that I kept meeting the most intriguing people who had turned their lives upside down in order to live as Jews in Israel.

I met one couple who started their lives as Christians in Oklahoma and who are now, three weddings later, living as Orthodox Jews in Israel. One man from Texas met a 9 year-old girl from a marginally Jewish home when he was 12. After many long and complicated years apart, during which time he converted to Judaism, they were reunited. Two weeks later, they were engaged and are now married and living in Israel with their infant daughter while the man continues his studies in a yeshiva.

While in Jerusalem, I saw a one-woman show about a woman who was born to Japanese parents in Hawaii. She grew up and became a Broadway dancer and eventually fell in love with a Jewish man. This particular Jewish man knew very little about his Judaism beyond the importance of raising his children as Jews. The journey they embarked upon led both of them to become serious Jews now living in Jerusalem.

Then there are the Anousim Returnees about whom I’ve just begun to learn. These are people, descended from Jews who were forcibly converted to Christianity in Spain and Portugal, who are reclaiming their connection to the Jewish people. After centuries of being separated from the mainstream Jewish community, the Anousim are formally converting and many are returning to live among the Jewish people in Israel.

I’m consistently moved and inspired by the ways people, recognizing the radiance of a Jewish life, grow, change and fight to become proud Jews. The extreme contrast between these remarkable souls who risked everything to become Jews, and the American Jews who are utterly indifferent about their connection to the Jewish people and about their lives as Jews, is heartrending.

I wish I could give every American Jew a bit of what Yaakov gave each of his sons: knowledge from which they could understand their role in the world.

You are a Jew. You are part of a dazzling and eternal people. It may be that you don’t yet have enough information to judge the value of your inheritance.

But it’s not too late to find out. It’s never too late to learn who you are.

Toldos 5765: The Marriage of Rivka and Yitzchak

By all accounts, the marriage between Avraham and Sarah was a marriage of equals. The medieval commentator Rashi teaches that Avraham and Sarah spent time teaching others to have faith in G-d. At that time in history, belief in One Supreme G-d was a novel, and not particularly popular, idea. Rashi teaches that Avraham converted the men and Sarah converted the women. And although G-d spoke to Avraham numerous times, Sarah was far from being spiritually ineffectual herself. In fact, she had a level of spiritual insight that, at times, exceeded Avraham’s.

If Avraham and Sarah were essentially peers, the workings of the marriage of Rivka (Rebecca) and Yitzchak (Isaac) were much subtler and harder to understand. To begin with, Yitzchak was much older. Rivka had just been born when Yitzchak survived the Akeidah (“Binding of Isaac”) at age 37. There is one opinion that Yitzchak was 40 and Rivka was just three when they married.

In addition, Yitzchak was the son of Sarah and Avraham, two wholly righteous people. In contrast, though she herself remained untainted, Rivka grew up in a household and in a society where evil was the norm. Her brother Lavan was the famous Biblical swindler. In today’s terms, Yitzchak was “sheltered” and Rivka was “worldly”.

Another clue about the complexity of their marriage is the striking paucity of dialogue between Rivka and Yitzchak, as recorded in the Torah. In fact, there is only one line that passed between them. “Rebecca said to Isaac, ‘I am disgusted with my life on account of the daughters of Heth; if Jacob takes a wife of the daughters of Heth like these, of the daughters of the land, what is life to me?’” (Genesis 27:46) In this verse, Rivka bemoaned the fact that their son Eisav (Esau) married women from among the locals and expressed anguish over the possibility that Yaakov (Jacob) might do the same if they did not send him away.

Besides their dissimilar ages, backgrounds and the seeming lack of verbal communication between them, Yitzchak is among the most enigmatic characters in the Torah. He takes few decisive actions and is what we would today call reactive rather than proactive. Rivka, by contrast, was an active player in her life and in her marriage. Most of what the Torah relates about the events in the marriage of Rivka and Yitzchak is told through the actions of Rivka.

In his new book, Women In The Bible, Rav Shlomo Aviner, the Chief Rabbi of Beit El, Israel, offers us insight into the marriage of Rivka and Yitzchak. Rav Aviner teaches that Yitzchak existed on a plane that was above the mundane in this world. He was capable of seeing only those things that were eternal.

The Sages say that Rivka’s role was to serve as intermediary between Yitzchak and G-d. Imagine a Person of Great Achievement who excels at one specific thing. Such a person would benefit from having a personal assistant to handle the mundane, temporal aspects of life, freeing the Person of Great Achievement to achieve in one arena. Rivka was like the personal assistant to Yizchak’s Person of Great Achievement. Neither could be said to be superior because it took the combination of both of their skills to accomplish what neither could do alone.

Yitzchak’s character was primarily hidden and Rivka was the more overt player throughout their lifetimes. However, together they made a very strong union. So much so that Rav Aviner says that their unique relationship was the tikkun, was the spiritual rectification, for one of the curses that G-d pronounced upon Chava (Eve).

Rav Aviner says, “The appearance of Isaac and Rebecca rectified the damage done by Adam and Eve, which had punished Eve: And he will rule over you (Genesis 3:16). From the beginning of the world until this very day, the fact is that men dominate women, sometimes with a cruel hand. The strength of Isaac and Rebecca remedied this situation. Isaac in no way dominated Rebecca. Since childhood, it was impossible to dominate her. Even her father and brother could not control her.”

From Rivka we learn that there is not just one correct lifestyle choice for every Jewish woman. Each of us has our own manner of serving G-d. We do not all need to be the same.