Friday, November 20, 2015

Torah Thoughts on Vayetze

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayetze (Gen. 28:10-32:3) Jacob runs away from his home in Beersheba to escape his brother’s fury.  He flees to Haran and meets his cousin, the daughter of Rebecca’s brother Laban, at the well.  He falls in love with her immediately and offers to work for Laban for seven years for her hand in marriage.  Laban agrees.  At the end of seven years, Laban makes a feast and in the evening (presumably after dark) brings his older daughter, Leah, to Jacob’s bed.  In the morning, Jacob awakens to find that he has married not his beloved Rachel, but her older sister.  He confronts Laban, who tells him that it is the custom that the elder daughter is married before the younger, but he offers Jacob Rachel’s hand in marriage as soon as Leah’s wedding week is over, for another seven years of work.

The Torah tells us that Jacob loved Rachel, and that “Leah was hated”, but doesn’t tell us why.  A midrash fills in the blanks: “The whole of that night he called her ‘Rachel’ and she answered him.  In the morning however, ‘Behold, it was Leah’ (Gen 29:25).  Said he to her, ‘What, you are a deceiver and the daughter of a deceiver!’ ‘Is there a teacher without pupils, ’she retorted; ‘did not your father call you Esau, and you answered him!  So did you too call me and I answered you!”  By drawing his attention to his own deception, Leah earns Jacob’s disfavor.  Unfortunately, that is not an uncommon consequence for those who tell the truth.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Torah Thoughts on Toldot

This week’s Torah portion, Toldot (Gen. 25:19-28:9) begins with the words “This is the line of Isaac, son of Abraham”.  We might expect what follows to be about Isaac’s life and accomplishments.  Instead, the parshah focuses mostly on his wife and children.

Rebecca has difficulty conceiving and Isaac pleads with God on her behalf.  But once she is pregnant and experiencing pain, she herself speaks with God and learns that she will give birth to twins, who are already striving within her womb, and who will be rivals throughout their lives.  Their competition for the birthright, and Rebecca’s collusion with Jacob to trick Isaac into blessing him instead of Esau, dominate the story line.  The only glimpse we get of Isaac’s own life is an encounter with Abimelech that almost exactly duplicates the story of Abraham and Abimelech as recounted in Gen. 20.  Isaac’s role in the blessing of Jacob instead of Esau casts him not as the leader of the people ensuring their successor, but as a dupe who needs his wife’s machinations to ensure that God’s choice is the son who gets the birthright.

Still, there are important things to be learned from the example of Isaac.  He is the bridge between Abraham and Jacob.  He keeps faith with God, and carries on the line that will become the people Israel.  He is not a natural leader or an out-of-the-box thinker, but he carries on the tradition.  A midrash tells of Rabbi Zusya, who, on his deathbed, cried bitter tears.  “Why are you crying?” he was asked, “is it because you were not as great as Moses?”  “No”, he replied, “It is because I was not as great as Zusya could have been.”  Isaac was as great as Isaac could have been.  And that is enough.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Torah Thoughts on Chayei Sarah

This week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah (Gen. 23:1-25:18) contains something unusual, not in the words themselves, but in the trope (cantillation marks) the indications of how the melody is to be chanted.  After the death of Sarah at the outset of the parshah, and after Abraham has mourned her and purchased land in Canaan to bury her, he sends his servant to find a wife for Isaac.  The servant goes to Aram Naharaim, and prays to God to help him find the right woman.  The first word of his prayer, va’yomar (“he said”) is sung with the shalshelet, a rare sign that is found in only four places in the Torah.  There are other rare tropes, but they don’t sound very different from the standard melody.  Shalshelet has a very distinctive sound, going up and down the scale three times.  When you have heard it, you know you’ve heard something unusual.
What is so important about this word that it merits the shalshelet? The servant’s prayer, that he might find a suitable mate for Isaac, is what changes the story of Abraham and Sarah from a one-time phenomenon to a spiritual inheritance that has lasted for thousands of years.  Rebecca meets and then exceeds the criteria that the servant has asked God to show him.  She is eager to go with the servant, she and Isaac fall in love at once and, in coming Torah portions (spoiler alert) she will manipulate her husband to further the cause of the son best suited to carry on the leadership of the people to the next generation.
Also, interestingly, the word shalshelet means “chain”.  Rebecca never gets to meet her mother-in-law Sarah, but she is the bearer of the female leadership of this people who will, in another few years, become the people Israel.  May this chain, which has been carefully carried for so many years, continue to be passed on from one generation to the next.