This Dvar Torah was given by Deb Laufer on 11/09/18
My Dad and his best friend met every Thursday at the farmers market, afterwards, they would go back to Bob’s house, Bob would drink a martini and my Dad a gin and tonic. They would argue mostly about theology and politics, they enjoyed pushing each other’s buttons.
My dad would always bring the discussion home “can you believe what Bob Said today….” It was often something small, that can be proven by quick google search, like what year a civil war battle was fought or the wording of a particular biblical verse.
It used to drive my mom crazy, she would say, “why are you fighting, just look it up!”
My mom was incredibly smart and curious, she always needed to know the answer and enjoyed the process of learning and text study. The last time I gave a dvar torah here she sat in the front row and interrupted me at one point, making sure I got the details right. Engaging in this process seemed like a good way to honor her today.
In this weeks parsha, toldot, Rebecca, in pain from her long awaited pregnancy, cries out: אִם־כֵּ֔ן לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה אָנֹ֑כִי “If it is like this, why am I?”
Not something that Google can answer easily, but I will try.
God explains her pain:
“Two nations are in your womb,
And two peoples from within you will be separated;
One people will be stronger than the other,
And the older will serve the younger”
Later in Isaac’s deathbed blessing to Jacob, he says:
“May nations serve you and peoples bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you.”
Ok, I know this story, God said that the older would serve the younger, and then Jacob traded Esau’s birthright for a bowl of stew, Rebecca aided in deceiving Isaac, God’s prophecy comes true. End Scene.
BUT the story doesn’t actually end here:
As soon as Esau realizes Jacob received his blessing he begs his father for one of his own. Isaac tells him:
You will live by your sword And you will serve your brother.
But when you grow restless,
You will throw his yoke from off your neck.
Spoiler alert — years later, when Jacob and Esau meet again, Jacob is nervous, he bows down to Esau and calls him “my lord” and refers to himself as “your servant.”
Who is serving whom?
When we go back, and look at the text through this lense, we notice some grammatical inconsistencies. It says: וְרַ֖ב יַֽעֲבֹ֥ד צָעִֽיר the opposite of tsair, younger, should be bechir, older, not rav. Rav could mean greater, leader, more numerous, now the meaning of this line is ambiguous.
Rashi suggests that another future biblical story about the confusing birthright and birth order of Tamar’s twins Perez and Zerah further supports that Jacob and Esau’s story is not as simple as it first appears.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says this is an example of one of the most remarkable narrative devices of the Torah – the power of the future to transform our understanding of the past. The present is never fully determined by the present. Sometimes it is only later that we can understand the now.
Perspective and life experience color the memory and interpretation of our life stories.
Also in this parsha, Isaac has to redig the wells of Abraham that were filled in by the Philistines. The first two tries end poorly and Isaac names these wells Esak and Sitnah, Contention and Strife. The third attempt is successful and he names the well Rechovot, or openness.
Abraham is promised many children but has to wait years before Isaac is born. The patriarchs are promised a land but do not see it in their lifetimes. Will Jacob serve or be served? The uncertainty of these promises is what opens biblical text to ongoing interpretation.
Something that I’ve been thinking about, that I’ve said nearly every day for the past 11 months is the mourner’s kaddish. It’s called the mourner’s kaddish, but the prayer itself has nothing to do with death or mourning.
The kaddish begins “Glorified and sanctified is God’s great name throughout the world” and continues in that vein.
After a loss, you might expect a person to question their faith.
In response, our tradition asks a mourner to stand up every day, publicly — in front of a minyan, and open themselves to reaffirming their faith in God, despite their personal struggle. Forcing us to think about our loss in the context of a bigger and ultimately good world and benevolent God.
So, to try to answer Rebecca’s question, לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה אָנֹ֑כִי why am I here?
We are here to play our role in the story as it unfolds, live our lives, worry about our kids, fight with our siblings, re-dig the wells, and open ourselves to the idea that we may only understand our roles in our own story later, and not in the present.
I can relate to both my Dad in enjoying the debate and my Mom, eager to get the answer. Both engaged in the process of interpreting and relating to text and tradition, the Jewish story past and future.
Just as my mom did for her parents, and for generations before, We stand with a minyan and say the Mourner’s kaddish, hoping to find truth or comfort in it’s words.
We continue to ask and answer questions.
We continue to gain perspective and reflect on the blessings we are given.
We do the best we can to honor our parents, our tradition, and our community.
Thank you and shabbat shalom.