Thursday, December 1, 2011

Shabbat Toldot: Legacy - Opportunity and Burden, delivered Shabbat morning, 11/26/2011

It is difficult for me to find much redeeming in the narrative that makes up the bulk of our Parashat Toldot. I can’t help but read the portion as an example of dysfunctional family dynamics. Parashat Toldot is filled with sibling rivalry run amuck and parents contributing to the drama through their own actions of deceit and denial. It seems that the best we can do with it is accept it as a painfully true depiction of humanity; and as such, recognize that even our beloved patriarchs and matriarchs (or at least the authors of these stories) were entirely human and subject to the same emotions and insecurities that we are. The story of Isaac imitating his father by passing his wife off as his sister to Abimelech and the Philistines, for instance, challenges us to consider the natural tendency towards following in our parents’ footsteps, even if when it means unintentionally repeating their mistakes. Legacy can be both an insightful teacher and a burdensome yoke. The story of Rebecca’s manipulation of events at the end of her husband’s life unsettles us and challenges us to consider how we treat our own loved ones, perhaps especially our children who rely on us as role models. Do we respond appropriately to the differences in our children? Do we help them overcome, or do we encourage their rivalries? Do we help them forge their own paths, or do we burden them and use them for our own gain or for the fulfillment of our own goals? Rebecca is a curious figure to be held up as a matriarch. Yet, she is. Despite all of the challenges of the story, it is part of our Biblical canon. We accept it as part of our sacred historical narrative.

One significant lesson that can be drawn from this portion is that, despite dysfunction, all can come out okay. We aren’t doomed by our human failings. Our destiny isn’t necessarily plagued by the mistakes of our parents or ourselves. At the end of our Biblical narrative, the Israelites will still receive the benefits of the covenant made originally with Abraham. Their descendants will still get to stand at Sinai and ultimately enter the promised land of milk and honey. Unfortunately, though -- and perhaps my frustration in the portion lies right here: implicit in this lesson is the deeply troubling message that deception, Divinely mandated deception no less, is necessary for the covenant between God and Israel to be brought to fruition.

This dilemma is not a new one, and our generation is not the first to recognize it. The traditional Rabbinic exegesis offered on Parashat Toldot redeems the deception by expanding on the limited characterizations of Jacob and Esau provided in the Biblical text. Accordingly, as typical in Jewish commentary, the peshat, the simple rendering of the text, must be coupled with the later layers of oral tradition in order for the reader to understand why the deception is acceptable, indeed necessary. In the Rabbinic mind, Jacob doesn’t just yoshev ohalim, sit in his tent, but rather is portrayed as a pious and devoted student of Torah while Esau’s outdoorsman character is painted as a wild fan of idolatry. Jacob is compared to a rose’s sweet fragrance while Esau to its thorns. Rebecca’s behavior is thus forgiven, even celebrated, because she was ultimately forwarding Torah, and God’s agenda, in her actions. Rebecca apparently needed to resort to deception in order to assure God’s plan.

Unfortunately, outside of the most traditional circles, the midrashic apologetic no longer fully satisfies. I doubt that I am alone in not being so easily placated by the traditional rabbinic explanation, an explanation that raises a difficult theological dilemma: what are the ramifications of a theology that grounds the continuation and longevity of the covenant between Israel and God on deception?

I don’t have many useful answers this morning. I, like you, have been busy digesting turkey and caring for my children who were off from school the latter half of the week. However, I mused on these questions as I sat with my family – between my aging parents on the one side and my teen and almost teenager on the other -- and celebrated Thanksgiving. In musing upon them, it dawned on me that perhaps answering the question is far less important than being aware of it. We needn’t reject the text or God simply because the text unnerves us. As liberal Jews, we believe that the Torah and the additional layers of Oral Law, were written by the human hand. As such, the story reflects the entire gamut of human strengths and weaknesses. Our sacred narrative reflects the experiences of its authors; and, we have the ability, perhaps responsibility, to add to the layers of Oral Law by engaging with the dilemmas raised in the text and creating our own generation’s commentary.

We elevate the story to canonical status, and in doing so create very high expectations for the text and the early commentary that is coupled with it. Expecting unrealistic perfection from humanity only prevents us from taking away valuable lessons from the text and adding new ones to it. It also prevents us from seeing ourselves in the characters. Isaac and Rebecca are held up in our tradition as our parents. We will make some of the same mistakes they did. Hopefully their example will also lead us to some better choices as well.