Toldot: The Best They Could

Image: Two men arm wrestle for cash. (Ryan McGuire / Pixabay)

Poor Rebecca: she is beloved of her husband Isaac but her kids fight something awful.

It started even in the womb:

The children struggled in her womb, and she said, “If so, why do I exist?” She went to inquire of the LORD, and the LORD answered her, “Two nations are in your womb, Two separate peoples shall issue from your body; One people shall be mightier than the other, And the older shall serve the younger.”

Genesis 25: 22-23

The phrase “If so, why do I exist?” always catches my heart. What does it mean?

?אִם־כֵּ֔ן לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה אָנֹ֑כִי

Genesis 25:22

Rashi says that what she means is, “If the pain of pregnancy is so great, why did I want to become pregnant?” But that is not what she said in this week’s Torah portion.

She feels the children inside her, and she exclaims, “If so, why do I exist?” She questions the whole meaning of her existence as she feels the children “crushing” each other (v’yitro’tzatzu.) The verb means more than “struggle” – it means “crushing” – a battle for absolute dominance. They are trying to kill each other, she feels, and they are not yet even born! Even as they are born, they are fighting, with Jacob trying to pull his older brother back into the womb so that he can be born first.

Rebecca is aware from pregnancy that her sons dislike each other intensely. At the very beginning of their lives, Rebecca cries out, ” If so, why do I exist?” – “If these two hate each other, what is the point of my life?”

One of the developmental tasks of being a parent is the understanding that the child is a separate person. For biological mothers, it is very easy to understand: that baby came out of my body, they were once a part of me, I fed them from my body, I am biologically linked to them by hormones and similarities in our DNA. So how come this kid is doing something I would never do – like try to “crush” his sibling, whom I also love?

Why do parents exist? We human beings are slow developers. Children need care for years after birth, to find food and shelter, to survive predators, to learn the things one needs to learn in order to survive. Children need adults to nurture them, to sacrifice for them, to take sometimes unreasonable risks for them, because otherwise the species would not survive.

We do this for our children, who will always be separate people from us, people who will make different choices than we might have made. Rebecca is feeling the division between the two sons, and it is agony because she still identifies strongly with both.

Ultimately she and Isaac deal with their sons’ mutual animosity by each choosing a favorite child: Isaac preferred Esau, and Rebecca preferred Jacob. Patriarchy and primogeniture set them up for disaster: Isaac identified with the older son, who would presumably inherit everything of worth. Rebecca identified with the underdog, who was much like her: clever and willing to manipulate people and situations for benefit.

This may have been the best they could do. The combative twins are a contrast to their peace-loving parents. Isaac seems to be a mild gentleman, content to stay near home and cultivate his fields and flocks. Instead of waging war on neighbors, he negotiates. He walks in the fields in the evenings to pray. Rebecca is known for her kindness to animals, and her tender care of Isaac. And yet these two peaceniks beget the battling twins, Esau and Jacob! They must have felt completely outgunned by their children.

One of the wonders of the book of Genesis is how bluntly our patriarchs and matriarchs are portrayed in all their fallibility. These are not idealized pictures of saintlike ancestors. Instead, they are real people, who have children they don’t understand.

In my darker moments as a parent, I have thought a lot about Isaac and Rebecca. They wanted to be good parents. I am sure they did the best they could.

How To Plan Your Jewish Wedding

Image: Two wedding rings. (Pixabay)

Congratulations! You have found the love of your life, and you are looking forward to a wedding!

What’s the first thing to do?

Share the news with family and friends, of course! And they will immediately begin planning your wedding: where you should have it, when you should have it, who might be the caterer, the florist, the planner, and so forth and so on.

Stop!

That is all fine and good, but for a Jewish wedding, the first thing on your to-do list should be the rabbi or cantor who will officiate.

Why?

  • Because rabbis and cantors have busy schedules and cannot be in two places at once.
  • Because rabbi and cantor calendars get booked up long before “wedding season.”
  • Because there are dates in the Jewish calendar when most rabbis do not perform weddings. (Why would anyone want to get married on Yom Kippur? I don’t know, but I know rabbis who have gotten that request.)
  • Because the rabbi or cantor may have advice or requirements about things like the ketubah and the rings.
  • Because rabbis and cantors can help you plan the wedding service and support you in dealing with family issues.
  • Because many rabbis and cantors can provide premarital counseling, which is different from therapy – an opportunity to learn about your beloved, and for them to learn about you.
  • Because rabbis and cantors are professionals, trained to assist you in making your wedding day a sacred day.

Once you’ve got the rabbi or cantor, then you will have the date. Then you can call the caterer, and the florist, the wedding planner, the venue, the ketubah artist, Aunt Mildred, the dressmaker…

Even if you are planning a very simple wedding, your officiant is the place to start!

Don’t have a rabbi or cantor? Check out the directory at InterfaithFamily.com. They can help you find a qualified officiant.

When is Chanukah 2019?

Image: A chanukiah, or menorah, with only three candles lit.

Chanukah 2019 will begin at sundown on December 22, 2019, and it will conclude at sundown December 30.

For more about the holiday check out How to Chanukah, which has links to many resources.

A Letter to Mr. Khruchchev: Remembering President Kennedy

Image: JFK and Nikita Khruchchev in 1961. Public Domain.

It’s 56 years today since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy shocked us all. I remember it vividly, even though I was a very small girl then.

Writing a different blog post for this day some years ago, I learned about a letter from Jacqueline Kennedy to Chairman Nikita Kruschchev, written during her last night in the White House, after the assassination. It struck me as having a special resonance today, after a week of impeachment hearings and memories of impeachment hearings past. It strikes me that while we are not as worried about nuclear war as we were back then, that we are in a war of words here in the United States. This war of words and of versions of the truth threatens the fabric of our democracy. Mrs. Kennedy’s words still stand: It is possible to be allied in pursuit of peace even when we are on different sides.

So now, in one of the last nights I will spend in the White House, in one of the last letters I will write on this paper at the White House, I would like to write you my message.

I send it only because I know how much my husband cared about peace, and how the relation between you and him was central to this care in his mind. He used to quote your words in some of his speeches-”In the next war the survivors will envy the dead.”

You and he were adversaries, but you were allied in a determination that the world should not be blown up. You respected each other and could deal with each other. I know that President Johnson will make every effort to establish the same relationship with you…

The danger which troubled my husband was that war might be started not so much by the big men as by the little ones.

While big men know the needs for self-control and restraint—little men are sometimes moved more by fear and pride. If only in the future the big men can continue to make the little ones sit down and talk, before they start to fight.

What strikes me in Mrs. Kennedy’s letter is the notion of “big men” knowing the need for self-control, and “little men” being driven by fear and pride. The “big men” she wrote about were on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain but they managed to keep us out of a hot war. The “little men,” then as now like to talk about what the other side “deserves” and don’t stop to think what the world will look like the day after their wishes come true.

Jewish tradition calls upon us all to be “big,” to see beyond our passions and our fear. In this age of the Internet, each of us has power beyond imagining to influence the opinions and actions of others. The power of words, always huge, has gone nuclear. So let us watch our metaphors, let us mind our casual rhetoric that runs to hyperbole: so-and-so’s a Nazi, so-and-so “doesn’t deserve to live.” In a country where every disturbed person has access to a gun, let’s stop spreading rumors that we are pretty sure are as good as true.

My parents disagreed mightily with almost everything President Kennedy did or stood for, but they never once suggested that his death was a good thing.  When I read what some people publish today in public places about anyone they see as a threat to themselves, I tremble. Violent rhetoric may be legal, but it is still violence, and it is too easily translated into violent action by someone too simple or unstable to understand that it was “only rhetoric.”

Instead of running off at the keyboard, let’s all work, soberly, consciously, for a day when every person, large and small

… shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:4)

The Introvert from Egypt

Image: A green game piece stands apart and separated from a group of red game pieces. (tillburmann /Pixabay)

Yesterday, I wrote about the question of the introvert in community by asking a number of friends how they handle it. Today, I thought I’d share the fact that I’m very much in sympathy with the student who asked the question, because I am myself an introvert, and suggest some insights that have helped me.

  • The more structure there is to a community event, the less it stresses the introvert in me. Attending services, I am there with others, I participate. In the service itself, once I learned how to participate, I could be completely present but also quite comfortable, sure of each interaction. After the service, then there’s the oneg, which is something else altogether.
  • The more UNstructured the event, the more it stresses the introvert in me. The oneg after services is a prime example. People are there, some I know, some I don’t, and some who look familiar but I am not sure. At first I am afraid that no one will talk to me. Then, when someone approaches, I’m worried about improvising in a conversation. My go-to when I feel completely at sea is to look for someone else who is standing alone. I walk over to them and introduce myself.

Strategies for settling into a community:

  • At first, concentrate on structured events: going to services, classes, funerals, shiva houses. Usually these events have someone leading, and all we have to do as participants is find a seat and be there. Cultivate some very small talk for before and after: “Hello. My name is…”– “The music was beautiful, wasn’t it?”– “This topic is fascinating! What draws you to it?” — “How did you know the departed?” — and once you can get the other person talking, just listen.
  • Having a task to perform lessens the stress. In the service, if all you feel comfortable doing is saying “Amen” at the appropriate times, say it with gusto. In adult ed classes, strive to look interested (the teacher will love you for it.) And at funerals and shiva houses, remember that your simple presence is the mitzvah; if you are there, and say little or nothing, it’s ok because you were THERE. You don’t have to talk at any of these high-structure events, except possibly for some classes. At the scarier, low-structure events, I do what I mentioned above at onegs: I seek out another wallflower and say hello. Then, even if we don’t sustain much of a conversation, at least neither of us is standing alone.
  • Eventually, try some less structured events: join a committee at synagogue, volunteer to help with an event. Here, again, having a task will help with the stress. In a committee, you can ask for a partner to help you do anything you want to volunteer for but feel unsure about: “Could I have a partner for this?” If you go to an event and there is clean-up afterwards, stick around to help with that. I have made lifelong friends that way.
  • Finally, remember that when God finished creation, God said, “It is very good.” You are a good person, introversion and all. Take time for yourself to recharge.

If you engage with community in small steps, the day will come when you walk into the oneg after services and it is no longer a wilderness of strangers. The day will come when you will gladly wave to friends and then, because you remember being a stranger, you will tear yourself away from friends to seek out the newcomers and the people who are standing alone.

You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Deuteronomy 10:19

“I’m an introvert! How can I be part of a community?”

Image: A pen puts a check by “Introvert” on a survey. (Yeexin/Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

Recently one of my students said, “I’m an introvert. My rabbi says I have to spend time ‘in the community’ and I am not sure I can fit in.”

As Robert Putnam pointed out almost 20 years ago in Bowling Alone: The collapse and revival of American community, Americans have become less and less connected to each other. He wrote this before the rise of social media: MySpace, Facebook. Twitter, WhatsApp, WeChat, QZone, etc.

It isn’t surprising, therefore, that Americans remain reluctant joiners. For those those who are also naturally inclined to introversion, the prospect of walking into rooms full of strange people may be downright upsetting. For someone like my student, it is dismaying to hear, “You have done well on classes, etc, but you need to spend more time in the Jewish community.”

First of all, why would a rabbi insist on such a thing? Isn’t one’s religion a personal matter?

There may be some religions that are purely personal and private, but Judaism is a communal package of more than just religion. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan z”l famously described Judaism as a civilization, making that the title of his magnum opus on modern American Judaism. Even purely religious elements like prayer often require a minyan, a quorum of ten adult Jews.

So it is a wise rabbi who insists the candidate for conversion spend substantial time doing Jewish communal activities, and that the person spend time with real, live Jews. It happens all the time that people fall in love with Judaism in the abstract. To be happy and successful as a Jew, one needs more than the abstraction: one needs to get accustomed to the mishpocha [family] in all its (sometimes dysfunctional) glory.

I am myself an introvert, as are many rabbis. However, rather than parrot what works for me, I thought I’d crowd-source some ideas about participating in community when one isn’t accustomed or naturally inclined to do so. Here’s what I learned from a random assortment of people on Facebook, some who are Jewish, and some who aren’t, when I asked:

Do you consider yourself an introvert? If so:

– Are you part of a community (a synagogue, a parish, etc.)?

– How do you participate in that community?

– Do you have advice for other introverts who want to participate in community but aren’t sure how to go about it?

Here are some of the suggestions:

I jump in slowly. Maybe I wade in. 🙂

– Allison Landa

Get on a committee and participate with what they do.

– Belle Rita Novak

My advice would be to…

1. Go to classes at the synagogue, where you have meaningful discussions about the big questions in life rather than engaging in just small talk.

Torah Study, Intro to Judaism, Beginning Hebrew, etc are all great example classes.

2. Volunteer to lead/organize an event at the synagogue. That way people will come up and introduce themselves to you with questions about that specific event, instead of you having to go up to them and try to make small talk in order to get to know new people.

– Rabbi Ahuva Zaches

Start small and add on as you want to challenge yourself.

– Christo Chaney

Others agreed about classes and committees, and suggested a Jewish book group. Two people mentioned the importance of alone time to re-energize after spending time with others.

And it turns out a rabbi I respect very much, Rabbi Elisa Koppel, has written an entire blog post, Learn: The introvert and the oneg: How I learned to step out of introversion every now and then. She is the Director of Lifelong Learning at Congregation Beth Emeth in Wilmington, DE and has a lot to say on the subject of introversion and membership in community. Rather than give you excerpts, I am linking to the whole blog entry, because it’s all good.

If you are an introvert who has found comfortable ways to participate in Jewish community life, I hope you will add to this list of tips by using the “Comments” reply section. And if you have specific questions about this, I hope you will share those too – talking it over, sharing ideas, these are also part of being in a community!

Interested in Learning Talmud?

Image: Logo from Ten Minutes of Talmud. (Blog)

A number of people have asked me about resources for learning Talmud. While the classical way to study is with a teacher and a chevruta [learning partner] there is an online resource I can heartily recommend.

Ten Minutes of Talmud is a weekly offering from Rabbi Amy Scheinerman, a scholar-rabbi who is both an expert with the texts and a superb teacher. Her posts introduce readers to a juicy bit of text, then guide them through the process of learning the text themselves.

Selections are short and simply written. If the reader brings a long experience to the study, that will enrich the learning, but it is also accessible to and worthwhile for a beginner.

Rabbi Scheinerman is the author of The Talmud of Relationships, a recent two-volume offering from the Jewish Publication Society. The book is a 2019 National Jewish Book Award Finalist.

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