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.

Yitro’s Gentle Advice

Image: The word “STRESS” with hands reaching up from it. (geralt/pixabay)

In Parashat Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, the Priest of Midian comes to visit. He brought Moses’ wife and children to him, and stayed to see how things were going. After watching Moses administer the camp for a day, he had some feedback to offer.

Next day, Moses sat as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moses from morning until evening.

But when Moses’ father-in-law saw how much he had to do for the people, he said, “What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?”

Moses replied to his father-in-law, “It is because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have a dispute, it comes before me, and I decide between one person and another, and I make known the laws and teachings of God.”

But Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.

Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You represent the people before God: you bring the disputes before God, and enjoin upon them the laws and the teachings, and make known to them the way they are to go and the practices they are to follow.

You shall also seek out from among all the people capable men who fear God, trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain. Set these over them as chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens, and let them judge the people at all times. Have them bring every major dispute to you, but let them decide every minor dispute themselves. Make it easier for yourself by letting them share the burden with you.

If you do this—and God so commands you—you will be able to bear up; and all these people too will go home unwearied.”

Moses heeded his father-in-law and did just as he had said.

Exodus 18:13-24

I love this exchange between Moses and Yitro. Moses has a new and overwhelming task: leading the Israelites. Yitro is an old hand at leadership.

Yitro offered his criticism after carefully laying the groundwork:

  1. He celebrated with Moses, without criticism.
  2. He watched and listened to Moses at work, without comment.
  3. He asked Moses to explain what he was seeing.
  4. Then he told Moses what he thought, beginning with the bottom line: “You will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well.”
  5. He made a suggestion for remedying the situation (delegate!)
  6. He deferred to God (“and God so commands you”) who was Moses’ boss
  7. And all this was expressed in terms of concerns for Moses and the Israelites. Never once did he belittle Moses or brag about his own abilities as a leader.

Yitro is one of my favorite characters in the Bible, for two reasons: (1) there is a tradition that he converted to Judaism and (2) he was so helpful and kind that he stands even today as a model for in-laws and helpful mentors everywhere.

A question we could all ask ourselves: When I have offered feedback, how does my manner of doing so compare to Yitro’s model?

Jewish Help for Infertility

Image: The logo of Hasidah, a Jewish organization for support of individuals and couples suffering with infertility. It is a stork carrying a bundle, and the word “Hasidah.”

There’s a trope that repeats again and again in the Jewish Bible: a woman suffers from infertility. Such a women is identified in Hebrew as an akarah, a “childless woman.”

Five women are identified as akarot (plural): Sarah (Genesis 11:30,) Rivka (Genesis 25:21,) Rachel (Genesis 29:31,) Samson’s nameless mother (Judges 13:2,) and Hannah ((1 Samuel 2:5)  The prophet Isaiah even characterizes Zion as a metaphorical akarah (Isaiah 54:1).

The stories follow a pattern: a woman grieves because she has difficulty conceiving, someone offers prayer, and God grants the woman a child. The moral of the story seems simple: God, who is central to fertility, listens to prayer.

For many modern couples, the simplicity of the stories and their solution may feel glib or even like a mockery. About 10 percent of women in the United States ages 15-44 (6.1 million) have difficulty conceiving or staying pregnant, according to the Centers for Disease Control. While the technology of infertility treatment has made great progress, it is available only at great personal and financial cost. In addition to the physical and financial challenge of infertility, it often raises spiritual and emotional challenges as well.

Hasidah (www.hasidah.org) is a Jewish organization which supports and assists Jewish couples who experience infertility. It does so by connecting people undergoing the grueling process of infertility treatment with resources for spiritual, emotional and financial support. Hasidah also trains Jewish professionals in the pastoral support of infertile couples.

If you or someone you know is suffering from infertility, contact Hasidah. Also, if you wish to support infertility awareness programs, rabbinic training seminars, counseling and spiritual care,  as well as financial assistance for fertility treatment, you can donate to Hasidah – it is an excellent choice for your tzedakah funds.

(Full disclosure: I am a Rabbinic Partner of Hasidah.)

 

Human is Human is Human

Image: A child holding hands with her mother. (Stocksnap/Pixabay)

This past week a story entered the news that took things to a new low, or so I thought until someone on Twitter (I wish I could remember who) pointed out to me that it isn’t “a new low” – it’s an old bad low that we never really left behind.

That story is the forced separation of parents and children at the U.S. borders.

The Democrats are right: it’s reprehensible, sinful, evil.

The Republicans are right: similar things happened under the Obama Administration too. In fact, it has a long history, going all the way back to the earliest days in our republic. This does not justify the current policy. Given that we know about the horrific damage such separation does to children and parents, and we should be even more anxious to avoid it at all costs.

Human beings are human beings are human beings. I could stretch that tautology out to the stars, and it would not change. Human beings are not “animals,” and they are not “vermin.”

Jewish tradition teaches us that each human being is created “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27.) We may argue about who or what God is, but the message remains the same: all human beings share some essential, precious quality that must be treated with respect.

Hillel taught, “What is hateful to you, do not do to any person. That is the whole Torah; the rest is its interpretation. Go and study.” (Shabbat 31a)

When we treat other human beings as if they are lesser than ourselves, we sin.

I can hear the “Yes, but…’s” crowding into the minds of my readers. Yes, there are people that threaten our well being, maybe even our safety. And yes, we have a teaching that says that if a rodef (pursuer) is trying to kill me, I can and perhaps should defend myself with enough force to kill them. (Sanhedrin 73a)

None of that suggests that I should see that threatening person as any less than human. I am allowed to defend myself. I am not allowed to describe another person as subhuman, no matter how badly they behave. I am certainly not allowed to treat innocent little children with cruelty, even the children of people who behave badly.

Name-calling is serious business. It is even more serious when a government adopts de-humanizing language. History shows us that we can draw a direct line between that language and atrocity. From the beginning, Europeans justified the enslavement of Africans by attributing a subhuman nature to them. The genocide of Jews, Roma, homosexuals, and disabled people in the Holocaust of the 1940’s began with official descriptions of those groups of human beings as subhuman. Nazis called Jews “rats.” In the Rwanda genocide, Hutus called Tutsis “cockroaches.” In American history, the genocide of Native Americans was justified by calling them “savages” and “animals.”

The shifts in language made the behavior that followed easier. Therefore it is critical that we pay attention to language that implies that any group of people is subhuman.

To return to the situation at hand, we have already reached the point of a language shift. Judging from the polls, a significant portion of our populace has no problem with the President’s use of the language “animals” for groups of Hispanic immigrants. We have the inhumane history of slavery and Jim Crow. We have the inhumane, illogical rationalization of Japanese American internment with General Order 9066.

It is time for a change in our national attitude about who gets to be a human being. Jefferson wrote:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

We all know, of course, that he was inconsistent. Jefferson enslaved human beings. But still he left this ideal for us. I believe the promise of these lines is still in our future.

What can we do in the face of the separation of little children from their parents at the U.S. Border?

  1. First and foremost, we can become more conscious of our own use of language. Language that denies the humanity of another person is dangerous.  Better to avoid any language that de-humanizes others, especially if I am going to have credibility in arguing against that use of language by anyone else.
  2. We can object when we hear de-humanizing language from the people with whom we usually agree. In this polarized climate, people on the other end of the spectrum are unlikely to hear anything I say, but I can make a difference with those who see me as an ally. I can stop accepting de-humanizing language from anyone.
  3. We can vote and we can encourage others to vote. We are in primary season now. Are you registered? Is everyone you know registered? On voting day, does everyone in your part of town have a way to vote? Organizations like the League of Women Voters need our support in getting out everyone’s vote.
  4. We can support the ACLU in its efforts to stop the separation of parents and children at the border.
  5. We can write letters to the editor, op eds, and facebook posts. Remember to defuse counter arguments within your text: the fact that this has been done by previous administrations does not excuse or justify the inhumane treatment of little children.

Do you have ideas for action? I’d love to hear them in the Comments.

5/27/18: Slow Lorist made a suggestion so good that I am moving it up into the text (but watch Comments for more good suggestions!):

The Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights is an organization dedicated to protecting immigrant children. Support them with donations and publicity; they don’t get a lot of attention and they do great work.
And call your reps, send them postcards, write them letters—tell them that this issue matters to you!

 

A Kinder Gentler Chad Gadya

Image: A baby goat. Photo by ChristianGeorg.

Sometimes it’s time for an update on an old tradition. I repost this because (1) Rabbi Fuchs wrote a swell update to an old seder favorite and (2) he models the way to respond to a reasonable request. So often we are tempted to get defensive when someone points out the flaws in a beloved tradition. Rabbi Fuchs demonstrates a better way. Enjoy!

Finding Ourselves In Biblical Narratives

Since I was a child, Chad Gadya has been one of my favorite parts of the Passover Seder. Its catchy melody and its underlying message always resonated with me.

Singing the song was such fun as we outdid each other to remember the words and sing them as quickly as possible until we came to the refrain, Chad Gadya, Chad Gadya, My father bought for two zuzim, Chad Gadya, Chad, Gadya.

The people of Israel were the Chad Gadya, Aramaic for the innocent little goat, devoured successively by one power after another. The ultimate hope of course is that one day the Eternal one would destroy “the Angel of Death” and the human propensity for conquest and violence. Israel would live in peace and harmony with her neighbors, and all would be right with the world.

For those unfamiliar with it the lyrics are:

Chad Gadya, Chad Gadya, (An…

View original post 833 more words

In Memoriam: Andrew Hatch

Image: Andrew Hatch poses for a photograph with his daughter Delane Sims, left, and granddaughter SherriAnn Cole, at his Oakland, Calif. home, Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2015. (D. Ross Cameron/Bay Area News Group)

Imagine a life that crosses three centuries: born in 1898 and living into the 21st century. That was Mr. Andrew Hatch, who died this past Monday in Oakland, CA at age 117. He was believed to be the oldest man alive at the time.

I had the privilege of meeting Mr. Hatch one day, when I visited his daughter’s home to work on a grant proposal. Delane Sims was multitasking the whole time I was there, brainstorming with me, checking in on her dad, and coordinating with the people who helped with his care.

His bed was set up in the sunny living room, a center of quiet attention in the house. I watched as Delane and her husband Jerry check in with him: “Daddy, you comfortable?” “Oh yeah.” His voice was musical, communicating as much with tone as with words.

There’s a concept in Judaism, shalom bayit, which translates to “peace of the home.” I could feel the shalom bayit in the Sims residence, a gentle loving quality to every interaction. It was clear, too, that it came from everyone there: from Delane, and Jerry, and from Mr. Hatch himself. He had devoted himself to the daughter he had at age 60, and the love shining back and forth between the two of them was beautiful.

That love cascades from their home to the world outside as well. Jerry Sims is a retired engineer, who now drives a school bus for elementary school kids. His face glowed when he talked to me about it. I’ve written before about Delane’s Natural Nail Care, where Delane turns her cosmetology training and a B.A. from Cal Berkeley to running a nail business where health and ethical working conditions are the focus. It’s a place of healing and light (click on the links to learn more.)

All this love emanates from a man who was born in Louisiana in 1898, and from his heirs. Shalom bayit, indeed!

shekacha-lo-beolamo

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech haolam, shekacha lo beolamo!

Blessed are you, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time and Space, that such as these are in your world!

 

(Thanks to ReformJudaism.org for the Hebrew text as well as the transliteration of this blessing.)