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Thursday, November 15, 2012

Parshat Toldot: The Peace of Esau

 This week’s parashah/portion is Toldot (Bereshit/Genesis 25:19 – 28:9). It tells the story of the birth of the twin brothers Jacob and Esau to Isaac and Rebecca.  We know that the descendents of Jacob, whose name is later changed to Israel, who are to become the Jewish people.  And the Torah teaches that Esau’s children are to become the Moabites, one of Israel’s foes during the years of wandering in the desert.

The parashah ends with the story of Jacob stealing his brother's blessing from their blind father Isaac, by pretending to be Esau.  This ruse was masterminded by Rebekah, mother of Esau and Jacob.  Jacob was always her favorite, while Esau (the elder of the two twins who was destined to receive their father's blessing) was Isaac's favorite.

 When Esau discovers that his brother has stolen his blessing (Esau having already given away his birthright earlier in the parasha for a bowl of lentil stew.  But that's another story) he is furious.  He vows to kill his brother should he find him.  But Jacob is already in flight through the desert.

Next week's parashah begins with the famous dream Jacob has of the angels climbing up and own a ladder to heaven.  This takes place on his first night after fleeing Esau. 

I would like to imagine then, what might have happened to Esau on that same night.  And so, this original midrashic story straddles both this week's and next week's parashah.   

The Peace of Esau 

The young man walked as fast as he could along the desert path, surrounded by nothing but sand, stones and sparse brush. As he walked, he could feel the blood pumping, anger pulsing within. Behind him, the setting sun burned bright red. Mingling with the red hair that covered his body and the crimson of the anger in his face it seemed as if he were on fire. And he was.

How could he have done it?” he continually muttered under his breath, “… my own brother.” The anger in his eyes mingled with an intense sadness, the two struggling for domination of his mind and soul. Currently, anger was winning the battle.

And my father …” he thought to himself, “ … how could he not have realized what was happening? Even blind, how could he not have known in his soul that he was being tricked? I expected no better from my mother …… but him!” And so the young man continued walking, almost running, looking all around him for something – someone – who could not be see anywhere. Looking for his brother who, unknown to him, was far away in the opposite direction.

Finally he realized that he had better make camp before the sun set. At that moment he came upon a stream that he had never seen before, even though he thought he knew this part of the desert well. He went to the stream, bent down and splashed its cool water on his burning face. It did nothing to cool his rage. Then he gathered odd bits of wood and brush to make a fire. He sat down upon a large stone and began to arrange the wood, all the while mumbling to himself “when I find him I’ll kill him for what he has taken from me.”

While still muttering to himself he lit the fire and stared into it’s burning flames as they tried to stay alive. Suddenly he noticed a shadow on the ground in front of him. He looked up and saw a strange man standing there, his facial features eclipsed by the sun that was setting directly behind him. Out of the blackness of this sunset shadow the man asked, “Esau, what are you doing?” Esau was stunned, “how did you know my name?” he asked. The man did not respond, but simply continued to speak to him with great intensity and purpose.

Esau. Your anger has cried out to me. I have heard the screams of your desire for vengeance. It is your rage that has brought me here to you.” The man paused and Esau sat in silence not knowing how to respond.

But why are you so enraged? Why is murder the only thought on your mind?” “How could I think of anything else?,” Esau replied, “my very own brother has stolen my birthright along with the blessing from my father! And beyond that, my father, who I thought loved and understood me, allowed himself to be duped by my brother and my mother. Now I am left with nothing except my desire for revenge and justice!”

Justice!” replied the stranger, “true justice does not require the blood of another human being! Especially the justice of the God of your ancestors! The God whose name is shalom/peace. The God who brought me to you at this very moment.”

That God is no longer my god,” replied Esau. “That God has abandoned me. That God, in whom I believed with my whole being, may still be my father’s God, my mother’s God, and my brother’s God. But if that God were my god this would not have happened. I no longer have a God!” With that Esau turned away from the stranger, looked down at the ground and began stoking the flames of the slowly dying fire.

As the sun continued to set behind the stranger he spoke in a voice that filled Esau with fear and awe. “If that is the case, then why am I here? Your voice cried out to the God of your ancestors, for that God is indeed your God. And it is God who has sent me to you to deliver a message.” “But why,” Esau replied, “if God truly cared, would God have allowed any of this to happen?”

Listen closely Esau, for I am here to give you a message from the Divine, but iris a lesson I learned from my experience and my all-too-human heart. I am here to beg you, to plead with you, not to be consumed by the hatred of your brother. You must let go of it in your heart. You must rid yourself of your murderous desire. For hatred destroys compassion and mercy, and it eventually will destroy you.”

Upon hearing these words Esau looked up with fierceness in his eyes that mirrored the hatred in his soul. “How dare you tell me what I must or must not do? You have no idea what I have gone through! You haven’t a clue what it feels like to be a pawn in a game of favorites between your parents and then to think that finally, the fact that you are just a few minutes older will finally pay off because – no matter what –father’s blessing is yours! And then to have all of that taken from you. To see your brother, whom you have tried to love in spite of everything, become the chosen one instead! This is more than anyone can bear!”

The stranger replied with a sense of compassion and love that began to slowly have an affect on Esau’s anger, though he did not know why. “Esau, U know what you are feeling, for I have felt this way as well. I know what it’s like to feel rejected by a parent figure, to feel inferior to your brother and to allow hatred to become so strong, so uncontrollable that it eventually can lead you to murder. Unable to find compassion within or to change the direction of my heart I actually reached out my hand to slay my own brother! That is why God sent me, and why I am begging you not to make the same mistake as I. Do not to doom yourself to a life of endless wandering, loneliness and hopelessness, such as I.”

At that moment Esau looked up at the stranger. The sun had finally set so that he could see his face a little more clearly in the light of the flames. It was worn with years, and yet he still appeared young in some strange way. Esau could see in the man’s eyes a sadness and a tenderness that told him this man was bringing him a truth that he needed to hear. A truth that transcended the hatred he had been feeling.

As the flames grew even brighter, Esau’s eyes were drawn to the man’s forehead, for in the middle there was a mark. As he was attempting to make out if it was a letter or an image of some other kind he suddenly realized who was speaking to him. “You …” he stammered “ you are …” he could not make himself say the name. “Yes,” said the stranger, “I am Cain, son of the first human beings and the first one to murder … my very own flesh and blood! I have been doomed since that day to wander the earth trying to repent for my sin by preventing others from doing the same. And so when your heart cried out in anger and pain, God sent me here to you.”

Esau remained sitting in stunned silence as Cain continued, “The message I have for you is a simple one. If you turn your heart and soul away from your anger and return to your home, then this place on which we stand will be blessed, just as your life will be blessed. This will become a holy place, as you have holiness within you. It will be place of rahamim and shalom, of compassion, peace and tranquility, as will your soul. This place will forever be known as a place where God’s presence dwells. It will also be the place to which you shall return, when the time is right, and reconcile with your brother in peace and in love.

But if you continue to hate – whether or not you find or kill your brother – this place will forever be cursed. It shall be known as a place of death and hatred where nothing shall bloom or grow. It will remain forever as empty and desolate as a heart of hatred and jealousy. The choice is yours, my son. I only pray that you chose the right path and do not do as I did.”

The two men looked into each other’s eyes and each other’s souls. Not another word needed to be spoken. Esau looked down at the flames at his feet he allowed Cain’s words to enter him. He paid attention to the message be sent and he could feel the anger within him beginning to melt.

When he looked up to reply to Cain, he was no longer standing there. Esau arose and looked around. But he knew that he was once again alone. But he then realized something important. Filled with anger and hatred, he had cut himself off from humanity, from family and from God. He had been truly alone. But as the anger subsided he realized that he was not alone. Standing there he could sense his connection to all, to God. He looked at the flames, now beginning to die, he listened to the water flowing and imagined it dousing the flames of hatred in his heart and purifying his soul. For a long time he simply stood there paying attention to these feelings within him. He knew that there was still anger and hurt within him, but he was no longer allowing this to control him. He then lay down on the ground next to the stone where he had been sitting and fell into a deep sleep.

In the morning when he awoke, Esau anointed the stone next to him with the water from the stream and named the place M’kom Shalom - place of peace, in honor of what had occurred. He then returned home to live his life, knowing that one day he would once again stand by that stream, the one that he had never noticed before, and embrace his brother in peace, compassion and love.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Hayei Sarah: The Legacy of Sarah and Rebecca

This week's parashah is Hayyei Sarah (Bereshit/Genesis 23:1-25:18). Though the name of the parashah means "life of Sarah," it actually begins by telling of her death at the age of 127. Our matriarchs,and other women in the Torah, often get forgotten as compared to their husbands and other men. For though many portions are named after a man, this is the only one named after a woman. And if only one woman were to have a parashah named after her, it is quite fitting that it be Sarah. Not only because she was one of the two first monotheists (and proto-Jews), but because looking at the character of Sarah as portrayed both in the Torah and the midrash (rabbinic exegetical tales) it is easy to se that she surely deserves recognition.

Within the Torah, Sarah is a character who is strong, yet flexible. When she thinks that her son Isaac is being threatened by his brother Ishmael (even though this may not have been the case) she immediately protects him by insisting that Abraham cast out Ishmael and his mother Hagar. Though her actions may be viewed by us as harsh and disproportionate to any actual threat, no one can claim that she was being passive.

Yet, the same Sarah, or Sarai, as she was known then, leaves her home and her family with her husband and follows him to an unknown land, guided by an unknown God without ever seeming to question him. This may seem to some the actions of a passive or subservient wife. Yet, the Sages do not view these actions as passive. In fact, the Sages say that Sarah is actually to be more praised than Abraham because he went on the journey having spoken with God and knowing that God was with them. However, Sarah went on this journey because she had unwavering faith in God without ever hearing God's voice directly. We are even told by the Sages that Sarah's prophetic powers were greater than Abraham's because the Ruah Ha'Kodesh (Holy Spirit) rested upon her in a special way, which it did not rest upon Abraham or anyone else. This is symbolized in the midrash which states that the cloud of the Shekhinah (God's Divine Presence) hovered over the entrance to Sarah's tent, just as it was to later hover over the mishkan, the portable Sanctuary where worship took place during the Israelites' years of wandering in the desert. "All the years that Sarah was alive, there was a cloud [of the Shekhinah] at the entrance of her tent ...the doors of the tent stood wide open...there was blessing in the dough of the bread...there was a light burning from one Shabbat eve to the next Shabbat eve" (Midrash Bereshit Rabbah, 60:10).

The midrash continues to tell us that the light went out, the doors closed and the cloud vanished when Sarah died, only to return when (in this week's parashah) Isaac brought his new bride Rebecca into "his mother's tent" where she comforted him following her death.

In this midrash it is clear that Sarah was seen as a paradigm of hospitality, kindness, and blessing; she also had a special connection with the Divine. Our Sages remind us that when the angels/visitors came to Abraham to prophesy of Isaac's birth, Abraham went to Sarah and asked her to prepare the meal, for he knew that it was because of her that the dough was blessed. Though Abraham carried on the conversation with the visitors, it was Sarah's hospitality that provided these divine messengers with sustenance. In the rabbinic mind, Sarah and Abraham's relationship was portrayed as a true partnership in which Sarah. How sad then that for years the Amidah, the central prayer of our daily liturgy, has b by begun by calling on God as simply the God of Abraham (Isaac and Jacob) and only within the last few decades, within more liberal circles, as the God of Abraham and the God of Sarah (Rebecca, Rachel and Leah). For the Sages made it clear that Sarah had a relationship with God separate from that of Abraham and unique in its own way. She was not merely connected to God through her husband.

Sarah's spirit and her strength can serve as a role model for us all, regardless of gender. The fact that the midrash portrays the Divine Presence as returning to Sarah's tent upon Rebecca's entry into the tent also shows us that the lineage and tradition continues. Rebecca is the clear spiritual heir to Sarah's legacy. And so the tradition of the God of Sarah, the God of Rebecca, the God of Rachel and the God of Leah, may indeed be as old as the idea of God as the God of their male partners; it has only taken us this long to acknowledge this fact and rectify the situation. Let us hope that as time goes on more Jews realize this and more congregations outside of Reconstructionist, Reform and some Conservative ones, begin to include their names as well. And if one's traditional practice does not allow for changing the liturgy, perhaps a way could be found in text study and commentary, or in writing kavvanot (introductory or intentional reading) to include the heritage of Sarah and the other matriarchs.

Remembering that God has a unique relationship with the matriarchs as well as the patriarchs is not only about feminism or gender equality, but it is about acknowledging and paying attention to the fact that the God of Abraham and the God of Sarah is within each of us. Rabbinic tradition attributes a specific middah (quality or personality trait) to each of our ancestors. If we stop and pay attention to the voices of all as they speak to us through prayer, meditation, study or living our lives, we discover these voices, these divine/human qualities within ourselves. Without paying attention to both the God of our Matriarchs and the God of our Patriarchs we are all diminished; our task of bringing the Divine into the world is incomplete, just as Abraham's task of welcoming the Divine visitors would have been unfinished if Sarah had not been there to provide for them.

As we remember the life and death of Sarah, as well as the welcoming of Rebecca into her tent in this week's parashah, let us remember this message. Let us reach outward and inward to connect with the God of Abraham and the God of Sarah. One God with many faces who touches each of our lives in a different way in each and every moment, bringing us together as one humanity, one world in the name of the Divine.

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