Weekly Torah Commentary — Toldot November 21, 2014

Genesis 25:19-28:9

The critical event regarding the birthright which Jacob purchased from Esau in exchange for a bowl of red lentils is one of the most well known accounts in the Torah. But does the story focus equally on the relationship of Isaac and Rebecca as it does on Jacob and Esau?

Several commentators suggest that perhaps the communication between Isaac and Rebecca during their married life was less intimate than between Sarah and Abraham. We get a hint about the strained communication to follow when Rebecca saw Isaac “meditating in the field” at which point she “covered herself with a veil.” Was she in awe of Isaac? Did she feel she was unworthy to be his wife, and from then on that sense of inadequacy dictated her communication or lack of it?

The Sages suggest that at a series of critical moments in their married life we see a failure of communication. It quite possible that Rebecca never told her husband what she heard from God before the twins, Esau and Jacob, were born, in which God told her “the elder will serve the younger.” If Isaac knew this, he may well not have favored Esau.

The failure to communicate had its consequence. Many years later, when she heard that Isaac was about to bless Esau she resorted to deception; she told Jacob to pretend he was Esau. Why not simply tell Isaac that Jacob was chosen by God to be blessed? Was she afraid to acknowledge that she’d kept the prophecy to herself all these years? Was she afraid that Isaac would be angry?

Had she spoken openly to Isaac on that day, Isaac may well have responded in a way that would have changed the entire course of their, and their children’s, lives. The entire deceit planned by Rebecca and carried out by Jacob would not have been needed. At its root is the sad truth that she and her husband did not enjoy open communication. The consequences were painful.

The elderly Isaac felt betrayed by his younger son, Jacob. He “trembled violently” when he realized what had happened, and said to Esau, “Your brother came deceitfully.”

Esau’s sense of betrayal produced such a violent hatred toward Jacob that he vowed to kill him. Rebecca was forced to send Jacob into exile and for the next twenty years did not see the son that she so loved. As for Jacob, the consequences of the deceit lasted a lifetime, resulting in strife between his wives, and between his children. “Few and evil have been the days of my life,” he said as an old man to Pharaoh. Four lives were scarred by one act which may not even have been necessary in the first place.

There is always a price to pay for a failure to communicate. The Torah shows us real life, among real people with real problems. Communication matters. In Genesis 2,the phrase “And man became a living soul” can just as correctly be translated “and man became a speaking soul.” Life is about relationship. And human relationships only exist because we can speak. We can tell other people our hopes, our fears, our feelings and thoughts.

Parents, clear and kind, strong and honest communication is essential in the home between yourselves and between you and your children. Open and respectful communication is what makes families, teams and corporate cultures healthy. Each individual needs to understand the values and behaviors they are expected to exemplify. When a child or an employee does well, there should be sincere praise given. When constructive criticism is required, it must be given with courtesy, making clear that it is not the person who is being criticized but their action.

Honest, open and respectful communication is not just about speaking; it is equally about listening! Parents, employers, friends, co-workers – we must all learn to gift one another with attentive listening as the occasion arises. My late husband used to say, “God gave us two ears and only one mouth; perhaps that means we should listen twice as much as we speak.”

In Tune with Torah this week = we can derive a couple of lessons from this week’s reading: 1) the importance of good communication between human beings is essential to stable society and a stable home.
2) If we find ourselves struggling to communicate, this is the time to humble ourselves before God, asking for His help as we strive to improve our skill in communicating effectively with those we love.

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary – Chayah Sarah Nov. 13, 2014

NOTE: Though I wrote and hit the command to “Send” last Friday, for some reason last week’s commentary showed up today! I apologize for the delay. You get two this week!

Genesis 23:1-25:18

This week’s reading deals with two major issues: the death and burial of Sarah, the wife of Abraham; and the search for a wife for Isaac. The events are covered in great detail, more so than many other events.

Certainly the acquisition of a burial plot for Sarah is of great significance for it becomes the first step in the acquisition of the land of Israel by Abraham and his descendants. Abraham purchased the field and the cave. When he takes possession of it, he establishes a foothold in the promised Land.

Next we turn to the process of finding a bride for Isaac. At first glance it seems that the amount of detail is disproportional but then again, the extensive detail indicates the importance of this event.

And Abraham said to the oldest servant of his house, who ruled over all that he had, “Put, I beg you, your hand under my thigh. And I will make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven, and the God of the earth, that you shall not take a wife for my son of the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I live. But you shall go to my country, and to my family, and take a wife for my son Isaac.” (Genesis 24:2-4)

Eliezer, the servant, was Abraham’s trusted companion, the man whom Abraham had earlier imagined would perhaps one day be his heir. (Gen. 15:2-3)

And the servant took ten of his master’s camels…And he said, “O Lord God of my master Abraham, I beseech you, send me good speed this day, and show kindness to my master Abraham…” And she said, “Drink, my lord;” and she hurried, and let down her water jar upon her hand, and gave him drink…
And the man, wondering at her, held his peace, to see whether the Lord had made his journey successful or not. And it came to pass, as the camels finished drinking, that the man took a golden ear ring of half a shekel weight, and two bracelets for her hands of ten shekels weight of gold…And the man bowed down his head, and worshiped the Lord. And he said, “Blessed be the Lord God of my master Abraham, who has not left my master destitute of his mercy and his truth; As for me, the Lord has guided me in the way to the house of my master’s brothers…”

And after entering the house of Laban, Rebecca’s father, Eliezer explains his mission:

And he said, “I am Abraham’s servant…”

After relating what Abraham had commanded him to do, “…they called Rebecca, and said to her, “Will you go with this man?…..And they sent Rebecca their sister, and her nurse away, and Abraham’s servant, and his men… And Rebecca arose, and her maids, and they rode upon the camels, and followed the man; and the servant took Rebecca, and went his way…And Rebecca lifted up her eyes, and when she saw Isaac, she lighted off the camel. For she had said to the servant, “What man is this who walks in the field to meet us?” And the servant said, “It is my master.” Therefore she took a veil, and covered herself.

Rebecca is aware that Isaac, and not Eliezer, is the master of the house, even before ever seeing Isaac. Yet, Eliezer seems so impressive. Only in comparison to Isaac is Eliezer’s stature reduced in her eyes.

To become Abraham’s “right hand man”, this servant must have been an extremely impressive individual. He had to have possessed the qualities of loyalty, integrity, reliability, diligence and humility. WE see all of these at work as Eliezer completes his journey.

Eliezer arrives just before sunset, yet he asks God to “work things out” before the day is done. This shows Eliezer’s incredible trust in God. What was the source of this trust? He was a servant of Abraham. He had seen Abraham. He learned from the Father of Faith how to trust God for what was needed.

Sometimes we forget the impact our personal faith can have on those around us. Your individual trust and confidence in God is a living example to your family and your friends. As Abraham’s faith ‘rubbed off’ on Eliezer, so is ours supposed to do the same. In the words of one teacher, “Faith is better caught than taught!”

In Tune with Torah this week = Faith is personal but it is also communal. Your faith and mine can have a profound effect on those around us IF we are careful to speak words that express FAITH rather than doubt or anxiety. An act of gratitude is intrinsically related to maintaining a strong faith. As we recall and give thanks for all of God’s past blessings, we dispose our heart to trust Him for the future; in so doing, we set an example to those around us.

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary — Chayah Sarah October 25, 2013

Parshat Chayay Sarah describes Avraham’s endeavors to secure the appropriate wife for his son Yitzchak. Eliezer, Avraham’s loyal servant, is tasked with the responsibility and is given very specific directions. The proposed bride may not be from the nations of Cana’an; rather Eliezer is commanded to return to Avraham’s birthplace to seek for the right girl.

Maimonides describes Avraham as an innovator. When the whole world around him worshipped multiple idols, Avraham alone came to the realization that there was One God, Creator of all, and he worshipped Him alone.

Avraham was also a courageous leader and an effective teacher. He stood strong against the conventional beliefs of his age, smashed idols and taught the truth to anyone who would listen. Untold numbers because his followers and learned to worship one God.

One could think it strange that among all of his many followers, there was not one woman whom Avraham considered suitable to marry his son. It is even stranger that Avraham sent Eliezer back to his native area, to an idolatrous society! Why?

Eliezer knew Avraham perhaps better than anyone else. So he devised a plan by which he would recognize the chosen bride to be and prayed for God’s intervention.

So let it come to pass, that the young woman to whom I shall say: Let down your pitcher, I pray thee, that I may drink; and she shall say: Drink, and I will give your camels drink also; she shall be the one that You have appointed for Your servant, for Yitzchak. Thereby shall I know that You have shown kindness unto my master.

Notice that Eliezer’s ‘test’ made no reference to whether or not the girl worshipped one God. Rather, his test was specifically focused on the prospective bride’s attitude towards kindness and charity. He knew well that Avraham’s primary concern would be the moral character of his future daughter-in-law.

Avraham believed – and Eliezer knew well – that truth can be taught and transmitted to an open-minded student. However, character, kindness, and generosity are not achieved through study and meditation alone. To a great degree, they are dependent on upbringing, example and training in the home. If Eliezer could identify a refined and virtuous woman in that far away land, it would be a simple matter for her to learn about the one true God if she didn’t already recognize Him. Though the community which Avraham had left was bound in idolatry, nevertheless, he knew that they were a kind and moral people, teaching their children the values and character traits which he desired for his son’s wife.

Eliezer’s test brings two things to our attention. First, the young woman he was looking for must respond positively to his request for water. Secondly, she must voluntarily offer to draw water for his camels as well. What does this behavior teach us about the nature of true kindness or chesed?

Kindness is not merely responding to the requests of another. True kindness requires that we look beyond the individual’s requests and discern the actual needs of the other person.

No sooner had Eliezer formulated his test, the young women began to appear, among them Rivkah. Eliezer asked her for water for himself. She immediately responded positively. However, this response, by itself, was not enough. Rivkah asked herself, “What else does this traveler need?” Seeing the camels, she immediately offered to provide water for them as well. She was not a self-absorbed person who didn’t notice what was going on around her. Not at all. She saw Eliezer, but she also noticed his camels and the rest of his entourage, and responded with kindness.

Rivkah’s behavior also provides a revealing insight into her family. When Eliezer asks about lodging, she immediately responded that there was room — and food and straw for the camels — at her father’s home. She was clearly a member of a family that proactively looked for the opportunity to offer assistance to others. Kindness in that family was not an occasional good deed provoked by direct confrontation with a need. We can understand that it was an ongoing behavior and value or Rivkah would not have responded as she did.

Rivkah possessed the sensitivity to look beyond the specific request of a person in need and consider what was left unsaid. We also learn from her that kindness goes much further than responding to a crisis or emergency. Kindness proactively seeks for ways to help others whenever and wherever the help is needed. In other words, kindness is a way of life, not just an occasional response to a need.

In Tune with Torah this week = developing kindness as a life value is critical to becoming people who demonstrate the truth that we are “made in the image and likeness of God” for God is supremely kind to all His creation. How are we doing in developing our own — and perhaps, our children’s — understanding and practice of kindness as a way of life?

Shabbat Shalom