Weekly Torah Commentary — Toldot November 12, 2015

Genesis 25:19-28:9

In this week’s Torah reading we learn that after twenty years of marriage, Isaac and Rebekah remain childless. Knowing the divine covenant of which he was an heir, surely Rebekah’s barrenness must have been a concern and yet Isaac knew that his own mother, Sarah, had herself given birth to him after decades of the same frustrating struggle: ‘..Sarah was barren.’

To Isaac’s credit, as well as to Rebekah’s, the Torah makes no mention of Rebekah ever suggesting to Isaac that he do as his father did and have a child by one her servant girls who had come with her from Padan-Aram. Rather, we are told that Rebekah – after years of waiting – asked Isaac to pray for her, which he did. Subsequently, Rebekah is found to be pregnant and only later is it revealed that she is actually carrying twins.

When they are born just minutes apart, the issue of inheritance comes front and center. In a culture where the firstborn had greater privileges as well as more responsibilities, those few minutes were critical, all the more so in light of the fact that we are not just dealing here with the division of an estate and financial benefits, but a Divine covenant that Abraham’s descendants through Isaac were called to be a unique nation with an eternal destiny which included that one day they inherit the promised Land of Israel, albeit through a path of exile and slavery.

Esav and Jacob, raised in the same household and sharing the same DNA, were distinctly different in personality and attitude. Esav was a man of the here-and-now, of immediate gratification of his wants and desires. Patience was foreign to him and indeed, something to be relegated to the ‘absurd’. The very idea of ‘waiting’ for anything was abhorrent to his way of thinking. The notion that according to a promise to his grandfather, hundreds of years of suffering in anticipation of a future reward, seemed to him at best cruel joke or at the very least, the vain imaginings of an old man. Therefore he had no interest in his birthright or its responsibilities so when Jacob had something to offer that granted him immediate gratification for his momentary physical hunger, it was a ‘bargain’. What did he care about abstract visions and diligent faithfulness for some supposed distant promise? For Esav, it was a win-win. Let his brother relieve him of the family ‘burden’; its value was questionable at any rate but what wasn’t questionable was that he was hungry – right now – and he wanted that bowl of lentils. That was far more important than some vague future. And so the narrative concludes with this comment: “Esav despised the birthright.”

Jacob was entirely different. He was willing to sacrifice in the here-and-now, to postpone gratification for hundreds of years and accept almost unimaginable suffering, in order to gain the family’s true treasure: the privilege of being chosen by the Almighty to create a nation uniquely His that would inherit the Land of Israel. With a bowl of stew, Esav freed himself from responsibilities he loathed, and Jacob secured a relationship with the Holy One of Israel that included the gift of the Land of Israel – along with the price he knew would have to be paid for its possession.

In these two brothers’ attitudes we are faced with an issue that every human being must resolve: what fundamental outlook dictates my daily life?

Do I – like Esav – prefer immediate gratification of my wants and desires, living for today’s pleasure more than tomorrow’s opportunity? Is that my general way of life? Are my practical, daily decisions birthed out of impatience? Are my physical needs or wants more in control than the principles of maturity, integrity and responsibility that of necessity will require self-discipline and self-control?

Or do I – like Jacob – live my life on the basis of God’s eternal Word? Are His commandments and His promises near and dear to my heart? Dear enough to me that patience, sacrifice and personal responsibility have value in my thinking? Have I learned that the path to maturity involves choosing to guide my decisions by God’s word more than by my transitory wants? Is this what I’m teaching my children? Even more, is this what I model to my children and my grandchildren?

Our society prizes an affluence defined in terms of money, homes, possessions and luxuries – all of which we will leave behind sooner or later. The greater ‘affluence’ which, by the way, we will not leave behind but take with us into the world to come, is defined by such virtues as kindness, integrity, moral purity, self-discipline, compassion, humility and love of our fellowman. These, in fact, are the true ‘affluence’ of a life well-lived before God and man.

In Tune with Torah this week = a simple question: which ‘affluence’ do you choose?

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary — Chayei Sarah November 6, 2015

Genesis 23:1 – 25:18

This week’s Torah portion focuses on the story of how Rebekah became Isaac’s wife. Eliezer, the servant of Abraham, went to the area where Abraham’s relatives lived and in a series of remarkable events obviously directed by the God of Israel, he is made to know that Rebekah will be the perfect match for his master Abraham’s son. After negotiating with her family, Eliezer brings Rebekah back with him. After hearing how God had directed his father’s servant in finding Rebekah, Isaac receives her. The Torah describes that moment for us:

Isaac brought her into the tent of Sarah, his mother, and he married Rebekah. She was his wife, and he loved her. Then Isaac was comforted after the death of his mother. (Genesis 24:67)

Let’s think about this for a minute. Rebekah has grown up in her parents’ home and to this point we can only assume she’s had a ‘normal’ life. Without the benefit of knowing any later events, think of Rebekah getting up that morning, completely unaware that her entire life’s course would change that very day. She had no foreknowledge that Abraham’s servant was en route to their home. Remember – no phones, no fax machines, no internet!

She went about her ‘normal’ day, like any other day. When it was time to draw water at the well, she made her way there as she had so many times before. Seeing a stranger with an entourage of camels and servants, she understood they were travelers. Her upbringing had taught her to be kind to strangers and she did what came naturally. She offered Eliezer a drink of water and declared she would draw water for the camels as well – all ten of them!

Friends, this was no small task! It’s a known fact that a thirsty camel can drink up to 25 gallons of water or more at one time. These camels had been traveling for several day, laden with goods and gifts. Other servants accompanied Eliezer as well.

Let’s suppose that the camels only drank 10 gallons of water (most likely a gross underestimate). That means that this young girl with a bucket, drew out well over 100 gallons of water from the village well in order to provide hospitality to this caravan of strangers. And all this was BEFORE she knew anything about the reason for their presence!

Eliezer had prayed and asked God for a very specific sign – that the young woman whom God had chosen for Isaac would offer him water and to the camels as well. Rebekah didn’t know that. She did what she’d been taught to do – and her entire life and destiny was sealed by that selfless, exhausting act.

I wonder sometimes whether in the course of hauling more and more water, she wondered if the camels would ever be satisfied. Did she stop and wipe the sweat from her brow as she prepared to lower the bucket again? It was, after all, the Middle East where all this was happening. It was a tiresome, difficult task which Rebekah did willingly and kindly. In so doing, she embraced unknowingly the destiny for which she was born.

We sometimes think that the great moments of our lives are defined by a heroic or unusual event. The truth is that most of the time we have no idea until much later the power of an act of kindness and/or faithfulness. Our responsibility is simply to choose to do right, to be gracious to stranger and friend alike and only later it may be revealed that the most mundane service we provided was in fact the moment when our destiny became attainable.

In Tune with Torah this week = never underestimate the power of an act of kindness and hospitality towards others. Do what is right because it’s the right thing to do and leave the results to God.

Shabbat shalom