Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Parashat Vayetze: In Place of God

Another parsha, another barren woman, and another interaction between husband and wife over the problem.

Rahel complains to Yaakov of her situation, saying, “Give me children, or else I’ll die” (30:1). She is clearly an emotional wreck. What is Yaakov’s reaction? Anger. He says: Hatahat Elokim anokhi? “Can I take the place of God who has denied you fruit of the womb?” I’m not God; I can’t solve the problem. What do you want me to do?

The midrash (Breishit Rabbah 71.7) compares this reaction to the Job verse, “Does a wise man answer with windy opinions, and fill his belly with the east wind (15:2),” i.e. with anger? Such a reaction is not appropriate for Yaakov. According to the midrash, God says to him: Is this how one answers those in distress?

And what is the proper response to those in distress? Learn from God. Sometimes He fixes the problem, but other times, He merely comes and says, “Don’t be scared. I am with you. All will be well.” (See for instance Genesis 15:1, 26:24, 28:15 and 46:3). The answer to Yaakov’s question is: Yes! You are in fact in place of God, not in terms of fixing the problem – it’s true, that is out of your reach – but in terms of being a sympathetic, comforting presence for your wife. When Cain asked God, hashomer ahi anokhi, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” he assumed the answer was no, but the reader knows the answer is yes. Yes, we are all our brothers’ keepers, and yes, we are all in place of God for one another.

Yaakov fails here. Perhaps he has too much work stress in dealing with the tricky Lavan. But not to worry. There is a tikkun (literally, “a repair”) for this lack of sympathy, a time when things will get repaired and redeemed. At the end of the book of Genesis, after Yaakov dies, the brothers come to Yosef, worried that Yosef will now wreak vengeance on them for selling him down to Egypt. But no. Yosef uses Yaakov’s words, but, as Nehama Leibowitz points out, in a new sympathetic twist: “Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God?” Hatahat Elokim ani? (50:19). I will not judge you and punish you for I am merely a human; such judgments are for God to make.

Sometimes it is appropriate to take the place of God and sometimes it is not. Yosef, in his kindness, knew when not to, had learned not to put himself above his brothers in that way. Yaakov, in his anger, did not understand that it is precisely in moments of distress for those we care about that we are given the ability to take the place of God, to offer the solace of our company and sympathy.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Parashat Toldot: Yitzhak as the Good Husband

Avraham had many admirable characteristics, but he was not always the most attentive husband. His son, Yitzhak, on the other hand, now he was a good husband.

Yitzhak’s response to Rivkah’s barrenness was quite different from Avraham’s response to Sarah’s. Yitzhak prays for her. What a novel concept! Avraham spends a parsha and a half waiting for a child from Sarah but he never actually asks God to grant her one. He prays for the Sodomites but not for his wife. He is happy to accept a concubine in her place, and seems satisfied with the child born of that consummation, not worrying that Sarah still has no child.

Not so Yitzhak. Yitzhak pleads with God, standing opposite Rivkah – lenokhah ishto, literally “in the presence of his wife,” praying on her behalf, and keeping her ever-“present” in his thoughts (25:21). The midrash says that Yitzhak and Rivkah each stood in opposite corners of a room and said to God: “Master of the Universe, please, I only want to have a child together with this spouse.” A concubine is simply not an option.

Avraham was never officially rebuked for his inattentiveness to his wife, but I wonder if there isn’t a hint of a rebuke in the angels’ words to him: Ayeh Sarah ishtekha, “Where is Sarah, your wife?” This word, ayeh, “where,” after all, has a history of rebuke. After the sin of the Garden of Eden, God says to the hiding Adam, Ayeka, “Where are you?” and after Cain kills Abel, God again says, Ay hevel ahikha, “Where is Abel, your brother?” In both these situations, of course, God knows full well the person’s physical location. The question is rather one of responsibility. Where is this person whom you are responsible for? So, too, with the angels and Avraham. “Where is Sarah your wife?” She is your wife; why isn’t she more present for you?

God responds in kind to each of the patriarchs, mirroring their concerns. He engages Avraham in a discussion about the justice of killing the Sodomites. But since Avraham doesn’t show he cares that much about having a child from Sarah – Ishmael seems enough-- God grants him only one, after a long wait, and then threatens to take that child away.

Yitzhak, on the other hand, standing as he does lenokhah ishto, with his wife totally present for him, receives from God two children from that beloved wife in short order. The Torah actually uses the same word for Yitzhak’s pleading and for God’s responding, Vayetar and Vaye’ater. God mirrors Yitzhak’s concerns, joining him in his efforts. The midrash compares the situation to a father and son who are each digging their way toward each other from opposite ends of a tunnel. Yitzhak has chosen to stand together with Rivkah, and so God chooses to stand with Yitzhak in that endeavor. We often wonder: Does God answer our prayers? We see from Yitzhak that God’s response depends on our own attitudes, that God mirrors our own deeds of caring in this world.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Parashat Hayei-Sarah: Avraham's Legacy

Avraham and Sarah are remarkable individuals. But what happens when they die? This week’s parsha deals with their deaths, Sarah at the start of the parsha and Avraham at the end. And the lesson of this week’s parsha is this: Their legacy continues. Avraham and Sarah were not just good individuals doing good things in the world, on their own. They had an impact on those around them, planting the seeds for a tradition which continued after their deaths, which, indeed, continues to this day.

Oddly, this lesson is seen through an otherwise insignificant character, the servant of Avraham. The parsha spends an inordinate amount of time dealing with his words and actions in the pursuit of a proper wife for Isaac. Why? Because refracted through this simple servant’s words we are able to see more clearly the legacy of Avraham, able to see which lessons leave the most lasting impression.

Unlike Avraham, who has the restraint and dignity to speak with great sparseness, as in the simple hineni, “I am here,” this servant of Avraham has an unrefined, verbose way of speaking. And it is through this funny talkative voice that we can hear clearly the lessons Avraham leaves behind.

The servant’s words highlight two such lessons, faith in God and hesed, acts of loving-kindness. Like Avraham, this servant believes and trusts in God, and thinks of himself as part of a God-driven mission to find a proper wife for Isaac. Perhaps he takes the lesson simplistically to an extreme, making a deal with God to help him find the right wife for Isaac. But underlying this simplicity is the basic understanding that God controls all events, and he should put his trust in God. He bows low multiple times in thanks to God for helping him on his quest. And, like Avraham, he rushes around with great eagerness to fulfill his part in the divine plan.

Second, the servant has learned from Avraham and Sarah the great value of extending oneself in care for others, whether through hospitality or through beseeching God to show compassion on others. The servant chooses the young woman who graciously offers water to him and also to his camels because he has learned from his master that the mark of class is not in a person’s dress or appearance or wealth, but in her acts of loving-kindness toward others.

These two lessons, faith and hesed, are the legacy of Avraham and Sarah. Avraham and Sarah will die this week, but their legacy will live on. Why? Because they have not been lone individuals seeking good in the world, but have tried to create a community of people doing so, tried to influence others. One noticeable difference between Avraham’s and Lot’s hospitality last week is that Avraham gets other members of his household to participate as well, whereas Lot goes it alone. Going it alone is not the Torah’s way, not a way to create a tradition, a legacy, to build a people. Avraham’s servant’s actions are testament to the wide influence Avraham had on others. Though Avraham dies, his influence lives on.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Parashat Vayera: On Visitors and Hosts

Avraham’s hospitality is legendary. If you want to know how to do the mitzvah of hakhnasat orhim, learn from Avraham. He runs with eagerness and excitement toward three passers-by. He asks them to stay in a way that makes it seem like they are doing him a favor, and he (and his family) cook them an elaborate meal, much more than he had even promised. He then stands at attention, serving them, while they sit and enjoy.

But the story doesn’t start there. The parsha doesn’t start with Avraham and his hospitality. It starts with God. Vayera elav hashem. “And God appeared to him.”

Why does it start with this divine appearance? Because Avraham learned his kindness toward others from his relationship with God. God, too, was involved in a mitzvah that day, according to the midrash. Through His appearance to Avraham that day, God was doing bikur holim, visiting the sick, because Avraham was recovering from his circumcision (an event that happened in the immediately preceding verses, at the end of last week’s parsha).

So God was visiting the sick and Avraham was welcoming guests! How beautiful. The two mitzvot, the two good deeds, are mirror images of one another. In one it is the act of visiting which is the good deed, and in the other, it is the act of receiving visitors that is the good deed. How could both receiving visitors and being a visitor be acts of kindness? They are both acts of kindness when they are done in a way that focuses not on one’s own needs but on the needs of the other, either the needs of the sick other or the needs of the temporarily homeless traveling other. Taken together, the two mitzvot create a circle of care.

Avraham’s hospitality did not exist in a vacuum. It was part of a reciprocal relationship he had developed with God. You visit. I’ll receive guests. The sages say that mitzvah goreret mitzvah. One mitzvah leads to another. Usually that phrase is understood to refer to a single person’s actions. Once you start doing one good deed, it will lead you yourself to do another. But it is also true that there is a cycle of goodness in the world as a whole, that one person’s good deeds lead to another’s good deeds. Perhaps this explains why Lot could not exist in Sodom as a single person doing the good deed of hospitality -- because good deeds need to be done in a place where they can be returned and reinforced, where care and concern are reciprocated. Avraham and God together began such a cycle of goodness in the world.