The Life of Isaac

Another D’var Torah I delivered Friday evening at Congregation Shearith Israel in Atlanta. It touches on the Torah portions Vayera, Chayei Sarah, and Toledot.

To understand Isaac, we have to go back to the beginning, when his mother Sarah laughed at the idea that she could have him—before her pregnancy. She’s too old. She thinks it’s funny. God says, Why did you laugh? I can do it. She lies to God: I didn’t laugh. God says, No; you did laugh.

Then after his birth and bris, she says, “God brought me laughter; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” Kol hasomeya yitzchak li. So that’s his name: Yitzchak. You could say that he was conceived in a kind of doubt of God’s power, followed by a silly lie to God. But he was born in joy. How happy she must have been, after a lifetime of wanting to be a mother. How glad to have been proven wrong. How much she must have loved him.

So he grew up with a name that meant something between a joke and a joy.

Fast forward to the Akedah. Dad says, Let’s go up the mountain and make a sacrifice. Isaac says, Okay, where’s the sheep? Dad says, God will provide. Okay, now he’s tying me up. Now he’s holding a knife over me. I think I’m supposed to just lie here quietly.

Isaac lives. But some rabbis think Abraham failed that test. He should at least have challenged God as he did with Sodom and Gomorah. God never speaks directly to Abraham again. Sarah never speaks to him again. So now Isaac grows up with a name that means laughter and the trauma of almost being killed by his father, for God’s sake.

He grows up to be the kind of man who walks out in the field to meditate in the evening. One night, in the sunset, he sees his bride coming toward him on a camel. She alights, and Eliezer explains who she is. We are told: And Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah—who has recently died. Vayikach et Rivka vat’hi lo l’isha. And he took Rebecca for a wife. Vayeh’eh’havehah. And he loved her. And Isaac found comfort after his mother. Acharei imo. We already know that Isaac’s story is one of the great loves between mother and child. Now it’s also one of the great romantic love stories. Vayeh’eh’havehah. Acharei imo.

There are other reasons to understand it as a love story. Of the patriarchs, only Isaac has just one wife. Only Isaac does not struggle with God. Isaac makes peace, not war. Unlike his father and his son, his name never changes. And Isaac stays home.

He and Rebecca do go as far as the land of the Philistines, but God—speaking to him directly—tells him not to go to Egypt. Still, he imitates his father in another way. He lies to the king of the Philistines and says that Rebecca is his sister.

The parallels between this lie and the one his father told about his mother in the same place are stunning. Sarah and Rebecca are so beautiful that their husbands fear they will be killed for them. But the resolution of the lie is significantly different.

One day the king of the Philistines is looking out the window. What does he see? V’hiney Yitzchak m’tzachek et Rivka ishto. And behold, Isaac was playing with his wife. Yitzchak m’tzachek. Some translations say “sporting with,” or “fondling.” Either way the king knows immediately, as we all do in such a case, that this is not the love between brother and sister.

You could also say, “Isaac laughed” with her. It’s the same word as his name. Yitzchak m’tzachek. The love between them is a mirror of his name. It is the essence of Isaac.

Now we fast-forward again to the end of his life. He is old and blind in more ways than one. He is about to make the worst mistake of his life. And Rebecca, the love of his life, knows it. Jacob, the son she loves the way Sarah loved Isaac, must be the one to get the blessing, not Esau. And so there is another lie, the biggest one of all. Rebecca’s love for Jacob triumphs even over her love for Isaac.

Or does it? We could say instead that she lies to Isaac because she loves him, and because at this point in his life her judgment is better than his. She saves him from himself. Isaac accepts this in the end because he has no choice, just as he had no choice when his father bound him on the mountain. But it is also perhaps because he knows she loves him.

Isaac is a lover, not a fighter. He is faithful, not lustful or ambitious. He chooses a good wife who comforts him after his mother’s death, and who in the end in a way becomes his mother. He is in his second childhood. She makes the judgment he is too old and blind to make.

Isaac, of all the patriarchs, is my hero, and I think he is a hero for our time. Terrible things happen to him, but he survives and transcends them. Wonderful things happen to him too, and God speaks to him and blesses him the same way God blessed his father. He has a great life and leaves a great legacy.

See also my previous post on the matter of Isaac, Esau, the birthright, and the blessing, complete with more authoritative (rabbinical) opinions than mine.

Toldot

A d’var Torah I delivered last year at Congregation Shearith Israel, Atlanta, on the Friday evening of the Sabbath when the portion known as Toldot is read:

Toldot, it seems, is a hard word to translate. Sometimes it’s given as “generations,” but that’s not right; sometimes as “story,” but those who know say it’s more than that. Toldot Yitzkhak means something like “the accomplishments of Isaac.” It’s his resumé. It’s what you need to know about him. But is it really about Isaac?

As I hope you know I am no expert on the Torah, but fortunately I did not have to do this on my own. Rabbi Bernard Berzon, the beloved spiritual leader of my childhood, left a book of sermons, and the one on Toldot has this message: Choose the right grandfather. Each of us has two. Of the twins, Esau chose Bethuel, an ordinary man at best; but Jacob chose Avraham.

I like to think I have chosen the right rabbis. Rabbi [Mel] Sirner suggested that I talk about Rebecca, which was fine with me. She is everywhere in Toldot—from the time she feels the twins contending in her womb—sh’nay goyim—two nations—to the time when she overturns the prescribed succession in the lineage, and to top it off tells Isaac that Jacob must marry one of her own relatives.

Arnold Goodman was my rabbi for many years, and in one of four sermons of his on Toldot that I’ve read, he distinguished between “Isaac love” and “Rebecca love.” We read that “Isaac loved Esau because he had a taste for game, but Rebecca loved Jacob.” V’Rivka ohevet et Ya’akov. Isaac loved Esau in return for something. Rebecca just loved Jacob, period. Rabbi Goodman also quoted the poet Goethe: What you have inherited from your ancestors, take hold of it in order to make it your own.

Today I had lunch with Rabbi [Emanuel] Feldman the elder, for four decades the leader of Congregation Beth Jacob, and of course I asked him about Toldot. He agreed with a very secular critic, Harold Bloom, that here as in many places throughout the Tanakh, the pivotal character is a woman. Rebecca makes the choice that determines the future.

I pressed him on the trickery—some might say treachery—which Rebecca perpetrates on the dying Isaac, carried out almost too well by Jacob. I also pressed him on the anguish felt by Esau, and shared by his father, when they realize what has been done to them.

He pointed out that earlier, when Esau trades his birthright for pottage, he barely misses a beat. “He ate, he drank, he got up, he went away.” Vay’khol, vayeysht, vayakam, vayeylakh. That’s it. In this way, the Torah says, he belittled his birthright. By the way, there are proverbs in both Yiddish and Ladino that make reference to Esau in making fun of a stupid businessman.

Rabbi Feldman also said something we all intuit: Isaac is the most passive of all the patriarchs. After the akeda, when he is almost sacrificed, he seems to belong to another world. But Rebecca understands this world and all its flaws. She knows she is breaking the rules. But she knows too that it is Jacob who has chosen Avraham as his grandfather, and that he is the one who will carry the legacy forward into the future.

We hear that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. I think men are from Mars and women are from Earth. On the one hand, Isaac has his head in the clouds, but on the other hand he cares too much about the taste of hunted meat. Rebecca, meanwhile, has her eye and her mind on the heritage of the past and on all the generations to come.

Purim, America, and the Jews

            “The posts went forth in haste by the king’s commandment, and the decree was given out in Shushan the castle; and the king and Haman sat down to drink; but the city of Shushan was perplexed.”

JewishsurveyPromo_639x300On the eve of Purim I always think about this passage in the Book of Esther—”the Megillah”—which will be chanted aloud tonight in synagogues circling the planet. Haman’s name —he was the Hitler of ancient Persia—will provoke a deafening stamping of feet and crackling of groggers, little noisemakers that children twirl with a big ratchety sound, or shaking of boxes of macaroni and cheese destined for charity. Since the silence is rarely restored promptly, the last phrase may be drowned out: “But the city of Shushan was perplexed.” It’s interesting.

 
Haman decides to murder all the Jews, the decree goes out, the messengers do their duty, but the capital city of the empire is perplexed. I can only think this means that the people more or less said, “Huh? Kill the Jews? Why?” That Jews were well enough woven into the fabric of Persian life so that despite their customs, which had to seem strange to their neighbors, people viewed them with respect, or at least with a big dose of “live and let live.”

Quite different from the reactions of Germans, Poles, Lithuanians, Ukrainians and others to Hitler’s decrees, as I was reminded last Saturday when my Holocaust (Shoah) survivor friends were musing on that disturbing history. Not so many of those peoples were perplexed. They just said, Sure, let’s kill the Jews. Shushan’s response was, perhaps, reflective of something like the broad acceptance Jews enjoy today in the United States.

A new Pew study of Jews here and in Israel updates the famous one in 2013 (see below), which showed a decline in American Jewish identity, especially in the young. This one shows a slight increase in religiousness. But when comparing us to Israeli Jews, Pew found stark contrasts. We are more liberal, better educated, much less religious, and by various measures much less Jewish than our Israeli brethren—with whom we disagree on many things. They are much more divided among themselves, and of course they are surrounded by hostility and chaos, while we are safely dispersed among peaceful and often admiring American neighbors.

Few modern Persians—today’s Iranians—would be perplexed at the notion of slaughtering Jews, but Americans would be astonished to the point of staunchly defending us. When Joe Lieberman ran for Vice President in 2000, he wore his Jewishness, even his Orthodoxy, on his sleeve. It never became an issue in the campaign, except that religious Christians admired his commitment.

Sixteen years later, a surprisingly successful candidate for President, Bernie Sanders, is much more quietly Jewish—some might say, hardly at all. But no one who matters is accusing him of hiding something, and his Jewishness appears not to matter to other Americans. Asked about it in one debate, he pointed to the Shoah survivors he had known as a child, and explained how that terrible knowledge inspired him to seek social justice. And not just for Jews.

Some of us worry when Shoah remembrance is so central to Jewish identity that it is the first or only thing mentioned, but Jewish commitment to social justice long predates that catastrophe. Among Jews in the U.S., South Africa, and much of the diaspora it has been very important and very non-parochial.

Not so in Israel. Pew found that for more than half of Jewish Americans, social justice is an important part of what it means to be Jewish; only a quarter of Jewish Israelis said the same. And we are far more likely than they are to have non-Jewish friends. Those facts go a long way to explaining why we Jewish Americans are in a Golden Age, greater than any in the past. We are lucky.

And so when President Obama’s new Supreme Court nominee took the podium in the Rose Garden, he emphasized his Jewish origins and identity, despite being named Merrick Garland. His lifelong devotion to justice was not just for Jews. Which is why nobody was perplexed by his nomination. And if he doesn’t reach the Supreme Court, it won’t be because he is Jewish, despite the fact that he would be the fourth out of nine who is.

The Pew Report on Jewish Americans

Red Chart from Free photos ID-100114992

I ‘ve finally been able to read the Pew Research Center’s “Portrait of Jewish Americans” from cover, as they say, to cover.

First, Jews should be grateful to Pew for shouldering a responsibility abdicated by our own leaders, who decided in 2010 not to conduct the National Jewish Population Survey that had been conducted in 2000 and 1990. There appears to have been a desire not to hear bad news, which earlier surveys had delivered. I call this the Ostrich Syndrome. So, thank you, Pew Charitable Trusts.

What did they find? Continue reading

Israeli Spring 3

DSC_0705 Taj small fileIn a hotel near the Taj Mahal, I thought back on my week in Israel leading into a month in India. The Taj, a marble poem to lost love, was built by the Muslim king Shah Jihan, the “Emperor of the World.” His wife died after nineteen pregnancies during her fourteenth birth and this, perhaps the finest building ever built, became her resting place.

But the Emperor of the World was cast down by one of his sons, who had killed three others, leaving himself the sole heir. Battles had raged among these brothers, just as they had among the sons of King David. Continue reading

Israeli Spring 2

I’m in bed in the early morning in Delhi, with gathering traffic sounds outside and a brace of pigeons fluttering at the white building and grand leafy tree across the way, seen through palm leaves on the porch.

Kineret (Sea of Galilee)

I did get to spend Shavuot eve with my friends the physician and artist. They still seem rather English although in Israel forty years, but they have Israeli children, and grandchildren who struggle with English. They are four generations now, since Elliot’s ninetyish mom, hale, graceful and charming, was there to enliven the dinner conversation. Continue reading

Israeli Spring 1

Cactus flower VHGFrom the balcony of my “suite” in downtown Jerusalem, I see the tattered stripes of an Israeli flag seized by a strong wind, a huge McDonald’s with intact golden arches, and an almost empty street with caged-up stores in advance of Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks. The Jerusalem Post showed a man in a black kippa—meaning religious but not too—harvesting sheaves in a gold field of wheat. He’ll make matzoh when the time comes. That the flag fragment is allowed to stay where it is may reflect the current level of nationalism here. Continue reading

Forverts

Forverts front pageBack in October, not long after I’d begun subscribing to the great old Yiddish-language newspaper, Forverts—no, this is not the English-language newspaper Forward, which I like to read and occasionally even write for—there was a photo above the fold on the front page that stunned and stayed with me.

The photo shows a pretty middle-aged woman reading from a Torah scroll,   Continue reading

Was All This About Egypt?

It’s not that I think this is really over. Cairo’s streets are filled with angry people, and Egypt may lurch again toward democracy. But back on the Gaza border a lull in the missile exchanges began Wednesday, and the last 48 hours have been mostly quiet. The citizens of Southern Israel will not be satisfied with this, since however degraded Hamas might be, it was still firing rockets a-plenty when the cease-fire started. One beefy middle-aged guy said that if Netanyahu doesn’t actually stop the attacks from Gaza he will “pay the price” at the polls in January.

But Hillary Clinton dropped by on her way back from Southeast Asia—she and her boss do have other things to think about—and spent some political capital in Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Cairo. She wants this to be her closing scene as Secretary of State, and something to brag about if she runs for the Oval Office. That meant some serious arm-twisting for both Israel’s Prime Minister and Egypt’s President Morsy. You could almost hear them say “Ouch.”

And now Morsy has overreached, making a power grab that could cost him his palace. Still, despite demonstrations in Cairo, it looks possible that one of Israel’s main goals in this operation has been reached, and it has nothing directly to do with rockets raining down on Ashdod: the new Egypt’s pivot toward the West. Continue reading

Gaza Again

“After a long night of air strikes that Israel says hit up to a hundred and fifty targets across the Palestinian territories, remarkably, there appear to have been few casualties.” A reporter in a flak jacked walked through the rubble of a large building. “This was a Hamas Interior Ministry building. Like a lot of the targets hit overnight, it was deserted. Nobody was hurt here. But what local people are saying is that these air raids were designed to spread fear and panic. There’s a lot of residential buildings in this neighborhood, and right next door, a United Nations school.” A Palestinian man shown with his family, who spent the night in a shelter, says, “My children are afraid and crying.”

“Israeli civilians have also been suffering,” the narrator says, over pictures of rocketed homes. “Hundreds of rockets have been fired from Gaza since Wednesday. People have been leaving their homes to seek refuge in shelters.

Even hospitals have been moving their patients.” This is the BBC this morning, being uncharacteristically balanced. But they don’t mention that continuously, for years, the people of southern Israel have been running to shelters to hide from the rockets that have never stopped. During those years, people in Gaza have rarely had to hide from Israeli attacks.

Continue reading