@Unscrolled – #Toldot #BigQuestions

I asked my congregation to read Parshat Toldot, and come up with some Big Questions. Here are some of the questions from them, which I plan to use tomorrow at our New Member Shabbat as material for discussion. [Note: These are not real Twitter accounts. I just used the @ sign to be cute.]

From @Jerrold_Abraham

  • With this history of common ancestry and generations of envy, rivalry and hostility, what is God’s ( or anyone’s) recipe/guidance for achieving a peaceful co-existence in the foreseeable future?

From @Jef_Sneider

  • Are we supposed to be proud of Jacob’s cleverness, or Isaac’s apparent lack of it, or Rebecca’s collusion?
  • Are we supposed to feel that somehow Esau deserved his treatment?
  • Should we assume that God intended everything to happen just the way it did?
  • What is a birthright anyway? How does it differ from the blessing? What does it all have to do with the inheritance of wealth or possessions?
  • What does Isaac’s blessing mean? Is it a prophecy? Is it a prediction? Is it something that is binding somehow on God to fulfill?
  • Why couldn’t Isaac just call Jacob into his tent, scold him and then give his blessing to Esau, if he wanted to?

From @Howard_Weinberger

  • Why were the Patriarchs (and Matriarchs) such poor role models as parents? (E.g. Abraham loved Isaac more than Ismael; Isaac loved Esau more than Jacob, while Rebecca was the opposite; Jacob loved Joseph more than all his other children.)
  • Why did the Patriarchs lie so often? (E.g. Abraham passed his wife off as his sister (twice), and so did Isaac; Isaac tricked Esau out of his birthright; Rebecca and Jacob tricked Isaac).

From @Bob_Tornberg

Jacob represents the second generation when the younger son inherits his father’s favored portion and becomes the one through whom God’s blessing of Abraham flows. Because of this, we trace our Jewish lineage through these younger sons back to Abraham. We also know that in some weeks ahead, we will learn that Joseph, one of Jacob’s younger children will be the major actor in the continuance of the “Jewish family.”

  • What does the Torah mean by tracing Jewish lineage through younger sons and how has that shaped the history and character of our people?

From @Phyllis_Turtle

  • This story made me think about making judgements about people who work with their hands versus people whose labor isn’t physical.

From @Alice_Honig

  • How should we consider deception and lying in the light of Rebecca’s’ choices…or in considering  our own choices in difficult situations… terrible ones, such as hiding a friend from the KGB in Russia, or easier ones, such  as when an auntie asks if we like their new coat or hat?

From @Karen_Beckman

  • If Jacob becomes Israel, what currently represents Esav?
  • Looking back at this story from today, does the birthright really matter? Shouldn’t they have attempted to preserve the relationship instead?

From @Joan_Burstyn

Within the larger story in Toldot, is another story about an incident where Isaac, fearing for his safety and that of his family, tells the Philistines that Rebekah is his sister, not his wife (see Genesis  26:6-12). This story seems to be parallel to a story told earlier where Abraham tells Pharaoh that Sarah is his sister not his wife (see Genesis 12: 14-17). In each case, the Israelite man later reveals the fact that he has lied, and that the woman is really his wife. On hearing this, both the Egyptian (in the case of Abraham) and the Philistine (in the case of Isaac) become so fearful that they send the Israelite on his way in peace, with various gifts.

  • Why were Abraham’s and Isaac’s ploys so successful on these occasions?
  • What do these two stories tell us about the ethical norms of those societies at that time?

Toldot: Digging our Parents Wells

At the beginning of what we will be reading this Shabbat in our congregation, we find Isaac is in the process of re-digging his father Abraham’s wells. As he makes his way back from Gerar, where he and Rebecca and their sons were avoiding the effects of a famine, he finds himself retracing the same journey that his father made before him. This is true not only of the wells, but, like Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca had to pretend to be brother and sister when living under a foreign king’s rule. Isaac later in his life will attempt to bless his elder son, to give him the blessing that comes from Abraham, his father, but will be thwarted in the process. As it was with his father, Rebecca, like Sarah, takes a major hand in determining which son will inherit the legacy of Abraham.

Digging our parents’ wells. How are we digging our parents’ well in our lives? Which steps of their do we retrace, either consciously or unconsciously? Do we find source of life and growth, as Isaac found when digging his father’s wells? Do we find contention and strife as Isaac also found? How do the patterns of our lives mirror those of our parents? Is it that our situations are similar, warranting similar strategies, or is it that we have internalized ways of being that we are not ever aware of, that we draw upon in our daily lives?

The one time Isaac digs a new well, somewhere that his father had either never tried to dig before, or one that his father never saw, the well is called Rechovot, Wide-Open-Spaces. Isaac learned from his father how to dig, how to get beneath the surface of things, of earth, of the soul, and to find sources of life, of water, or spiritual sustenance. But when he only digs where his father dug before him, it leads to a kind of spiritual limitation. When Isaac finally digs in the same way as his father, but in a new location, he is able to open up something new that is both uniquely his and at the same time tied to his past.

When we take what we have learned from those who come before us, and just tread the same paths over and over again, it can only take us so far. It is when take we have learned from the past and then explore somewhere new, something different, that we find space to fully expand into the present.

Chayei Sarah – What does it mean to be a sacred servant?

One big question that this week’s Torah portion asks is: In whose hands would you put your future?

In your life, if you had to task one person with a mission the success of which  would either guarantee your family’s existential future or end it, whom would you send? Do we have such people in our lives? Who might they be? What are the qualities of such a person? Such a person I would call a sacred servant, someone who mission is completely tied up with the ultimate pursuit of goodness in the world.

Abraham gives one of his servants a task such as this. From this story, we can learn about what it means to be a sacred servant.

When this week’s Torah portion opens, we learn that Sarah has died. We don’t know why she died, or how she died. The rabbis have always connected the Binding of Isaac to Sarah’s death, so if one wants to think about the reasons Sarah died, one can turn to the midrash. What the Torah portion does deal with is how people live their lives in the shadow of Sarah’s death. The first thing that Abraham does is mourn. I can imagine Abraham, returned from Mount Moriah, only to find Sarah cold and lifeless in her tent. Kneeling at her side, he weeps. His hot tears flowing down his face as he reflects back on the love of his life. Then he gets up. And it is the getting up part that is critical. It’s not that Abraham is unsentimental. It is that he knows that he has two sacred tasks to accomplish: Bury Sarah. Get Isaac married.

The opening episode is Abraham doing very delicate negotiations with the local council of elders, trying to purchase a piece of land with a double-burial cave for Sarah. Those deliberations are subtle and complex, but in essence, Abraham insists that the land be purchased, and not granted to him as a gift. Thus Abraham acquires the first piece of Jewish owed property in the land that God has promised to them and their descendants. Now, if only they had some descendants.

We don’t know why Isaac is not married. We are not even sure where Isaac is living at this time. We do know that Isaac is single, that for some reason, that neither he or Abraham are capable of going back to Haran, where Abraham’s family currently lives, and that it is only there that a suitable partner for Isaac will be found. The success of this mission is critical, and failure in this mission threatens to upset all of the promises made between Abraham and God about his future people.

So who does Abraham send to accomplish this task? His servant (which in Hebrew is an eved, which is related to the word for slave.) In previous Torah portions, we have encountered Abraham’s servant Eliezer, and almost all commentators are comfortable calling this one Eliezer as well. Eliezer has been the head of Abraham’s household for years. He is the COO, head of daily operations, for the Abraham and Sarah estate, and he is the one that Abraham think will inherit thishis estate, in lieu of biological children.

What are the qualities of a sacred servant?

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