Sunday, December 10, 2006

Politically incorrect Torah jottings

Warning: If you are looking for the standard hagiographical accounts of Biblical figures, please seek elsewhere

We just got through reading the accounts of Ya'akov's early life, from his birth to his "stealing" of the b'rakhot to his sojourn with Lavan and return to what would become Eretz Yisrael. What stands out in my mind, and what nobody to my knowledge will say out loud, is the somewhat disturbing character of Rivka. Before her marriage she is portrayed as a ba'alat hesed extraordinaire, knowing that Eliezer's camels were thirsty and giving them water without being asked. Then, as so often happens, she becomes a different person once the children come. I see in her the prototype of the Jewish mother - domineering, over-involved, overprotective of Ya'akov. She would probably have done better to let the twins duke it out when they were little. No matter who came out on top they would have gotten along fine; boys always do (I can hear them telling Rivka, "Imma, it's a guy thing, you wouldn't understand."). But then we wouldn't have a story. And why the underhanded scheming when it comes to securing the b'rakhot for Ya'akov? What was stopping her from telling her husband, "Yitz, Eisav isn't what you think he is, and if it's too late to change him perhaps the b'rakhot should go to Ya'akov." Instead she makes a liar out of Ya'akov and sets the stage for a 20-year separation, keeps the sibling rivalry simmering and in the end never sees Ya'akov again. Indeed, her words to Ya'akov - alai kil'latkha b'ni (your curse should come to me) were tragically prophetic. According to the m'farshim, when Rivka died Ya'akov was away, Yitzhak was blind and unable to leave his house to bury her, and Eisav hated his mother so much he wouldn't bury her, hence her final needs were left to strangers. The resolution comes when Ya'akov wrestles with the angel (Do I hear, "Nice Jewish boys don't fight?"), emerges the victor and has his name changed to Yisrael, Champion of God. No more to get his way by trickery and deceit, the transformed Ya'akov will now face his fears and prevail with manly confidence and forthrightness (Yehoram Gaon wrote a song about Ya'akov's transformation: Listen here ).

Ma'asei avot siman l'banim. Ya'akov's solitary contest - with the angel and with his own fears and self-doubt - is emblematic of the dark, lonely struggle every Jewish mother's son undergoes in his journey into manhood, unless he is content to be, in the words of Teddy Roosevelt, "one of those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat." For me the transformation came in my first subway ride alone, my first solitary run through a "bad neighborhood," and ultimately in training for and completing my first marathon. Was exorcising my inner demons easy? Not by a long shot. Would I go back to being the frightened little boy that I once was? Not for all the tea in China!

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5 Comments:

Anonymous shmuel said...

I hear ya talking.

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