What is our relationship with G-d? How Important, how pervasive is it really in our lives? What in our lives distracts us from that relationship?
As our children grow and go through their life challenges, we can learn so much, even in their adulthood. This week my son Sam needed surgery, a minor operation as an out patient of the hospital. Nan and I would pick him up, wait at the Hospital and escort him home. His wife Jordy, had already missed many days at school because of the storm and given the demands of her degree, the competitive & struggling American job environment combined with the nature of the procedure, we all agreed it was fine for Jordy to go to class. It was Ok not to be there, really.
We drove up to their apartment building and see Jordy embracing Sam’s arm, visibly shaken and confused walking him so slowly, hesitantly to our car. She clearly doesn’t want to let him in and then go off to the train. You could hear Sam, “It’s Ok, Jord, catch your train.” She doesn’t let go of his arm as he goes to open the door. “It’s Ok, Jord.” Sam, gets in and Jordy follows, defying the pull of her personal desires and needs. “I’m coming!” I turn around to look at them to try and take in the beauty and meaning of true love, commitment and sacrifice from attachment to your soulmate. There it all was, revealed in the 2 tears I saw slowly rolling down Jordy’s face. 2 Tears telling a story.
It is the story of Yaakov and Esau “and the children struggled together within her….and she (Rebecca) said if it be so wherefore Do I live….and the Lord said unto her, two nations are in thy womb, and two people shall be separated..and one people shall be stronger…” What people shall be stronger and what are the consequences?
In an eye-opening address to Jewish educators, Rabbi Heschel shares what he sees as the challenges and struggles for the American Jew relevant to what is needed in education, upbringing, awareness, sacrifice and ultimately, behavior. Heschel relates why for him maintaining his yiddishkeit, his Judaism and attachment is perhaps a different story than for others, “Day and night we spoke only of prayer….Kavanah (undivided attention, intent), HaKadosh Baruch Hu (The Holy One Blessed Be HE) and Mesirat Nefesh (extreme Devotion-Giving over of one’s soul.)” Clearly, for us these activities Heschel recalls in his upbringing, did not, do not occupy the totality of our days here in America, certainly not mine.
The quest for a true relationship with G-d, that is the struggle we face. Perhaps that is a way to look at the struggle within Rebecca, knowing what Yaakov and Esau would be. She did love both. Yaakov would become Israel, our Jewishness. Esau would be those distractions…the things we like, that we seek in the secular world, American Modernity and it’s lures, distractions and trappings. That was in part, Isaac’s struggle as well. His love for Easu was not real, as Sfas Emes points out “Isaac’s Love was not true, it depended on a particular thing.” Esau’s ability to hunt and bring the delicacies Isaac enjoyed. “Rebeca loved Jacob without any reason, her love lasted forever and did not depend on anything.” As we later see, she goes to all lengths to demonstrate that attachment to Yaakov, the one who ultimately would be Israel and the Jewish way to be. Of course we know Isaac follows through later on.
Rabbi Soleveitchik interprets the relating of Rebecca’s family background….”Daughter of Bethuel, of Paddan Aram, sister of Laban the Aramean…..” as having the purpose of connecting this thought to the notion of where we come from and what that means to where we are to go. That the Hebrews will end up in Egypt and to remember when we get there (he bases this from the Targum), “there they became a great nation” and (from the Baal Haggadah) “this teaches the Jews there became distinguished and distinctive.” May I add, Different from all others, with different requirements and expectations upon us, Holy requirements and expectations. That is our Distinction, our purpose!
It boils down to; what is to be our attachment to Hakadosh Barachu Hu, how close we are to get, how much we are willing to do, to sacrifice, to avoid the distractions/lures/needs presented in our nation. To be able to rise to that struggle between Yaakov and Esau, to be that nation that shines His light to the world and for us to truly attach, to truly love.
To summarize Heschel’s concluding Drasha to the Jewish Educators, he relays that these challenges as American Jews, leads us to instead of truly knowing G-d, as a result of our complete Mesirat Nefesh, to only having an idea of G-d. In turn that idea can easily become a substitute for G-d, instead of a living relationship. He brings down (now this is all heavy stuff) first a Midrash that says “You are my witnesses (says G-d) and I am G-d.” Then citing Rabbi Simon ben Yohai…“If you are my witnesses, I am G-d; if you are not my witnesses, I am not G-d.” Heschel feels this is one of the most powerful of all statements found in Rabbinic literature, illustrating what our total living commitment must be. He says “In this world G-d is not G-d unless WE are His witnesses.” That “G-d is of no importance unless He is of Supreme importance.” Allow me to conclude with a phenomenal story he relates from Shevet Yehuda to make his point that can make one’s soul tremble with awe.
“In 1492 the Jews of Spain were given the choice to be converted or to be expelled. The overwhelming majority left their homeland. Ships overcrowded with fugitives found difficulty landing, owing to the disease breaking out among them while on board ship. One of the boats was infested with the plague. The captain of the boat put the passengers ashore at some uninhabited place. There most of them died. Some of them set out on foot and gathered strength in order to search for settlement. There was one Jew among them who struggled on foot together with his wife and two sons. The wife grew faint and died, not being accustomed to such difficult walking. The husband picked up his children and carried them in his arms until he and they fainted from hunger. When he regained consciousness, he found that the sons had died also. In great grief he rose to his feet and raised his eyes to heaven and cried out: “Lord of the Universe, much have you done to make me deserve my fate, but this is a certainty, that a Jew I am and a Jew I shall remain. Nothing that you have brought upon me is likely to be of any avail.”
When it came time for Sam to go to the operating room, one person was allowed to accompany him for the prep. He was nervous and somewhat confused. Many a time I was with Sam in his challenging, scary situations. Nan said “he is going to ask for you to go with him not me, he will feel safer, better with you there.” He got to the door turned and said “Jordy you come.” He battled his own senses to be true to his true attachment, his soul mate. That is what it is all about, and that is what our attachment to Hashem should be as well, to our soul mates above all else. That is the essence of Yaakov and Esau and the The 2 Tears.
Zvi Hersh Ben Naftali