I have a special affection for this week’s Torah reading. I had a rebbe for one subject or another during the years I was in middle and high school who had a big impact on me. Each year this rebbe, Rabbi Yaakov Wehl zt’L, would share the same dvar Torah this week. Even for years after I had left HANC for if there was another alum nearby we would get together and imitate Rabbi Wehl’s raspy voice and articulation style and review the dvar Torah. The gist of it was that Eisav was the first born of Yaakov and as such had the right to bring sacrifices, a task that would eventually fall to the kohanim, descendants of Aharon. But instead of realizing the greatness of this role, the honor of being an agent for humanity in communing with the divine, instead of seeing himself as an agent of G-d Almighty in interaction with this finite world, he saw only the trouble this role could bring. He sold his spiritual life, his chance at eternity, for a bowl of lentil soup. Rabbi Wehl would then go on to let us know what he perceived has our “lentil soup.” He would ‘schmooze us down’ letting us know what he thought stood in the way of our reaching spiritual greatness. “Don’t give it all away for a bowl of lentil soup,” he would say.
I’ve been thinking a lot about reaching for spiritual growth this week and what that means in a hospital room. (In case you missed why I’m in a hospital room with my son, see last week’s blog, here. In summary, he broke both his legs, a rib, and his pelvis, after a miraculous fall on a tiyul with his yeshiva.) The regular things that I think of as part of my own spiritual path, in particular learning Torah, teaching Torah and regular prayer with a minyan, have taken a back seat to a different type of service. My bandwidth has been pretty full with advocating for him with nurses, pain management, medical transportation logistics, and simply worrying about how surgery would go. I have a tiny piece of brain space left for the rest of my family and work, but just a tiny space. I wish I could say I used the down time effectively, but I mostly use it to sleep or to worry. So on this parshas Toldos I wonder about Rabbi Wehl’s words – how do you use this service to grow spiritually?
(To clarify the question – I’m not asking how do I make sure to get to minyan as often as possible and how to learn Torah during the calm moments. That would be how to do THAT service now. I’m asking how do I grow during THIS new situation.)
I’ll admit that this is a more of a reflection than a dvar Torah because I’m not sure that I have an answer. But let me share another question – I don’t think it’s original, but I apologize, I can’t remember where I saw it. The Torah has two words that mean water source – b’eir, a well, and ma’ayan, a spring. Much of what we know about the life of Yitzchak is that he dug wells. Some of them were in places his father had dug, some of them were original. Often there were disputes with the indigenous population as to the ownership of the wells, sometimes they were left undisputed. But in the narrative of the life of Yitzchak in this week’s parsha there is a lot of action around wells.
You know the difference between a spring and a well? In a spring the water comes to the surface naturally, you have to do nothing but gather it. In a well, the water might be there, but you have to uncover it, you have to dig for it. What if the reason that the patriarchs spent so much time with wells is because they are hinting to an idea; spiritual potential lies inside but you have to dig for it. To be sure a ma’ayan, a spring– a natural occurring connection to the source of life that comes from the Divine plan, without human effort – has a place in Torah life. Certain aspects of spiritual renewal required use of such a spring. But those are rare circumstance. In day to day living, if you want water, if you want spiritual life, you’ve got to dig for it. But maybe it’s even more than that. Maybe the digging towards the water (that is towards spirituality) is itself also spirituality. I guess this is the comfort I take in a week that was more focused on someone else’s physical needs than my spiritual needs. In spiritual growth the path itself is the goal.
One of the great mysteries in this week’s Torah reading has to do with the relationship between Yitzchak and Rivka. I say that this is a mystery in the Torah reading because we want to believe that the Avot and Imahaot (patriarchs and matriarchs) we ideal models for our marriages, but it’s hard to see that with a simple ‘read and translate’ approach to the text. The Torah says that they each favored a different son and the end of the parsha makes it seem like they had an almost antagonistic relationship in that regard. Even if we assume that they really wanted the same things, but they had different information about each son or a different plan of how best to get to the same religious goals, still, on some plane they weren’t aligned. I guess that’s true in every relationship from time to time, but it almost seems to define what we know about their marriage. On the other hand we do know two other important details.
Last week’s Torah reading mentioned the love Yitzchak had for Rivka. I’m not sure exactly how many times the verb love is used in the Torah to describe a marriage relationship, but I can tell you it’s not many. So there is something special here. Also, in what could have been a replay of an event in the life of Avraham and Sarah, the Philistine king thought to take Rivka away from Yiztchak and marry her. The Torah says that he peered in through a window and “saw the two of them playing.” Perhaps it is a euphemism for sexual intimacy, perhaps not. Either way, the text makes it clear that even if they didn’t align on some level, they had a deep and palpable relationship, one where playing, where fun was evident.
Atypical and stressful events, like a child’s injury, a move, an illness, a child not succeeding in school, are stressors on a marriage. Unavoidably, smart, passionate, caring people will have disagreements about the best path forward. In that regard, perhaps Yitzchak and Rivka are the ideal models for our marriages. They didn’t always agree on the right path, but they had a strong foundation of love and play, and in that context, maybe the disagreements were just details. Important details to be sure, but they never impacted the deep reality of their relationship. I think about that as my wife Allison and I get ready to transition from hospital sitting to rehab facilitating. I won’t say too much publicly because it will come off wrong and it will embarrass her, but I’m grateful for her partnership these past few weeks. I know that we don’t always agree on the details of how to do things, but I know she’s usually right. Unless she agrees with me. Then I get to be right too.
One more insight inspired by the week’s events in my life. The second of three surgeries was to totally rebuild my son’s ankle. After the surgery there was a tremendous amount of pain, and to our disappointment, the management of that pain was the lowest point in almost two weeks in the hospital. His leg and foot were killing him and the pain was excruciating. But if you looked at it, it just looked like a foot. You can’t see the pain that’s on the inside. At that moment my son was totally uninterested in my deep religious insights and was unimpressed with my thought, to say the least. Still, I think that it’s a short and poignant thought that will stick with me. You can’t see someone else’s pain.
I continue to be grateful for the outpouring of love and support focused on my family. Friends and acquaintances have marshalled all of their connections and influence to help get us advice and support. I’ve witnessed firsthand the power of the mitzvah of bikur cholim (visiting the sick) and its tremendous moral and physical impact. My son’s yeshiva rented a bus and brought 30 kids and rebbeim here to visit. Shua’s friends from high school travelled hours and hours from as far away as the Israel/Egypt/Gaza border to visit for an hour or so here in Haifa. Determined friends even found a route through and around recent road closures due to the fires. American medical students with whom we have no connection have stopped in to offer moral and logistical support. A former student of mine is a newlywed and in the med school here, and he did my laundry. My school and friends back in Baltimore have provided help to my wife and kids in the most important and practical ways. It has all mattered so much, and for all practical purposes, we can never repay any of this. I don’t know if there is spirituality in taking, but I know there is in gratitude. Thank you all.
Until this year, parshas Toldos always made me thing of Rabbi Wehl and high school and a bowl of lentil soup. I suspect that starting now, parshas Toldos will remind me more of this time with Shua, a hospital room and digging wells.