“The Inquirer” Parashat Toledot 5781

Rebecca, after trying for twenty years to have children, is having a dreadful pregnancy. The foetus is not sitting still even for a second. Some of the commentators suggest that Rebecca was suffering from Braxton Hicks contractions and others assert that the foetus was incessantly kicking her. Whatever the case may be, she has had enough [Bereishit 25:22]: “She said, ‘If so, why do I exist?’ So she went to inquire of G-d”. In this week’s lesson, we will try to understand how a person goes about “inquiring of G-d”.

We begin with Rashi, the most famous of the medieval commentators, who lived in France in the eleventh century. Rashi teaches that Rebecca went to see a prophet[1] who could tell her what would become of her and her child. The Ramban, who lived in Spain a century after Rashi, quotes Rashi and then states that the phrase “inquiring of G-d” appears in scripture solely in reference to prayer. The Ramban brings three examples: [Psalms 34:5] “I inquired[2] of G-d (darashti et Hashem) and He answered me”, [Amos 5:4] “Thus said G-d to the House of Israel: Inquire of Me (dirshuni) and you will live”, and [Ezekiel 20:3] “Thus said G-d: Have you come to inquire (ha’lidrosh) of Me?” According to the Ramban, Rebecca’s response to her extraordinary pregnancy was to pray, to seek solace in G-d.

The Ramban’s list of verses in which the phrase “inquiring of G-d” appears is actually incomplete. Rabbi Samuel ben Meir, known as the Rashbam, who happened to be Rashi’s grandson, adds another verse to the list. The Rashbam, asserting, like his grandfather, that Rebecca went to see a prophet, references the verse [Shemot 18:15] “It is because the people come to me to inquire of G-d.” Moshe’s father, Jethro, sees Moshe working 24/6, with a long line of people standing outside his office waiting to have their legal case heard by Moshe. When Jethro accuses Moshe of wearing himself out, Moshe responds that he is the currently the only person in the world who can rule in Jewish tort law. Jethro suggests that Moshe allocate responsibility by creating a multi-level court system and the rest is history.

The verse that the Rashbam references puts a completely different spin on the idea of “inquiring of G-d”. The people standing in line waiting to “inquire of G-d” need Moshe to adjudicate their cases. They want to know the law. If a person’s Chevy backed into his neighbour’s Citroen, which was left double-parked and unattended because its owner ran into the store to pick up single-use face masks that were on sale, who owes what to whom? According to Rashi, Rebecca wanted to know what was going to happen, while according to the Rashbam, Rebecca wanted to know what she was meant to do[3].

There is a seminal difference in Rebecca’s inquiring of G-d and in Moshe’s inquiring of G-d: Rebecca inquired of “Hashem” – the Tetragrammaton – while Moshe inquired of “E-lokim”. G-d has many different names and each name represents a different Divine Attribute. The name “E-lokim” represents the Divine Attribute of Justice, while the Tetragrammaton signifies the Divine Attribute of Mercy. Justice is unequivocally determined by well-defined rules and regulations, if-then statements, and cause-and-effect: If my ox gores your ox then I owe you fifty percent of the damage, unless my ox has already gored three times, in which case I owe you full damages. The Divine Attribute of Justice is reflected by nature, which also works according to well-defined laws of physics. It is not happenstance that the numerical value of the word “ha’teva (nature)” is the same as the numerical value of the word “E-lokim”. Force always equals mass times acceleration. The speed of light always equals 299,792,458 metres per second[4]. Moreover, the laws of physics are not influenced by a person’s deeds or character. A skydiver whose parachute fails will always increase at a rate of 9.81 metres per second squared, no matter how righteous or evil he might be, and no matter who his father is. Justice is blind.

The Divine Attribute of Mercy works orthogonally to justice. The Divine Attribute of Mercy does not believe in fatalism. In the eyes of the Divine Attribute of Mercy, the future is not regulated by laws. The future is pliable and is moulded according to our actions and our prayers. Indeed, through the power of contrition and repentance, even the past is not set in stone. Judaism does not believe in an original sin that leaves an indelible stain. Our misdeeds can be rectified. They can propel us forward and not hold us back. Rebecca inquires specifically of the Tetragrammaton because of her background. The Torah describes Rebecca as the [Bereishit 25:20] “daughter of Betuel the Aramean, from Paddan-Aram, sister of Laban the Aramean”. Rashi, noting the disproportionate use of the word “Aram”, comments that the Torah emphasizes her background “to proclaim her praise – she was the daughter of a wicked man, sister of a wicked man, and her native place was one of wicked people, and yet she did not learn from their doings”. Heredity, as defined by the Divine Attribute of Justice, is predictable. A kangaroo will always produce a kangaroo and a water buffalo will always produce a water buffalo. But as defined by the Divine Attribute of Mercy, heredity is far less predictable. Rebecca, who by nature and nurture should have been evil, became one of the four matriarchs of the Jewish People. On the other hand, how many times have we heard of the child who had it all – loving parents, wealth, and community, and yet ended up in prison. The Divine Attribute of Mercy adjures us to overcome our DNA and our upbringing, assuring us that the heights we reach are limited only by the effort we expend. Rebecca knows this. She inquires of the Divine Attribute of Mercy to voice her conviction that her pregnancy is not indicative of her unborn child’s future.

Now that we understand that Rebecca was inquiring of the Divine Attribute of Mercy, we can better understand the answer that she received [Bereishit 25:23]: “Two nations are in your womb, Two separate peoples shall issue from your body; One people shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger”. A fascinating explanation[5] is offered by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. Rabbi Sacks died last week from cancer at the age of 72. He was the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth for more than twenty years. He was a prolific author and the best speaker I have ever heard. His outlook on Torah, morality, and family will have an eternal impact on the Jewish people. Writing in “Not in G-d’s Name – Confronting Religious Violence”, Rabbi Sacks considers the words “v’rav ya’avod tzai’r”, translated above as “the older shall serve the younger”. This is only one possible translation. Another potential translation is “the older – the younger shall serve him”. These two translations are diametrically opposed. In the first, it is the older son who is subservient while in the second, it is the younger son. History did not have to turn out the way it turned out: Jacob was never designated to succeed his father as the third Patriarch. As the first-born son, that job was Esau’s to lose, and he lost it by making poor decisions.

Raising children is fraught with peril. At times, it is downright terrifying. After raising 8 children, we have garnered a bit of experience. Here is what I suggest: Do not try to direct your child. All you can do is to aim him in the general direction you want him to go and you can be certain that he will head in that direction, plus / minus one hundred and eighty degrees.

Shabbat Shalom and stay healthy.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5781

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, David ben Chaya, and Iris bat Chana.

[1] According to Rashi, Rebecca went to see Shem, the son of Noach, who had prophetic powers. The super-commentators on Rashi (Gur Aryeh, Mizrachi, Siftei Chachamim) explain why Rebecca chose to go see Shem and not her father-in-law, Abraham, who was still alive, or her husband Isaac, both of whom had well-documented prophetic skills.

[2] It is interesting to note that the JPS translation available on the Sefaria web site translates this word differently each time. In Psalms, it translates it as “turned to”, in Amos as “seek”, and in Ezekiel as “inquire”.

[3] The Ramban takes a middle of the road approach. Regarding the people standing before Moshe, he suggests that they were wanted Moshe to pray for them and to let them know if G-d had accepted his prayer. In addition, they wanted Moshe to adjudicate their torts.

[4] It’s not just a good idea; it’s the law.

[5] This year I merited finding Rabbi Sacks’ source in the medieval Midrash Lekach Tov.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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