Toldot: Visualize and Act

[For Congregation Ner Shalom, November 20, 2009]

Why me?

How often do we ask this question? In turbulent times, confusing times? It's a question that presupposes some sort of destiny, yes? That is, why ask, "why me" if there is no possible answer?

"Why me" is the simple but fascinating question asked by our mother, Rebecca, in this week's Torah portion, Toldot. Lamah zeh anochi -- "why me" -- she asks when, after 20 years of marriage, she becomes pregnant with twins who twist and turn in her belly like pro wrestlers. These are the first words we hear from her since her marriage to Isaac, and one can't help wondering if her question refers not only to the turmoil in her womb but also to the whole direction her life has taken since leaving her father's house.

Why me? During the 20 years during which she did not have a child, we do not hear her asking lamah zeh anochi? Why me? She does not plead for a child, nor does she offer her husband a surrogate like her mother-in-law before her or her daughters-in-law after her. It is Isaac, not Rebecca, who pleads to God for a child. A part of me wonders if she was just fine the way things were. After all, she had, even as a child, more charisma, more spunk, more direction than most characters in Torah. When Abraham's servant, Eliezer, went back to the Old Country to fetch Isaac a wife, Rebecca watered and fed his camels all by herself, an immense task for one person. When offered a chance to travel to a place she'd never seen to marry a man she'd never met, leaving her father and brother, she reviewed her options and essentially declared, "Fire up the camel; I'm outa here."

Rebecca is a character who seems determined to live her own life. She is, after all, the major mover and shaker in this parashah. "Why me?" she asks God, and God answers. She carries two nations in her womb, she is told, one of which shall be mightier than the other (although we're not told which), and the older shall serve the younger (which is not the same as saying that the younger is the mightier).

This is a big prophecy. It doesn't exactly answer the question "Why me?" But it is a big prophecy nonetheless, and Rebecca takes it as a communication of her destiny.

Esau and Jacob are then born and Torah fast-forwards right to their adulthood, where Jacob buys his brother's birthright for the price of a bowl of stew. We all know this story. This is a first step toward the destiny Rebecca foresees, and it happens privately, between the brothers. But the next step comes when Isaac is old and his sight and his health are failing. He intends to give his deathbed blessing to Esau, and Rebecca helps Jacob trick his father into giving the blessing to him instead. When Esau realizes what happened, he turns homicidal. Rebecca warns Jacob and sends him away to her brother, saying "Let me not lose you both in one day." But she does. She has lost Esau's love and Jacob's companionship; she will not see him again for fifteen years. But she has secured the destiny described by God as she understood it. She has seen the younger son receive both the birthright and the blessing.

History sometimes judges Rebecca's character harshly. She is seen as conniving, even though in Torah's view the outcome is God's will and even though we, the Children of Israel, are the beneficiaries of her actions. Much as the 20th Century Jewish mother was mocked by her sons for the very traits that allowed those sons to succeed.

But Rebecca is a remarkable character. Isaac, let's face it, does not add much to the story of our people. He is the creme filling in the Abraham-Jacob sandwich. It is really Rebecca, not Isaac, who is the key player of that generation. She takes up the matter of our People's destiny and acts on it, just as Abraham did by leaving home, and as Jacob did by returning home. It is Rebecca who links Abraham to Jacob. She is formidable. She speaks to God. And God speaks back. She receives prophecy. And she takes action to make the prophecy come true.

It is this bit that especially interests me. God tells her that she carries two nations and the older shall serve the younger. But God does not give her an assignment in this matter. There is nothing in God's words -- or at least in what we overhear of them -- to suggest that Rebecca is supposed to do anything. The story would still have worked if she'd just shrugged her shoulders in response, and let nature run its course.

But no, she acts. Why?

I think I might have gotten a hint from something I read this week from Pirkei Avot, our first post-Biblical book. I was preparing a discussion for the post-Bar Mitzvah class and culling some quotes from the early sages. A famous one of Rabbi Akiba's jumped out at me. He says this:

הכל צפוי והרשות נתונה

Hakol tzafuy v'har'shut n'tunah.

All is foreseen, yet freedom of choice ("permission") is given.

I was so interested in this paradox that I did what any modern Jew would do. I posted it as my Facebook status this week and watched while my friends (and my "friends") struggled to make sense of their own sense of direction. It turns out the question was as alive for them as it was for Akiba.

Rabbi Akiba, living during Roman antiquity without the benefit of Facebook, Twitter or anything, was struggling with the still-new idea of God's omnipotence. If God is truly all-powerful, then is free will really free? Mustn't our actions be somehow determined by God? If they're not, then don't we have more power than God, at least over the small, personal matters: which hat to wear, whom to marry, which ice cream flavors go best together on one cone? If we are truly freely making those choices, then God is bound not to make them for us.

Akiba seems to offer a middle ground suggesting that both truths co-exist. All is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is given. Perhaps Akiba is suggesting that צפוי (tsafuy) doesn't mean "foreseen" as in "predestined." But rather something more like "envisioned." The word comes from the Hebrew root that means "to look ahead" or "to scout out." A mitspeh, from the same root, is a high place from which one can scout ahead, a "lookout." So perhaps your relationship to the future is as if you're on a mountaintop looking to the horizon. You are afforded a certain clarity of vision, at least over the broad landscape, even if you can't make out the details. Everything is envisioned. We visualize a big picture. And then permission is given each of us to control where that vision leads us. What actions we take. The skills, gifts, smarts, connections that we bring to bear on the question of here-to-there.

Rebecca had a vision. Given to her by God or perhaps divined from the turbulence in her belly. But it suggested a destiny to her, and then when she had an opportunity to bring about what she had foreseen, she did not hesitate.

Can the same be said of us? When we are in times of distress, the kind that lead us to say, lamah zeh anochi - why me? Does it lead us to new, broader vision? And does that vision lead us to action? We might not all be formidable like Rebecca. But still, does that excuse us for not acting? We all have some ideas about how things might be. For the future of the planet. For the future of Judaism. For the future of gender. We can all imagine so much. But do we take action?

Rabbi Akiba suggests that we must. He goes on to say in the next breath.

ובטוב העולם נדון והכל לפי רוב המעשה

 Uv'tov ha'olam nadon v'hakol l'fi rov hama'aseh.

The world is judged kindly and according to the weight of its actions.

Another seeming paradox. Thank you, Rabbi Akiba. It contains a comforting note and a challenging note. He says to us that when we are judged, by God or by history or by us, it will be done with a kind heart. In other words, all of our efforts, our intentions, really do matter. Our vision, our hope. But, he warns, the world will also be judged by its actions. In other words, our good intentions are good but are not enough. They are not an excuse for inaction.

"Dream," says Rabbi Akiba. "And act." "Envision and do."

Rebecca envisions or foresees something about her son Jacob's legacy. And she acts, at great personal cost. Most of our visions are far less pricey to act on.

We live in hard times. Everyone lives in hard times. We all feel the struggles in our bellies. In our souls. We feel the struggles in our communities. We witness the wrestling of ideas. And sometimes the older, stronger idea is not the one we want to see succeed. We recognize that our future lies with the newer, gentler idea, and that will require our care and our action.

Lamah zeh anochi we might ask at any such time. Why me? 

If there is a "why" then the answer lies somewhere in your ability (our ability) to envision - to see the horizon, the great landscape - and your ability (our ability) to act in the here, the now. Think globally, act locally, says Rabbi Akiba somewhere on a bumper sticker.

May we all see far. May we plot our course in the direction that calls us. May our good intentions fuel but not replace our actions. And when we look back on the path we struck, and judge it, may we be proud.