Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Faith and Will

In this week's Torah portion, Rebecca is told by God that she will bear twins, and that "the older will serve the younger." Shortly thereafter she gives birth to Esau and then Jacob. As the two boys mature, we see some pretty serious dysfunction in the family. Isaac, the father, loves Esau, who is a rugged outdoorsman and hunter. Rebecca prefers the tent-dwelling Jacob.

Given her knowledge of the aforementioned prophecy, one would expect Rebecca to be content to watch as things play themselves out, with her favored younger child inevitably becoming dominant. But what happens?. Rebecca tries, instead, to force God's--and Isaac's--hand. She weaves a plot, in which she helps Jacob dress up as his older brother, in order to "steal" the precious deathbed blessing that their blind father intends to give to Esau. Jacob succeeds in this theft, but the consequences are disastrous: a rift in the family that does not fully heal for several generations.

A question, then: Why does Rebecca show so little faith? In The Torah: A Women's Commentary, Diane M. Sharon raises this question, as follows:

What if Rebecca misinterprets the prophecy? What if its ambiguity is part of the divine purpose? What if, by eliminating the ambiguity—by urging Jacob to steal the blessing meant for his brother—Rebecca is not acting in harmony with the will of God?. . . Rebecca pays a very high price for her determination to ignore the ambiguity of God’s word.

The outcome of Rebecca’s story may, perhaps, teach us to allow the divine process to unfold for a while before we decide to take action on God’s behalf. Perhaps the gift from our biblical mother Rebecca in this parashah is her prompting us to sense ambiguity, to appreciate nuance—and to have the wisdom and patience to let divine intention blossom in its own time.

I like this lesson: "to allow the divine process to unfold for a while before we decide to take action on God's behalf." We tend to be so impatient. When things aren't moving along the way we wish, we panic and jump to do something. . . anything, really. . . to attain what we desire. The problem, of course, is that more often than not, our efforts backfire and our lack of faith betrays us.

I have noticed, too, that there is frequently a gap between our words and our deeds. Many people who are, on the surface level, very pious, express their faith in phrases like, Im yirtzeh Ha-Shem--if God wills it. . . and yet these same people can be very controlling and strong-willed. Their deeds belie their faithful rhetoric, for in the end, they do not really wish to trust anything to the Divine will. The opposite is also true: atheists and agnostics can live in ways that are very open to whatever life brings.

I have often struggled with letting go, with surrendering my will in situations where asserting the illusion of control is counter-productive. It's hard for me. But I continue to try to be more faithful, and to diminish the gap between my words and my actions. This is just one of the challenges our portion presents this week. It's a good one.

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