Thursday, November 4, 2010

Willing and Waiting (portion Toldot)

We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.

This quote, from E.M. Forster, speaks to a paradox at the heart of this week’s Torah portion, Toldot. As it opens, God tells Rebecca, who is struggling with a painful pregnancy: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples will descend from you; one kingdom will become mightier than the other, and the elder will serve the younger.” Soon thereafter, she delivers twins, with Esau emerging first, followed by his brother, Jacob.

Perhaps because of God’s prophecy to her, Rebecca favors the younger boy from the start, while Isaac prefers his more macho first-born. This dynamic divides the family and comes to a head many years later, when Rebecca conspires with Jacob to trick Isaac (who is now blind) into giving him the blessing intended for Esau. The plan involves a brilliant deception: she covers Jacob’s arms with sheepskins, so that when Isaac feels him, he thinks he is his hairy older brother. Although Isaac initially responds with some suspicion, in the end, the plot succeeds.

But all of this raises a question: If God has already told Rebecca of Jacob’s eventual primacy even before the boys were born, why is she so desperate to force the matter with all of this deception? Does Rebecca’s eagerness to seize the blessing for Isaac betray an underlying lack of faith?

In The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, Diane Sharon argues this line: “What if, by urging Jacob to steal the blessing meant for his brother, Rebecca is not acting in harmony with the will of God? . . 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.”

For us, as for Rebecca, it can be very difficult to “let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” We strive mightily to determine our fate, to shape every detail in the course of our lives. I have wrestled with this challenge a great deal, personally and professionally. My first inclination is almost always to try to assert control over my circumstances. But as I grow older, I continue to learn that sometimes I can only gain what I desire by learning to let it go—to muster the patience to let God’s intentions blossom in their own time.

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