Sunday, November 16, 2014

Trusting the Universe (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.  So often, our first impulse is to assert control (or the illusion thereof) over our circumstances.  But sometimes, it is better to trust God and the Universe. 

I’ll leave you with a poem by Jane Hirshfield, which may help in this endeavor:

When Your Life Looks Back

When your life looks back—
as it will, at itself, at you—what will it say?

Inch of colored ribbon cut from the spool.
Flame curl, blue-consuming the log it flares from.
Bay leaf. Oak leaf. Cricket. One among many.

Your life will carry you as it did always,
with ten fingers and both palms,
with horizontal ribs and upright spine,
with its filling and emptying heart,
that wanted only your own heart, emptying, filled, in return.
You gave it. What else could you do?

Immersed in air or in water.
Immersed in hunger or anger.
Curious even when bored.
Longing even when running away.

“What will happen next?”—
the question hinged in your knees, your ankles,
in the in-breaths even of weeping.
Strongest of magnets, the future impartial drew you in.
Whatever direction you turned toward was face to face.
No back of the world existed,
no unseen corner, no test. No other earth to prepare for.

This, your life had said, its only pronoun.
Here, your life had said, its only house.
Let, your life had said, its only order.

And did you have a choice in this? You did—

Sleeping and walking,
the horses around you, the mountains around you,
the buildings with their tall, hydraulic shafts.
Those of your own kind around you—

A few times, you stood on your head.
A few times, you chose not to be frightened.
A few times, you held another beyond any measure.
A few times, you found yourself held beyond any measure.

Mortal, your life will say,
as if tasting something delicious, as if in envy.
Your immortal life will say this, as it is leaving.

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