Sunday, November 15, 2020

Portion Toldot: Savlanut/Patience

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 what she knows from this God-given prophecy, Rebecca favors the younger boy from the start, while Isaac prefers his more macho first-born.  It’s a painfully dysfunctional dynamic, which divides the family throughout the twins’ childhood. It finally comes to a head as they reach adulthood, when Rebecca conspires with Jacob to trick Isaac (who is now blind) into giving him the blessing he intends 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 much shaggier 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 before the boys were even 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 patience?

In The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, Diane Sharon argues accordingly: “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 act 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 seize our fate, to shape every detail of the course of our lives on our own timetable. 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.  


This week’s midah/character trait is patience.  In Hebrew, it is savlanut, which contains the root sabal, meaning “a porter.”  What is the relationship between patience and porters?  Mussar teacher Shlomo Wolbe (as cited in Alan Morinis’s book Every Day, Holy Day) offers this insightful connection: The patient person is exactly like someone who is carrying a heavy package.  Even though it weighs upon him, he continues to go on his way, and doesn’t take a break from carrying it. The same is true in all the relationships that are between people: we see and hear many things that aren’t according to our will, and still we continue to be friends.

It’s hard to wait, especially under trying circumstances, which are all-too-common these days.  But as 2020 draws toward its end, we are going to need to muster all the patience we can get.  Healing our divided nation and restoring hope in the face of this pandemic will not be either quick or easy work.  But the weight will be lighter if we bear it patiently—together.


Mussar Practice for this Week (from Mussar Torah Commentary)

This week, set an intention to notice the moments during the day when you feel challenged to exhibit patience. Pay attention to the quality of your feelings (irritation, anger, anxiety, boredom, or something else) at these moments.  At the end of each day, record your observations.  What learning emerges about the nature of your relationship with the midah of patience?  In what way does the mere act of noticing these moments and then reflecting upon them affect your capacity to practice savlanut?  

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