Parshat Toldot

Parshat Toldot

Saturday Morning

2011

  1. Shabbat Shalom

  1. One of the most puzzling aspects of the Book of Genesis is the nature of its main characters. One of my colleagues once challenged me by noting that there is not one person in the entire book that you would want to have as a friend. Abraham and Sarah are not very nice to Hagar and Ishmael. Isaac and Rebecca play favorites with their children and conspire against each other so that their “favorite” child gets all the benefits. Jacob’s household is filled with intrigue, jealousy, sibling rivalry, deception and anger. And these are the founders of our people!

  1. And when it comes to faith, they are also not very faithful to God. Abraham and Isaac resort to lying when they fear for their lives in a foreign land. Jacob gets what he wants by deceit. They all seem to think that they will have to act to secure God’s blessing for their children and not trust that God will make everything turn out okay in the end. And I guess I would feel bad that these first families of our religion are not very nice people but when we compare them to Adam, Eve, Cain, Noah and Lot, they really are a significant improvement. Still, our matriarchs and patriarchs have a long way to go to meet any basic definition of holy or spiritual people.

  1. But before I answer the question about why God chose this family to introduce what will become Judaism into the world, there is a more basic question that needs to be asked. What is the Torah trying to tell us with the story of these families that reads like a soap opera or a tele-novella? How are we supposed to react to their scheming, lying and deceptions? Or perhaps we should each ask ourselves the question, what am I to think when God blesses people whom I don’t approve of?

  1. While we have pretty good idea about the lives of our patriarchs, we have less information about other people in history and about others who live nearby. I think that we have to be careful when we look at how God blesses others. First of all, sometimes it is easier to see the blessings that others have and not see the blessings that exist in our own lives. It is always dangerous for our well being to see the advantages that others have and not see the gifts that are ours. We often put down our strongest assets and instead covet what we think others have.

  1. Maybe this is why our society is so addicted to gossip. We have this primal need to know that others who are wealthier than we are, who are more beautiful than we are, who have more in their lives than we will ever have, also are more miserable than we are, have more unhappiness in their lives and are squandering the blessings they have. When we see famous people making a mess of their lives, we get this smug satisfaction that we may not be rich and powerful but we have it better than they do.

  1. The problem of course is that wealth, fame and beauty are not necessary ingredients to mess up one’s life. There are, of course many rich and famous people who are happy, well adjusted, who love their spouse and children and who are also generous, kind, charitable and socially conscience. We don’t need to leave the confines of King’s Point or Coral Lakes to find divorce, misery, unhappy lives, pain and sorrow. All of these things can happen to everyone, no matter if they seem blessed or not. Our first realization, therefore is to understand that when we see someone who seems to be blessed, we need to understand that they may not really be as blessed as we think they are. Or, conversely, maybe they are more worthy of God’s blessing than we know.

  1. Another aspect of God’s blessing is that we are not really in a position to realize that what may be a blessing to one person may not be a blessing to someone else. I know a story of a man who was working at a summer job at a ranch and was unhappy with the quality of the food that was being served. He complained about the food constantly until another older man, a holocaust survivor, reminded him that compared to what was served to the inmates in Germany, this was a feast. How can we who have never been blind understand the blessing of sight? How can we complain that we have a loud and boisterous family when there are so many who have nobody to care about them in this world? My wife was shopping in Publix and the price of something she wanted to buy would not come up on the register. The cashier asked Michelle if she knew what the price of the item was. Michelle said that she had no idea of the item’s price. The cashier responded, “It is a blessing not to have to know the price of something before you buy it.” It was a stark reminder that not everyone can buy what they want, eat out when they want and travel where they choose. In these hard times we must not forget to count blessings that we take for granted.

  1. I believe that we need to pay more attention, not to the trashy people who mess up their lives, but to the real menchen of the world who overcome their challenges and rise above their misfortunes. We find very little published about the families that overcome great sorrow to find meaning in life. I have a very good friend whose son died in a tragic medical mistake at a hospital. Rather than sue everyone involved, they set out to do good in the name of their son. They have donated, over the years, millions to causes they believe in and have helped raise millions more. Yes, it is true that some families descend into a dark pit of despair that tears apart their family and their lives when tragedy strikes. But I find my inspiration in the families that rise above the pain and sorrow and bring good and joy into the lives of others. I read a story once about a couple who gave a huge donation to a good cause in the name of a son who had died in the war. Another woman, in the audience heard the donation and said to her husband, “let’s make a similar donation in honor of our own son.” Her husband was puzzled, “But our son didn’t die in the war.” “Exactly,” said his wife, “We need to give in thanks for that blessing.”

  1. Going back to my original question; what are we supposed to do when God blesses people whom we don’t approve of? First of all, we need to remember that we are not God. It is not for us to judge who is deserving of blessing and who is not. We don’t always understand why God does one thing or another. What we really need to do is to learn a lesson about the blessings we find in others, a lesson we can bring into our own lives. We need to see in others what makes them worthy of God’s blessing and then discover how we can bring that lesson into our life and the lives of our family. We always need to look close to see if what we are observing is a real blessing in their lives or perhaps it is a terrible curse that they bear. What you would consider heaven, might be hell to someone else. We may think it is wonderful to sit down in front of the TV on a Sunday afternoon with a beer and watch a football game, but for someone who grew up in a home with an alcoholic mother or father, football and beer may call up terrible memories. We need to be careful about judging others until we fully understand what it is like to walk in their shoes.

  1. So what happens when we do understand their lives? We have a record of the lives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We know from the Bible what motivated them and their wives to do what they did to themselves and to others. Why does God bless them when their lives are so far from the Bible’s idea of the perfect family? How could God justify some of the terrible things they did?

  1. I think that this lesson is one of the most important in the entire Bible. The issue is not how could God bless those who were so flawed. The real issue is that God does bless them, in spite of their flaws. Abraham struggles to make sure that Isaac will inherit God’s blessing even though Abraham already knows that, no matter what may happen, God has promised the blessing to Isaac. At the beginning of the parsha this week, God clearly tells Isaac and Rebecca that the younger brother will rule over the older one. Why did Rivka need to resort to deception to make sure that Jacob got what God had promised? And why would God make that kind of a promise to bless a liar and con artist like Jacob? Clearly God sees more in Jacob than his actions as a young man. As he learns and grows, he matures into the the kind of person who is more worthy of the blessing.

  1. We sometimes forget how young and reckless we once were in life. We have to stop and remind ourselves about the really dumb and dangerous things we once did when we were too young to really think about the consequences. We got lucky and didn’t get caught, didn’t get arrested, and learned important lessons from these mistakes, lessons that, when we pause to think about them, make us shudder about how close to the brink of disaster they once brought us. Tragedy has made us stronger. The mistakes we made, have made us wiser. We know what it means to rise above our faults and still live lives filled with meaning and compassion. God knows we are not perfect, and God has blessed us anyway, with food on our table, with a roof over our heads, with friends, synagogue, faith and family. What better blessings could we ask for?

  1. No-one deserves tragedy in their lives, but tragedy comes to us anyway. How we respond to the tragedy can be a source of pain or a source of blessing. That is always our choice. We can make our pain into blessings for others if we choose to rise above our hurt and seek ways to ease the hurt of others. Blessings are not something that we see in someone else and wish we had what they have. Blessings are that which helps us rise above what we might be so that we can be so much more. Judaism teaches us that each and every one of us has over 100 reasons to say a blessing each day. One hundred blessings that we need to acknowledge before God each and every day we are alive. We don’t need to covet what others have, we only need to open our eyes to who we are and what we can be. If we can just do that which will bring meaning into our life and joy into the hearts of others, then we will clearly see how richly God has blessed us.

May God bless us everyday and may we treasure each and every blessing in our lives as we say….

AMEN AND SHABBAT SHALOM

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