Holiness hides in the folds of human weakness
by Jhos Singer
Shabbat Shalom Chaverim—
I met a friend for a glass of wine after work recently. We hadn’t seen each other in a while and after the preliminary niceties the conversation turned to matters closer to the bone. Our talk wove in and out of teen depression, drug use, alcoholic parents, sibling competition, anger management, unemployment, workplace woes and other existential crises. We commiserated, laughed, sat silently and nodded knowingly at each other’s words. When we parted I felt that strange elation that comes from having held and witnessed the fire of truth.
In the cool, grey-green light of this week’s parasha—Toldot, Genesis 25:19 – 28:9—I’d have to say that our conversation had a distinctively biblical feel. Through its complex narrative, we are shown a glimmer of how holiness hides in the folds of human weakness, cruelty, and despair. Toldot reads like any number of stories I’ve heard or shared over a pot of tea, during a walk, or one of those timeless exchanges that unfold in the front seats of a car—after the tea and the walk—sitting in a dark driveway until the night’s chill forces either an exit or cranking the engine for some heat. Breakups, jealous meltdowns, intractable conflicts, betrayal, nasty dealings, family loyalty or backstabbing—analyzing these infractions with a friend often produces the emotional compost out of which grows compassion, patience, honesty, maturity, and wisdom. Over a lifetime of plumbing our drama for its gems, we sometimes learn that pain is a rough, but often effective, teacher.
I tend to read this weeks parasha as I would listen to a dear friend’s confession. My dear friend Rebecca who struggled with fertility for 20 years, finally gets pregnant. Twins boys!! They couldn’t be more different. Rebecca clearly favors Jacob, the smaller, finer one. Isaac, their dad, on the other hand, connects better with the firstborn, Esau. This always makes me a little uneasy, but what can I say? Then it turns out that Jacob scammed Esau out of his inheritance!! Ugh, fortune corrupts the best of us. Rebecca describes a total family meltdown—You see, Isaac was getting his living will together, and wanted to offer Esau a blessing. Rebecca was worried that this would leave Jacob out in the cold, so she came up with a ruse to fool Isaac into blessing her baby boy instead. Isaac fell for the ruse, blessed Jacob, but shortly thereafter Esau showed up ready to have dad lay on hands. Well, I can tell you, that when he found out that his bro scammed him again, he was furious. It was a red, hot, mess. Long story short—Jacob took off to stay with his uncle on mom’s side while things cooled down—as if! And eventually, Esau rejected the whole fam-dam-ily and went off to live with their looooong estranged paternal uncle, Ishmael. Basically, this was a total slap in the face to his dad, and pretty much everybody else involved. Anyway, by the end of this Torah portion, no one is on speaking terms.
I can’t help but think that the Torah is treating us to a long, hard look in the mirror with this family. Their foibles, their pettiness, ambition, capacity for creating discomfort for themselves and one another is so familiar. Yet our tradition holds that these were holy people. They evolved and deepened, transformed and grew, and clumsily laid the groundwork for what would be come one of the world’s greatest spirit paths. It is amazing that such an extraordinary spirituality emerged from such a tawdry beginning.
Every one of us is full of messy family drama, intergenerational wounding, and tattered trust in those who should have had our best interests in their hearts. It’s human. Our Torah recognizes that pain, but she refuses to be stopped by it. Instead she shows us how the journey of transformation transcends the trauma—spirits rise, wounds heal, life goes on. And this is what makes our stories holy, sacred, hallowed and revered.
May this Shabbat be a time to step into the extraordinary nature of our stories. May we embrace and be glad for the role we play in our lineage. And may we grab onto this gift of 25 hours to find the spiritual beauty in and amongst our ordinary lives and loves.