The Sephardic Heritage Museum Explores THE LIFE AND ESCAPE of the JEWS OF SYRIA

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A TRUE AND TESTED SEGULAH FOR SUCCESS





This month, we once again read the fascinating stories in the Book of Beresheet about our avot and imahot – our saintly patriarchs and matriarchs, the men and women chosen by Gd Himself to lay the foundations of His beloved eternal nation.  These stories are told for us to study so we can learn about what these foundations are, about the beliefs, values, principles and conduct that are to characterize Gd’s eternal nation charged with the mission to represent Him to the rest of mankind.  But in order to properly learn and internalize these messages, we need to study the text with the guidance and direction of our commentators, who uncover for us the deeper layers of interpretation, and unearth the timeless, vital lessons for life which the Torah conveys to us.

Rivka’s Distress

This month we focus our attention on Rivkah, the second of our matriarchs, who is described by the Torah as having experienced an unusual pregnancy.  The Torah tells that she conceived with twins, and the two fetuses “scurried about” in her uterus, which prompted her to approach the prophet of her time – identified by Rashi (25:22) as Noah’s son, Shem – and pose the question, “Lamah zeh anochi?”  Rashi explains this to me, “Why did I desire children?”  It seems from Rashi’s explanation that Rivkah’s exceptionally painful pregnancy led her to regret desiring children, and to regret praying to conceive during her twenty years of infertility. 

Already Rav Haim Ben-Attar (the Or Ha’hayim) noted the difficulty in this understanding of the verse.  Could we imagine Rivkah, our righteous matriarch, who was handpicked by the Almighty to marry Yitzhak, regretting having children because of a difficult pregnancy?  We can certainly sympathize with her excruciating pain, as we must sympathize with any patient suffering a difficult illness, but at the same time, this was a temporary condition that would end with the birth of her children.  And besides, one of the most outstanding and important qualities of the tzadikim (righteous people) is the way they handle adversity.  Countless stories are told of great sages who suffered the most painful illnesses, or experienced the worst kinds of torment and degradation, and yet managed to retain their composure, confidence, and faith without flinching for even a moment.  Rabbi Akiva endured the most painful suffering imaginable when he was tortured to death by the Romans, and at those moments he spoke of his immense joy over the privilege of surrendering his life for the glorification of Gd.  Are we to believe that Rivkah lacked the kind of strength and resolute faith that Rabbi Akiva had?  Can we really imagine her deciding it was a mistake to want children, just because of a difficult pregnancy?

Moreover, the Or Ha’hayimfurther notes, the response she received from the prophet does not address her question according to this interpretation.  The prophet informed her that her unusual pregnancy was due to the fact that she was carrying twins, who would grow to establish two competing nations.  How would this knowledge ease Rivkah’s pain?  Would she now be comforted any more than she was assuming she would deliver only one child?

In light of these and other questions, a different interpretation of this story has been offered.

“As One Person, With One Heart”

One of the most famous and critically important passages in Rashi’s commentary is found in his commentary to the Book of Shemot, specifically, in reference to the verse that introduces the story of Matan Torah – our receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai (Shemot 19:2).  The Torah there tells of the nation’s encampment at the foot of Mount Sinai – “Vayihan sham Yisrael– Israel encamped there,” and Rashi takes note of the singular form “vayihan” used in this verse.  Rashi explains that the Torah employs here the singular form because the Nation of Israel arrived at Sinai “as one person with one heart,” all together, as an indivisible unit.  Whereas during the previous weeks they were plagued by strife and friction, their arrival at Sinai was characterized by peaceful, harmonious relations among the people.

Many rabbis noted that this sense of unity was an absolute, non-negotiable prerequisite to Matan Torah.  The text makes a point of noting the peace and harmony among the people because otherwise they could not have received the Torah, plain and simple.  And this was true not only at Sinai, but every time we walk into a synagogue or study hall to learn Torah, and even every time we open a book or turn on a recording to learn Torah.  This is a remarkable quality of Torah – that it can be understood, successfully absorbed, internalized and practiced only in an aura of peace and harmony.  When it comes to any other field of study, success can be achieved regardless of one’s character and his relationships with the people around him.  Torah, however, is Gd’s wisdom, and it can only be studied when we are “as one person, with one heart.”  Jealousy, competition, and strife directly undermine our ability to absorb the sacred knowledge of the Torah.  And thus the Torah could only be given once the people abandoned petty infighting and joined together “as one person, with one heart.”

The work Kerem Shlomo suggests that this is the meaning of Rivkah’s cry, “Lamah zeh anochi.”  The “scurrying” that Rivkah felt inside her, as Rashi explains, was Yaakov and Esav wrestling and fighting with one another.  These two struggled against one another already in utero, when they unborn fetuses.  Rivkah, the Kerem Shlomoexplains, knew full well what was happening, that her two children were fighting, that already before they were born, they could not get along with one another.  And thus she cried, “Lamah zeh anochi” – “How will there be Anochi,” referring to the first of the Ten Commandments proclaimed at Sinai: “Anochi Hashem Elokecha” (“I am the Lord your Gd”).  Rivkah was crying out not in pain, but in bewilderment.  Recognizing her role as matriarch of the nation that would stand at Sinai and enter into an eternal covenant with Gd, she shuddered at the thought of her two sons – both of whom, she had presumed, would form Gd’s special nation – fighting and battling.  If they could not get along with one another, she wondered, then how would their descendants be able to join together “as one person, with one heart” so they could receive the Torah?  How would the nation she was destined to build be able to receive, study, practice, and perpetuate the Torah if they could not get along with one another?  It simply did not make sense.  Matan Torah, the entire spiritual destiny of Am Yisrael, is not possible in any way as long the nation is plagued by friction and disunity.

This easily explains the prophet’s response to Rivkah.  The prophet clarified that in truth, only one of her two sons – Yaakov – would continue the tradition of Avraham and Yitzchak and would build Gd’s nation.  The other son, Esav, would reject the legacy of Avraham and Yitzhak, and become the eternal foe of Gd’s special nation.  The fierce struggle that waged within Rivkah’s womb was not a struggle among brothers, but rather a struggle between two different nations that represent opposing forces.  The conflict Rivkah felt inside her was not the conflict of internecine, fraternal strife, but rather the struggle between good and evil, between the Nation of Gd and the enemy nations that seek its destruction.

While we can easily imagine Rivkah’s anguish upon hearing that she would beget an evil son, at the same time, she was comforted by the knowledge that the destiny of Gd’s nation was not in jeopardy.  True, they would be forced to struggle against external forces, against the persistent attempts made by their foes to defeat them, but they would have the wherewithal to overcome these challenges through the power of their unity.  Internecine fighting, Rivkah understood, is far more destructive than any external enemy.  As long as we remain unified, we can withstand the “Esav’s” that rise against us.  And so Rivkah found solace in the knowledge that the special nation she was building would, indeed, succeed, by joining together in peace and unity such that they could receive the Torah and embark upon their great mission.

One Fight Eliminates 100 Opportunities

In a later section in that same parashah (chapter 26), we learn of another destructive effect of fighting and discord.

The Torah tells of Yitzhak’s struggles as he sought to find water in the arid Negev region during a severe drought.  Twice, we read, Yitzhak’s shepherds found wells of water, only to have his rights to these precious resources challenged by the corrupt Philistines.  Finally, Yitzhak’s men found a third well, the rights to which went uncontested.  Yitzhak exclaimed at that moment, “Now, at last, Gd has given us space, so we can be fruitful in the land” (26:22). 

Yitzhak’s proclamation expresses a simple truth – though one which, unfortunately, we too often fail to realize: fighting undermines our ability to prosper.  So often, we start or pursue a fight in order to obtain something we feel we should have – whether it’s money, prestige, influence, or any of the other things people commonly fight about.  Yitzhak’s simple but profound declaration shows us how foolish this is.  When we fight, even if we win, we actually lose.

This message was expressed very sharply and succinctly by the Shelah Ha’kadosh (Rav Yeshayah Horowitz, 1558-1630), who said: “Mahaloket ahat dohah me’ah parnasot– A single argument pushes away 100 livelihoods.”  If we get embroiled in just one argument, we forfeit 100 profitable opportunities.  We all know how difficult it is to earn a living in today’s day and age, and so many people scramble in search of the magic “segulah” (“charm”) that will bring financial success.  Unfortunately, most people overlook this true and tested “segulah” – avoiding fighting and conflict.  Even when it seems that we need to wage a battle to earn money, the precise opposite is true – we increase our chances of earning a livelihood a hundredfold by refraining from conflict and living peacefully with other people. 

A number of works cite a remarkable comment of the Midrash teaching that throughout the period of the uprising led by Korah against Moshe and Aharon in the wilderness, the manna did not fall from the heavens.  Each day for 40 years, Gd fed our ancestors the miraculous manna – even after they worshipped the golden calf, and even after they sinned with the women of Moav.  The only exception was during the period of “mahaloket,” when the people bitterly fought against one another.  When there is fighting among the Jewish People, their sustenance is withheld.  Nothing interferes with our “manna,” with the arrival of our material blessings, more than fighting and strife.  Just as we cannot possibly expect to study and properly observe the Torah without getting along with one another, likewise, we cannot expect material prosperity without living together in peace and harmony.

Asking the Right Question

The Gemara (end of Masechet Ta’anit) tells that in the future, at the time of the final redemption, Gd will have all the tzadikim dance together in a circle.  The Vilna Gaon (1720-1797) explained that at that time, peace and harmony will prevail, and so the righteous will dance in a circle, in which everybody is equal.  When people sit at a rectangular table, there is a head, middle and back of the table, which can lead to jealousy and acrimony.  In a circle, however, there is no beginning or end.  Everybody occupies the precise same position, and thus in the future, when the world finally reaches its state of perfection, the righteous will form a circle, symbolic of the absence of competition and friction.

The Gaon’s insight reflects the unfortunate, painful reality that in our unredeemed world, even the “tzadikim,” our Torah communities and institutions, are plagued by discord.  The “circle” of perfect, undisturbed peace and unity will be achieved only in the Messianic Era.  Until then, we must continually work to overcome discord and strife, even among the “tzadikim,” within our sacred institutions and without our religious communities.

The way we can do this, I believe, is by asking Rivkah’s question: “Lamah zeh anochi?”

Virtually anybody who has been involved in communal work, or in any of our religious institutions, is well-aware of the unfortunate scourge of competition, contention, and fighting that goes on, alongside all the wonderful work that is being done and outstanding achievements of which we should be proud.  People might cynically ask themselves after witnessing or experiencing conflict and acrimony, “Is there any possible way of building and running an institution peacefully?  Is there a chance that we can have a Torah community without in-fighting?”

We need to instead ask the opposite question, the question posed by Rivkah: “Lamah zeh anochi??”  How can we possibly expect to stand at Sinai, to commit ourselves to Torah, if we fight with each other?  How can a Torah institution succeed if the people involved can’t get along?  How can a community continue to prosper if we are beset by petty arguing?  Rivkah’s greatest fear should be our greatest fear, as well.  How can we hope to succeed as a community if we fight?  How can we hope to “encamp at Sinai,” to live as Torah Jews, if we do not live “as one person, with one heart”?

Disunity is not just a flaw in a community or institution; it’s a fatal flaw, which ruins all chances of success.  Or question, then, should not be, “Can we build an institution without fighting?” but rather, “How can we possibly imagine building an institution where there is fighting?”

Making a Difference

Some might, understandably, ask, “What can I do?”  We hear so many disheartening stories of fighting and discord.  How can any lone individual bring about a change?  What can possibly be done to ensure that peace and goodwill is maintained in our community and among the Jewish People generally?

While it is true that no one person is going to singlehandedly “change the world,” each and every one of us can resolve to make a difference within our own small circle, within our home, our family, our friends, and our synagogue.  Each synagogue, large or small, is a “community.”  Each school or yeshiva, large or small, is a “community.”  Each group of friends that meets once a week for socializing is a “community.”  Each family, and each home, is a “community.”  We all belong to several small “communities” that together comprise our broader community.  Let us, then, each commit ourselves to making each little “community” a little better, a little more peaceful, a little kinder, a little less competitive, and little more loving.  Let us remember that when we forgive and forego, we help, first and foremost, ourselves.  We have nothing to gain and everything to lose by insisting on fighting; we have much to gain and very little to lose by sacrificing for the sake of peace. 

Rivkah could not imagine a Jewish Nation whose members fight with one another.  Let us make our matriarch proud by doing everything we can to avoid conflict, and to live together in peace, harmony and friendship, so we will be worthy of Gd’s “manna” – of His heavenly blessings of happiness, health, and prosperity for all of us, amen.