Eli Wiesel describes one of the most painful moments he ever experienced as a push from behind.
Shouting, chaos, dogs barking and attacking, SS guards with guns shouting commands in German which most could not understand. For Jews arriving at Auschwitz, stepping out of the cattle cars onto the platform must have been a hell beyond description, pure chaos and terror.
Eli Wiesel’s mother, having survived the ghetto, must have instantly understood what was happening: the Nazis were herding the hapless Jews towards the far end of the platform, where they were being split into two lines. All the young and strong were headed to the right, the old and sick and weak and the babies were directed to the left. You did not have to be a genius to figure it out, so she pushed barely bar mitzvah age Eli towards his father, to life.
Motherhood to me always meant selfless devotion, sensitivity, the ability to see greatness long before anyone else was paying attention. A mother never gives up on her children, hence the verse describing our mother Rachel crying over the children of Israel, her children, determinedly beseeching G-d Himself to bring them home until finally He relents.
This week, we read the parsha of Toldot, whose theme seems to be the offspring and accomplishments of Yitzchak our forefather. But a closer look reveals it is really all about Rivka, and motherhood.
“These are the toldot of Yitzchak. … Yitzchak was 40 years old when he took Rivka … as his wife.” (Bereishit 25:19-20)
Whatever Yitzchak achieved in life followed his marriage to Rivka; she was the driving force behind the events of this week’s portion and of Yitzchak’s entire life.
The midrash (Rashi ibid. 25: 22) suggests allegorically that Rivka was confounded by the seemingly contradictory nature of the life she carried in her womb — when she’d pass a house of idolatry, Esau kicked and struggled to get out; when she’d pass a place of righteousness, Yaakov struggled to get out. Torn by who this baby would become (and apparently not yet understanding she was carrying twins) G-d eventually reveals to Rivka (25:23) that “two nations are in your belly, and two nationalities will separate from your womb … and they will struggle.”
The prophecy is given is given to Rivka who, Ramban suggests, never tells Yitzchak. Very quickly we see that these two boys are indeed very different and that Yitzchak will love Esau, and Rivka will love Yaakov. Yet, at the end of the parsha, the Torah clearly tells us that Rivka is “Rivka, the mother of Yaakov and Esau.”
Rashi says he does not know what this is meant to teach us, so one should hesitate to offer an explanation, but perhaps the Torah is telling us that Esau was still Rivka’s son, even though the path he chooses causes her great pain. When he takes women from the daughters of the Hittites, she is greatly distressed, suggesting that she still cares deeply for him. So which is it? Does Rivka love Yaakov at the expense of Esau, or is Rivka a mother to both?
In describing the love of Yitzchak and Rivka for their sons there is a marked difference: Yitzchak, says the Torah, loves Esau “because he is a hunter,” but it does not give a reason why Rivka loves Yaakov — it simply says she loves him.
Some commentaries suggest that Rivka loves Yaakov because it was foretold to her that he was the chosen one. But in that case, shouldn’t the Torah have said so? Instead, it simply says she loves Yaakov.
Perhaps we are witnessing two entirely different forms of relationship: Yitzchak and Esau on the one hand, and Rivka and Yaakov on the other. And perhaps, way back at the beginning of the Jewish journey, Hashem wants us to see that one of these relationships is what Judaism is all about.
Although Yaakov and Esau are the first brothers both born of Jewish parents, something goes wrong. Why is Esau not considered a Jew, even if he ends up as a wicked one? Perhaps there is something about the relationship between Yitzchak and Esau that is so foreign to the goals of Judaism that Esau remains outside the fold.
Yitzchak’s love for Esau is conditional; he loves him for who he wants him to become, rather than seeing and loving him for who he is. And Esau’s love for Yitzchak also seems to be practically informed. Hence he can declare himself to be waiting for his “beloved” father’s death so he can kill Yaakov. Esau is the utilitarian, the hunter for whom nature is there to service his desires. Indeed, paganism is all about conditional relationships. Ancient pagans worshipped their gods based on what they perceived to be receiving — if the Nile stopped overflowing its banks the Egyptians turned to other gods they thought could more successfully supply their needs. Indeed the only time we see Esau relating to Yaakov is when Yaakov has something Esau wants: a pot of soup. And he gives up his birthright in that moment because it does not seem to hold any immediate practical value.
The relationship of Yitzchak and Esau seems to be based on what they can get; but such relationships never last.
Rivka however, does not love Yaakov for what he can do, or even for who he is. She simply loves him; her love is based not on what she can get but on what she can give.
But you cannot give someone what they do not want and Rivka is told way back in the beginning that Esau will not want what she has to give, which is unconditional love. And this is a foundation of what Judaism is all about, and what the world so desperately needs.
G-d does not love us only because of what we do or do not do, He loves us unconditionally for who we are, and that is our greatest mission in this world: to love each other unconditionally. This does not mean accepting any and all actions; it means loving a person even when denouncing their actions, however difficult that may be.
Love after all, is all about giving; in fact the word ahava (love) is related to the word le’havi (to bring). That’s why love which is about giving is so different from lust which is about taking. And of course that is the essence of motherhood — no matter what a child may do, a mother will never stop loving her child, even if he is Esau.
Knowing we are loved unconditionally is what allows us to believe we should never give up, we can always become better, always make a difference.
Judaism, at its foundation, was built upon the belief that there is always a better world worth building, whether it is the world personified in the person next to me (each person after all, is a world) or the entire world, one person at a time.
Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem.