Author Archives: Rabbi Ruth Gais

Rabbi Ruth Gais

About Rabbi Ruth Gais

Rabbi Ruth Gais is the director of The New York Kollel and Community Outreach at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, New York, NY.

Dripping Like Rain, Flowing Like Dew

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"Give ear, O heavens, let me speak;
Let the earth hear the words I utter!
May my teaching drip as the rain,
My words flow as the dew,
Like showers on young growth,
Like droplets on the grass.
For the name of Adonai I proclaim;
Give glory to our God!" (Deuteronomy 32: 2-3).

Moses‘ final words to us, his people, are poetry. These words are so important that ordinary prose just won’t work. They are so important that the entire world, heaven and earth must listen. His words, grandiloquent, fierce, and impassioned, must fall upon us like rain, touch us like dew.

I can understand the comparison to rain. Rain, as we understand more and more in our drought-stricken region, is absolutely crucial for life. These days we welcome it with gladness. But always, whenever it rains, even a light drizzle, no matter the spirit in which we accept it, we can’t help but notice it. Whatever Moses will say in the verses that follow will be like rain–an attention-grabbing teaching that we cannot and must not ignore.

But like other commentators, I’m a bit puzzled by the mention of dew. Why does Moses say that his words are like the dew? Rashi, following Sifre, a midrash on Deuteronomy, explains that everyone rejoices in the dew but rain, though vital, can be annoying to someone on a journey, for example, or to a winemaker into whose vat the rain falls as he is pressing his grapes and spoils his yield. Rashi’s answer is both practical and acute; it takes into account our very human reaction to a phenomenon that we know is crucial for our survival but at that particular moment is, well, raining on our parade.

Rashi assumes that everyone unconditionally rejoices in the dew. I love the dew because it is the antithesis of rain. Dew is shy and unpretentious, qualities which rain can sometimes also possess, but much more aggressively. Rain always calls attention to itself.

But when I think of dew, it is with a smile. I think of an early summer morning. It is calm and sleepy. I could be the only one awake in the whole world except for the birds. The sun has just risen and its rays are still gentle. I am barefoot. If I just run out the door I’ll get my feet wet and then go about my business. But if I take my time and look before I step on the grass, I can see the little drops of dew glistening on each individual blade. When I step on the grass, I shiver a little, but it’s a pleasant, anticipatory shiver, heralding all the mystery that the new day will bring. Dew is quiet, and unassuming, beneficial and dependable, yet mysterious. It is there every morning but we are likely to ignore it or take it for granted.

Dew just is. This simple fact is crucial to our understanding of the importance of dew. The implication of dew’s quiet existence is quite profound. To be aware of the dew is to become alert to all of the hidden goodness of God that we so often take for granted. In the haftarah (reading from the Prophets or Writings) we read for Shabbat Shuvah (the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) this week, Hosea tells us that God will be to Israel "ka’tal," like the dew (Hosea 14:6), and coated with dew, Israel will blossom and flourish.

Rain, like Torah, keeps us alive but rain does not always fall. The dew, smaller and less obvious, is a constant. Both rain and dew are signs of God’s mercy, which is at times obvious, at times less so. During these days of teshuvah (repentance) when we have much hard spiritual work to do I find it comforting to think of God’s mercy like the dew, always there, steadfast in love no matter how far we might have strayed and how long we might have forgotten it.

Only Connect

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Parashah Overview

  • Rebekah has twins, Esau and Jacob. (25:19-26)
  • Esau gives Jacob his birthright in exchange for some stew. (25:27-34)
  • King Abimelech is led to think that Rebekah is Isaac’s sister and later finds out that she is really his wife. (26:1-16)
  • Isaac plans to bless Esau, his firstborn. Rebekah and Jacob deceive Isaac so that Jacob receives the blessing. (27:1-29)
  • Esau threatens to kill Jacob, who then flees to Haran. (27:30-45)

Focal Point

This is the story of Isaac, son of Abraham. Abraham begot Isaac. Isaac was 40 years old when he took to wife Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. Isaac pleaded with Adonai on behalf of his wife, because she was barren; and Adonai responded to his plea, and his wife, Rebekah, conceived. But the children struggled in her womb, and she said, “If so, why do I exist?” She went to inquire of Adonai (Genesis 25:19-22).

Your Guide

Why does the text say that Isaac is the son of Abraham and then repeat that Abraham begot Isaac?

This week’s parashah gets its name, Toldot, from the second word in the first verse. This word comes from the root yld, meaning “bring forth” or “beget.” It is translated as “story” in the Plaut Commentary and as “progeny” in a translation by A. Silbermann (Pentateuch with Rashi’s Commentary). Does the translation of this word shape our understanding of the parashah as a whole?

Why is Rebekah’s genealogy longer than Isaac’s?

The Hebrew phrase l’nochach ishto in verse 21 is translated as “on behalf of his wife” in the Plaut Commentary, while the Silbermann translation is “facing his wife.” Both translations are accurate. What do we learn from each one?

Do you think it is significant that three of the matriarchs–Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel–are barren for many years?

Why are the children struggling in Rebekah’s womb?

By the Way…

“Abraham begot Isaac:” This is the way in which Abraham and Isaac moved toward holiness: They both knew that it was not through their individual merit but through the merit of their fathers and their children.(Yehiel Malchsander in Itturei Torah I on Genesis 25:19).

“Isaac pleaded with Adonai:” (Genesis 25:21) R. Azariah said in the name of R. Hanina b. Papa: Why were the matriarchs so long childless? In order that they should not put on airs toward their husbands on account of their beauty. R. Hiyya b. Abba said: Why were the matriarchs so long childless? In order that the greater part of their lives should be spent without servitude. R. Levi in the name of R. Shila said: Why were the matriarchs so long barren? Because the Holy One, blessed be God, longed to hear their prayers (Song of Songs Rabbah, chapter II,14:8).

“On behalf of his wife:” (Genesis 25:21) This teaches that Isaac prostrated himself in one spot and she in another (opposite him), and he prayed to God: “Sovereign of the universe! May all the children that Thou will grant me be from this righteous woman.” She, too, prayed likewise (Genesis Rabbah 38.5).

“Facing his wife:” He stood in one corner and prayed, while she stood in the other corner and prayed. (Rashi on Genesis 25:21)

“Facing his wife:” We need to understand why they prayed from opposite sides. R. Yehoshua b. Levi explained (Bava Batra 25): Later on, the men of the Great Assembly decided the direction one should be facing while praying. But because Isaac and Rebekah did not yet know the proper place to pray, they came up with a plan: Isaac would stand in one corner and Rebekah in another corner so that one way or another, one of them would be facing the right direction (Mayim Chayim in Itturei Torah I on Genesis 25:21).

“The children struggled within her” (Genesis 25:22). R. Johanan said: Each ran to slay the other [deriving the word “struggled,” vayit’rotz’tzu, from the root rutz, meaning “run”]. They sought to run within her. When she stood near synagogues or schools, Jacob struggled to come out. When she passed idolatrous temples, Esau eagerly struggled to come out” (Genesis Rabbah 53.6).

“Only connect.” (E. M. Forster, Howard’s End, chapter 22)

Your Guide

Both Rashi and the Mayim Chaim (commentator Chaim  ben Bezalel) prefer the translation “facing his wife,” yet they offer different interpretations of the scene. Rashi’s interpretation evokes the boxing ring–Rebekah in one corner, Isaac in the other, both waiting for the bell. This competitive vision is tempered by that of the Mayim Chayim, who transforms the antagonists into a pious couple. From your understanding of these two characters, is there truth in either or both of these interpretations?

The translation of l’nochach ishto as “on behalf of his wife” presents Rebekah as mute while Isaac prays for her. Why does Genesis Rabbah add, “She, too, prayed likewise”? Compare this midrash with that of Song of Songs Rabbah. What is Rebekah’s role in these explanations? Does God want to hear women’s prayers as well as men’s?

Does Yehiel Malchsander’s understanding of the reason for this parashah’s consuming interest in genealogy express a model of family dynamics that is consonant with the rest of our reading this week?

The reason for the struggle between the children in Rebekah’s womb offered by Genesis Rabbah 53.6 escalates and deepens the twins’ uterine activity. What do you think is the commentator’s purpose for giving this explanation?

D’var Torah

If only relationships were as simple as the recitation of lineage seems to be: “Abraham begot Isaac” and so on. Yet the opening verses of this parashah show us that each familial relationship and, by extension, all human relationships are far more complex. We plunge immediately into the harsh, competitive world of Isaac and his family. We see this clearly in Genesis 25:22: Our first piece of information about Jacob and Esau is that even in the womb, they fight. From here the parashah chronicles their conflict and the deterioration of their family’s structure. It’s easy to see why Genesis Rabbah develops this prenatal struggle into a murderous ideological conflict.

It is possible that there is a premonition of the twins’ rivalry even before verse 22. The two translations of the phrase in the preceding verse l’nochach ishto, “on behalf of his wife” and “facing his wife,” offer two models of existence open to Isaac and Rebekah and their sons–unity and openness or conflict and deceit. That both these options exist during a moment of prayer may hint that their choice of union or separation (whether we refer to Rebekah and Isaac or to Jacob and Esau) is embedded in their own constant spiritual struggle with their relationship with God.

“Only connect,” E. M. Forster urges, yet we see that both the crowded conditions in Rebekah’s womb and the empty space between Rebekah and Isaac reflect the difficulty to fulfill Forster’s command. The opening lines of the parashah prepare us for the bleak sadness of its end. Both sons leave. The old couple, Rebekah and Isaac, are left alone, the continuation of their line uncertain. Will they be able to close the gulf between them? If they cannot connect with each other, can they connect with God? Can we?