Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
In 1996, I fell in love with Marsha Falk’s feminist revision of the blessing I’d been giving my daughters every Friday evening, and traded my wish that they grow up to be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah for a blessing that the children be all that they can be and be blessed in who they are. But the first time I spread my hands over the head of my eldest, Elena, and said: “Tehi asher tehi, u-tehi b’rucha b’asher tehi,” she looked up at me, wide eyed, and asked, “What’s the matter, Mommy, have you lost your standards?”
I was shocked! I had always felt uncomfortable being blessed, by my own parents, to be someone other than I was; it spoke to me of all I was not, and that didn’t feel much like a blessing. And here was my nine-year-old wanting me to hope that she would develop into some version of an ideal woman.
We compromised, and to this day I bless the girls to be like the matriarchs and like themselves.
But Elena’s question gets to the heart of Rebecca’s dilemma in this week’s Torah portion: should she love Jacob for the, as yet, unworthy young person he is, or should she project onto him her high dream that he be blessed in the line of the patriarchs? It gets to the heart of the cross Jacob must bear for the rest of his life: if he was blessed in disguise, was he blessed at all?? And if this was the circumstance of his blessing, would he be blessed if he grew into the qualities that his mother had, quite literally, laid on him??
Rebecca simultaneously births a child of nature and a child of society, one who uses his body and one who is all mind, one who lives in the moment and one who plans and waits… It is as if she gives birth to a deconstructed patriarch, a patriarch whose necessary qualities are divided into archetypal halves of a self, compliments that, if balanced, would make for a truly great person.
Jacob is the one who will have a vision of the stairway to heaven. But without integrating the power and some of the fearlessness of his twin, Jacob’s dreams will remain dreams. If only Jacob had had time to grow up before Isaac began to feel the urgency of death’s approach, but that’s often not the way it goes with rising into maturity. We fake it till we make it.
So Rebecca positions Jacob to enter the world of the patriarchs, a world he’s not ready for, arming him with a disguise that will carry him through the next bit of his journey, and the blessing, “be all you can be and may you be blessed in who you are,” is traded for the projection of who Jacob could be if he integrates the qualities he lacks.
Whatever he appears to be, an amalgam of his authentic self and his mother’s aspiration for him, is blessed, and our midrash verifies that, “When Jacob left his father’s presence… reviving dew from heaven descended upon him, and his bones were covered with fat, and he, too, became a champion fighter and athlete.”
Somehow, with affirmation of his potential, he matures. And perhaps the Torah acknowledges the beginning of Jacobs’s integration of his mother’s high standards by telling us that at the end of this episode Jacob went out to Beer Sheva: “He lifted up his legs and he went.” He departs that threshold experience independently, propelled by his own energy to carry him forward toward gradual development into the man his mother dreams he can become.
My blessing for us all is my compromise with Elena: May we rise to the best potential those who love us see in us, and may we be blessed in who we, authentically, are.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.