Toldot: Hunting Down One Good Prayer

Breaking news (photo credit: JPOST STAFF)
Breaking news
(photo credit: JPOST STAFF)
In this week''s parsha we read that Isaac prayed for his barren wife Rebecca. It is notable that the term used here is “lanochach eshto”, which can be read literally as he prayed “standing before”, or “opposite” his wife. Midrash Rabbah picks up on this curious phrase and paints a picture of Isaac and Rebecca standing together, facing each other in shared prayer. It''s a poignant image of a couple working together in a striking face-to-face pose; an admirable Biblical model for partnership.
So one might ask, if this is such a partnership, why is it that it is Isaac''s prayer alone that is recorded & answered by God. Rashi explains that his prayers were heard because he was the son of a saint, whereas Rebecca is the daughter of an evil man. The poem I''m about to share attempts to take that answer one step further.
 
But first, let''s look briefly at a little of what we know about Isaac''s psychological makeup. Later in the parsha we read that Isaac''s eyes grew dim in his old age. The Midrash explicitly links Isaac''s blindness to his experience of being bound upon the altar beneath his father''s sacrificial blade. It records that angels witnessing the binding wept tears that dropped into Isaac''s eyes. Those very tears were taken as the cause of his blindness later in life.
Aviva Zornberg likens Isaac''s blindness to a type of psychological vertigo. She notes a remarkable phenomena where people who suffer traumatic experiences earlier in life can often, in later years, suffer from serious vision impairment. It is as if their compromised vision in old age is an expression of years of repressed emotion. Their blindness manifests a psychosomatic drive to un-see all the horrors that they had witness so long ago.
According to these findings, blindness can be an indicator of unprocessed trauma. As the text itself says, “Isaac''s eyes became dimmed from seeing.” His eyes were dimmed from the impact of all that he had seen. And so we return to the scene of Rivka and Isaac''s prayer for children with this in mind.
 
Yes, God hears Isaac''s prayers because he was the son of a saint; a man so saintly that he was willing to sacrifice his beloved son! We must ask ourselves what psychological impact did that near-sacrifice have on Isaac? And, most pointedly, what sort of an impact did it have on Isaac''s stance towards begetting and parenting his own children.
 
In keeping with their model of an honest face-to-face relationship, Rebecca in this poem urges her husband to do the laborious work of processing his past. She, in her own desire for children, begs him to confront whatever resistances he may have to generating his future generations.
 
It is striking that the opening & title of the parsha, “Toldot Yitzchak”, means the Generations of Isaac. Such a title could thus be seen as a testimony to his successfully stepping up to the task of continuity and child-rearing in the face of his own complex childhood.
 
Standing Opposite Isaac
 
You were broken
like
porcelain.
Dashed against a desert.
Shattered neath a father''s
dagger.
 
And a flinty mirror streaked
with tears
dripped
not blood
but blindness
into your grey hairs.
 
Your pieces plastered
back together
hold me tender
a fragile tendon
- tiptoed to the next generation.
 
You, the quiet casualty
of your father’s spiritual
ambitions.
 
Perhaps you fear
that G-d demand
you do the same
if you were to father
your own ambitions.
 
- Would you?
Or would you rather
pray?
Pray for me.
 
Here -
where you were
born up
on that unforgiving rock,
beneath an angel''s eye
and ram’s horn
fortuitously caught.
 
Would you pray a future
to fill this vacant womb?
 
Would you pray for continuity?
Would you
– continue?
 
And tell me, husband dear,
can you eye your own
resistance
and defy your very fears?
 
Forgo the blindness
that has plagued you
and face your own
descendants
with a faith
that here
is holy
and life
is weighty
and no more waiting
for safety
but rather brave the gaze
of a world that is
crazy
beautiful
and full of grace.
And shun the blade
that bids you to
accuse your father
or mourn your mother
or resent your God
or blame anyone other
than yourself
for your own debilitating
fears?
 
For the hand that
you are dealt
is but yours to
commandeer.
 
So let''s move on
to making our own
glaring
parenting
mistakes.
 
To risking inflicting
some untold & unending
trauma onto our children.
 
And with a
well-intentioned will,
sacred and sincere,
let us lift our prayers
to God''s awaiting ears.
 
With the knowledge
that beyond old traumas
and emotions on the mend
there is meaning
to the riddle
of Moriah
though our tongues
are twisted
and our eyes are dimmed.
 
Come, husband
to this field
with me
and hunt down
one good prayer.
 
For the fixing of your childhood
is through fathering your children.
  • if you dare.
     
1. "Yitzhak prayed to God, opposite his wife." (Genesis 25:21)
"Opposite his wife”: This teaches that Yitzhak and Rivka prayed facing each other, and Yitzhak said: “Almighty, all the children that you give me, let them be from this righteous woman…” (Midrash - Breishit Rabba, 63:5) This is cited by Rashi.
2. This is precisely what Rashi asks, “Why is it that God answers Isaac, but not Rebecca, as indicated by the usage in the text of the pronoun "lo," him, to the exclusion of "lah," her, or most fairly "lahem," them?"
3. RASHI answers, following the Talmud in Masechet Yevamot 64a, "that the prayer of a righteous person (Yitzchak), born of a righteous person (Avraham), ''gains the ear'' of HaShem, so to speak, more readily than the prayer of a righteous person (Rivkah) born of a wicked person (Bethuel)."
4This midrash is cited by Rashi in his commentary on the verse “When Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see.” (27:1) Bereshit Rabbah 65:5. “Isaac''s eyes became dimmed from seeing”. The translation of the word me-re''ot, means literally that his eyes became dim from the impact of that vision. For when Abraham bound his son on the altar, the ministering angels cried...And tears dropped from their eyes into his eyes, and were imprinted into his eyes. And when he became old, his eyes became dimmed, from seeing.”
5The full quote from Zornberg: “One example is the phenomenon of blindness afflicting women survivors of the Cambodian massacres. A considerable time after the Khmer Rouge horrors, and after they had found refuge in the United States, women began to complain of eyesight problems. No organic disorder was diagnosed...What the women had seen, years earlier, had made it necessary to suppress vision, to repress emotional response.” (Aviva Zornberg, “The Beginnings of Desire”, pg. 159.)
6. Pirke De R''Eliezer (c. 32) shares that after 20 years of infertility Isaac took Rivka up to Mt. Moriah, to the very place where he was bound, in order to pray together there. This seems to support idea that there is an essential connection between Isaac''s experience upon Moriah and the issue of their infertility. Thus, Moriah is the natural setting for this face-to-face discussion between them.