Parshat Toldot: After despair

Our hope is that one day there can be peace, that all of humanity can be connected in a pool of love.

Painting by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Painting by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
I was asked to write this column the day Eitam and Naama Henkin were murdered in front of their four children by Palestinian terrorists. The deadline was October 15, the day my son was due to receive his red beret, marking the end of his basic training as an IDF combat paratrooper.
Already this summer, I worried that these two events would coincide: my son’s military service and an escalation of this never-ending bloody feud between cousins we call the Palestinian- Israeli conflict. When the Dawabsheh family’s home was torched by Jewish terrorists, killing both parents and two children, back in July, I feared this would be the result. There was terror, hatred, and revenge in the air.
Already in the first few verses of the Torah portion of Toldot, I find Rebecca in a state of despair similar to my own. She felt her twin fetuses fighting in her womb. Fearing the portent of what was to come, she called out, “For this I exist?” Which, through the lens of my current situation, I interpret to mean: For this humanity exists? For this we bring new souls into this world? So brother can fight brother? Rebecca turns to God for some answers. And what does God tell Rebecca? “Two nations are in your belly, and when they are born, they will separate and one will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.”
In other words, this is the way of the world. Brothers fight brothers.
But don’t worry. There will be a chosen one, Jacob, who will win out in the end. It seems this brings Rebecca some solace, because she plays along with the system, and Jacob does, indeed, win.
But if Rebecca’s original question to God was an outcry against violent conflict, she has not won. In fact, the entire Torah portion gives us more of the same: tribalism, conquering, territoriality, and the abandonment of women.
So I look at the Haftara for some answers. Malachi asks God, “You said you love us, but how do you love us?” To which God answers, in effect, “Yes, I do love Jacob [Israel] more than Esau [Edom], but you are not keeping your side of the covenant. You are not following my rules. You are sinning and forsaking my commandments, oppressing the vulnerable and practicing empty rituals.”
“But don’t worry,” adds Malachi later, “God will send Elijah to set you straight. You are still the chosen ones.”
For some, this answer offers solace.
Israel, Jacob’s descendants, will come out on top in the end, while Esau’s hopes for restoration will be frustrated.
We are chosen to do God’s work, and God will help us return to the path. But this sounds like more of the same patriarchal tribalism that has led us to where we are now.
But what if Rebecca was truly calling out to God for another way? What if Malachi was actually asking God to prove God’s love for all of humanity by modeling for us a way of peace and love, instead of war and hatred? If we have come to a point where we can imagine a world where man does not rule over woman, despite God’s curse in Genesis to the contrary, can we also dare to imagine a world where brother does not fight brother? Can we dare to imagine a God with a better tactic for conflict resolution than chosen-ness theology? The answer I would like to propose is an alternative biblical womb to the one where Jacob and Esau battle – the Primordial Divine Watery Womb, where all is one, where all is shalem (whole), and where all is shalom (peace).
It is true that from that place of unity, our dualistic, imperfect, shattered world was born. But at least there is that womb to which we can return, or strive to aspire, or reconnect. We are told in Genesis that God commanded the waters to collect (from the root kuf-vav-heh) into pools that God then called the seas. This is what we call today a mikve, a collection of water, in which we are invited to immerse ourselves fully in order to renew our hope (tikva) that one day there can be peace, that one day all of humanity can be connected in a pool of love.
In Jeremiah God is called “Mikve Yisrael.” Let us all pray that humanity will see the day when God has a better answer for those of us who are not satisfied with God’s answer to Rebecca’s existential dilemma.
We are calling out to God in despair and grief, “Can’t you do better than that?”
Haviva Ner-David is a rabbinic mikve guide, educator, and ritual facilitator at Shmaya: A Mikveh for Mind, Body and Soul on Kibbutz Hannaton. She is the author of ‘Chanah’s Voice: A Rabbi Wrestles with Gender, Commandment, and the Women’s Rituals of Baking, Bathing, and Brightening’