Rabbi Shaya's Thoughts

Living in Isolation

It has been eight months already and counting. We were all hoping that by this point we would be back to normal. When the coronavirus appeared on the scene, and we were told that the country would be going into lockdown for two weeks, we never imagined that we would still be here today. Even as things loosened up, we never thought that the school year would open as it did, and that now the schools would be struggling with the debate about whether they should or should not stay open. (Montgomery County schools just closed for two weeks.) All of this is just causing people to be more and more isolated. To feel more and more alone. 


Holidays are times for people to spend with family and friends. It was difficult for us to see our loved ones on Passover all alone, then on birthdays that came and went, anniversaries, and other celebrations. New couples held only small weddings, and so on. Even the High Holidays were so unusual! What do we make of all of this? This question has been asked of me with some more urgency this week as we face an uptick in numbers and a Thanksgiving holiday on the horizon. This is an inner struggle for many people, some wanting to say enough is enough, and we cannot deal with the isolation any longer; and yet, no one wants to be a contributor to the reason why COVID is getting worse and not better. 


I have no comment on the medical side of this conversation, but I would like to address the isolation issue. This is not the first time in history that people have felt isolated—not only because of a pandemic; sometimes it can happen for other reasons as well. 


Let us look at the famous biblical story that we read in this week’s Torah portion, where Leah is married to Jacob but doesn’t feel loved. She feels all alone, isolated. Each time she gives birth, she gives her infants names that express how she feels, her longing for her husband to love her. Her first son’s name, Reuben, means “now G-d has seen my humiliation.” Her second son’s name, Shimon, means “G-d has heard the hatred that is felt toward me.” The third son she names Levi, meaning “finally my husband will feel attached to me.” And it goes on with the other names as well.  


Here we see Leah, a lonely woman longing for a relationship, not wanting to be all alone. It is not fun to feel isolated. 


However, this is only scratching the surface of the verses. Since we know that Leah is buried together with Jacob, clearly she wasn’t “hated” by him, so what did she mean? Equally important, how does this story relate to us? 


At first Leah was sharing her feelings, expressing how she felt. She felt alone, isolated, and unloved. She hoped that one day her husband would notice her, and her feelings would dissipate and evaporate as if they were never there in the first place. Life would be full of roses. Yet, as we delve deeper into the meaning of the names, we see that actually she was not talking about herself at all, but about the virtues of her children. How great they would turn out to be! 

As Leah named her children, she looked into the future, not only at her current predicament. 

True, she felt isolated, but she wasn’t depressed; she made sure that only good would come out of the relationship. In the end we see that her children were all good children—they passed the test of time, and even her relationship blossomed. Take Reuben for example: When his younger brother Joseph is given a “double portion” as the first son instead of Reuben, he doesn’t complain. Reuben not only accepts it, he even tries to save Joseph from the pit (but he is unsuccessful). Here we see how one can take a bad situation and turn it into a positive. 

Here is a lesson for us as well. During life before the pandemic, we might not have had too much time to think about our personal life, and we just went with the flow. We participated in holiday events, community events, and so on. Now, we are forced to think about what our contribution is to our family, to our community, and to society. 

How are we making that difference? 


Having a better understanding of our relationships

At times, we can be confused as to what kind of relationships we have with our friends, with our colleagues, and even with our children. Did we communicate our intentions properly? Did they understand what we were trying to share with them? Did the message get lost in our communication? Today such potential miscommunication is commonly called a generation gap. But if it is so, perhaps there is more to it.

Let’s see what the Torah has to say on this subject. We find an interesting anomaly to the way the first words of this week’s Torah portion are written. The parsha says, “And this is the offspring of Isaac,” referring to both his children, Jacob and Esau. Yet, it is not written explicitly.

Here is the quandary: It is clear from the rest of the story that follows that Jacob continues the chain of the Jewish tradition. It is one thing to mention that Esau is a child – facts are facts – but if we are trying to illustrate what Isaac stood for, why hint about the existence of Esau now? When the information becomes relevant, we will say so.

Let’s jump to the end of Esau’s life—perhaps that event can shed some light. In a dramatic episode during Jacob’s funeral, there is a skirmish in which Esau dies as well, and his head, but not his body, is buried along with his brother, Jacob. Why is Esau’s head buried along with Jacob, the wicked with the righteous? Even if it is his head only? Meanwhile, Ishmael, Abraham’s son—who, we should keep in mind, did return to G-d’s way—was not buried at all near Abraham or Isaac?

This only broadens our questions to include not only what is the difference between Jacob and Esau, but also what is the difference between Esau and Ishmael?

We must conclude that the two are not alike at all. Ishmael, although he changed his ways, never connected to Abraham; he remained disassociated from him. Esau, on the other hand, although he might have struggled his whole life, was always connected to his father; it might have been a turbulent relationship, but a relationship it was. In the end, only his “head” remained connected; his “body” never made the association. His head submitted to Isaac & Jacob’s way of life, although his actions did not follow.  

The lesson is clear. We must never give up hope on any child, or on any relationship. We must do all that we can to help even the most troubled souls. Perhaps we can make a difference in their lives. Sometimes, all that we can do is lift up their “head,” hopefully with the help of G-d, and their own initiation, their “body” will come along as well. 

Ease the Tension

Abraham and Sarah. We all know them by name. Two very powerful personalities. Reading the Torah, we can feel the tension in their home. Abraham loved both his sons. Sarah kicked one out. Abraham, not too pleased, turned to G-d for help, and was advised to “listen to your wife.” That is why when this week’s Torah portion tells us that Sarah died and Abraham took a new wife, we are not surprised that he welcomed back his son Ishmael into his home. In other words: Abraham moved on from Sarah. 

However, if this is the narrative, then why is the whole Torah portion called the “Life of Sarah,” when in actuality, Sarah died? We must say that the lesson we learn throughout this week’s portion is that Abraham and his children did live according to Sarah’s world view. That is why the portion is called the “Life of Sarah,” since she continued to live on in their actions.  

How do we see this? 

1 – Sarah’s burial place. Abraham is very specific as to where he wants to bury Sarah. We see his negotiating skills at play. Not to get into the details here, but why was he so desperate to buy this particular piece of land? Because it was believed that Adam and Eve were buried there. Adam and Eve were not “Jewish,” yet it was important to Abraham that his wife, and eventually he as well, would be buried next to them.  

2 – Isaac’s future wife. Abraham was very particular about whom Isaac would marry. He wanted to make sure that Isaac’s wife would live according to Sarah’s wishes. 

3 – Confirmation of his wishes. When Abraham saw how Ishmael’s wives were behaving, he said: I will leave all of my belongings to my son Isaac. If Abraham had had any second thoughts, they were confirmed at that point—he confirmed that his wife Sarah was right.  

From these examples we see the influence that Sarah had not only on Abraham after her death, but on us as well.  

The Tomb of the Patriarchs is the burial place of our ancestors. Every year, the IDF makes it possible for thousands of Jews to visit Hevron and spend their Shabbat in prayer and celebration, although this year that will not be happening. We learned the values of a “good Jewish wife” from Sarah and Rebecca. We also learned how to value Jewish education. These are important lessons that Sarah imparted to us. That is why we call this portion the “Life of Sarah,” since sometimes only after one’s passing is the tension eased, and we come to appreciate the wisdom in their lessons. 

Can I Question G-d?

It can be very frustrating when we try to accomplish a feat but we are not able to finish it. How much more so, when G-d himself gives us a job to do but then stops us in our tracks, as if saying: you are unworthy to do this task. How insulting can that be? Well, that is exactly what Abraham thought to himself as we see when we read this week’s Torah portion, the story of the “Binding of Isaac.” You see, G-d told Abraham to take his son Isaac to the mountain top as an offering. Once there, Abraham was about to slaughter his son—but then he was told to stop.


We must keep in mind that up to this point Abraham had never questioned G-d, not even in his own mind. He never asked, “How could this be?” since “G-d promised that my offspring will come forth through Isaac.” He just followed orders. Once he was told to stop, his first thought was that perhaps he was unworthy of fulfilling G-d’s orders, and was being punished.


The angel of G-d calmed him down and said, “No, you did not fail at all! Just the opposite, you succeeded.” The angel made a powerful point: “The fact that you never questioned G-d shows that you are a loyal servant, even if you didn’t finish the task. It is not the end result that matters but the journey. More importantly is not probing to understand G-d’s way.”    


Often in life we find ourselves disappointed with the way things turn out. A job, a project, whatever. We wonder, Was this G-d’s plan? I thought I prayed on the High Holidays for a blessing. Where is that blessing? Did I mess up? Am I being punished? The lesson that we take from the story of the binding of Isaac is that if we have trust in G-d and we don’t question G-d, then it is not a punishment, we did our job, our task just changed. What we thought we are meant to do, has shifted. Now we are on to our next task.

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