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Toldot: Hunting Down One Good Prayer

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.   

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