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A Rabbi, a Holocaust Survivor and a Lonely Struggle in the Dark Night

November 30, 2014

Dear reader,

A man I know was raised religious but chose to leave this path. Before Yom Kippur, he invited his friends to “a pig-eating fest” at his home, on this holiest day of the Jewish calendar.

I don’t judge him. I believe that the many vicissitudes of his life prevented him from celebrating this holy day in the traditional manner. Whether through anger, mockery or apathy, right now this is how he expresses his inner yearnings as his tortured soul travels its unique journey.

Years ago, I attended a lecture about the Holocaust. The rabbi gave a clear theological exposition reconciling G‑d’s apparent abandonment of His people. And then, a Holocaust survivor in the audience rose and expressed how what he witnessed made him lose faith.

What ensued was an exchange between the lecturer and the survivor, the lecturer’s brilliant responses and then the survivor’s heart-wrenching emotional outbursts.

Though objectively the lecturer “won” the “debate,” the voice of the survivor continues to haunt me. And yet, the survivor attended this lecture because he wanted to—and, I believe, did—find the solace for which he was so desperately searching.

These were my thoughts as I read the dramatic, poignant passages in this week’s Torah portion.

Jacob crosses his family and possessions over the Jabbok River, while he remains behind and encounters the angel of Esau. Jacob wrestles with him until daybreak, and suffers a dislocated hip, but finally emerges victorious. The angel then bestows upon him the name Israel, which means “he who struggles with and prevails over (an angel of) G‑d.”

Jacob’s solitary figure fighting a celestial being during the dark hours of the night symbolizes something profound for his descendants.

Nachmanides explains that the struggle represents our suffering during galut, exile, under Esau, the nations of the world. Jacob’s dislocated hip embodies the pain inflicted on us in an effort to eradicate our faith. But Israel nevertheless ultimately emerges whole.

I have been fortunate to lecture to Jewish audiences throughout the world. I have lectured in the most Jewishly forlorn cities, where Judaism appears to be an unknown relic of the past. And yet, what always astounds me is how even in such venues—and perhaps specifically there—the longing of the Jewish soul is evident, as the participants thirstily drink in their faith and heritage.

Our galut has been a long, dark night. There have been too many ravages of exile, holocausts, pogroms, and expulsions—to most recently, butchering fathers wrapped in prayer shawls while praying in synagogue just because they are Jews. Yet despite the disillusionment, the apathy, the unfairness, the suffering, and the many forces that question our faith and pull us away from our G‑d, Jacob has fought intrepidly to hold on.

And though Israel suffers some temporary dislocations and setbacks, he emerges, whole in body and whole in spirit. G‑d finally attests, “I have made you struggle with Me—and what a struggle it has been!—but you have prevailed.”

May we finally witness that time.

Chana Weisberg,
Editor, TJW

Chana Weisberg is the editor of TheJewishWoman.org. She lectures internationally on issues relating to women, relationships, meaning, self-esteem and the Jewish soul. She is the author of six books. Her latest book, Shabbat Delights, is a two-volume series on the weekly Torah portion.

How Does the Onset of Winter Make You Feel?

Vayeitzei

November 23, 2014

Dear Reader,

Did you notice that the days are getting shorter and the nights darker and colder? The winter season and the shortest daytime hours is already, or will soon be, upon us.

In this week’s Torah portion, we are introduced to two of our matriarchs, the sisters Rachel and Leah.

Rachel is a beautiful woman, the woman whom our patriarch Yaakov instantly loves. She is described as “beautiful and shapely,” reflecting her external as well as internal beauty, her sterling qualities and righteous nature.

The mystics explain that Rachel personifies the perfect individual. Her name, Rachel, means “ewe,” like the sheep of her father that she tended, animals characterized by their pure white color and serene, loveable nature.

Leah’s name, on the other hand, means “one who is weary.” Leah is described as the weak-eyed sister, weakened from her incessant tears and anxiety, worried that she would be forced to marry Jacob’s wicked twin brother, Esau. Even in her eventual marriage to Jacob, Leah personifies a more complex individual who is struggling with the darker forces of her being, facing an exhausting, perpetual tug of war.

Though Leah was a fully righteous individual, she personifies the struggle, the trials, and challenges. Nevertheless, although Rachel was the beautiful and perfect individual, favored by Jacob, Leah’s path ultimately, in some ways, led to greater heights.

It was Leah who mothered the majority of the tribes of Israel. She lived with Jacob for the greater part of their lives, while Rachel’s life was cut prematurely short. Leah was buried at Jacob’s side as his partner in the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron for all eternity, while Rachel was buried miles away, alongside the road outside of Bethlehelm.

As the bright rays of the summer disappear, and with them the colorful and beautiful foliage, the darkness of night and the desolation of winter set in and bring us their heavy weariness. As the ground freezes over and the earth becomes desolate, we don’t witness the rejuvenation process beneath the surface.

Leah represents those many winter moments in our own lives, when we are confronted with coldness, challenges, and darkness. Only in retrospect, looking back, can we discern how these challenges ultimately have strengthened us to become stronger, greater people.

Ultimately, too, when we victoriously face our own life’s struggles, we emerge, finally, as a greater people. Each struggle that we confront and every small victory that we win become the sweetest and most beautiful offerings in G‑d’s eyes.

The tale of the two sisters teaches us that we have the ability to find ourselves, not only in the sunny, warm seasons of our lives, but even in the harsh winters.

And through finding our own inner light within the wearying darkness, we reveal our greatest selves.

Chana Weisberg is the editor of TheJewishWoman.org. She lectures internationally on issues relating to women, relationships, meaning, self-esteem and the Jewish soul. She is the author of six books. Her latest book, Shabbat Delights, is a two-volume series on the weekly Torah portion.

Can a Square Fit into a Circle?

Toldot

November 16, 2014

Dear Reader,

Anne aspired to work in the modeling field. She realized, however, that even if she lost the requisite pounds, she couldn’t grow the necessary inch taller. Her face, too, while striking and exotic, lacked the symmetry that defined conventional beauty.

Sam was a bright boy who loved exploring. He wished he could consistently bring home excellent grades, but Sam didn’t do well in a conventional classroom setting. Despite his enormous potential, Sam stopped believing in himself and stopped trying.

Our society is full of boxes and conformist qualities necessary to achieve specific ideals. There’s the ideal version of beauty . . . The ideal version of success . . . The ideal student . . . The ideal candidate for the ideal career.

Sometimes we may feel that in order to succeed in Jewish life, too, we need to have specific, in-the-box types of characteristics. To be able to achieve greatness, don’t we need to be a “spiritual” person, who loves to study, pray, and meditate? Don’t we also need to be community-minded and generous?

But what about those of us who don’t naturally have these requisite characteristics? What if we have a quirky personality or a unique disposition that isn’t one-size-fits-all?

This week’s Torah portion, Toldot, begins with the sentence: “These are the generations of Isaac the son of Abraham—Abraham fathered Isaac.”

Rashi explains that the double wording teaches us that Isaac looked exactly like Abraham. This was remarkable, because our features and expressions generally reflect our personality, but in character Isaac was almost diametrically opposite of his father. Abraham was the ultimate uninhibited extrovert, passionately overflowing with benevolence and pursuing a lifelong campaign for social justice. Isaac, on the other hand, was the definitive introvert, a gentle soul who had a rich but restrained inner life and spent time digging deeper within his reality.

Our first two patriarchs were almost polar opposites in personality and life’s pursuits. And yet, both were committed, in their differences, to dedicate their traits to the service of their Creator. Both became the great fathers of our nation, imbuing us with their respective necessary characters and ideals. It was the consistency of holy purpose that made their resemblance unmistakable.

In contrast, the Midrash describes the guest house in the corrupt city of Sodom. The beds were all one size, and any guest too tall would have his feet chopped off, while anyone too short was painfully stretched.

While this sounds cruel, don’t many of our communities today behave similarly on a conceptual level, stretching or shrinking what doesn’t fit our boxes? Don’t we, too, ostracize or condemn to mediocrity those who don’t fit with our one-sized conformist ideas or ideals?

The Torah is teaching us, the children of our patriarchs, an essential message.

In Judaism, there is no one path that fits all. Diversity is positive. We each can provide our own inimitable contribution.

And we each need to cultivate our uniqueness as human beings to forge our own distinctive path in our service of our Creator.

Chana Weisberg
Editor, TJW

Chana Weisberg is the editor of TheJewishWoman.org. She lectures internationally on issues relating to women, relationships, meaning, self-esteem and the Jewish soul. She is the author of six books. Her latest book, Shabbat Delights, is a two-volume series on the weekly Torah portion.
Often we need a break from our daily routine. A pause from life to help us appreciate life.

A little pat on the back to let us know when we're on track. A word of encouragement to help us through those bleak moments and difficult days.

Sometimes, we just yearn for some friendship and camaraderie, someone to share our heart with. And sometimes we need a little direction from someone who's been there.

So, take a short pause from the busyness of your day and join Chana Weisberg for a cup of coffee.

Chana Weisberg is the editor of TheJewishWoman.org. She lectures internationally on issues relating to women, relationships, meaning, self-esteem and the Jewish soul. She is the author of six books. Her latest book, Shabbat Delights, is a two-volume series on the weekly Torah portion.
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