Making God More Than a Footnote

Toledot By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Dec 3, 2005 / 5766 | Prayer

The process of seeking God within Judaism is one that is done through patience and mindfulness. Yet, our typical human modus operandi is one of turning to God most often or solely in times of trouble and crisis. When all is going smoothly, God is but a footnote in the rapid pace of our daily lives. Parashat Tol’dot, this week’s Torah reading, seems to confirm this deeply human reflex — that of turning to God in a time of crisis. Accordingly, the parashah forces us to ask the question, “How can we have a more meaningful and consistent relationship with God — in the good times as well as in the bad times?” Rabbinic commentary on Rebekah’s search for God is replete with answers.

At the opening of our parashah, we confront another example of an ancestral couple wrestling with infertility. Isaac and Rebekah are childless; yet unlike the example of his father Abraham, or his son Jacob, Isaac sensitively turns in prayer to God. The couple prays together. Quite movingly, the Talmud comments on the verse “Isaac entreated Adonai facing his wife, because she was barren” (Genesis 25:21): “Isaac stood in one corner and prayed while Rebekah stood in the other corner and prayed” (Yevamot 64a). They pray together, as a couple, and God answers their prayers. Rebekah conceives and we are immediately told of the struggle within her womb. Rebekah responds, “If this is so, why is this happening to me?” (Genesis 25:22). In her crisis, Rebekah seeks answers — turning to none other than God. The Hebrew word employed by the Torah is lidrosh, “to seek after.” Although an anachronism, Rashi, the classical medieval commentator, explains that Rebekah literally went to seek answers in the text — in the beit midrash of Shem. Rashi continues his commentary: “[She went to seek God] so that he would tell her what would be in the end.” Hence, rabbinic exegesis imagines Rebekah seeking answers to her crisis within a text (midrash). Through this seeking in text, she would perhaps uncover the answer she is looking for. While the Torah responds to Rebekah’s query with a literal response from God (Genesis 25:23), the response is not wholly dissimilar from our encounter with midrash and learning today. Professor Ze’ev Falk z”l writes, “Rebekah’s seeking of God is to be understood in its primary sense. It is our obligation to search midrash not only for what it teaches us about Torah but also what it teaches about God. After every experience of learning, one must always ask, ‘what aspect of God was revealed in this text?’ ” (Falk, Divrei Torah Ad Tumam, 58).

Learning is far more than a simple encounter with sacred text. Our experiences in life and reading of Torah have the potential to allude to God’s presence, giving us precious and rare windows into the eternal. Though we do not have the ability like our foremother Rebekah to turn directly to God, we do have the ability to seek God in Torah (as the rabbis imagined in their midrash of Rebekah’s seeking). Patience and mindfulness in the textual encounter deeply enrich our experience of God. If only we pause to ask the question so sincerely articulated by Professor Ze’ev Falk — “What aspect of God was revealed in this text?” — we can then begin to seek and be sought. Only then, can we train ourselves not to simply seek God in times of crisis, but to continually search for God in every reading of Torah, every day of our lives.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz

The publication and distribution of “A Taste of Torah” commentary have been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.