I have been privileged to teach the Rhythms of Jewish Living class for two years and one of my favorite parts has been introducing students to texts like the Talmud that have been an important part of my Jewish education. While the Rhythms course deals with a lot of Halakhic or legal texts, I do not often have opportunity to teach a Midrashic or homiletic text, so I would like to share a midrash that I found to be powerful.
In Genesis Chapter 25, we read about the matriarch Rebecca’s challenging pregnancy with Jacob and Esau. A famous midrash teaches that whenever Rebecca passed a holy place Jacob would get excited in utero and whenever she passed a place of idol worship Esau would likewise get excited. The Kli Yakar, Rabbi Ephraim Luntschitz (1550-1619, Prague) further elaborates on this story. He says that Rebecca was concerned that she was carrying one child who got excited both at the holy sites and the places of idolatry. She was comforted when God told her that she was in fact carrying two children who represented two different worldviews.
I think that Rebecca fell into a trap that is too common for most of us. She wanted to place strict labels on her children and could not necessarily understand that one person can have both good and bad qualities. She prejudged her son Esau as a wicked individual and her parenting reflected that judgment. It may have been comforting for Rebecca to know that one son was going to carry on her faith, but the story seems to show that she did not give her second son the same chances.
Similarly we also judge people and even ourselves based on imprecise labels. In my Melton classes, students at times wonder about the relevance of texts that are not from the denomination with which they identify. Inevitably, after studying the text, students are able to appreciate what the text is there to teach. The highlight of a class for me is when a student learns that his or her personal denominational label does not prevent study of and struggle with the whole scope of our beautiful tradition.
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