Toldot — Departing Dvar Torah

Yardena Prawer

I have been coming to Shira since its inception and Hamakom before that. As a young girl I sat in awe of those who I saw as the educational giants of this community. Everything I was being exposed to was so wildly different to my Jewish learning experience at Yavneh and I was enthralled by the colour, imagination and deep love with which the texts were being taught. From Debbie Mazel z”l to Nathan to Michael to Melanie to Mark, Naor, Ittai and the list goes on each of you inspired a very real continued engagement with my Judaism, from the beautiful to the difficult and everything in-between. I think it is for this reason that I have yet to deliver a Dvar Torah at Shul. I have taken on many other roles in this environment but somehow speaking to all of you was a little too intimidating. I decided however that my last week was probably the best time to undertake this but also that I couldn’t leave this beautiful community that has shaped who I am in so many ways without expressing how I feel about this place, shining a light on its beauty, through the prism of some wonderful Torah.

I do not know the torah like Mark Symons, the Zohar like Nathan, Rambam like Michael or genocide like Mark Baker but one thing I do know is Kids. Lucky for me this week’s parashah has every developmental psychologists favourite type of children, twins and a real exemplar of how not to parent. It is indeed about the kind of love that Yitschak and Rivkah bestow upon their children into which I wish to delve deeper. I want to ask some critical questions about the nature of love, parental and other. I wish to look at what we can learn from different models, what we should strive for and what is reasonable to expect of ourselves.

What is often focused on in the story of Rivkah and Yitschak’s parenting of their twins is the favouritism they each display for one of their children. Hoewever there is another important parenting lesson that can be learnt this week from the qualitative difference in their love and hence in the attachment that they each share with their respective favourites. The pasuk tells us that

The evident qualitative difference between each of these parents’ love is that Yitschak’s love is contingent upon his son being a hunter and therefore providing his father with food whereas Rivka loves her son without any conditions or reasons specified. The most appropriate terms we may give these different types of love are conditional and unconditional love. Yitschak’s love for his child comes with an expectation of some personal gain in the relationship whilst Rivkah is displaying the kind of selfless parental love that is traditionally seen as “mother’s love”. Rivka’s is a love not only without expectation but one for which she would sacrifice herself for her child. Indeed when she encourages Yaakov to steal the birth right from his brother, she tells him if his father discovers the ruse and curses, rather than blesses, him, "your curse will be on me, my son."

Two models of love are presented to us here in this story. Our instinct of course would be to assume that the terms unconditional and parental should be interchangeable with regards to love, that Rivka’s love must be superior and that her attachment with her son Yaakov reflects this. How realistic is this however? Are parents actually capable of unconditional love or is the concept a mere cultural construct reinforced to perpetuate our race? Is Rivkah’s love truly unconditional or does she derive some benefit albeit emotional? Can we achieve it or does it lie beyond a human’s capacities.

Different fields of psychology have addressed this question from different angles. The pervasive position of evolutionary psychologists is that we must view acts of selfess love through the lens of perpetuation of an individual’s genes. That is to say it is survival of the fittest for the genes not the individuals. It is for this reason that parents protect their offspring.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging studies (albeit limited in their precision and capacity to truly test these phenomena) claim to have identified different neural pathways for maternal love and unconditional love both of which however seem to heavily involve the reward centres of the brain. So whilst we could argue that a love without expectation of material gain may exist, there is sufficient evidence to my mind that we are programmed to derive at least psychological pleasure from that interaction.

So perhaps a truly unconditional love does not exist and perhaps the distinction we should be looking at is between different types of conditional love material and other. Or perhaps it is indeed a question of how we use that which we receive from conditional love. In discussion with rabbi Josh Back (commonly known as the rib) he pointed out something interesting; that the fatal flaw of so many relationships is the desired of each party to receive unconditional love and the incapability of the each party to truly provide it. Perhaps a mythical love like that portrayed by Rivkah in this week’s parasha is that for which we spend our lives searching but cannot receive because it is beyond human capacity to provide. When we desire to take more from those we love than they have we set up in in balance that cannot be sustained and results either in the demise of the relationship or the breakdown of one of the partners. Perhaps conditional love is the secret to the perpetuation of love. If loving someone gives us pleasure, happiness, strength, a sense of self worth, a reprieve from loneliness and a reason for being we can take the strength we have derived to power more love, to give more often and more widely. It is the reality of the rechargeable battery versus the wasteful single use one that has such severe limitations to its power capacity.

Despite the fact that I often have a child firmly secured to my waist, I have not yet had the privilege of being a parent, I do however feel in my line of work that almost every normative principle of human interaction is based entirely on the fundamentals of kindergarten and on the principles of the first most important relationship in our lives that of a child with their parent. So what lessons can we derive from the models of parental love in Toldot? And at the risk of sounding a little bit preachy with what message can I leave you, my beautiful community Shira and with what blessings. 

Community is an incredible force. It is a collective that supports and ties people together creating a sense of belonging and identity. According to data from the World Values Survey, Social capital, as measured by the strength of religious and community ties, is found to support both physical health and subjective well–being. One of the great realisations of atheists over the past few years has been the detrimental absence of community when one has exited a religious lifestyle. As such, many secular communities are now trying to create communal interactions that mimic that of the synagogue, church or mosque, highlighting its centrality. So when we love our community it is not without return. It comes with a spiritual rejuvenation, an education for our children and ourselves, intellectual stimulation, food rosters, a supportive peer group and even if we are lucky bissle of herring. Whilst we might derive all of these invaluable services we must ask ourselves what we do with the strength that belonging to this shul has provided us. I can only speak for myself in saying that the more I have given, the more I have received. The cycle of love, friendship and support has continued turning bringing with it the unexpected wonders. My love has been conditional yet somehow the love I have received has felt unconditional. I plan to take all that I have received from being a part of Shira and use it to strengthen my future endeavours as I become a part of new communities, educate other children and give to new causes. My blessing to you, my community of 10 years is that we take fruits of our labour and sew the seeds right back into the earth so that they make grow into trees that provide for us and for future generations.

May he who blessed our forefathers Avraham, Yitschak and Yaakov and our foremother Sara, Rivka Rachel and Leah, bless all of this holy congregation, together with all other holy congregations, them and all of their families and all that they have. And all those who occupy themselves with the needs of the congregation, may they be blessed, may they be kept from all sickness, may their bodies be healed and may they be forgiven any transgressions, and may blessing and success be upon all of their endeavours.

May this congregation be strengthened with wisdom, compassion and integrity. May it continue to raise others’ spirits through song, to inspire through learning and to push boundaries on behalf of the marginalised. May our shul forever be filled with the heart-warming sound of children, the young voices of those entering Jewish adulthood with pride and the Wisdom of those with knowledge. May we continue to shine a light on the torah by living it with derech eretz all of our days and let us say Amen.

Posted on November 23, 2014 .