Parashat Tol’dot

Friday, November 9, 2018 /1 Kislev, 5779
Parashat Tol’dot Genesis 25:19-28:9

Dear Friends,

On Election Day, we witnessed what we understand was an historic number of women, people of color and persons of various ethnicities and sexual orientations represented on the ballots. It was – for me – validating to see the diversity of America stepping forward to serve in elected office. I guess this is a reassertion of the core concept of representational government: all peoples are participating and thus are represented (with apologies to residents of Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, St. Thomas and other US territories, who still lack representation in federal government).

Yet, this week’s Torah portion includes a reminder that it hasn’t always been so, that we have institutionally disenfranchised whole sections of our polity.

In our portion, Rebecca is pregnant with twins, and amid a difficult pregnancy, she goes to inquire of God why she should suffer. God replied directly to her, and in a midrashic commentary, the rabbinic sages offer a famous, if not infamous, explication. They attempted to dismiss the exchange between Rebecca, a woman, and God: “The Holy One, blessed be He, never engaged in speech with a woman except with that righteous woman, Sarah.” (Midrash Genesis Rabbah 63:7, on Gen. 25:23). The commentary then explained how God communicated with Sarah in an earlier portion, effectively by proxy, when addressing Sarah’s own pregnancy with Isaac.

I have always found this commentary abhorrent. It allows the male rabbinic sages to justify their narrow, privileged position and behavior by claiming that God was aligned with them. Essentially they stated, “A righteous man will not speak with a woman, just as God would not speak to a woman, save the most righteous of women, Sarah.”

In truth, there are some very meaningful and quite noble explanations for some of the sexism which colors our Tradition. Yet, when we encounter a commentary as reprehensible as this – as patronizing and dismissive, it demands that we rethink aspects of our Tradition. This is so, especially in this week when our Torah portion comes as a counterpoint to our voting booth, where the apparent birthright of the dominant male was overturned or challenged.

Thus, I would offer a rereading of our commentary. In my midrash, it would state: “The Holy One, blessed is God, always engages in speech with men and women and those who are gender fluid, even when we may not hear it, especially with the most righteous, and even more so with those who are only discovering their pathways to righteousness, descendants of Sarah and Abraham, and Hagar and Abraham, too.”

This week demands better!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Doug Kohn