Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Who Am I?

When we first meet someone and attempt to get to know them one of the first questions we ask is "What do you do?". In asking the question we reveal an assumption; who we are can be gleaned from what we do!

But is that really true? I want to explore with you this week's parsha and in particular the lives of our matriarchs, Rachel and Leah, to test our assumption.

On Rosh Chodesh, after our early morning daf yomi, the Rav left the shule.Before he left he asked me if he should bring my regards to "Mama Rachel". You see, he was leaving to recite early morning prayers at Kever Rachel in Bethlehem, on the outskirts of Yerushalayim. His question led me to wonder. What is it about Rachel, our mother, that makes her the mother-ideal in the eyes of our people and throughout the generations? After-all she only gave birth to two of the twelve tribes. Moreover nearly none of the Jews who survive today can be said to be her descendants. For most of us, and here I mean most as in likely some 90%, Leah is our mother. Rachel is our aunt.Moreover Rachel died young, in childbirth. She was only a mother to one of her children, Yosef, and was not there for much of his life either. How does she become the mother in death when she spent so few years being the mother in life!

If we were to name the ultimate 'mother' of our people it would be likely to choose Leah. She is our true mother. She gave birth and raised most of the people of Israel and most of the Jews alive today. Yet in the long-run, while Leah was the mother, based on her life and deeds, she is better noted for being Yaakov's wife than for being the mother. She is buried with Yaakov in Hebron. Rachel, the wife Yaakov loved is buried in a grave of her own in Bethlehem.
When we name the couples buried in the M'aarat Hamachpaila we name Yaakov and Leah.

Yet the oddity here is that Yaakov never seemed to really love Leah. She bore his children but never became the 'wife' to him that Rachel was. Yet after her death, in the context of history,she seems recognized in tradition, not as the mother, but as the wife!
How can that be?

The answer to the riddle teaches us something profound. It surely is true that Rachel in her lifetime was much more the 'wife' than the 'mother'. But what we do does not so much define who we are as what we yearn for. The story of Rachel's short and tragic life is the story of the yearning for children. Yaakov's love mattered less to her than being a mother, so much so that she told him "Give me children else I will die!". When Reuvan, Leah's eldest, brings home the wondrous flowers from the field for his mother, as we are told in this week's reading, Rachel is willing to give up a night of intimacy with Yaakov to know the gift of as child's love, even vicariously. Rachel dies in childbirth. No woman more yearned for children. She is the mother-ideal, and not just for the two children she bore. She is our mother. Her life was all about the yearning to be a mother, even if so little of it was actually spent raising children.

On the other hand, yes, Leah was the mother in the story of her life. Her work was very much the raising of children. But the Torah is clear, what Leah yearned for was the love of her husband. She wanted more than anything to be the 'wife' to Yaakov.She named each of her children for the impact she hoped that child would bring to win her the love of Yaakov. She gave up her son Reuvain's gift of the wondrous flowers for the night of intimacy with the husband who loved her less. Leah's life was raising children. Yet her yearning was to finally be the wife! It is as the wife of Yaakov she is remembered, buried by his side for all eternity, not as the mother, for this was her yearning. We are what we yearn for, not what we do!

When I say "yearn", it is not the same thing as wish! A yearning is something deep within us. It becomes our source of hope and joy. A yearning gives us reason for living, it motivates our existence.
Let me give an example. A young woman had a severe accident as a child and is left without the use of her legs. She cannot walk, never mind dance. Yet she yearns to dance. She watches ballet with an uncommon intentionality. She follows every motion. She identifies with the ballerina, feeling herself move with the dancer's turn and jumps. In her mind, she is one with the ballerina. She dances each dance she watches. She loves ballet. She loves to dance. It gives her life meaning. Who is this paralyzed young woman. Her yearning defines her! Though she cannot move her legs, she is a dancer!

Do you and I have yearnings? Do we have deep seated hopes and dreams that give our life its energy. For the one most spiritual the yearnings that define him/her is the intimacy with G-d. For others the yearning may be for something far less noble, money, prestige, position etc.

Who we are is revealed by what we yearn for not by what we do!
Re-adjusting our yearnings,though difficult, may be the most important work we can invest in!

Shabbat Shalom

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