Themes of the Parasha
The parasha begins with the
title "the generations of Yitzhak" and includes
his marriage, his sterility crisis, his prayer and the
child that arrives, the rivalry between Esav (Esau) and
Yaakov, the descent into Egypt because of the famine,
the abduction of Rivka by Avimelekh, the problem of the
wells and the resolution of the conflict, the founding
of the city of Beer Sheva, Yitzhak's blessing on Yaakov,
Yitzhak's blessing on Esav, the demand that Esav not take
a wife among the daughters of Canaan and Esav's transgression.
Our focus will be on Bereshit,
verse 25, 21.
We will marvel at the love and sensitivity with which
the commentators wrote about marital relations, through
the problem of infertility.
Here is the verse:
Vayeetar Yitzhak laShem lenokhah ishto ki akara hu,
vayiater lo Hashem vatahar Rivka ishto
with the traditional translation:
"And Isaac entreated the Lord for his wife, because
she was barren;
and the Lord let himself be entreated of him, and Rebekah
his wife conceived."
The parasha illustrates. through
this problem of infertility, the deep, latent anguishes
married couples experience, even though we all wish for
marital life to be only bliss.
When we witness couples, who have everything to be happy,
experience such trials, we cannot understand them, so
we view them in terms of frustration and failure; we react
with anger, aggression, depression, withdrawal or distancing
because we are confused and do not know the right way
to react, as individuals or as couples.
The parasha provides us with numerous guidelines as to
how we should react and it is especially enlightening
on the nature of marital relationships.
Method of study
" There are parashiot,
such as this, where the peshat (the literal meaning),
the sod (the secret meaning), and the musar (ethics of
behavior or derekh eretz) appear together in one verse,
as in the one we are going to study (Bereshit 25 21).
" In order to understand what the Torah teaches us,
it is important not only to read this verse and the commentaries
on it, but to take care to let the words to resonate in
us for they will arouse parts of our inner being which
are reflected in it - this is what I mean when I talk
about "reading with resonance:" "speak,
Your servant hears everything." This is an intimate,
receptive, meditative type of reading which involves internalization
and integration of our entire being; it is only in this
way that the mitzva of study can be fully realized and
lead to its goal: laasot, to do.
" Indeed the mitzva of
study comprises 4 essential steps: lilmod (study), lelamed
(teach), lizkor (memorize in order to remember), and internalization
enables one to reach the last stage: laasot (accomplish).
" This methodical way
of reading a Torah text is similar to the three-stage
method used by the Shla hakadosh in Shnei Luhot Habrit
--- understanding the mitzvot (ner mitzva);
--- understanding the pure teaching (tehora) which the
Torah transmits at its
deepest level (tora or);
--- understanding the text through our own lives, with
the aim of improving
ourselves and our lives (peula, tokhahat musar, derekh
" We shall see once more
that, only through the study of the Hebrew text and the
commentaries can we discover the message of the text,
just as the knowledge of the intimate expressions and
ways of communicating of those close to us allows us to
understand what is incomprehensible to outsiders. Conclusion:
it is essential to learn Hebrew in order to read the Torah.
The importance of sharing between partners
Seeking to blame
Initial reactions of those who confront an infertility
problem, as in this verse (or in life), involve feelings
of frustration, failure, aggression, and blaming the other
person for the problem, in particular the woman, as with
Our Sages, who understood well the weaknesses of man,
tell us how to understand the problem:
Tractate Yevamot 64 a, stresses that when
---"Isaac implored the Lord for his wife,"
--- we must take heed,
--- for this verse of the Torah does not say "for
his wife" but "in the presence of his wife;"
--- our Sages conclude: "this tells us that both
partners were infertile
" (melamed sheshnehem
This tells us not only that
both were infertile but that Yitzhak immediately understood
that he, in particular, was also infertile. Indeed it
is easier and more natural to consider the wife responsible,
for the text makes it seem that Rivka was infertile; yet,
well before this, the text stated the problem clearly
(lenokhah), attributing it to both the spouses and stressing
Yitzhak's awareness of this.
By reading a text in detail
and by taking note of erroneous translations, we become
aware of our blindness and our tendency to discriminate
against women, which is very important.
Moreover, we achieve this awareness through the fact that
the Torah text itself encourages ambiguity in the way
it is constructed, which demonstrates that the problem
is not one that is limited to any particular generation
or figure, but is a much broader one, since the Torah
is read by every generation.
This problem of the constant inferiorization of women
requires a much lengthier discussion that I can do justice
Perceiving the best in
Yitzhak's remarkable awareness
teaches us that each partner has a duty to guard and uphold
the image of his or her spouse at its highest possible
level, just as he does with Rivka:
" if one partner has a problem or difficulty, for
whatever reason, then it is the function of the other
to ensure his or her stability and integrity with calm
and joy: lenokhah isho "in the presence of his wife
when she is infertile;"
" this means: "to be present at the level of
his wife's true nature and needs" and not to distance
himself ; not to perceive her through the perspective
of the current problem, but to perceive her real being,
beauty and perfection. The expression lenokhah means simultaneously
"in the presence of" "facing" "against"
(like the Hebrew neged, mul, as in Exodus 40, 24 where
it says: "And he put the candlestick in the tent
of the congregation, over against (moad nokhah) the table."
In English, as well, the expressions "facing"
"face to face" can have a hostile
connotation (as in the Hebrew neged), a connotation of
perfection in the face to
face, or "attentive consideration for" (as in
the Hebrew sim lev le, beethem le
Fragility and instability
Everything centers around
the continual and immediate possibility of opting for
one side or the other of the same word, which means within
the same inner, intimate part of ourselves. How then can
we ensure (despite our fragility, vulnerability and instability)
a stable and consistent image of ourselves, of what is
the best in us and in our partners?
The detailed study of a single word of Torah may help
us to find the answer.
Perceiving one's partner in the
context of the divine creation
Let us go further and higher.
This is not just a wise or psychologically correct concept
"for getting on well with one's spouse in everyday
life;" it involves recognizing and adhering to a
single, shared image, which is made in the image of Hakadosh
Barukh Hu, and is therefore perfect. Every couple exists
within this reality, for He created Adam in His image
and in His likeness as one being which is simultaneously
"male-and-female" (Genesis 1, 27).
Thus, in every relationship between man and wife, it is
important to recognize this level of our being which is
the double neshama of each other (male-and-female) and
that this neshama is totally pure, as is said near the
beginning of the morning prayers: haneshama shenatata
bi tehora hi.
Our common place
Similarly, when we recite
this verse from Psalm 16, 8 which is inscribed in every
synagogue and which we should always have before us: shiviti
hashem le negdi tamid ("I have set Hashem always
before me"), we understand, based on the verse of
Bereshit, that this verse must also refer to being present
for one's spouse. Indeed we are in just one place, that
of God's divine plan (from the present to the final and
complete creation). As with Yitzhak and Rivka, the place
in which we are is also part of the common neshama of
a couple, which is also part of the place that is God,
the makom as is written in the Pesah Haggada.
It should be stressed that
the above is also relevant to those who have not yet met
the partner with whom they were created as one being.
Thus, just as with Yitzhak
and Rivka in this verse, each partner must, spontaneously,
without words, simply through a look or gesture, be present
at the moment of difficulty:
"now, at the moment when you are in anguish or in
difficulty, I am and will be the stability you need to
ensure the permanence of your integrity, your happiness,
your smile, your laugh, your stability and your aspirations,
for I am you-us, I am your man (or your woman) within
your-our eternal unity."
The Reassurance that comes from
The possibility of finding
constant comfort and reassurance in one's partner is a
great source of happiness. A mere look, gesture, intimate
feeling, scent, thought, recollection of shared happiness,
secret code, can communicate to the other that we are
one, one sole being, within the perfection of the creator.
The whole being
Thus when the text writes
that Yitzhak prays for his infertile wife, this is not
a superficial or objective statement "on the theme
of infertility," nor is it a philosophical definition
of a couple or of women; the text does not say "about
his wife" (in Hebrew al) but uses the expression
lenokhah which is more intimate and carnal. The text says
"in the presence of his wife." She has not become
a medical issue or the subject of a problem; the wife-woman
is a "whole being," the husband-man is a whole
being, the spouses-man and woman are a whole being, present
For more on the relationship of caretakers to sick family
members or to any sick person, refer to my book "La
relation au patient" (Privat, Toulouse, 1992), which
contains helpful analyses and examples.
One's partner, one's future
This concept of sharing difficulties
as part of human sharing also appears in the commentary
Bereshit Rabba 63, 5.
"This teaches us that Yitzhak was prostrated here
and she was prostrated there and he said: Master, creator
of the world, may all the children you give me come from
this tzadeket, this righteous woman."
Not only is Yitzkak present
with and for Rivka, but he himself describes his wife
as being perfect, as his future, his happiness, and, through
this confidence in her, he ensures the permanency of her
future. And this future is felt and expressed in the present:
"may all the children you give me
Following his example, what
better compliment can one say of one's partner than this:
"of all the women or all the men, it is only by you
that I wish to have children and a future." Yitzhak
knew that he would father Yaakov but he feared it might
not be by Rivka; the proof of his immense love is that
he asked that it be solely by her (cf I Zohar 137).
Another facet is illustrated
in other commentaries which show that Yitzhak prays (in
unison) and only afterwards is the problem cited in the
verse for, even with Hashem, an encounter begins with
the best, then moves onto problematic issues.
The inner dynamics of marital
Let us examine further the
nature of happiness that comes from sharing in unison:
it is found not only in the intimate dialogue between
husband wife and in their unity, but Hashem is also part
of this intimate dialogue, for the midrash Bereshit Rabba
continues its commentary on verse 25, 21 thus:
"why were our patriarchs and matriarchs infertile?
Because Hakadosh Barukh Hu desires the prayers of the
This means that
--- Hashem not only wants to ensure a couples'greatest
happiness (a child) by allowing spouses to participate
fully in the process through their prayers, not just through
the natural process,
--- but Hashem also wants each spouse, because of his
or her limitations, to express his confidence; it is this
unison in attested love that will transform the situation
and lead to fruition.
We sometimes find it difficult
to understand how we can be so important in the eyes of
others. And it is even more difficult for us to understand
that the creator needs us so much. Yet the Torah and the
prophets keep repeating this (ahavat olam
The contributions of the
Rashi describes the intensity
of this reciprocal need which is understood and shared
by each partner, when he comments on this passage of Tractate
Yevamot 64 a:
"lenokhah ishto mashma sheshenehem hayu tzoakim re
'facing his wife'means that they shouted facing each
This cry of one partner facing
the other is necessary. It is this presence and assurance
which characterized the Honi hameagel, the tracer of circles
who brought rain on demand, as did his descendants; his
name derived from the fact that he positioned himself
in a circle and declared like the prophet Habakuk 2, 1
"at my guardpost I stand" (al mishmarti eemoda),
only leaving it when his prayer was granted, like a child
whose father concedes his every whim, says Tractate Taanit
I have quoted this passage because Rashi uses it to comment
on our verse from Bereshit 25, 21:
ze omed bezavit zo u mitpallel, vezo omedet bezavit zo
One must always refer to the
sources used by Rashi because they provide important elements
of meaning. Rashi chooses his sources with care. This
passage of the Talmud says that Abba Helkia, the grandson
of Honi hameagel, possessed the same gifts as his grandfather;
moreover his relationship with his wife was very important
because she would come, dressed up in all her finery,
to greet him when he returned from his work, so that he
would look at no other woman ( here again we see the role
of reciprocal perception) and "when the rabbis came
to ask him to make rain, he and his wife went onto the
rooftop and he stood in one corner and she in another
and they prayed and a rain-cloud appeared above his wife."
We now understand more fully
the necessary loving base to which Rashi refers when he
uses this phrase from Bereshit Rabba to comment on verse
25, 21 of our parasha.
On the surface, Rashi seems to explain simply the peshat,
the primary and objective meaning, but through his sources,
we understand that he is saying that lenokhah does not
mean they were "face to face," since everyone
knows that when one prays one must "face the wall"
so that nothing intervenes between the one who prays and
He to whom one prays, but means instead that they faced
each other from a distance.
One can see that the objection, to which he apparently
seems to be answering, has no validity since Rashi would
not try to teach something that everyone knows (where
to pray); moreover, he mentions that, when two spouses
unite, they come "face to face" and Hashem is
also present, particularly in such moments of procreation.
We see that when Rashi enlightens
us on the peshat, it is never a superficial peshat or
one just for children, but it is a peshat that includes
all 4 levels of pardes (the 4 levels of meaning: literal,
associative, logical and secret) and he always does this
by seeking out another traditional text that perfectly
expresses the deep meaning of the peshat he is commenting
on. Thus, by choosing, in this case, the parallel scene
of Abba Helkia and his beautiful, provocative, special
wife who knew better than her husband the true nature
of prayer (she succeeded, just by praying, in getting
bandits to do teshuva), receiving the rain-cloud which
she and her husband had prayed for, Rashi wants to illustrate
the depth of meaning in the word lenokhah and all the
Rashi's conciseness presumes
that we know by heart the traditional texts to which he
refers indirectly; in this way he forces us to study not
just the Torah, but all the other traditional texts.
He also teaches us the method I describe here: may we
succeed in perceiving these messages through our sensitive
and detailed study of the word lenokhah.
Love, a game of symmetry and
When Rashi translates this
Arameic phrase into Hebrew,
(ze omed bezavit zo u mitpallel
vezo omedet bezavit zo u mitpallelet,
he stands at this angle and prays,
and she stands at this angle and prays)
he achieves a wonderful symmetry and resonance that adds
to what he is trying to say. It indicates, simultaneously,
a quality that is totally identical and closed like the
angles of a square, and the delicate nuances of masculine
and feminine in the play on ze (this - masc.) and zo (this-fem.).
Everyone should analyze this and tune into the resonances.
Let us now examine other shades of meaning on this love
contributed by Rashi:
--- the stability of the verb "stands" (omed),
--- the fact that the place where each partner stands
is an "angle," which signifies that it is not
a flat wall but two walls which join together to form
a perspective and an opening in which it is possible to
breathe and live,
--- Rashi also shows us that, as with the image of the
wife of Abba Helkia in the Talmud, it is in her angle
that fecundity appears.
Fullness of Life
We have spoken of the way
each partner perceives the other, reassuring him or her
of his or her optimal level. Rashi demonstrates to us
that, with Yitzhak and Rivka, this was at the level of
perfection. We now understand why the Zohar (I, 136 b)
says that Yitzhak was 60 at this time, for this is the
fullness of age and this is also why the child Yaakov
was perfect (shalem, complete):
"when Yitzhak conceived Yaakov, he was 60 years old
in order to ensure that Yaakov would be perfect, a perfect
The Talmud text which Rashi
uses, indicates that they "went up." Let us
examine this text: "addressing his wife
us go up onto the roof to pray to the merciful one and
may Hashem make the rain fall and not attribute the merit
to us. They went up onto the roof, they prayed and a rain-cloud
appeared above the corner of his wife
was a real act of unison, going up together in unison,
with the greatest humility; this is what ensures the union
between the two and with Hashem.
Rabbenu Behaye clarifies this
union even further when he states: "she became infertile
only in order that they would pray together for a child."
This act of going up together
is also stressed in the commentaries specifically with
regard to the verb "pray;" vayeetar instead
of veitpallel. The explanation for this is found in Ezekiel
8, 11: vaatar anane-haketoret ole, and the cloud of incense
Other commentaries also insist
on the fact that the verb atar always entails an element
of piercing, like a drill that pierces a wall, and the
Zohar notes that Yitzhak rose to the world Up High and
he pierced what had to be pierced in the zone of fecundity
(I Zohar 137 a) and the blessing flowed down, and the
fruit was born below.
We can see how rich is the
study of just one verse with our Sages.
How ignorant are those who believe that the Torah is a
religion of obligation and fear, as opposed to other religions
which are supposed to represent love; this is ignorance
and nothing is more dangerous than the wisdom of the ignorant.
Lesson in personal
Once you have accomplished
and memorized the "technical" part of this study,
it is important to meditate and reflect on the many existential
questions that are raised in this Torah text. You should
do this first on your own, then with someone you are close
to. You will then see that what you have studied will
become integrated, ipso facto, into your everyday life.
You will find below a list
of questions related to the themes and issues that are
raised in this parasha.
It should be read only after you have undergone your own
personal, independent meditation.
" How do you react personally
to frustrating situations in life?
" How do you react in particular towards the person
you are close to, as a spouse or as a friend?
" What is your level of sharing?
" Are you aware of spontaneous reactions when blame
of your partner reflects your own unhappiness and suffering
" Are you aware of being blind in certain situations
and having a discriminatory attitude towards women?
" In moments of stress and difficulty, do you strive
to uphold the best image of your partner, ensuring integrity,
calm, laughter and happiness?
" Do you strive, in moments of everyday stress, not
to distance yourself from your partner, not see him or
her in the negative light of the moment, and do you continue
to see him or her as a beautiful, perfect person?
" How do your react when you are face to face with
your partner: what is your presence, look, silence, absence,
contact, mirror, wall, confrontation, hostility, openness?
" Are you aware of moments when you opt for a word,
or inner feeling, that is either positive or negative?
" Do you strive to assure your partner - in spite
of your fragility, vulnerability and instability - of
your stable presence and the best of yourself?
" Does your partner represent the source which ensures
your own best functioning, your strength, joy, happiness,
" Are you sufficiently aware of the way your partner
ensures your sense of stability?
" In your relationship with your partner, are you
aware of the qualities in you and your partner which reflect
the double neshama that you both possess (male-female),
and that this neshama is totally pure?
" Does the presence which you ensure for your partner
have the same spirit as the phrase: " I have set
Hashem always before me." ?
" In moments of stress, do you and your partner use
a secret code, verbally or non-verbally, to remind each
other of shared happiness?
" Do you consider that you and your partner are part
of one living entity?
" Does this man-woman partnership form one entity,
an entity that is one for the other?
" Is there a quality of humility in your relationship,
as though each of you were prostrated before the essence
of the other? Before Hashem?
" Do you believe in your heart that you ensure the
success and future of your partner, through your presence
and confidence in his or her development?
" What are appropriate silent forms of communication
in a marital relationship?
" Are you aware that the Creator needs you and desires
your prayers as a couple?
" Do you consider the "cries" between partners
to be a healthy form of communication, and a necessity
in order to express individual and shared suffering?
" Are you aware of the "need" for a woman
to be a beautiful, devoted, exclusive wife? And what about
" Do you feel that you are totally involved in your
partner's prayers and she/he in yours?
" Do you feel that a wife knows better than her husband
the right ways of praying?
" Is the game of symmetry which characterizes a couple's
relationship balanced or unbalanced in favor of one or
" Does this symmetry also respect the richness that
comes from differences?
" Do your reactions of withdrawal or silence become
a wall, or do they lead to moments of reflection and openness
towards your partner?
" Do you feel that a woman is responsible at all
levels for fecundity in a marriage?
" Do you take care to mentally represent your partner
according to the optimal representation he or she has
of him or herself?
" Do you feel this quality of "rising"
together and rising "only together"? and of
helping each other to rise?
" In moments of stress and difficulty, do you succeed
in remaining within this structure of intimate and concrete
" Do you feel that "all" differences between
two partners are creative?
Every student should formulate
these questions in his own terms.
" Recite by heart the
4 essential steps in the mitzva of study:
lilmod, lelamed, lizkor, laasot.
Reminder: lilmod (study), lelamed (teach), lizkor (memorize
in order to remember), laasot (accomplish).
" Study regularly this
lesson on personal development.