Torah from the Depths: Toldot

Continuing my weekly posts of mental health-inspired reflections on the weekly Torah reading.

I didn’t write a Torah reflection last week, as I couldn’t see anything in the sedra (Chayei Sarah) that resonated with me.  This may have been my unconscious refusing to connect with a sedra that centred almost entirely around the idea of marriage (most of the sedra dealt with Yitzchak’s (Isaac’s) marriage, with Avraham’s (Abraham’s) remarriage added as an epilogue).

This week as well I struggled to find a direct connection with the sedra, but I did connect with Rabbi Lord Sacks’ essay on the sedra (it doesn’t seem to be up on his website yet; I subscribe to get it in email form each week).  In it he asks why Yitzchak was chosen as the next generation in the line of the covenant rather than his half-brother Yishmael (Ishmael)?  And similarly why Yaakov (Jacob) over his twin Esav (Esau)?

Rabbi Sacks notes the traditional reason, rooted in the Midrash, that Yishmael and Esav were simply evil and unsuitable for that reason, but he challenges the reading of Midrash back into the peshat in this way.

(A side note to explain: there are four traditional levels or types of Jewish biblical hermeneutics (interpretations), indicated by the acronym PaRDeS (‘orchard’, but related to ‘paradise’): peshat, the literal meaning (or perhaps more accurately, contextual or ‘straightforward’ meaning, as Jews are not textual literalists, and there are occasions where we reject the literal meaning even on a peshat level e.g. physical descriptions of God); remez, ‘hint’ i.e. the allegorical meaning; drash (from which we get Midrash), the halakhic (legal) and ethical meaning of the text; and sod, the ‘secret’ or esoteric meaning i.e. the philosophical or kabbalistic meaning, depending on whether you are a rationalist or a mystic.  What Rabbi Sacks is saying here is that we shouldn’t read the level of drash into peshat, which is completely true, although he’s fighting a losing battle in terms of how most Jews have understood Midrash now and in the past.  Most Jews have blurred the lines between the two, with many Midrashim being more well-known than the biblical text.  This is far off-topic, but I can’t resist sharing the anecdote of the great Orthodox educationalist Nechama Leibowitz playing a practical joke on some Israeli army officers she was teaching, when she told them to turn in the Tanakh (Hebrew bible) to the story of Avraham breaking his father’s idols.  She left them leafing through Tanakh in vain for some minutes before revealing that the story appears only in the Midrash.  The fact is, most Jewish children learn the story before they ever open a Tanakh or a Chumash and it’s hard to see it as a later rabbinic construction rather than The True History of Avraham.)

To get back to the point, Rabbi Sacks argues that we are told that Yishmael was “a wild donkey of a man” (16.12) and “a skilled archer” (21.20) and Esav was “a skilled hunter, a man of the field” (25.27), men who were at home in nature and who might have been seen as heroes or even gods in the pagan cultures of the time.  Unlike them, Yitzchak and Yaakov needed the help of the God who is beyond nature just to survive (in fact, even to be born – both were born from one or two infertile parents), rather than their own skills and the natural world itself.

Although this is perhaps not entirely what Rabbi Sacks meant, this seemed to me to be supportive of the neurodivergent and the mentally ill, the people who don’t go through life winning easy victories.  In fact, almost the whole of the book of Bereshit (Genesis) is about how the people who easily get married, have children, find a home, defeat enemies and so forth are not the people who God chooses.  God chooses those who struggle to find their soul mates, the infertile, the homeless, the weak and persecuted and so on.  This is in fact an idea that Rabbi Sacks has returned to time and time again in his sedra essays over the years: that in Judaism it is never the obviously successful who are the religious heroes, but always the underdogs.

None of the founders of Judaism is explicitly identified as mentally ill or neurodivergent (although to return to Midrash, Yaakov might have been depressed for the twenty-two years that he thought Yosef (Joseph) was dead; I have seen some discussion online as to whether Yitzchak might have had Down’s Syndrome.  There is obviously difficulty diagnosing something thousands of years later, but it’s an interesting idea), but one can obviously extrapolate that deviating from the social norm is not something that means rejection by God; in fact, it might be the reverse.