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Parashat Vayetzei: She has those Eyes

11/16/2018 09:06:13 AM

Nov16

Rabbi Robinson

Parashat Vayetzei: She Has Those Eyes

As the snow was coming down this past Thursday, I was on the phone with a longtime congregant. Her beloved husband, who had been in and out of the hospital a lot over the last several months, was coming to the end. As often happens, it was unclear whether it was going to be days or hours or weeks, but the family had gathered in their home to spend time with him. She thanked me for the call and, as we were talking, she said, “we’re trying to be strong for one another”. I responded, “well, maybe take turns; you don’t always have to be the strong one.”

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about strength, and weakness, and what those two really mean. What are these ideas? What is real strength? What is real weakness? As Americans, I think we all have certain cultural ideas about what strength and weakness mean, ideas that we as a society have held up for a long time and are increasingly seeing challenged. The idea that strength means somehow stifling emotions other than anger, for example; that we can’t express our feelings. Or that we cannot accept help from others, that to do so makes us weak. A friend and local pastor refer to such people as ‘half generous’; they’re happy to give, grateful to give, but cannot accept assistance even when they need it.

Of course, these personal expressions and ideas of weakness and strength have global ramifications. Our response to migrants coming to the border is to send the army, rather than social workers, lawyers and medical professionals. Again, Israel seems trapped in showing how strong it is against terrorist organizations, which never quite gains the quiet and peace Israelis so desperately need. Again and again corporations, universities and other organizations, confronted with the misdeeds of instructors and executives, insist on being right, double down and deny accusations of wrongdoing rather than admit their own errors, because to admit an error is to be weak.

Increasingly, we find that these models—especially those that are based on gender—to be mostly malarkey. How is showing emotion weakness? How is admitting a mistake and learning from it weakness? How is there any strength is sticking your chin out and picking unnecessary fights? What is really gained from all this?

Our tradition, of course, already understood this, that what we consider to be weakness is really strength. “Eizeh hu Gibor? Who is Mighty?” Asks Pirkei Avot, in the Mishnah. The one who has self-control, who doesn’t impose her will over others, or throw their weight around. And here we are presented with the idea of weakness and strength in our Torah portion. First, we’re presented with Laban, Rebekah’s brother, Rachel and Leah’s father. He’s a cynic; strength for him means being able to take advantage of others. He is in constant competition with the world; if someone else ‘wins’, it must mean that he loses, and if he is to succeed, he must make sure everyone else is vanquished, left in the dust. Meanwhile, we see Leah’s eyes. They are described as weak, rakkot, in comparison to Rachel’s beauty, so the assumption is that ‘weak eyes’ means unattractive, or bad. I had a teacher in rabbinic school who said, “it means she’s a real bow-wow”. Maybe, as the midrash suggests, she wore her eyes out crying because she was originally supposed to marry Esau, Jacob’s nogoodnik brother? Or…maybe weakness doesn’t really mean what it says. The Talmud (Bava Batra 123a:14) raises the question about weakness: how can the Bible describe Leah this way, given her righteousness as our matriarch? Not at all. In fact, we are misreading the word. It’s not Rakkot, but arachot, long-lasting, in reference to the gifts her descendants would receive. Because who would be born from Leah, if not Levi, the tribe of the Priesthood, and Judah, our tribe, the tribe of kings? Her eyes aren’t weak; rather, they look toward a future of holiness. Unlike her father Laban, who’s constantly jockeying for position, treating everyone as a potential mark, someone he can mislead for greater advantage, she’s not interested in the short-term gain, but long-term growth. While her father sees the world cynically, she has her eyes open in hope. And while cynicism is hard and hope is soft, hardness doesn’t mean strength, and softness doesn’t mean weakness.

Ruth Koch and Kenneth C Haugk, founders of Stephen Ministries, talk about the idea of assertive rather than aggressive or passive response. That is, we shouldn’t let people walk all over us, but we shouldn’t try to smother others either, shouldn’t always be trying to win. Maybe real strength is found in taking care of ourselves and each other, of allowing ourselves to feel and acknowledging our feelings, while not imposing them on others? Who is strong? The one who has Leah’s eyes. May we aspire to have them ourselves as we say, Amen.

Fri, January 18 2019 12 Sh'vat 5779