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Seize the Opportunity

Richard Haimowitz gave this dvar Torah as his farewell speach at the end of his term as president of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation. It was delivered on Friday evening, November 9, 2002 at the 39th convention of the JRF in Montreal, Canada.
Toldot, the title of this week's parsha, means 'bring forth" or "beget." The parsha is the story of the progression from Abraham to Jacob. It is the bridge to the begetting or beginning of a people. It is the link from our ancestors to the future. It is the connector for the leadership of our people, with all its rivalry, intrigue and deception.

Not all out progenitors appear as leaders. Isaac may merely be the conduit in the line from Abraham to Jacob. Surely Jacob and Esau play out their game of one-upmanship, while Isaac, the subject of Rebekah and Jacob's deception, either is fooled, or more likely pretends to be fooled. Yet he never materializes as a strong leader himself. In his case it seems as if it is his wife who leads.

Rebekah questions her existence, and God responds by predicting to her,

"Two nations are in your womb. Two separate people shall issue from your body. One people shall be mightier than the other. And the older shall serve the younger."

And these twins are Jacob and Esau, born with one holding the heel of the other. They grow, bargain for the birthright, then compete for their father's deathbed blessing. A blessing that motivates Jacob to become a leading force in our story. Isaac says in this blessing,

"May God give you of the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth. Abundance of new grain and wine. Let peoples serve you and nations bow to you. Be master over your brothers and let your mother's sons bow to you. Cursed be they who curse you. Blessed they who bless you."

When Esau expresses the anguish at having been deceived out of his blessing, Isaac comes up with a second blessing for Esau,

"Your abode shall enjoy the fat of the earth and the dew of the heaven above. Yet by your sword you shall live and you shall serve your brother. But when you grow restive, you shall break his yoke from your neck."

Finally, Jacob, worried about his brother's reaction to his trickery, leaves his father's place for the home of his uncle, Laban, Isaac blesses him a second time, and perhaps this is the real blessing, saying,

"... May El Shaddai bless you, make you fertile and numerous, so that you become an assembly of peoples. May he grant the blessing of Abraham to you and your offspring, that you may possess the land where you are sojourning, which God gave to Abraham".

This sets the scene for the future development and leadership of this people. Well, not yet a people with a name or an identity, but with an absolute faith in the God of Abraham. This progression is fraught with plots, deception and even self-deception. Isaac, logic says, would have to have known that it was Jacob pretending to be Esau. (As Dan Ehrenkrantz noted when he spoke at Bet Am Shalom, even hairy people don't feel like a goat pelt.) Esau, unwittingly or not, permitted himself to be taken advantage of not once, but twice. Yet, the tale and the people move forward. The stage is set and, most importantly, the leadership passes on to the next generation.

Like Rebekah asking God about the turmoil in her womb, we move in directions we that are not always clear. There is no longer divine revelation, yet what at times seem unclear sooner or later becomes evident. We've even been known to partake in the same sibling rivalry as Jacob and Esau. Yet we survive our differences and move on with a strong commitment and a belief that we are doing important work.

It would be easy to say that compared to our biblical ancestors we are insignificant, but I think that does us a disservice and fails to take into account that each era and each community is as important to its members, as any other. Each has its own unique story or history, its own goals and its trials along the way to enacting its own story, and each will leave its own legacy.

Our community here tonight, the JRF, has set its future course. It is on a clear path, with superb, committed leadership to take it forward. We made our programmatic advances that have established workshops and shabbatonim. We made our summer camp and youth movement realities. We made the education programs and curricula vibrant and meaningful. We have growing, dynamic communities throughout North America, and we can come together for a "meeting of the tribe" and learn and laugh and interact with one another and return home so much more than we were when we arrived. Our institutions are flourishing with knowledgeable, talented people at the helm. Our lay leadership is dedicated, selfless and willing to roll up their sleeves and make it happen. The level of commitment from staff goes beyond any definition of 'employment.'

For me, this leadership experience has been even more rewarding than I could have imagined. The JRF provides rewards for the leader that far outweigh anything he or she gives to the institution. But this would never have been possible without the support of those who are lead. Staff and board and Executive Committee. And most important the support of my family, especially, Raphy, my loving and supportive wife. I have gained and learned so much in this experience and I leave a much wiser and better person than I was four years ago.

A successful leader has to leave his position knowing that the institution will move forward with competent, experienced people at the helm. Isaac must have been aware when he let himself be deceived by Jacob and Rebekah. As any parent knows, we all know our children, their positive attributes as well as the not necessarily positive attributes. And we instinctively know which child will best do what task. Isaac seized the opportunity provided to him by Jacob and Rebekah, even though he never let on that he was aware of the deception. The opportunity presented it self and he had the seichel (good sense) to take advantage of it. Isaac's two biblical stories seem somewhat passive: the akedah (binding) when he is about to let Abraham offer him as a sacrifice to God, and this final scenario concerning the blessing of his sons. However, especially with the difference in the blessings given to Jacob and Esau, he actually exercised leadership in his own quiet way and set the stage for the succession of Jacob.

Just as the bridge from Abraham to Jacob provided the foundation and the transition necessary for this "people in formation" to proceed towards their destiny, as this movement looks forward, we know that we too have the foundation necessary to move into our destiny, to shape our vision and to make it happen. It requires a lot of hard work, and a lot of faith in the vision that we have for ourselves. We have to sustain this conviction that we can make it happen.

Isaac knew that Esau would go on to be a leader in his own right, a hunter and a nation builder as well. Isaac was aware that things may not be as they appear. As with Jacob and Esau, there is leadership in each one of us, if we seize the opportunity. I urge you to do so. The rewards are great.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah

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