D’var Torah for Parashat Toldot 5782. Delivered at Cambridge Minyan on November 6, 2021.
Shabbat shalom. My name is Sam, and I’m married to Ari over there.
I mention this because I want to tell you a little about our Ketubah. In preparation for our marriage, Ari and I considered a number of biblical and rabbinic passages that reflect the kind of relationship we envisioned together, and we selected a few to be calligraphed around the main text of the Ketubah.
The text we chose to adorn the document most prominently is adapted from Pirkei Avot: כָּל אַהֲבָה שֶׁהִיא תְלוּיָה בְדָבָר, בָּטֵל דָּבָר, בְּטֵלָה אַהֲבָה. וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ תְּלוּיָה בְדָבָר, אֵינָהּ בְּטֵלָה לְעוֹלָם. “For any love that depends on something, when the thing ceases, so too does the love. But love that does not depend on anything will never cease” (5:16). We took that second half: love that does not depend on anything will never cease. It felt like a fitting intention for our marriage…and the ideal Pirkei Avot gives of such a relationship happens to be queer icons David and Jonathan.
This mishnaic teaching has something to do with this week’s parashah too. Torah describes the differing relationships Esau and Jacob have with their parents as follows: “וַיֶּאֱהַ֥ב יִצְחָ֛ק אֶת־עֵשָׂ֖ו כִּי־צַ֣יִד בְּפִ֑יו וְרִבְקָ֖ה אֹהֶ֥בֶת אֶֽת־יַעֲקֹֽב׃ Isaac loved Esau because he had a taste for game; but Rebecca loved Jacob” (Genesis 25:28).
The Sefat Emet comments that this description parallels the statement in Pirkei Avot. Regarding Esau, Isaac’s love for him depends on something: Esau’s prowess as a hunter and Isaac’s enjoyment of the game he brings home. The Mishnah warns against such a love, and things do go awry later. On the Sefat Emet’s reading, that’s why Isaac eventually gives his blessing not to Esau, but Jacob, when Jacob dresses as Esau and brings Isaac some tasty meat. As goes the tasty meat, so goes the love.
But Rebecca loved Jacob, period. Torah gives no reason; it is a love that depends on nothing. This is like the love God has for Israel, says the Sefat Emet. This week’s Haftarah opens with the people of Israel asking how God has has shown them love. God replies that Esau and Jacob might be brothers, but God hated Esau while loving Jacob (Malachi 1:2-3).
Israel asks for proof of God’s love, and God reminds us that we are Jacob in this relationship, not Esau. Divine love is arbitrary and unconditional.
That’s a nice teaching from the Sefat Emet, and it certainly makes me feel good about our choice of decorative Ketubah text. But I think parashat Toldot actually contains a counterpoint. Maybe…and I’m a little wary of saying this in front of my husband…maybe unconditional love isn’t quite all it’s cracked up to be.
Consider what Rebecca’s unconditional love for Jacob leads her, and him, to do. She has no qualms about sending him to trick his father, her husband, and defraud his brother, her son. When Jacob hesitates, anticipating that Isaac will know what’s up, she leans further into deception. “Just do as I say!” (Gen. 27:13) she says, before dressing him as his brother. And finally, when the whole thing is revealed, Rebecca spares no tear for Esau. She devises only how to separate Jacob further from his brother, sending Jacob away to Paddan-aram so he would not follow in Esau’s marital choices, which Rebecca so despises.
Some unconditional love. More like fanaticism: Rebecca and Jacob act together for their own purposes, knowing they will harm others along the way.
As I thought about this, I thought about the wedding couples I’ve worked with as a rabbi. Often in the premarital meetings, I ask couples, “Tell me: what do you love about your partner?”
Here’s the thing: they always have an answer. Multiple answers. Maybe it’s the way their partner brings out the best in them, or makes them feel safe. Maybe it’s their partner’s sense of adventure, or how they anticipate the other’s needs. Maybe it’s the way their partner cares about family, or the way they are dedicated to their vocation.
These aren’t relationships that depend on nothing. They are relationships that depend on many things.
The truth is that for nearly all the relationships really value—with friends, with partners, with children, with colleagues, with ourselves, with the Holy One—for those relationships we really value, we can name at least some of the things on which they are built. And the best are even greater than the sum of their parts.
After reading parashat Toldot this year, in light of the Sefat Emet’s teaching on it, I’ve come to understand the line from Pirkei Avot that adorns our Ketubah in a new way: אַהֲבָה שֶׁאֵינָהּ תְּלוּיָה בְדָבָר, אֵינָהּ בְּטֵלָה לְעוֹלָם. Instead of reading it as “love that does not depend on anything lasts forever,” we should read it as “love that does not depend on only one thing lasts forever.”
Love that depends on only one thing is like Isaac’s for Esau: it goes when that one thing goes. But love that depends on nothing is like Rebecca’s for Jacob: it leads to reckless fanaticism.
And love that depends not on any one thing, but many? That is a thick, resilient relationship—one that withstands the stresses of life, so when one thread breaks, there are many more to hold the relationship together. That’s a love we can depend on.
May we all be blessed with, and work to build, such robust relationships, in all our spheres of life. Shabbat shalom.
Ketubah calligraphy and artwork by Noam Sienna of Sienna Arts.
Sefat Emet commentary found in The Language of Truth, translated and interpreted by Rabbi Arthur Green.