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Sunday, November 07, 2010

Praying for the Improbable

Recently, I’ve been struck by the recurring theme of identity fraud in Sefer Bereishis: Yaacov received the Brachos by masquerading as Eisav only to be fooled into marrying Leah when she masquerades as Rochel. Yosef’s death is faked and he emerges as an Egyptian viceroy, Tamar defrauds her father-in-law, and Dina’s daughter surfaces inexplicably in Potifar’s household.

When I first read the Merchant of Venice, I was intensely disappointed. The line “Thou shalt have justice, more than thou desirest” are impressive, but only until one considers that those words were designed to be uttered by a male actor who was playing the role of a woman masquerading as a man thinking (correctly!) that she could fool her own husband into believing that she was her cousin. Talk about improbable fiction!.

Shakespeare got away with some pretty crazy things, but he was writing fiction and he wasn’t G-d.

What are we supposed to think when we read the stories in the Torah?

I think that background sheds a lot of light on our question.

Rochel and Leah were identical twins. The only feature that separated them was their facial complexion. Rochel was beautiful; Leah was splotchy and blotchy. Everybody knew that the Avinu family only married cousins and Rivka and Lavan had twin boys and girls, respectively. There was no question that the two sets of twins would be paired off according to age. Leah wept because was understandably unhappy with the childhood predictions of her and Eisav sitting in a tree. She didn’t want to marry a man who killed people for their jackets. She cried until her skin was stained.

But why did Leah cry? Was it self-pity and depression? Was it dread and dismay? The Medrash tells us that Leah was crying in prayer. She knew that her destiny was to marry Eisav and she prayed for something better for herself.

Leah’s prayer worked. In an unpredictable chain of events, Yaacov snagged the Bechora, Rochel helped Leah steal her groom, and a nation was born.

Rochel gave up a lot more than the right to marry Yaakov first. Leah literally stepped into Rochel’s shoes. The Torah clearly tells us that it was Leah’s prayer that made her the progenitor of the children that would have been Rochel’s.  Rochel had only two of the twelve tribes, passed away at the age of thirty-six and did not get buried with Yaakov. To paraphrase Antonio, “The world is a stage, and Leah took Rochel’s part”. Such is the strength of prayer. (Rochel was rewarded for her selflessness, but that is the subject of a different post).

So many of the events in our own lives are the product of prayer.  Prayer has the ability to make the impossible happen. The events of Bereishis are the products of prayer.

We all know that prayer is powerful, but we seem to have trouble recognizing their fulfillment. Think back to your prayers of six months ago. How many of those prayers were fulfilled? How often do we say thank you?

When Chana returned to the Mishkan after Shmuel’s long awaited birth she presented her child to Eli, the Kohein Gadol. She said “El Hanaar Hazeh Hispallati” – “this is the child I was praying for”. Imagine if we would think those words every time that we are inspired to complain about our children. Imagine if we really thanked Hashem for everything that we begged and cried for years ago.

Reuvain was the oldest of the Shevatim. When Yosef predicted that he would rule over them all, Reuvain should have been the most indignant. Yet we find that it was Reuvain who tried to save Yosef from being killed or sold. The Medrash explains that Reuvain was able to rise above the fray because he had the gift of taking nothing for granted.  After Rochel’s death, Reuvain had been criticized for moving Yaacov’s furniture to his mother Leah’s tent. Reuvain took his mistake seriously and lived with the fear that as a result of his actions he would no longer be counted among the twelve tribes. He cried and fasted daily, asking G-d to forgive him. When Reuvain heard Yosef ‘s dreams and the predictions that they contained, he knew that his prayers had been answered. While the other brothers focused on Yosef’s usurpation of the throne, Reuvain was counting the stars. He quickly realized that eleven stars plus one Yosef, meant that he was still part of the dream and that he would retain his status as one of the twelve tribes. Everyone else felt hatred for Yosef; Reuvain felt gratitude and relief. His prayers had been answered. It was Reuvain’s grateful attitude that saved him from getting involved in the brothers’ plot.

We tend to take things for granted. We need to appreciate the power of prayer and we need to appreciate the results of prayer when they finally come.

My young students often ask me how my wife and I first met.

After a disclaimer about truth and accuracy, I usually tell them about the time I was strapped for cash. As it happened, there was a circus in town and the lion had died suddenly. In desperation, I took a job impersonating the lion. I growled and stalked and prowled around stage and was actually enjoying the applause when the Siberian tiger was let loose. I knew that my jig was up. I might be able to fool a crowd of humans, but there was no way that I could fool the tiger. I threw away all pretenses and yelled out “Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad”. The tiger responded (to my relief) “Baruch Shem K’vod Malchuso L’olam Va’ed”. The woman in the tiger was Mrs. Haber. We were engaged soon afterward.

Of course, the real story of how Sender met Chamie was not nearly as exciting, but it was no less miraculous. I, like any shidduch, was the culmination of a chain of events too complicated to fathom.

Shakespeare had no prayers to excuse his unlikely plot.  We, on the other hand, need to step back and appreciate the power of prayer and the unlikely chains of events that prayers have brought into our lives.

(It appears that Shakespeare did study the Parsha but chose to focus on the caricature of Yaacov extracting payment from Lavan. Truly, the Devil can cite scripture to his anti-Semitic purpose.)

See also:
My semi-anonymous contribution to the internet: The Parsha according to Mario

Posted on 11/07 at 09:19 PM • Permalink
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Meet Rabbi Sender Haber

Rabbi Sender Haber is the Rabbi of the B'nai Israel Congregation in Norfolk, VA. He is well known throughout Hampton Roads, having arrived over twelve years ago as one of the original four members of the Norfolk Area Community Kollel. In that capacity, Rabbi Haber was involved in community wide programming, teaching, and outreach. He has inspired many Jews to expand their Jewish identity and increase their love of Torah and commitment to its observance. Everyone who knows Rabbi Haber is touched by his breadth of Torah knowledge and his ability to convey the wisdom of the ages in such a way as to make those esoteric writings accessible to persons of all levels of experience and a variety of backgrounds.

Rabbi Haber has served in a number of capacities during his years in Norfolk. Since 2003 Rabbi Haber has been a teacher of Jewish Studies at Toras Chaim Day School in Portsmouth, teaching boys and girls of all ages, with a focus on Gemara, Halacha, and Chumash. He has also taught at Yeshivas Aish Kodesh and Bina High School in Norfolk, and served as Assistant Rabbi of B’nai Israel for 6 years. He also serves as the Rabbi of the “Lost Tribe,” Tidewater’s Jewish Motorcycle group! While handling all of these responsibilities, he has continued to participate in numerous Chavrusos (one-on-one learning partnerships) covering a wide range of topics and writings.

Rabbi Haber and his wife Chamie have been married for thirteen years. They have four children, Minna (9), Moshe (6), Ely (4), and Akiva Meir, born in August of 2012. They both come from rabbinic families steeped in Torah, Kiruv and Chesed. Rabbi Haber received his Rabbinic Ordination (Yoreh Yoreh) from Rabbi Sender Rosenbloom and Rabbi Mordechai Freidlander of the Jerusalem Beth Din. He was awarded a Teaching Certificate by Torah Umesorah Association for Jewish Day Schools in 2004 and again in 2009. In addition, Rabbi Haber has spent over a decade studying Talmud, Jewish Law, and ethics in some of the world’s most prestigious Yeshivos including Beth Medrash Gavoha in Lakewood, NJ and Yeshivas Mir in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Haber can be contacted through the Synagogue office at 757-627-7358, or through e-mail at