In this week’s parsha, Toldot (Genesis 25:19–28:9), just after stating that Rebecca’s children struggled in her womb we read, “Vatelech lidrosh et Hashem/ She went to inquire of God.” (Genesis 25:22)
What does it mean “vatelech/she went” to inquire of God? Rashi (11th century, France) posited that if we interpret the verse to say that Rebecca prayed to God, then the word vatelech/she went is inappropriate because God is everywhere and therefore one needn’t go anywhere to pray.
So what does vatelech mean? It must mean that Rebecca indeed went somewhere to inquire of God. Where would she go to seek out God? Rashi decided that she must have gone to speak to a person of God, a wise person.
Nachmanides (13th century, Spain) took the more conventional approach and understood the word vatelech to mean that Rebecca appealed directly to God in prayer as she was feeling such anguish about her pregnancy.
I normally have a constant and fluid dialogue with God. I speak directly to God as Nachmanides wrote that Rebecca did. However, in May, my husband, daughter and I were in a very serious accident while we were on our way to say our final good-byes to my mother in New England.
The period of time when I would normally have been comforted by the mourning rituals of our tradition was preempted by hospital stays and the road to recovery.
Since that fateful night, I find that my open access to God has been obstructed. I am operating more along the lines of Rashi’s interpretation of vatelech - I seek out a person of God to speak to instead of direct prayer as I used to.
Who might that person of God be? It could be my mentor or another wise clergy person of most any religion. It might be my husband, children, siblings. I find that my family contains great wisdom and guidance in this situation even if we all have different conceptions of God and prayer. I often find myself turning to the seniors who I serve as a chaplain. It is a privilege that I am able to learn from their lives and their wisdom.
Recently I conducted prayer-‘writing workshops with of the Charles E Smith Senior Living Communities. They were some of the most exciting prayer writing sessions I’ve ever experienced. The format was that of Six Word Prayers that I learned from the poet and liturgist Alden Solovy, though many of our prayers were not exactly six words.
Here are a few examples:
Prayers from residents of the Assisted Living included: I’m happy that I can feel [again]; Make the most of what is; Let me accept the differences in life; and Allow me to see all clearly.
Prayers from residents of the Memory Care House included: Thank you Adonai I am Grateful. I am grateful for getting up every morning, for good health, for friendship and joy. I am grateful for my children who teach us what love feels like. I am grateful that we can argue [with our family], make up and still love each other.
I can only imagine that Rebecca’s prayer practice vacillated quite a bit over the course of her rather unusual pregnancy as it might with any major life event. Yes, God may be all around us but sometimes we have to seek God out in order to find God. Then we can find God inside us or in those around us. As it says in Psalm 145, “God is near to all who call God, to all who call God with sincerity/earnestness.”
Some food for thought:
Which approach to God and pray speaks to you – Rashi’s or Nachmanides?
Do you find your approach to God and prayer changing with time and experience?
This Dvar Torah is dedicated to the memory of my mother, Harriett Venetsky Goldstein, may her memory be for a blessing.
*This dvar appears in the Washington Jewish Week, November 28, 2019