Last week my wife, Tamar, shared with me a compelling idea she had developed about the Torah reading for an adult education session she facilitated at the Chicago Jewish Day School (CJDS), where she works. The idea was that the true inheritor of Abraham’s mantle is not Isaac, whom we might assume based on both the narrative told in the Torah and Isaac’s grouping with his father (and son, Jacob) in the Amidah and other collections of the “patriarchs." It is Rebecca, not Isaac, who goes on her own journey, leaving her homeland and her father’s house; who embodies Abraham’s quintessential characteristic – being kind and welcoming to strangers.
In this week’s parashah, Tol’dot, we add further evidence to Tamar’s theory. As Abraham was the crucial parent to Isaac and Ishmael, the origin of Jacob and Esau’s sibling tensions are framed, literally, inside Rebecca’s womb. Rebecca, not Isaac, is the key parent to the twins. And when we arrive at the climactic moment of the story, Isaac dispensing the blessing of the firstborn to the younger bother, Jacob, who will propel the family towards its destiny, it is Rebecca who orchestrates the legendary switcheroo.
In combination with other female figures in the first book-and-a-half of the Torah – Sarah, Tamar, Yocheved, Shifra and Pu’ah – Rebecca is perhaps the greatest of an archetype: the dynamic, crucial, female character in the foundational dramas of the Jewish people. While we must always be wary of applying anachronistic categories and values to prior periods of time, this compelling read of Rebecca refreshingly flips conventional wisdom on its head and highlights the richness of the Torah’s character development and storytelling.
Camp is also a stage for the playing of roles, conventional and otherwise. Characteristics like gender, physical appearance, familial relationships, and synagogue, school, or metropolitan area contribute to perceptions of who we are and what we are to become. When we operate at our best, these roles are broken down, built back up, reimagined and reinterpreted. When camp works, individuals feel safe and encouraged to try something new -like the basketball star who discovers the pottery wheel and the shy camper who feels empowered to sing a solo in the play. Camp Ramah can provide multiple platforms for individuals to realize theirdestiny and pursue their own dreams.
Rebecca’s story, then, is instructive for all of us, in the myriad stages on which we find ourselves. She is a woman whose gender is both incidental and integral to her role in the story, one who acts as her father-in-law and uncle as the outsider who makes others feel at home while incapable of feeling it herself. Yet she is a character who knows her sons so well because she carried them, feeling them struggle within her, and is ultimately a mother helping each of her boys realize their own respective destinies.
May we all find the forums in our own lives to be our own people, realizing destinies that others could never imagine and unabashedly embodying our true selves. This is the potential power of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, as one of our greatest poets and alumni knew so well. Prof. Moshe Greenberg (z"l), among a short list of the greatest Bible scholars of the last generation and the author of the Himnon Ramah (Anthem), described the camp as serving as a "wonder” (mofet) to the “myriad thousands” (alfei r’vavah). That phrase, the closing one of the third and final stanza of the Himnon, is a direct allusion to a verse in last week’s Torah reading describing – who else – Rebecca.