Thursday, 04 Nov 2010

Written by Lisa Barrett

At the opening of this week’s Parashah, Toledot, Rebecca is stricken with the struggling of the children within her. ‘Im ken, lamah zeh anochi?’ she cries: ‘If this is so, why do I exist?’ (Gen. 25:22). She isn’t wanting a quick-fix solution to relieve her physical pain, but seeks a deep understanding of the meaning underlying her condition. For me, she is the first existentialist, questioning the purpose of her being as she faces inner turmoil.

Rebecca’s response is a very Jewish one. Not content to accept things at face value, she goes ‘lidrosh et Adonai’, to inquire of God. And from God Rebecca gets a response: ‘Two nations are in your womb…’ (Gen. 25:23). God reveals that she is playing a part in the destiny of the Jewish people, and that her existential struggle will ensure its continuity.

The verb used to describe Rebecca’s questioning is lidrosh, meaning to search out, to inquire, to question the meaning of. It is the same root as the word midrash, the body of literature in which the rabbinic imagination creatively and audaciously seeks to fill in the gaps in our enigmatically terse Torah text.

Facing inner turmoil is something most of us have to do at some point in our lives. For me, lidrosh has been a leitmotif, starting in my earliest years as a child in my classically dysfunctional family, wondering why I had been born into this particular home, and what my purpose in it could possibly be. Following careers in Education and Complimentary Therapy, mid-life crisis plunged me into the deep questioning and re-evaluation of my purpose that brought me to rabbinical school. Throughout my drashing/searching, like my ancestor Rebecca, it is to God I have turned for an answer to turmoil, even through the times when God was the source of my bitterness or despair.

At Leo Baeck College I have discovered an entire institution that is drashing/inquiring deeply.  As the new co-chair of the Students’ Society, I have been representing the students in the current processes of the Strategic Review where, under the exacting leadership of Alasdair Nisbet, every aspect of the running of the college is being examined by those who care deeply about its future.

The unique essence of our rabbinical programme expresses the core values of Leo Baeck College, which I experience in action every day as a student, such as the deep commitment to Jewish tradition hand in hand with rigorous academic standards, inclusiveness, pluralism, internationality and engaging with the Other through Interfaith work.

What I would like to see embraced more openly in our programme is the God side of the drashing. In typical British fashion, the spiritual dimension of our development as rabbis is sometimes left unarticulated, at a time when we need to equip ourselves adequately to engage with the wave of spiritual searching amongst many Jews today.

All of us have a part to play in the destiny of the Jewish People, expressed through our commitment to Leo Baeck College. Let’s aspire to be more like Rebecca, and like the creative and audacious rabbinic imaginations that compiled the midrash. Expanding the conversation with God in response to our deepest questioning can fill the gaps in the enigmatically terse texts of our own lives.

Lisa Barrett
November 2010


The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.