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Jacob, Esau, Rachel, Leah and Days of Our Lives: D’var Torah for Parashat Toledot, 11/2/13

November 2, 2013 Leave a comment
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Will Samuels with Bryan Datillo (Lucas Roberts), from the early 90s.

2014 will mark a significant milestone in my life. Sure, my mom, dad, brother and sister-in-law all have milestone birthdays, but my milestone would be probably considered as having slightly less significance than those. But on some day in late May of next year, I will commemorate thirty years of watching “Days of Our Lives.” Thank you. Mazel Tov to me. We’ll be sponsoring the Kiddush and ordering a Happy Events plaque in honor of the occasion. In May, 1984, just after my freshman year of High School, I started watching the soap opera as they were planning to tape a few episodes in New Orleans during the World’s Fair that summer (and on one of those episodes I was visible in a crowd scene for 5 frames, which translates to 1/6 of a second of television greatness). My mom started watching the show with me, jumping ship from previously long-established devotion to her CBS afternoon television line-up, and after school we would watch the show on tape thanks to our relatively new acquisition of a VCR. My father, of course, was thrilled by this latest addition to my daily schedule. “C’mon son, let’s go outside and practice boxing.” “No, Dad, it’s time for ‘Days of our Liiiiiiiiiiives.’”

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Stanley Brock (Howie Hoffstedter), Andrew Massett (Larry Welch), and Kristian Alfonso (Hope Williams Brady), Days of our Lives

One of the storylines that I remember from those first few days of watching the show in 1984 was the wedding of Hope Brady and Larry Welch. Even though Hope was involved with bad-boy Bo Brady, Larry, Salem’s District Attorney, set his sights on Hope and blackmailed her into marrying him. But, at the moment of truth at the church, Larry lifted the veil on his bride and gasped as he gazed into the face of cigar-chomping Howie Hoffstedder who had switched places with Hope while Bo scurried her away on a motorcycle. Ah, daytime television. “C’mon, son, let’s go outside and have a chin-up contest.” “No thanks, Dad, I’m good.”

In fact, most weddings on soap operas don’t turn out exactly as planned. There’s always a startling revelation, a character coming back from the dead, a shark tornado, or some other sort of calamity that interrupts the intended festivities. In fact, Days of our Lives’ Sami Brady has had 9 weddings, five of which were interrupted due to some sort of mishegoss.

Which of course brings us to the storyline which starts in this week’s torah portion and continues with a cliffhanger moment that ties us over into the next parsha and the sweeps week dramatic reveal of what we all think is the long-awaited wedding of Jacob and Rachel.  Conveniently, the title of this week’s parsha “Toledot” means “Generations” which was a soap opera on NBC from 1989 to 1991. Next week’s parsha “Vayetze” means “Guiding Light,” and the parsha in 2 weeks, “Vayishlach” means “Judge Judy.”

Rensig, Everhard - Esau Gives up his Birthright; Jacob and Esau with the Bowl of Pottage - Google Art Project

“Esau Gives up his Birthright” By Rensig, Everhard (maker, Details of artist on Google Art Project) (Google Art Project: Home – pic) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

And so over the next few weeks we read about Jacob, Esau, Rachel and Leah, troubled souls in their own right, egged on by their loved ones to commit acts of deception enveloping them all in a web of deceit and intrigue until a final act of reconciliation occurs a couple of parshiot down the road. Every character has a flaw and finds a way to exploit the flaws of others to get what they want. Jacob is the troubled child- even in the womb, he and Esau fought. Rebekah, who learned early on that she couldn’t have children, has the soap-opera-like miracle pregnancy, giving birth to the red and hairy Esau with young and frail Jacob coming out of the womb holding onto his brother’s heel. Isaac favors Esau, Rebekah favors Jacob. So what makes Jacob be so cunning in the incident with the red porridge? One day, Esau is in the field hunting, he comes back and Jacob’s cooking up what we used to say in Junior Congregation was a big pot of red beans and rice. Esau demands some, and Jacob says “not until you give me your birthright.” Why wouldn’t Esau then have said, “How about you give me some porridge and then I won’t put my foot in your head?”

“Daaaaaaaaaaaad! Esau said he was going to put his foot in my head.”

“I told you not to be stupid, you moron. Now SHUT UP and sit down.”

No, Esau said “Okay, I don’t need this stupid birthright anyway, I’m so hungry I’m about to die. You can have the birthright.” He swore onto Jacob and Jacob shared his lunch with his brother.

Would it have killed Jacob to give his brother a bowl of soup? Had he been plotting all along how to capture the birthright and seized this opportunity to get what he had been craving? Had Rebecca been the instigator all along guiding Jacob to way find ways to ensure a proper lineage?  Of course, Esau was no saint. One midrash says that Esau had committed five sins that day- when we read Esau “came in from the field,” the midrash says he had been busy raping, murdering, denying belief in G-d, denying the resurrection of the dead, and despising his birthright thus dishonoring his heritage. Plus, although the Torah doesn’t specify, he probably was also committing the sin of wan-ton glances.

Nevertheless, this act opened up Jacob to be susceptible to performing the true act of deception. Egged on by his mother, Jacob dressed as Esau, came to Isaac on his deathbed and received the blessing met for his brother. Of course, Jacob didn’t have sense enough to disguise his voice, as Isaac points out “The voice is the voice of Jacob but the hands are the hands of Esau,” to which Jacob responds, “Oh yeah- I just finished hunting. Here’s some freshly-killed venison. Yum Yum Yum.” The commentator Rabbi Gunther Plaut argues that Isaac knew all along that it was really Jacob, but used Rebekah’s deception as a convenient excuse to pull a switcheroo and reaffirm the rightful development of the patriarchy by favoring Jacob over Esau because he knew that his elder son couldn’t carry on the traditions of Abraham. So there were lots of twists and turns to this particular soap opera storyline in this week’s parsha.

But Jacob, prone to being influenced to deceive, gets his comeuppance in parashat Vayetze which we read next week. Exiled to his Uncle Laban’s house after Esau vows to kill him, he’s instructed to find a wife from his Uncle’s daughters. “They’re your first cousins- I’m sure they’re lovely.” Jacob falls in love with the beautiful Rachel, tells Laban I’ll work for you for seven years if I can marry her,” Laban says ok. The wedding day finally arrives, the beautiful ceremony, and Jacob lifts the veil on his new bride only to find cigar-chomping older sister Leah who says, “talk about gorgeous, Dollface.” The crowd gasps, the music crescendos, Grandma faints, and we fade to black.

Well, that’s the soap opera version, of course. In the Torah, Laban makes a big feast for Jacob, inviting all the men of the place, and there was much carousing; probably a little too much carousing. Jacob goes to bed, Laban brings Leah in to him. Jacob drunkenly does his thing, maybe twice but probably not, and lo and behold, he wakes up in the morning and finds he’s married to Leah. There is one midrash in the Gemara that says Rachel told Jacob “My father is a trickster and will try to outwit you” but Jacob says “a ha, but I am his brother in trickery.” She warns him about a switcheroo but Jacob gives her special tokens so he could identify her. When the night came, Rachel realized that she was doing the wrong thing by shaming her sister, so she gave Leah the tokens. Rachel, trying to remain pure and righteous, tries to maintain the sisterly bond.

Dante's Vision of Rachel and Leah

“Dante’s Vision of Rachel and Leah,” Dante Gabriel Rossetti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Which gets tested, of course, over the next several years. Jacob complains to Laban who tells him, “Okay, serve your bridal week with Leah, and then you can have Rachel for a wife as well, provided you work for me for another seven years.” So he did so, Jacob gets his true love for a wife, and the couple has a nice happy ending. Not so, as we often see in the world of soap operas. The couple has a rather rocky life as Rachel stays barren and unable to have children, leaving Leah to fill the void by bearing the children. Which had to have caused a little household strife. Rachel was who Jacob loved, but Leah was there serving her purpose, but desperately trying to gain the affections of her husband. With her first son, she named Reuben “because G-d has looked upon my affliction, and now my husband will love me.” Leah names her second Simeon, “because G-d heard that I am hated.” With Levi, she says “Now my husband will be with me because I have borne him three sons.” With her fourth son, Judah, Leah says “This time, I will praise G-d” which Rabbi Jochanan points out that this was the first time since the creation of the world that someone praised G-d.

So, the score stands at Leah-4, Rachel-0, about which Rachel was none-too-happy. She was jealous of Leah, and, of course, her frustrations were directed towards Jacob, because it obviously was his fault. And, of course, this probably causes an issue with the amount of time that Jacob was spending with Leah, even though Rachel was the one he loved.  “I’m sorry, Rachel, I have 4 children that I need to spend a little time with. Maybe we can walk to the well tomorrow.”

Rachel comes into Jacob and says “Give me children, or I will die.” Jacob, exasperatingly, says “why is this my fault?” Rachel says, “Go take my handmaid Bilhah as a wife so maybe she can be my proxy.” He does, and of course Bilhah gets pregnant, which I imagine leads to a rather awkward conversation between Jacob and Leah:

“What, my sister and I weren’t good enough for you? Now you had to go schtup the maid? Just who do you think you are, Arnold Schwarzenegger?”

“Well, it’s just that, you know, she couldn’t have, um, it’s just…”

“Oh, forget it. Well that will explain why this house is so dirty. Look at these floors- they’re filthy.”

“Leah, I’ve told you before- the reason the floors are dirty is because they’re dirt floors.”

“And you would know, wouldn’t you, you’re the one rolling around on them WITH THE MAID!”

So you have poor Jacob, torn between a woman he doesn’t love but is the mother of his children and who desperately wants him to love her, the woman he does love but who can’t have children and who is desperately trying to do so, their handmaiden who no doubt were wondering where childbearing fell within their job descriptions, a brother who he thinks wants to kill him, and his house, which apparently can never get cleaned.

And so the contest of bearing children continues back and forth between Rachel and Leah, and their maids, until finally Rachel is able to conceive and bears Jacob a son, Joseph.

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Will Samuels with “Days of our Lives” cast members Casey Jon Deidrick (Chad DiMera), James Reynolds (Abe Carver), and Shawn Christian (Dr. Daniel Jonas)

Then, in two weeks, when we read about the reunion of Jacob and Esau, we learn that as Jacob and his family were travelling, they see Esau coming with 400 men. So they divide the family, putting the handmaids and their children first, much like the ones wearing the red shirts in Star Trek, the expendable unnamed ones who were always the first ones to reach the new planet, only to be immediately killed upon arrival. “Hmmm. Well, guess we shouldn’t go down there…” So I imagine, Leah had a little bit to say during that discussion…

“That’s a lot of people coming toward us. Okay, Lupe, you and your children go first.”

“It’s Bilhah.”

“What?”

“It’s Bilhah, not Lupe. I’ve worked in this house cleaning up your filth for 13 years. I have two sons with your husband. Zeh Lo Tov. HaShem Sheli ‘Bilhah!’”

“Oh. Strong words coming from the maid. Okay, Lupe, you and the other one go first and see if Esau is still angry…”

Finally, we have a happy reunion between Jacob and Esau, nobody gets killed, and everybody lives happily, except Rachel who dies in childbirth, Jacob who thinks a son of his gets eaten by wolves, Joseph who is dumped in a pit and sold into slavery and his brothers and sister who have some various and sundry issues and challenges of their own as they go through life.

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Will Samuels with Joe Mascolo (Stefano DiMera, Days of our Lives)

But the story continues, and just as I’ve watched characters on TV grow over the last 30 years, and I probably shouldn’t figure out the number of hours that translates to (even though it is just shy of 8000), the characters on your favorite soap opera and the characters in your favorite Torah share a number of qualities. None of them are perfect. Jacob, Isaac, Rebecca, Esau, Rachel and Leah, Bo, Hope, Sami and Marlena all have character flaws which help us identify and get through the trials and tribulations of our own lives. The stories we read about in the parshiot of the next several weeks get us to slavery in Egypt and then redemption, Torah, and the Promised Land. If there was no strife and no obstacles in the Jacob story. If our ancestors were without flaw or challenges, then how can we learn how to better adapt and be better people, better spouses, better siblings, better parents and better Jews? If the road has no bumps on it, then how do we know we’re supposed to slow down and enjoy the journey?

And so as we continue the soap opera that is the book of Bereshit, I offer this blessing. It is Ryan’s Hope and my hope for All My Children and their children. May G-d show his Guiding Light to help us Search for Tomorrow- in Another World of Passions, peace, Loving, and prosperity. So that every one of us in all of our Generations from Port Charles to Texas to Sunset Beach, Santa Barbara, the Capitol and beyond. The Young and The Restless among us, The Bold and The Beautiful, can all come together to celebrate avoiding the Dark Shadows and the Doctors in General Hospital. And so As The World Turns each day to start a new morning and as the sun sets at The Edge of Night we pray for guidance and support on our individual and collective journeys. We only have One Life to Live, so let’s live with a Love of Life by being thankful and celebrating G-d’s blessings in helping us travel the right path all the Days of our Lives.

Will Samuels

November 2, 2013

Presented at Shir Chadash Conservative Congregation, Metairie, LA

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My Video celebrating 50 Years of Conservative Judaism in New Orleans

October 25, 2010 Leave a comment

On Friday and Saturday, October 15-16, 2010, Shir Chadash synagogue had a special Shabbat and gala celebrating “Fifty Years of Conservative Judaism in New Orleans.”  I wrote, produced, and edited a video retrospective pulling together slides, videos, pictures, clippings, and 35-mm films into a 45-minute documentary (during which we also paid tribute to the gala’s honorees). I was rather pleased with how it turned out. If it’s not embedded below, you can see it at http://vimeo.com/79012275.

50 Years of Conservative Judaism in New Orleans from Shir Chadash on Vimeo.

Updated 11/9/13 with new link.

Categories: Uncategorized

I Made a Video

December 30, 2009 Leave a comment

I’m kind of proud of this:

It’s a promotional video that I made for Shir Chadash synagogue in Metairie (a suburb of New Orleans). The synagogue’s Facebook page has tripled the number of fans in the last three months. I’m proud of that, too.

Categories: Uncategorized