Chayei Sarah: Ditto!

Ditto, my brother’s cat, is normally quite shy. She follows my brother around and ignores everyone else.

But last week, she sat with me, she talked to me in short meows, and she very patiently posed for thirty-eight photographs in a series I privately called “Urban Cat at Home.”

Hanging out with Ditto was one of many highlights of my New York trip.

One day I entered the apartment using my brother’s key. Ditto came to greet him…and then saw it was only me.

Later I told my brother, “Your cat glared at me. She was disappointed that I wasn’t you.”

My brother said, “Glared? How do you figure that?”

“Well, her eyes were narrowed and her ears were folded down. That’s glaring.”

Another day I said, “Dave, your cat wants to get stoned.”

He asked, “How do you know?”

“She keeps touching her nose to the place where you put the catnip yesterday and then looking at you.”

I’ve lived with so many cats, with so many personalities, over so many years…I am conversant with their form of life. I know what is important to them, how their bodies move as they think and feel, what topics they care to discuss with me.

That’s a kind of empathy: watching, listening, respecting someone’s form of life.

Ditto has that kind of empathy. She loves my brother and considers him her “go-to” person. She does not mind at all that he doesn’t always hear her. She watches, listens, and adapts.

Maybe that’s why I like her so much. The watcher in me recognizes the watcher in her. We can relax around each other, knowing we are safe.

It’s true that I know cats and Ditto knows humans. But our connection is not just a matter of social knowledge. A part of me that seeks security through knowledge recognizes the same seeking in Ditto. Deep in our psyches, we know that we are kin.

Maybe this is why I love the book of BereisheetGenesis so much. Many readers say it is the story of “our dysfunctional family.” It is certainly the story of an extended family that argues, splits, comes together in healing; argues, splits, comes together in healing; argues, splits, comes together in healing, over and over again.

I may not have lived the particular family problems showcased in this story; I may not have detailed social knowledge.

But I’m a human being nurtured in a family. I’ve lived through conflict and I’ve lived through healing and I’m sure I am not done. I know what it’s like to be broken and to yearn for healing.

In the Torah characters that we call our “ancestors,” I recognize that same yearning. Deep in my psyche, I know that we are kin. That knowing allows me to call them “ancestor,” to take myself into their family, to take them into mine.

According to the Orthodox Artscroll Chumash, we should be careful about identifying too closely with our ancestors. Our ancestors were more spiritually elevated than we can ever hope to be. We do not share their wisdom.

According to the Conservative Etz Chayim Chumash, we should be careful for a different reason. Our ancestors did some things we find upsetting. But we cannot judge them using today’s values. We have to learn about their historical time period, and judge them with an eye to their own time.

Personally, I cannot accept either of these views.

I am a disciple of Ditto. Ditto teaches that it’s not wise to idealize those we love. Nor is it wise to judge them.

It is best simply to recognize them.

Recognizing that our ancestors are our kin can be enormously healing. Their families fell apart, and their families reconciled. They became wiser as they matured. No matter where they were in their journey towards wisdom, they prayed and made offerings. If we are spiritual seekers, we can recognize the journey and take comfort in its wandering path.

For me, recognition is an important theme in Parshat Chayei Sarah.

Picture the young adult Yitzchak. Yitzchak’s father tried to kill him; he left his father’s home to live with his older brother; he desperately misses his late mother; and he spends the afternoons taking long walks, trying to think things over.

Picture the teenage Rivkah. She is strong, confident, caring and adventurous. Her overbearing brother tries to control the family, but her parents do not let him overshadow her, and they encourage her to speak her mind. And when she jumps at the chance to leave home to marry a cousin she has never met, her parents let her know how much they will miss her, even as they affirm her decision.

I could not imagine a more mismatched couple than the brooding Yitzchak and the lively Rivkah.

But I only know about the behaviors Torah describes. Yitzchak and Rivkah seem to know their inner lives, and they imagine themselves very differently.

As Rivkah approaches Yitzchak’s town, she sees a young man out walking. She falls off her camel, and asks her guide Eliezer, “Who is this guy?” Eliezer says, “That is your fiancé.” Rivkah immediately puts on her veil, ready to get married then and there.

Or maybe she has a momentary crisis of confidence, and thinks, “I’d better make sure he marries me before he sees the real me.”

When Yitzchak marries Rivkah, he has no crisis of confidence. He loves her immediately.

Rivkah, the confident daughter of loving parents, who normally hides her insecurities, allows them to be seen for just a moment by the insecure Yitzchak, who will not judge them, just recognize them.

Yitzchak, the man mourning losses of love, allows the love inside him to be seen for just a moment by Rivkah. She will not idealize the love or distort it; she will just recognize it.

Their families of origin are so different. Their social knowledge of how to be in a family does not match. But Yitzchak’s inner yearning recognizes Rivkah, and Rivkah’s inner yearning recognizes Yitzchak.

And in all the stories Torah tells about their lives, even when they disagree about important matters, we do not get a single story about marital strife or hear of an unkind word exchanged between them. (This is not the case for any of the other famous couples in Bereisheet.)

Perhaps Yitzchak and Rivkah know how to recognize, to watch, listen, and adapt. This is a kind of empathy, and it’s a kind of love.

We should all be disciples of Ditto.

Thanks to Rabbi Irwin Kula of CLAL for mentioning (at the Rabbis Without Borders meeting) the book Psychotheology of Everyday Life by Eric Santner. Some of my language in this post was influenced by Stuart J. Murray’s review of that book.
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