In this Shabbat’s Parashah of Vayishlach, we read the story of how Ya’akov, after having spent the last twenty years in self-imposed exile in Haran, returned to confront his brother, Esav, who had sought to kill him after stealing his birthright from their father Yitzchak. The Torah describes how Ya’akov, after having divided his camp into two halves in anticipation of facing violent retribution from his estranged brother, sent waves of gifts to his brother, Esav, in an attempt to mollify what he imagined his brother’s smoldering murderous rage he might still be harboring against him.
The gifts that he sent included 200 female and 20 male goats, 200 female sheep and 20 rams, 20 camels and their young, 40 cows and 10 bulls, 20 female and 10 male donkeys. Even for a wealthy, herding family like Ya’akov’s—this was an extraordinarily generous gift of animals! Ya’akov instructed his servants driving the animals to keep a distance between the droves, and that if Esav were to ask the servant who he was and where he was going, he was to respond, “They are your servant’s, Ya’akov’s—they are a gift sent to my lord Esav, and Ya’akov himself is right behind us.” Each servant driving the separate groups of animals was instructed to say the exact same thing, slowly propitiating Esav with each wave of animal gifts and hopefully building his interest and positive anticipation of finally seeing and re-uniting with his brother, Ya’akov.
We can only imagine Ya’akov’s dread of seeing his brother who he had last seen twenty years earlier, and whose last memories of him were probably colored by an overwhelming fear of his anger and flight to save his own life. But I would like to focus on Esav’s experience of the impending reunion with Ya’akov. We already know the outcome of the story—upon meeting his brother, Esav threw himself around Ya’akov’s neck and kissed him and wept. Although Esav did indeed bring 400 of his fighting men to the meeting, we have no way of knowing whether Esav had indeed been mollified by Ya’akov’s gifts, or whether the last twenty years had led to Esav regretting his anger and longing for a reconciliation with his younger twin brother no matter how many or generous gifts he received in advance as a peace offering.
Whatever Esav’s original intent was when he set off to greet his brother at the border of his territory, the waves of gifts must have surely had an effect on Esav. After meeting with the first generous gift of animals and hearing that Ya’akov was coming in the very next group must have heightened his excitement and anticipation, which can only have given way to disappointment at discovering Ya’akov was not in the next group, but then this might have given way to renewed excitement and anticipation to learn that Ya’akov was imminently arriving in the very next wave of animal gifts. Given the number of animals and groups that Ya’akov sent, this recurrent emotional cycle of rising and falling waves of anticipation and excitement yielding to disappointment and frustration only to be fueled again by the next wave of animals that would surely bring about his desired reunion must have had a very keen effect on Esav. By the time that Ya’akov finally showed up and met his brother, Esav—as the Torah indicates—was probably an emotional wreck, exhausted by the cycle of shattered disappointments until finally experiencing the intensity of his reunion with his long-estranged younger brother.
As Jews reading and studying the Torah each week, it is understandable that we often tend to identify with the “heroes” of the Torah—even the less-likeable characters. But this is one story where I –as an adoptive parent -- personally identify with Esav. People come to adoption in many different ways. For some people, adoption is their first choice as a way to build a family, and I am truly in awe of people who open their hearts and homes and adopt children into their family out of their deep personal volition. For others, adoption is sometimes the only way available to them to build a family. And finally, for others, adoption is a choice arrived at after a long and wearying struggle with infertility.
My wife and I spent six painful years struggling to overcome our biological infertility. Every month, and every new and invasive medical therapy that we pursued that was intended to help us become parents led us to recapitulate Esav’s experience of waves of rising excitement and anticipation only to be shattered by disappointment, again to be followed by another fruitless cycle of more of the same. This can take a toll after a while quickly depleting emotional reserves and leaving deep invisible scars in the soul that can persist for years and years.
And ironically enough, even after we chose adoption and ultimately brought Nava into our family, when we initiated the process of adopting Reuven and Kalanit, we unintentionally replicated the emotional roller coaster ride of infertility that we had thought that we had left behind forever when we choose to pursue adoption as a means of building our family. Not due to biological reasons, but because soon after learning about the existence and availability of Reuven and Kalanit for adoption, our hopes and excitement were dashed time and again due to court delays, incompetent social workers and bureaucratic obstacles, all of which served to reanimate the darkest emotional times of our lives.
Ideally, pregnancy is a time of anticipation, hope and eagerness. By the time a baby arrives—often, but not always—the expectant mother and father have had sufficient time to prepare themselves emotionally for the arrival of a new member of their family. Unfortunately, the opposite was true in our attempts to expand our family. By the time we were able to bring Kalanit and Reuven into our lives, at the end of a process to bring them into our homes that took over months, we were exhausted, emotionally spent, and ill prepared to take on the challenges of adopting toddlers. We did not have the strength or fortitude to arrange a homecoming party, and due to the private and often difficult twists and turns of our adoption saga, we rarely shared or confided with our friends the details of our painful ups and downs, so there was no community beyond our closest family to even think of throwing some kind of baby-welcoming celebration, or a toddler shower, or to volunteer to help us through a very challenging transition in our family’s growth. I blame no one but ourselves, and we suffered the consequences of our zealous quest to preserve our family’s privacy. In our efforts to shield and insulate ourselves from the painful complications of a long, drawn-out adoption process, we unintentionally exacerbated the abrupt transition of our family from one to three children.
Even here in our congregational home, some of you may remember how we unceremoniously showed up one Shabbat morning over two years ago with a new one-year old baby girl in our arms, and then quite mysteriously turned up nearly two months later with a second child, a two-year old little boy who passively took in his strange new world with eyes wide open in shock and wonder. We did not seek out—nor did we receive—any aliyah to publicly share the news with the congregation. We recited no special Mi She’berakh for the welcoming of a new child into our homes. We sponsored no Kiddush to celebrate our experience with the community. Not only were we too physically tired and emotionally drained, but we came to realize, quite quickly, that our life cycle experience did not easily fit into an increasingly irrelevant set of traditional Jewish rituals or celebrations.
Because our two youngest children came to us through the state sponsored Fost/Adopt system, we were initially merely the foster parents to these children. They were not our children legally, and as toddlers, the emotional bonding took some time, and they even came with their own names—which we eventually changed—but which served to separate us from a sense of immediate ownership and parenthood. That year on the Shabbat that the congregation sponsors to welcome new babies into the congregation, although we were invited to participate, we felt that we did not have a place in that ceremony for a number of reasons. First of all, our children weren’t babies—we adopted Reuven and Kalanit as toddlers, and secondly, they were not legally part of our family to feel comfortable enough about welcoming them into the congregation, and finally, because they were not legally part of our family, we had not yet initiated their conversion to Judaism, and it felt uncomfortable and premature for us to participate in a Jewish welcoming ceremony when our children were not yet Jewish. Like Esav’s long, drawn-out reception of Ya’akov’s lengthy train of animal gifts, our path to full and complete parenthood took an excruciatingly long time.
This was especially difficult for me because one Jewish ritual and parental obligation as a Jewish father of a boy that I especially longed to fulfill was the mitzvah of Brit Milah. But Reuven was far from being an infant and was medically ineligible as a three year-old for a traditional Brit Milah performed by a Mohel. It would require a surgical procedure involving stitches to be performed by a pediatric urologist in a hospital, which I could not even legally arrange as his foster father, since all surgical procedures must have prior court approval, which I would not get for a purely voluntary, religious ritual. However, amazingly enough, we did ultimately manage to find a way around this obstacle and did indeed arrange for such a medical circumcision at Oakland Children’s Hospital over a year ago, last September of 2006. And despite the pain that poor Reuven experienced, and the bloody diapers and understandable regression in his potty training, it still was not even an acceptable Halakhic entrance into Jewish identity since we still could not complete his conversion until we had legally finalized his adoption! His Hatafat Dam Brit—or symbolic circumcision and entrance into the Covenant of the Jewish people and God—would have to wait. And so again, another major life cycle event in our family’s life went by without any ritual or celebration to ameliorate the physical and emotional pain of a long, drawn out adoption experience. Like Esav’s protracted effort to reunite with his younger brother Ya’akov, our family journey lasted a painfully long time.
It took over a year and a half but this last Spring, at long last, we legally finalized the adoption of Reuven and Kalanit, but the courtroom experience was so brief, sterile, impersonal and anti-climactic that it left a bitter taste in our mouths for quite a while. Perhaps because of this we once again missed an opportunity to mark this momentous event with any kind of celebration. At every Shabbat B’Yahad, Cathy Shadd—and now Lara Hornbeck—invites children and parents to share any news or “firsts” so that the community can say Shehecheyanu and celebrate with a child or family. Somehow, to have announced the finalization of their legal adoption in such a situation felt too trivializing and demeaning, and so once again, we let the moment pass.
And only upon the successful finalization of their adoption, we could finally move forward and complete the religious conversion of Reuven and Kalanit. After the pain and indignity of a hospital circumcision procedure, I once more had to subject Reuven to some more pain—physical and psychological—when I arranged for Rabbi Chanan Feld to perform his Hatafat Dam Brit, or symbolic circumcision ceremony which once again, involved drawing more blood in that most tender and private of parts. Suffice it to say it was not a pleasant or even spiritual moment in either Reuven’s or my own life. I’m just glad it is over—but again, because it was such an excruciating experience, and it was still only just one more step in the formal conversion process, we arranged no celebration of this moment. As with Esav, our longed-for meeting with Ya’akov, or in this case, the conclusion of the normalization of our own children into our family, seemed to take a very long time.
Finally, this last June, we arranged for Reuven and Kalanit to immerse in the Mikvah to conclude their conversion process. While we have come to appreciate Rabbi Kelman as our rabbi in the few short years that we have been members of Netivot Shalom, the Beit Din, or rabbinic panel, and Mikvah visit that we were able to arrange turned out to be merely weeks if not days away from his retirement, and we did not feel comfortable asking Stuart to take on the burden of arranging all of the details at the very end of his rabbinic tenure. And Menachem was weeks away from arriving and taking up his new pulpit responsibilities, and the last thing that we wanted to do was wait and delay a sense of the completion of our family building process yet again.
So I took responsibility for arranging the Beit Din and Mikvah and called upon my own rabbinic friends and colleagues to conclude the conversion process. And yet again, the very next Shabbat, we were so emotionally shattered, so completely depleted of emotional energy or vigor—and bear in mind it was literally Stuart’s last Shabbat as rabbi at Netivot Shalom—that we once again missed our opportunity to mark this powerful life cycle event with any ritual or celebration. Like Esav, at the very end of the train of Ya’akov’s animal gifts, he, too, was an emotional wreck whose ultimate reaction to seeing Ya’akov after so much time and so much heart-break and anticipation, was to break down in tears and weep.
This Shabbat—finally--Deborah and I benched gomel, the blessing thanking God for having sustained us through a life threatening experience. To be honest, our adoption experience was not life threatening, but it certainly ground us down and squeezed a lot of our life force from us. While we might not have technically qualified to recite this bracha, we needed a sense of closure to this part of our lives and this story. We also recited a special Mi She’berakhblessing that is traditionally recited upon the birth of a baby girl or included as part of the Brit Milah ceremony. Again, because so many of the traditional rituals did not seem to apply to our unique situation, I wrote a special, custom-designed Mi Sheberach for our family. We missed so many opportunities to celebrate our children, that we couldn’t let another opportunity pass us by again.
I wish I could conclude by honestly reporting that I feel a true sense of closure, catharsis and healing. I wish I could--but life rarely follows a Hollywood script ending. And given the current Hollywood screenwriters strike, it somehow feels strangely appropriate to lack the words and plot which might enable me to draw a poetically just conclusion to our family’s adoption saga. But life is rarely so neat and tidy.
I can only draw hope and inspiration from Esav’s story—yes, Esav—and not Ya’akov. While Esav sold his birthright to Ya’akov for a bowl of lentil soup, it is this very birthright--an identity as proud, authentic, legitimate Jews--that both Deborah and I have been struggling to provide our children. Despite Esav and Ya’akov’s separate destinies in the Torah, in the Parashah of Vayishlach, at the end of the long drawn out train of animal gifts, Esav and Ya’akov did at long last reconcile and embrace. And just as Esav embraced Ya’akov, Ya’akov reciprocated and embraced Esav equally in return. Just as we, in our family, are working to actively create and strengthen a connection to Judaism and the Jewish people, both Deborah and I find comfort and encouragement in the mutual embrace, welcome, and acceptance and we have found here in our congregation of Netivot Shalom.
It was indeed a long drawn out meeting between Esav and Ya’akov—but for us, the gift of our children has been better than any gift of sheep, goats or camels! While my children may not be my biological offspring, nor were they born into the Covenant of Abraham, I can only hope and pray that they continue to find acceptance, friendship, love, fulfillment and a natural, legitimate feeling of belonging and sense of home in this people, the family of Ya’akov, the people of Israel, as well as in this congregation. Ken Yehi Ratzon.