It’s hard to mistake one woman for another.

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Episode 14

Afterward services that evening Matt grabbed some coffee in the synagogue kitchen, where six or seven people had gathered. Next to Rabbi Altman was a woman Matt didn’t know. Slender, with silky dark hair, she was dressed in a brown paisley skirt and ribbed turtleneck that emphasized every curve. With luminous eyes, a thin nose, and a determined chin, she wasn’t the kind of woman you could look away from for long. She smiled at him between sips of coffee. Matt smiled back.

“So what do you think of this week’s Torah portion?” Rabbi Altman stirred his coffee with a stick.

“This parshah’s important because it’s the first time anyone ever designated a piece of land as holy,” one man said, biting into a bagel. “It’s the first time we see that God is in charge of staking out new territory, not man.”

Several others nodded.

Encouraged, the man went on. “Personally, I think Jacob’s dream plants the flag for the family of Israel. Kind of like the astronauts staking out the moon with an American flag. Symbolically, of course.”

“Speaking of families,” another man said, “I think the most interesting part comes later. In the part we haven’t read.”

Rabbi Altman tilted his head. “What’s that, Howard?”

“The part where Laban cons Jacob into working for him for seven years, thinking he’s ‘gonna marry Rachel. But then Laban springs Leah on him instead, and Jacob has to work seven more years.”

“Why is that interesting?”

“Well, remember last week when we read how Jacob stole Esau’s birthright and tricked his father into giving him Esau’s blessing? With the fur on his arms?”

Altman nodded.

“I think this week is payback time. God wants us to know you can’t get away with tricks like that. Jacob has to pay for his sins. At the most vulnerable time in his life, when he truly falls in love.”

Altman scratched his beard. “Interesting.”

Howard folded his arms, as if unsure whether to be flattered or insulted.

“But I disagree with you,” Altman went on. “Jacob didn’t set out to impersonate Esau. His mother Rebecca put him up to it. Jacob was just doing what his mother wanted.”

“The good son,” the woman next to Matt said.

Altman nodded. “I think it was just a case of inexperience. Jacob was naive. He should have been more careful before he made a deal with a man he just met.”

“But he was in love,” the woman said. “People do all sorts of things when they fall in love.”

“Jacob paid a stiff price for it.”

“He did,” the woman nodded. “But in the end, he got her. Doesn’t that mean anything?”

Rabbi Altman smiled. “Of course it does. Laban deceived Jacob. Unfairly. Which, in part, is why Jacob eventually triumphed. But there are some who claim it’s nonsense to think that Jacob didn’t realize it was Leah, not Rachel, in bed with him that first night. Let’s face it. It’s hard to mistake one woman for another, you know what I mean?”

A few people tittered. The woman nudged Matt. “If my husband didn’t know who he was in bed with,” she whispered, “he ‘d have a lot of explaining to do.”

“This scholar goes on to say that Leah was Jacob’s primary wife. She bore him more sons than Rachel, and she—not Rachel—is buried with him in the Cave of Machpelah.”

“I always thought it was bashert that they fell in love. You know, fate.”

Altman smiled. “Well, another scholar believes Rachel was Jacob’s intended mate for this world, but Leah was his intended mate for a higher, more spiritual world… the world Jacob ultimately embraced. So, you see this is a very complicated and involved piece of Torah.”

As the group broke up, Matt and the woman walked toward the front door.

“I always learn the most interesting things at synagogue,” she said.

“You have strong opinions.”

“Why do I sense there’s something missing from that sentence?”

“What do you mean?”

“For a woman.”

Matt laughed. “Not me. My mother taught me better than that.”

“And you believed her?”

“The good son.”

She grinned.

“I’ve haven’t seen you here before,” Matt said. “Did you just join?”

“No. I’m not a member. My mother’s Yarzeit is this week. I just came to say Kaddish.”

“I’m sorry,” Matt said. Both his parents were still alive.

“Don’t be. It’s been twenty years.”

“Oh.” He felt suddenly awkward. “Well, I’d better get going.”

“Me too. Do you always come for evening prayers?”

“When I can.”

A lock of hair fell across her forehead. She brushed it back, then gave him a wave. “Well. So long.”

“‘Bye.” As he pushed through the door, he had the sense they had almost agreed to meet again.

Episodes in the novel will be published on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Please click the following title,ToxiCity, to read more about Libby Fischer Hellman’s books on Amazon.

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