Toldot - 5776 - 13 November 2015
Post date: Nov 13, 2015 10:40:30 PM
The 3rd triennial section of the Torah that we read tomorrow is heart-wrenching. It opens with our 2nd patriarch, Isaac, giving his blessing to the son he thought was Esau. Unbeknown to Isaac, however, Jacob was masquerading as his brother Esau. Isaac was blind and asked the young man before him, "Are you my son, Esau?" to which Jacob responded simply, "ani" (me). There is controversy among scholars as to whether this blindness of Isaac was physical or psychological - i.e., whether Isaac was blind to Esau's limitations or even whether Isaac willfully ignored his suspicion that the boy before him was really Esau. The text leaves room for broad interpretation.
Shortly thereafter, Esau returned from his hunt to feed his father Isaac and receive his blessing, Isaac asked, "Who are you?" to which Esau replied, "I am your son, your firstborn, Esau." And in a rare description of emotion, the Torah relates that Isaac trembled violently.
This is both a vividly honest story and a troubling story on many levels. To its honesty, it is an unvarnished account of the last patriarch, Jacob. It does not condone the lie he told his father, nor the deception perpetrated on his brother. It reports it. It also reports the consequences.
Esau, upon discovering that his blessing was usurped, swears to kill Jacob after their father Isaac dies and his period of mourning is over. In this way, the Torah paints Esau as the complex figure that he was. After all, why else would he wait to take vengeance until well after his father was buried, if not for the fact that he loved his father Isaac?
In this we also see that Isaac was able to love his children for who they were, what we call unconditional love.
The troubling aspects of the story go well beyond Jacob's dissembling (manipulated, encouraged, and abetted by the twins' mother, Rebecca). 'When Esau heard his father's words, he burst into wild and bitter sobbing, and said to his father, "Bless me too, father!"' (Gen 27:34). Esau begs his father, repeatedly, for some blessing - anything! He asks, לא אצלת לי ברכה
"Do you have no blessing left for me?"
Notice that the "thing" desired here is not tangible. It has no intrinsic value. Isaac did not bequeath tracts of land, precious metals, or flocks & herds. He gave a simple verbal prayer, but the particular phrasing of his blessing to the one son precluded an identical blessing to the other.
How many of us live our lives yearning for approval from those whom we love and respect, or rebelling against those whose approval is not forthcoming? For those who raise children, every day is a constant struggle between showing unconditional love, while trying to guide those impressionable minds into making healthy and constructive choices. Esau holds his grudge for decades. He becomes the spiritual (if not patriarchal) ancestor of the Edomites, who beguile Israel centuries later.
So go the long term consequences of the slights and harms we do to others. But it doesn't have to be so. Our greatness, of course, lies in our ability to improve - to learn from our mistakes. For his sake, Esau did not change. He had a mercurial temperament and was taken to violence and rebellion. Well before this story, Esau marries two Canaanite women in defiance of his parents' wishes. We do not see an unambiguous enlightenment in Esau's life.
Not so with Jacob. For all his deceits, he eventually learns, the hard way, to respect others, to "struggle" with his daemons until he prevails. Hence his acquired name is "Israel" - to struggle with God.
The story of our ancestors does not rely on a belief of their perfection. It is a critical and complex story of both failures and triumphs. The role model of our last patriarch is of one who learns from his broken past and overcomes adversity.
May we all be so lucky.