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Parashat Toledot 5778 — 11/18/2017

Bereishit 25:19–28:9
Toledot is the one parashah that deals with Yitzchak, but much of the action surrounds his twin sons, Esav and Ya’akov. The story begins with their birth. Esau comes out first, with Ya’akov right behind, “grasping Esau’s heel.” For this trick he is given the name Ya’akov. Abarbanel identifies several themes around the “heel”:

  1. The fate of the two nations would always be intertwined. This relationship began in the womb.
  2. Ya’akov grasped onto the ideas and behaviors that Esav trampled under his heel – moral, ethical, and spiritual matters. He attached importance only to the material world. The letter yud, which stands for Gd, is added to the word for “heel” to form the name Ya’akov. This is an indication that Gd was always with him.
  3. There would be times when Ya’akov and his progeny would be under Esav’s heel, when they would be subservient to him. This is especially true in the long years of the exile of the Jewish people. [RAR: Esav is associated with Rome = Western Civilization in Rabbinic literature]
  4. In the end of days, Ya’akov will “grasp” dominance without any more interruptions. It will come after the dominance of Esav, at the end of his reign, just as the heel is at the end of the body. The dominance of Esav will not end until Ya’akov rises up and takes it away from him in the messianic era.

These points hark back to the prophetic answer Rivka received when the twins “struggled within her” and she went to “inquire of Hashem.” She was told, “two nations are in your womb … might will pass from one to the other and the elder shall serve the younger.”

Whether or not we accept the Biblical stories as historical fact, it is certainly true that Ya’akov and Esav are seen as archetypes in the Rabbinic literature – in fact, the Midrash “fleshes out” the terse Biblical narrative based on this implicit fact. One of the pairs of opposites that the twins represent are spiritual (Ya’akov) vs. material (Esav). This being the case, what do the stories of Rivka’s prophetic answer and the heel grabbing tell us?

The entire relationship between Esav and Ya’akov is portrayed as one of conflict. Right from the very beginning the two children struggled within the womb. The Midrash fills in the back-story – when Rivka would pass a house of Torah study (i.e. a house of spiritual development) Ya’akov would struggle to get out, whereas when she passed a house of idolatry (i.e. worship of material creation) Esav would struggle to get out. This is also borne out by the second point about the heel. Esav is oriented towards the created world. Ya’akov is oriented towards the spiritual world – the world of the transcendent. The conflict is not so much that the two are in different directions, but that the material does not value the spiritual – it tramples it under its heel so to speak. This is quite unfortunate, because the spiritual is the basis of the existence of the material.

The struggle is then conceived of as a historical struggle, with the ascendancy alternating between Ya’akov (Israel/spiritual/transcendent) and Esav (Rome/material/creation). In the end, however, the spiritual will assume a permanent state of ascendancy in a golden age (the Messianic era). We haven’t gotten to the Messianic era yet, but we have seen that the relative influence of the spiritual aspect of life waxes and wanes in both time and place. In the modern world, with few exceptions, materialism is on the rise and the transcendent value is not only hidden from view and out of people’s awareness, but the very idea that there is a transcendent dimension to life is held up to scorn and derision – it is trampled under the heel of those who worship materialism. We have become a “what-you-see-is-what-you-get” society; the objective means of gaining knowledge is the only acceptable paradigm for learning and subjectivity has become a dirty word.

I believe we can find the same dynamics in the development of the individual that we find in this historical process. We have seen in previous discussions that a human being is a composite creature. On the one hand we have a physical body, which is built to interact with the physical world. The senses bring us information about the physical world and the organs of speech and action project our intentions onto the physical world. In other words, the body is Esav.

There is another aspect to the human being, and that is the soul. Our Sages call the soul a “piece of the Divine from Above.” “Above” I believe is a synonym for the transcendent, and the Divine certainly is infinite and unbounded. The soul that dwells within the body is Ya’akov.

Now on one level we can look at human life as a continuing conflict between our animal nature, lusting after sensual pleasures (what our Sages call our “inclination to evil”), and our Divine nature, which tries to draw us towards Truth and beauty, towards the pleasures of the spirit (“inclination to good”). This interpretation is certainly borne out by our daily experience of having to make moral choices, and at times making the wrong one.
I’d like to take another angle however. Our tradition never denies, or even denigrates the physical. The physical is not inherently evil – rather attachment to the physical, to the point where our physical desires override our spiritual development, is what is evil. The physical is there to support and aid our spiritual development, and the purpose of our spiritual development is to infuse Gdliness into the physical. The trick is to alternate periods where we are focused on the spirit (e.g. during prayer, or on a larger scale, on Yom Kippur) with periods when we are focused on meeting our physical needs. This is perhaps one meaning of the prophecy “might will pass from one to the other.” Eventually, over time and multiple alternations, the spiritual is infused into the physical, Ya’akov grasps Esav’s heel firmly and his dominance is established permanently. The elder serves the younger, and both gain maximum benefit.
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Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Toldot
On the surface of this parshah, we see competition, deception, favoritism: Isaac and Rebecca do not seem to have been good parents, do not seem to have been skilled and effective in raising two sons to be whole, complete. A startling example of this comes when Esau comes in famished from the fields and sees Jacob, who is cooking porridge in the tent.

It’s common for our sages to say that Esau, “a man of the fields”, symbolizes the outer field of life, the physical, while Jacob, “a quiet person, sitting in tents”, symbolizes the inner field of life, the spiritual.

Often people see a battle taking place between these two people and these two aspects of life, but life, to be Life, needs to have both physical and spiritual and they need to be integrated.

A great blessing came to me this morning in understanding a step in how this integration takes place when I heard Dr. Doug Birx, well-known to many in our congregation, giving a quote from Maharishi, also well-known to many in our congregation.

Maharishi commented that Ananda, Total Joy, is everyone’s birthright.

From this point of view, it occurred to me that when Jacob asks Esau to sell him his birthright for some porridge, Jacob, symbolizing the Spiritual aspect of Life, is asking Esau, symbolizing the Physical aspect of Life, to end his famished state by surrendering his commitment to the Physical Alone, and opening himself to the spiritual porridge Jacob was cooking.

Porridge seems to have a bubbly quality to it and cooking it seemed to me to be equivalent to revealing that Ananda/Joy/Consciousness/Unified Field/Gd, has a texture: it is not just flat, it has a bubbly quality.

So rather than Jacob cheating Esau, acting cruelly, Jacob was actually enlivening the Joy in Esau, ending his famishment, by taking from him his false birthright in the Physical, and giving him his real birthright, in Ananda, Gd.

This opening of the physical to the spiritual is a major step in integration.

Similarly, when Jacob clings to Esau’s heel as Esau is emerging from the womb, it symbolizes the spiritual kindly staying in touch with the physical, that otherwise would become famished in its separation from its source, the spiritual, and from not only Mother Rebecca’s womb but from the Cosmic Womb in which the aspects of Spiritual and Physical, Heaven and Earth, Subtle and Coarse, are always flowing into diversity and back into unity.

The message is very clear for us: in our lives we need to make sure that physical and spiritual are always healthy and integrated. Our religion in the book, our religion in our heart, our religion and spiritual practice in our lives and in our community are great blessings, great gifts and routines and sharings to reveal Bubbling Ananda, Gd, in our lives.

Baruch HaShem