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Parashat 11/03/2010

Parashat Toledot

submitted by Robert Rabinoff

“Another wonderful Parashah from Bob. Those of you who enjoyed Evan Finklestein’s talk about Kaballah during the High Holidays will enjoy this as well.” — Julie Blum

Parashat Toledot is Yitzchak’s opportunity to shine.  In fact, there are three Parshiyot devoted to Avraham (Lech L’cha, Vayera and Chayei Sarah) and six to Ya’akov and Yosef (Vayeitze, Vayishlach, Vayeshev, Miketz, Vayigash, Vayechi), but only this one single Parashah to Yitzchak.  Yitzchak almost seems like an afterthought in Scripture, a way to get from Avraham to Ya’akov, almost a pause between one kind of dynamism and another, between the founder of the Jewish people and the progenitor of the 12 tribes of Israel.  Yet in every Amidah that we pray, we invoke “the Gd of Avraham, the Gd of Yitzchak and the Gd of Ya’akov.”  All are given equal billing, and each is associated individually with Gd – we don’t say “Gd of Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov.”  Clearly then Yitzchak is no second fiddle to anyone.  Why, then, does he seem to get such short shrift – even Parashat Toledot seems to deal more with the conflict between Ya’akov and Esav than it does directly with Yitzchak?

In Kabbalistic thought, Gd creates the universe through a series of 10 stages called sefirot.  These ten are divided into an “upper” three and a “lower” seven.  The lower seven are associated with the seven ushpizin, or holy “guests” that we invite to meals in our Sukkah: Avraham, Yitzchak, Ya’akov, Yosef, Moshe, Aharon and David.  Each is also associated with certain characteristics of the creative process; thus there is an association between the Partriarchs of our people and the creative process.

In particular, the first three of the lower seven sefirot are called chesed (lovingkindness), gevurah (strength) and tiferet (beauty).

  • Chesed is characterized by a free flow of goodness, in the same way that a river flows from high ground to lower elevations.  Avraham clearly models chesed; he was the paragon of lovingkindness – taking in strangers and providing for their every need, even while he was in great pain from his circumcision.  Chesed is also associated with the masculine side of life.
  • Gevurah is the characteristic that takes the free flow from chesed and gives it boundaries and form.  To continue the analogy of the river, gevurah is the channel in which the river flows.  If the river leaves its boundaries, destruction results instead of life-giving sustenance.  Yitzchak models gevurah in that he took the tradition that he had received from Avraham and consolidated it (e.g. he re-dug the wells that his father had dug, and gave them the same names).  Gevurah is associated with the feminine side of life, accepting the flow from the masculine chesed and forming and shaping it.
  • The result of the harmonious combination of chesed and gevurah is tiferet, or beauty, the beauty of an integrated harmony in which each part interacts perfectly with every other part to produce a whole that is vastly more than the sum of the parts.  Ya’akov, the quintessential man of truth, models tiferet; he possessed the qualities of both Avraham and Yitzchak.

There is a beautiful story about Mozart.  He described coming home one evening from a concert, sitting in his carriage, when everything became silent around him.  His mind, as it were, descended into a point, and in that infinitesimal point he perceived an entire symphony with all the different parts and harmonies.  He only needed to get home and take out pen and paper and transcribe it.  Now we are in awe of a creative mind that can pour out music like an inexhaustible fountain, and our breath is taken away by the sublime music itself.  What we often overlook is the skill and the patience that it took to take that point of inspiration and translate it into the concrete notes that an actual orchestra can play.  Without that skill, without the notes on the piece of paper, Mozart would have enjoyed the symphony, but all subsequent generations would have been left in the cold!

Another example: chesed is like the entrepreneur, the visionary, the one who follows his dream and builds a structure to realize that dream.  However it is often the case that once a company is set up, it needs to be passed on from the visionary founder to a manager who can take the existing structure and help it grow and prosper.  Managing a company day-to-day is hardly as glorious as founding one, but each function is needed, and the two opposites must be harmonized and blended for the enterprise to have continued success.

Perhaps it is simply human nature to go for the flashy and ignore the pedestrian.  Chesed is flashy.  How many institutions have chesed committees?  How many institutions have gevurah committees?!  How hard is it to get people to contribute to help flood victims?  How hard is it to get people to contribute to repairing the synagogue’s own roof?!  How many people will volunteer to serve at a soup kitchen on Thanksgiving?  How many people will come down and help put new siding on the soup kitchen’s walls?!

Consolidation, structure, boundaries are as much a part of the creative process as vision and inspiration.  Gevurah is perhaps more important than the initial flash of inspiration, because it is the quality that will build a structure that lasts, rather than just letting the inspiration dissipate and be lost in the arid sands of inertia.  It is also harder – it takes sustained dedication and focus, even after the rush, the thrill of inspiration has gone.  But without it nothing is ever accomplished.  Maybe the next time we’re feeling tired, or bored, or uninspired we should remember that the Gd of Avraham and the Gd of Ya’akov is also the Gd of Yitzchak, and ask Him for some help.  Or for some more inspiration!