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Parashat 11/23/2011

Parashat Toldot

Submitted by Robert Rabinoff

The great theme of Parashat Toledot is the blessing (b’rachah) and the birthright (b’chorah).  The words are anagrams in Hebrew, indicating that there is a strong link between them.  The great question surrounding both is: to which of Yitzchak’s sons do they belong, and why do Yitzchak and Rivka disagree about their disposition?


Torah tells us that Esau and Ya’akov are twins.  Significantly, the word for “twins,” te’omim, is spelled without the letter aleph [this is called “defective” spelling], indicating that both twins are not righteous individuals.  The twins born by Tamar to Yehudah (Zerach and Peretz, the latter being the ancestor of King David and Mashiach) are, by contrast, spelled full, with the letter aleph, and both are great individuals.  From a relatively early age however (15, according to the traditional chronology) they display very different characteristics.  Esau’s entire focus was material life; grasping as much as he could with his hands, the part of the body with which he is commonly associated.  This grasping knew no boundaries – he simply took what he wanted with little or no consideration for the niceties of the law.


Ya’akov on the other hand focuses on the spiritual aspect of life.  He is described by Torah as a “simple man, dwelling in tents” – simple meaning truthful, straightforward, dwelling in the inner values of life.  His prime motivation is serving Gd, primarily through the medium of Truth.


This is the reason that Ya’akov was eager to acquire the b’chorah from Esau.  The b’chorah was primarily a spiritual primacy, not a material one (although Torah law does give the bechor a double portion of the father’s inheritance).  It included in its purview the responsibility for the sacrificial service and the spiritual leadership of the family that came along with it.  We know that the b’chorah is not primarily material, because if it were Esau would never have traded it for some lentil stew!  Rather Esau “despises” the birthright simply because it is of no worth to him – it distracts him from grabbing more “stuff” for himself.


The great question then becomes, why did Yitzchak love Esau and wish to give him the parental blessing?  It would appear on the surface that a spiritual blessing would be lost on someone as steeped in materialism as Esau.  To begin with, we cannot answer that Yitzchak was unaware of Esau’s nature; according to the traditional chronology Esau and Ya’akov were 63 and Yitzchak was 123 at the time of the incident with the blessings.  It is also important to note that the blessing that Yitzchak gives the disguised Ya’akov makes no mention of spiritual qualities at all!  It is a totally material blessing.  It was apparently Yitzchak’s intention to feed Esau’s craving for the material.  Only later on, as Ya’akov is leaving to find a wife in Charan, does Yitzchak give him the spiritual blessing passed on to him from his father Avraham, including the inheritance of the Land of Israel, the prime spiritual real estate in the world.


As we have discussed in previous years, Yitzchak is the archetype of the attribute of gevurah, or “strength.”  It is the opposite, or perhaps better, the complement, of the attribute of chesed, “lovingkindness” represented by Avraham.  It is the attribute that takes the overwhelming flow of Divine energy and channels it into productive boundaries, as opposed to letting it sweep everything away like a flood.


Apparently, the commentators tell us, Yitzchak recognized that Esau and Ya’akov represented the two poles of life – the finite, limited, zero-sum-game material pole, and the infinite, unbounded riches of the spiritual pole.  It was his intention to strengthen each of these two poles separately, to solidify each one in his own area of strength, with the idea that they would then combine their efforts and together achieve perfection.  I believe that it was natural for Yitzchak to believe that this was the preferable path, given his nature that embodies gevurah.  The kind of division of labor that he envisaged takes an almost superhuman discipline on both sides, the kind of discipline that Yitzchak himself had perfected over a lifetime.  It would have required tremedous fortitude from Ya’akov to live a purely spiritual life on the material plane, but given the levels of perfection that he did attain, one could believe that he could have succeeded as well as his father.  Since Ya’akov had the power of the infinite behind him, anything was possible.


Of course, as Rivka perceived clearly, the fly in the ointment was Esau.  Esau represented the material pole of nature; he saw the spiritual as more of a nuisance than anything else, and perhaps dangerous if someone approached too close while unprepared – thus our Sages interpret Esau’s exclamation Look, I am going to die so what use is the b’chorah to me?! (25:32) in the sense If I’m responsible for the Divine Service and I mess up I will be killed (like Nadav and Avihu in Parashat Shemini)!  The point is that the material side of life is not self sufficient.  The material depends on the spiritual for its very existence; the material world is just a congealed form of spiritual substance.  This dependence is the basis of the human trait of greed – we have a certain level of material goods, and we sense that it is insufficient to give us the security we crave, so we grasp for more and more, but it is always still finite and it is never enough – until we have infinity, which is non-material in its essence, we are neither secure nor satisfied.  As our Sages are fond of reminding us: He who has 100 is not happy till he has 200, and he who has 200 is not happy until he has 400.  Were Esau to have been given dominion over the material world, far from dedicating it to spiritual advancement, he just would have grabbed everything to himself, perverting all spiritual strivings towards his own desperate attempt to find fulfillment.


So Rivka overrules her husband and the blessings, both material and spiritual, go to Ya’akov.  The spiritual and the material must unite in one heart and in one personality, as indeed they are united at their source in the infinite, and as they will be reunited and reintegrated when Gd brings the Messianic Era may it happen speedily, before the Esaus who are destroying the world can cause too much more damage.


I would like to point out that our tradition implies that there will be vindication for Yitzchak in the end.  In the Garden of Eden, before Adam and Eve ate of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Good and Evil were in fact not mixed up in the nature of the human being.  Humans were essentially good; evil was external and not attractive at all.  The material world was seen for what it is – a superficial garment around the spirit, but a garment that displays the inner value rather than covering it up.  All that changed when the first humans ingested the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge; now Good and Evil were mixed up in their nature, and the material world actually hides its own inner spiritual core from our perception.  All of human history is the story of our repeated attempts to rectify this situation.  In the Messianic future we will finally succeed in this project.  In such a future the material will in fact be able to stand in its full integrity, because it will be fully integrated with the spiritual.  Esau will run towards Ya’akov and kiss him, but unlike the scene in Parashat Vayishlach, the kiss will be sincere, and the two brothers will really be able to walk together, sharing their blessings with one another.