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Parashat Toledot 5773 — 11/14/2012

Parashat Toledot 5773 — 11/14/2012

You will serve your brother, but when he descends you can break off his yoke from your neck.  (27:40)

Sin crouches at the door; its desire is towards you, yet you may rule over it. (4:7)

If there is one lesson that Torah teaches us, I think it is this: that we are unique in Gd’s creation in that we are finite, yet perfectable.  Furthermore, that perfectability must come through our own efforts.  We know that our own efforts alone will be unavailing without Gd’s help, yet without any effort on our part we will not have any results.  I believe that this conundrum reflects the nature and purpose of Creation.

Our Sages tell us that Gd is infinite and unified is His essential nature – that is, Gd is a Unity that is not composed of parts.  Nevertheless, Gd displays different attributes, at least to our perception and understanding, in the way He interacts with Creation.  Of these, two are primary: the attribute of Strict Justice (midat haDin, associated with finite nature and its laws, and with the Name Elokim), and the attribute of Mercy (midat haRachamim, associated with the infinite, transcendant level of life, and with the Name Y-K-V-K).  They further state that Gd “tried” to create the universe based only on the midat haDin, but realized it couldn’t exist without being tempered by the midat haRachamim.

Now it would seem that in fact, absent human beings, the universe could get along very nicely under the direction of the laws of nature.  The stars would be born and die, galaxies might pass each other by in the vastness of space, planets would spin around their suns, there might be animal life on some of those planets, and that life might be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” but that would hardly matter, as there would be no creature capable of self-reflection, and therefore capable of making moral decisions.

Obviously such a world is not what Gd had in mind.  Rather, there is apparently some reason why Gd created a finite creature that is, in fact, capable of making moral decisions.  Inherent in the possibility of making decisions is the possibility that some of those decisions will be wrong decisions.  Consequently it was necessary to temper the midat haDin with the midat haRachamim in order that the universe continue to function even in the case of a wrong moral decision.  Were it not for this tempering effect, every slip-up would be followed immediately by the consequences of that slip-up, with devastating results.  If a lemming jumps off a cliff the laws of nature, untempered by mercy, will lead inevitably to its death.  But when it comes to human beings, Gd says “I don’t desire the death of the sinner, but that he do t’shuvah and live” (Ezek 18:23).  And the Talmud tells us that when we do t’shuvah even our deliberate sins become counted as mitzvot, so profound is the transformation of our personality.  We not only rectify any of the distortions we have created in the structure of the cosmos, we have brought the cosmos to a higher level of order than it was in before we sinned.

Now let us turn our attention to Yaakov and Esav and their blessings.  Besides being individuals, Yaakov and Esav are archetypes as well.  Esav is a “man of the field,” that is, a material man.  The birthright, which is the spiritual legacy of the family is meaningless to him; he is just as happy to sell it to Yaakov for something material, something that he will consume, something that will leave no permanent mark.  Esav, in Rabbinic thinking, is the progenitor of the Roman Empire, which is the basis of our Western, materialistic society.  Yaakov on the other hand is described as a simple man, dwelling in tents – which our Sages take as referring to the tents of Torah.  That is, Yaakov is a man for whom spiritual life is primary.  As he asks Gd in next week’s Parashah, give me food to eat and clothes to wear.  No need for fancy banquets and silk suits – just simple fare and plain clothes so I can devote myself to that which is truly important in life.

When Rebecca seeks some relief for her uncomfortable pregnancy she is told by Gd that she is carrying twins who represent the two poles of human life, as we have just described, and she is told that “the older shall serve the younger.”  Of course on the surface this means that Esav emerged from the womb first, thus becoming the older.  In a deeper sense, the prophecy might mean that the material values of life (Esav) are supposed to be a support to the spiritual values (Yaakov).  In order for the soul to interact with the material world, infusing the infinite intelligence of the transcendent into material creation, the soul needs to dwell in a physical body.  Our senses of perception and organs of action provide the mechanism by which the soul can interact with the physical world.  (Incidentally, it seems difficult to say that the material  world is “older” than the spiritual world; perhaps one could say that physical bodies had to be created and had to evolve to a certain level of complexity and sophistication before they were capable of housing the soul, and in that sense they are “older.”  I’m not terribly satisfied with that explanation however.)

When Yitzchak gives Esav his blessing however, he adds a twist.  He does tell Esav that he will serve Yaakov, but he adds that if Yaakov (that is, Israel – us!) slips from his lofty perch and gets bound up with the material world, then Esav will be able to throw off his yoke of servitude.  This is, in fact, what has happened.  Jewish society broke down; instead of serving Gd, that is, instead of nourishing our spirit and its connection to its Divine Source, we allowed ourselves to be sunk into materialism, greed and corruption.  The result of this breakdown was the Roman destruction of the Temple and our exile, largely into Western society.  And in our materialistic world, the spirit is given very short shrift, as we experience every day.

Gd has apparently given mankind, and the Jewish people in particular, an incredible gift and an incredible responsibility.  It is our responsibility to allow our souls to dominate our bodies, so that our bodies serve the spiritual purposes for which we were created.  Unfortunately the body has been created with powerful urges for fleeting, sensory pleasures; hence it naturally wants to go off in the direction of physical gratification.  I think Yitzchak is telling us that we, that is our souls, must be eternally vigilant to keep these tendencies of our bodies in check, for it only takes a small slippage for the body to “get the bit between its teeth” and start taking control of the soul, dragging it through the mire of inappropriate behavior, sullying its purity and distracting it from what it’s supposed to be doing in the body and in the material world.  Once this happens, it’s very difficult for the soul to get back in the saddle and regain control.  We see this difficulty writ large in the form of our 2000-year exile and subjugation to Esav/Edom/Western materialistic civilization.

In his blessings to his sons Yitzchak appears to stop with Esav’s having thrown off Yaakov’s yoke.  Perhaps this is because Yitzchak’s characteristic way of serving Gd is through the midat haDin, and truly, if we slip from our anchor in the transcendent, the finite will take over.  Thus Yitzchak’s blessing represents the many universes Gd created with the midat haDin, and which could not endure.  When Yaakov is leaving for Uncle Lavan’s house at the end of the parashah, Yitzchak blesses him with the blessing of Abraham, who represents the midat haRachamim, the counterbalance of the midat haDin.  Over the next few decades Yaakov will integrate the two midot, the two blessings from his forebears, and on that basis will found the nation of Israel.  And Torah will go on to promise us that no matter how much we slip, and how much we endure at the hands of Esav, we will eventually return to our spiritual heritage and bring the material world around to serve us once again.