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Parashat Toledot 5774 — 10/30/2013

Parashat Toledot 5774 — 10/30/2013

Eisav said, “Behold I am  going to die, so what use is the birthright to me? (25:32)

Look at the great difference between a tzaddik [righteous person] and a rasha [wicked person]!  When a tzaddik thinks of the day of his death, it increases his fear of Heaven and inspires him to do teshuvah [repentance].  As for the rasha, just the opposite is true.  The thought prompts him to [belittle spirituality and] say, ‘What use is the birthright to me?’

   The reason for this is that the tzaddik fulfills the teaching of Rabbi Yaakov, This world is like a corridor leading to the World to Come. Prepare yourself in the corridor so that you can enter the grand hall (Avos 4:21 ).  (Chafetz Chaim)

Our portion begins the long, long saga of Ya’akov (i.e. the Jewish people) and Esav (associated in Rabbinic thought with Rome, and more generally, with Western culture).  It is a pretty stark narrative – often cast as the eternal battle between good and evil.  As the Chafetz Chaim points out, it can be viewed as the conflict between the spiritual and the material aspects of life.

Now in Judaism there is no simple equation between righteousness and spirituality, and between evil and the material world.  Gd created both spiritual worlds and the material world, and both have their places in the Divine plan for the universe.  Nonetheless, Esau is a “man of the field” – associated with the grosser, more expressed, material aspects of life (the field, hunting/meat, while Ya’akov is an “upright/simple/straightforward man, dwelling in tents [of Torah learning]” – associated with more refined, more abstract, spiritual aspects of life.  How are we to reconcile these two different evaluations of the relationship between material and spiritual?

I came across the following explanation in the book Peninim on the Torah (Pearls of Torah) by R. A. Leib Scheinbaum, 18th Series, on our parashah.  He quotes an exposition from the Shem miShmuel (R. Shmuel Bornsztain, the second Sochatchover Rebbe, 1855-1926, see: which begins with a famous midrash.  Torah states that Yitzchak loved Esav because “game (lit. “trapping”) was in his mouth.”  The Midrash derives from the unusual language that Esav entrapped people with his mouth – he put himself forward as something he was not.  In his dealings with his father, Yitzchak, the Midrash tells us that he would ask questions like “How does one tithe salt, how does one tithe straw?”  Now according to Jewish law there is no requirement at all to tithe either salt or straw, as neither is a food.  Esav was trying to appear “ultra-orthodox,” when in fact he undoubtedly failed to tithe even those items that are subject to tithing.  But there are many questions Esav could have asked (or that the Rabbis could have put in his mouth) – why these particular ones?

The Shem miShmuel begins by noting a common feature of both straw and salt.  Both of them are subordinate to something else: the straw is subordinate to the grain that grows on it, and the salt is subordinate to the dish it seasons.  The purpose of both is to serve in a supporting ròle, enhancing or protecting that to which it is subordinate.  The straw kept the grain together as it grew, and the salt makes the dish taste better.  In neither case are we interested in the thing in an of itself, but in neither case is the thing insignificant.

According to the Shem miShmuel, Esav knew that his world was this world of materiality, while Ya’akov’s was the World to Come, the world of pure spiritual essence.  (They had fought that battle in the womb according to the Midrash – and the babies made a tumult within her.)  He also understood that the material world was subordinate to the spiritual world.  When he asked about tithing salt and straw, subordinate objects, what he was trying to do was to invest them with intrinsic significance which they simply do not have.  Unfortunately, in the process he denigrated the significance that they do in fact have.

I think that this idea of primary/subordinate is one way to describe the relationship between the spiritual world and the material world.  Certainly, the world of the soul, which is immortal, is primary, while the world of the body, which is mortal and ever-changing, is subordinate to it.  Nonetheless, it is a very important aspect of existence.  The body provides a mechanism by which the soul can interact with the rest of the material world, and provides the soul with challenges that enable it to grow and expand.  In fact, the entire material world gives Gd a field in which to display His infinite goodness and intelligence, and in which a creature can exist that can reflect on its own existence and on the existence of Gd.  In a way then, the material world becomes a mechanism by which Gd can reflect on Himself – the ultimate, perhaps, in primary/subordinate relationships.

Where we get into trouble is when we confuse what is primary with what is subordinate.  Esav can perhaps be excused – he’d rather be the star rather than the supporting actor.  Those of us who are committed to a spiritual path really have no such excuse.  We’re supposed to be primary, but our subordinate nature (i.e. our body) is continually demanding our attention: “Feed Me!”  If we constantly feed it, it really does turn into a little shop of horrors!  We can’t starve it of course, except on the occasional fast day (I’m writing this 3 weeks before Yom Kippur), but it needs to be kept in its proper place.  If we have a proper division of labor, then we will wind up with “a sound mind in a sound body” – a fully expanded soul and a healthy body to support it.  If we stay focused on our primary, infinite nature, we can bring both our souls and our bodies to fulfillment.

Shemoneh Esrei

You graciously endow humans with knowledge, a teach people discernment.  Graciously endow us from Yourself with knowledge, discernment and intelligence.  Blessed are You, Hashem, gracious giver of knowledge.  (warning: my translation)

This, the fourth blessing of the Shemoneh Esrei, is the first blessing in the middle section of the prayer.  The first three blessings are blessings of praise, and the last three are blessings of thanksgiving, and are constant throughout all the prayers, even when the middle sections differ radically.  This is because the basic structure of a request (to anybody, and certainly to Gd) is first to offer praise, then to make the request(s), and then to offer thanks.  The Festival, Shabbat and Musaf prayers have a simple middle section – there is (generally) just one extended blessing where we mention the special character of the day and, in the case of Musaf, the offerings that were made in the Temple on that day.

During the weekday Shemoneh Esrei however, the middle section is for actual requests, some of a physical nature and some less so.  Why, during the spiritual exercise that is prayer, are we “bothering” Gd with physical requests?  First, we’re not “bothering” Gd.  The CEO of a big corporation doesn’t have time or resources to deal with every concern of every employee.  But Gd is infinite – there is nothing too small or too big for Gd, as He reminded Sarah in last week’s parashah.  Gandhi is quoted as declaring it to be almost sacrilegious to be asking Gd for our sustenance, as He will certainly provide it.  Judaism takes a different approach – Gd created human beings, and our lacks, specifically in order that we would have to pray to Him, and thereby come into a relationship with Him.  This is the real value of prayer.  So we ask for our physical needs, but we keep them in proper perspective as well, as we discussed above.

In this first b’rachah of request we actually do not ask for anything physical – rather, we ask for knowledge and understanding.  Without knowledge and understanding, none of the other blessings Gd wants to bestow on us will do us any good – in fact, we won’t even recognize them either as blessings or as coming from Gd.  This will defeat the whole purpose of Gd’s bestowing the blessings in the first place.  Our growth as individuals depends crucially on the quality of our minds.  Our first request of Gd then, is to grant us knowledge and discernment – the ability to expand upon and use that knowledge.  Once that is secured, everything else will fall into place.

The way we make this request is of some interest – we ask Gd to grant us knowledge “from Yourself.”  That is, we acknowledge that Gd is the Source of all knowledge, simply because He is the Intelligence behind all the forms and phenomena in Creation.  By asking Gd to grant us knowledge from within Himself, we are effectively asking Divine help to attune our individual minds with Gd’s mind.

Incidentally, the Chazon Ish (1878-1953), whose knowledge of Rabbinic literature was legendary, is reported to have focused on this b’rachah specifically, especially when confronting a difficult passage or a difficult question in Jewish Law.  Not to mention myself in the same paragraph as the Chazon Ish, but I focus on this b’rachah, especially when I have one of these drashes to write!