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Parashat Toledot 5777 — 12/03/2016

Parashat Toledot 5777 — 12/03/2016

Bereishit 25:19-28:9

Two nations are in your womb and two regimes from your insides shall be separated, and one regime shall become strong from the other regime, and the elder (rav) shall serve the younger (tza’ir). (25:23)

The two regimes, Ya’akov and Esav, whose descendents would remain at a constant battle throughout the generations, can be viewed as a swinging pendulum – when Ya’akov (K’lal Yisrael) gains strength, Esav (Edom [RAR = Rome = Western civilization in Rabbinic thought]) is weakened and vice versa. When the forces of good are strong the forces of evil are weakened, and when the forces of evil strengthen the forces of good are weakened. R. David Valli

Ya’akov and Esav are archetypes of a number of antagonistic pairs: good vs. evil, spiritual vs. material, inner vs. outer values. Esav is the “elder,” the rav, as R. Valli says: Esav made himself into rav by saying yesh li rav/I have plenty (33:9), and Ya’akov is the younger, or smaller as he diminished his own importance saying “I have been diminished by all the kindnesses and by all the truth that You have done with Your servant.” (32:11)

The word for elder (rav) can also mean bigger or greater, and the word for younger (tza’ir) can also mean smaller. In the plain meaning of the text of course, this is a prophecy about the future history of the Jewish people vis-à-vis the rest of the world. In Messianic times, the rest of the world will serve the Jewish people, so that we can devote ourselves completely to spirituality and thereby uplift the entire spiritual standing of the world and they that dwell therein (Ps 24:1). So there is a division of labor envisaged, at least in the end-time, although in the process of getting there the relationship will be fraught, to say the least.

Of course, in any division of labor, we can equally well say that each member serves the other(s). The nations of the world will serve the Jewish people in a material sense, freeing them to fulfill our unique, spiritual mission. By the same token, our fulfilling our mission uplifts and serves the interests of the nations of the world. We could reverse the verse and say the younger will serve the older, and, interpreted properly, it would also be true.

Furthermore, if we recognize that the spiritual side of life is in fact greater than the material side, then Ya’akov, representing the spiritual side, is indeed the rav, and Esav, the material side, is indeed the tza’ir, and we don’t even have to reverse the verse to understand that the spiritual can serve the material! Indeed it is a two-way street, at least ideally.

I might point out that this understanding was at the root of the incident of Ya’akov’s “stealing” Yitzchak’s blessing from Esav. As the end of the parashah makes clear, it was always Yitzchak’s intent to bestow the spiritual blessing on Ya’akov, but he wanted to bestow the material blessings on Esav, with the intention that Esav would use those blessings to support Ya’akov in his spiritual quest. Rivka intervened, perhaps knowing Esav all too well, that he would misuse the material blessings to oppress Ya’akov, as indeed was the case, and arranged for Ya’akov to have those too. Yitzchak, when he realized what had happened (when Esav came in from hunting), confirmed that indeed the blessings had gone to the right son.

I think we can take this idea a bit farther. In the very beginning of the Torah we are told that Gd created the entire creation. From where did Gd create? Since there is nothing other than Gd, He clearly must have created from within Himself, by somehow limiting, or appearing to limit Himself to “make room” as it were for finite things to exist alongside His infinite nature. In addition, Gd is constantly maintaining the universe – without His constant “attention” it would immediately collapse into nothingness, as we say in the liturgy, “In His goodness He constantly renews the work of creation every day.” So the creation is dependent on Gd in a most intimate way.

On the other hand, Gd had a purpose in creating. According to the story of creation in Torah, human beings are the crowns of creation, because we are created in “Gd’s image.” Many different explanations have been given for this phrase, but I would like to suggest another possible interpretation: As Gd is Self-conscious, so we are Self-conscious, and we can become conscious of Gd and the universe as well. As Einstein’s student, John Archibald Wheeler put it, the human being is the universe’s way of knowing about itself. When a human being rises to a state where Gd’s existence is a living reality on the level of his awareness, then creation has come full circle – from Gd’s “contraction” to allow finite values to exist, to the evolution of a being capable of knowing Gd, to the fullness of unity of Gd and His Creation.

The point here is, that for the creation to become re-integrated with Gd’s perfection, human beings are required. And these human beings use the created world to achieve the goal of their creation. It is our nervous system, which allows us to be self-aware, and the rest of our body’s systems support our nervous system. The environment provides the nourishment, material and energetic, that our body needs. What we find is that Gd’s creation supports Him, so to speak!

Gd is the ultimate spiritual reality, and is clearly the rav, the Great, Infinite and unbounded. The creation is merely finite – the tza’ir, nothing at all compared to Gd. Yet the rav serves the tza’ir by maintaining its existence continually, and in return the tza’ir, as it were, supports the rav by reaching its own fulfillment. Rivka’s prophecy is a vision of the entire cosmic process of creation and evolution, of which each of us has a unique and irreplaceable part to play.


Reflections on This Week’s Torah Portion

by Steve Sufian

Parshat Toledot

Listening to the audio recording of Toldot I experienced the cheerfulness of Rabbi Michoel Slavin, the reader, and cheerfulness in my self. Torah and Gd are One — Gd is One without a Second and Torah is the liveliness of the One, its very Nature. Torah on the level of Silence is Torah deeper than Torah expressed in language — grammar and words.

On the other hand, reading Parsha Toledot, taking it on the surface, I am not at all delighted but totally confused at hearing about the struggle of Esau and Jacob in the womb — how will this turn out to be the answer to Isaac’s prayer that his barren wife Rebecca will give birth? What is Gd’s purpose in giving Esau and Jacob to Isaac and Rebecca — especially what is the purpose of creating Esau since only one child is necessary to answer Isaac’s prayer and since it is Jacob who is the father of the Children of Israel?

I do not at this point have an answer to this question, despite thinking about it, researching it in Rashi and internet sources. So I’m presenting some of my thoughts and ending these reflections with two references that raise detailed questions about this parsha.

Surely, Isaac did not pray for struggling children and for a break in the love between himself and Rebecca due to one favoring one son and the other favoring the other: he prayed for a loving son, one who would carry the “every blessing” that Gd gave to Abraham and Abraham gave to him and would pass them on through the generations, eternally.

When we read of Jacob’s charging his brother the birthright for a bowl of porridge, of Rivka’s deceiving Isaac, and wonder how Isaac could be deceived, when he was given every blessing from his father, and when, according to Rashi, he was without sin — perfect – we have a mystery that we need to seek an answer to. The first place most people go to is Rashi and it is Rashi’s commentary that is used by Rabbi Hertz in the Soncino Press Chumash that we use in the Beth Shalom synagogue.

Rashi doesn’t provide an answer, only comments of his own and from Midrash (Genesis Rabbah) that read between the lines of Torah and claim that they indicate that Esau was evil, a rapist, a murderer, a thief, a denier of Gd, an idolator. Why would Gd answer Isaac’s prayer with such a person. Perhaps because Esau’s great redeeming quality is that he loved his father and served him with great honor and Jacob, the quiet one who sat in tents, needed to have his silence enlivened by exposure to Esau’s love of their father.

This is only perhaps: another perhaps is presented confidently by Abraham’s eldest son, Ishmael, suffered from untempered chesed, love, faith and passion; Isaac’s eldest son, Esau, was born with untempered gevurah — which could balance the untempered chesed. Jacob represents tiferet, beauty, integration, that can integrate the two qualities and keep them from warring.

This is still a perhaps: “Toledot” means “generations” and the word suggests that not only can an individual such as Noah, Sarah, Abraham, or Isaac be perfect but their descendants can also be perfect.

That doesn’t seem to be happening in this parshah: Isaac’s descendants, Jacob and Esau, struggle in the womb, not the behavior of loving brothers, of perfect people.

Isaac does not seem to be living “every blessing”: he is deceived (or pretends to be deceived) by a hairy skin that would never deceive any of us, eyes open or closed, Jacob treats his brother Esau in a definitely non-brotherly way by charging him Esau’s birthright for a bowl of porridge. We do not seem to be seeing the balance or the integration of chesed and gevurah.

So, to consider this question further—why did Gd create Esau?—here are two resources:

Many questions are raised about the traditional interpretation of evil Esau on this site:

The view of Jacob as integrating-transcending-balancing tiferet to purify imbalanced chesed and gevurah is presented on this site:

Please share with me and Beth Shalom Congregation your thoughts and findings on this — to me — great enigma.

Baruch HaShem