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Parashat Toledot 5783 — 11/26/2022

Parashat Toledot 5783 — 11/26/2022

Bob is traveling this week to be with family. So, we’ve pulled one from the archives.

Bereishit 25:19–28:9

Toledot is the one parashah that deals with Yitzchak, but much of the action surrounds his twin sons, Esav and Ya’akov. The story begins with their birth. Esau comes out first, with Ya’akov right behind, “grasping Esau’s heel.” For this trick he is given the name Ya’akov. Abarbanel identifies several themes around the “heel”:

  1. The fate of the two nations would always be intertwined. This relationship began in the womb.
  2. Ya’akov grasped onto the ideas and behaviors that Esav trampled under his heel – moral, ethical, and spiritual matters. He attached importance only to the material world. The letter yud, which stands for Gd, is added to the word for “heel” to form the name Ya’akov. This is an indication that Gd was always with him.
  3. There would be times when Ya’akov and his progeny would be under Esav’s heel, when they would be subservient to him. This is especially true in the long years of the exile of the Jewish people. [RAR: Esav is associated with Rome = Western Civilization in Rabbinic literature]
  4. In the end of days, Ya’akov will “grasp” dominance without any more interruptions. It will come after the dominance of Esav, at the end of his reign, just as the heel is at the end of the body. The dominance of Esav will not end until Ya’akov rises up and takes it away from him in the messianic era.

These points hark back to the prophetic answer Rivka received when the twins “struggled within her” and she went to “inquire of Hashem.” She was told, “two nations are in your womb … might will pass from one to the other and the elder shall serve the younger.”

Whether or not we accept the Biblical stories as historical fact, it is certainly true that Ya’akov and Esav are seen as archetypes in the Rabbinic literature – in fact, the Midrash “fleshes out” the terse Biblical narrative based on this implicit fact. One of the pairs of opposites that the twins represent are spiritual (Ya’akov) vs. material (Esav). This being the case, what do the stories of Rivka’s prophetic answer and the heel grabbing tell us?

The entire relationship between Esav and Ya’akov is portrayed as one of conflict. Right from the very beginning the two children struggled within the womb. The Midrash fills in the back-story – when Rivka would pass a house of Torah study (i.e. a house of spiritual development) Ya’akov would struggle to get out, whereas when she passed a house of idolatry (i.e. worship of material creation) Esav would struggle to get out. This is also borne out by the second point about the heel. Esav is oriented towards the created world. Ya’akov is oriented towards the spiritual world – the world of the transcendent. The conflict is not so much that the two are in different directions, but that the material does not value the spiritual – it tramples it under its heel so to speak. This is quite unfortunate, because the spiritual is the basis of the existence of the material.

The struggle is then conceived of as a historical struggle, with the ascendancy alternating between Ya’akov (Israel/spiritual/transcendent) and Esav (Rome/material/creation). In the end, however, the spiritual will assume a permanent state of ascendancy in a golden age (the Messianic era). We haven’t gotten to the Messianic era yet, but we have seen that the relative influence of the spiritual aspect of life waxes and wanes in both time and place. In the modern world, with few exceptions, materialism is on the rise and the transcendent value is not only hidden from view and out of people’s awareness, but the very idea that there is a transcendent dimension to life is held up to scorn and derision – it is trampled under the heel of those who worship materialism. We have become a “what-you-see-is-what-you-get” society; the objective means of gaining knowledge is the only acceptable paradigm for learning and subjectivity has become a dirty word.

I believe we can find the same dynamics in the development of the individual that we find in this historical process. We have seen in previous discussions that a human being is a composite creature. On the one hand we have a physical body, which is built to interact with the physical world. The senses bring us information about the physical world and the organs of speech and action project our intentions onto the physical world. In other words, the body is Esav.

There is another aspect to the human being, and that is the soul. Our Sages call the soul a “piece of the Divine from Above.” “Above” I believe is a synonym for the transcendent, and the Divine certainly is infinite and unbounded. The soul that dwells within the body is Ya’akov.

Now on one level we can look at human life as a continuing conflict between our animal nature, lusting after sensual pleasures (what our Sages call our “inclination to evil”), and our Divine nature, which tries to draw us towards Truth and beauty, towards the pleasures of the spirit (“inclination to good”). This interpretation is certainly borne out by our daily experience of having to make moral choices, and at times making the wrong one.

I’d like to take another angle however. Our tradition never denies, or even denigrates the physical. The physical is not inherently evil – rather attachment to the physical, to the point where our physical desires override our spiritual development, is what is evil. The physical is there to support and aid our spiritual development, and the purpose of our spiritual development is to infuse Gdliness into the physical. The trick is to alternate periods where we are focused on the spirit (e.g. during prayer, or on a larger scale, on Yom Kippur) with periods when we are focused on meeting our physical needs. This is perhaps one meaning of the prophecy “might will pass from one to the other.” Eventually, over time and multiple alternations, the spiritual is infused into the physical, Ya’akov grasps Esav’s heel firmly and his dominance is established permanently. The elder serves the younger, and both gain maximum benefit.


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Toledot

“Toledot” means “generations, descendants.”  More basic than the literal meaning is the meaning “stages of evolution.”  We will look at this parshah from this point of view.

The parshah begins with “and these are the generations of Isaac” and tells the story of Isaac’s sons, Jacob and Esau from whom generations will be born, and of Gd’s promise to Isaac that if Isaac will follow Gd, as did Isaac’s father Abraham, then his descendants will be multiplied “like the stars of the heavens” and the land and all nations will be blessed by Isaac’s descendants. “Heaven” symbolizes “Wholeness” and “stars” symbolize the details of Wholeness, the details through which Heaven sends its grace to human and all beings. Similarly, “land” symbolizes “Wholeness” and “nations” symbolizes the details of Wholeness.

On the surface of this parshah, we see competition, deception, favoritism: Isaac and Rebecca do not seem to have been good parents, skilled and effective in raising two sons to be whole, complete.

It’s common to say that Esau, “a man of the fields”, symbolizes the outer field of life, the physical, while Jacob, “a quiet person, sitting in tents”, symbolizes the inner field of life, the spiritual.

Often people see a battle taking place between these two people and these two aspects of life, but life, to be Life, needs to have both physical and spiritual and they need to be integrated.

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of the Transcendental Meditation Program said that Ananda, Total Joy (in Hebrew, Simchah), is everyone’s birthright.

Looking at the story of Jacob asking Esau to sell him his birthright for some porridge he was making, it occurred to me that Jacob, symbolizing the Spiritual aspect of Life, was asking Esau, symbolizing the Physical aspect of Life, to end his famished state by surrendering his commitment to the Physical Alone, and opening himself to the spiritual porridge Jacob was cooking.

Porridge has a bubbly quality to it and cooking it seems equivalent to revealing that Ananda/Joy/Unified Field/Sameach Gd, has a texture: it is not just flat, it has a bubbly quality.

So rather than Jacob cheating Esau, acting cruelly, Jacob was actually enlivening the Joy in Esau, ending his famishment, by taking from him his false birthright in the Physical, and giving him his real birthright, in Ananda, Gd.

Similarly, when Toledot tells us that Esau, the man of the fields, was Isaac’s favorite we can see that Isaac was unable to integrate the spiritual with the physical and so he was not able to live with Wholeness, the integration of the spiritual and the material. We can see this very clearly when Toledot also tells us that Isaac became blind: what greater blindness than to be unaware of Wholeness.

For Rebecca to deceive Isaac by dressing Jacob so that he seemed like the hairy Esau might seem like favoritism on Rebecca’s part but Esau had already sold his physical birthright to Jacob and so what Rebecca was doing was creating an integration of spirituality with materiality, an integration that would raise the generations to increasing higher levels of integration.

Later in Torah we see a very high step in this integration and Restoration of Awareness to Jacob’s descendants when at Mt. Sinai, all of the nation of Israel hears Gd speak, something unmatched in any other scripture.

Still, hearing Gd speak from a distance is an experience of the duality between Gd and humanity: Full Restoration of Awareness means going beyond this duality and experiencing the Oneness which is All.

Toledot reminds us that we need to live balanced, integrated lives, making sure that our material needs are nourished by our spiritual development so that we go beyond duality of any kind and experience duality and all multiplicity within the Oneness that is our real Nature: The All-in-All.

Reading, reciting, hearing, discussing Torah, the Siddur (prayerbook) and their supplements and commentaries and acting with their Wisdom is an excellent way to do this. Getting together with our community, with our World Family, is an excellent way to do this; excellent ways to increase our Joy and Wholeness by sharing, by integrating the multiplicity of life so that we experience the Wholeness with its details. Let’s continue easily, gently, innocently doing this.

Baruch HaShem