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Parashat Toledot – 11/20/2009

Parashat Toledot
submitted by Robert Rabinoff

Although our Parashah begins “these are the generations of Yitzchak,” it really revolves around the relationship between Yitzchak and Rivka’s two sons, Esau and Ya’akov.  This relationship begins in the womb: “And the children struggled within her.”  Rashi comments that when Rivka passed a yeshiva (the “Yeshiva of Shem and Ever” – Shem, the son of Noach, was still alive at the time) Ya’akov struggled to get out, and when she passed a temple of idol worship, Esau tried to get out.  Apparently they were fraternal and not identical twins!

The dichotomy between the two boys grew as they grew older, leading eventually to Esau’s scorning of the “birthright,” which Rashi explains is the spiritual leadership of the family.  Eventually of course the Jewish people are descended from Ya’akov/Israel, while Esau spawns, according to Rabbinic tradition, the Roman empire, the destroyers of the Second Temple and the original “evil empire.”  The dichotomy is often powerfully basic and completely black and white: Good/evil, spiritual/material, truth/falsehood, etc.

Then we come to the perplexing issue of Ya’akov’s “usurpation” of the paternal blessings from Esau, his “deception” of his father Yitzchak to accomplish this, and, consequently his flight to the house of his uncle Lavan to escape Esau’s murderous wrath.  In this case we see not so much of a dichotomy, but a merging, in the person of Ya’akov, of aspects of Esau’s personality.  This is symbolized by Rivka’s dressing Ya’akov’s hands and neck in hairy goatskin coverings, and clothing him in Esau’s garments, redolent of the great outdoors.  Perhaps the issue is not so black and white after all.

R. Avraham Yitzchak Kook, first Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel, writes

Just as there are both positive and negative forces in the world, so too, every person is a composite of positive and negative traits.  We need these negative forces, however; without their power and vitality, many goals and aspirations would lack the energy necessary to be realized. …

Ultimately, however, our goal is not to simply hold back these negative forces.  We aspire to gain control over them and utilize them, like a hydroelectric dam that harnesses the vast energy of a raging waterfall for the production of electricity.

Paraphrased by R. Chanan Morrison in Gold from the Land of Israel

Perhaps we can take this idea all the way back to the very concept of a created universe.  In the Kabbalistic description of the process of creation, the first step is for Gd to “withdraw” into Himself as it were (tzimtzum) to leave a space “empty” of His all-encompassing, infinite nature, so that the finite can exist.  Thus an absolute division was made between finite and infinite, between Creator and Creation.  It is certainly true that this description is only in a way of speaking, for there is certainly no part of the finite that is not completely permeated with the infinite; nevertheless, at least from the point of view of the finite, there is this separation.

Now, perhaps, we are asked to take a more nuanced view of the situation.  Perhaps we are asked to consider the mixture of finite and infinite, of good and evil, that characterizes our lives, and indeed all of creation.  In R. Kook’s formulation, our job is not just to root out the “evil” that lurks within us, but rather to imbue it with holiness, to turn it from evil into good.  Our Sages tell us that “in the place where the penitent stands, the completely righteous person cannot stand.”  And R. Shimon ben Lakish makes the rather amazing statement that when one does t’shuvah out of love for Gd, even premeditated. rebellious sins are turned into positive mitzvot.  How can it be that sin can be so thoroughly redeemed that it loses its nature as sin?

I think this is exactly what R. Kook is asking us to consider.  The Esau in every one of us has a vitality, a movement, maybe we can say an earthiness, that only needs to be channeled in an appropriate direction to become an invaluable component of the progress of Creation to ultimate Redemption.  The difficulty is that this earthiness has a natural direction – downward towards the earth, while our spiritual aspect, that is, our soul, tends in the opposite direction, back to Gd whence it came.  Our challenge as human beings is to elevate the material by subordinating it to the spiritual, not by destroying it.  Thus, when Rivka goes to inquire of Gd about her tumultuous pregnancy, she is told, “two nations are in your womb… and the older [Esau] will serve the younger [Ya’akov].”

Judaism is not an ascetic religion.  We are not asked to deny the flesh.  We are charged with taking an imperfect world and bringing it closer to Redemption.  To do that we must transform the material into a perfect vehicle to reflect the infinite value that underlies all the material.  Ya’akov must not simply rule over Esau.  Ya’akov needs to turn Esau from an enemy to a friend.