Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Walk Article-Toldot



Rabbi David Walk


            How much do we control our destiny?  That's perhaps the most important question in psychology, if not all of science.  At what point do the factors of nature and nurture combine to irrevocably cast the individual into an unbreakable mold?  A friend of mine with a background in psychology once told me that not much changes after toilet training.  I find that to be depressing as a teacher, parent and grandparent. But it gets worse. This week's Torah reading seems to claim that much of what we will ultimately become has already been decided before we leave the womb.  Both the behavior of the twins in Rivka's belly and the prophecy she sought seem to militate for just such a conclusion.  I have a problem with these positions, and I think that we must analyze this idea in our parsha to find a way out of this deterministic dead end.  The place to start is the rearing of Esav, because he's the one who gets written out of Jewish history as a result of factors very early in his life some of which seem to be out of his control.

            Judging Esav is one of the most frustrating enterprises for anyone studying Torah.  The verses themselves give little support for the contempt which our Sages hold for him.  Take for example the famous story in this week's Torah reading.  Esav returns from the field exhausted and famished.  Ya'akov seems to take advantage of his weakened state, and charges him his birthright for lunch.  On the surface the story paints a negative picture of Ya'akov. However based on an anomaly in the text (Genesis 25:29 & 34) our Sages claim that our uncle Esav has just committed adultery, murder and idolatry.  No wonder he was tired! This brings up the query does he get a raw deal from our tradition?  Are we using his story as an opportunity to attack those whom we view as our historical enemies who happen to be his descendants?  I think that the answer is no, and to explain my position I'm going to quote from one of the Roshei Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etziyon.  This outstanding Torah scholar is Rabbi Ya'akov Medan, with whom I served in the IDF.

            Rabbi Medan makes a number of clever and creative observations.  The first and most important of these is that 'judging Biblical characters as though they were students in the beit medrash (study hall)' is a mistake.  But his comment which I want to deal with here is that to understand Esav we must compare him to his Biblical 'double'-namely King David.  They both have powerful leadership skills, they both have led armies of four hundred men, they both are ruddy, and they both have bloodied their swords.  Here's the difference.  When King David conquers Jerusalem, God sends an angel to kill the former Jebusite king.  David prays to God to end the violence and pays the former enemy cash for the future site of the Holy Temple.  God tells the angel to sheathe the sword and David is grateful and brings offerings at the newly consecrated location.  Esav never sheathes his sword; he lives by his sword, and always will (27:40).

            Is this, perhaps, the argument of Rivkah and Yitzchak about the boys?  Rivkah, perhaps because of the prophecy she received about him, believes that he will never grow and change.  Yitzchak, who never heard that prophecy, has faith that Esav can use his physical prowess to protect the fledgling Jewish nation.

            I would like to suggest a new approach to the issue of what is wrong with Esav, and why there is such a concern that he is incorrigible.  During the famous scene when Ya'akov is cooking the lentil soup, the exchange between them is fascinating.  Ya'akov wants to claim the birthright from Esav, because he doesn't believe that Esav is fit to be the spiritual representative of the family, and Esav confirms his doubt.  Please, remember that the birthright in those days before the Sinaitic covenant meant that the first born performed the role of priest for the family.  It was only after the sin of the Golden Calf that this practice was changed. 

            Here is the exchange:  And Esav said to Ya'akov, "Give me some of this red stuff to gulp down, for I am faint"; and Ya'akov said, "Sell me as of this day your birthright." Esav replied, "Behold, I am going to die; so why do I need this birthright?" (Genesis 25:30-32)

            I believe that the most important statement in the exchange is when Esav says that he doesn't care about the birthright because he's gong to die.   Now this statement is often used to show that Ya'akov was conniving.  He's closing a deal under utmost duress.  Esav is in a weakened and vulnerable state.  I don't think that's what going on at all.  Even though Esav was tired and hungry, I strongly suggest that he was saying something entirely different.  The birthright is part of the covenantal relationship with God which is passed down from generation to generation.  The fulfillment of this compact with God will only be fulfilled in a distant future and by our progeny.  This is clearly stated in the Covenant Between the Parts (15:13-16).  Esav does not care about anything which occurs after his demise.  But we do.

            It's fascinating that in the very next story of our parsha God speaks to Yitzchak for the one and only time in his life and promises him the destiny sworn to his father Avraham.  In this short declaration God mentions the word zaracha (your seed or offspring) four times (26:3-4).  Yitzchak is being told the antithesis of Esav's philosophy.  We may live in the moment, but we live for the distant future.

            We do believe in the concept of Teshuva (repentance) and reform.  It is hard to change, but we believe that it is possible.  We celebrate those who achieve this amazing spiritual makeover.  But we don't see this path opening up before Esav, because he rejects the basic underlying premise that we are connected to a destiny greater than the limiting boundaries of our lives.  Esav was born to be wild and would never change.