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Bet Israel Masorti Synagogue

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Parshat Toldot – 2016

Dvar Torah delivered by Mike Garmise on Shabbat, 3rd Kislev 5777, 3rd December 2016

In some sections, the Torah is written like a well-structured novel or play. For example, the sturm und drang of Yitzhak and Ishmael winds down (last week) with a heartwarming reunion of the two half-brothers, as together they bury their father Avraham.  

But last week’s sense of unity is as satisfying now as last week’s cholent. Immediately we are thrown into a new seething cauldron of sibling rivalry. The twins, Esau and Yaacov, begin their strife in utero, we are told, and it continues with Yaacov making a deal equivalent to the Dutch buying Manhattan Island for 24 dollars’ worth of trinkets. He buys the birthright for a bowl of lentil soup and some bread.

The twins are virtually polar opposites, and each parent favors one of the twins over the other. It’s easy to understand why Rivka prefers Yaacov 鈥 he’s more docile, he doesn’t run around like a vilde chaya, and don’t forget that God informed Rivka that the younger son would be the leader of the people. But Yitzhak 鈥 why does he prefer the outdoorsy Esau?

The commentators and the Medrash offer many different explanations. The educational approach says that because Esau was so different and so far from the ideals propounded by Avraham and Yitzhak, Yitzhak devoted more time to him, to make him feel loved and to entice him to become more of a mensch.

The vindictive approach is that Esau was really a bad apple, a murderer, a rapist, who through sweet-talk was able to fool his father into believing that he, Esau, was trying to be an obedient and God-fearing son.  

The father-knows-best approach says that Yitzhak saw through Esau, and knew what he was, and loved him anyway, because he was his son.

The davka approach says that davka BECAUSE Esau was so different, Yitzhak loved him, admired him for the skills that Yitzhak may have had but did not use. And, he was not aware of the prophecy that Yaacov was the true heir.  

I personally subscribe to the davka explanation, without ruling out any of the others. And because I believe that Yitzhak may very well have loved Esau because they were so opposite, I find it difficult to accept the words of Malachi, the prophet, in today’s haftarah: “And I loved Yaacov, and Esau I HATED,” says the prophet in the name of God.

Much later, Edom, meaning Esau, became the symbol of Rome, the great scourge of Judea, which fixed Esau’s bad rap in perpetuum. But we don’t see that in the Torah. Esau, like Ishmael, is maligned and mostly for no good reason. Let’s look at what the Torah says and decide.

Yaacov comes up with the idea of buying Esau’s birthright and does so in a legitimate legal transaction. Fair or not, both sides agreed. But later, Yaacov, at Rivka’s instigation, poses as Esau in order to extract from Yitzhak the blessing meant for Esau. This is outright thievery.

When the ruse is discovered, after Esau comes in with the meal he has prepared, this intrepid hunter releases a heartrending cry. “Bless me too, Father!” And, “Haven’t you saved a blessing for me?” He’s heartbroken and angry.

The sceptics will say this just proves Esau was out for the blessing, that his good-son act was only a ruse to extract the blessing of the first-born. Or you can read it as the grief of a man who has been wronged. But not to worry. He does get a blessing, in fact: the blessing that suits his lifestyle the best. Furthermore, when the Israelites are tramping through the desert, they are told not to attack or antagonize the Edomites because they (the descendants of Esau) were given Se’ir as their land. 

Thus a plain reading of the text supports the view that is proposed in the book, “Not in God’s Name,” by Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sachs, in which he claims that the three major religions are locked in battle against one another because of sibling rivalry, because each believes the other has received something at the other’s expense.

Sachs goes on to show, through a plain reading of the Torah text, that despite the rivalry, in the end nobody is cheated. Last week, as I mentioned, we saw Yitzhak and Ishmael coming together, friends 鈥 and not because (in the rabbis words) Ishmael did teshuva. He didn’t have to.

The same applies to Esau. Most of HAZAL agree that he showed great respect for his father and tried his best to please him, when he could. Being hyperactive doesn’t make a person less worthy. And as we see, he received a blessing no less beneficial to him than Yaacov did.

The stated purpose of Rabbi Sachs’ book was to show that the basis of the religious wars is sibling rivalry that exists only in the eyes of the beholders. In actual fact, everyone receives a fair share. If the religious leaders would reread the sources from Rabbi Sachs’ viewpoint, they should come to the same conclusion.

Unfortunately, the window of opportunity has probably been missed. The ills visited on all sides, thanks to geopolitics, realpolitik, avarice and a desire to control as many people as possible, make this wise and enlightened approach into an almost impossible dream.

And this toxic combination has also had its effect internally. Today Muslims kill Muslims, and Catholics and Protestants are still waiting for the final battle, and Jews of all stripes clash even more loudly than red and orange. To live together like Joseph’s Technicolor coat, all stripes and colors side by side in harmony, is Utopian at best, and becoming more and more unlikely with each passing year. But as Rogers and Hammerstein wrote back in 1949: “You’ve got to have dream; if you don’t have a dream, how can you have a dream come true?”

Shabbat Shalom.



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