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Thoughts on Toldot

Summary | פָּרָשַׁת תּוֹלְדוֹת

November, 26th 2022 – 2. Tischri 5783 6. week section | Bereshit 25:19-28:9 Esaw and Ja'akov's birth, their quarrels and discord are reproduced. Isa'ak does not go to Egypt, finds quarrels and peace with Abimelech. Ja'akow marries after being blessed twice by his father.

Foto: fighting sisters
Foto © Obie Fernandez [Unsplash]

In this week's parashah we meet several progenitors. Rebekah is given great credit for not only being a righteous person, but for doing so despite coming from a wicked people, being raised by a wicked father and living with a wicked brother. Bereshit 27:13 and 27:42-45 mention that Rebekah followed in the prophetic footsteps of Sarah. And as with many mothers in the Torah, her marriage was not fruitful at first. Much later, in the 19th century, the Malbim from Poland (Rabbi Meir Leibusch Wisser) suggested that giving birth to great and righteous people (such as Ja'akov in this case) was an almost unnatural process and therefore could only succeed with explicit divine help.

Rebekah's pregnancy is given to her - our sages say - because of her righteousness and her prayer. Nevertheless, she suffers great agony during pregnancy and birth. According to the Midrash, she expressed the thought that she would not have wanted to become pregnant if she had known that it would be so painful. And then she gives birth to not one, but two sons who could not be more different. Their conflict began even before birth: if one is on top, the other must be on the bottom - only one can prevail, and at the same time neither. Because the opposite is always included. We remember the sale of the birthright for the price of a bowl of lentil soup. Or the description of how Ja'akow obtains the blessing of his blind father. Where Ja'akov is clever, Esaw appears simple; where Esaw is strong, Ja'akov uses dishonest methods. Where one thinks strategically, the other is driven by his immediate needs.

Foto: pregnant woman
Foto © Camylla Battini [Unsplash]

After 20 years, Rebekah finally becomes pregnant and this gift from the Eternal comes with the apparent flaw that not only is an apparently great and righteous son born. Rather, his twin often seems primitive and is described as evil. In oral teaching, Esav is often described as base, though in the parashah itself, he is not so portrayed. However, the enmity of the two is also clearly highlighted in the Torah - symbolically even before birth: indeed, it is also taught in a midrash that when the pregnant Rebekah went near a house of learning, Ja'akov became very active in her womb and struggled to get out. However, when she went near a house of idolatry, Esav did the same.

Why this contradiction? Is this perhaps a literary trick to make the greatness of Ja'akov even more obvious, contrasting him with Esav as the opposite? Or can the conflicts of the pair of brothers also teach us something today?

Could this be a recurring theme of the Torah? Namely, the constant reminder that we humans and our history always carry both good and evil within us, and that no human being is protected from making mistakes. Even more: that it is sometimes completely impossible for each and every one of us to recognise what is good and what is evil? And that the Eternal One did not create us as a human being who IS good, but rather as one who CAN BE good. How are we to decide whether the theft of the blessing by Ja'akov was justified? Was it not an evil trick? Or did later great events presuppose this behaviour?

It seems to come down to making the most of what the Eternal has given us in terms of ability and opportunity. This is more important than merely having all the possibilities but not using them. In this light, our own responsibility (for our attitude and our actions) shines brightly and can inspire us to be the best person we can be. And we should possibly do this without knowing today what is good and what is evil.

The Eternal shows us two brothers, both of whom are obviously important, otherwise they would not be treated so intensively in the Torah. And although they are very different and have been interpreted for thousands of years, we can hardly say which of their deeds were right and which were wrong. Doesn't that also mean that each of us has the possibility to do what is right and good, even if we cannot definitively recognise it today? Doesn't this also mean that we should strive to seek our task in the plan of the Eternal and to do our utmost to always critically examine whether we are still walking in His ways?

Foto: man is sitting at the sea
Foto © Mori Shani [Unsplash]

If we accept this and incorporate it into our daily lives, it may no longer be so necessary to criticise unloved brothers and drag their supposed weaknesses into the light. Looking back, we understand that Ja'akov has gone down in our history as a righteous and great one of the brothers. If we strive, as he did, to find our purpose and do the good despite personal flaws, we may not have so much time for the criticism or devaluation of others.

In this sense, I wish you and me not only Shabbat shalom, but also a joyful, successful search for one's own strengths as well as the equanimity to allow others to do the same.

Shabbat shalom

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