How can we best help each other in these challenging economic times? Last week we read about Avraham negotiating the purchase of a burial cave so he could honour Sarah with an eternal burial site. But we also read about the small acts of kindness that led Eliezer to know that Rivka would be the one to restore Yitzhak’s heart to wholeness. This week in Toldot we read of famine in the land – a recurring theme in Torah. Hardship, famine drought are not new events, due to climate change, but have always caused peoples to move from their homelands in search of food, water, and their survival.More
In the early twentieth century a man was brought to Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook. This father had given his son a good Jewish education, he tried to set a good example, and he kept the mitzvot. Now, however, his son had drifted away from Judaism; he no longer kept mitzvot, he did not even identify as a Jew any more. What should he do? Rav Kook asked the father, “Did you love him when he was religious?” “Of course.” “Now,” Rav Kook replied, “love him even more.”
But what is even more? And from whose vantage point – that of the father or the son? The Sefat Emet, taught from his grandfather, “Everywhere there is a hidden point of God. We only have to remove the external covering in order to reveal that innermost point, which is called a “well of living waters.” What did the father need to uncover in himself to reach out and love that inner well of his son?
Toldot is a story of such a dilemma. Our text polarizes the natures of two twin brothers. Esau, the elder, is an am ha’aretz, a simple man, a hunter, a ruddy-faced outdoorsman. He is emotional and hearty, but, as commentators note, not a scholar. His brother Ya’akov however, is understood to be a scholar of Torah, one who stayed in tents to learn. We see in Rashi that our Sages say that he went to the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever, where he studied for 14 years. Eventually, one brother wins, one brother loses. Love and deception are at the core of this story.
We will see, to paraphrase Rashi again, that deception begets deception. Ya’akov will find this out when he finally weds and beds his beloved Rachel, only to find the not-so-beguiling Leah lying in his bed. As we learned last week, kinyan (acquisition in marriage) is kinyan by any other name. We can certainly hear by the shock in his voice, that Ya’kov has indeed consummated this marriage. Sex trumps deception; and, as Leah wryly notes, comeuppance was Ya’akov’s due.
But is Toldot really a story of deception, of what will be eventual retribution? Or is Toldot more a story of listening to God, and following through, even as one son will clearly be hurt, enraged and walk away? God spoke to, and provided very clear instructions to Rivka, about who should serve the other. Rivka’s interventions – which were considerable, and made over the somewhat querulous concerns voiced by her son Yaa’kov – were entirely in order with the prophetic instructions she heard from God while she was still pregnant.
Over the years I have given much thought to this sidra, especially to the nature of Yitzhak. In this sidra Yitzhak is now the father. What did he see? What did he know? Was he deceived – or was he a deceiver himself? When does deceit merge with the demands of love? When does love conflict with the demands of God?
As Sefat Emet taught, sometimes what is hidden, holds truth. Yitzhak is at his most enigmatic in this sidra. He reaches into his innermost truth, and while externally he feels the rough, smelly, hides of goat, we know he knows we know. There is cosmic laughter at this point, reflecting the very core of his being. Yitzhak is a man who has held goats in his arms. In touching his son Ya’akov, I think Yitzhak is uncovering his son, finding his own pintele Yid, that inner well of God’s Presence.
Last week I spoke about how Yitzhak found healing through the redemptive quality of his love for Rivka. This week I suggest that love was the primary emotional verb in Yitzhak’s tent – and not deception. Toldot is about tough love.
Toldot is acted out to afford the players a stage to actualize God’s command. The first born must be supplanted, even as he was also beloved. Rivka and Yitzhak needed a strategy to allow them as parents to bank their love in a trust fund, an account that reached to a future beyond that of their sons. Their future was the future of the people Israel – a people barely conceived of at this point – and that future covenant was at stake with the granting of the Blessing.
In this sidra we sit at a crossroads – pagans to the left, Israel to the right. Yitzhak may have had diminished sight but I believe he could see well beyond any immediate physical limitation. Even as Yitzhak became increasingly tent-bound, he understood and loved both of his boys, and he knew what he must do. He also knew from his earliest years he must stay in the Land. Unlike his father, unlike his son, he stayed. Perhaps Yitzhak knew, even then, that possession was 9/10 of the law. And so, he stayed. In that staying he gave us our future. The ohel, the tent, that once filled with love’s light became a light that enabled both Rivka and Yitzhak to see how to make hard decisions – the hardest decision – choosing one son over another. One son only would carry the Blessing, the Covenant forward.
Before my father died, he chose me from his four living children, to be his executrix. After his death, there was some degree of contention that came from one of my siblings, and in support of my decision in the matter, my youngest brother turned to me and said, “You have all the power.” He said that with love.
Blessing, Covenant is power. Let us never underestimate the power of this Blessing. This Blessing is our heritage, our obligation to pass forward. In the words of my beloved father’s favourite song, “I once was lost, but now am found, T’was blind but now I see.”
Rivka heard and Yitzhak saw. They did what needed to be done.