Sunday, November 8, 2015

Parashat Toldot 5776 Inside Information

Echoes of Eden
Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Toldot 5776
Inside Information

The home life of Rivka and Yitzchak was complicated. This is not to say there was a lack of love, honor or respect; in fact, quite the opposite is the case. Theirs is the first relationship the Torah explicitly states was one of love[1]. Indeed, we might even say that theirs was love at first sight, and, as far as we can tell, that love continues until death separates them. What complicated their relationship were their children. After years of infertility, years of prayer and tears, Rivka became pregnant, but it was an unusual, difficult pregnancy, and it is likely that she was unaware that she was carrying twins. 

To ease her distress, Rivka sought Divine guidance, and was told that she carried two sons. Furthermore, she was told that each of them would be the father of a nation, but they would not get along, and the younger one would be more successful.[2]  Rather than putting her at ease, we can imagine that this knowledge must have been a heavy burden for Rivka to bear. Even before it began, she knew how the story would end.  Moreover, a moral quandary immediately presented itself: Should she, or should she not, share the “inside information” with her husband? If both parents know the outcome, will it impact their attitudes toward their children? Will the knowledge become a self-fulfilling prophecy? Many people like to peek at the end of a book to see the outcome before they begin, but is the outcome of our children’s lives the sort of information we want to be privy to?

Apparently, Rivka made a bold choice: She opted not to share the information with Yitzchak, hoping that Esav would be able to grow up without the shadow of this prophecy hanging over him. Only by keeping her information to herself would both sons enjoy equal opportunities and equally benefit from the love and attention of their father - even if she herself might not be capable of rising above the prejudice that this prophecy most certainly created in her heart.[3]

But even without Rivka’s help, Yitzchak knew. He may not have “sneaked a peek at the end of the book,” but he was not unaware of the differences between his two sons. One of his sons was “a man of the tents,” a man who reminded him of his own father Avraham, who sat in his tent in order to welcome guests and spread his belief in the One God, Creator of the universe and all its bounty.[4] His other son reminded him of someone else, someone far more sinister, a man whom Yitzchak had never met but had heard so much about: Nimrod. Esav’s fondness for hunting[5] was a passion he shared with Nimrod,[6] who was famed far and wide as a ruthless hunter. According to rabbinic tradition, it was Nimrod who had thrown Avraham into a fiery furnace in order to eradicate his message of monotheism.[7] What did Yitzchak see when he looked at his twin sons? A “reincarnation” of this same rivalry, a second round of the Avraham-Nimrod battle now fought by Yaakov and Esav in his own home. Would anyone have thought less of him had he favored one son over the other, encouraging the son who embodied the values for which Avraham had risked his own life and the life of his son? Surely, he could not have been faulted had he rejected Esav, who appeared to be some sort of genealogical/theological anomaly. Either God was playing a cruel joke on Yitzchak, or he was presenting him with a nearly insurmountable challenge by giving him a son of this kind.

Apparently, Yitzchak met this challenge from a completely different angle: Yitzchak understood that if this new religion that he had been charged by his own father to teach and uphold, the belief in a God of kindness, were to have any meaning, it must bear a spiritual message and offer a place for the Esavs and Nimrods of the world, and not only for the spiritual elite who were blessed with the attributes of Avraham.  According to one tradition, Yitzchak had seen this challenge successfully met in his childhood home: Eliezer, the faithful servant of Avraham, is said to have been the son (or grandson) of Nimrod.[8] Yitzchak had seen that the truth of Avraham’s message had the power to transform even those who were raised in the very darkest heart of paganism. He must surely have reasoned that Esav was not a lost cause: Like Eliezer, Esav, too, could be taught to use his strengths in the service of good, in the service of God.

With that thought in mind, Yitzchak devised an educational plan to train and elevate his wild son Esav: He would shower him with love, create a supportive environment that would accentuate his capabilities and value his strengths. Yitzchak loved Esav - not despite the fact that he was a hunter, but because Yitzchak had made a conscious decision to love Esav for his hunting prowess. Yitzchak gave Esav tasks, sent him on hunting missions, asked Esav to bring him food, in order to harness Esav’s strengths in the service of God through the commandment to honor his father: If Esav merely hunted for sport, this would be a cruel and disturbing occupation, but if he hunted in order to feed his father and his family, his wild streak would become focused, productive, and eventually, Yitzchak hoped, tamed.

Unfortunately, Yitzchak’s hopes and expectations created more pressure for Esav, who loved and respected his father but was always fearful of disappointing him.  He did not want the responsibility of being the older son; he did not want responsibility of any kind. He wanted freedom - to marry whomever he pleased and live his own carefree life. He defied his parents by marrying not one but two local women;[9] even when his parents’ displeasure became known to him, he “corrected” the situation by taking an additional wife, one he could bring to family functions without causing friction, to “make his old man happy.”[10]

In a moment of weakness, Esav asked his brother Yaakov to feed him. Esav was tired: He was tired of living up to his father’s expectations, tired of searching for meaning in his hunting, tired of the charade he had been playing to appease his father.[11] He was not the Esav his father thought he was; he would never be reformed, as Eliezer had been. He had merely been wearing that other Esav’s clothes, but underneath he remained a free spirit who wanted no responsibility. Even more than he despised responsibility, he despised his birthright;[12] he wanted no part of the future Yitzchak envisioned for him.  At his first opportunity, he sold the birthright to his brother Yaakov – who now had every right to wear Esav’s clothing. Yaakov, not Esav, is the future; Yaakov, not Esav, will take responsibility, beginning with the food he gave his brother on that very day.

Rivka always knew that day would come; from the start, she had been told how the story would unfold. She knew that Esav would never be reformed, would never be interested in taking part in the future of Avraham’s covenant with God. What Rivka had been told at the outset, Yitzchak finally understood only years later: Yaakov alone would inherit the blessings of Avraham, but sadly, the role that might have been taken by Esav, the role that Eliezer had fulfilled happily in the service of Avraham, would also have to be fulfilled by Yaakov. Esav wanted no part in it.

Echoes of Eden

[1] Bereishit 24:67.
[2] Bereishit 25:23.
[3] We find no direct interaction between Rivka and Esav.
[4] Bereishit 21:33 and Rashi ad loc.
[5] Bereishit 25:27.
[6] Bereishit 10:9.
[7] Talmud Bavli Pesachim 118a.
[8] See Targum Pseudo Yonatan, Bereishit 14:14.
[9] Bereishit 26:34-35.
[10] Bereishit 28:8-9 and Rashi.
[11] Bereishit 25:29-30.
[12] Bereishit 25:34.

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