On the Weekly Torah Portion of Toledot

yinYangThis week’s Torah portion, toledot (Genesis 25:19 – 28:9), introduces the dramatic life story of Isaac’s twin sons, Jacob and Esau, and their complicated relationship. Jacob, of course, is the third patriarch, the one who was given the name Israel and after whom the People of Israel are named. It was therefore very tempting for Jewish thinkers throughout the ages, from the days of the Talmud to the present day, to see the story as symbolizing the relationship between the Jewish people and the other nations of the world.

But the story of Esau and Jacob may be more usefully understood as a story about two fundamental motivations that abide within all of us: the motivation towards God and the motivation towards the world. These motivations come to the forefront of our awareness when we try to live the religious or spiritual life in earnest. We become like the pregnant Rebecca, who recognizes the two twins whirling and fighting for supremacy in her womb (Genesis 25:22). Like Rebecca, it is our task to ensure, by hook or by crook, that the Jacob in us has the upper hand, even as we realize that Esau is part of the picture and cannot be denied.

The nature of the two motivations is hinted at by the way the Torah describes the two brothers. About Esau, who emerged from the womb right before Jacob and therefore was given the seniority of the first born, we are told that he was covered with a thick coat of red hair, an image that hints at an animal-like, instinctual nature. We are also told that he is a hunter.

What is a hunter? It is someone who keeps chasing after prey. As soon as he captures the prey, he moves on to the next, and the one after that. His quest is never fulfilled, because his satiation is temporary. A hunter symbolizes a person who tries to find ultimate meaning, purpose and satisfaction in the things of the world: more money, more sex, more status, more papers published, more art created. None of these are inherently wrong. What is considered wrong is the attempt to find ultimate meaning and fulfillment in these things.

About Jacob we are told that he was “innocent and dwelling in the tents” (Genesis 25:27). Jacob symbolizes the philosophical, introspective, inward-directed impulse within ourselves. When we are born into this world, this part of ourselves is “dwelling in the tents”—it is often the weaker part, and remains hidden. As we grow up, it is not this voice that we hear in mainstream culture, or dare to express. The world judges us by how much we are able to manifest Esau, because it is neither interested in Jacob, nor does it have the tools to relate to him.

Humans evolved as hunters, but the divine plan is for the Jacob in them to gain seniority. The Torah tells us that Jacob (or Ya’akov יעקב in Hebrew) received his name because he emerged from the womb right after Esau, holding on to Esau’s heel (‘akev עקב). In the Midrash, which is the allegorical interpretation of the Torah, the rabbinical sages explained that Jacob was trying to stop Esau from coming out first, because this was not how the plan was supposed to unfold.

Jacob was biding his time. He was waiting for an opportunity to assume the seniority he was meant to have. And his opportunity came:

וַיָּזֶד יַעֲקֹב נָזִיד וַיָּבֹא עֵשָׂו מִן הַשָּׂדֶה וְהוּא עָיֵף: וַיֹּאמֶר עֵשָׂו אֶל יַעֲקֹב הַלְעִיטֵנִי נָא מִן הָאָדֹם הָאָדֹם הַזֶּה כִּי עָיֵף אָנֹכִי עַל כֵּן קָרָא שְׁמוֹ אֱדוֹם: וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב מִכְרָה כַיּוֹם אֶת בְּכֹרָתְךָ לִי: וַיֹּאמֶר עֵשָׂו הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ לָמוּת וְלָמָּה זֶּה לִי בְּכֹרָה: וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב הִשָּׁבְעָה לִּי כַּיּוֹם וַיִּשָּׁבַע לוֹ וַיִּמְכֹּר אֶת בְּכֹרָתוֹ לְיַעֲקֹב: וְיַעֲקֹב נָתַן לְעֵשָׂו לֶחֶם וּנְזִיד עֲדָשִׁים וַיֹּאכַל וַיֵּשְׁתְּ וַיָּקָם וַיֵּלַךְ וַיִּבֶז עֵשָׂו אֶת הַבְּכֹרָה:
Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!” (Therefore he was called Edom.) Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright. (Genesis 25:29-34)

This happens to all of us. At one point in our lives the futility of the hunt strikes us. We are tired, we are desperate, we want relief. Sometimes, this is the point at which the Jacob within us, the impulse towards God, shows up. “I can feed you”, it says, “but you have to let me have the upper hand. You have to become ‘spiritual.’” And the Esau within us says, “sure, I don’t care, I’m so tired and fed up, you can have what you want.” At that point we may start to pray, to meditate, maybe even to go on retreats, but the Esau in us still believes that there is something in it for him. He will become stronger, more creative, healthier. And the moment it will get to be too much, he will resume his superior position.

But for the divine plan to succeed, the victory cannot be make-believe. Jacob has to take seniority for real, to become the ruling force in our psyche. Rebecca, the mother of the twins, who is said by the Zohar to be the Shekhinah incarnate, is the one who ensures that the divine plan is executed.

If Jacob tried stratagem, Rebecca uses outright deception. When old and blind Isaac, lying on his deathbed, asks Esau to go and hunt and prepare a meal for him so that he can bless him, Rebecca steps in. She instructs Jacob to slay a kid, covers Jacob’s hairless arms with sleeves prepared from the kid’s skin so that his arms will seem as hairy as Esau’s, prepares Isaac’s favorite dish out of the kid’s meat, and sends Jacob to pretend that he was Esau in order to get his father to bless him. In one go, Rebecca and Jacob deceive the dying Isaac and cheat Esau out of his rightful inheritance. The divine plan was secured, but at what price?

* * *

The Mahabharata, the epic Indian story about the battle between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, has similar elements. The two clans are cousins, and both are related to Krishna. Just as Rebecca is said to be an embodiment of the Shekhinah, so Krishna is the embodiment of the god Vishnu. And just as Rebecca is supposed to be impartial to both her children but is rooting for Jacob, since she recognizes what the right order of things should be, so Krishna is supposed to be impartial to the warring parties but is really rooting for the Pandavas, the underdogs who were robbed of their kingdom by the bully Kauravas. The Pandavas’ attempt to restore their kingdom, which is their birthright, mirrors Jacob’s attempt to assume seniority which, according to the Midrash, was always supposed to be his.

The Mahabharata’s main topic is morality and righteousness, yet it is Krishna who leads the Pandavas to a victory by repeatedly suggesting that they break the codes of moral conduct. For example, in the last mace battle between Duryodhana, the Kauravas king, and Bhima, the inordinately strong Pandava warrior, which drags on without a clear winner, Krishna gives Bhima an indirect hint to hit Doryodhana in the legs, a big no-no in mace fights. Bhima takes the hint, and the battle is over.

The moral of this, and countless other stories in the Mahabharata, is that morality is subtle and nuanced, and that sometimes one has to do the lesser of two evils in order to secure the highest good. Yet in both stories, the Jacob/Esau story and the Mahabharata, such acts of deception lead to suffering, which the heroes have to bear.

One is reminded of Lincoln, who was known by all as Honest Abe. Lincoln did not hesitate to compromise his righteousness and reputation and engage in political trickery and horse trading when a greater goal, the abolition of slavery, was at stake.

* * *

Notice that Isaac’s blessing to Jacob is not a spiritual blessing, but a worldly one:

רְאֵה רֵיחַ בְּנִי כְּרֵיחַ שָׂדֶה אֲשֶׁר בֵּרְכוֹ יְהוָה: וְיִתֶּן לְךָ הָאֱלֹהִים מִטַּל הַשָּׁמַיִם וּמִשְׁמַנֵּי הָאָרֶץ וְרֹב דָּגָן וְתִירֹשׁ: יַעַבְדוּךָ עַמִּים וְיִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לְךָ לְאֻמִּים הֱוֵה גְבִיר לְאַחֶיךָ וְיִשְׁתַּחֲוּוּ לְךָ בְּנֵי אִמֶּךָ אֹרְרֶיךָ אָרוּר וּמְבָרְכֶיךָ בָּרוּךְ.
“Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field that Y-H-V-H has blessed. May God give you of the dew of heaven, and of the fatness of the earth, and plenty of grain and wine. Let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may your mother’s sons bow down to you. Cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed be everyone who blesses you!” )Genesis 27:27-29)

This was the blessing that Isaac intended for Esau. According to Hassidic rabbi Elimelekh of Lizhensk, Isaac had also prepared a blessing for Jacob, which was all about the spiritual realm. So why was Rebecca so eager for Jacob to receive the blessing due to Esau? Because from the point of view of the divine plan, if the hunter impulse within us rules our relationship with matter, it is a disaster. In that case, the purpose of material creation, i.e., to reflect the unity of God, would never be accomplished.

Furthermore, Jacob remaining in the spiritual realm would mean relegating the spiritual impulse to a transcendental status, beyond the world. But Jewish spirituality is not world negative. It has no monastic tradition. It does not seek to deny the world but to embrace it and transmute it, so that every fiber of multiplicity and diversity exudes the fragrance of oneness.

Jacob receiving the blessing meant for Esau allows spirituality to move into the driver’s seat, fulfilling the purpose of creation.

Copyright © 2014 Igal Harmelin-Moria
(Copyright does not pertain to illustrations)