Toldot 5780 – Loving Wisely and Our Legacy

By: James Rosenberg

Parasha Toldot is a story of unwise parental love and the tragedy. At the beginning of the story, Isaac and Rebekah spend many lonely years praying for a child, and then comes the twins – Esau and Jacob. Rebecca found that pregnancy was much harder than she had anticipated. She was in a great deal of pain and Rebecca reached out to God, “If, so, why this me”, talking about the pain of pregnancy. God told Rebecca that she was pregnant with twins, and that these children would each lead a future nation. In responding, God did not remove Rebecca’s pain but helped her to see the bigger picture by imparting significance to her suffering. God reminded her that her life – and her current pain – was a part of something larger, and this purpose gave her strength to endure.

Rebekah and Isaac’s long childlessness ought to make them particularly grateful for both of their sons. Yet, this is not the case. From the outset, the parents divide their loyalties and their love. Isaac favors Esau, his rough-and-tumble boy, the skillful hunter and family provider; “he is the man of impulse like Rambo or John Wayne”. Esau thrives on his tremendous power, his physical courage and his own inner drives.

Rebekah prefers her mild-mannered Jacob. Jacob lives with one foot in the future. Less powerful than his burly brother, Jacob compensates by using his mind and by weighing the consequences. He prefers to skip a meal if that means he will acquire the birthright of the covenant. Jacob was a dweller of tents who enjoys intellectual and spiritual pursuits.

The story of Esau and Jacob is the story of these two conflicting approaches to being human. Esau comes home after a day of hunting and he wants to eat.  Meanwhile, Jacob has prepared a pot of lentil stew.  Here, the man of action meets the man of forethought.  Acting on impulse, Esau demands to be fed.

Responding with calculation, Jacob agrees to sell his stew in exchange for Esau’s birthright. Living in the present, Esau sees no benefit in his birthright.  After all, it does not satisfy his hunger, so his parting with his birthright represents no real loss.

The rest of the Parasha is one long tale of the deceit, trickery, and misery that follows from Isaac and Rebekah’s unequal application of love.

Rebekah even connives against her blind husband. Esau is left tearfully begging his father for words of love and kindness that the old man cannot or will not bestow.Father, have you just one blessing to bestow?” By the end of the story, the family is irrevocably broken. What began with so much promise ends with alienation.

In truth, the whole Book of Genesis is the story of the disastrous consequences of treating love like a zero-sum game, a limited commodity which must be rationed out and fought over. Again and again we read about characters who struggle for limited love – Cain and Abel, Sarah and Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Leah, Joseph and his brothers. In every case, the result is violence, loss, or grief.

Genesis records the infancy of our People, when we were still young and selfish and did not know that there is always more room in an open heart.

So many issues in this Parasha. There is Avimelekh and Isaac; the King befriends Isaac, and then the King terminates the relationship because Isaac’s business had grown so large, and Avimelekh could only be friends with someone dependent on himself. Later, it becomes clear that Isaac has God’s blessing, and Avimelekh sees the possibility of benefit from a relationship with Isaac. He again approaches the Patriarch to formalize a friendship. Avimeleka is the kind of friend that the Talmudic Rabbis warned of when they said, “There are many persons who eat and drink together, yet they pierce each other with the sword of their tongues.

Imagine how devastated Isaac must have felt receiving Avimelekh’s friendship, and then later – the abrupt termination of their friendship! And, then the King wants the friendship again… WOW!

This secular notion of friendship denigrates people by viewing them as tools to be used, rather than hearts to be esteemed.  Contrast that with a lovely midrash (found in Jellinek’s Bet Ha-Midrash) that speaks of the Jewish view of friendship—one that recognizes human beings as infinitely precious, worthy of our deepest loyalty and love.

Another story…

The outcome of a war parted two friends who had previously lived in the same country….  One of them, visiting his friend by stealth, was captured and sentenced to die as a spy.  But the man implored the king who had decreed his death: “Your majesty, give me a month’s respite so I may place my affairs in order.  At the end of a month, I will return to pay the penalty.”  The king said, “Who will be your surety?” The man answered, “Call in my friend, and he will pay for my life with his, in the event I don’t return.”  To the king’s amazement, the friend accepted the condition.  On the last day when the sword was about to descend, the first friend returned and placed the sword at his own neck.  The second friend begged him, “Let me die in your place.”  The king was touched, and pardoned them both, asking them to include him as a third in their remarkable friendship.

True friendship is not a utilitarian tool—friends are not objects to be used and then abandoned when they no longer serve our needs.  A friend is a treasure to be cherished and guarded, a level of fidelity that takes constant effort: As the Yalkut understands, “it is difficult to acquire a friend.”

To offer the unconditional caring and love that one human being can bestow upon another, to see the chance to know someone else as an opportunity to witness God’s steadfast and reliable love is a great gift, both to the recipient and to the giver. Those who see friendship as a series of functional connections—to be used and then abandoned, can never know the joy, peace, and depth that comes with unconditional love.

True friendship is a form of hesed—love that need not be continually earned; it is a CARING – that is its own justification.  Only in the context of hesed, that true love between people, as well as the love of God towards humanity, can we risk exposing our souls and our hearts to each other’s insight, only then can we risk healing each other’s wounds, and only then can we, in turn, allow ourselves to be healed.

Judaism and the values it cherishes depends on precisely that kind of love and loyalty. In a society where change is so rife that it borders on the chaotic, Judaism provides a shelter in the storm. Loyalty to the practices of our sacred tradition clears a path that others have successfully trod before, and shines a light that has illuminated countless lives through the good times and the bad. Judaism teaches us, in the words of Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, “to change as little as possible, as late as possible” in order to nurture our ancient brit with God and our people’s sacred way.

This week, let us turn from the story of a broken family to the redemptive start of the month of Kislev, which culminates with the festival of Chanukah. Let us turn our attention ahead to the message of its candles: That light can be spread freely without diminishing the original light, that the shine of one candle is enhanced, not dimmed, by the brightness of its neighbor.

It is incumbent upon me to share that my inspirational guidance for today’s D’var Torah, came from the following scholars…

Rabbi Adam Greenwald

Rabbi Ilana Berenbaum Grenblat

Rabbi Bradley Artson

Thank you for your time.

I wish each of you a safe and spiritual Shabbat Shalom.