Toldot — 5771 — Death of a Salesman

21/12/2010 at 11:32 Leave a comment

“Death of a Salesman”

Shabbat Toldot

6 November 2010

In the high moment of personal revelation, when God reveals certain attributes to Moses, our Torah records that in addition to God existing as El Rachum v’Hanun Erech Apayim v’Rav Hesed v’Emet – God is also lo y’nakeh pokeid avon avot al banim v’al b’nei vanim al shileishim v’al ribei’im – contrasting the qualities of Compassion, Graciousness, Slow to Anger and Abundant in Kindness and Truth – standing in relief to these is the idea that God is also One who cleans us, yet does not clean completely – God is also One who visits the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the grandchildren, even unto the third and fourth generations – this is a section of God’s revelation that tellingly, is not mentioned our liturgy as we look to God for help – on Fast Days, Festivals and over and over again on Yom Kippur. In Toldot, our Torah portion that we are learning this morning, we see a similar pattern of crisis overtake Isaac and Rebecca as it once challenged Isaac’s parents, Abraham and Sarah.

 

Like Sarah, Rebecca had difficult in conceiving a child and unlike Hagar and Sarah, who delivered one child each, separately – Rebecca had two children as twins – boys who would grow apart and distant from each other, because of expectations for the family laid down at home.  One may view the relationship between Jacob and Esau as sibling rivalry, a breakdown of relationship that emanates from both boys – and too, one may see this distance and brewing animosity between the boys because of the work of the parents.

 

This chapter – Genesis 27 — confounds our sages.  It is here that the family blessing is continued – the kiss of God’s promise to the people in establishing a covenant and fashioning a distinctive relationship – our sages see this moment as the definitive moment when speaking about the continuation of the Jewish people.  This blessing, once held by Abraham and now held by Isaac, represents no less than the eternal destiny, determining the spiritual path and the development of the family, l’dor va’dor – from generation to generation.

 

And our Torah has Isaac looking to bestow this important blessing on Esau and Rebecca intercedes and puts Jacob in his older brother’s place – Jacob dresses as Esau and in a perplexing set of circumstances receives a blessing from his father that perhaps should have gone to Esau.

 

And what of the blessing, itself – how much authority was contained in it?  Our Talmud teaches that a true blessing, resembling prophecy, only rests upon someone who is in a state of joy – and Isaac is shown to be suspicious about Jacob’s identity when giving his blessing to Jacob – and certainly when he gives the second blessing to Esau, Isaac is shown to be agitated and confused – certainly not ideal attributes to bestow a blessing of such magnitude.

 

Yet, are these two blessing as significant as our tradition imagines them to be?  Also within our tradition is the penetrating commentary of Ibn Ezra, a 12th century sage, who challenges the supposition that these blessings were a form of prophecy – he states that if they were on such a scale, how could Isaac not know whom he was blessing?  Also, Ibn Ezra discusses a crucial part of any blessing – which is kavanah – or intention – he also writes, of what force did Isaac’s blessing have for Jacob, if Isaac thought he was Esau and had him in mind at the time?

 

And contrary to determined rabbinic commentary trying to prove otherwise, the Torah teaches us that these heartfelt blessings do not materialize, at all.  In the mystical commentary called the Zohar, we read: R. Yose b. R. Simeon asked R. Eleazar, “did you learn from your father why the blessings Isaac conferred on his Jacob were never fulfilled?”  So, what were these blessings?  Isaac himself tells them to Esau: hein g’vir samtiv lach v’et kol echav natati lo la’a’vadim v’dagan v’tirosh s’machtiv – see, I have made him a master over you, and I have given him all of his brothers for servants and I have sustained him with grain and wine.

 

Our tradition recognizes that Jacob never was a farmer, concerned with grain and wine – rather, he was a shepherd.  And too, Jacob was never master over Esau – rather when he again met Esau he “bowed low to the ground seven times until he was near his brother,” and he called his brother Esau, “my lord,” seven times.

 

Let us recognize that this episode in the Torah tells us much more about our past then about our future – because of the conflicting ambitions of the parents, the children are separated from each other and certainly harbor resentments and ill-will and anxiety and imagined battles with each other, over the years.  Their lives are significantly changed because of the schemes of the parents and we don’t hear about the parents again, until the Torah tells us that together, Esau and Jacob buried their father.  Strikingly, the Torah does not explicitly mention Rebecca’s death – the great commentator Ramban says that this is because she was buried in tragic circumstances – Isaac was enfeebled and blind and could not leave home, Jacob was absent and Esau would not come because he hated his mother for getting the blessings for Jacob – thus, our great matriarch was buried without dignity and without a minyan, by her Hittite neighbors.

 

How do we conceive of our world and how do we spoil the development of our children and our students with our own intrigues and ambitions?  This story is not as much a meditation on two brothers who grew apart – rather it demonstrates the hazards of not heeding the lessons of our parents in what to do and more importantly, what not to do as we plot our own course and struggle not to use our precious children as pawns in our objectives and in our stratagems.  If we can muster control over this, we can stand up to God’s honest portrayal over what seems to be inevitable and thus, rather than ignoring it, like our liturgy does, we can in fact, break this cheerless pattern of transmission and thus, heed perhaps the greatest lesson of the Torah – and prevail.

 

 

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Vayera — 5771 — Shalom, Shalom Vayishlach — 5771 — Might Does Not Make Right

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