Celebrating the Spiritual Levels of Torah

Torah Portion for the week of Nov. 16 - 22: Toledot

(Genesis 25:19 - 28:9)

Just a story of deceit?

The Book of Genesis portrays perpetual dramas reflecting our outer as well as our inner life. The formative generations of what would become the Jewish People provide glimpses not only into the nature of an ancient tribal system, but also into the nature of human being itself.

The sons of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are most responsible for driving the unfolding of our People. But they were not, as would be expected in that tribal society, the first-born. In this parashah, the eldest of Isaac and Rebekah's twin sons, Esau, is not the one who receives the choicest blessing. Rebekah makes sure that Jacob receives that blessing, to fulfill the prophecy she received during her difficult pregnancy.

And the Eternal One said to her, Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples shall be separated from your bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger. (25:25)

When, years later, Rebekah overheard her husband, Isaac, tell Esau to kill a deer and cook Isaac's favorite stew, so that Isaac could eat and bless Esau, she acted in service to the prophecy she had received. She convinced Jacob to masquerade as Esau, bringing stew she would make, and receiving the blessing.

Isaac may have been blind, but it seems that he did realize what was happening. He appears fooled by the goat skins that Rebekah put on Jacob's arms and hands, but he is not fooled by the voice.

"The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau." (27:22)

Is this just a story of deceit? Or does Isaac really know that it is Jacob he is blessing? Does he know that a switch has been made? Has Rebekah pulled one over on Isaac, or has she prevented him from blessing the wrong son first? But if Jacob was really meant to have the blessing, was this deception or fulfillment? Such questions have inspired commentators through the centuries.

As the drama unfolds, it becomes clear that the characteristics of Jacob are those that expanded in the evolution of the Jewish character.

And the boys grew; and Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field; and Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. (25:27)

One suspects that choice away from physical power reflects the attempt to tame the animal nature living within each of us. This predilection toward intellectual development over physical strength is echoed throughout ancient Jewish history, and reflected in the lives of the majority of Jews through the Middle Ages and even into the modern period.

The battle of intellect and body

So we Jews have developed as a relatively heady People, a People of the Book(s), whether those books be spiritual, literary, philosophical, psychological, medical, or financial. For reasons both within our own communities and within our host communities over the ages, we were usually prohibited from owning and farming land. Instead, we stepped into occupations generally looked down upon by the Christian sensibility of the time, like money-lending and banking. The fact that Jews were, along with priests, the only literate people, made them a fit for those professions.

But one of the consequences of this developmental stream has been the relative vulnerability of Jewish communities to violent eruptions from neighboring cultures. Of course, the fact that Jews were minorities within those host countries also increased our inability to adequately defend ourselves.

On the surface, the conflict between Jacob and Esau is the battle of the intellect versus the body. The intellect, the less physical son, wins this first round, but each son, in fact, receives a blessing from their father. Jacob's blessing, though, names him as the one through whom the line will continue.

Let people serve you, and nations bow down to you; be lord over your brothers, and let your mother's sons bow down to you; cursed be every one who curses you, and blessed be he who blesses you. (27:29)

Esau, distraught that the first blessing went to Jacob, asks for his own blessing. The one he receives is actually more in keeping with his personality.

And Isaac his father answered and said to him, Behold, your dwelling shall be the fatness of the earth, and of the dew of heaven from above; by your sword shall you live, and shall serve your brother; and it shall come to pass when you shall have the dominion, that you shall break his yoke from off your neck. (27:39, 40)

Both brothers are blessed to pursue their own way in their world, and each will be successful in their pursuits. Some 20 years after the blessing episode, the fraternal twins meet when Jacob crosses the Jordan to enter Esau's territory. Esau has, in fact, broken the yoke, and has established his own people and his own power.

Would that the reunion of Jacob and Esau could have sparked a blending of the people of the field and those who would later be called the People of the Book. Would that their reunion had brought them together in the space of the heart -- that place where head and body can be held as one.

A matter of identity

The conflict between Jacob and Esau reflect an imbalance that exists in our culture even today. We tend to identify more with the peaceful persons or with the warriors; we are the gun-owners or we are the ones attempting to limit gun use. The dilemma continues, pitting person against person and people against people.

And when we look into deeper levels, we find that those ancient twins reflect the competing urges within each and every one of us. There is the soft and the hard, the fighter and the peacemaker. It's not simply a matter of profession or experience, it's a matter of identity. And, internally, these two forces are rarely in balance.

Perhaps each of us can relate to this imbalance within ourselves. Some of us feel more confident of our physical strength and others of us are more sure of our intellectual capacities. To the extent that we are imbalanced, we perpetuate the dilemma of those ancient twins, Esau and Jacob.

Our spiritual traditions direct us toward the more inclusive identity within each of us that contains the opposites that otherwise polarize us internally. When we are caught up in our personality identity, we must always choose one side or the other within ourselves and within our world. Our more inclusive identity allows us to contain both the Esau and the Jacob, and allows our birthright to be a synthesis of body and of mind.

Our challenge is to awaken to this fuller identity. Only then can we fully embrace the polarities within ourselves. Perhaps, when we do so, we become heir to the blessings of both Esau and Jacob, able to fully appreciate the reality of each within ourselves. And in our internal integration, we are finally able to realize the Way of the Heart, the Way of Love that confirms our wholeness.

Focus Phrases

I rejoice in the physical vitality of my body.
I am always learning.
I am whole and complete now.

Writing Prompts

I feel best physically when. . .
My learning serves me best when. . .
If my physical and intellectual life were balanced, I would. . .

“Torah is the book with no end, supporting our understanding of what it means to be a vehicle for the Spirit of Creation.”

Photo: Mark Reden