Last weeks portion Haye Sarah starts and ends with the deaths of Sarah and Abraham respectively. Toledot is about birth, Life, and living. Due to prior business commitments I could not get out of, I missed both the funeral and shiva calls, which also upset me greatly. This week I make my Shiva call here in my words, I dedicate this to Gary and the life he lived. If there was one thing I could most say about Gary, it’s that he thought very differently than everyone else, and it is different thinking that I wanted to talk about this week.
This week Isaac and Rebecca are childless. After some praying, Rebecca gets pregnant with twins, who won’t sit still in her womb.
22. And the children struggled together inside her; and she said, If it be so, why am I thus? And she went to inquire of the Lord. 23. (K) And the Lord 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.[Genesis 25]
After the Birth of Esau and Jacob, the two are as different as can be, each preferred by opposite parents. Once the kids are older, Esau sells his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of stew. The family then moves into Philistine territory for a while. They are eventually kicked out for Isaac trying the “sister” tactic of his father, though he gets caught when he can’t keep his hands off the lovely Rebecca. There is some trouble at the wells, and then Esau marries a few gals who stress out his parents. Finally, Isaac asks Esau to get him some venison, prepare him a meal, and then Esau will get the blessing. Rebecca helps Jacob trick his father into giving the blessing to Jacob instead of to Esau, which enrages Esau to the point he’s swearing to kill Jacob. Rebecca then makes a timely suggestion to Isaac that it is time to find a wife for Jacob among her family, so Jacob sets out toward Padan-Aram.
There is much to make of Esau and Jacob’s relationship as brothers. A rabbi friend of mine happened to mention an interesting piece in Rabbi Rami Shapiro’s blog
I have no feelings pro or con regarding Anne Rice’s books, but there was something she said in the interview that I found profoundly saddening. I can’t quote her verbatim, but if I heard her correctly she said that she came to a place in her intellectual life where she realized that she will never have the answers to her questions, but that as long as she believed God had the answers she could stop asking the questions.
I can’t imagine a life without questions. A life of answers is dull. A life without questions is dead. The irony of the world’s second most famous author of vampire stories succumbing to questionless and hence lifeless theology was lost on Ms. Rice and her interviewer. But not on me.
Life is all about asking questions. Answers are secondary. They are temporary. But only as long as we continue to ask questions.[rabbirami.blogspot.com]
Judaism is a religion not of answers but of questions. We ask a lot of questions. The word in Hebrew for commentary midrash comes from the root to seek or question. Doing a very quick, rough check there are approximately, 32,000 times in the Babylonian Talmud the words What, why or how are used. God names are approximately 7,000. We are not the people of the book, but the people of the question.
In my Shlomo’s Drash from four years ago for Toledot, I made an interesting use of Esau and Jacob:
We are all Rebecca. Jacob, who will be Israel, is our yetzer ha tov, Esau our yetzer ha-ra. Esau is a force within all of us, and like Rebecca, we feel the pain of that force. Like the passive Isaac we may find it attractive because Esau is so visibly active and outwardly strong, hunting and bringing home the venison. But like the wily Rebecca, we see that the true good is in the one who sits in quiet study.
In that piece I related the rabbinic tradition of Jacob and Esau representing two nations. Jacob, whose name will change to Israel, represents the Jewish people. Esau on the other hand will found the nation of Edom. While the Edom in the biblical text is areas to the east of Israel, the Talmud has different ideas:
The hands are the hands of Esau [Gen 27:22] this is the Government of Rome which has destroyed our House and burnt our Temple and driven us out of our land.[Gittin 7b]
Rome eventually was replaced in later generations with Christianity as the Esau symbol. In our own minds these two, Edom and Israel struggle. Jacob is our Jewish thinking, Esau our western Christian and Roman influenced thinking. Ann Rice and Rami Shapiro once again reflect that. Thing is they both have a point, both ways of struggling with existence. One starts with certainty about everything, one starts with the spice of uncertainty. Their actions are based on those assumptions.
27. And the boys grew; and Esau was a skilful hunter, a man of the field; and Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents.[Genesis 25]
Esau, being Rome, handles things like Romans. He’s a man of his weapons, of strength, and of force. He’s also a man of certainty. Questions are not his thing. He makes a decision and then does it. Note Esau’s impulsiveness trading his birthright for stew. The world of Edom is black or white, you are either hunter or prey. Esau’s grandson Amalek would be known in the bible for his people’s attention to hurting the weak. Of course one of the most notorious Amalekite of all is the genocidal Haman. Although it is not written anywhere in the text, there is a hint in “breaking the yolk” of Isaac’s fondness for him. Esau is physically strong enough to resist others. The text tells us that Isaac favored Esau for his venison. Isaac may favor Esau because if Isaac had been Esau at the Akedah, things would have gone differently. Esau believes in winning and losing, and can be a sore loser and complainer. Esau reacts to the world. He lets the world happen to him. When the world does not go his way, he can react with violence.
Jacob lives in tents. Note that the biblical text says tents and not one tent. The rabbis claim it meant he studied at two different schools, but I would go farther, based on the blessing in Deuteronomy. Isaac uses the phrase a field that the Lord has blessed.[genesis ] Deuteronomy, the only other place where a field is blessed, reads Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field [Deut. 28:3]. He moved around, and knew how to move around from place to place. He knew the city and the field and had the pragmatism of both.
In next week’s portion, although he left with nothing, we read none of the problems of surviving in the wilderness that accompanied Hagar. Indeed he finds a rock and makes himself a comfy bed. When informed of Rebecca’s plan, he rattles out a series of questions, yet in the midst of the deception and possibly found out by Isaac due to his voice, he still gets the blessing.
While Esau may be a hunter, its likely Jacob was a farmer and shepherd, and probably knew the genetics trick he pulls on Laban back in Cannan. While his brother doesn’t stop complaining, what you never hear from Jacob is blame, he just moves on and tries something else. On the other hand he has no problem bargaining with God either, even after God guarantees his safety. Jacob may not be strong physically, but he certainly was streetwise. He was proactive, not thinking in winning or losing, but in how he can improve and how he can get around the stumbling blocks of his life.
While the Esau in me would say there is only one right way to think, The Jacob in me strongly believes there are infinite. Jacob and Esau the twins struggling in the womb of the mind, providing us with many views of different thinking. Esau is in many ways Anne Rice’s perfect faith. If that perfect faith is feeding the poor there is no one who could object. If it is perfect faith to murder innocent people in a hotel, that is very disturbing. Jacob Is Rami Shapiro’s need to question. It works to bring ethics and creativity in to a situation, but it also can cause one to fall into analysis paralysis and do nothing at all. There are many ways to think, none completely bad or completely good. It requires that qualitative side of Jacob to understand this, for the quantitative Esau cannot get there. There are times that even the polarity falls short of explaining some people’s thinking.
My co worker Gary was a genius of a sort. None of what I just said describes him. As our electronics expert, he worked with me on occasion while I was trying to fix some of the computer systems in our office. He had circuit boards running around in his head. By that I mean you mention something that you want to do and he’d picture the whole board almost instantly. That is not to say he got the entire thing working right, and once he had that board in his head he’d work on making a physical one that worked to specs to the exclusion of everything else he was supposed to do. I learned early on not ask to borrow his soldering iron because he’d end up obsessing about fixing one wire or finding one plug. He’d often come by my office looking to borrow my infra red thermometer. On more than one occasion instead of checking volts or amps or ohms on equipment to diagnose it, he’d use my infra red thermometer to check the temperature of the circuit boards and connected equipment. Against any logic I could use, by looking at the temperatures he’d know what was wrong. He had his challenges in life, things that has destroyed many a human being, but he prevailed against them. Sometimes our ways of thinking clashed and it was hard to communicate, but somehow we got projects done.
I have my own way of thinking, very influenced by the Talmudic sages. In the face of the great tragedies of the destruction of the temple and the Bar Kokbah rebellion, they did not think they lost, but went about thinking differently. That way of thinking continues to this day. Note I used their thinking in this piece. It is not logical to take two verses of Torah and make a conclusion from it in Western logic. But in their minds such things were part of the fabric of the text and allowed them to come up with such ides as twenty three people need to judge a capital case. [M. Sanh 1:5]
There are many ways to think. Some add to the world, some destroy it, which makes this difficult to end this piece. As I’ve been writing this, there of course has been another example of Esau thinking at his worst. My condolences to all the families of the victims of the Mumbai terror attacks.