Parashat Toldot 5767 (on blessings and encountering the other)

Devar Torah given at Bet Kenesset Masorti Raanana

Even before they are born, the rabbinic tradition has already classified Yaakov – who eventually becomes Yisrael, patriarch of the Jewish people, and Esav – who is to become the grandfather of Amalek. The midrash describes them as already set in their tendencies. Near the beginning of our parsha, the restlessness of the unborn twins troubles Rivka (Gen. 25:22). In this verse Rashi explains the unusual word: וַיִּתְרֹצֲצוּ:

לשון ריצה, כשהיתה עוברת על פתחי תורה של שם ועבר יעקב רץ ומפרכס לצאת, עוברת על פתחי עבודה זרה עשו מפרכס לצאת
This is from the word for running (ritza), because when she passed by the doors of the place where Shem and Ever studied Torah, Yaakov would push to leave the womb; when she walked past the doors of a place of idolatry, Esav would push to leave the womb.

The characterisation of Esav in this and other midrashim, as the paradigm of evil seems to me to be constructed by the later tradition, but what about his twin Yaakov? Is he a paradigm of good in the Torah? In this parshah, we – somewhat ashamedly – read of the actions of יעקוב אבינו as he coerces his brother Esav to sell him the birthright of the first born son, and as he tricks his father into giving him Esav’s blessing. Despite these actions, will he at some point grow out of this greedy behaviour and become a worthy leader?

Even years later, after his “character-building” experiences working for Lavan, Yaakov still seems not to be exhibiting model behaviour during his famous wrestling match with the angel. When the angel asks to be released, how does Jacob respond?

I will not let you go unless you bless me.” (Gen 32:27)

Here again, he is seen trying acquire a brakha for himself at the expense of others.

The next morning, he meets with Esav who he hasn’t seen for over twenty years. They have not met since Yaakov was sent away to protect him from Esav after he stole his brakha. After Esav has greeted him affectionately, he finally seems to have transformed his attitude vis-à-vis brakhot. Esav had refused the gifts that Yaakov had sent him earlier, but Yaakov insists, saying:
קַח נָא אֶת בִּרְכָתִי אֲשֶׁר הֻבָאת לָךְ
Please take my “brakha” that I have brought for you.

Most translations and commentators understand this “brakha” as a simple reference to these gifts, which consist of a substantial amount of livestock. However, the midrash sekhel tov, a 14thCentury compilation, explains this as follows:

את ברכתי. כלומר זה הוא לך תחת הברכה שלקחתי ממך
My blessing – as if to say, this is for you, in place of the blessing that I took from you.

The gift, according to this understanding, is no longer intended as an offering to placate the rage of an angry and potentially violent Esav. – It is no longer about Esav’s behaviour. Rather, Yaakov has realised that hehas to make up for his behaviour in our parsha, when hestole Esav’s brakha. Perhaps this is the reason that this time, Esav accepts Yaakov’s gift. Finally Yaakov realises that he must take responsibility for his actions, and that his priority should be giving brakhot – as he does to all all his sons at the end of Sefer Bereshit – rather than accumulating them! Unfortunately, Yaakov does not reach this realisation until this very late stage in the story – and perhaps he was only prompted to this by Esav receiving him in a favourable manner. Why did it take Yaakov so long?

In the passages leading up to the reunion, Yaakov divides his family and possessions into camps, sends these offerings, prays to God, and generally seems to get very worried about what Esavmight do to him when they meet. That is to say, he doesn’t know what Esav is going to do. And neither do we. Yaakov – Yisrael – is the subject of this story – our story, and we hear nothing about Esav from the time that Yaakov leaves Be’eer Sheva until now. Yaakov is so concerned about Esav’s reaction that he does not work out what he himself should be doing until too late – in fact until Esavhas taken it upon himself to repair their relationship with his trademark emotional outpouring.

Every day we are in the position of Yaakov, dealing with the “other”, and we can never know how they will react to us, and what they will decide to do. Often, we act in the same way that Yaakov does – we spend our energies and thoughts worrying about what “they” will do. And in doing so, we fall into Yaakov’s trap – we fail to stop and consider what we must do to live responsibly. In our interpersonal and national lives, we must shake off the paralysis caused by anxiety about the unknowable and accept responsibility for our own actions, past present and future.

Shabbat Shalom

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