Saturday, November 6, 2010
Parshat Toldot: Beyond Good and Evil
This week’s parashah/portion is Toldot (Bereshit/Genesis 25:19 – 28:9). It tells the story of the birth of the twin brothers Jacob and Esau to Isaac and Rebecca. We know that the descendents of Jacob, whose name is later changed to Israel, who are to become the Jewish people. And the Torah teaches that Esau’s children are to become the Moabites, one of Israel’s foes during the years of wandering in the desert.
The stage is set for the rivalry between two nations/brothers in this week’s parashah: “And the Eternal said to her (Rebecca), ‘Two nations are in your womb, and two kingdoms will separate from within you, and one kingdom will become mightier than the other kingdom, and the elder will serve the younger’ (Bereshit/Genesis 25:23).”
When Rebecca gives birth to her sons, we read: “And the first one emerged ruddy; he was completely like a coat of hair, and they named him Esau. And afterwards, his brother emerged, and his hand was grasping Esau's heel, and he named him Yaakov/Jacob (derived from the Hebrew word for heel) (Bereshit 25: 25-26).”
It is clear from the text that there is going to be sibling rivalry and that Jacob is to be the preferred son. However, as they grow, it is not so simple. For Esau, who is described as a hunter and man of the fields, is favored by Isaac while Jacob, for reasons not clearly stated in the Torah, is favored by Rebecca. The parashah ends with a ravenous Esau, returning from a day of hunting, agreeing to trade his birthright to his brother Jacob for a bowl of lentils.”
Throughout the Torah, even though Jacob continues to be favored because of who he is to become, Esau does not appear to be a bad person in any way. He is different than his brother Jacob, surely. And in the story above, he certainly made a rash, unwise decision, but he is kind to and beloved by his father, our patriarch, Isaac.
Nevertheless, in the rabbinic tradition Esau comes to represent, and indeed to become himself, the ultimate enemy of Jacob/Israel and his descendents. I will just cite a few examples from the commentary of Rashi (France, 11th cent.), perhaps the most well known of the rabbinic commentators.
When the text states that Esau is born “reddish” or “ruddy,” due to his red hair, Rashi simply cites an older midrash: “that is a sign that he will be a person who sheds blood (Gen. Rabbah 63:8).”
When he is described as a hunter Rashi comments: “[He knew how] to trap and to deceive his father with his mouth …(Tanhuma, Toldot 8).”
Finally, when Esau appeals to Jacob for food after returning from a day in the fields, and Jacob offers to feed him in exchange for his birthright, Esau cries out: “Behold, I am going to die; so why do I need this birthright? (Gen. 25:32). Rashi creates a lengthy dialogue between the brothers in which Jacob tells Esau that the birthright means he will be required to do service to God. The service involves numerous prohibitions and Esau and his descendents would be liable for the death penalty if they were not carried out properly. Esau then replies, “[if] I am going to die because of it…why should I want it?” He then hands over his birthright to Esau.
In reviewing these comments, we see an Esau who is murderous, deceitful and scorns his birthright. Yet, I we know that it is Jacob who will eventually deceive his own father in order to receive the blessing that is rightfully Esau’s, in addition to the birthright! And even in the midrash above, Jacob is seen as deceiving in order to get what he wants.
The not-so-subtle demonization of Esau continues through the generation as others comment on the narrative. But why? If Esau is beloved by Isaac, just as Jacob is beloved by Rachel, why can’t the rabbis portray him in a better light, just as he is in the Torah?
Rashi’s commentary above, which represents their struggle in the womb as the representing the struggle between two nations, sheds light on this. For Rashi says “they will not be equal in greatness: when one rises, the other will fall…” The rabbis relate this to historical events when Israel was powerful and when Israel was defeated. Eventually, this dichotomy reaches its peak when the rabbis begin to equate Esau with Rome, the ultimate enemy of the Jewish people and of Jewish power.
We could simply continue to look at this story as a microcosm of the eventual struggles of the People of Israel with their various enemies ending with the decimation of Judah and Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE. This is what the rabbis did. However, there is another struggle that can be read into this text.
We must remember that Jacob and Esau are twins. They are two children who are linked and dependent on one another in the womb, but who must then seek to separate and differentiate themselves once in the world. Living in the world of dichotomies, (see my commentary from October 7, 2010) the rabbis divide the two brothers into representing well and evil. They do the same with our souls. For tradition teaches that we have a yetzer ha’ra/inclination to evil and a yetzer tov/inclination to good. These two forces, like Jacob and Esau in the womb, are constantly struggling with each other. Yet, it is clear that they also need each other. For our inclination to good is spurred on by the desire to overcome the inclination to do evil. Both are necessary, both are very real and both must be kept in check. For, as with the commentary above, when one falls the other will rise.
So often, we bring suffering into our lives by rejecting the yetzer ha’ra as something about which we should be ashamed and wish to banish. And yet, it not called our “evil self” or simply “evil” within us. It is an inclination. It is the direction in which our mind goes when we feel attacked, afraid, insecure, hurt or when we feel that we are lacking something. All of these emotions can lead us to direct our heart, our souls, toward doing that which we label as evil. But that’s when our inclination to good, our yetzer tov, springs into action.
Even though I believe this represents a truth of human existence, I have really fallen into the rabbis’ dichotomous trap by using these labels. After all, what is good? What is evil? Rather than calling the inclination “evil,” I would rather look at it as the inclination to isolate and withdraw. It is the inclination that cuts us off from others and seeks to convince us that we are the only thing that matters, so we can do what we want to others. It is what the ego directs us to do.
In contrast, what we refer to as “Good” is what draws us towards others, towards a sense of connection, towards compassion and towards unity the Divine within all.
In two more weeks we will read of Jacob wrestling with a stranger (usually viewed as an angel) through the night and having his name changed to Israel, meaning “one who has struggled with the Divine.” One way to look at this is as representing the struggle that we all have between these inclinations that we judgmentally label as good and evil. It is only when we stop living in this dichotomy and realize that what we all have within an inclination life. And that this inclination manifests itself in numerous ways, which can also lead us towards struggle and conflict within ourselves and with others.
Esau and Jacob struggled within their mother’s womb to see who would emerge first, who would be the favored, the victor. Yet, regardless of who emerged first, when they entered the world neither was inherently good or bad, as Rashi and the rabbis teach. Rather, each was a tabula rasa. Each was a soul, a living being, with infinite potential, as are we all.
How their family and the world around them treated them, plus how they viewed and judged themselves, eventually created their labels. And centuries later, the rabbis continued to label them and to use them as an example of the human desire to dichotomize, to see the world as black and white, and to turn them into archetypes that reflect this skewed view through which they (we?) see the world.
So, as we continue to read the story of Jacob and Esau, let us simply look at it with equanimity. As we continue to write and read the story of our lives and our world, let us do the same. Labeling, splitting, dichotomizing does no one any good. It may be an inclination within all of us, but THAT is the inclination that we must acknowledge and then move beyond.
This part of the narrative ends with the line “…and Esau scorned his birthright (Gen. 25:34).” Perhaps that is what we all must do. We must all scorn and abandon the desire to judge and dichotomize the world. It is clearly something that has been passed down to us through the generations. Esau exchanged his birthright for physical nourishment, which could certainly seem an impulsive and rash move. Let us, instead, thoughtfully and carefully work to exchange our “birthright” of judging and splitting the world, which brings about suffering and isolation, for the spiritual nourishment that comes from realizing that the truth is much more complex and nuanced, but that it will lead us instead to joy and unity.
Posted by Rabbi Steven Nathan at 2:21 AM
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