Friday, March 31, 2023

Parshat Toldot is very perplexing: How could Esau sell his birthright for a pot of lentil stew? How could Yitzhak be oblivious to Esau’s faults? How could Yitzhak love Esau as the Torah says because the game was in his mouth? Why did Rivka resort to deception and not simply discuss matters with her husband?

The answer may lie in the verse concerning Yitzhak’s love of Esau. The verse reads: וַיֶּאֱהַב יִצְחָק אֶת עֵשָׂו כִּי צַיִד בְּפִיו וְרִבקָה אֹהֶבֶת אֶת יַעֲקֹב: The word וַיֶּאֱהַב, when read outside the context of this sentence, is read in the future tense. It is not that “Yitzhak loved or loves Esau, because game was in his mouth, but that Yitzhak will come to love him.”

Yitzhak was aware of Esau’s faults, but he also saw his potential. The phrase “game was in his mouth,” refers to food obtained by hunting and, then, quickly resting on Esau’s palate. It is the most apt metaphor to convey that, at present, Esau is far too caught up with instant gratification. Esau has no interest in the birthright, whether that birthright be physical or spiritual, for its benefits are too far in the future and thus, for now, can be put aside.

It makes sense for Esau to sell the birthright for food. Food — going back to the time of infancy — is the prime example of instant gratification. Indeed, Esau does not ask that the soup or stew be placed before him. Rather, he asks that it be poured into him, so he might gulp it down. Yitzhak believes that Esau will eventually put aside this childish desire for instant physical satisfaction, this lust for “game in the mouth,” and turn to something greater and more enduring. At that point, Avraham’s grandson will emerge and then, Yitzhak will be able to love Esau. Yitzhak was prepared to wait for that future day for that was Yitzhak’s nature.

We associate Yitzhak with the concept of gevura or strength. Yitzhak has, so to speak, staying power. He has the strength to wait things out. We see this in his interactions with the Philistines. They stop up a well, he digs a new one. They claim that well... He digs a new one. They claim that well, as well. He digs another... Yitzhak will persist; it is his nature. Yitzhak, therefore, believes that in the fullness of time, Esau will correct his behavior. In the fullness of time, Esau will come to be a true heir of Avraham. Perhaps, Yitzhak gained this perspective from the akeida and his upbringing. Yitzhak grew up in a stable prosperous home, governed by a well-respected and revered man. Yitzhak was bound and sitting on the altar about to be slaughtered when a divine messenger cried out for Avraham to stop. When a wife is needed, one is sent for, without any effort on Yitzhak’s part. Yitzhak could easily think that in all instances, given enough time all would be well.

Rivka came from a different background. Rivka was more familiar with human nature than with the actions of the divine. Yes, in the fullness of time, all would be well. In the short term, however, man can do a great deal of damage. Rivka learnt at a young age not to leave things to time. We saw this in the last parsha. When Rivka offered to water the camels of Avraham’s servant, she acted with great haste. When asked if she wanted to tarry, before leaving home to be married, she declined and set off immediately. We see her acting with haste, like in this parsha. When Rivka had concerns about her pregnancy, she set out for answers. Rivka was not prepared to wait. Rivka was not prepared to see her husband’s and her father-in-law’s legacy go to waste, or, at least, be tarnished by her elder son’s actions. Rivka needed to act.

Rivka also understood Esau, as they both were creatures of the moment. Rivka used the moment for Godly purposes, while Esau used it for the profane. Similarly, Yitzhak and Yaakov were alike, both were prepared to let matters unfold. The rabbis liken Yitzhak to a korban tamid, a perfect whole offering. Yakkov is described in similar terms, he is an אִישׁ תָּם not as some translation have it a “simple man,” but rather a complete or perfect man. Yaakov was a passive dweller in tents — similar to his father. Rivka knew that she needed to effect a change in the nature of these two righteous men. They both must be made aware of the dangers of the moment; the threat from sitting back and waiting.

To help Yaakov, she directed him towards direct action. She forced him to act at that moment. There was no time for leaden contemplation. For every objection Yaakov raised, Rivka had a response. Yitzhak needed to be shown that Hashem has left the future in our hands. It is the actions of the instant moment that direct the next moment. Yes, we can hope that Esau changes his ways and does teshuva, but we cannot rely upon it. The midrash states that when Esau entered Yitzhak’s tent after blessing Yaakov, Yitzhak saw Gehinnom before him. Upon realizing that the “wrong” son got the blessing, Yitzhak also realized that the future is not guaranteed. Yitzhak’s plans for tomorrow had been frustrated by Yaakov. Yitzhak saw that if Esau died at that moment, Esau’s fate would have been Gehinnom. We must trust in Hashem, but we cannot rely upon the miracle (Kiddushin, 39b). We must act at this moment... This was the difference between Yitzhak and Avraham.

Chesed — the trait most associated with Avraham — is immediate action. Avraham, similar to his daughter-in-law Rivka, was always rushing to act. So it should be with us, that when a mitzvah presents itself, we should perform it at that instant. We should not put it off in the hope of performing a greater mitzvah later. The service of Hashem requires we act now, not wait until tomorrow. By tomorrow, the moment may have passed; the opportunity may have withered on the vine.

The notion of something withering helps explain the prophecy that Rivka receives at the beginning of the parsha. Rivka is told that that within here are two peoples, two nations and וְרַב יַעֲבֹד צָעִיר. These Hebrew words are often translated as “the elder will serve the younger.” Although צָעִיר — “tzaear” does mean younger, רַב — “rav” does not mean older. The word “rav” is “greater,” usually in the context of numbers. Why does the Torah use this formulation? Why not the symmetry of “greater and lesser” or “older and younger,” why greater and younger?

Something young is usually vibrant, living filled with energy. Torah is living... Indeed, we call it the living Torah, the tree of life. No matter the temporal distance between now and when we stood at Sinai, we are always finding something new in the Torah. Not so other philosophies. Many “new” ideas are tired and worn out even soon after their inauguration. Nonetheless, these ideas — from avodah zara to the political and social cults of today — are worshiped and followed by the masses. The devotees of these religious, media and other popular cults far outnumber those of us who adhere to Torah. In time, however, the devotees of those cults — those descendants of Esau — will come to serve that fresh ever young idea which is Torah. May that day come quickly, speedily, soon and in our days.

William S.J. Fraenkel received a Bachelors of Arts in Religion and a law degree from NYU and served as a Board member and officer of several orthodox shuls. The opinions expressed in this dvar Torah are solely his own.

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