July 15, 2024
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If LeBron James stops playing basketball, who is he? Is what I do really who I am? And if that’s all there is to it, then what happens when I can’t “do it” anymore?

Parshat Toldot addresses this very issue. Yitzchak wants to bless his son, Esav, the elder of twins, before he dies. His wife, Rivka, overhearing Yitzchak’s request to Esav, tells Yaakov, the younger son, to disguise himself as Esav in order to fool blind old Yitzchak into giving him the blessing instead.

Yitzchak approaches his father, saying “My father,” to which Yitzchak responds: “Here I am; who are you, my son?” to which Yaakov responds: “Anochi Esav bechorecha,” I am Esav, your firstborn (Bereishit 27:18-19).

The word anochi, “I am,” is found in just a few other places in the Torah:

—After Cain kills Abel, he responds to God, “Hashomer achi anochi,” Am I my brother’s keeper? (Bereishit 4:9)

—God opens the Ten Commandments with “Anochi,” I am God… Who took you out of Egypt… (Shemot 20:2)

—In this same Parshat Toldot, Rivka is carrying a baby in her womb who is kicking to such a degree that she sensed something was wrong: “Vatomer im ken lama zeh anochi,” If so, why am I? (25:22)

The Midrash (rabbinic legend) suggests that every time Rivka walked by a house of Torah study, Yaakov began to kick, and every time she walked by a house of pagan idolatry, Esav began to kick. Rivka, not realizing she was carrying two babies, began to wonder who this baby really was and where this was coming from. The word anochi reflects the question: “Really, who am I?” Is my future in monotheistic ethics, or am I really a product of the pagan world I come from?

She discovers that there are actually two nations in her belly, and they will engage in a struggle of historical proportions, with the younger ultimately the victor. Strangely, even though her twins will be at war with each other, this somehow comforts Rivka. She is no longer confused about who she is.

Yitzchak, in response to Yaakov, says “Hineni.” Avraham said “Hineni” when faced with the test of the Binding of Yitzchak, and Moshe said “Hineni” when God sent him to return to Egypt as His messenger to set the Jewish people free.

Hineni: Here I am; a word that suggests I know exactly who I am, why I am here, and most importantly, what I have to give to the world. Perhaps Yitzchak is confronting Yaakov: “I know who I am, but do you know who you are?”

Is he Yaakov, the paragon of truth and virtue, a dweller of tents and role model of ethics? Or is he Esav, willing to deceive his own father in order to achieve what is necessary?

In order to disguise himself as Esav, Yaakov must be really confident that he knows who Yaakov really is. Otherwise, the disguise might end up becoming more of a reality than was intended.

This is the challenge of Anochi. If Cain could kill his own brother, then what does that mean about who he really is? And perhaps this is what God is saying at the beginning of the Ten Commandments. Before you develop a relationship with Me, says God, you have to know who you are. Because the first place to look for God is deep inside ourselves.

Here, at the beginning of the birth of the Jewish nation, the Torah challenges us with deciding who we really are, and how the events that shape our lives affect who we really want to be. What we do is only part of who we are; our essence is much deeper than that. And this was precisely Yaakov’s challenge.


Rabbi Binny Freedman is rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Orayta. He is a member of the Mizrachi Speakers Bureau ( www.mizrachi.org/speakers ).

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