Toldot 5778
Rabbi Englander's Sermons

Shabbat Parashat Toldot 5778

In our Torah reading today, the part of the Parasha that we read out loud, we have basically two choices. The first is to talk about the circumstances surround the establishment of Be’er Sheva, which are themselves pretty interesting, involving some careful and delicate local diplomacy, water and grazing rights and the like. That you can still go to Be’er Sheva today and Ben Gurion’s vision of making the desert bloom and all that is also very cool – as is the JNF project to create a beautiful outdoor space there which will dramatically change the commonly held perspective of this often overlooked, so-called “working class city.” Never mind that the ancient Be’er Sheva was a few miles from the current site.

Or we have the extraordinary, multi-layer story of the deception of Isaac by Rebecca and Jacob. Let’s not begin by forgetting that Rebecca was pulling the strings here – Jacob’s duplicity, though he was the actor, was ordered by her. “Now my son, listen carefully as I instruct you” and “Just do as I say” are quotes taken right from Genesis 27. In fact, it is Jacob who tries to show his mother there are potential holes in her plan, but she is willing to take those risks. The questions is: why? Why does she dress her son up in animal skins, dupe her blind husband, potentially risk everything if the ruse is uncovered? There are many answers that are offered.

She had received a prophecy while she was pregnant – one people shall be mightier than the other, and the older will serve the younger. So she was doing what she needed to do to bring the prophecy about. But we also know that she loved Jacob, while Isaac loved Esau. The reasons for that are the subject of another conversation and text study, but we don’t know for sure whether her stated love for Jacob – and her likely lesser love for Esau – was a secondary or primary motivation for her as she hatched this rather elaborate ruse.

The first reason would not be too satisfactory. It is an example of something most of us reject and which we hope the Torah does as well, which is “the ends justify the means.” That is rarely used by moral people as a first line of attack or defense of actions already taken. The text itself does not immediately weigh in on whether Rebecca did well or badly. On the one hand she succeeds – Jacob gets the coveted blessing. But it is the “other hand” that the text may emphasize.

Because the next thing we hear Rebecca say is “get out of here – your brother wants to kill you.” As quickly as she executed the trickery she just as quickly had to send her beloved Jacob away. He gets a quick blessing from Isaac, and is on his way, before Esau can finish sharpening his knives or whatever. And according to the text, Rebecca and Jacob never see each other again. And that could not have been easy for her.

And Jacob’s duplicity – his participation in the scheme – seems also to be accounted for as more than just an accomplice. His sentence, as it were, is also quite harsh. His uncle Laban is about to pull a fast one on him, which I mentioned last week as something we almost joke about but which is quite a serious offense against both Jacob and Leah’s bodies, not to mention their spirits. And that is not the worst of it. He lied to his father and soon his children will lie to him. Is this your son’s coat? He was torn apart by wild beasts, Joseph is no more. And Jacob has to live with that presumed outcome for many years.

A wonderful article by a rabbi named Guy Matalon outlines the rabbinic take on Rebecca’s actions. Maybe she could have or should have made a different choice, trusted that if God’s desired outcome was that Jacob’s descendants would excel then this would happen without her having to trick Isaac. Or maybe she is the hero of the story, recognizing that from her perspective it was “now or never”. She did not hurt anyone physically the way Laban would offend Jacob, or the way Jacob’s children would inflict harm on Jacob and on Joseph. Sure Esau was angry but what was at stake was a blessing, not an injury.

Matalon presumes that the text presents these figures as fully human, making flawed human decisions, and God works on a meta-level to establish His goals for this narrative and would have almost no matter what choices the people involved made. This includes the descent into Egypt, and ultimately the redemption from slavery. It is as if a message to take away is that as long as you try, as a people and as people, to do your best to fulfill what it is God wants of you, in the long run God will not let that project fail. There will be individual hurts and disappointments, even tragedies and suffering, but – to put it bluntly – as long as people are willing to live in connection to Judaism, it is axiomatic that Judaism will not entirely perish from the earth. What Jewish choices best represent this assured future is best seen from a godly perspective that we cannot see – we can only do our best and hope it is enough, as it has been every generation up until now.

I have a slight disagreement with Rabbi Matalon (not the same as the Rabbi of BJ on the UWS). He seems to say that Rebecca “suffered” the consequences of “losing” Jacob for her acts, and perhaps she accepted that as part of her fate but she did not see that coming. I think perhaps she was so committed to helping God’s prophecy come to fruition – combining that desire with her love of Jacob – that she was willing to risk her future with him. It was an ultimate example of the truism “if you love somebody, let them go”. It would put her in line with Abraham who accepted the call to sacrifice Isaac, with parents who loaded their children onto Kindertransport trains or hid them with non-Jewish neighbors.

Wednesday night we heard another story along these same lines. Debbie Laznick, who I’ve known for years, told of when her son told her he was going to join the IDF. And she objected. But she thought about it and concluded what she knew deep down – that the entire enterprise of the state, and by extension the people, depended on people making just that choice and so she let him go. He joined the Golani brigade and on his very first day of active duty he was the victim of a car ramming at a bus stop. Thankfully his injuries healed and he is back in the IDF now as a weapons instructor. Every parent – really everyone – who comes to the realization that the steepest price of love is the possibility of loss and that the price is worth it – experiences what Abraham, Rebecca, Debbie and many more have also learned and taught by their examples. Commit to what is right, act to bring that into the world, and pray that God will bless your efforts with success. Sometimes, in ways that are obvious and other times in ways that are not, we can claim with full hearts and souls that God has done just that.

The link to Rabbi Matalon’s article: