November 13-14, 2015 – 2 Kislev 5776
Annual (Genesis 25:19-28:9): Etz Hayim p. 146; Hertz p. 93
Triennial (Genesis 27:28-28:9): Etz Hayim p. 157; Hertz p. 99
Haftarah (Malakhi 1:1-2:7): Etz Hayim, p. 163; Hertz p. 102

Struggling from the Womb: Jacob, Esau and Free Will

By Esther Israel, CY Faculty

Human beings feel that they have free will. When we act, in our minds we perceive ourselves to be choosing our actions. And we imagine that others freely determine their deeds as well. When other people act in a positive manner, when they are pleasant to those around them and contribute in constructing a positive atmosphere we imagine them choosing to be good people, and when they act in more destructive manner, we think the opposite.

But we know that is an illusion. The last time you got angry at someone, did you choose to be angry? Did you say to yourself, “Now I am going to respond angrily and maybe even irrationally to a situation?” Or did you just respond that way because that’s just who you are? And the last time you fell in love, did you rationally evaluate the other person, list their positive and negative attributes and rationally decide to fall in love? Or did your heart just start beating harder every time you saw or thought about that person?

This week’s parsha, Toldot, calls the notion of free will into question. Esau and Jacob’s destinies seem to be carved out while still in their mother’s womb. While the Torah teaches only that they shall be two nations, and that the older will serve the younger, the rabbis add that their personalities were set before they were born. Every time Rebecca would pass a place of idol worship, Esau would try to break out, and Jacob would do so every time they passed a place of Torah study. This is pure biological destiny–there could not be a more similar shared environment than the womb!

But the matter becomes more complicated after their birth. The blessing is destined for Esau, and were it not for Jacob’s subtle negotiating prowess when convincing Esau to trade his birthright for lentil stew and the chicanery of Rebecca when cajoling her son into pretending he was Esau, Esau would have been blessed. The actions of Jacob and Rebecca are the mechanisms by which Jacob’s destiny is fulfilled. Without human action, the prophetic predestination would have collapsed.

In truth, the forces that shape our character are inseparably intertwined. Genetic determination plays a tremendous role in shaping our personality, as we know from the studies of identical twins separated at birth (Jacob and Esau were definitely fraternal, a fact underscored by their different appearances and manifested in their different personalities). Our environment continues to shape the contours of our identity throughout our lives. Jacob remained at home with his mother, learning how to subtly and effectively manipulate those around him, a skill he takes with him to Laban’s home. Finally, there are moments in life where we break through genetic and environmental predetermination and make free choices. Jacob’s wrestling with the angel and defeating him (in parshat Vayishlach) may be read as symbolizing the moment where he breaks out of his predetermined mold, an act that allows him to freely choose reconciliation with Esau. And in their final act together they bury their father (35:29) ultimately leaving the burdensome chains they were bound with since birth.

A Vort for Parshat Toledot

By Esther Israel, CY Faculty

Recipe – Nazid Adashim – Lentil Soup – (a la Yakov and Esau)

500 grams (or 1 lb) lentils – wash and clean well

8 cups water – boiling

large carrot – cut in big pieces

large onion, cut in half

3-4 stalks celery, cut in big pieces

1 Tablespoon ketchup

Salt and pepper to taste

For Carnivores – Salami and hotdogs cut into small pieces (the more the better)

Simmer vegetables 2-3 hours, stirring occasionally, till tender. Remove and puree in blender (with a little liquid). Return to pot, add ketchup,
S & P (and meat, if you choose); let cook a little while longer. Tastes best if cooked a day or two ahead, especially if fleishig.

* Once you taste this, you will understand why Esau was willing to trade his birthright for it.

P.S. For great Pea Soup, substitute green peas for lentils.

Table Talk

By Vered Hollander-Goldfarb, CY Faculty

The Parasha opens with Isaac but quickly moves into the lives of Jacob and Esau, his sons. By the end of this Parasha Jacob is forced to flee after receiving Isaac’s blessing for Esau under false pretenses. Here are some things to talk about:

1) Like Abraham, Isaac also seems to face some hurdles when it came to having children. Unlike his father, in whose story having children plays a central role, the issue is almost a side note in Isaac’s story. How does Isaac cope with the difficulties? How does this compare with the way(s) that Abraham dealt with them? What might explain the differences? (25:20-21, 26)

2) When Esau returns home exhausted from the outdoors and sees the stew that Jacob has prepared, he asks to be fed from ‘that red stuff’. At some point Jacob asks Esau to sell him his birth right. What do you think that the birthright included, and why did Esau not care about it even on a full stomach after the event? (25:29-34.)

*3) Looking at the Hebrew in v. 34 you will notice that the verb describing Jacob’s giving of the stew נתן is in simple past tense (not common in biblical Hebrew.) This form usually refers to an event that happened before or parallel to what is described before it. How does this affect your reading of the story?

4) Esau marries 2 local women, causing his parents grief (26:34-35). Why do you think that Rebecca and Isaac were upset by this? How does Easu try to rectify the situation later? (28:8-9) Why should this rectify the situation and do you think that he is successful?

5) Isaac decides to give a blessing to Easu before his death. Rebecca, wishing Jacob to receive the blessing, commands Jacob to follow her instructions; present his father with the delicacies that he requested and count on his blindness to cover Jacob’s real identity. Jacob’s objection; ‘my brother is hairy and I am smooth’ is quickly resolved by Rebecca with the help of some goat hides. What kind of argument could Jacob have made that would have made it difficult for Rebecca to continue with her plan? (Think about the difference between a technical and a moral reason.)

* A challenging question

PDF Toledot 5776