Parashat Toldot 5782
Delivered on November 5, 2021
This week's Torah portion is a tale of twin brothers who wrestle. When Rebecca gives birth to her two sons, Esau and Jacob, their fate is made clear: they will spend their lives challenging one another for their parents' blessing and birthright. The story of Jacob and Esau is one of contest and contrasts. Contest, in that there can only be one birthright, promised to the older child and stolen by the younger. When Rebecca cries out because of the pains of carrying these two children during pregnancy, God replies that two separate nations are within her. The older shall serve the younger, assuring beyond a doubt that challenges are coming. And this story is also one of contrasts in that Esau and Jacob are very different people. Esau emerges into the world red and hairy, and Jacob is born hanging onto his brother's heal.
As the boys grow up, their character and interests emerge: "As the boys grew, Esau was an Ish Yodeah Tzaid, a skillful hunter and an Ish Sadeh, an outdoorsman. Jacob was an Ish Tam, a simple man, Yosheiv Ohalim, who stayed in the tents." The narrator describes two boys with very different lives. As an Ish Yodeah Tzaid, Esau goes off hunting, has a sense of adventure, and is willing to take risks; Jacob, as an Ish Tam, lives a simpler life. Esau is an Ish Sadeh, an outdoorsman who is more comfortable out in the open air, a biblical Davy Crockett. Jacob contrasts that as a Yosheiv Ohalim: He is an indoor kid, more comfortable with the quieter experiences close to home than his adventuring twin.
In these contrasts, we witness brothers who could not be any less alike. They are different in both character and interests. And, from an early age, they are not at ease with one another. Yet, the beauty of the story lies in their ability to wrestle with one another, to transgress one another, and later, as we'll read in the coming weeks, to reconcile as adults, moving forward in blessing.
Tradition has it that no letter in Torah is to be wasted, and meaning can be made from the most mundane sentences. Here, in describing Jacob and Esau, we are given rich soil fertile to mine for insights. The narrator's characterization of these two brothers is evocative. The two foreshadow the contrast between other nations and what we often see and esteem as the model for the Jewish man. While some nations were concerned with a warrior culture, esteeming the role of the hunter, we Jewish men have been more Yoshvei Ohalim, the indoor types interested in books and learning. Being in the Yeshiva and mastering the Talmud and debate were the character traits and vocations that the Jewish community esteemed for its men. And so, to narrow our own focus for understanding, I wonder what it means that Jacob was an Ish Tam, a simple man?
An Ish Tam is mentioned three times in the Bible. The first time here, and the other two instances in the Book of Job.There, God describes Job as an "Ish Tam v'Yashar, Y'eir Elohim v'Sar Meirah, a blameless and upright person, who fears God and shuns evil." In Hebrew, the word Ish means man, and Tam is usually translated to as simple. One possibility is that Jacob is a simpleton, making his deception of his brother that more egregious. Or, he is a man of simple needs, happy with what he had at home. Jacob has no need for incredible adventures. Were he a character in our own day and age, Ernest Hemmingway would not allure him.
Over the years, rabbis of prior generations wrestled with this same question of what it means that Jacob is an Ish Tam. This description of Jacob would become an example of what it means to be a simple person.
Samson Raphael Hirsch, the 19th Century German rabbi who many often describe as a father of Modern Orthodoxy, understands Jacob's status as an Ish Tam in that he is single-minded. He was committed to fulfilling his mission passed down from his grandfather, Abraham, to his father, Isaac, and now to him: to study and teach God's ways. Hirsch imagines Jacob as that proverbial student whose concerns are for the Heavens and for little else.
This is lacking and fails to satisfy. Jacob, too, is of this earth and later will model what it means to be a God wrestler. The question remains: What does it mean to be an Ish Tam?
Here enter the Chassidic masters.
One, the Lubliner Rabbi argues that Jacob is both a Tam and an Ish. Moreover, so are all of us. Sometimes we are Tam when we behave innocently. Sometimes we are an Ish when we act impulsively. Jacob plays both roles. He can be innocent when it is convenient, and he is impulsive when it serves him.
Though are we to believe sometimes playing the fool and sometimes acting with impulse is a model way to be?
Jacob, one of our people's forbears, the Ish Tam, is two-faced, the proverbial wolf in sheep's clothing, seemingly naive while secretly cunning. Indeed, the Lubliner is not condoning such behavior. Alternatively, he is noticing something that exists within all of us. No one is perfect. Sometimes we play the fool. Other times we manipulate, we cheat, we steal. In that way, Jacob exemplifies the imperfection of being a regular human being.
Rabbi Bunim had a different take on the same idea. The Ish Tam, the simple man, was someone who simply strove for righteousness and goodness. Of all the various good soul traits Rabbi Bunim teaches, Tzedakah, being generous is our ultimate goal and aim. The trick is knowing when and how much to give. Rabbi Bunim, like Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, sees the Ish Tam as singly minded. Though here, the Ish Tam's sights draw downward from Heaven toward others around him. The Ish Tam is concerned with giving tzedakah, spreading charity, kindness, justice, and love around to the others in his community. And the only calculation in his mind is when and how much he should be giving to others.
Rabbi Bunim's Ish Tam recognizes that life is with people. If our life is to be considered righteous, good, and blessed, then we need to share with the others among us who are in need. It is not only helping the most vulnerable among us; we all need a touch of that generosity.
And oh, how we need to be spreading generosity in our world today.
The other day, I was driving from Great Barrington to Stockbridge. In the straightaway heading into Stockbridge, a man went to pass me. He rode my tail for a while and kept flashing his brights into my rearview mirror. I was not driving slow, but I was not going fast enough to stay out of his way. As he pulled into the adjacent lane to pass me, instead of speeding by, he pulled up next to me, turned toward me, stared me down, holding up an offensive gesture. I'll let you imagine the complete picture.
Perhaps this man was running late to an appointment, and my driving was delaying him further. But I cannot think of anything that could justify his aggression. The longer the pandemic goes on, the more aggressive we are becoming. One place it has been prominent is in our airports and on airplanes. The FAA keeps track of violent incidents on planes. I was struck by a report issued this past June, which said that there have been over 2,500 incidents of unruly passengers assaulting flight attendants in the first six months of 2021. That represents a three-fold increase in hostility from last year and the year before.
Air rage, road rage: all of it is becoming too much. It is not who we are, and such behavior, we know, does not pave a path toward a fuller life. The fuller life opens up to us when we are more like Rabbi Bunim's Ish Tam, by being someone who is concerned with when and how much tzedakah to give.
Jacob--and Esau--are not perfect characters. None of our ancestors were. We do not want them to be because then that would not reflect our lived reality. We are imperfect. But we know what goodness looks like. We know what kindness sounds like. We know what generosity feels like to both give and receive. May we each commit to countering the tide of aggression found around us. Let us each be Anshei Tam, who look only to offer kindness, justice, and love readily and often. May we each choose to be insanely generous with our time, energy, and resources.