Parashat Toldot 5776
November 13, 2015 | Rosh Hodesh Kislev
Each time our Confirmation class meets, I start our gatherings with what I call “Highs & Lows.” This is our regular check in. It’s a chance for everyone to share something from their week, since we saw one another last. What was something great that happened? What was something that wasn’t so great? A high and a low.
I cherish this time with our students because it also gives me a glimpse into their lives and how they perceive their world. More often than not, highs have to do with achieving and striving: scoring well on a test or ranking high in a tournament. Rarely do they have to do anything with down time or quality time with family or friends. The lows that everyone shares are usually about the stressors in life: lots of tests, lots of homework, long hours in rehearsals for shows, or demanding coaches on the practice fields. What marks a high is achieving or surpassing expectations, and the lows are the barriers that keep the young people from meeting their expectations.
Sociologists have noted in the last few decades, that from my generation and younger, we are more and more focused on achievement, striving, and a focus on career, over the softer sides of life; namely relationships, family, or community. What I see, year after year, in my Confirmation Class is consistent with those observations. We measure success by grades and by goals, and less by values and virtues.
This time of year, when I ask our students how they are doing, and what’s going on, our seniors are appropriately caught up in college applications. While managing their regular course load, they are also writing essays, taking APs, and monitoring deadlines. The stress level is higher than normal. A number of times, I’ve been asked to write recommendations for some college applicants. I always ask them to supply me with a resume. Reading over their resumes, I get a picture of my students that shows just how “well-rounded” they are.
A few years ago, I wrote a recommendation for one young woman who was on a varsity hockey team, on a private club hockey team, on the lighting and design staff for the school’s musical, in student government, and taking all honors classes. She was also in my confirmation class once per week. Each time I saw her, she told me about how she was on the ice at 6:00 AM, and often did not get home at the end of the day until 10:00 PM. But she did not need to outline her day for me; the dark circles under her eyes told it all.
She ended up getting into an ivy league school, and she is doing great. However, I always wonder about her happiness. I wonder about her contentment with life. I worry that she is running a race to nowhere. Toward what end does she strive to be “well-rounded”?
We have become a community who pushes its children to be all things, and labels them as diminished when they are not. We esteem the generalist over the specialist. I wonder if that is the best approach.
This week’s Torah portion, Toldot, sheds some light on this question. In this week’s parasha we meet Jacob and Esau, the twins who quarrel with one another from the womb and well into the world. After having wrestled in the womb, after Jacob grabbed onto his brother’s heal as Rebecca gave birth to them both, the differences between the two boys could not be more apparent. Esau was red and hairy; Jacob not.
Esau was Ish sadeh, a man of the field. He was a skillful hunter, the outdoors sort. Like a character from the Breakfast Club, I picture the well-toned jock, the one who seems able and capable in the world. Our text tells us that Jacob was Ish tam, ish yoshev o’halim, a mild man, a man who would stay at home. Jacob was the studious, indoor-kid.
One day, after having been out on the hunt, Esau comes in to find Jacob cooking a lentil stew. Famished, he asks his brother for a bowl of the red stuff. Jacob will only give it to him at the cost of Esau’s b’chorah, his birthright. “What good is my birthright if I’m going to die!” Esau says to his brother. They swear to one another, and the birthright is transferred from Esau to Jacob, and the bowl of stew is passed from Jacob to Esau.
Much as been made of this moment. How could it be that something as precious as the first-born rights were sworn over and sold for simply a bowl of stew? Our ancient Rabbis establish that Esau and Jacob were still boys when this transaction takes place. This was not a sophisticated theft, plotted and planned. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes in his commentary that this exchange was mere child’s play. Both Esau and Jacob grow to have their own successes. They are not all things to all people, they are not all things to their parents. But they are both, in their own right, successes. Esau becomes the father of his own tribe, amassing great material wealth. When he transferred his birthright, he did not relinquishing his ability for material gain. Likewise, we know from later parshiot that Jacob, in gaining the birthright, does not gain great wealth. The birthright was spiritual in nature. The birthright was the spiritual potential passed down across the generations of our ancestors. In that moment, Esau lost the opportunity to be a spiritual father, and instead, gave it to the man who would become Israel.
What a striking difference in personality. Esau is a man who lives in the here and now, and who becomes a wealthy nation. Jacob becomes the spiritual father of the Jewish people, the one who wrestles with God. Ish Sadeh v’isa Tam, the outdoorsman and the mild man are two different modes, two different ways of being. One Chasidic Master teaches that Esau represents olam ha-zeh, the corporeal world, and that Jacob represents olam ha-bah, the spiritual realm. This dichotomy challenges us to inquire: into which category do we fall? Am I all about the material world? Am I a spiritual being? Or, do I grapple with how to be both?
In truth, we live our lives somewhere in the grey space, somewhere in between. We are both Esau and Jacob.
If the two brothers represent a spectrum, how are we to find a balance? There are stories that tell of the imbalance, certainly. Remember Sherman McCoy, the Master of the Universe in Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, or Gordon Gekko proclaiming “Greed is good!”, or Jordan Belfort, the main character in Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street, who all about hedonism in the materialistic world. In our market-based society, how much of our time do we spend worrying about material wealth? Such is the world of Esau.
Conversely, being entirely Jacob does not present a perfect picture, either. In an article titled “Spirituality and Danger,” Rabbi Michael Chernick highlights the lives of Menachem Mendel of Kotsk and the Bratslaver Rebbe. “The first spent practically the last twenty years of his life under his own lock-and-key…. The Bratslaver died in his thirties, [and many] ascribe his death to [spiritual] overexertion.” Both were dedicated to d’veikut, coming close to God. But in their spiritual pursuits, in their attempts to be one with God, they annihilated their own selves. “The search for a constant sense of oneness with the Creator, is so emotionally draining that it finally wears out the devotee both physically and mentally.”
Our community is not monastic. We are not the sorts to deny the material world, nor are we called to complete devotion of the spiritual realm. We live somewhere in between. We are both Jacob and Esau, both in this world, with real needs, that involves physical needs and wants, and in the world to come, which means pursuing our personal connections with the Divine. As young boys, Jacob and Esau are caricatures of themselves. They exemplify the poles, rather than landing somewhere on the spectrum. But as they mature, they uncover a new reality, one that shows you can find wholeness and balance in the embrace of both ends.
After Jacob wrestles with the angel, being renamed Israel, he encounters his brother after years of estrangement. It seems as if a war will be fought between these two brother. Instead, upon seeing Jacob, Esau opens his arms, and embraces him. These two brothers, two quite different men, in their adult years, having always looked to distinguish one from the other, now hold one another.
Likewise, so do we hold together the two different worlds. Likewise, so do we live both in this world and in the spiritual world. Our lineage, our people’s story, teaches us what it means to walk along shvil ha-zahav, the golden path, that there is a middle way, a balance, a sense of shalom and sh’leimut, peace and wholeness.
That shvil ha-zahav, what a beautiful vision of a life well-lived. It is measured by what we hold together, not by the aggregate of all we hold at once. It is not what we gain, but what we enjoy. Jacob and Esau, together model a balance between different modes of being. This is a message that we should be embracing. Few of us live full lives as the creative-scholar-athletes. Few of us go on to maintain lives balanced from the playing field, to the classroom, and to the art studio. Success in one of those space is significant. And in truth, trying to run around to all of those spaces just stress a person out. When we try to do everything, we find that we are not doing much at all.
I worry for our young people today who are under such pressure, who believe that any misstep on their way will spell doom for their plans in life. That is why my attitude toward all our young people is that they know that their Jewish community loves them, that they are cared for, and cared about. That when they come in the doors of their synagogue, they do not have to be on or striving or achieve, they just have to be. That is why we check in at the start of a Confirmation Class. All of this is true for adults, as well.
Jacob and Esau, together, model for us a different way of being. Not to be too focused on the corporeal world, and not to be too focused on the spiritual world, but to find balance. Likewise, we serve ourselves best, we serve our community best, and we serve the Divine best, when we are focused on that which really matters in our lives, when we stop trying to do everything, and start doing something.