"And these are the generations of Yitzchak (Isaac)… (Bereishit 25:19).
In the holy structure built by the patriarchs to reveal Hashem to the world, Avraham (Abraham) is the initial thesis: expansive energy, revelation, kindness -- chessed. Yitzchak is the antithesis: restriction, control -- gevurah, while Yaakov (Jacob), who enters the stage in our parsha, is the synthesis: balance, order, beauty -- tiferet. Yaakov, the most "perfect" (shalem) of the patriarchs, came to complete the holy House -- the House of Israel, to whom all the nations will turn at the end of history to find Hashem: "And many nations will go and say, 'Go, let us ascend to the mountain of Hashem, to the house of the God of Yaakov'" (Yeshayahu 2:3).
As thesis and antithesis, Avraham and Yitzchak represent two opposite tendencies, each of which has an extreme aspect, an aspect of excess, that must be transmuted and directed to the holy for perfect balance and harmony to reign. Thus Avraham and Yitzchak each had a "first-born" (the aspect of excess) who was rejected from the holy structure. The last section of the previous parsha, Parshat Chayey Sarah, completed the story of Avraham's "first-born", Yishmael (Ishmael), the son of Hagar, and his descendants, who embody the "excess" aspect of Avraham: religious fanaticism -- "before all his brothers he fell" (Bereishit 25:18, closing words of Parshat Chayey Sarah).
In introducing Yaakov, the perfect patriarch, our parsha, Parshat Toldot, also introduces Yaakov's challenger, his twin brother Esav (Esau), who embodies the excess aspect of Yitzchak: power and domination (gevurah) used arrogantly for the benefit of self instead of for God. The story of Esav is told partly in our parsha, left aside in next week's parsha, Parshat Vayetzei, which focuses exclusively on Yaakov, and taken up again in the following parsha, Parshat Vayishlach. There the story of Esav and his generations will be concluded with the account of the "Seven kings who ruled in Edom before a king ruled over the children of Israel" (Bereishit 36:31).
Kabbalistically, the Seven Kings who "ruled and died" represent the World of Devastation (tohu) produced by the "Breaking of the Vessels" for the purpose of bringing evil into the world. From the following parsha, Parshat Vayeshev, until the end of Bereishit, the Torah concentrates on Yaakov and his generations, who represent the World of Rectification (Tikkun), in which evil is eventually vanquished completely through the House of Israel. The vicissitudes of Joseph and his brothers are paradigmatic of the vicissitudes leading to the eventual revelation of Messiah.
Historically, the descendants of Yishmael and of Avraham's other sons from Keturah brought certain aspects of the monotheism of Avraham to many parts of the world, especially to the east and south, including the Arab lands and many parts of Africa and Asia (the descendants of Noah's son Cham), through Islam. The descendants of Esav brought other aspects of the tradition of Avraham to the north and west -- to Europe, Russia and America (descendants of Yafet) as well as many other parts of the world through Christianity. (See Rambam, Hilchot Melochim 11:4 uncensored version). Although the land given specifically to Esav is Mount Seir, which is southeast of the Land of Israel, Esav-Edom is particularly associated with Rome (see Rashi on Bereishit 36:43 and also on Bereishit 27:39). Rome put its unique stamp upon western culture and its influence is felt until today. (Thus the U.S. Senate is named after the Roman Senate.)
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"And the twins struggled within her…" (Bereishit 25:22).
The holy structure to Yaakov would build was to be constructed through struggle and effort: Yaakov's struggle is the struggle to elevate Yitzchak's power (gevurah) through its use; not for the benefit of self, but to bring the spirituality of Avraham (chessed) to rule over the fallen gevurot, the refractory material world of practical action as represented in the figure of Esav (from the Hebrew root aso, "doing"). Only through the struggle to sift and clarify truth and goodness from falsehood and evil in the real world is the light of truth revealed in all its beauty and perfection.
The history of mankind has indeed been the history of the clash of cultures and civilizations. It may appear cyclical and pointless, but as revealed in our parshah, it has a purpose and an end goal. It is to reveal God's unity out of the intergenerational war between good and evil in all shapes and forms. The struggle has been protracted and painful, just as the struggle of the twins in Rivka's womb was painful to her to the point of desperation. Yet the very pain itself forced Rivka to "go to search out Hashem" (Bereishit 45:22). Similarly, the many pains and troubles later suffered by Yaakov (as a result of the hatred and envy of Esav and Lavan and family tragedy with Dinah and Yaakov) brought him time after time to turn to God for help. The way to God's truth is indeed often painful and riddled with conflicts -- with others and within our very selves. However, it is possible to give meaning to our pain, struggle and hardship and to actually grow through them when we learn to turn our pains and trials into a springboard to seek God.
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The two twins early showed their different traits. Esav, "man of the field", took after Yitzchak, who "went out to the field" (Bereishit 24:63, last week's parshah). Esav the hunter exemplifies the extreme and unholy distortion of Yitzchak's holy gevurah. Esav is the cunning brute force of the mighty over the weak and unsuspecting (Esav wears the clothes of Nimrod.) Yaakov, on the other hand, "dwelled in tents" -- not one tent but two: the "tents" of learning of his two teachers: the tent of his grandfather Avraham, Man of Kindness (Avraham was still alive until Yaakov was 13) and the tent of Yaakov's own father Yitzchak, Man of Power. Yaakov's mission was to synthesize the two "tents" and create a "house": to combine the differing paths of the first two patriarchs (Avraham, the paradigm convert and Yitzchak, the paradigm case of one born into religion) into a unitary tradition capable of constant self-renewal. Yaakov, the tam, possessing the quality of simple honesty, sincerity and the search for truth, was able to do this. Esav was not: he knew only to ensnare -- for he himself was ensnared in the mesh of evil.
According to the Midrash, the episode of Yaakov's "purchase" of the birthright from Esav for a cup of soup took place on the day that Avraham died. Yaakov cooked the soup as the seudat havra'ah, the "meal of comfort and invigoration" prepared for the immediate mourners after the funeral. As Rashi teaches (on Bereishit 25:30), Yaakov's lentil soup was intended to convey a profound message to his father Yitzchak, who was mourning the loss of his father. "The lentil is similar to a wheel, and so too death and mourning are part of the cycle of the world." It is impossible to explain the meaning of death rationally -- the lentil "has no mouth", the mourner has nothing to say. We have no option but to accept death and mourning as an inevitable part of the cycle of destiny.
Yaakov's ability to use a material object, the lentil, to teach a spiritual lesson, is what gave him power over asiya as represented in Esav. Esav was preoccupied with the material externality of the soup. Esav, the twin brother with whom Yaakov was locked in perpetual struggle, was in and of the material world. Esav was exhausted from a day of "hunting". He was hungry. He wanted the tasty, filling soup. He had no time for spiritual meanings. Esav, locked in the time-bound material realm, knew only that he was going to die -- so eat, drink and be merry now! What need did Esav have for a spirituality that brought no immediate gratification? Esav was thus unfit for the bechora, the choice first-born portion that Yaakov "acquired" through his superior wisdom. The superior wisdom of the Torah is itself the choice portion, as indicated in the opening word of the Torah: Be-reishit, "for the sake of the first."
One of the deep mysteries of the Torah is that the natural, apparent first-born are repeatedly rejected in favor of the true, "spiritual" first-born. Cain was rejected while Abel's sacrifice was accepted. Yafet (Japheth) was made subordinate to his younger brother, Shem (Rashi on Bereishit 10:28) -- Shem and his descendants were the "high priests" who brought knowledge of Hashem to the world. Yishmael and Esav were rejected in favor of Yitzchak and Yaakov respectively. Later on, Yaakov's first-born Reuven was rejected in favor of Levi, Yehuda (Judah) and Yosef (Joseph). Ephraim was given precedence over Menashe. Kehat, the son of Levi, was given precedence over Levi's first-born, Gershon... and Moshe (Moses) attained kingship over the firstborn Aharon (Aaron), who was three years his senior. Yet, through Aharon's humble, joyous submission to his younger brother Moshe, whose spokesman he became, Aharon earned the priesthood. Through the balance between the lawgiver and the priest, the trans-generational struggle between brothers that started with Cain and Abel was brought to a satisfactory conclusion: religious service (as represented in Aharon) must be subject to religious law (Moshe). Otherwise service turns into excess.
History Repeats Itself
History repeats itself. Lessons learned by one generation are forgotten by the next and have to be relearned. Just as the generation of Avraham had been afflicted by famine, so too was the generation of Yitzchak. Just as Avraham had been forced into exile, so was Yitzchak. Avraham dwelled among the Philistines in Gerar, and so did Yitzchak.
The popular association of "philistinism" with barbarity is fitting, for the Philistines represent the very opposite of the chessed that is the driving force of the religion of Avraham. The numerical value of the Hebrew letters of PhiLiShTYM (Phe 80, Lamed 30, Shin 300, Tav 400, Yud 10, Mem 40) is 860. 86 is the numerical value of the letters of the divine name ELoKiM, alluding to gevurah, might, power, limitation and concealment. The Philistines (= 10 x 86) represent the forces of limitation and concealment in full array. In each generation their king, Avimelech (= "I want to rule") wants to steal the Shechinah (represented by Sarah and Rivkah) for his own selfish pleasure. In each generation the patriarchs had to teach the lesson that the law of God must prevail. The kidnapping of a married woman is a crime against the universal law of the children of Noah. Avraham had taught the lesson in his generation, but it had been forgotten, and it had to be taught again in the generation of Yitzchak. This is because the forces of evil constantly conceal lessons learned by earlier generations. "And all the wells that the servants of his father [Avraham] had dug, the Philistines had stopped up, and they filled them with earth." (Bereishit 26:15). The mission of the patriarchs was to uncover the waters of spirituality and bring them to the world, but the Philistines closed up the very sources of the living waters of spirituality with earthliness and gross materialism. Rashi (ad loc.) points out that the translation of the word "closed up" has the connotation of "closing up the heart" with insensitivity and foolishness. Accordingly Yitzchak had to start all over again, re-digging the very wells that Avraham had dug.
Yitzchak's very success -- which so aroused the ire and envy of the Philistines -- came about because he loyally followed in the ways of charity, generosity and kindness taught by his father Avraham (thus Rashi points out that Yitzchak was careful to assess the lands he sowed with a view to how much they could produce in tithes for charity, see Rashi on Bereishit 26:12). Yitzchak was blessed because he wanted to share his blessings. Faced with the threat of military might from the Philistines, Yitzchak's response was to call upon the name of God. Instead of fighting his enemies, Yitzchak made peace with them. He practiced the ways of peace: "And he made a feast for them and they ate and drank... and they went from him in peace" (Bereishit 26:30-31).
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God "made the earth blossom forth every kind of tree pleasant to the eye and good to eat" and bestowed rich blessings upon man to enable him to come to know and attach himself to his Maker. Adam had been tricked by the serpent -- his own pride and arrogance -- into eating of the very tree from which he was forbidden to eat, thereby separating himself from his Maker. Being too clever for his own good, man mixed up good and evil. As a result Adam's descendants were condemned to a multi-generational struggle against that selfsame serpent of pride and arrogance, struggling repeatedly through history to sort out the confusion.
The confusion was so great that the Blind Yitzchak was apparently ready to hand over the power of blessing he had received from God (Bereishit 25:11) to the seeming first-born, Esav, even though Esav was in fact the very incarnation of the serpent (see Targum on Bereishit 25:27, where "knowing hunting" is translated as nachashirchan, having the connotation of nachash, serpentine).
The ultimate joke (Yitzchak means "he will laugh") is that Yitzchak, embodiment of gevurah, is overpowered and outwitted by his wife, Rivka, who turns out to be his match in that attribute. Yitzchak's gevurah lay in the fact that he had been "born in" to the religion and brought up to a life of discipline, as symbolized in his being bound to the altar in the Akeida that left his eyes blinded by the "tears of the angels" that dropped into them at that supreme moment. Rivka's gevurah lay in the fact that even as a child, she had separated herself from the totally sinful environment in which she had been brought up -- she was the archetypal baalat teshuvah, true penitent. Thus she understood the world better than "blind" Yitzchak -- and she knew that for the good of the entire world, it was vital that the blessings should go to Yaakov. Since the serpent caused Adam's downfall by outwitting him and working on his wife, it was necessary for a woman, Rivka, to outwit the serpent in order to restore Adam, incarnated in Yaakov, to his true greatness. Thus Rivka took Esav's beautiful clothes -- which he had stolen from Nimrod, who had stolen them from Adam -- and dressed Yaakov with them.
"And [Yitzchak] smelled the scent of his clothes and he blessed him and said: See the scent of my son is as the scent of the field that Hashem has blessed. And God will give you of the dew of the heavens and from the fat of the earth and an abundance of grain and wine. The nations will serve you and the peoples will prostrate to you..." (Bereishit 27:27-8).