November 4, 2021


11.5.2021 Weekly Torah Portion

Our tradition tells us that Torah, as a reflection of G!D’s love, is perfect and unblemished. It is understood that no letter – let alone any of its words – is misplaced or unneeded. Nonetheless, there are numerous episodes in this week’s parashah that make it difficult to accept Torah as perfect. The narrative forces us to confront a whole host of moral contradictions involving some of our tradition’s most highly-esteemed characters. However, by seeing them for who they are, we can also find guidance for living with greater authenticity in our own lives.

In Toledot, the narrative revolves around the life of Isaac, his wife Rebecca, and the arrival and upbringing of their twin sons, Jacob and Esau. There are problematic dynamics within this biblical family: persistent parental favoritism; Rebecca withholding a Divine prophecy from the rest of the family; Isaac deceiving the neighbors as to the nature of his marriage; Jacob acquiring the family birthright by means of exploitation; and finally, Rebecca and Jacob employing a well-coordinated con to obtain Isaac’s blessing… at Esau’s expense. They’re a mess, this family. And we know now that dysfunctional family dynamics lead to stress and unresolved issues. Growing up in this type of environment makes it difficult for children to know who they can trust and hinders their developing a healthy sense of self. As we’ll see over the next few weeks, the implications of these dysfunctions (which are connected to several previous generations) will continue to reverberate throughout the brothers’ lives and will impact their children’s children, as well.

Isaac, Rebecca, and Jacob engage in a whole host of devious and morally questionable behaviors, which strike a familiar chord with many of us who have lived amidst (and contributed to) similar types of family patterns. And since the Torah mirrors these aspects of our reality, it’s within these shards of a broken family that I find some of its wisdom.

Let’s look into the piece of pottery that is Esau: Out of all the family members, Esau is the most maligned by our tradition. The Torah describes him as brutish, unsophisticated, and impulsive; and many commentators offer an even harsher perspective on him (and his offspring), associating him with the Romans and connecting him to many of their idolatrous and indulgent ways. Despite this reputation, a deeper look reveals that Esau actually provides us with a model for upfront and transparent intentions, a model grounded in authenticity and truth. As we have learned, rather than becoming entangled in the chaos of others, by accepting the truth of what we’re going through – pain and all – we’re better able to take responsibility and choose our next right action.

When Esau sees he has been out-maneuvered, discovering that he will be unable to obtain his father’s soulful blessings, his reaction is wild and transparent. The text describes Esau as bursting out in “wild and bitter sobbing.” Notably, the wording of this “wild and bitter sobbing” is similar to the language that is used to describe the crying-out of the Israelites just prior to their liberation from enslavement. Both of these instances speak to the role that authentically crying out from a place of true distress – vulnerability and all – can have in moving us from a place of narrow stuck-ness towards a space of more expansive freedom.

Also worth noting: the story shows us that this type of crying out isn’t a “one and done” experience. The act of crying out is often only the beginning step in a journey towards liberation. In the text, despite Esau’s initial wailing, Isaac is unable to “hear” and respond to the pain of his favorite son. It isn’t until Esau is forced to further surrender, continuing to weep tears of sadness that Isaac provides a more adequate response. (More dysfunction: the Torah describes Isaac as blind, and this story leaves us imagining that his blindness is more than a physical reality. Isaac’s blindness is so entrenched that he is unable to see that Esau has opened up to him from his soul.) Granted, while there is no guarantee that others will be there to respond with openness and love when we cry out from our soul, I have learned that acknowledging my own brokenness means beginning to take part in my own redemption. Crying out like Esau – from our soul – requires a leap of faith, which helps the process further unfold.

May we all continue to learn and grow from the delicate moments of our own and other’s brokenness.

Shabbat Shalom!

Chaplain Adam Siegel