Monday, November 19, 2007

Toldot (Mitzvot)

For further teachings on this parasha, see thr archives at November 2005.

“In all Your Ways Know Him”

This week’s parasha is a particularly difficult one in which to find any mitzvot; indeed, the central moral drama of the parasha—the conflict between Yaakov and Esau, and the measures taken in that conflict—are, to put it mildly, rather problematic. Nevertheless, this is as good a time as any to mention the insight the Natziv of Volozhin (Rav Zvi Yehudah Berlin) in his work, He’emak Davar, that Bereshit is called Sefer ha-Yesharim, “The Book of the Upright,” because the patriarchs are a kind of model for proper living—and that this, ultimately, is what the Torah is all about. Torat ha-Avot, the teaching of the fathers, is not about specific laws, but about how to live in the world with decency, uprightness, etc., without formal mitzvot.

This same idea is expressed in the Hasidic notion that Yitzhak, through digging the wells (in this parasha, Gen 26:15-22), and Yaakov, in his various acts with the water trough and the sticks (with Lavan’s flock, in next week’s portion, 30:35-43) performed yihudim, united God’s name is the same way as latter-day Jews do through such mitzvah as tefillin, Shabbat and so on. This may be understood in two ways: one way, that the patriarchs were mystics, maintaining an elevated, sublime consciousness on the inner plane while engaged in mundane work-a-day activities; or, that their everyday activity in the world was itself somehow an act of worship of God; that simply being present in the world with a sense of holiness, of it being the place where God resides, in itself makes every act holy, an act of unifying God’s world. Or, in the words of Proverbs,בכל דרכיך דעה ו —“in all your ways you shall know Him” (Prov 3:9). That is, that everyday, mundane life is a field to be sanctified, not by any special ceremonies or rituals, or by transcending it through higher consciousness, but by living in it with a sense of reverence for self and others, of dignity towards one’s task as a human. (For a study of the motif of the “patriarchs keeping Torah before it was given” [Yoma 28b], through a broad sweep of the history of Jewish thought, see Arthur Green’s Devotion and Commandment)

What, then, is the religious message of Jacob’s “stealing” the birthright, and the blessing? This pertains in part to another mitzvah—the special privileges of the first born, which is a major principle of the Torah. The first of just about everything is holy: first fruits of the trees, first growth of the field, first sheering of sheep, first born of animals, of people, first year’s growth of fruit trees, etc.—all as a way of reminding of, at the crucial point of “firstness,” that everything is ultimately from God. Yet throughout the Tanakh we find the first-born rights honored more in the breach than in the fulfillment: Yitzhak, Moses, David, Levi, etc.—as if to say: what really counts in human life is character. Perhaps the reason why Yaakov’s behavior, which seems sneaky, unfair, tantamount to theft, is in fact described by the Torah, is in the putting limits on this principle.

Some Afterthoughts

1. The opening section of Toldot exemplifies a central literary characteristic of the Tanakh—namely, its generally terse and compact in it’s way of telling a story. In just 16 verses (Gen 25:19-34), we read of the transition from the history of Avraham to that of Yitzhak and his family, of Rivka’s problematic pregnancy and the events surrounding it, the birth and naming of the children, their emerging characters and the parents’ respective attitudes towards the two, and the scene of the “selling” of the birthright. This aspect is paradigmatic of the difference between the Bible and Western literature. In his study Mimesis, Erich Auerbach contrasts the narrative of the Akedah with the scene in Book 19 of Homer’s Odyssey (which is roughly contemporary to the Bible) in which Ulysses returns home and is recognized by his old nurse through a distinctive scar on his thigh. This simple event is described in leisurely fashion over hundreds of verses, with vivid descriptions of realia, flashbacks to events in the past, portrayal of emotions and thoughts of the principles, etc.—in brief, all those techniques familiar from the later tradition of European fiction. Indeed, these biblical verses themselves, retold by a modern author such as Thomas Mann in his Joseph and His Brothers, extend over dozens of pages, while the quadrilogy as whole, in covering ground that occupies a dozen or so columns in the Torah scroll, runs to over 1000 pages.

The Bible by and large relates its story in sparing language, telling what is necessary, with much understood by implication, hints, and allusions. Indeed, this is the stuff of midrash, which fills in the spaces and “lacuna” left by the scriptural text—the untold story. The Sages in fact comment about the loquacious and repetitive account in Hayyei Sarah of Eliezer’s journey to find a wife for Yitzhak, that “The mundane talk of the servants of the fathers is more precious than the laws of the children.” As if to say: the prolix style of that chapter is the “exception that proves the rule,” and demands explanation.

2. Verse 27 paints a picture of the two brothers using two descriptive phrases for each (“a man who knew the hunt, a man of the field” vs. “a simple man, who dwelt in tents”), which suffice to paint a vivid picture of the two. The next verse describes the special love (should we call it favoritism?) each parent showed to one or another: “And Yitzhak loved Esav because there was game in his mouth, but Rivkah loved Yaakov” (v. 28). Why is the symmetry broken? We are told that Yitzhak had a specific reason for loving Esau (an ulterior, material motive, that he fed him well? An admiration of his rough-hewn masculinity? A kind of yearning for that which he himself never had?), but we are not told why Rivkah specifically loved Yaakov. Was this simple mother love, or something else? A question to think about. More generally, what makes parents love some children more than others—an excessive love that they usually know to be unwise, and that often makes for trouble, sowing poisons that may bear seed even decades after their own deaths (s.v. Joseph and his brothers)?

3. Another question that just struck me this year: Why was Yaakov doing the cooking? Why did Esav come to him when he was hungry, and not to his mother? What kind of a household was this anyway?

4. The word נזיד, nazid, translated “pottage.” One of our hobbies is to check out etymologies and parallels to unusual words that we encounter in the Torah or Nakh, usually by searching BDB’s Lexicon. Aside from here, the only place where nazid appears in the story of Elisha and the band of itinerant prophets in 2 Kgs 4:38-41, who suddenly cried out “there is death in the pot” after one of them put poisonous wild gourds into the stew—until Elisha saved the day.

The root of this word is זיד, whose basic meaning as verb is “to boil, to seethe, to boil up a mess of cooked stuff.” But from this concrete usage, one also has emotional and value meanings: to behave arrogantly, to seethe with anger, to plot against others (להזיד), to act [wrongly] in deliberate, defiant fashion (בזדון). The interesting thing here is that, in general, almost every biblical Hebrew root can be traced back to a concrete image, from which more abstract ideas, emotions, attitudes, etc., are extrapolated.

5. This chapter is the first full scale, well-developed story of interpersonal conflict in an intimate family setting in the Bible. I find it interesting that, apart from the first scene, in which Yaakov “buys” the birthright for a bowl of lentil stew, the two brothers are not shown confronting one another or even meeting until two decades later! Yaakov flees post haste to Haran. The conflict is thus repressed, sublimated, exists beneath the surface (almost like a contemporary neurotic Jewish family, in which no one talks about anything dangerous or threatening!). Esav “hated Yaakov in his heart” and waited for his father to die. (But Rivka still gets wind of this wish, as we are told in 27:42. How did she find out?)


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