This week’s parshah is Toldot, which literally means “descendants,” though I’m interpreting that as lineage. Once again we’re faced with a story of two brothers. More on that in a minute. For me this parshah rests on two axes, identity and free will: who you are and how you act.
Here’s some highlights: Isaac and Rebecca travel because of famine. For fear of being killed, he lies about being married to her. He reopens the wells dug by Abraham and digs new ones; later, he goes blind. After many childless years, Rebecca has a tough pregnancy. HaShem tells her there are two nations in her womb, and that the younger brother will prevail over the elder. Esau’s born first and is preferred by Isaac. Jacob, Rebecca’s favorite, comes out clutching Esau’s heel. Esau’s a hunter; Jacob a scholar. Esau comes home hungry and sells Jacob his birthright as firstborn for a pot of lentils. Rebecca disguises Jacob as Esau to receive Isaac’s blessing. Isaac predicts Jacob will eventually falter and forfeit his supremacy. Jacobs flees and goes to find a wife.
The story feels more personal than the little we know of Isaac and Ishmael. But again a younger becomes our patriarch, and an elder, cast out, will beget enemies of the future Isrealites. The story mirrors the two goats we heard about on the High Holidays: one elevated for dedication to HaShem; the other sent into the wilderness bearing our sins.
I began writing this dvar during Yom Kippur. As we stood pounding our breasts and chanting the vidui, I couldn’t help thinking about Jacob. He lies and cheats and steals. So why do we honor him? Midrash often justifies it as prophecy fulfilled. History needing a nudge. “Abraham, Isaac, Jacob” clicking into place with the satisfying rightness of well-stacked wood. Everything’s now lined up.
That’s the historical interpretation. I’m more interested in psychology. Each character an archetype reflecting back our flawed humanity. Each with strengths and goodness. Each with weaknesses, and so hungry for something they’re willing to act badly to get it.
Everyone’s guilty of moral cowardice. Isaac denying Rebecca to save his life. Esau trading his destiny for food. Rebecca and Jacob conspiring to con the blessing out of Isaac. Not a collection of superheroes DC or Marvel might extol. No one remotely close to our idea of a tzaddik. Instead, they wear our shadow self. The “other” we were too often raised to look down upon. Doing whatever seems crucial in the moment.
Heads up: fear, greed, lust, and ambition often wear the cloak of urgent necessity. Scary thought, but too often true. Lentils, Now! – or more likely Chocolate, now! — too often trumps goodness or wisdom.
In the mirror of Toldot, their moral elasticity reflects our own. So we’re asked to extend to them the same grace we give ourselves. Because, on any given day, what might we do for our lentils?
Esau’s seeming indifference to future authority pales in comparison to Jacob’s ambition. We’re taught to value brains. To be winners. But Jacob’s not kind or compassionate, also Jewish values. He doesn’t offer his hungry brother the food; he demands a reward.
The Buddhists have it right: life’s too often about desire and what we’ll do to satisfy it. Lentils, now! Pay me, now! Me me me, now now now. Too many days when your hunger for something is so great you do things you’ll need to atone for later.
My favorite of the chants in the vidui is Kishinu oref – we have kept ourselves from change. Year after year. The specifics of our sins may change, but we keep on committing them. Obstinately and consistently feeding our desires.
What does it take to become holier, to finally get these lessons right?
There’s a great below-the-line passage in the siddur: When we forget our names we become part of God’s name. We have to get past all our smaller identities and too small desires. We need to get to the larger whole. I’ll pick Jacob over Esau every day of the week. But if we all lied and cheated and stole for what we wanted, we’d be a pretty lousy holy people.
We’re supposed to aim higher, set a better example by our lives. Yitz talks about how each religion brings something to the table. How Judaism’s not just about theoretical righteousness, but about living day-to-day goodness. Working to make the world a better and more just place. Tikkun olam, repairing and healing a broken world.
We weave our lineage together. Each of us brings something special to the table, a unique contribution to our collective awareness. As you work on self-betterment, the whole place improves. If you screw up, things stay stuck.
So how do we decide what’s right? In any given moment, how do we choose? How do we help the lineage we’re creating? It’s not linear or easy. But every choice matters. They form patterns and the patterns form new realities.
I often say studying calculus helped frame my metaphysics. (Wait. Give me one paragraph.) The basic bell curve is a picture, a line drawn through a cloud of dots, data. Each dot represents a fact, a decision, or an event, something that you can observe and measure. The line represents two powerful ideas. That the curve extends infinitely into either direction. Translation, anything’s possible. And that the distance between any two adjacent points on the line becomes less and less, until they touch. Translation: anything that can happen, eventually will. Each event is part of the fabric of the curve.
That curve is the lineage of our collective geneology. A line of descendants stretching back through Jacob all the way to Adam. And forward, from us to our own descendants.
Correctly interpreting political tea leaves in Germany saved those of my family who escaped before the Holocaust. My father’s parents were two hours into Brazilian waters when World War II began. Their desire for survival meant me standing here.
My godson woke up on Sept 11th and said, I’ve been to two of these World Trade Center breakfasts already. I’m skipping this one. He stayed in bed with the woman who’s now the mother of my grandchildren. It wasn’t intellect that kept him alive. Probably more like desire.
It’s on such slim margins that our lives evolve. The phone call missed or answered. The turn made right instead of left. The knowing we hear and listen to, even if we can’t say why.
We justify Rebecca’s role as helping prophecy become manifest. But hearing directly from HaShem is pretty rare these days. Without a script, we wrestle with the same problems as these folks: survival, hunger, sibling rivalry, ambition. Often perceived necessity is all you feel you have to go by. We’re left to discern whether it’s our inner voice we’re listening to, or our hungry shadow self.
Some decisions might change your destiny or that of others. My unholy trio is time, food, and money, which might seem like simple or obvious choices. But there’s many moral and ethical issues buried in these, and in every action we take. And unintended consequences even when we think we know what we’re doing. Perhaps especially then. What if a dollar sent to Israel helps kills a Palestinian child? Or a dollar not given means Jerusalem is lost again? How do you choose?
If we’d been the children of Esau, would we be children of a different God? According to Torah, HaShem chose Jacob as our patriarch. As it unrolls, his story will demonstrate that people can learn and change. That wrestling with these issues can eventually knock some wisdom into us, can help us create new and better identities.
The story keeps spawning more lineages. All from an alphabet that begins without sound and a creation that comes from a void. We live in a universe continually spawning possibilities. Hopefully better and more righteous ones.
Scientists recently discovered a gigantic new galaxy they’re calling the Phoenix Galaxy. It’s 2.5 quadrillion — repeat 2.5 quadrillion — times bigger than our sun. It spins out 750 stars the size of our sun every year. That’s huge even in astronomical terms. It’s setting inter-galactic records for new possible lineages.
We’re phoenixes too. Rising from the ashes of our mistakes and misdeeds, last year’s and yesterday’s. Creating new universes every day with our choices. The good and the bad. The seemingly random and utterly calculated. Driven by ambition, by lentils, by blindness on the one hand, and by the hope on the other that HaShem’s wind is at our back, blowing our holy spark into a holy fire.
This parshah brings our best and worst to the table. It teaches that every moment is an active choice, a missed opportunity or another chance to create holiness.
Just like these biblical folks and the Phoenix Galaxy, we create new possibilities every moment. Who we’re becoming and what world we’ll hand down to others. Everything we do, acts of goodness and compassion or acts of selfishness and stupidity, becomes part of our collective lineage. Forged by whatever makes or breaks our best and holiest selves.
We come here, to this place, to share space and time that motivates us to become better people. The language of prayer is a lineage that brings us to a higher standard. Words like truth, faith, goodness, trust, and righteousness are the coin of this realm. By saying them more often, and by sharing them with one another, we reaffirm our choices. We hope to become better people, even a little bit, simply by asking to be.
Toldot says: If we’re gonna listen to voices, they should be ones that elevate us. Not the ones screaming for lentils.
We should call out each day with the voice of prayer. Because that’s when we‘re truly connected with HaShem. When the distractions of desire fall away, and the truth of who we are and what we’re supposed to be and do is clear enough to hear.
So Jacob gets a pass. Rebecca gets a pass. Isaac and Esau get a pass. You and I get a pass. We’ve all been doing our best. Now we get more chances, to do better. New galaxies of possibility every day.
If you listen for HaShem’s voice, you’ll choose the right path more often. It takes an extra moment to hit the pause button, to ask your hungry belly, Can I make it just a little longer without those lentils? Not our first instinct, but our higher one.
When you hear the resonance of Yes, you’ll be well fed by the deep knowing that you’ve chosen goodness. Each good choice creates a lineage to be proud of. A healing lineage for us all. And if we are very very blessed, a lineage of shalom, of peace,
Delivered as dvar at TBI Eugene November 4, 2012