Toldot: The Hands of Esav

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    • Tzvi Chulsky 3 months ago

      At the surface, Yitzchak seems not to be “all there” in this week’s parashah. Few children would be successfully tricked in pitch darkness by someone wearing different clothes and the skin of a hairy animal on his hands—much less if this was somebody they knew well, pretending to be somebody else they knew well. But we know of nobody who interprets this episode by a surface reading. There are many interpretations of the episode, none claiming dementia. We would like to offer one such interpretation, from Rav Yehuda Leon Ashkenazi.

      If we go back a couple of parshiot, there is another episode that, on the surface, appears very strange[1]. Sarah hears that she will have a child and laughs that she is old and her husband is old (although for men, age is not necessarily a problem for fertility, and Sarah’s husband continues to have children after her death). God asks Avraham, not Sarah, why she is laughing as if there is something that He cannot do. Sarah becomes frightened and lies, saying she did not laugh, and God insists that no, she laughed. After being put down this way, Sarah names her son after this experience.

      This all makes much more sense when read kabbalistically. Sarah has a lot of gvurah—she is logical and pragmatic, a good counterbalance to her husband’s expansive tendencies that we call chesed. Laughter—צחוק—is a mechanism by which we acquaint ourselves with the idea of going beyond the rules of the world—צא חוק. Sarah says that her lord—which we read as God rather than her husband—is old: i.e, miracles may have been common before, but that this is an age in which we no longer see them. This is likely a feeling each of us has held at some time or another. But even as Sarah says this, she is beginning to laugh—to open up to the idea that some rules may be broken now as well. God notices this laughter and brings up to Avraham that his wife is opening up: that she is starting to see that there is nothing God cannot do. But Sarah is still afraid of opening up this way, so she denies it; and God encourages her by insisting that she is. And when she does indeed have a son, he is the fulfillment of this process of opening up, and is named after it.

      Yitzchak himself becomes an embodiment of gvurah, which is why his wife is chosen specifically for her chesed—to balance him out. And that is what we see in the episode in this week’s parashah. Yitzchak has two sons, neither of whom seems equipped to continue his mission. Esav is a man who goes out and takes on the world, the equivalent of today’s powerful man who makes very good money; Yaakov, on the other hand, is quiet, and does not seem like he would survive very well without his parents. On the other hand, Esav does not have much of a sense of the mission, as evidenced by his intermarriage, mentioned right before the episode begins[2]. Yitzchak, seeing his two options, prefers Esav for his ability to make a living[3].

      Rivka, by our definition, is out to teach Yitzchak to laugh. And she shows him a third option: somebody with the voice of Yaakov and the hands of Esav[4]. His name is Israel, and as the episode ends, Yaakov heads off to Aram to spend 20 years developing the hands of Esav so that he can return as Israel. (Esav understands that what held him back had to do with his intermarriage, but he does not fully understand why that was an issue, so he marries someone from his family in addition to the wives he already has[5].)

      Most of us face this issue at some point in our lives on an individual level. Some, at points in our lives, are successful, but do not have much purpose; others have purpose but lack the ability to succeed. Many experience both at different times. As a people—we will see this in next week’s parashah—we are Yaakov in galut, and become Israel upon our return to our land; and we see this reflected in the galut mentality of many of our institutions, where study is praiseworthy, but success outside—the hands of Esav—is not valued. Even in the land of Israel, many of our religious institutions, by inertia, have not adjusted to the new circumstances. Instead of teaching students to become like the warriors of the time of King David, students are taught to avoid the army and study. Conversely, in the army, we see the attitude of Esav, where the hands are there, but the purpose is forgotten: the ability to defeat the enemy is world-class, but Judaism is treated with hostility. To complete our return and prepare ourselves for geulah, the voice of Yaakov and the hands of Esav need to be integrated.

      When we put on tefillin in the morning, one certainly goes on the head—it is important to think and study and have the voice of Yaakov. But first, we put one on the arm, because we also need to be able to act successfully in the real world. And when we say Tehillim 149 and get to verse 6: רוממות קל בגרונם וחרב פיפיות בידם—“the praises of God are in their throats, and a double-edged sword in their hands”—let us remember to exercise our hands and our mouths in tandem, so that they may work together.

      [1] Breishit 18:12-15
      [2] 26:34
      [3] 25:28
      [4] 27:22
      [5] 28:9

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