This week’s parasha recounts the life of the next person in the chain of blessing, the next ‘torch bearer’, Yitzak. His life is really uneventful compared with those who came before and those who would come after but he is, nonetheless, a very important link in the chain for it is through him that the promises continue. We read in Gen 28:3-5,
“Sojourn in this land and I will be with you and bless you, for to you and your offspring will I give all these lands, and establish the oath that I swore to your father Avraham. “I will increase your offspring like the stars of the heavens, and will give to your offspring all these lands’ and all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your offspring. Because Avraham obeyed my voice and observed My safeguards, My commandments, My decrees and My Torahs.”
The reason for the blessing is Avraham’s obedience. When Rabbi Sha’ul refers to Avraham, he always refers to Avraham’s faith, but this is not the end all. For as Ya’akov reminds us, faith without works is dead. It is in our western, Greek way of thinking that we must see faith and works as mutually exclusive, that it has to be one or the other. The truth is that they work in combination in the life of the person of G-d.
First, we must recognize that G-d’s blessings are totally His prerogative, there is nothing we can do to earn them, there is nothing that can compel G-d to give them. There is no formula, no set criteria for obtaining anything from G-d. When G-d chose to bless Avraham, it was His choice, He was not compelled to do so just because Avraham was obedient. Our salvation is the same way. We cannot earn it, there is nothing we can do to obtain G-d’s mercy. It is a free gift.
But our obedience to G-d’s will and Torah is crucial. It was because Avraham obeyed G-d, because he was a righteous man, because he listened when G-d told him to leave his country, that he was chosen for blessing. He put himself, through his obedience, in a position to receive the unmerited blessing of G-d. Israel is the same way, when they are obedient to G-d, they place themselves in a position to receive His blessings, materially and spiritually.
Our lives are similar. We cannot choose to know G-d as we do, it was He who chose us, to have us born where we were, to bring people or literature into our lives that would bring us to the point where we would understand. But once we are at that point, we are like Avraham at the gates of Ur or Israel at the foot of Sinai. What will we choose? Will we obey and put ourselves in a blessed position or not? And once there, will we choose to stay?
Our parasha begins with the birth of Esav and Ya’akov. Rivka, as with the other matriarchs, was barren for a time. We know that the promise of G-d to Avraham and his descendants was that they would have numerous offspring, yet Sarah, Rivka and Rachel were all barren for a time. This tells something very important. YHVH covets the prayers of the righteous, He desires our supplications so we are reminded of the One whom we depend on for everything and we raise our spiritual consciousness.
Yitzak and Rivka’s prayers resulted in a pregnancy, a very unusual pregnancy. Tradition says that when Rivka would walk past the place where Avraham and Shem taught Torah, Ya’akov would struggle within her to get out, so drawn was he to righteousness. When she would walk near a temple dedicated to idols, Esav would struggle within her. She did not understand the struggle and needed to know first, that it was not her sin that produced such a reaction, and second, what was. So she went and inquired of YHVH. And her answer was that two nations were within her, they will be separated and the elder will serve the younger. We know that they were chosen before they had done anything good or bad, that their own personal actions had nothing to do with this decision. What they represent, even more than the nations of Israel and Edom are two ideologies, two worldviews, one that is godly and one that is evil.
There are a couple of things that this story tells us about the relationship between these two ways of life and it is borne out in the lives the lives of Ya’akov and Esav. First of all, there will always be conflict. We see this during the pregnancy and later on in their lives when Esav vows to kill Ya’akov. The two cannot coexist for any length of time, one must ascend and the other must descend. For a while Esav ascended and Ya’akov went into exile and then Ya’akov returned wealthy and powerful and took his place as the rightful heir of the legacy of Avraham and Yitzach. The same is true of our individual lives. Holiness and sin cannot coexist within us, our lives will be patterned after one or the other. If we think we can balance the two, we are being very foolish. If we harbor sin it will grow like a cancer and eventually consume us. As the Scripture says, our sin will find us out.
Even in communities and nations, we can see this is true. Time and time again the Torah talks about removing the evil one from among us, Rav Sha’ul says the same thing. A holy community cannot exist for any length of time with evil in it’s midst. It must be removed or it will spread like cancer and overshadow the good. We must be vigilant in our pursuit of righteousness within ourselves, our communities and our nations. It is not an easy road as we know but the stakes are to high. Too often we have allowed the evil to spread without even raising our voices. We are so glad to have one more person within the community that we will tolerate destructive behavior. We tolerate evil within our nation so as not to appear bigoted and narrowminded. It is time we stood up for truth and righteousness and turned back the tide of evil. It is time to ensure that it is evil that is on the descent and righteousness that is growing and spreading within our lives and our communities. It will happen eventually, the elder will serve the younger, but that process starts with each one of us.
The birth of Yitzak’s children, Ya’akov and Esav, begin a unique chapter in the lives of the patriarchs and Ya’akov will be a central character from here to the end. Their lives are pictures of many things and their story begins with a prophesy to Rivka; ‘the elder will serve the younger’. The haftarah portion from Malachai makes the statement ‘Ya’akov I loved but Esav I hated’. Even Paul in the Ketuvim Natzarim makes a reference to these two to establish his sovereignty of choice. Why was Esav hated? The prophesy was given before they were born, before they had opportunity to be good or bad. What made Esav the villain?
Esav did not have the character necessary to continue the clan in it’s physical or spiritual development. Two things demonstrate this to us. The first is the episode in which he sells his birthright for a bowl of soup. The birthright was his mantle of responsibility for the preservation of the clan. It was he who was to take over the patriarch’s responsibility and continue the vision. It was up to him to develop the wisdom and skills necessary to enable them to prosper. It was apparent that such things meant nothing to him. He probably didn’t even understand the power of his own words, demonstrating his shallow nature. The power of words became apparent to him when his father could no longer give him the blessing after uttering it to Ya’akov, even under false pretenses.
The second was his choice of occupation. Esav was a man of the field, his profession was that of a farmer and a hunter. Ya’akov was a man who spent his time among the tents, he was a shepherd. He was a nomad. The same was true of Cayin and Avel. Avel’s lifestyle, like Ya’akov’s, was acceptable therefore their offerings were acceptable. Cayin and Esav chose lifestyles that developed characteristics that were in opposition to the will and plan of God. What is wrong with becoming a farmer, you ask? Nothing. It is not the occupation itself. After all even Yitzak planted crops on occasion. It is the sedentary lifestyle of farming that creates the problem. Once a person is in one place, attached to the land, he will, if not very careful, start to develop characteristics like selfishness brought about by being concerned with ‘things’. Nomads can’t accumulate that many ‘things’. Avraham and Yitzak were wealthy because of the size of their herds and households, not because they accumulated ‘things’. The things one accumulates in a sedentary lifestyle begin to become more and more important. As part of a consumer oriented culture, we can all relate to this. The ‘things’ and the stability of a sedentary lifestyle make us too busy to spend time with God and family and mitigate against the need for reliance on God. None of these characteristics were things appropriate to one carrying on the legacy of Avraham. Esav was not going to be the man to do it.