Parashat Toldot Torah Reading: Genesis 25:19-28:9
The more I study Torah the more the divine source of the text proclaims itself. There is one moment in this week's Torah reading in which the Torah's insight into the human soul offers us a key to one of life's most difficult challenges . . . moving past the hurt someone has done to us.
Towards the end of the parashah, we witness a key moment towards the end of Isaac's life: the moment when he blesses his progeny and, in a sense, appoints the son who will carry the responsibility for sustaining the covenant with God. Through a ruse (justifiable or not, pre-ordained or not), the younger twin, Jacob, secures the blessing that by birth order should have come to his brother Esau. When Esau comes to his father's bedside to receive his blessing, he learns that his brother Jacob has maneuvered him out of his rightful blessing and Esau begs his father for a blessing for himself.
The words of Isaac's blessing are a bit cryptic. He begins by declaring that Esau will prosper, that he will live by his sword and that he will serve his brother until he . . . and then there's a word that is open to interpretation . . . at which point he will throw off the yoke of his brother.
One interpretation of this word is "restive" . . . when you grow restive you will throw off the yoke of your brother. Someone else interprets it as "humble". Yet another interpretation seems to be "troubled."
What impresses me about Isaac's blessing to Esau is that the yoke of Jacob, the resentment and hurt that will chain Esau to his brother in a relationship of "servitude" will be broken when something in Esau changes. When you hit bottom and are tired of carrying this weight around in your heart, Isaac seems to be saying, you'll finally be free of the yoke of your resentment.
Because our narrative follows Jacob rather than Esau, we do not meet up with Esau again until many years later (in another week's Torah reading!) when Jacob is on his way home and is anxiously protecting his family and possessions in anticipation of a reunion with an angry Esau. But when the brothers do come face to face again, we see that Esau steps forward to embrace his brother Jacob . . . Esau has achieved his father's blessing after all, has moved past the hurt Jacob saddled him with and embraces him free of the yoke of resentment.
Parashat Hayyei Sarah (Genesis 23:1 - 25:18)
Parashat Hayyei Sarah, is a parasha of transition. Each of the members of Avraham's family is transformed during the course of these few chapters: Sarah dies, Yitzhak and Rivkah meet and marry, Avraham dies, Yitzhak is acknowledged as the next in the chain of covenanted patriarchs, and Yishmael comes to bury his father and himself becomes the father of nations.
The most powerful moment of the entire parasha is contained in one verse: "His [Avraham's] sons Yitzhak and Yishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah . . . . (25:9). How significant, after all the jealousy, banishment, and competition, that these two half-brother are named in the same breath -- and come together to bury their father.
The moment is fitting tribute to Avraham -- for aside from his unshakeable faith in God, his other great attribute was as a seeker of peace and compromise. He made peace with Lot (13: 7-9). He bargained for the lives of the inhabitants of S'dom and Amorrah (18: 23-33). He made peace with Avimelech (21: 22-32). He wanted to resist sending Hagar and Yishmael into the wilderness (21:11). Aside from his successful military campaign against the kings who invaded from the east, we see Avraham as a gentle man, avoiding conflict and treasuring life.
I cannot help but sense the spirit of Avraham inspiring his two sons to seek peace themselves -- between the two of them, and in their relations with others. For all the animosity that their births and subsequent histories could have engendered, we hear of no conflict between the brothers themselves -- and according to the Torah itself, they came together in quiet dignity to bury the father who loved them both.
In these times, when peace between the children of Yitzhak and the children of Yishmael seems so tantalizingly close and then so heartbreakingly far, we should all emulate our ancestor Avraham, the seeker of peace and compromise.
The Birkat Hamazon (Blessings After Meals) is one of the most beautiful pieces of liturgy we have. We express our gratitude for the abundance of blessings God has bestowed on us -- sustenance, land, a spiritual center, hope for the future. There is a section of the Birkat Hamazon in which we ask God to provide us continued guidance, an honorable living, freedom of spirit, and ultimate deliverance. There is room here, I think, for one more request -- one that expresses the ethic demonstrated by the sons of our peace-seeking patriarch, Avraham:
Harachman, hu yashkin shalom bein b'nai Yitzhak uv'nai Yishmael.
May the Merciful One cause peace to dwell among the children of Yitzhak and the children of Yishmael.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.