Torah Portion: Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9)
by Rabbi Yehoshua Berman
The third and final of the patriarchs enters onto the scene in our current parsha. Yaakov is born together with his twin brother Eisav, and we learn about Yaakov’s character right away: “Yaakov was tam, a dweller of tents (Gen. 25:27).”
For lack of a better alternative, the word tam is generally translated as meaning “simple”. Unfortunately, though, translations often fall short of conveying the true meaning of the word. Rashi explains that tam is a description of an honest, straightforward person who is not sharp at deception. It’s an emphasis on the straightforwardness and simple honesty of the person’s character. Indeed, Yaakov’s central character trait is emes, truth.
With this in mind, one cannot help but to be almost thunderstruck by a comment of Rashi in next week’s parsha. The Torah says: “Yaakov told Rachel that he is her father’s brother and that he is the son of Rivkah (29:12).” On the phrase “her father’s brother” Rashi cites our sage’s interpretation that Yaakov said to Rachel, “If it is for deception that he (Lavan) is coming then I too am ‘his brother’ in deception; and if he is an upright man then I too am the son of Rivkah, his sister who is upright.”
This concept is expressed by King David as follows: “With [a] pious [man] act piously and with [a] wholesome man act wholesomely. With [a] clean [man] act cleanly and with [a] crooked [man] act crookedly (II Shmuel, 22:26-27).” At times we must act with deception in order to protect ourselves (or others) from a deceitful person.
The difficulty that presents itself, though, is that Rashi told us that Yaakov was the type of person who is not adept in the art of cunning, so how could this concept apply to him?
In the introduction to Orchos Tzadikim, the author teaches us that character traits are like ingredients of a recipe. The secret of a gourmet chef is his expertise in knowing when to use various ingredients and in what proportion. The same is true of traits. Every situation that we go through in life has its unique recipe for success. At times the situation calls for calm and extreme patience, sometimes great boldness is called for, yet other situations call for softness, and certain situations require an external showing of anger. Depending on the given situation one has to decide which “ingredients” to use and how much of each (i.e. to what degree).
The greatness of Yaakov Avinu is that his essential personality was one of purity, wholesomeness, and simple honesty; yet, at the same time, his character didn’t control him, rather he was in control of his character. His intellect was always behind the steering wheel, directing him precisely how to behave in every situation. When confronted with a situation that required a specific mode of conduct he would proceed accordingly, even if it meant overcoming his essential nature and character.
This is a key lesson for a successful life. A person who may have a naturally meek character, for example, cannot allow that to become an excuse for failing where strength is necessary. Likewise, a person with a naturally loud, outgoing character cannot allow that to become an excuse for possibly offending people who are of a more shy and reserved nature. This idea is a theme that extends through all of one’s life, as King Solomon says in Proverbs, “Give to the wise and he will become [yet] wiser, make known to the righteous and he will add lesson[s] (Prov. 9:9).”
Of course, one is given particular characteristics and strengths in order to fulfill a certain role that is specifically suited for that nature, and one should use one’s essential character in serving Hashem. Nevertheless, we are also given character flaws, and part of our work in life is to correct them. Similarly, at times we are faced with situations that require us to override our basic character – and that is what we need to do in those situations in order to properly serve Hashem.
We need to constantly work on ourselves to refine our character with good and pure traits to the extent that they become our very nature. At the same time, though, we need to constantly keep our intellect behind the steering wheel so that we are prepared to utilize any character trait, even one that in essence is prone to the side of evil (like anger), if necessary in a given situation. To accomplish this is to become a true warrior.
As it says in Proverbs 16:32: “One who is patient is better than a mighty warrior, and greater and more powerful is the person who rules over his spirit than one who can conquer cities.”
Language of Tomorrow
Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
by Rabbi Warren Goldstein
Beginnings are definitive moments. They set the tone, the foundation for what follows. The beginnings of the Jewish people are no exception. These portions of the Torah which we are reading at the moment, from the Book of Genesis, detail the origins of the Jewish nation, telling the events of our forefathers and foremothers – Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov; Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah. These are the formative moments of our faith; the lives they lived and the ideals they upheld brought the Jewish people into being, and the values they embodied are those we still live by today.
Avraham and Sarah were the first two to reach out and connect with God. In a world filled with paganism and idolatry, they re-established the idea of monotheism, a belief in one God. They reached out to the people around them, spread these ideas, but, most importantly, handed them on to their children and grandchildren so that our ancestors became the custodians of faith in God. God established His covenant with them and their children and made pledges to them about the future blessings which awaited their descendants.
The founding mothers and fathers are the original biological ancestors of the Jewish people. But, it is their spiritual parenthood that is crucial. We see this from the fact that converts can join Am Yisrael and be considered the children of our forefathers and foremothers even though they are not biologically connected. In fact, converts are explicitly referred to as sons of Avraham and daughters of Sarah.
So when we encounter God today, we do so standing on the shoulders of giants, continuing the journey of our great ancestors who took those cosmically significant first few steps. At one of the greatest moments of Jewish history, the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, the Jewish people who crossed over on dry land declared: “This is my God and I will glorify Him.” (Exodus 15:2) Our sages explain the word “this” indicates they had such a degree of prophetic insight that they were, in a manner of speaking, able to point to God, and perceive Him with a clarity that even the greatest prophets in later generations were unable to experience. And yet, even at this climax, this pinnacle of human spiritual achievement, the verse continues: “[He is] the God of my fathers and I will exalt Him.”
Rashi paraphrases: “I am not the beginning of the holiness; rather, the holiness and His divinity has been established with me from the days of my fathers.” Even in their heightened prophetic state, they were completely dependent on the spiritual endeavours of those who came before them. Everything rested on the foundations laid by their ancestors.
Rav Elya Meyer Bloch cites a similar example from the Talmud (Shabbos 30a). The Talmud discusses the inauguration of the Temple by King Solomon, and how the gates of the Temple would not open, no matter how much he prayed. Eventually, he invoked the merit of his father, King David, at which point they opened. In building the Temple, King Solomon reached a level of greatness that even his father King David had not reached. Nevertheless, at such a time, he was reminded that his achievements were based on the merit of his father. And similarly, so much of what we have today as the Jewish people, so much of what we have achieved and who we are, rests on the foundations of the generations that came before us.
It is for this reason that we begin the Amidah, the central Jewish prayer, by invoking our ancestors: “Blessed are you Hashem our God and God of our Fathers, God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob…” We encounter God not on our own merits, but on the merits of our forebears. We acknowledge the spiritual foundations that they built, which have prepared the way for us to commune with God, Himself. We stand before God in the merit of the community among whom we pray, but also in the accumulated merit of the generations of Jews who came before us, and especially those who laid the foundations for our people, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov; Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah.
Our spiritual fathers and mothers also did something else. They paved the way by connecting to certain key values that are central to how we serve Hashem and to the kind of people that we are today. And in that sense, we are also their spiritual children, having received their values. The Mishna in Pirkei Avot says the world stands on three spiritual principles: the learning of Torah, the service of God, and acts of lovingkindness (Pirkei Avot 1:2). These are the spiritual pillars of the world. The Maharal of Prague explains that our forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, each embodied one of these pillars.
Avraham is the icon of acts of kindness. He embodied compassion, giving, and love for all people. Yitzchak is the icon of service of God. It was he who willingly submitted himself as a sacrifice to God, and embodied devout service and prayer. And Yaakov is the icon of Torah learning. This week’s parsha, Toldot, describes him as a pure man who dwelt in “tents”, which our sages understand to mean the tents of Torah learning. Yaakov was someone devoted to the pursuit of truth.
Rav Yaakov Kamanetsky raises an interesting question. He points out that Avraham and Yaakov each have a number of Torah portions devoted to their life story, while Yitzchak has just one — Toldot. Why is there so much told about Avraham and Yaakov and comparatively little about Yitzchak?
Rav Yaakov Kamanetsky explains the discrepancy is related to the impact each had on the world around them.
The Rambam writes that Avraham influenced tens of thousands of people to become adherents of ethical monotheism. His impact on the world was substantial. As the embodiment of loving-kindness, he reached out to others — and people associated his kindness and compassion with God’s own kindness and compassion. The Midrash says, for example, that when Avraham would host guests in his home, at the end of the meal they would thank him, and he would redirect them to thank Hashem.
As the one who disseminated Torah to the world, Yaakov had a similarly momentous impact. Rav Yaakov Kamanetsky explains that Yaakov’s approach in teaching Torah was through its intellectual power. He was able to convey the depth of the wisdom of Torah to so many, illuminating both the world around them and within them.
Yitzchak, on the other hand, was very private. He embodied personal discipline and self-sacrifice, and a deep, unwavering commitment to God. His impact on the world was through his one and only disciple — his son, Yaakov.
Rav Yaakov Kamanetsky goes on to explain that Avraham and Yaakov had a much wider impact because their teachings were based on kindness and wisdom respectively, which are appealing and compelling to people. But Yitzchak’s message was one of discipline and self-control, of personal integrity and self-sacrifice. These aren’t popular notions, and therefore his impact on the world was far more limited.
Rav Yaakov Kamanetsky makes the point that while these three different approaches impacted the world to different degrees, nevertheless, all three are essential.
Kindness and empathy; wisdom and insight; self-discipline and personal integrity — all three are vital components of true greatness.
And all three — and the people who embodied them — are the spiritual pillars on which the world stands and the very essence of the Jewish people.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“Whoever enjoys life, is doing the creator’s will” — Jewish proverb
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