Posts

The Other Half of the Battle / Graceful Masculinity: Toldot

Part of a year-long Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

 

 וְיַעֲקֹב נָתַן לְעֵשָׂו, לֶחֶם וּנְזִיד עֲדָשִׁים, וַיֹּאכַל וַיֵּשְׁתְּ, וַיָּקָם וַיֵּלַךְ; וַיִּבֶז עֵשָׂו, אֶת-הַבְּכֹרָה.

Jacob then gave Esav bread and lentil stew; he ate and drank, and he rose and went away. So Esav spurned the birthright. (Genesis 25:34)

 

Sometimes we just forget things. Often though, it’s not that we have actually forgotten, but rather that the clarity of our knowledge is not sufficient to orchestrate our actions.1 If a person stays up most of the night playing video games, it’s not because he forgot that he has to wake up in the morning for work. Rather, just knowing that his alarm will ring soon is not sufficient to change his behavior.

When we say that remembering is a call to action, it is because we want to bring to the fore the knowledge that will cause us to behave appropriately. This requires an awareness of what we have “forgotten,” so that we can counter the memory lapse and orient ourselves towards proper activity.

In our tradition, Esav (Esau) had vast knowledge but there was a disconnect between what he knew and what he did; he was not a talmid chacham, a practitioner of wisdom. He would ask his father detailed questions about halacha, Jewish law,  but he did not use that knowledge to influence his actions. Most egregiously, he was not self-aware enough to realize the tremendous gap between his education and his behavior. He thought he was already there and had nothing left to learn; the Hebrew words “Esav” and “complete” have the same numerical value.2 He was completely unaware of how underdeveloped he really was. Our rabbis teach that this was the source of his evil and like an undiagnosed illness, it never got treated.3

It is for this reason that Esav thought that he was fitting to receive the blessings from his father. He didn’t see himself as a sinner, and even the shock of the rejection didn’t arouse any introspection or change. Esav was “in his head,” not connected to the rest of his body, or the rest of the world.4 Tradition teaches that Esav’s head is buried apart from his body, perhaps as a further expression of this disconnect.

Jacob, by contrast, was constantly struggling, evolving, and throwing himself back into the fight for greater awareness. He was born at his brother’s heel, thereby earning himself the name Jacob / Ya’akov (connected to the Hebrew word for heel, עקב / ekev). Jacob consistently fights his way up until G-d grants him a new name, ישראל / Israel, which is an anagram of לי ראש / li rosh, “you are to Me a head.” With this name change,G-d gives Jacob confirmation of his holy transformation. 

The space between intentions and impact can be vast and even violent. How can men be expected to know what we don’t know? Judaism teaches that knowing that we don’t know is both a high level of knowledge and also a prerequisite for gaining greater wisdom. 

Acquiring this type of sensitivity is truly a gift that comes from the sensing of its absence. When we know that we are not there yet, that there is still much work to be done, then we can be open and worthy of receiving what we need to know.

We thank God for being our source of knowledge in the blessing “You graciously endow man with wisdom,” found in daily prayer. Wisdom is given with grace, and so being wise is not just about knowing facts, but knowing how to be with other people in a way that is graceful. This involves an awareness of how our actions resonate with others.

The Vilna Gaon comments on the verse (Proverbs 3:4) “You will find favor and goodly wisdom in the eyes of G-d and man” that “חן ”, “favor” comes from the language of “חנם” free. It is for that reason, he posits, that “grace” is most commonly paired with the verb “find”. 

We can’t rely on our subjective understanding of what’s appropriate based on how we intend an action in our heads. Instead we need to check in and hear from those being affected by what we do. Esav spurned his birthright by minimizing the consequences of his actions. In the mystical tradition, his ministering angel governs though the power of forgetting. When we recognize that wisdom comes from beyond us, that should humble us, and encourage us to take responsibility to internalize wisdom, commit to its application, and regularly review the space between the ideal and our lived, embodied experiences. 

 

 

Discussion questions:

What framework would enable us to ensure that our actions are having the desired effect?

How can we strengthen the knowledge we have to subdue undesirable habits?

What responsibility comes with being privileged in society?

How does Jacob model a more positive masculinity?

How can we cultivate greater self awareness?  

 


1. עיין מתנת חלקו מ”י ד”ג “השכחה אינו שולטת על הידיע, אלא על מה שהידיעה צריכה לגרום למעשה.

2. עשו = 376, שלום = 376

3. עיין נאות דשא אות ג

4. עיין משנת רבי אהרן

 

 

 

By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz. Image source: Charlene Winfred.

Rivka’s Questions, And Our Own: Building Lessons From Toldot

IMG_3436

Part of a yearlong series about building and builders inspired by the Torah cycle.

וַיִּתְרֹֽצֲצ֤וּ הַבָּנִים֙ בְּקִרְבָּ֔הּ וַתֹּ֣אמֶר אִם־כֵּ֔ן לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה אָנֹ֑כִי וַתֵּ֖לֶךְ לִדְרֹ֥שׁ אֶת־יְהוָֽ”ה׃

But the children struggled in her womb, and [Rivka] said, “If so, why do I exist?” She went to inquire of God. (Genesis 25:22)

Everyone who dreams and yearns and builds knows the experience of agonizing over a project. Do I really know what I’m doing? What if I had a vision for what this project would be, and now it’s growing into something different? What if I have conflicting visions for what I want to bring into the world, and now I don’t know what to do with that tension?

That’s the experience of our foremother Rivka. Pregnant with twins, she felt them struggling within her. She poured out her heart to God, saying, אִם־כֵּ֔ן לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה אָנֹ֑כִי — If this is what’s going to be, then why am I? (Genesis 25:22)

Here are three lessons for building that I learn from Rivka and from parashat Toldot writ large:

  1. Be open to surprises.

IMG_3437Rivka yearned for a child, and Torah tells us that God heard her plea and she conceived. I identify with that on a literal level as a woman who struggled with miscarriage before carrying a pregnancy to term. But I resonate with it even more on a metaphorical level… because once Rivka conceives, things don’t take exactly the shape she anticipated.

This matches my experience of both parenthood and spiritual life.  Even if we have what we think are good blueprints, the work may take a different shape than we imagined. The woman who expected one easy infant might get a pair of contentious twins. The committee chair who expected a simple meeting might get a tense interpersonal situation. The builder who expected easy construction might discover that there is critical plumbing running through the wall where he intended to cut the window.

Sometimes the build doesn’t go according to plan. That doesn’t mean that we didn’t plan well or that we shouldn’t be building — rather that life is full of surprises. In Bereshit we were reminded that even God needs a plan B sometimes: clearly this is part of creation’s design. We can’t prepare for every eventuality, but we can learn to “roll with” surprises when they come and to improvise based on what we learn.

  1. Ask big questions, and hold our certainties lightly.

IMG_3439When Rivka felt her twins fighting in her womb, she went directly to the big question: if this is what’s happening, why do I exist, why am I even here? We would do well to ask that question in our building work, too. Why are we here? What are we doing? Are we putting our attention and our effort in the right place? Should we be building differently?

In her readiness to ask big questions about her life’s purpose, Rivka also teaches us to hold our certainties lightly. Like Rivka, we too can strive to find a healthy balance between cultivating a vision of what we yearn to create — and being willing to accept that what we’re building might turn out to be a surprise even for us.

Notably, Rivka doesn’t seem to question whether or not God will hear. And sure enough, God answers her right away. Most of us in the modern world don’t have the luxury of feeling heard by (and answered by!) the Source of the Universe. But even “just” asking the questions can be transformative, and can help us suss out the guiding principles that inform our building.

  1. Old pipes can hold new flow

IMG_3438This week’s Torah portion is called Toldot, “Generations.” All of us who seek to build the Jewish future do so on the foundations laid by previous generations. It’s on us to honor the foundations they placed, even as we open ourselves like Rivka to surprises — and embrace new interpretations, spiritual technologies, and ideas that our forebears couldn’t have imagined.

Later in Toldot, there’s a verse about re-plumbing an ancestor’s wells (Genesis 26:32). When Torah talks about re-plumbing, it’s not a matter of choosing fixtures for the ensuite bath. Our spiritual ancestors were a desert people for whom water was precious and rare. A well running dry could be a matter of life or death. And, water is also one of Torah’s profoundest metaphors for sustenance, for hope, for life, for God’s presence — even for Torah itself.

We may no longer drink from the literal wells of our ancestors, but their spiritual wells still flow — especially when we delve into them ourselves to ensure that they’re still open. All who seek to build Jewish life can draw new sustenance from old sources, laying pipe to bring reach hearts and souls that are thirsty for meaning. We can deepen our ancestors’ wells, drawing up vision and hope, new interpretations and new practices, for each other and for generations to come.

We may channel that flow to places, and in ways, that our predecessors couldn’t have imagined.  In software parlance, I think that’s a feature, not a bug. Someday our descendants (both literal and spiritual) will do the same, building rituals and interpretations and structures that we can’t imagine on the foundations we will have left behind. Our task is to keep the channels open, to ask big questions, and to be open to surprising outcomes.

Just ask Rivka.
RB Silbert-small

by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat; sketchnote by Steve Silbert