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Torah Sparks

November 29, 2008 – 2 Kislev 5769

Annual: Genesis 25:19-28:9 (Etz Hayim, p. 146; Hertz p. 93)
Triennial Cycle: Genesis 26:23-27:27 (Etz Hayim, p. 152; Hertz p. 96)
Haftarah: Malakhi 1:1–2:7 (Etz Hayim, p. 163; Hertz p. 102)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

Isaac marries Rebecca, who remains childless for 20 years. Isaac prays on her behalf and she conceives. She feels two children struggling within her, goes to inquire of God, and is told that there are two nations in her womb. Rebecca gives birth to the twins Esau and Jacob. When the boys grow up, Esau, Isaac’s favorite, becomes a hunter, while Jacob, Rebecca’s favorite, is a homebody. Esau sells his birthright to Jacob for a pot of stew.

Because of a famine, Isaac and Rebecca go to Gerar, a Philistine community. God appears to Isaac and confirms the covenant He had made with Abraham. Like his father, Isaac tells the Philistines that Rebecca is his sister and his lie is discovered. Isaac prospers, inciting the envy of the Philistines, who stop up the wells originally dug by Abraham. Abimelech, king of Gerar, sends Isaac away and further conflict over wells ensues. Isaac travels to Beer-sheva and concludes a peace treaty with Abimelech.

When Isaac becomes old and blind, he announces his intention to bless Esau. Rebecca overhears and conspires with Jacob to secure the blessing for him instead. When Esau discovers that his blessing has been stolen, he vows to kill Jacob after their father has died. Rebecca tells Jacob to flee to the home of her brother Laban in Haran.

1. Religion in the Public Square

Now my son, listen carefully as I instruct you. Go to the flock and fetch me two choice kids and I will make of them a dish for your father, such as he likes. (Bereisheit 27:8-9)

  1. Rabbi Soloveitchik said: Rivkah commanded Yaakov to go out to the field to the flock. Why this harsh command? Because Rivkah saw that Esau is a man of the field, a hunter, a man who goes out into the world, acts, and takes control, while Yaakov sits in tents. She feared that Esau will remain the only man who goes out to the field, the only politician, the only diplomat, the only speaker, and ruler – and that he will take over the economy, the street, the outside world. If he remained the only man who goes out to the fields, he would eventually banish Yaakov even from his tents of Torah. So she told Yaakov to go to the flocks, the field, the street. She commanded: Take your Torah out of your tents and out to the whole wide world! This is a command to hold the plough in one hand and the Gemara in the other. (Simcha Raz, “The Torah’s Seventy Faces: Commentaries on the Weekly Sidrah,” edited by Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, pp. 41-42)
  2. Be a Jew in your home and a man in the street. (“Hakitzah Ami,” Judah Leib Gordon, 1831-1892, Russia, one of the key spokesmen of the Haskalah [Jewish Enlightenment])
  3. These remarks are from a Conservative Jewish scholar supportive of a nuanced relaxation of America’s separationism: Jews ought to take religious issues and their religious tradition more seriously. If they did, they could formulate responses to American public issues and discuss them in the public square. So doing would enrich American society and simultaneously demonstrate to Jews that their religion really has things to say about things that they normally don’t take into account. . . . I happen to believe that religious teachings enrich a discussion and can strengthen the moral character of a society. I believe that if more Americans took their religion seriously, American society might behave in a better fashion. (Steven M. Cohen, “Religion and the Public Square: Attitudes of American Jews in Comparative Perspective,” 2000)

Sparks for Discussion

What is the role of religion in society? What is the role of religion when a nation has no official state religion? Should Jews (and members of other religions) leave their religious beliefs and teachings at home or in the synagogue when they speak about public issues? Is this even possible? What effect would this have on society? On religion? Are there lines that should not be crossed when applying religious teachings to public issues? What does it mean to be a Jew in the street?

2. Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue

So Jacob drew close to his father Isaac, who felt him and wondered. “The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau.” (Bereisheit 27:22)

  1. As long as the voice of Jacob is heard in the synagogue and house of study, the hands will not be the hands of Esau. (Bereisheit Rabbah 65:20)
  2. Alternate translation: “If Jacob’s voice is faint, the hands will be the hands of Esau.” Note that the word ha-kol (the voice) is spelled in the Hebrew text without the vav, and may therefore be read as ha-kal, meaning light or faint. This is to teach us that whenever the voice of righteousness as symbolized by Jacob becomes faint, evil as embodied by the hands of Esau will gain control. But when the voice of Jacob gains full strength (when kal becomes kol through the addition of the vav), the hands of Esau will no longer be in control. (The Gaon of Vilna [Rabbi Elijah ben Rabbi Shlomo Zalman, 1720-1797, Lithuania])
  3. Rav, Rabbi Hanina, and Rabbi Yohanan taught... Whoever can protest to his household and does not is accountable [for the sins] of his household; if he could protest to his townspeople, he is accountable for their sins; if he could protest to the whole world, he is accountable for the whole world. (Talmud Shabbat 54b)
  4. While a person may be individually pious, such good will pales in the face of the sin of not protesting against an emerging communal evil... such a pious person will be accountable for having been able to prevent it and did not... (Netivot Olam, Maharal [Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, 1525-1609, Prague])
  5. There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest. (Elie Wiesel)

Sparks for Discussion

Do protests against injustice matter? Why? Have you ever signed a petition, written to an elected official, or participated in a protest rally or march? What did you hope to achieve? What was the result? Do Jews have a special responsibility to protest injustice?

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