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Torah Sparks

Parashat Toldot
November 21, 2009 – 4 Kislev 5770

Annual (Gen. 25:19-28:9): (Etz Hayim, p. 146; Hertz p. 93)
Triennial (Gen. 27:28-28:9): (Etz Hayim, p. 157; Hertz p. 99)
Haftarah: (Etz Hayim, p. 163; Hertz p. 102)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, NJ

Torah Portion Summary

Isaac marries Rebecca and she remains childless for 20 years, then Isaac prays on her behalf and she conceives. She feels the children struggling within her, inquires 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 his wife 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 her younger son. When Esau discovers that his blessing has been stolen, he vows to kill Jacob after their father dies. Rebecca tells Jacob to flee to the home of her brother, Laban, in Haran.

1. Wheat and Wine

May God give you of the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth, abundance of new grain [wheat] and wine. (Genesis 27:28)

  1. Wheat, bread, is one of the necessities of life, but wine is a luxury, which only those who can afford to will use. Isaac hinted that those who can afford it are only allowed to drink wine if there is plenty of wheat, for both the poor and the rich, and that there are no hungry people in the land. When there isn’t an “abundance of new grain” in the land and there is a shortage of bread, even those who can afford to may not drink wine, and should instead use the money they would otherwise spend on luxuries in order to buy bread for the poor. (Oznayim LaTorah (Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin), 1881-1966, Poland and Israel)
  2. We have been taught that when a poor man says “Provide me with clothes” he should be investigated [to see if he is really needy]. When he says “Feed me” he should not be investigated. (Talmud Bava Batra 9a)
  3. The limit of giving: If it is within his means, he should give what the poor need. And if it is not within his means, he should give up to one-fifth of his wealth, the choicest way of performing the mitzvah; one-tenth is the average way; less than one-tenth, the evil eye [miserly]. (Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 249:1)
  4. The Talmud rules that we should not give away more than 20 percent of our income to charity (Ketubot 50a). The rabbis feared that by doing so we might impoverish ourselves to the point where we would end up dependent on other people’s charity. Although there are religious traditions in which poverty is viewed as spiritually desirable, Judaism, as noted, regards poverty as a curse and not a condition that one should voluntarily embrace. However, there are instances when Jewish law permits giving away more than 20 percent of one’s income or assets:
    • When lives are at stake and money is necessary to save them;
    • In one’s will, when the money will be distributed after one’s death;
    • When one is so wealthy that distributing more than 20 percent of one’s capital will not create any risk of impoverishment.
    (Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, “A Code of Jewish Ethics, Volume 2: Love Your Neighbor as Yourself,” pp. 212-213)

Sparks for Discussion

Oznayim LaTorah sees in Isaac’s blessing the principle that when people are hungry, even the wealthy, who presumably have given the required amount to tzedakah, may not spend on luxuries but should use their “extra” money to feed the poor. Do you agree? Does this apply only to food, or are there other needs you would include? Why do you think that halakhah limits giving, for all but the super-rich, to 20 percent of net income?

How realistic is it to expect people to give all or most of their “extra” income to help those who have less? In the debate about health insurance reform, how do you react to the idea that employer-paid health insurance should be treated as income and taxed in order to pay for coverage for the uninsured? Does your view of an ideal society include equality of income and wealth for all?

2. The Real World

Isaac was seized with very violent trembling. “Who was it then,” he demanded, “that hunted game and brought it to me? Moreover, I ate of it before you came, and I blessed him; now he must remain blessed!” (Genesis 27:33)

  1. Why was Isaac so insistent on blessing Esau? Did he not know that Esau was a man of the field and Jacob a simple man? Furthermore, could he not have blessed both equally? (Malbim (Rabbi Meir Yehuda Leibush ben Yehiel Michal), 1809-1880, Russia)
  2. “When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors; but Jacob was a mild man who stayed in camp.” (25:27) “A skillful hunter” To catch and deceive his father with his mouth by asking him, “Father, how does one tithe salt and straw [which do not require tithing]?” His father thought that he was strict (in the observance of the) commandments. “Stayed in camp [literally, in tents]” The tent of Shem and the tent of Eber [in rabbinic teaching, the first yeshiva]. (Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki), 1040-1105, France)
  3. Isaac loved Esau more than Jacob because he was not impressed with the fact that Jacob observed all the laws of the Torah. If a person is not involved in the day-to-day life of the world, if he spends all his time in his tent studying, it is not surprising that he is religious. What was more impressive was Esau’s conduct: he was a hunter, one who was constantly in touch with others, and was nevertheless scrupulous in his observance, asking Isaac: “Father, how does one tithe salt and straw?” Such a young man is an unusual find and must be appreciated. However, now Isaac heard from Esau that Jacob had come stealthily and with great cunning and had taken the blessing of the firstborn, he realized that Jacob was not merely confined to an ivory tower but knew how to get along in the world. He acted as if he had no guile whatsoever, but yet he was intelligent enough to outwit Esau. Therefore – “now he must remain blessed!” – he deserves to receive the blessings. (Hidushei HaRIM (Rabbi Isaac Meir Alter, the Gerer Rabbi), 1799-1866, Poland)
  4. To a student who felt himself unworthy of serving as a rabbi: “It takes twice as much spiritual strength to be an honest businessman as to be an honest rabbi; but if you have that much spiritual strength, why waste it on business?” (Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, 1810-1883, Lithuania and Germany)

Sparks for Discussion

The midrash cited by Rashi is meant to vilify Esau and praise Jacob. Remarkably, Hidushei HaRIM turns it on its head – Esau’s questions show he is able to remain observant in the non-Jewish world, while Jacob, the yeshiva bocher, is too sheltered to be able to function there. Jacob’s deception is therefore evidence that he has street smarts. What do you think inspired this interpretation? Do you think it takes a certain amount of cunning, perhaps even dishonesty, to succeed in the “real world?” Are there Jewish laws or practices that inhibit professional or financial success? Why does Rabbi Salanter say it takes great spiritual strength to be an honest businessperson?

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