In This Issue:
Rabbi Darren Blackstein
Rabbi Chaim Jachter
In the beginning of our Parashah, we are told that Yitzchak prayed to Hashem regarding his wife, Rivkah, because she was barren. The Torah states this explicitly in the Pasuk, “VaYe’etar Yitchak LaShem LeNochach Ishto Ki Akarah Hi,” “Yitzchak prayed to Hashem for his wife, because she was barren” (BeReishit 25:21). Rabbeinu Bachya raises two questions concerning this Pasuk. Firstly, the Pasuk should have stated first that Rivka was barren, and then, due to this, that Yitzchak prayed for her. Secondly, why does the Pasuk use the word “VaYe’etar” for prayer, instead of the standard word, “VaYitpaleil”?
Rabbeinu Bachya answers the second question based on a Gemara in the first Perek of Mesechet Sukkah. The Gemara asks why the prayer of the righteous is compared to an “Attar,” a pitchfork. It answers that this comparison is made because just like a pitchfork turns the floor of the threshing ground upside down, so too, the prayer of the righteous convinces Hashem to turn over His mindset from the attribute of justice to that of mercy. This explains the word’s relevance to Yitzchak’s prayer. Upon Hashem’s use of the attribute of mercy, Rivkah was able to conceive. It is simply astounding to consider the idea that man’s prayer can be so influential!
Regarding the order of events in the Pasuk, Rabbeinu Bachya explains that if Rivkah’s barren state was mentioned first, it would become the factor that receives the most attention. By first stating that Yitzchak prayed to Hashem, the praying itself becomes the main focus in the Pasuk, and not the inability to conceive. This point is emphasized by a Midrash in Shir HaShirim Rabbah which asks why the matriarchs were barren. The Midrash answers that Hashem desires the righteous’ prayers. Coupled with the answer to the question above, it would seem that Hashem desires our prayers as a crucial and determining factor in the way that events unfold.
After contemplating Rabbeinu Bachya’s words, I began to worry whether his answers might have raised even more devastating questions. Perhaps these Pesukim are misleading! It is wonderful for Rivkah that Yitzchak’s prayers were answered. However, most of us don’t seem to be this fortunate. We pray for the alleviation of sickness and tragedy in many people’s lives, only to witness many unfortunate, painful endings. We don’t seem to be the beneficiaries of prayer in the way that Hashem treated Yitzchak and Rivkah. Additionally, is the Midrash in Shir HaShirim Rabbah suggesting that Hashem puts us in dire straits just to have us pray? It is frightening to think that Hashem would cause suffering merely to hear our verbal anguish.
Upon further examination, I found that Rabbeinu Bachya’s words are not meant to raise these difficult issues. Surely, man will always wonder as to when, if at all, his prayers seem to be answered. Man will always wonder about the timing and purpose for any human suffering. These issues, to be sure, are fully recognized as beyond human understanding. In our particular case, we see that Yitzchak’s prayer was answered rather rapidly. Hashem decided to allow his prayer to be effective and we cannot question this. We should be honored that the Chumash lets us in on such personal details of their lives. Regarding the matriarchs’ inability to conceive, we must sharpen our understanding of the Midrash. I believe that the Midrash was not trying to establish a causal relationship between their inability to conceive and their prayers; Hashem was not using an illness to motivate them to pray. That’s why her status is not mentioned in the beginning of the Pasuk. If it were mentioned first, it would be used as a cause of prayer. By mentioning it second, the Pasuk shows us that it was an opportunity for prayer, an activity that was uniquely embraced by the matriarchs and patriarchs. They loved to pray to Hashem; Hashem loved hearing them. This does not mean suffering is made to cause prayer. It means that Yitzchak is teaching us that man’s first response to any suffering should be to engage Hashem in prayer. Hashem loves to see that under all circumstances, good and bad, we feel the need to communicate and express ourselves to Hashem. While we leave it up to Hashem’s wisdom to determine how our prayers are handled, we acknowledge, in Yitzchak’s merit, that prayer is our first response ability. May Hashem bless us to use this ability to draw closer to Hashem and to deepen and strengthen the connections between all of Bnei Yisrael.
Before he dies, Yitzchak desires to give Eisav a Berachah, but when Rivkah finds out about this she decides to help Yaakov trick Yitzchak into giving him the Berachah instead. Yaakov is concerned that his father will find out his true identity when he feels his skin and realizes that he is not hairy like Eisav is. Why is this Yaakov’s only concern? Why isn't he concerned that he won’t sound like Eisav or that he won’t smell like Eisav?
The Beit HaLeivi answers that before Eisav left to go hunting, he anticipated that Yaakov would try and trick his father into blessing him. Eisav anticipated that Yaakov would try to mimic Eisav’s voice as part of the trick, so Eisav decided that he would show that he was himself by talking in Yaakov’s voice. Yaakov, being aware how Eisav’s mind worked, knew that all he had to do was to feel like Eisav, because he knew that his father was expecting someone to come in who talked like Yaakov. The Midrash explains that he was even able to mimic his brother’s smell because Rivkah had stolen Eisav’s hunting coat, allowing Yaakov to smell like Eisav. This explains why all Yitzchak wanted to do was feel Yaakov before he blessed him because the two things that he was expecting from Eisav were hairy arms and Yaakov’s intonation. Even if one thinks he can outsmart the Ratzon Hashem it will always work out and in this case it even backfired!
In Parashat Toldot, a new era in our nation’s creation begins with the births of Yaakov and Eisav. Interestingly enough, immediately after the Pasuk describes their birth, the next Pasuk states “VaYigdelu HaNearim Vayehi Eisav Ish Yodeiah Tzayid Ish Sadeh VeYaakov Ish Tam Yosheiv Ohalim,” “the lads had grown up and Eisav was one who knew hunting and a man of the field, while Yaakov was a wholesome person who spent his time in tents” (BeReishit 25:27). The fact that this Pasuk begins by saying “the lads had grown up” before describing their characteristics teaches us that a person should be judged based on his actions.
Regarding Eisav, the Pasuk states, “VaYeitzei HaRishon Admoni Kulo KeAderet Seiar, VaYikriu Shimo Eisav” “The first one emerged entirely red like a hairy blanket, so he called his name Eisav” (BeReishit 25:25). The Mizrachi notes that the only reason the Torah mentions that Eisav had red hair was to indicate that he had a “murderous” nature. However, if this is true, the Torah is judging Eisav when he has just come out of the womb and before he acted negatively. The Torah’s prejudgment of Eisav seems to contradict the Torah’s lesson that one should be judged solely based on his actions?!
The Midrash (BeReishit Rabbah 63) states that when Shmuel HaNavi was ready to appoint David as the future leader of Bnei Yisrael, David’s red hair scared him. Shmuel said, "He too will be a murderer like Eisav." Hashem responded by telling him not to be afraid because Eisav killed only in cold blood, while David would take a life only to carry out the Sanhedrin’s just decisions. Once again, Hashem’s response teaches us not to be quick to judge our fellow man and that our negative qualities can be channeled towards performing good deeds. For example, we learn in the Aseret HaDibrot that one should not be jealous of his fellow man. However, it is permissible to be jealous with regards to the amount of time one spends learning Torah and performing Chesed (Bava Batra 22a).
The main lesson here is that even though we are born with both positive and negative traits, one must try to use his good qualities for good purposes and try to direct his bad qualities for positive purposes as well. The Vilna Gaon taught that a person should not go completely against his nature even if it is bad, for he will not succeed. Rather, he should merely train himself to follow the straight path in accordance with his nature. For example, someone who has an inclination to spill blood should train himself to become a ritual slaughterer or a Mohel.
The Torah is telling us that Eisav had a murderous nature, but in reading the commentaries, we learn that it was important to hope that he would channel that quality in a positive way. Unfortunately, we know that this was not the case. May we all strive to use all of our character traits for the good of Klal Yisrael and ultimately bring about the coming of Mashiach, BeMiheira BeYameinu.
Travel the world; or simply look at the foreign coins mixed up with your regular change and you will notice that all coins have two sides. The two opposite sides have very different images, but they still are sides on the same coin.
This week's Parashah, Toldot, uses this idea to explain the twins Yaakov and Eisav. Although born from the same parents, they each have distinct personalities, attitudes, and skills. Eisav, the oldest, resembles Yitzchak in terms of Yitzchak’s tendency towards frequenting the field. The younger son, Yaakov, is more head than heart, preferring to think rationally. Yet each is very much one part of the same coin, different sides, as it were, of the parents who brought them to know life itself.
Rivkah overheard Yitzchak telling Eisav to go and kill a goat and prepare it exactly as Yitzchak likes and then he will give Eisav his blessing. Accordingly, Eisav goes to do what his father requested. On the other hand, Rivkah planned on having Yaakov get the blessing, so she told him to get two goats and she will prepare them for Yitzchak. She did this and instructed Yaakov to wear goat skin, so he will resemble Eisav. Yaakov does everything his mother told him and the stage is set for a scene that changed history.
Yaakov, not his brother Eisav, received Yitzchak's blessing. Each now steps into the role they will play for years to come. As dramatic, even treacherous, as this all is, one should keep in mind that Yaakov seemingly had a choice. He did not have to follow his mother’s deceptive thoughts, instead allowing his brother to receive what he may have deserved. Or, Yaakov could have joined Eisav before his father, using his gift of intellect in reasoning how both sons should be blessed. Again, two people, two sides, two possible outcomes. But only one path could have been followed and Yaakov set his foot upon the one which would bring him the finest outcome and he received the blessing. The question is what price did he pay to get the blessing?
In Parashat Toldot we observe what seems to be treachery and deception, the pangs of confusion and uncertainty. These are very much a part of our Torah. But this story has two sides: one is obvious while the other isn't so easy to see. If we flip the coin, we can see a younger son trying to win over his father's love. Yaakov was not the successful hunter and man of the fields his brother naturally was. Eisav, the oldest, was closer to Yitzchak. While he plays the role of the younger, jealous brother, Yaakov nonetheless, goes to his father looking for far more than a blessing, he wanted equality as well.
Yaakov receives the blessing, but it unravels as Eisav discovers this and now looks toward killing his brother. It is not revenge Eisav has in mind, but equality; ironically, the same equality Yaakov had in mind when he deceived Yitzchak. This also explains why Yitzchak’s blessing to Eisav was not one of superiority; it gave him the opportunity to be equal to him.
Just as Yaakov had a choice whether to follow through on the scheme, we too always have the choice in our actions. When we make our decision, we must keep in mind the other side, meaning the way that it will affect everyone else and hopefully, with Hashem’s help, we will be able to choose the option which not only benefits us but also the rest of the world.
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