Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Are We Children of Eisav or Children of Ya'akov? Thoughts for Parshat Toldot

Rabbi Moshe Avigdor Amiel, who served as the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv from 1936 until his death in 1944, traveled around the nascent State of Israel offering spiritual guidance and support for the people living in the Land. He reached a certain town where the people presented the rabbi with an ethical and religious dilemma that they had struggled with. They wanted to know whether he thought that they should keep kosher.
It seems that economic circumstances were so difficult they had arrived at the conclusion that they could not keep Shabbat. The demands of work necessitated, in their minds, that they violate Shabbat on a regular basis, something they knew to be against Judaism. Yet, they were mired in a debate about whether they should keep their communal kitchen kosher. While some argued that they should, many felt that since they did not observe Shabbat, what would be the point of keeping Kosher?
Rav Amiel answered them with a verse from this week’s Parshah.
“I told them,” he wrote in his work הגיונות אל עמי, “that while their line of thinking (knowing that chilul Shabbat was wrong) indicated that they were descendants of Ya’akov, in their willingness to give up by following their line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, they indicate that they are not, God forbid, from the seed of Ya’akov, but instead from the Children of Eisav.”
When Eisav returns from a hard day in the field, famished for a crust of bread, he arrives home to find Yaakov cooking a pot of soup. “Give soup please. Me hungry,” he tells his brother. “Sure,” Yaakov said. “All it will cost you is the birthright.”
Eisav has a perplexing thought. הנה אנכי הולך למות, ולמה זה לי בכורה – “behold I am going to die, so of what use is the birthright to me?” Esav’s statement seems strange, and the commentators struggle to unravel its meaning. What logic does he use to trade his birthright for a bowl of stew? Rashi understands that the birthright implies the obligation to serve in the Beit Hamikdash, as originally, before the Sin of the Golden Calf, the firstborns were supposed to perform this holy service. Based on this understanding, Rashi explains Eisav’s thinking.
אמר עשו מה טיבה של עבודה זו? א"ל כמה אזהרות ועונשין ומיתות תלוין בה כאותה ששנינו (סנהדרין סג) אלו הן שבמיתה שתויי יין ופרועי ראש. אמר אני הולך למות על ידה אם כן מה חפץ לי בה
Said Eisav: What is the nature of this worship? [Ya’akov] said to him, there are a number of admonishments and warnings and [threats of] deaths that rest up [this service], as we learned, “These are those who are executed…[those who serve in the Temple] drunk, or ungroomed…” Said [Eisav], “Since I would sure die in this type of service, if so, what do I want it for?”
Rav Amiel noted that it never dawned upon Eisav to tell himself, “You know what? While I’m not perfect now, I can at least do my best, and in the course of time accustom myself to life without booze, etc.” Rather, Eisav insisted that if I can’t do it all, right now, perfectly, then I might as well not try. If I’m going to die in the end, then what benefit is the birthright, even for a little bit? Eisav wanted it all immediately – or nothing.
Rav Amiel asked the people of that settlement: Are you children of Eisav or children of Ya’akov? If you’re children of Eisav, then you’re right. If you cannot be perfect; if you cannot have everything, then it’s not really worth doing anything at all. If you can’t keep Shabbat, then why bother keeping kosher. After all, if we’re after perfection that will never happen. But Ya’akov didn’t subscribe to that ideology. And neither do we – or at least neither should we.
Too often we allow ourselves to fall into an all or nothing mentality; a black and white phenomenon especially prevalent among young people, who often don’t appreciate nuance, compromise, and the frailty of humanity in religious observance – even their own.
I recently saw a blog post about a newly coined term called “lazydox”. The term refers to people who consider themselves Orthodox, but on the other hand, choose willingly or otherwise to forgo certain observances. Yet, the term itself, and its self-deprecating nature, to my mind fly in the face of the religious experience, and in a jocular manner denigrate people who, for whatever reason, aren’t perfect. It implies that you can’t be Orthodox unless you keep everything, and that if you don’t, either because of choice or ideology or plain weakness, you’re not Orthodox (i.e. religious), but something else. Lazy.
I beg to differ. I know of no perfect Jew. The phenomenon does not exist. So on some level, we’re all “lazydox.” We all make choices about our personal level of observance, tolerance, commitment, and willingness to follow proscribed practice. We all take shortcuts and make compromises, some more public and visible than others. And we do not and should not consider those shortcomings anything less than “Orthodox”, because the struggle itself is the hallmark of religious life.
It’s not all or nothing. Rather, it’s the struggle to climb the mountain of observance; the miscues and mistakes, and then hopefully also the successes and achievements – and the setting of our sight on yet higher heights – that define what it means to be a Jew.
We are not children of Eisav. Life isn’t all or nothing. And we must teach ourselves and our children that our failures demand not that we redefine ourselves into some new category, but instead compel us to confront our weaknesses, and strive to improve.