Friday, November 5, 2010

Verbs, Verbs Everywhere

 Parshat Toldot

by Rabbi Avi Billet

There are two schools of thought regarding Eisav. Jews who study Torah regularly have a negative view of Eisav implanted in our brains from a very early age, as taught to us from the many teachings of the rabbis, midrash, Talmud, and even the works of the prophets.

The other perspective views Eisav as a victim: a victim of circumstance, of his brother's trickery, and of a family unit who misunderstood him.
Certainly the Torah itself does not paint Eisav in terrible terms. Most of the "bad" things he does can easily be explained away, if not justified.

The first episode in which we see the "real" Eisav, however, seems to paint a clear picture of Yitzchak's and Rivkah's firstborn.

Eisav's agreeing to sell his birthright demonstrates his disregard for a spiritual status, but more likely was viewed by him as a business transaction - Yaakov now has the legal claim on the firstborn's monetary and property inheritance rights.

And yet, the Torah uses a rare expression, five verbs in a row, to show us Eisav's attitude, during and after his meal, to demonstrate how meaningless and inconsequential to him was the birthright he had just sold for some soup.

"And Yaakov gave Eisav bread and lentil stew, and he ate, drank, rose, left, and denigrated the birthrite." (25:34)

The commentaries have a field day in their criticism of Eisav.

Rashi says the verse indicates Eisav's wickedness, on account of his disdain for serving God as a firstborn.

Rashbam indicates this sequence serves as an indicator that when Eisav later regrets that Yaakov took his birthright, it was his own act of foolishness that caused that transaction to come about.

Ramban seconds the notion saying that the fool only looks at the here and now, prefers to eat, drink and be merry, with no notion or concept of consequences and of what tomorrow will bring.

The most extreme is the Talmud (Bava Batra 16b) that learns from the five verbs that Eisav committed five major sins that day, corresponding to the verbs respectively: an immoral act, murder, denial God, denial of resurrection of the dead, plus the sin recorded by Rashi.

Kli Yakar adds that the "getting up and going" indicates that Eisav was of sound body (if not mind), because he was clearly not at death's door as he had indicated, and was perfectly capable of moving on after a normal size meal.

What is strange is that Yaakov has a similar sequence of verbs, for which the commentaries are surprisingly silent. In 27:13, after his mother instructed him to bring goats for her to prepare, in response to his reticence to participate in the rouse to receive his blind father's blessing, she tells him any curse will be upon her if their plot is discovered.

In 27:14, the verse says "And he went, and he took, and he brought to his mother, which she prepared for his father in the manner that he loved."

If Eisav is a bad guy and Yaakov is a good guy, we would expect the commentaries to flaunt Yaakov's fine qualities here. If the verbs parallel Eisav's verbs in any way, perhaps we are meant to find a critique of Yaakov here.

The Ktav V'Hakabalah is one of the very few commentaries who address this verse. Considering Eisav's pending imminent return, Yaakov ought to have rushed and the Torah might have included a verb indicating a sense of urgency. But Yaakov only acted out of respect for his mother's will, because he was in no rush to pull the wool over his father's eyes.
And this is the perspective which plays out in the midrash in many places.

Rabbi Yitzchak in the Midrash suggests Yaakov's verbs indicate he felt coerced, distraught, crying. The Pesikta adds he was praying that he should not be embarrassed, presumably on account of being caught.

It could be that the rabbis are pulling the "Yaakov membership card" in leaving him alone.

On the other hand, if actions truly speak louder than words, and if the phrase "You are what you do" (attributed to a few people) is any indication, then Eisav and Yaakov deserve the attention and treatment they each get.

Actions count, and speak volumes. Let us choose ours carefully, as we always bear in mind to consider the consequences of the things we do, beyond the here and now. Tomorrow is another day, but what kind of day tomorrow will be has much to do with how we behave today.

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