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Parshiot Toldot, Vayeitzei, Vayishlach 5770: The Unique Character of Israel

by in Toldot, Vayetze, Vayishlach .

Nature vs. Nurture….or neither?


Who is this man Ya'acov, later renamed Israel a name we see in almost every newspaper and newscast almost every day?

His story begins with a mother perplexed by the almost schizophrenic nature of her fetus that is equally stimulated by the energy of divine sanctity and the negative force of idolatry.  According to some, she knew she had twins, in which case she must have thought of the possibility that each child is stimulated by a different force, one by kedusha, the other by avodah zara (idolatry). Why is she so perplexed, and why does she question the purpose of her pregnancy? Surely her role is to raise the good son well and do her best to swing the other son to virtue too?

Rivka is troubled the nature vs. nurture dilemma. If character is formed by nature, then her twins with the same DNA should have the same character. If character is the outcome of nurture and upbringing then her husband Yitzchak and his half-brother Yishmael should have grown up with similar characters at least until Yishmael left home. Since in her case neither approach would explain the phenomenon of her sons' reactions, she must assume that character is random. In that case she cries "Lama zeh anochi?" - What then is my role as mother if their characters are pre-formed by random forces?

Hashem responds to her puzzle: You have inside you not merely two different individuals. You are in the unique situation of mothering two global cultures. Cultures are created with inherent differences embedded in their DNA. In the case of Yaacov and Yishmael the specific cultural DNA they have, stems from their parents Rivka (daughter and brother of idol worshippers) and Yitzchak (pure son of Avraham and Sarah) but is crystallized into two separate cultures: The culture of Eisav and the Culture of Yaacov.

Jew and Gentile: How different are we really?

It is not politically correct to talk of immutable (except over long periods of cultural assimilation) characteristics, so let me explain what I mean by cultural differences. The idea of immutable cultural difference is foundational to the understanding of cultures in the Torah and the uniqueness of Klal Yisrael. What is the nature of that difference and the separateness that results from it?

Every Motzaei Shabbat in Havdalah we say "Hamavdil bein Yisrael La'amim" referring to the difference between Jew and Gentile as being as fundamental as the difference between light and dark. What does this mean? In what way is the difference between Jew and Gentile comparable to the difference between dark and light?

An object or substance is chemically and physically identical in the dark and in the light. A scientist analyzing a glass of milk in the dark or in the light will find no differences. The difference between dark and light is not one of substance but one of perception and experience. Things look different at night from how they look in the day. We experience things differently in the dark from the way we do in the light even though the things we are experiencing are the same. We may feel fear in the night even though nothing has changed since the day. We see colors in the light that we cannot discern in the dark.

Cultural differences are like differences in lighting. It is not that people of different cultures are inherently different. It is that they experience the same things in different ways. Cultural difference is not about how different people look; it is about how different peoplesee. Every individual experiences life in a unique way, but there are commonalities of perceptions and experiences within specific cultures that are often not shared by people of other cultures.

A Jew experiences life differently and sees the world in a different light from his or her non-Jewish friend. This is even more pronounced in the case of a Torah Jew. A Jew experiences a Friday afternoon sunset as an entirely different aesthetic and mystical experience than does a gentile. They are both looking at the same sunset but they see and experience different things.

Hashem tells Rivka that although piety is a function of upbringing and personal choice, the difference in her boys is not just one of piety, it is a cultural difference: "there are two nations in your womb". These are two people who will experience the same things in radically different ways. Cultural differences stem from differences in the soul and therefore are present from long before birth. Cultural difference is not random; it is determined by Hashgacha - G-d's will. These twins might have the same physical DNA but they have different souls from different places; their spiritual DNA is very different indeed.

Eisav: The Key to Peace

As different as are the cultures of Eisav and Yaacov, they have within them the seeds for wholeness and peace. In Hebrew the words for "peace" and for "whole", are the same. Peace is not the absence of conflict. Peace is when two or more competing forces harmonize to create symphonic majesty. Yaacov and Eisav are competing forces, and when they compete one will win at the expense of the other (Bereishit 25:23). Yet, the Ba'al Hatturim points out that the Gimatriya (numeric value) of the letters forming Eisav's name, 376, equates to the Gimatriya for the word Shalom, peace. Eisav holds the key to Shalom, if he creates an integrated whole with Yaacov instead of competing with him.

Yaacov and Eisav depended on each other's specialties: Yaacov was the essence of spiritual purity, Ish tam yosheiv ohallim (a perfect man who lived in study and the service of Hashem). Very few people can be perfectly pure and very few people are intended to be that way. But in every generation we need just a few people who are 100% untainted by the normal distortions of truth in every-day life. We need just a few people who see the world through no lens at all, just as it really is. To sustain purity one needs to avoid contamination. Some degree of contamination is an unavoidable consequence of dealing with day-to-day life. Consider the exaggerations inherent in the art of marketing, a field of Eisav's expertise, or the need for slyness and deceit in the field of politics, another strength of Eisav. These areas of endeavor are unwholesome for a person whose contribution to the world is his uncompromised purity, and that was Yaacov. For Yaacov to retain his purity, he needed Eisav to manage their interface with the general world. For Eisav to retain a sense of higher meaning in his life, he needed to support Yaacov and take his spiritual guidance from him. Then, there would have been wholeness; there would have been peace. But Eisav chose to compete; the partnership was aborted….and unlike Yitzchak, Rivka knew this.


Yaacov Reinvented

With the partnership aborted, Yaacov the man of purity had no choice but to learn the skills of Eisav while at the same time not sacrificing one iota of his purity. No human being had ever done that before. His teacher was Rivka, because she had spanned the chasm between the shady world of Betueil and Lavan and the pure light of Yitzchak. Rivka is the first to teach Yaacov how to use the marketing skills of packaging to create illusion. She packages Yaacov as Eisav and markets him to Yitzchak.

Yitzchak is no fool.  He realizes that Yaacov has integrated the specialties of Eisav without tainting his own authentic inner voice. He sees that Yaacov now knows how to take on the veneers that make it easier to interface with society without taking on society's inner values. Hakol, kol Ya'acov…the voice is still that same pure voice of Yaacov, even though the manipulative hands are the hands of Eisav. Realizing that in this reinvented son he has the synthesis of his twins, he has the integration and the peace, he gives Yaacov the blessing that makes him the father of Israel.

The famous ladder of Yaacov's dream is the clearest image of this newly reinvented man. It is firmly planted on the ground of daily life, yet its head is in the Divine heavens. This ladder conducts a constant flow of energy between heaven and earth: "and the angels of G-d were using it to ascend and to descend." Yaacov connects heaven and earth; he lives in both places. He is a worldly operator yet his head and his heart are anchored in G-d's heavens. He may change his clothes to fit in better with his surroundings even dressing up at times like Eisav himself. But you can always recognize the Jew in him by his inner voice, the tone with which he communicates and the sanctity of his speech and gestures. Yaacov is ready to father the Jewish nation, the nation whose mission is to link heaven and earth and conduct Divine energy from heaven to earth and back again.


My wife doesn't "get" me!

Yaacov's ability to retain his purity even while successfully engaging with the rogues of the world was so unique that even his wife Leah could not relate to it. She never fully "got" him, and he resented that.

The Midrash (Rabbah70:19) tells how Yaacov accuses Leah of deceit the morning after their wedding. He doesn't object to her participation in the scam, he recognizes that she had no say in that. What he does accuse her of is answering to him when he called her "Rachel" in the night; that was deceitful. She retorts with a counter accusation: "Did you not teach me how to lie? Did you not deceitfully answer to the name "Eisav" when your father called you that?" On the surface her claim appears to be valid. But it is out of these words, the Da'at Zekeinim Miba'alei Hatosfot say that Yaacov began to hate her. He hated her because she could not see the difference between the way he handled deceit and the ways her father and brother, and even she herself do. Ya'acov lied on one occasion when he had to secure the future of the Jewish people But that lie never affected who he was, it never distorted his inner integrity and never concealed his essence. Had Leah understood that, she would have realized that his deceit did not give her license to lie to her beloved husband in their marriage bed. And he despised her for that.

Despite the unfairness with which he was dealt in the home of his in-laws, Ya'acov develops his new talents further and learns to live amidst wicked people. He learns to do business with them, marry into their family and throughout it all to retain his sanctity and purity:Im Lavvan garti vetaryag mitzvoth shamarti" - I have lived with Lavvan but maintained my strict adherence to every one of the 613 mitzvot all of the time, he later declares.

Founding the Jewish Nation

Then the time comes to confront Eisav again. Here too we see the master operator, diplomat, marketer working his way into Eisav's heart with sweet praise and lavish gifts dramatically presented for maximum effect. He has learnt the art of public relations; he has mastered the method of Eisav. Again however, it is in the voices that we experience the differences between these two extremely wealthy and powerful twins. The difference is in the way they see and experience their wealth. For Eisav it is "Yeish li rav"  - I have amassed fortunes. For Yaacov it is "Yeish li kol" - I have as much as I need  (Rashi 33:11) Eisav measures wealth by its quantity, Ya'acov measures it by how much more it is than what he needs. Eisav sees his wealth as the fruit of his own efforts; Yaacov sees it as a gift from G-d. Two different cultural perspectives on wealth and religion: Eisav who does not see G-d when he is in business, and Yaacov who sees G-d in everything.

This is the essence of the unique culture that is the Jew. Eisav can only achieve sanctity through insulation and isolation from life, and closes the door on his religion when he goes out to work. Not so the Torah Jew. The Jew sees the world differently. He sees a harmonized world of spirituality contained in physical dimensions. He sees G-d in his work. The same word, Avodah, is used to describe work at business or the professions as well as to describe avodat Hashem, spiritual practice and worship of G-d.

The Jew's mission is to link heaven and earth and conduct Divine energy from heaven to earth and back again. He is designed to be able to accomplish this. The Jew connects heaven and earth; he lives in both places. While operating in this world, his mind contemplates G-d in Heaven. He adapts his veneer to suit his surroundings but you will always recognize the Jew in him by his inner voice, the tone with which he communicates and the sanctity of his speech and his gestures.

Living both in the world of man and the world of G-d the Jew can bring the perspectives of one world to the other and challenge them both. And he can emerge victorious in both worlds: "you have battled with G-d and with man and you have been able". This man is no longer Yaacov, the one whose purity depends on his delegating the operations of life to his brother. This is a man who can be operationally effective in a complex world and be perfect in his purity all at once. This, is YISRAEL.

Latest update: October 18, 2014

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