2015-11-11 / Religion Column

The Torah is often a revolutionary manifesto

Cong. B’nai Tikvah- Beth Israel

Parashat Toledot Gen. 25:19-28:9

In the Torah, it being a story reflective of life itself, one does not find harmonious families, where every member simply and always loves the other. In the second generation of humankind, Cain kills his brother Abel. In the second generation of Jewish history, Isaac and Ishmael do not get on. It seems that sibling rivalry is at least as old as the Torah itself. However, why does the Torah, a moral, ethical and religious code, explicitly describe the dysfunctional dimensions of so many of our role models?

Toledot focuses upon the story of Esau—a physical, brash and impulsive hunter—and Jacob, more cerebral, gentle, thoughtful and patient but also an opportunist and a problem-solver. Even from their earliest days in their mother’s womb, they fight with one another. Throughout their early years, they squabble over their father’s birthright. Esau, as the oldest son, is legally entitled to this birthright. Yet the story ends with Jacob, at least through opportunism, receiving it.

The stereotype of goodness and justice demands that Jacob’s opportunism should be punishable, but Jacob is rewarded and acknowledged as one of our three patriarchs during every prayer service. Esau, on the other hand, is mentioned only in these early stories, and then in later parts of the Bible as the forerunner or our enemies, Edom and Amalek. What is going on?

Our Torah is a revolutionary document. It has no qualms acknowledging ancient norms, such as the automatic transfer of a special birthright to every oldest son, regardless of who that son may be. On the other hand, the Torah is not afraid to reject and replace such traditions when they no longer make sense. While the biological status of a first-born son has unique status known as the “bachor,” the Torah rejects biology as the sole definer of one’s worth. A person’s birthright does not presuppose ones “life-right.” The Torah cares more about how we live our lives, as opposed to what one deserves due to an inherited status.

The sanctity and volatility of family is inherent throughout the Torah. Yet the Torah appreciates that biology by itself cannot sustain a family. Each person’s birth-right is to be part of a family. Each person’s “life-right” is to determine the quality of that family. When ancient laws impose rights on the undeserving, our Torah revolutionized social practice by taking them away. When we trace the life of Jacob, he never repeats the same mistake or wrong more than once. He also allows others in his family to forgive and to be forgiven.

By doing this, he establishes his right as a progenitor of the Jewish people. May we not take our birthright as Jews for granted, but live our lives in a manner that is worthy of our inheritance, including modifying and changing ancient traditions when they no longer serve families and communities of love and kindness we are called to create as a core principle of Torah. .

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