Drosho for Toldos 5761

Jan 1, 2004
Toldos 5761

The charges of a stolen election electrified the atmosphere this week. By right and presumption the high calling was his, and he was being deprived of it by chicanery and deceit. He should be the elect, the one called to the bechorah; and Yaakov had tricked him out of it.

Many meforshim wrestle with the question of how Yitzchok could have been so mistaken in Esav; how could he have possibly thought that that Esav, the hunter, the man of the field, was more worthy of the mantle of leadership than the saintly Yaakov, the ish tam, the dweller in the tents of Torah?

There is, in fact, a very cryptic statement of Chazal, which Rashi quotes, which describes how Esav tricked Yitzchak; how he misled him into believing him to be worthy of the berachos. Chazal say that Esav would ask his father: How does one take ma’aser from salt and from straw? And Yitzchak was impressed with Esav’s deep piety.

Now this Midrash seems very strange. Everybody knows that ma’aser is taken only from produce; from fruits and vegetables and grains. All that’s impressive here is Esav’s ignorance!

To understand this Midrash we need to take note of a very remarkable fact. It has been noted by many meforshim that when Yaakov disguised himself as Esav and came to his father, the blessings that his father gave him were entirely and exclusively physical ones: tal hashamayim ushmanei haaretz; the dew from the sky and the fat of the earth. But later, at the end of the parsha, when Yaakov took leave of his father and set out for Lavan’s home, his father – knowing him now to be Yaakov, and not Esav – says to him ve’yiten lecha es birkas Avraham; he passes Avraham’s spiritual legacy on to Yaakov.

It would seem that Yitzchak knew well that the spiritual inheritance of Avraham Avinu belonged to Yaakov, the ish tam yosehv ohalim¸ who dwelled innocently in the tents of Torah. What Yaakov wanted to give to Esav, what he believed would be better given to Esav, were the physical blessings, the bounty of tal hashamayim ve’shemanei ha’aretz.

Because Yitzchak knew that the spiritual pursuits to which Yaakov was called, and the cultivation of this world, could not easily be combined. A person whose energy and talents are poured into the pursuits of this world has that much less of himself to give to Torah; the talents that worldly success requires are different and sometimes opposite to the qualities that are required for Avodas Hashem; and the allure of this world pulls in the opposite direction than does the Torah.

And therefore Yitzchak believed that he had been given two children – Yaakov and Esav – in order that they divide these worlds between them. Let Yaakov stay in his tent and live a life of contemplation and study; and let Esav, the man of the field, contend with this world and provide for his studious brother Yaakov. And in this way Yaakov would be able to devote himself fully, totally, to his spiritual calling and, at the same time, Esav’s worldly pursuits would be elevated – would be given meaning and dignity and purpose – by the fact that they were being used to support Yaakov.

This was Yaakov’s scheme and it was a good one; indeed, it was so good that ultimately it will come to fruition when, as the navi Yeshaya foretells, ve’omdu zarim ve’rau tzonchem u’vnei neichar ikareichem ve’kormeichem; and strangers shall tend your sheep and farms and vineyards, and the Jewish People will devote themselves entirely to the study of Torah.

The mistake, however, lay in thinking that Esav was ready to play such a supporting role. And Esav encouraged the error, as Rashi says, by asking his father how to take ma’aser from salt and from straw. The meaning of this question lies in the fact that straw – the stalks of grain – are what support the fruit – the kernel – and nurture its growth. And salt, in the ancient world, was primarily a preservative, which protected against spoilage. And so Esav was intimating to his father that he was willing to play the role of straw and salt – to be the enabler, the one who would preserve Yaakov and protect him; and by doing so, he would elevate what straw and salt represent, he would elevate the pursuit of this world by giving it spiritual purpose, and bring it thereby into the realm of keduasha, thus allowing it, so to speak, to be tithed.

Rivka, however, saw through the duplicity. Perhaps because she had grown up in Lavan’s house, perhaps for some other reason, she saw through Esav; she realized that he would never be willing to play a supporting role to Yaakov. Were Esav given the berachos, she saw, Yaakov would be left to starve. And so she saw to it that the berachos would go to Yaakov, so that he could carry both burdens; giving some of himself up to the pursuits of this world, to herds and fields and markets, even as he reserved his best energies and enthusiasm for Torah. Either Yaakov would have to divide his time between beis medrash and marketplace, or he would have to divide his children: sending Zevulun out into the world of commerce, and Yissachar off to Yeshivah. Either way would be an uneasy compromise; and either way he would have to constantly remind himself – in the words of the Mishnah - asei Torascha kva u’melachtecha aria, to give primacy to Torah, to remember that the burden of Torah is the one that is truly ours, while the other burden is only borrowed from Esav.

And so it is that we, Yaakov’s children, find ourselves living in two worlds; coping both with the demands of physical existence and with the demands of Torah. Only on Shabbos do we have something of a respite, a time when we can devote ourselves completely to Yaakov’s true calling, to Torah and avodah. But with the close of Shabbos we gird ourselves with the berachos of ve’yiten lecha – the berachos that should have gone to Esav – and take up, again, our double burden. But never should we forget which burden is really ours and which is the one we have only borrowed from Esav; until such time as we can lay it down again and give ourselves up completely to that which is truly ours.


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