Few Biblical struggles, few familial conflicts—in a book filled with stories of intra-family struggles—are as tragic as the confrontation between Jacob and Esau. The twin grandsons of Abraham and Sarah were, from their birth onwards, locked in a constant struggle over inheriting leadership over the family, and of course, inheriting the riches of the land which G-d had first promised to Abraham.
As Parashat Toledot unfolds, we witness Jacob, the younger brother, gaining through guile what had first been granted to Esau by virtue of being born first. Together, Jacob and Rebekah successfully conspired to transfer the blessing Isaac had intended for Esau over to Jacob. Isaac’s blessing bestowed the family legacy, leadership, and ownership of the land to Jacob.
Yet, in the end, we read that Isaac granted an alternative blessing to Esau. Although the two blessings were not identical, Isaac, nonetheless, chose to depart from the tradition of granting a single blessing to his eldest son and instead blessed both of his children.
Isaac’s deed offers us an important lesson in the contemporary struggle for peace. There are many elements in this story all too reminiscent of the conflict between Jews and Palestinians. This present-day conflict is also the story of two nations at war with one another from the moment of conception. And as the tragic violence continues between the contemporary nations, we are reminded that Jacob and Esau also fought over land. We are reminded that Jews and Arabs are both descendents of Abraham and like Jacob and Esau’s situation, the conflict in the Middle East seems to be unsolvable.
However, Isaac’s blessings for Jacob and Esau can give us hope, even now when many despair of ever achieving peace in the Holy Land. Isaac blessed both sons. We must also find ways to share the blessings of our ancestors and to share in the blessings of the land. Now more, than ever, let us remember Isaac’s deeds, and remember that ultimately, peace equals all else.
In our quest to understand the vast depths of Torah, we most often delve into the implied, scholarly, and hidden meanings, but in doing so we sometimes overlook the simple explanations.
In Parashat Vayetzei, we are told, “And Jacob departed Be’er Sheva and traveled toward Charan.” Rashi said: “When a tzaddik leaves a city, the city’s glory, splendor, and beauty depart with him.”
Rashi’s simple explanation teaches a deep and essential lesson in the foundations of human relationships. When we have someone great in our midst we sometimes fail to appreciate his/her full value. Only when that person is no longer with us do we pine over the loss. Whether that person is a parent, spouse, a child or a friend, we often forget to disclose our feelings until it is too late.
In the Shema, we are commanded to serve Hashem “with all you heart, with all your soul, and with all your means.” “With all your heart” is reminiscent of Rosh Hashanah, a time when we open our hearts and approach Hashem with humility; “with all your soul” is a reminder of Yom Kippur, when the Torah commands each of us to “afflict our soul” through fasting; and “with all your means” is representative of Sukkot, when we buy material possessions such as the lulav and etrog to fulfill Hashem’s commandments.
Why wait until they’re gone to remember and appreciate our loved ones? Why wait for the High Holy Days to develop a relationship with Hashem? By reciting the Shema on a daily basis, and digging a bit deeper into its words, we can enhance our perspective on the things that matter most.
Jacob saw his brother, Esau, for the first time after many years of hiding from him. During their childhood, Esau was angry at Jacob because he thought that Jacob had stolen his birthright. Jacob now wanted to give Esau some of his flocks as a peace offering, but Esau declined, saying, “I have plenty. Let what you have remain yours.” But Jacob said, “I have everything.”
There is a world of difference between what Esau meant when he said he has “plenty” and Jacob declaring that he had “everything.” Esau, a selfish person caring only about his materialistic possessions, proclaimed that “I have plenty” because “plenty” is quantitative. His material possessions were what he saw as his net worth. If he were to lose a majority of his possessions, then he would no longer have “plenty.”
Jacob, however, who had his entire family with him, proudly declared, “I have everything.” Our most valuable and prized possessions will always be what money can never buy—our lives, our health and our families. For thousands of years, the wisest men have been preaching this truism. But why do we fail to embrace it?
In interviews with elderly people who look back on a life gone by, they dejectedly speak about how they should have spent more time with their families, taken better care of themselves, and certainly focused less on their careers.
Monetary and career success are wonderful things. We’re all designed for greatness and should strive to succeed and grow in many aspects of our lives. But it’s the priceless things in our lives that we tend to take for granted.
Many people who have wonderful family and their health are unhappy, discontented, and miserable. The reason for this is that they’re usually focused on the same things that Esau was. Instead of appreciating and loving their tremendous and endless amount of true wealth, which surrounds them, they dwell on missed and lost opportunities, the things they don’t have, and all of the possessions they long for.
If you think about “what you have” in the same terms as Esau, then you are certain to have a life filled with frustration, disappointment, and unhappiness. But if you understand the life-changing statement of what Jacob said, and you think about all of the irreplaceable and priceless things you have in your life right now, then you will wake up each morning confidently knowing that you have “everything.”
While Joseph was languishing in an Egyptian jail with two of Pharaoh’s ministers, one morning he noticed they were in a foul mood. What did he say to them? Actually, he didn’t say anything—instead he asked them a question: “Why are you sad today?” which was their cue to unburden themselves to him.
Joseph did something very profound: he didn’t tell them how to feel; instead he gave them an opportunity to talk about their problems. He realized that in 99% of cases people are upset for a reason. The way to help them is to encourage them to talk about their problems and to help them work towards a solution.
The next time you are tempted to tell another to “cheer up” consider that perhaps you are merely furthering his/her misery with your insensitive remark. Here is a simple rule: When you ask someone, “How are you?” Be prepared to wait for the answer. Then, truly listen to what they have to say.
Maimonides wisely advised not to say anything without reviewing it in one’s own mind three or four times before saying it out loud.
If you care about someone who is going through a rough patch, find some time to listen. If you are not good at listening, offer a hug—or a cake.
After interpreting Pharaoh’s dream, Joseph told him that he must stockpile food so that the people could be nourished during the years when food was not abundant. It was wise advice, a plan that Pharaoh charged Joseph to implement. Implicit in the system that Joseph established was a willingness to share Egypt’s bounty with its neighbors. Perhaps that is why it is not surprising that when the region experienced the famine that Joseph anticipated, Jacob sent his sons to Egypt for food.
This is a story about food and survival, but it is also a story about a willingness to share with others. We read about Joseph each year, but it seems that we have forgotten his advice. We do not fill our storehouses during years of plenty, nor do we seem willing to use what we save during the lean years.
While it may be easy to determine the years of plenty and the years of famine when speaking about food, it is more difficult to do so when the conversation is about spiritual sustenance. However, the message is the same: share your bounty with those in need. Judaism provides spiritual sustenance to those who seek it.