Monthly Archives: November 2011

Why Esav Turned Bad – the Problem with Modern Orthodoxy

Why did Esav (Esau) turn bad?  How is it conceivable that a child born to the righteous Yitzchak (Isaac) and Rivka (Rebekah) should turn out to be such a wicked personality – to embody none of the values for which his parents would have hoped?

Esav is violent, angry, vengeful, murderous, impetuous and dismissive of all that is holy. He places instant gratification above any other value. This is not medrash (homiletic interpretation), it is the plain meaning of the text, and it cries out for explanation – what made Esav wicked?

We might think that Yaakov (Jacob) was to be good and Esav was to be wicked was already foretold, that Hashem had already told Rivka that there were two nations in her womb, that they would struggle with each other and – rav ya’avod ha-tzair – ultimately, the older will serve the younger. But we don’t believe that. We believe in free choice. Nobody is destined to be righteous or wicked. It is in our hands, it is never fated. This is an article of Jewish faith.

So where did Esav go wrong?

As a starting point to answer this question, I’d like to take the words of Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, the 19th century biblical commentator. It was, he says, a failure of education.  Esav wasn’t born bad, he wasn’t destined to be bad, but he became bad, and, as he reached adulthood, mistakes his parents had made in educating him became more and more pronounced.

Now Rav Hirsch doesn’t tell us much about what these mistakes were (and, ultimately, we all need to take responsibility for our own failings, not blame our parents) but I think that the story of Esav provides a dramatic and compelling lesson to the modern Jew, and especially the Modern Orthodox Jew.

Let’s begin with Yitzchak. How much do we know about this enigmatic character?  At first glance, not so much. We are used to thinking of Yitzchak as an incredibly passive individual … blind, literally and figuratively, unable to see the nature of his children, unable to get himself a bride, a remote, mystical figure, blind and withdrawn from the world after the Akeidah (Binding [of Isaac]).

But there is another Yitzchak. One that we meet, but often fail to recognize, boldly portrayed in this week’s parsha (weekly portion of the Torah).  In fact, the Yitzchak the Torah tells us about is the opposite of the Yitzchak we think we know.

Vay’ahev Yitzchak et Esav ki tzayid pifeev – Yitzchak is not so withdrawn from the world that he doesn’t enjoy a good meal, a nice steak now and again. As he prepares to give his son the blessings, he tells Esav:

 וַעֲשֵׂה-לִי מַטְעַמִּים כַּאֲשֶׁר אָהַבְתִּי, וְהָבִיאָה לִּי–וְאֹכֵלָה:  בַּעֲבוּר תְּבָרֶכְךָ נַפְשִׁי, בְּטֶרֶם אָמוּת.

Make for me tasty food that I love, and bring it to me, so that my soul may bless you.

But it’s not just Yitzchak’s love of a good meal that stands out. Yitzchak is, contrary to the way we imagine him, an extraordinarily successful businessman – a prosperous magnate, a self-made man.

Yitzchak is living amongst the Philistines. There is a famine, and Hashem tells him not to go to Egypt – which suggests that there couldn’t have been enough food to eat – but rather stay in the land. And so Yitzchak, despite the famine, turned his hand– not as Avraham (Abraham) or Yaakov (Jacob), to shepherding, but – to farming. And he planted crops.

וַיִּזְרַע יִצְחָק בָּאָרֶץ הַהִוא, וַיִּמְצָא בַּשָּׁנָה הַהִוא מֵאָה שְׁעָרִים; וַיְבָרְכֵהוּ, יְהוָה.

וַיִּגְדַּל, הָאִישׁ; וַיֵּלֶךְ הָלוֹךְ וְגָדֵל, עַד כִּי-גָדַל מְאֹד

In short, he became a self-made millionaire, a wealthy, property owning magnate. As he grows, so is he persecuted, and Yitzchak gets up and goes to new places, to establish himself, over and over again. When he sees the wells that his father had dug being filled in, he goes ahead and digs them afresh.

This is not the passive Yitzchak – this is active, successful, prosperous, strong, confident Yitzchak.

So who was Yitzchak?

I want to suggest, that Yitzchak is our role model for the Modern Orthodox Jew.  The patriarch who most readily fits our definition and self-image of the kind of Judaism we should be living.

Why did Yitzchak love his food so much? The Ramban (Nachmanides), gives an astonishing answer. Yitzchak loved food – meat – because it got him close to G-d. Ramban compares Yitzchak to Dovid Hemlech (King David) and other prophets whose souls were stirred, whose spiritual side was aroused by music.

Yitzchak didn’t reject the world, he loved the world. He saw beauty and a chance to get close to G-d by fusing the spiritual and the physical. His was not the Judaism of those who reject the physical world. For Yitzchak, nothing helped him get into the state of mind to convey the deepest blessing, as a fine meal.

And as the Ramban suggests, he shared that love of this worldly experiences with many other prophets for whom music, and perhaps other sublime manifestations of the beauty of this world, were deeply spiritual moments.

Moreover Yitzchak is accessible to us as Modern Orthodox Jews because he is a phenomenally successful business man.  He understood Hashem’s command to stay in the land as a mandate to work. Work hard, prosper, and keep on prospering until he was blessed beyond imagination:

וַיְהִי-לוֹ מִקְנֵה-צֹאן וּמִקְנֵה בָקָר, וַעֲבֻדָּה רַבָּה

This was, Yitzchak understood, what Hashem wanted from him – his fulfilling of his mission to take hold of the land, by working, making his mark, rising to prominence, achieving the gifts of wealth and prosperity. Yitzchak models for us the aspect of divine service that is succeeding, and succeeding as a Jew, in the modern world.

And he shows that, as he succeeds, he doesn’t (G-d forbid) forget his heritage. As they cover up his father’s wells, so he digs them again, and names them the same names his father used. As he faces hatred and anti-Semitism, he doesn’t lower his profile to fit in, he courageously leaves it all behind, and goes to a new place, and begins his work again.

And in his relationship with his wife, Yitzchak shows that, for him, an observant Jew, it is not necessary for his wife to sit at the back of the bus – that a more normal interaction is, perhaps, permissible.

So we see a Yitzchak who is in many ways so like us – a business man, a professional, an individual not only unafraid to succeed in life, but also to do so as a Jew – committed to his values and his heritage, but also to living as part of the world. Moreover, an individual fully aware of the possibilities of integration, of the idea that the genuine pleasures of this world – be they food, culture or an appreciation for beauty and the sublime – are of deep spiritual significance.

So what went wrong?

How did he have a son, Esav, who went so badly off?

The son, paradoxically, to whom he was so genuinely close.

It is at this point that I have to disappoint. I do not come to criticize Yitzchak, chas v’shalom (G-d forbid), to explain how we are so much better than the Avot (forefathers). We will have to suffice with Rav Hirsch’s insight that a mistake was made, that somehow these values failed to be transmitted.

So rather than finding shortcomings with Yitzchak, let’s instead hold up a mirror to ourselves.

Our value system of modern orthodoxy, too, emphasizes, champions, idealizes all the values we have discussed – success, prosperity, hard work, not cutting ourselves of from society but engaging in it, a belief that life can be grand, contain the finest of everything, and still be spiritual.

But here honesty is required. Do we understand the lives we lead?  And, if we do, do the people around us – our families, our co-religionists, our colleagues, our children?

When we place so much stress on professional and business success, of working so hard, making so many sacrifices for a career, perhaps we understand that this is a form of being a partner with G-d, of leaving a mark on the world, of fulfilling the divine command to Adom (Adam) to work and guard the garden, to labor and enjoy the blessings.

But are we able to explain that to our children?

Do we tell them that that is what we are doing, that that is what we believe? Or, do we unwittingly communicate to them that money, property and riches are all an end in themselves?

And when we enjoy all of the opportunities to find spirituality in the world we live, we may understand that this fine wine, served l’kavod Shabbos (for the honor of the Sabbath), or this exquisite gourmet food, cruise, opera, avid following of sport is all a vehicle to elevate the physical to the spiritual. But are we sure that our kids, our colleagues, our neighbors get that? Might it not be possible that one could observe our lifestyle and mistakenly think there is little spiritual about it? Our love and passion for all that is new and trendy is not so spiritual, but means that, instead, we are highly materialistic people?

To succeed as Modern Orthodox Jews, we need to talk. We need to explain, teach and communicate our values. We need to be able to demonstrate clearly to each other that our values, our ideals, are indeed holy and spiritual, that our love and attachment to this world, and its pleasures and blessings, are deeply held spiritual values, rooted in our understanding of what Hashem demands of us, with clearly drawn boundaries. We need to show, by example and by word of mouth, the spiritual – not merely the physical – joy we get from our lifestyle.

This is not really about Yitzchak, it is about us. We find that, sometimes, our own children and peers –products of the finest Modern Orthodox institutions – all too frequently, abandon our value system.

Our children, even in challenging moments, are not Esav. But if they have become ish sadeh – consumed by an entirely materialistic set of goals – it might be that we haven’t talked openly, passionately, freely about our own spiritual desires. If they have become the kind of people who, if not actually selling their birthright for the instant gratification of a meal, are at least prepared to exchange the beauty of Shabbat for the immediacy of a text message, do we, at least, see what it is in our value system that might have led them to this?

If we send our kids to college campuses where they will face hostility for their love of Israel, and we fail to explain to them why our enemies have always hated us, and how much more determined that should make us, can we be surprised that under-30s are so turned off by Israel?

The way to transmit Judaism – to the next generation and to those around us – is more than just by living our values. It is by talking about them, educating, being clear – and by using the questions and challenges that will result as an opportunity to strive for our own higher standards.


Columbia University, Efron the Hittite and a Matter of Perspective

I don’t know if people have been following the homophone of the week: The band got banned.

Apparently Columbia’s marching band has been suspended from playing at the final football game of the season because, last game, they changed the lyrics of the school fight song from, “Roar, Lions, Roar” to “Lose, Lions, Lose.” Now, they did have a point. After all, the Columbia Lions football team does have 9 losses this season and 9 fewer wins. And, of course, I take some delight in the fact that this may be one of the only schools where the band makes fun of the jocks. But still, I couldn’t believe that students would mock other students that way – people who practice for hours each week, even if they are unsuccessful. That was my read on the situation, until I spoke with a Columbia student this week.

Oddly, the conversation brought me to today’s parsha. The parsha opens with an important exchange of property, an exchange so significant that it leads hundreds of people to flock to Hebron each year for Parshat Chaye Sarah, an exchange so significant that it is mentioned at the very beginning of the Gemara Kiddushin to teach us some halacha about acquisitions. I refer, of course, to the exchange between Avraham and Efron in which Avraham buys the Cave of Machpelah and the land around it.

The way we are usually taught this story is as follows: Poor Avraham, he had nowhere to bury Sarah, and he went to the Hittites, the bnei Chet, to ask for a plot of land. And of course, being the honest and genuine person that he was, he offered to pay. “No, please, we’ll give it to you for free.” But he insisted and bowed to them and called himself a stranger – self-effacing, humble, meek. And then, of course, he was squeezed privately by Efron for every penny and more. Poor Avraham, tsk, tsk.

But that may be a mistaken reading.

After all, there are some questions here: Why does Avraham go to the whole group of bnei Chet and only later ask for Efron? I don’t know about you, but when I buy property, הלואי (if only!), I don’t go to all of the tenants in the building, ask them for the property and then ask them to introduce me to the landlord. I go straight to the landlord. Avraham clearly knew Efron’s name. Why not go straight to him?

But more to the point, let’s see what Avraham actually said to the Hittite people:

גֵּר-וְתוֹשָׁב אָנֹכִי, עִמָּכֶם; תְּנוּ לִי אֲחֻזַּת-קֶבֶר עִמָּכֶם, וְאֶקְבְּרָה מֵתִי מִלְּפָנָי.

I am a wanderer and a resident among you; please give me a burial plot among you, and I shall bury my dead.

What about the money? If Avraham is so intent on paying for this, why doesn’t he mention that? He asks for a gift, and only once he is told that he can have it, does he say, okay, I want to pay for it.

We tend to read Avraham in this scenario with the principle of “charity.” This term, coined (pun intended) by Willard Van Orman Quine, an early 20th century philosopher, means that when a person says something that contradicts his/her earlier statements or is simply nonsensical, we strive to find a reading that makes sense, a charitable reading. We do this all the time. In fact, Rabbi Ausubel suggested to me that this is similar to auto-correct on the computer or the phone. You were trying to say x, but made a mistake, and the technology figures out how to read your words sensibly.

Why did Avraham go to the whole tribe of Hittites? Says the Rashbam: in the ancient world, when buying a burial plot, one needed the permission of the whole tribe. And Ramban explains that Avraham could not just walk up to Efron, Efron was a high profile man. Avraham needed someone to get him an audience with Efron. But furthermore, and here is the charitable reading, Avraham does not misrepresent his interests; he did not mean “give” for free, he meant “give” for a price, but he will cherish it as though it were a gift. Avraham is totally consistent.

We have a family friend who is a high profile criminal defense attorney. He tells us that he opens every argument with the following story:

A vegetable vendor with a horse-drawn cart is moving his good around the streets, when suddenly his cart is knocked over by a passing carriage. Everything is a mess – the horse is down, the vendor is down, and the vegetables are strewn everywhere. His produce is ruined. So, of course, he sues. In the courtroom, the defense calls the police officer who had been the first responder. And they ask, “When you found the plaintiff, what did he tell you?” “He said, I’m okay. I’m okay.” Everyone is puzzled. The plaintiff then takes the stand, and is asked, “How do you respond to what the police officer said? He said that you claimed to be fine when he arrived?” “Well, you have to understand. Let me paint a picture. The vegetables were everywhere, I was down on the ground, my horse was down, and even a dog had gotten caught in the accident and was lying down whimpering. With his gun out of his holster, the officer walks up to the dog, gives it a kick – Are you okay? – No response, so he shoots the dog. He goes over to my horse, nudges him with his arm – Are you okay? -No response, so he shoots the horse. The officer comes up to me, puts his hand on my shoulder, and I scream, ‘I’m fine! I’m fine!’”

Some (notably, Rabbi Yonatan Grossman of Migdal Oz) follow in the footsteps of the Radak, Rabbi David Kimchi, in saying that actually Avraham did misrepresent himself. He came forward and said, “Please give me land; I am in an urgent situation of bereavement and have nowhere else to turn,” and when they said “yes” because how could they turn him away in such straits, he said, “Okay, well then, can I buy it?” If they are willing to give it for free, surely they are willing to let him buy it! But of course they did not want him to buy it. What sovereign tribe wants an outsider purchasing their land and removing it from their possession? It’s the way of the world, throughout history, and unfortunately today it is happening in parts of the world we care about deeply. No, the Hittites will let him use the land, but not buy it – they wanted to do him a favor, to have him beholden to them, not to have independent ownership of their land. So they appear gracious, “Oh, no, we couldn’t possibly take money.” But he bows to them, “I am no threat, I am at your mercy, I am merely a wanderer, I insist on paying.” And when Efron shows up, he does not want to sell the land to Avraham either, so he feigns magnanimity – “I’ll even throw in the field around the cave, that’s how kind we are to you.” And Avraham sees his chance, “Wonderful, so then I should be able to buy the field as well!” And then Efron takes him aside – apparently, his greed leads him not just to take advantage of Avraham’s willingness to pay; his greed leads him to betray his own tribe – “Okay, you can buy it, but ביני ובינך, just between us, don’t tell anyone. I’ll give you the deed to the land.” And then, what does Avraham do? In the next two psukim, Avraham gives him the money IN FRONT OF EVERYONE so that the Hittites would know that Avraham now owned a piece of land.

When I spoke to a Columbia student this week about the band, she said, “What if I told you that the football team and the band planned it together as a publicity stunt. Would that change your perspective?” “Sure.” “Well, anyway, that’s not what happened, but it’s good food for thought.”

There’s more than one way to read a situation. We often look for Avraham to be meek, to be the victim, almost the nebuch just keeping his head down and doing the right thing. But sometimes “reading with charity” turns people into charity cases. We miss Avraham’s negotiating tactics, his brilliant diplomatic acumen. It is Avraham who wins the day here; he is manipulating the situation.

Sometimes when we jump to the most obvious reading, we miss the most obvious and critical point. If only we would take a step back and re-evaluate, consider a different perspective, perhaps we would see something else. And more important than doing this in the case of text, is being able to do this in real life.

Shabbat Shalom


Posted by on November 19, 2011 in current affairs, Mrs. Elana Stein Hain, parsha

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