Toldot – my words 7 years ago – do they still apply now?

I gave this talk at Yom Kippur in the fall of 2008, not long before the U.S. elections that year. It draws heavily on parts of our upcoming Torah portion, Toldot.

Yom Kippur D’var Torah 5769                  By Rabbi Maurice Harris

A long time ago, a matriarch of our people went through an agonizing pregnancy.  Her name was Rivka, or Rebecca in English, and Genesis tells us that she went through excruciating physical pain while she was carrying twins.[1]  The text, written in poetic Hebrew, reads:  “…the children struggled in her womb, and she said, eem ken, if it has to be like this, lammah zeh anochi, why should I exist?”

Rebecca was a decisive woman, and she went directly to God to ask for guidance or an explanation.  God answered her with a prophecy:

שְׁנֵי גֹיִים בְּבִטְנֵךְ – two nations are in your womb.

וּשְׁנֵי לְאֻמִּים, מִמֵּעַיִךְ יִפָּרֵדוּ – and two separate peoples will issue out from your body.  One people will be mightier than the other, and the older will serve the younger.[2]

And God’s words were fulfilled.  Rebecca gave birth to twin boys, Esau, who came into the world red and hairy, and Jacob, who followed grasping onto his brother’s heel.  According to tradition, Jacob went on to be the forefather of our people.  Esau went on to be the founder of the ancient nation of Edom.  The rabbis later told us that Esau was also the father of their arch-enemy, the Romans.

Today we are all like our ancestor, Rebecca, on two fronts.  First, we are, as Americans, pregnant with twins.  Two nations are within us, two competing visions of what this country should be.  Similarly, as Jews who love Israel, we are also pregnant with twins.  Two Israel’s are within our people’s consciousness – competing visions of what Israel should be.  Each of these sets of twins have been locked in a painful struggle of wills for a long time, but we are on the verge of a birth here in the US and in the land of Israel as well. Continue reading “Toldot – my words 7 years ago – do they still apply now?”

Esau’s Kiss – D’var Torah

D’var Torah – Dorshei Tzedek, West Newton, MA – Dec 6, 2014

Parashat Vayishlach – “Esau’s Kiss”

Rabbi Maurice Harris

We’ve been reading in our recent parashahs the saga of the life of Jacob. I’m sure folks here are pretty familiar with it, but it never hurts to start with a quick plot summary. I hope you won’t mind if I quickly recap what’s happened prior to and including this week’s portion. Abraham and Sarah’s son, Isaac, had married a woman named Rebecca, and Rebecca became pregnant with twin boys who struggled physically with each other in her womb. In fact they struggled so much that Rebecca at one point cried out in anguish and asked what the point of her existence was. Finally, she gave birth to the two brothers. Esau, the first born by just seconds, had reddish features and grew to be a strapping, muscular, and quite hairy hunter. Jacob, who the text tells us emerged from the birth canal grabbing on to Esau’s heel, is of slighter stature and, according to later rabbinic midrash, he is bookish and studious.

The rabbis who gave us midrash would sometimes retroject images of themselves back onto the heroes of the Bible, such as picturing Jacob as a skinny and introverted Torah scholar. In fact, we even have examples of midrash that depict God studying the Torah and weighing the merits of different rabbis’ interpretations of each word! I guess we tend to see what we’re looking for much of the time – let’s hold on to that thought.

Anyway, getting back to the twins, Esau and Jacob. As you may remember, they end up in bitter conflict over issues of inheritance, first-born status, and pride. Families can just be awful, right? We know from the text that it turns out Rebecca and Isaac don’t see their kids in the same way. Rebecca sees Jacob as destined to carry on God’s covenant with Abraham and Isaac, whereas Isaac tends to favor Esau, who is good with a bow and provides delicious meals of venison. The Torah uses sight as an important symbol in this story, hinting that Isaac can’t see the big picture by telling us that he has become blind in his later years.

Continue reading “Esau’s Kiss – D’var Torah”