Toldot: Honoring Through Actions

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Toldot

Good morning! We saw the first frost in the Hudson Valley this week
(well, it was the first frost that I saw), and there’s a nip in the
air, just the perfect weather for hot soup- red lentil soup, maybe?
Red lentil soup would not only be a good idea for the weather, but
would remind us of one of the central themes of this week’s Torah
portion, Toldot: the tricky relationship between the two sons of
Yitzhak, Esav and Yaakov.

Yaakov, as many of you may remember, bought his older twin’s
birthright of the firstborn for a pot of lentil soup. Some years
later, he tricks their father, Yitzhak, into giving him the blessing
due his older brother. This happens when Esav is out in the fields
hunting game at his elderly father’s request:

“When Yitzhak was old and his eyes were too dim to see, he called his
older son Esav and said to him, ‘My son.’ He answered, ‘Here I am.’
And he said, ‘I am old now, and I do not know how soon I may die.
Take your gear, your quiver and bow, and go out into the open and hunt
me some game. Then prepare a dish for me such as I like, and bring it
to me to eat, so that I may give you my innermost blessing before I
die.’ ” (Bereshit/Genesis 27:1-4)

The Renaissance-era Italian commentator Ovadia Sforno (a.k.a. just
Sforno) suggests that Yitzhak asked Esav to get some meat for him so
that Esav would do the mitzvah of honoring his father, and thus be
worthy of the blessing to follow. This interpretation may or may not
be the most plausible explanation of Yitzhak’s request, but it fits
well with the general understanding of what it means to fulfill the
commandment of “kibud av ’em,” or honoring one’s father and mother.

This mitzvah is recognized as one of the “Aseret HaDibrot,” or “Ten
Speakings,” known in English as the “Ten Commandments,” and found in
Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. (As Jews, however, we don’t like to imply
there are only ten, important as those are.) The rabbi known as the
Chafetz Chayim, whose “Concise Book of Mitzvot” we have referred to
before, lists honoring one’s father and mother as a separate
commandment from “revering” them, as they are derived from different
verses: compare Shmot/Exodus 20:12 to Vayikra/Leviticus 19:3, for
example.

However, for today’s purposes, it’s important to note that Yitzhak’s
request that Esav bring him his favorite food precisely fits the way
many sources understand the practical application of honoring one’s
parents; that is, one assists them, cares for them physically and
preserves their dignity as well as one reasonably can as long as such
requests don’t conflict with another mitzvah. Honoring one’s parents
is done even after they are deceased, as for example observing the
customs of mourning or donating to charity in their memory.

Many years go, I heard a story from Rabbi Howard Alpert, then as now
the Director of Hillel organizations in the Philadelphia area. He was
visited by a young woman whose parents had not treated her kindly
(probably an understatement) but as a matter of religious observance,
she understood that she had a mitzvah to honor people with whom she
didn’t have a close or warm relationship. Rabbi Alpert opened up a
Torah commentary and pointed out that the Torah does not command us to
love our parents; the mitzvah instead is to honor them with certain
actions which embody the consciousness that they brought us into the
world. This gave the student a framework for fulfilling the mitzvah
without having to fully resolve complicated emotions.

I’m paraphrasing R. Alpert’s language, but the central point is this:
the mitzvah of honoring parents has to do with actions, not feelings.
Family relationships are complicated, but as Jews, we believe that
life is a gift, and honor is due those who gave it. Seen this way, the
mitzvah of honoring parents can be understood as a discipline of
gratitude for life itself.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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