Archive for Toldot

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

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,


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Toldot: Prayer and Compassion

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Toldot

For our readers in the 50 States- Happy Thanksgiving! For everybody
else- happy week of portion Toldot, which is the story of Yitzhak,
Rivka, and their children, Yaakov and Esav, twins with a troubled
relationship. At the beginning of Toldot, Yitzhak and Rivka are unable
to have children (like Avraham and Sara in the previous generation)
and thus we read that Yitzhak prays on Rivka’s behalf:

“Yitzhak pleaded with the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was
childless . . . .” (Bereshit/Genesis 25:21)

Our Etz Hayim Torah commentary [the Torah with translation and
commentary that is used in many Conservative synagogues] offers a
beautiful interpretation of this verse. Etz Hayim sees Yitzhak as
being primarily concerned with Rivka’s needs in his prayer, asking not
for himself but for her. Now, it’s true that he probably wanted
children as well, but in my experience, prayer is often most authentic
when it is most generous and least self-centered.

Conversely, it’s also true that praying for another can evoke great
compassion and empathy in our souls, which then enables us to be even
more compassionate in our actions going forward. Prayer and compassion
are linked in a cycle- if we are not compassionate, then prayer for
another can bring us to compassion, and if we are graced with
compassion, then prayer is its fulfillment and strengthening, leading
us back to reaching out to others in love.

Today, when so many of us take time to give thanks for our blessings,
perhaps Yitzhak’s example reminds us to remember others in our
prayers, especially those who do not enjoy the prosperity, freedom,
and security that so many North Americans do. Pray for others at your
table today, and give thanks for the human capacity for
loving-kindness, which is one of the greatest blessings of all.

Happy Holiday and Shabbat Shalom,


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Toldot: Camels and Character, Pt II

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Toldot

Shalom from Silver Spring, Md! This week’s parsha is Toldot, which
begins with the difficult birth of the twins Yaakov and Esav. Yaakov
persuades his brother to sell the birthright of the oldest for a pot
of lentils, and the trouble is just beginning. . . . first his
father, Yitzhak, has some trouble with wells and women with the Philistines.
Then, when Yitzhak is old and blind, he asks his “outdoorsy” son,
Esav, to hunt for some meat, but Yaakov comes first, and tricks his
father into giving him a special blessing for the eldest son. Esav
(as you might imagine) is outraged, and Rivka thinks it’s time for her
son Yaakov to get out of town, so she sends him to her brother’s house
for protection and to find a wife.

Some of you may remember the famous distinction between Yaakov, who
“dwelled in tents,” and his brother Esav, described as a hunter and
“man of the fields, as we read in Bereshit/ Genesis 25:

And the youths grew up, and Esav was a man who understood hunting, a
man of the field, whereas Yaakov was a simple man, dwelling in tents.
And Yitzhak loved Esav because [his] game was in his mouth, but Rivka
loved Yaakov. (25:27:28; compare to the first few verses of chapter
27, as well.)

It’s not clear that the Torah itself has such a harsh view of Esav,
but in later rabbinic tradition, he is seen as a violent and evil
man- it’s rather obvious that portraying him this way releases Yaakov (our
forefather) from the charge of theft and deception when he stole the
birthright- after all, if Esav didn’t deserve it (according to this
line of reasoning), Yaakov didn’t do anything wrong.

The traditional rabbinic denigration of Esav raises complex issues,
which we’ll look at another day (see link below, as well), but for
today, let’s just take it at face value that the ancient rabbis
viewed a hunter and man of the fields as violent, even bloodthirsty. They
saw hunting as a cruel way to kill animals, one that would incite the
passion for blood and killing in a person. This was contrasted- in
the view of our sages- with traditional Jewish methods of slaughter,
which were understood to be more humane, and carried out only by trained,
religiously serious men (in those days, only men.)

Again, I’ll leave aside for now the issue of whether kosher slaughter
(with a quick, sharp knife across the throat of the animal) is always
carried out in the most humane ways in modern times, because I’m
interested in a different point. Last week, when I discussed a
midrash about Avraham’s concern for his neighbors, which led him to
muzzle his camels so that they wouldn’t eat from other fields,
several readers expressed the concern that Avraham may have been a good neighbor, but it seems cruel to muzzle camels when they’re walking through
fields. To put it another way, the challenge from readers was to
connect the idea of Avraham being exceedingly concerned with
the well-being of people with his apparent disregard for the comfort
of animals.

This is a point well taken- traditional Judaism simply presumes that
a person of good character is not cruel to animals, so I didn’t
elaborate when I brought out the midrash on Avraham. What we see in
this week’s parsha is the reverse assumption- that someone who likes
to hunt (as the rabbis think of Esav), cannot be a good person,
because there is enjoyment in the act of killing. The ancient rabbis
were not vegetarians- they assumed the ancient rites of animal
offerings would be brought back some day, and they certainly assumed
people would eat meat. However, the distinction between eating meat-
from animals killed humanely, by professionals- and enjoying the
hunt is also the distinction one could make in thinking about
Avraham and his camels. If (in the midrashic imagination) he muzzled
his camels for the sake of community welfare, we’d assume he did so
in the least restrictive or unpleasant way possible.

Another reader took me to task for pointing out, last week, that one
test of Rivka’s character is her willingness to water Yitzhak’s
camels; the objection was that one can be nice to animals but cruel
to people, so it’s not a good test of character. Fair enough- but
it’s a place to start, and the reverse is presumed to be true- that
if Rivka was NOT nice to the camels, she certainly wouldn’t be a
good wife for Yitzhak.

Judaism, like any system of values and ethics, finds itself
balancing competing “goods;” in this case, it’s good to keep one’s
camels from eating one’s neighbor’s grain, and it’s good to allow
animals as much freedom and comfort as possible. Judaism insists on
the awareness of suffering in others- and “others” does not mean
only human beings. If we are to become compassionate, spiritual
beings, then our compassion will extend to all things; if God’s
mercies are upon all God’s works, then if we are made in the Divine
Image, ours should be too.

shabbat shalom,


For another take on Esav’s character, and a link to the text of the
parsha, click here:

Here’s last week’s Torah study:

Finally, for additional study, Richard Schwartz writes extensively
on animal and environmental issues in Judaism,
and you can find many of his article here:

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Toldot: Seeking out the Lord

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Toldot

This week’s Torah portion, Toldot, begins the story of Yaakov, the
son of Yitzhak, who will eventually become Yisrael, the father of
the 12 tribes. Yaakov’s story begins even before he is born; the
opening verses of the portion tell us that his mother, Rivka
[Rebecca], suffered a difficult pregnancy. The twins in her womb
struggled and caused pain as they developed, foreshadowing
the pain and struggle of their future years.

In fact, Rivka’s pregnancy was so difficult and painful that it
seems to provoke a great sense of spiritual despair, causing her
to question the very meaning of her existence:

” And the children struggled within her, and she said, ‘ If is so,
why do I exist?’ And she went to inquire of the Lord. ” (Genesis

I think most of the people reading this have had the experience
of seeing a friend or loved one in such physical or emotional
pain that they think life just isn’t worth living. Yet look at Rivka’s
response to her own despair- she goes to “inquire of the Lord.”
[An alternate translation would be “to seek out the Lord;” the verb
l’drosh can mean seek or inquire.]

In either translation, what’s fascinating to me is that Rivka
doesn’t ask God to relieve her suffering, but to explain it! I
understand this as her attempt to find meaning or context for her
suffering, to find some sense of hope that the future is worth the
difficulties of the present moment.

After all, human beings are capable of incredible strength and
fortitude if they understand their suffering as meaningful- think,
for example, of the recently deceased Christopher Reeve, who
lived an extremely difficult life, but who was determined to use
his experience for the good of others. Another example would be
the thousands and thousands of volunteers who came to New
York City after 9/11, to do dirty and dangerous work, but for a
cause which transcended concerns for comfort and

Now, to be sure, I don’t believe that physical ailments are
“meaningful” in the sense that God causes illness or pain for
specific purposes; my theology takes the laws of nature
seriously, and that means sometimes people suffer simply
because things go wrong in their bodies, or because of tragic
accidents. Yet the image of Rivka “inquiring of the Lord” is still
powerful, because it reminds us of the basic human need for
meaning, for context, for gleaning wisdom out of our
experiences. None of those things prevent suffering, but all of
them can redeem it, and give us strength to go on when things
get rough.

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Toldot 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Toldot

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Toldot (Gen. 25:19-28:9)


The portion begins with the birth of Yaakov and Esav, the twin sons of Yitzhak and Rikva. The brothers have several tragic encounters in this portion: Yaakov convinces Esav (the older son) to sell his birthright for a bowl of lentils, and later, after the family has traveled to Gerar and dealt with some property problems left over from Avraham, Yaakov dresses up like his brother in order to receive the better blessing from their old and blind father. Fearing for his life, Rivka sends Yaakov off to find a wife from among her clan.


“The youths grew up. Esav was one who knew trapping, a man of the fields, but Yaakov was simple, a dweller in tents.” (Genesis 25:27)


The Torah goes out of its way to tell us about the difference between Yaakov and Esav- they had different appearances at birth, they had different personalities in adolescence, and they will grow up to be very different kinds of adults. Esav is portrayed as a “Field and Stream” kind of guy, a hunter and outdoorsman, while Yaakov is more of a homebody, more intellectual, less physically vigorous than Esav.


Ironies abound in this parsha and the commentaries on it. Esav is called the “man of the fields,” a fact which will have great significance later on when Yaakov steals the blessing from Yitzhak dressed up in the rough skins of his brother. As a result of Yaakov’s deceitful action, he will be exiled and spend many years “in the fields” tending the flocks of his future father in law. Rashi, following Tanchuma and other classic midrashim, explains that Esav’s “trapping” was verbal, not physical. This midrash says that Esav would “trap” his father by deceiving him into thinking he was very pious and observant, whereas he was really a “man of the field,” who liked to pass his time hunting.

According to Rashi, Yaakov’s “simplicity,” therefore, is in direct contrast to his brother’s duplicity and lifestyle. Rashi defines “simple,” or tam, as

    not expert in all of this [Esav’s ways], as his heart, so then his mouth. One who is not sharp in deceiving is called tam.

Now, leaving aside for a moment the traditional rabbinic bias against Esav, (for which there is scant textual evidence, in my opinion), Rashi’s definition of tam is almost astounding, given what’s going to happen later in the portion, when Yaakov deceives his father and tricks him into giving him the blessing of the first born. (Cf. chapter 27.) Other commentaries, seeking to praise Yaakov, define tam– which can also mean plain, or whole- as purehearted, or simple in his faith, or whole in his devotion to Torah study. (The ancient rabbis believed that the Torah was given to our ancestors in Genesis before the revelation on Sinai. Thus, for Rashi, the “tents” in which Yaakov dwelled were places of study.)

Why would Rashi describe Yaakov as a pure and honest man, when just two chapters down the road, he’s going to engage in a complex deception of his father? The traditional commentators certainly sought to praise the characters they understood as heros, and similarly elaborated on the evil of those who came into conflict with the central characters. In the case of Yaakov, they may have even felt some defensiveness, a need to portray Esav as evil and Yaakov as purehearted in order to lessen the severity of Yaakov’s future fraud. After all, if Esav was an evil and scheming man, then he didn’t deserve the blessing anyway, and turnabout would then be fair play.

Perhaps there is a third way to understand Rashi’s description of Yaakov, an interpretation that does not deny what he will later come to do. Perhaps Rashi is hinting that Yaakov was indeed tam, in the sense of simple or straightforward, at that time, even if later on he would engage in an act of deceit. At that point in the brother’s development, Yaakov could be called simple or whole, because that described him as a human being. If, later, he did something wrong or irresponsible, that does not change his essential nature- it just means he did something wrong or irresponsible.

There is a beautiful passage in the first part of the morning prayers- the “blessings of dawn” or birchot hashachar- which begins “My God, the soul you have given me is pure.” Everybody gets to say this blessing in the morning, no matter what crazy thing one may have done the night before. Our souls are pure and whole, even if our actions are problematic. Rashi can call Yaakov tam in his speech and heart, even if he doesn’t always live up to that ideal, because one or two dreadful actions do not change one’s essential capacity for good. Yaakov was tam, even if he could not always live up to it. You and I good people with pure souls, even if we don’t always act to the level of our best selves.

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Toldot 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Toldot

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

The Torah portion Toldot is really the only one in which Yitzhak and Rivka are the main characters; it begins with the birth of Yaakov and Esav, who are portrayed as struggling even in the womb. The twins have several tragic encounters in this portion: Yaakov convinces Esav (the older son) to sell his birthright for a bowl of lentils, and later, after the family has travelled to Gerar and dealt with some property problems left over from Avraham, Yaakov dresses up like his brother in order to receive the better blessing from their old and blind father. Fearing for his life, Rivka sends Yaakov off to find a wife from among her clan, thus setting up the next several parshiot, which tell of Yaakov’s adventures and spiritual growth.

“Yitzhak pleaded with God on behalf of [literally, “opposite”] his wife, for she was infertile. God granted the plea for him, and his wife Rivka conceived.”
(Genesis 25:21)


This is not the first time the Torah presents us with a Matriarch who cannot bear children- this theme was a central part of Sarah’s story, and will appear again with Rachel. Perhaps this reflects a common theme among myths and legends: the birth of great heros must itself be a dramatic story. A more theological perspective might be that the Torah portrays the birth of some central characters as miracles- the more miraculous the birth, the more we the readers realize it is God upon whom the survival and continuity of the Jewish people and its unique blessing depends.

Rabbi Bachya ben Asher, often known as Rabbenu Bachya [“our rabbi Bachya,” who lived in Spain, and died around 1340), asks a subtle question about our verse: why does the Torah mention Yitzhak’s plea to God before telling us what the problem was? In other words, it would seem normal to tell us about a problem (in this case, their inability to have a child), and then tell us what was done about it (in this case, pray intensely.)

Basing himself on an earlier midrash (from the fourth-century collection called Tanchuma), Rabbenu Bachya says that the reason that all the matriarchs had difficulty conceiving is because God wanted their prayers! In this midrash, God wants the prayers of outstanding individuals, and if they had everything they wanted with no struggle, they wouldn’t pray at all. Thus, according to Rabbenu Bachya’s reading, the verse makes sense, because the infertility isn’t the cause of the praying, the praying (or possible lack thereof) is the cause of the infertility! God wanted Rivka and Yitzhak to pray and yearn, and so prevented them from conceiving.

Now, this is a dramatic but problematic interpretation, to say the least. A minor difficulty is that the text here only tells about Yitzhak’s prayer, but the midrash talks about the Matriarch’s prayer; I suppose we can assume that both Yitzhak and Rivka prayed. In fact, Rashi interprets “opposite” in just this way, imagining Yitzhak and Rivka standing in opposite corners of a room, praying together.

From a theological perspective, this midrash gives us even more difficulties. God seems cruel and capricious, putting people in heartbreaking situations just to fulfill God’s own desire- how could a loving God be so selfish? Especially now, when infertility has been recognized as one of the most agonizing and heartbreaking experiences a couple can go through, to say that God deliberately causes such pain is incompatible with our notion of Divine compassion. Furthermore, are we then to say that people who pray intensely, but who don’t get their prayer answered, are not righteous and outstanding individuals? In that case, people would have only themselves to blame for their problems. It may be more realistic and compassionate to recognize that the world works according to certain natural rules, and bad things happen to some wonderful people through no fault of their own. Finally, our midrash could imply that God only wants certain people’s prayers, and not everybody’s! That would go against our deepest intuition that God is the God of all humankind, and that each person is created in the Divine Image.

Yet perhaps if we apply Rabbenu Bachya’s midrash to the realm of personality, rather than biology, there is an insight to be gleaned. First, I think Rabbenu Bachya is correct in reminding us of a common human trait: we often take our good fortune for granted, and only seek a relationship with the Holy One in troubled times. As the old saying goes, “there are no atheists in foxholes-” but when everything is going great, it’s easy to let the practice of gratitude slip away. Like exercise, music, or art, a rich spiritual life requires dedication and discipline; my personal experience has been that it is much easier to find a place of peace in my soul during bad times if I’ve been keeping up spiritual practices during the good times too.

On a more metaphorical note, perhaps we can reinterpret the interpretation, by understanding “barrenness” to refer not to the body, but to the soul. There are times in every person’s life when we feel unproductive, stuck, burnt-out, used-up, stressed, bummed, depressed, you name it. Rabbenu Bachya’s midrash says that God wants the prayers of the Matriarchs, who could not conceive- perhaps implying that when we reach those times of inner barrenness, one proper response is to reach out to the Source of all Life. Sometimes prayer and meditation enable us to “conceive” of things that we might not be able to imagine when we’re stuck in our rut, even if only by widening our perspectives beyond the immediate moment, to a broader view of life and its potential. For example, in our verse, note that Yitzhak prays not that he himself might have a son, but he prays on behalf of Rivka- one might imagine that his compassion and connection to another grew out of seeking spiritual solace and meaning in the midst of his family problems.

Returning to our original problem, Rabbenu Bachya says that the Torah puts Yitzhak’s prayer first, before the specific problem, because it’s a general principle that one deals with the “main thing” [ikar] before incidental things [tafel]. The incidental thing is the crisis of the day, as serious and heartbreaking as it may be. The main thing is how we respond to life’s inevitable difficulties: with prayer or with despair? With faith or with fear? Seeking to learn from our struggles, or letting pain turn us bitter and narrow?

Perhaps God wants our prayers not because God needs them, but because we need them.

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