Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold


“When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors; but Jacob became a mild man, a man of the tent.” (Genesis 25:27)

As a philosophy professor, I have always enjoyed the worldview of Friedrich Nietzsche. I disagree with almost everything he says, beginning with his most famous lines “God is dead.” But I have always learned from him. He taught that Western culture had taken a wrong turn since Socrates, emphasizing reason over passion. This was particularly true during the Enlightenment, with Kant’s famous teaching sapere aude, “dare to reason.” To Nietzsche, it was time to reject the life of reason for the life of passion.
Nietzsche spoke of two brothers, sons of Zeus, Dionysus and Apollo. Dionysus was the god of wine, dance, pleasure, and irrationality. Apollo was the god of the sun, art, music, and rationality. In his book The Birth of Tragedy, he calls for a return to a Dionysian rather than an Apollonian approach to living, a life of passion rather than a life of reason. One of the reasons is that Nietzsche taught a doctrine known as Eternal Return. We will be forced to continually live our lives over and over. If we must live life over and over, we ought to live a life that fulfills our passions. Nietzsche said that each of us should seek to become an Übermensch, “superman” long before Clark Kent. We should live by our emotions rather than by our logic.
Nietzsche was not the only Enlightenment figure to say this. Philosopher David Hume taught, “Reason is the slave to the passions.” Passion is certainly important. But Jewish tradition teaches that our reason ought to control our passions, not the other way around. The Talmud teaches, “Who is strong? Whoever controls their passions.” (Avot 4:1)
The idea of two brothers, one who embodies passions and one who embodies reason, is at the center of this week’s Torah reading. Twin brothers Esau and Jacob fight one another while they are still in the womb. Esau is an outdoorsman, a hunter, a man of passion. He is willing to give up his birthright for a bowl of lentil soup. Satisfying his hunger is more important than his family heritage.
Jacob, on the other hand, is a man of the tent. The Rabbis see him as a man who loves learning, an intellectual, a thinker who sought answers to life’s deepest questions. Rebecca, mother of Esau and Jacob, understands that although Esau is the older son, the covenant must go to Jacob. Jacob becomes the patriarch of a people who devote their lives to intellectual pursuits. To be a Jew, one can live a passionate life, but that passion must be tempered by reason.
Nietzsche had no love of Judaism, nor its daughter religion Christianity. (However, Nietzsche was not an antisemite, unlike his sister who was a vicious Jew hater.) In fact, he was a deeply decent person, who went insane after being attacked for trying to rescue a horse. But Jews have followed a different path. They have realized throughout their history that passion must be ruled by reason. Jews must not give up their heritage because they are hungry for a bowl of soup. They have always treasured the life ruled by reason.
Later Malachi, in the prophetic portion we read this week, says that God loves Jacob and hates Esau. Protestant leader John Calvin learned from this a doctrine of predestination, that God rewards some people and punishes others from the beginning. But perhaps we can reinterpret the prophetic verse. Perhaps God loves people who think before they act, who try to live by their reason. And God dislikes people who act out their passions, without thinking about the consequences of their actions.
The conflict between reason and passion is as old as Greek mythology and the Bible, and as new as today’s headlines. We need a life of passion. But that passion must be ruled by reason. That is why God chose Jacob over Esau to continue God’s covenant.

“When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors; but Jacob became a mild man, dwelling in the tent.” (Genesis 25:27)
There is an apocryphal tale about the Hall of Fame quarterback Sid Luckman. Luckman played for the Chicago Bears for twelve seasons, leading them to four NFL championships. He was the son of Jewish immigrants raised in Brooklyn. According to the story, Luckman invited his parents to sit on the bench during a game. These Lithuanian immigrants did not understand football. As Luckman was running from several large defensive lineman, his dad shouted out, “Give them the ball! We can always buy you another one.”
It is true that most Jewish parents do not raise their children to be professional football players. There were certainly several Jewish professional boxers; Max Baer comes to mind. But when the Village People sang their classic song Macho, Macho Man, they were not thinking of yeshiva students in Brooklyn. The idea of the tough Jew was not part of the Jewish mindset. In the old country, Jews were much more interested in developing their intellect than developing their muscles. Perhaps the list of Jewish athletes is so fascinating because it is so rare. We Jews still brag about how one of the greatest Jewish athletes, Sandy Koufax, refused to pitch in the World Series on Yom Kippur.
This division between Jews and non-Jews can already be seen in this week’s Torah portion. Twin brothers, Esau and Jacob, are raised in the same household. There is tension between them even while they are in the womb. They grow up as archetypes of two very different types of people. Esau was an outdoors man, known for his hunting skills. Jacob was a homebody, a man of the tent, his mother’s favorite. If they lived today, one could see Esau becoming a football player, hockey player, or boxer. Jacob would more likely become the accountant for the team, or perhaps the manager. The stereotype of Jews as gentle, non-athletic has deep roots.
In modern times there are Jews who have tried to break with that image. I have fond memories of our late Education Director, Mordecai Kaspi Silverman. He would regularly go to the firing range, and in his office he kept a collection of knifes. In fact, when my first-born son Natan had his bar mitzvah, Kaspi gave him a large knife as a gift. Kaspi always wore a chain around his neck with the letters O.T.J. After several months, I finally asked him what the letters meant. His answer – “One Tough Jew.” The strange irony is that, beneath that tough exterior, I found Kaspi to be a gentle soul.
The modern state of Israel has made a major attempt to change the image of Jews. Every able-bodied Israeli, male and female, must serve in the Israel Defense Forces (I.D.F.) The picture of Jewish soldiers carrying their Uzis, defending the state is a powerful message, Jews will no longer be pushed around. This is vital in this day of rising antisemitism and anti-Israel feelings around the world. Nonetheless, in spite of the importance of the military in Israel, many in the Haredi or ultra-Orthodox community refuse to serve. When these Haredi rabbis are asked why their young people are not helping to defend the state, they answer, “They are defending the state. They do so through studying Torah.”
I am pleased that Sid Luckman, Max Baer, and Sandy Koufax are examples of how the Jewish world is changing. We still admire Jacob but some of Esau is rubbing off on us. We are recognizing the importance of Jews pursuing not just intellectual scholarship but athletic prowess. Krav Maga, a self-defense course developed in Israel, has become extremely popular. There is nothing wrong with being tough.
Nonetheless, on a regular basis I ask Jewish parents why their children are not in religious school or studying for a bar/bat mitzvah. I often hear that there is no time, their children are pursuing soccer, lacrosse, or gymnastics. After all, if they are talented, they can win a college scholarship. I give a standard answer. “When your child is 40, he or she will not be playing soccer. But he or she will still be a Jew.”

“The children struggled in her womb.” (Genesis 25:22)
One theme that runs throughout the book of Genesis is sibling rivalry. The book begins when Cain murders his brother Abel. The book ends when Joseph finds reconciliation with his brothers, who had thrown him into a pit, leading to him being sold into slavery. Meanwhile, we have other stories such as Isaac and Ishmael, and the sisters Leah and Rachel. But this portion focuses more than any other on the struggle between two brothers, the twins Jacob and Esau.
Even within the womb the twins struggle. They are totally different. Esau is an outdoorsman and a hunter. Jacob is an indoors man, a dweller in the tent. One could sense that Esau is the more physical and Jacob the more intellectual. Today Esau would probably be a blue-collar worker and Jacob a white-collar worker. To make matters worse, their parents played favorites. Isaac favored Esau while Rebekah favored Jacob. In the portion, Jacob convinces Esau to sell his birthright for a bowl of lentil soup. Jacob then fools his father into giving him the blessing meant for Esau. By the end of the portion, Jacob flees the wrath of his brother. We see sibling rivalry at its worst.
Perhaps Genesis is telling us that sibling rivalry is built into the universe. I have certainly seen this as a rabbi. How many weddings have I performed where a sibling, aunt, or uncle of the bride or groom refused to show up?! How many funerals have I performed where two children of the deceased met with me separately, sat on opposite sides of the chapel, and then departed to different shiva homes?! This is frequent, but it is not the way my brothers and I were raised.
Our father used to show us a picture from Boys Town in Omaha. It showed an older boy carrying a younger boy on his back, with the caption, “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.” My dad told us that this is how he wanted me and my brothers to behave towards one another. His lesson must have sunk in because I vividly remember this decades longer.
In speaking about siblings, I have found great wisdom in one rather strange verse from Proverbs and the brilliant commentary of the French rabbi known as the Ralbag (Gersonides 1288 – 1344). The Bible teaches, “A friend is devoted for all times, but a brother is born for trouble” (Proverbs 17:17). At first glance this verse seems to say that friends are wonderful, but siblings are trouble. The Ralbag’s commentary on the verse gives the perfect insight. We can always enjoy time with our friends. They are present to get together or go out. But when we face trouble, it is our siblings who are there for us. “When trouble arises, his brother (he speaks in the male language) rises to help him, his nature causes him to help for he is his flesh and bone.” Siblings help siblings in times of trouble because that is their nature.
My father probably never heard of the Ralbag, but this is what he was trying to teach us. Siblings must be there for siblings. The end of Genesis contains a resolution to the sibling rivalry throughout the book, as Joseph and his brothers hug one another. Even Jacob and Esau have a small reconciliation, although we will not read about it for a few more weeks. And the Midrash speaks about the warm relationship between the brothers Moses and Aaron, each of whom was proud of his sibling’s accomplishments. Moses also prays for healing for their sister Miriam after she is struck with a disease. Siblings care for one another.
There is an old Jewish legend on the reason the ancient Temple was built on a hillside in Jerusalem. At one time that hillside was a farm shared by two brothers. One was married with several children. The other was a lifelong bachelor. They split the crop fifty-fifty. One evening the single brother thought, I have one mouth to feed while my brother must care for so many. He carried part of his crop to his brother’s storehouse. At the same time the married brother thought, I have children to care for me in old age, my brother has nobody. He carried part of his crop to his brother’s storehouse. The two brothers ran into each other, each sharing part of their portion with the other. They embraced one another. This story is the basis of the verse from the Bible, “Here is what is good and what is pleasant, for brothers to dwell together in harmony” (Psalms 133:1).

“The Lord said to her, Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples shall be separated from your bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger.” (Genesis 25:23)
This week we read about the births of the twin brothers, Esau and Jacob. Even in the womb they struggled, causing pain to their mother Rebecca. This struggle would continue throughout their lives. Perhaps the two are not simply brothers, jealous of one another as they seek their parents’ affections. Perhaps they represent two archetypes, two different kinds of human beings.
It is important two note that to speak of archetypes is to speak in vast generalities. Real humans are far more complex, and no one matches an archetype. But as psychologists know, sometimes to speak of archetypes helps us better understand human beings. Esau and Jacob were not simply brothers, but two kinds of people. Esau the older lived by his passions. Jacob the younger lived by his reason. This message could have been entitled “passion versus reason.” The debate between passion and reason has a long history in Western thought. But we can learn from these Biblical stories.
Esau the older is a man who lives by his passions. He is a hunter, an outdoorsman who loves going out into the woods. He is his father’s favorite because he brings him game to eat. When Esau is hungry, he wants to eat. He even gives up his birthright for a bowl of lentil soup. Later, over his parents’ objections, he marries two Canaanite women. Esau will not only eat when he wants to eat but marry whom he wants to marry. His second name is Edom, a term that means “red” in Hebrew. To use a somewhat pejorative term, perhaps he was the first “red-neck.” If he lived today, one can see Esau driving a pick-up truck with a shot gun across the back.
Jacob the younger is a man of reason. He lives in the tent, cooking meals, and according to Rabbinic tradition, studying the Torah. He seems smarter than his older brother, but also more manipulative. He plays on Esau’s appetite, convincing him to trade his rights as a firstborn for a bowl of soup. Later he manipulates his father to give him the blessing meant for Esau. But Jacob will get his comeuppance. Next week we read how Laban, Jacob’s father-in-law, chastises him with the words, “Around here, the older comes before the younger.” Still, Rebecca who carries the twins in her womb, favors Jacob. And according to later prophet Malachi, God also seems to favor Jacob over Esau. “Esau is Jacob’s brother, declares the Lord. Jacob I have loved but Esau I have hated.” (Malachi 1:2-3) Perhaps God wants us to behave by our reason and not by our passion.
Much of Western thought is built on Jacob and the importance of human reason. Nonetheless, not everybody agrees. The philosopher Nietzsche (who famously said “God is dead”) believed that Western thought is on the wrong path. It has followed an Apollonian approach (Apollo, son of Zeus, was the god of the sun and of human reason.) It was time to return to a Dionysian approach (Dionysus, also a son of Zeus and brother of Apollo, was the god of wine and of human passion.) It was time to reject the entire European intellectual tradition of human reason and return to the ancient pagan idea of human passion. To paraphrase Malachi, it was time to hate Jacob and love Esau.
Are humans to live by reason or by passion? Are they to emulate the archetype of Jacob or of Esau? Are they to live according to the Apollonian or Dionysian approach? Allow me to suggest an answer. In a few weeks we will read of the reconciliation between Jacob and Esau. They will embrace and make peace. After all, they are not only brothers, but twin brothers. We humans each have a bit of Esau and a bit of Jacob in us. We are creatures of reason and creatures of passion. We do not need to choose between one or the other, but to find the balance of both. We must become both creatures of reason and creatures of passion.


“The Lord said to her, Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples shall be separated from your bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger.”  (Genesis 25:23)

Has our destiny already been laid out before we were born?  Or are we free to choose our own destiny?  Are we the victims of our fate?  Or are we the masters of our fate?   The ancient Greeks believed in fate.  Oedipus Rex was fated to kill his father and marry his mother, and nothing could stop this plan of the gods from occurring.  The same sense of fate is played out in this week’s portion.

The twins Jacob and Esau have a destiny that is already laid out in their mother’s womb.  Esau the older will be an outdoors man, a hunter, living by his appetites.  The younger Jacob will be a man of the tents, a scholar, and the one fated to continue God’s covenant.  Esau sells his birthright for a bowl of lentil soup.  The older Esau will serve the younger Jacob.  And as the prophet Malachi teaches in the haftarah portion read this week, from the beginning God loved Jacob but God hated Esau.  Esau never had a chance; only Jacob was the chosen one.

This idea of fate or predestination became very important in Christian theology, particularly among some Protestants, most prominently the Calvinists.  Like Jacob and Esau, some people are destined to be saved and some are not.  The destiny of each of us has been decided before birth.  John Calvin (1509 – 1564) taught that all humans are sinners, tainted by the sin of Adam.  None of us is worthy of salvation.  But some people, due to God’s grace, are chosen to be saved.  Nothing we do can lead to such salvation; it is in God’s hands.

This idea became central in the work of Max Weber (1864 – 1920), one of the founders of sociology.  His 1905 book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism asked the question, why did capitalism grow in Protestant rather than Catholic countries?  Weber taught that it was the idea of predestination.  People believed that they were the ones chosen by God if they were prosperous.  And so they worked hard to prosper and prove that they were saved.

Judaism rejects both the idea of original sin and the idea of predestination.  Jacob was loved and Esau hated because of their behavior, not some pre-ordained fate.  But there is a secular acceptance of a kind of predestination popular among secularists including many Jews.  This is the idea that we do not have free will, but our fate is pre-ordained by our genetic code and our upbringing.  Our behavior, some would say our fate, has been decided by both nature and nurture.

Perhaps the most egregious example of this was the famous Leopold and Loeb case, in Chicago in 1924.  Two wealthy Jewish young men, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb lured a young teen, also Jewish, to a deserted area and murdered him.  Their goal was to see if they could commit the perfect crime.  They were caught and their parents hired the famous lawyer Clarence Darrow to argue their case.  Darrow argued that the two young men were victims of their mental state and upbringing.  The murder was no different than a spider following its nature to kill a fly.  Darrow did not succeed in keeping the boys out of jail, but he did succeed in preventing their execution.

The idea is prevalent today that we humans have no free will, but we are simply victims of our inner nature.  It is no different than the ancient Greek notion of fate and the Protestant idea of predestination.  We are not responsible for our actions.   If we are like Jacob we are destined to be good, but if we are like Esau we are destined to be bad.  We are victims of forces beyond our control.

I believe that we are not victims.   We have free will and ability to choose our destiny.  If we make bad choices, we can change our direction and start making good choices.  That the Jewish understanding of the story of Jacob and Esau.

“Isaac dug again the wells of water, which they had dug in the days of Abraham his father; for the Philistines had stopped them up after the death of Abraham; and he called their names after the names by which his father had called them.” (Genesis 26:18)
The election is over. Perhaps now we can stop demonizing one another and start speaking nicely to one another – at least until 2020. I thought it would be fascinating to look at politics from a higher spiritual level, through the eyes of Jewish mysticism. From this lofty perspective it is easier to see the tension between the blue and the red, the left and the right, as part of something universal. How so?
Biblical personalities are more than mere people. According to kabbalistic thought, each Biblical personality, represents a tendency in the universe. Each becomes one of the sefirot, God’s manifestations in the universe. Abraham represents what the kabbalists call hesed – “kindness,” an outgoing tendency in the universe to move beyond one’s self for others. Abraham moves into the land and digs wells. He invites wanderers into his tent and argues for the strangers of Sodom and Gomorrah. Mystics would see Abraham as someone who moves forward into new territory. There is a tendency in the universe to move forward, to evolve, to go beyond one’s self. There is a progressive tendency in the universe. But mystics also believe that moving forwards can lead into chaos. Abraham represents the blue direction. But that direction needs some kind of restraint.
The mystics understood that unlimited hesed is dangerous. Imagine the father, overflowing with compassion, who gives away all of his household’s belongings. Every household needs restraint, something to draw lines and hold back against this progressive tendency. In kabbalah this is called gevurah, literally strength but I define it as “restraint.” Gevurah is holding back, preventing too much progress. And this restraint is represented by Isaac. In this week’s portion Isaac does not dig any new wells. Rather, he revisits the wells previously dug by his father and opens them up. He does not look to the future but the past. Isaac never leaves the holy land his entire life. He represents conservative tendencies. Isaac represents the red direction. But this direction can lead to stagnation.
If Abraham is a progressive, Isaac is a conservative. If Abraham is blue, Isaac is red. In my dissertation and in my new book Three Creation Stories, I speak about these two tendencies in the universe. The universe needs progress. It needs to evolve and change. It needs to dig new wells. But that progress can easily descend into chaos. The universe also needs conservative tendencies, the need to hold onto the path and protect traditions. It needs to return to the old wells that have been stopped up. The universe needs to conserve. But if one is too conservative, there is never change, never progress, the world becomes stagnant.
The kabbalah teaches that there must be a balance between chesed, progress and gevurah, restraint. The universe must both move forward and hold back. Abraham and Isaac, the blue and the red, must be kept in balance. This balance is represented by tiferet, literally beauty but let’s define it as “balance.” According to kabbalah, Isaac’s son Jacob represents tiferet. He found the balance between his grandfather and his father, between the blue and the red. He prevents the tendencies of the universe to go too far in either direction.
It is fun although a bit strange to apply these mystical ideas to a very secular election. But maybe the lesson is that there must be a balance between the blue and the red, between the progressives and the conservatives. Maybe each must look at the other and say, what can I learn. The lesson of this week’s portion is that we need people to dig new wells, but we also need people to uncover old wells. It we can find this balance in our public political life, maybe we will all be a bit kinder to one another.

“Esau said to Jacob, give me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am famished, which is why he was named Edom.” (Genesis 25:30)
Imagine being so hungry that you are willing to give up your birthright for a bowl of lentil soup. That is what Esau does at the beginning of this week’s portion. Esau was a hunter, and a man who lived by his appetites. He comes home from the hunt and sees his brother Jacob, a man of the tent, cooking a red dish. Tradition teaches it was a bowl of lentil soup. Esau begs his brother to give him the soup, so Jacob demands his birthright in exchange. Esau answers, “I am at the point of death, so of what use is my birthright to me.” Esau was a man who could not control his appetite for food.
The Bible is filled with characters who could not control their appetites. Last week I wrote my message about Laban, Jacob’s uncle who could not control his appetite for money. Noah could not control his appetite for wine, planting a vineyard and getting drunk immediately after leaving the ark. King David, spotting Bathsheba bathing on a roof, could not control his appetite for sex. He took Bathsheba, a married woman into his household, and when she became pregnant, he arranged to have her husband killed. How relevant today when on a daily basis we read of powerful men such as movie producer Harvey Weinstein accused of sexual misconduct and rape.
We have a name for the inability to control one’s appetite whether for food, for money, for alcohol, or for sex. We call it addiction. It is a severe problem today, which is becoming more severe in the Jewish community. All addictions can be tragic, but today perhaps the most painful is opioid and other drug addictions. At least four times in the last two years I have conducted or attended funerals for young people who overdosed.
Last week I went to a program on drug addiction at Boca Raton Synagogue, an Orthodox synagogue in my neighborhood. It was sponsored by a family I know who lost their daughter, a beautiful young woman, to addiction. An Orthodox rabbi and a social worker came in from New York to speak, both of whom have dedicated their lives to working with addicts, particularly among Orthodox Jews. But their words applied to all communities, Jewish and non-Jewish, facing addiction issues.
The social worker tried to explain to a room full of people not suffering from addiction what addiction is like. Suppose at the end of the program we served cookies in the back. An average person might take one cookie, might take two or even three. But after eating a few cookies, they would know that they ate their fill. An addict would take a whole tray of cookies, and would desire the last one on the tray as much as the first one. I spoke to someone who told me about her former addition to cigarettes. She mentioned how, even when she was smoking one cigarette, she was thinking about where to get the next one. The cravings are that deep.
Both the rabbi and the social worker mentioned that addiction is not a moral issue. An addict is not a sinner. Blaming an addict for their addiction is like blaming a cancer patient for their cancer. Nonetheless, addiction is a real issue that requires treatment. In the Jewish community, there exists a strong feeling that it is a shanda – an embarrassment, to have someone with an addiction in one’s family. In the Orthodox world, it can lead to difficulties arranging a shiduch – a marriage partner. Denial, both by the addict him or herself and the family, is one of the biggest difficulties preventing proper treatment of addiction.
Our tradition teaches that we humans have appetites; we call these appetites the yetzer hara – the evil inclination. The rabbis said that we need those appetites. Without them nobody would build a house, marry, have children, or conduct business (Genesis Raba 9:7). But some people lose control of their appetites. We need to treat addiction as a problem that can be solved.

“The children struggled together inside her [Rebecca]; and she said, If it be so, why am I thus? And she went to inquire of the Lord.” (Genesis 25:22)
Sunday night I was privileged to hear Dolly Parton in concert. My wife and I received a gift of great seats to hear this marvelous entertainer. She told stories of her childhood, played multiple musical instruments, and sang her hit songs. She also spoke about her many humanitarian projects, proof that one can be both a celebrity and a true philanthropist.
The concert was at the local stadium where the Panthers, our professional hockey team plays. In fact, our seat was on top of the ice. I knew there was a kosher hot dog stand at the stadium and I looked forward to a treat. I was a bit surprised to find out that the kosher food stand was closed. I suppose the owner of the stand, who does a brisk business when the Panthers play, felt there would not be enough kosher business at a show given by a country star. Come to think of it, I saw no yarmulkes and ran into only one person I knew at the concert. Maybe Jews do not appreciate country music.
I began to think about this. Are we a country of two cultures? Are there the people who love country music, the people who visit Dollywood, the “good old boys drinking whiskey and rye?” (Dolly sang that song.) Can you get a kosher hot dog in Dollywood? And then is there the sophisticated Jewish community, the people who may or may not keep kosher, but are more likely to attend a performance of the Met than a performance of the Grand Ole Opry? Are we a nation divided into two types of people? The recent election seems to point in that direction.
This week’s portion deals with the sibling rivalry between two brothers, twins who already began fighting in the womb. They represent two kinds of people. Esau the older was a man who lived by his passions. He loved to hunt and was an outdoorsman, bringing wild game to his appreciative father. He is given the nickname Edom, a term meaning red. Perhaps he was a bit of a redneck. I can imagine Esau today driving a pickup truck with a shotgun on the shelf, perhaps with hunting dogs in the back. Esau would have loved the concert.
Jacob the younger brother was a man of the tent. He liked to cook, and he became the favorite of his mother. The Rabbis later claimed he spent his time in Torah study. Jacob fed the lentil soup he cooked to his brother, in exchange for his birthright. Then he tricked his blind father into giving him the first-born blessing. Jacob, the cook who stayed in the tent, would have loved a kosher hot dog.
Why did Jacob desire his brother’s privileges as the first born? Was there an elitism that was part of his character? As a man of the tent who spent his day learning, did he feel more worthy than his outdoorsy older brother? Esau says that his name Yaakov comes from the term Ekev, meaning heel (he held his brother’s heel at birth trying to get out first.) But it also means crooked or devious. It would take many years and much soul searching before Jacob moved past such deviousness.
Tradition paints Jacob as the good guy and Esau as the bad guy. The book of Malachi quotes God as saying, “I loved Jacob but Esau I hated” (Malachi 1:2-3). But the Torah is far more sympathetic to Esau. One feels Esau’s pain when he cries out and tells his father, did you save a blessing for me? Jacob is eventually punished, at his wedding Laban substitutes Leah for his beloved Rachel. Their father says, around here the older comes before the younger. Still Jacob became Israel and the Jewish people are known as the people Israel. He is our father.
In the recent election, does Jacob represent the coasts of our nation and does Esau represent the flyover middle of our nation? Is there an elitism that has invaded the Jewish community, a sense that we are better than others? Do we suffer from the hubris of Jacob, feeling he was more deserving than his brother of the blessing? If so, then we should look at this story as a chance to do some soul searching?
In the end, Jacob and Esau will have a reconciliation. They will hug each other as brothers. In our nation, I would like to see a reconciliation. I would like the day to come when I can visit Dollywood and order a kosher hot dog.

“Jacob said, first sell me your birthright. Esau said, I am at the point of death, so of what use is my birthright to me.” (Genesis 25:31-32)
Next Tuesday will be thirty-one days since the birth of our first grandson Judah. I will fly to Maryland with five silver dollars which I bought at a coin shop (for far more than $5). I will give the coins to my son-in-law Darren and a family friend who is a kohen (a descendent of the High Priest Aaron) will ask Darren, “Which do you want to keep? Do you want the coins or do you want the baby?” Hopefully he will keep the baby and hand the kohen the five silver coins. (Usually the kohen then gives the coins to the baby as a gift, but it is his right to keep them.)
The ceremony called a pidyon haben is very ancient, going back to the Torah. In the Torah all first born belong to God. A farmer would literally give a first born animal to the priest, and a first born son was expected to dedicate his life to the service of God. But then the ceremony of redemption of the first born developed. We will observe the ritual as it has been performed since Biblical times.
The ceremony is relatively rare because the rules regarding its necessity are very strict. It is only performed for a son, not a daughter, and he must literally open the womb. It is not performed after a Cesarean section. The father cannot be a kohen or a levi (a descendent from the tribe of Levi, and the mother cannot be the daughter of a kohen or levi. There cannot be any previous miscarriages or stillborn. Personally, I am a first born, but we never needed a pidyon haben since my mother was the daughter of a kohen. In my thirty five plus years as a rabbi, I have probably done the ceremony less than thirty times.
As rare as it is, the ceremony teaches a powerful message. Any child, but particularly the one who opens the mother’s womb is a gift from God. Being the first born brings with it some special blessings. It is the beginning of a new generation in a tradition which strongly emphasizes the chain of generations.
In this week’s portion the major theme is the struggle to be the first born. Jacob and Esau literally fight in the womb; the rabbis of the Midrash claim that they were fighting to see who would come out first. Esau was the first born, but Jacob was holding his heel – perhaps he was trying to pull Esau back in so he could emerge first. The name Jacob (Yaakov) literally means heel. Esau sells his rights as a first born to Jacob for a bowl of lentil soup. Later Jacob will steal the first born blessing from his brother by tricking their father. Only in next week’s portion is the message made loud and clear to Jacob, “In this place we do not give the younger before the older.” (Genesis 29:26)
Nevertheless, a major theme in the Bible will be that birth order does not matter. God chooses Isaac over first born Ishmael and Jacob over first born Esau for the covenant. The leader of Jacob’s sons is Judah, the fourth brother and my grandson’s namesake. Both Moses and King David are the youngest children. Still there is something about being firstborn. By Jewish law a first born would inherit a double portion of the property.
What about being the first born today? I remember when our first child was born, we were reluctant to let anybody hold him. By the time our third was born we would hand him to anyone who would take him. We had gained experience and confidence with the birth of each of our three children. The first born is always the one raised by parents who are beginners. He or she is the one with whom parents learn how to be parents. And often he or she is the one that the parents make their mistakes raising. Who knows – perhaps because the first born is being raised by inexperienced parents, he or she becomes stronger as an adult.
My tradition teaches that the first born is a gift from God. Life shows that the first born is being raised by parents who must learn how to be parents. All children are precious. But as a new grandpa (zeyde), there is something special about a firstborn.

“Now Esau harbored a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing which his father had given him and Esau said to himself, Let the mourning period of my father come, and I will kill my brother Jacob.” (Genesis 27:41)
Once again the Jewish community confronted evil this week. Two men broke into a synagogue in Jerusalem during morning prayers. They murdered four rabbis at prayer, three of them American citizens and one a British subject. They also killed a Druze policeman before they were finally killed. A number of worshippers were severely injured. We pray that the families of those killed find comfort and that the injured find healing.
It was not only Jews who were confronted with evil this week. For the fifth time ISIS beheaded an innocent prisoner, this time an American. The sad irony is that the victim had converted to Islam. Religion did not matter; he was killed because he was an American. Evil is rampant in our day and age, particularly by Islamist extremists. How ought we to confront such evil?
Rabbinic tradition actually speaks of two kinds of evil actions by human beings. (see Horayot 11a and other Rabbinic sources.) There are people who act l’teavon, because they cannot control their appetite. This includes someone who hurts someone else while drunk or steals because of out-of-control greed. There may be regret and room for repentance afterwards. Then there are people who act l’hakhis deliberately and wantonly. The act is motivated by pure hatred, with no regret. After the murders in Jerusalem, there was joyful dancing in the street to celebrate among many Palestinians. How do we confront this type of evil?
There are many religious thinkers who say we should confront evil with goodness, hatred with love. I have actually heard someone say, “Why can’t the Jewish Israelis and the Moslem Palestinians treat each other like good Christians?” I can certainly admire some religious thinkers for their forbearance. Jesus said regarding one’s enemy, “To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer him the other one.” (Luke 6:29) Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. preached non-violent protest. That may work with an enemy who has a heart, who has religious standards. But what do you do with an enemy who has no heart?
Rabbinic tradition is clear. “Someone who comes to smite you, rise up and smite them first.” (Sanhedrin 72a) It is permissible to take whatever actions are necessary to defend against an attacker. Unfortunately, sometimes the actions need to be harsh. One might ask, is the attacker also a child of God? Of course. I imagine that God cries tears whenever one of God’s children turn evil. But God also realizes that “the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth.” (Genesis 8:21) People have great potential for evil, and we have the right to defend against evil.
So it is hopeless? Must we defend against evil forever. Perhaps not! In this week’s Torah reading we learn of the birth of the twin brothers Esau and Jacob. Esau came to represent evil in the eyes of Rabbinic tradition. Esau was called Edom, who became Rome and eventually the Christian world, the enemy of Jacob. Even the prophet Malachai speaks about Esau, “Was not Esau Jacob’s brother? Says the Lord, Yet I loved Jacob. But Esau I hated.” (Malachi 1:1 – 2) Through most the past two millennia hatred reigned between Edom, the Christian world, and Jacob, the Jewish people.
For the last half of a century there has been a radical change. It began with Vatican II, or perhaps earlier. Jews and Christians have learned to set aside their differences, respect one another and work together. There are still pockets of hatred, but it is nothing like the past. Jacob and Esau, the brothers who were forever fighting, have begun to get along.
What about Jews and Moslems? Jews are descendents of Isaac and Moslems are the descendents of his half brother Ishmael. There is hatred between Isaac and Ishmael in the Bible that goes back even further than Jacob and Esau. But there is also a scene in the Bible where Isaac and Ishmael put their hatred aside to bury their father Abraham.
I pray for a day when the children of Ishmael stop their hatred of the children of Isaac. I pray for the day when these two Abrahamic religions can learn to respect and even love one another. Yes, we must confront evil and defend ourselves. But also, we must pray for that day when evil will finally disappear from the earth.

“The Lord had appeared to him [Isaac] and said, Do not go down to Egypt, stay in the land which I point out to you.” (Genesis 26:2)
There is something about the patriarch Isaac that makes him different than either his father Abraham or his son Jacob. First, he is far more passive than the other two patriarchs. He digs some wells, but they are simply the same wells his father had dug. His father has a servant find a wife for him. His wife Rebecca is more insightful as to who deserves the covenantal blessing than Isaac is. Jewish tradition teaches that when Abraham nearly offered Isaac as a sacrifice, he was a man of thirty-seven. Yet he seems like a mere boy.
Perhaps the point made most clearly by the fact that, of the three patriarchs, only Isaac never left the Holy Land. He was born there and he would die there, without ever setting foot on foreign soil. When Abraham arranges for his servant to find Isaac a wife, he is adamant that Isaac is never to leave his homeland. And at the beginning of this week’s portion when a famine hits the land, God tells Isaac not to leave. What was the risk to Isaac that he was never permitted to travel beyond his birthplace?
Some commentators have suggested that perhaps Isaac lived his life at a higher level of holiness than everyone else. He had nearly been offered as a sacrifice on a holy mountain. A sacrifice becomes a holy object, forbidden for secular use. Perhaps the Torah is suggesting that once Isaac became this holy object, it would be unseemly for him to leave the holy land. Perhaps Isaac lived his entire life at this higher spiritual level. At the end of the portion he is blind, but perhaps his blindness is an inability to see the secular world around him.
I like this suggestion. But allow me to suggest an even more radical commentary, suggested by a number of modern thinkers about this Biblical story. (I could not find this in any classical commentaries.) Perhaps Isaac was never allowed to leave the land because he did not have the intellectual or emotional capacities of either his father or his son. Perhaps he was, to use the modern euphemism, “developmentally delayed.” Perhaps he was slow, or suffered from some level of autism. This view is radical, but it does help make sense of the Biblical story. More important, it raises some valuable insights for us living today.
If Isaac was developmentally delayed, he still was a patriarch of our people. We still pray to “the God of Isaac” three times a day. Those with a mental or emotionally disability are still part of the community, still created in the image of God. At the Passover seder we speak about four kinds of children. One of those is the “simple child” who can only ask the most basic questions. The leader of the seder has an obligation to teach even this “simple child,” to explain the rituals of the evening in a way that such a child will understand.
Unfortunately, too often we prize only those youngsters with intellectual ability. I remember once meeting with the headmaster of a Hebrew day school. The man started bragging about his school; how every student who graduated was accepted to a high-level, four-year university, many of them to Ivy League colleges. I knew that slower children, children with learning difficulties, developmentally delayed children, did not have a place at this particular school. Isaac would not have been welcome.
Fortunately, the community is beginning to recognize how every child is precious in God’s eyes. For years, Camp Ramah has been running a program for special needs children called Tikvah. They are mainstreamed into which ever camp activities are appropriate. I do not always agree with Chabad, but I will give them credit where it is appropriate. Locally they run a wonderful program called The Friendship Circle for children with special needs. And over the years our own synagogue has hosted bar or bat mitzvah ceremonies for children who were unable to participate or handle the regular bar/bat mitzvah program.
Imagine one of our patriarchs being developmentally delayed. What would that teach us about how we are to relate to special needs youngsters in our own community?


And the children struggled together inside her; and she said, If it be so, why am I thus? And she went to inquire of the Lord. (Genesis 25:22)

I am surprised and saddened by the news this week of the downfall of General David Petraeus. Here is a man who many consider a military hero, combining rational leadership with honor to end the war in Iraq for America. And here is a man who loses it all, resigning as head of the C.I.A. after an illicit affair. Petraeus represents the mix of reason versus passion, doing the right thing against following one’s appetites. In his case the passion seems to have overruled the reason.
Reason versus passion is one of the oldest themes in human thought. The German philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche often spoke about the difference between the Greek sons of Zeus Apollo and Dionysus. Apollo was the god of the sun, the god of reason. Dionysus was the god of wine and revelry, the god of passion. Nietzsche believed that Western European thinking was too Apollonian; there was too great a concern with rationality and ethics. Humans had lost their passion. He believed that Europeans need to embrace a Dionysian ethics. Much of the problem according to Nietzsche was what he called the “slave morality” that grew out of Judaism and Christianity. To Nietzsche “God is dead.” (This is perhaps his most famous phrase.) It is up to humans to create themselves, becoming what Nietzsche called an ubermensch. This meant living a life of creativity and passion.
Nietzsche turned out to be prescient about our modern society. To so many moderns God is dead. We live by our appetites. If it feels good, do it. Our minds might tell us that an extramarital affair is wrong, but our appetites tell us otherwise. The heart knows what it wants. Our minds might tell us that uncontrolled eating, drinking, sex, spending, or searching for pleasure is unhealthy. But our passions tell us otherwise. So we follow our appetites, even if it leads on the path of destruction.
This argument between the Apollonian and the Dionysian, between reason and passion, goes back to this week’s Torah portion. Jacob and Esau are not simply twin brothers, they are the epitome of two approaches to life. Even in their mother Rebecca’s womb they are already fighting one another. Each wants prominence. Their fight will continue throughout their lives, and go on to this very day,
Jacob represents reason. He is a man of the tent, who stayed home learning. He was a momma’s boy, favored by Rebecca. Eventually his name would be changed to Israel and he would become the father of the Jewish people. He came to represent the “slave ethics”, the care for the poor and the underdog, which Nietzsche so despised. Jacob is Jewish tradition at its best.
Esau represents passion. He was a hunter who was favored by his father. He helped fulfill his father’s appetite for game. He came back from the hunt so hungry that he was willing to sell his birthright for a bowl of lentil soup. One can almost picture Esau as a modern redneck, a gun in the back of his pick-up, fulfilling his appetite for food, drink, and sex. He would be the ubermensch, a man who through his passions created himself.
Each of us has a little bit of Jacob and a little bit of Esau within us. Each of us is torn between the Apollonian and the Dionysian. But Jacob rather than Esau was chosen to carry on the covenant. Reason was chosen over passion. Or perhaps to put it better, reason was chosen to rule over passion. As the prophet Malachi taught, “Was not Esau Jacob’s brother? says the Lord; yet I loved Jacob, and I hated Esau.” (Malachi 1:2 – 3) Perhaps a better way to put it is not that God hates Esau, but God hates passions overruling reason. It is only when reason overrules our passions that we can live a healthy balanced life.


“And the children struggled together inside her; and she said, If it be so, why am I thus? And she went to inquire of the Lord.” (Genesis 25:22)

Isaac and Rebecca had struggled for twenty years to have a baby. Now finally, Rebecca is pregnant with twins. The twins, to be called Jacob and Esau, struggle in her womb. And she cries out, “If it be so, why am I thus?” If my children are going to fight, what purpose is my life? Jacob and Esau will be born into a life of rivalry.
It is the dream of every parent that their children will get along. Not only should they not fight, but they should positively help each other. In fact, I raise this issue with every single bar and bat mitzvah in my synagogue. I tell them that they have a mitzvah to honor their father and mother. And at the center of that mitzvah is the obligation to take care of their brother or their sister. We honor parents when we care for siblings. In fact, later in the book of Deuteronomy, if a brother is forced to sell himself into indentured servitude, the Torah puts the obligation on the brother to redeem his brother. Brothers and sisters take care of brothers and sisters.
In my book God, Love, Sex, and Family I shared a story that I often retell when I lecture around the country. A couple was celebrating their fiftieth anniversary and wanted to throw a lavish party. They had two sons, one wealthy and one poor. The parents told the wealthy son, “Throw us a proper party and we will reimburse you. Spare no expense to make sure we are properly honored.”
The wealthy son threw a wonderful formal party. The poor son could not afford the proper clothes, and came in a threadbare suit. His wife came in an old dress. When the party was over, the wealthy son handed his father the bill for reimbursement. The parents said, “We will not reimburse you. We said to spare no expense to make sure we were honored properly. It is not an honor to have your brother come in an old suit.” The lesson of course – to honor parents means to care for our brothers (and sisters.)
In the Bible this idea is much broader than caring for our biological and adopted siblings. In a sense all human beings are brothers and sisters. The prophet Malachi teaches, “Have we not one father? Did not one God create us all?” (Malachi 2:10) Just as there is nothing more painful for a parent than seeing his or her children fighting among themselves, so there is nothing more painful to God then seeing God’s children at war. To be a human is to be a child of God. And this obligates us to care for the other children of God.
Unfortunately, sibling rivalry seems to be the way of the world. In Genesis alone, Cain kills Abel, Isaac and Ishmael are rivals, Jacob and Esau fight in their mother’s womb, and Joseph’s brothers throw him into a pit. No siblings get along. Even the sisters Rachel and Leah vie for their husband Jacob’s attention. We seem to live so far from the Biblical vision, “Here is what is good and what is pleasant, for brothers to dwell together.” (Psalms 133:1)
We live in a world of hatred and rivalry. Yet to truly honor God, we need to find a way to care for one another. It may be a dream, but it is a dream we must continue to hold. Every day God waits for God’s children to get along. At the end of the book of Genesis, Joseph and his brothers embrace and forgive one another. The book points towards the hope that sibling rivalry will end. So we must always hope for the day when all humans will embrace one another. As the popular Israel song Machar, (Tomorrow) says, Im Lo Machar as Mochratyim “If it does not happen tomorrow, then it will happen the day after tomorrow.”
The Messianic dream in Jewish tradition is a dream of peace, where the lion will lay down with the lamb. It is not just our dream, it is God’s dream for us humans. May it come speedily in our day.


“And Esau said, I am at the point of death, so of what use is my birthright to me?”
(Genesis 25:32)
I may be a descendent of Jacob but I have always tried to understand Esau. Why would a man sell his birthright for a bowl of soup? I realize that Esau represents an approach to life common today – call it the secular, materialist approach. All that exists is this material world of stuff. As long as we are alive we might as well fulfill our appetites. For when we die, we are gone and there is nothing more. So given a choice between an enjoyable bowl of soup today and some unknown spiritual future, grab the soup.
This is precisely how many people live. “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die.” Life is about fulfilling our appetites in this world. According to the materialistic view of reality, our soul is simply neural activity in the brain. When our brain dies, our soul dies. There is nothing more. So we might as well enjoy that bowl of soup, that money, that sexual gratification, whatever pleasure life sends our way, now. There is no greater spiritual reality.
Jacob on the other hand does represent a greater spiritual reality. Tradition teaches that while Esau was out hunting, Jacob was in the tent learning. Perhaps Jacob believed that the soul comes into this world with a greater mission than simply enjoying whatever the appetite places before it. Perhaps, as the Rabbis would someday teach, the soul must one day give an accounting. Did it accomplish in this world what God sent it into this world to do? Is the soul more than a material reality? Does it have some spiritual purpose? And does the soul survive death?
I have been doing research on this question for a literature class. I see three possibilities. Possibility #1) the soul is merely brain activity, and when the brain dies, the soul dies. We can call this the classical materialistic point of view. Possibility #2) the soul has an existence beyond the brain, and when the soul dies it returns to God intact. Individual identity and personality survive after death. We can call this the classic Western religious point of view. Possibility #3) the soul does survive but not as a particular identity. There is no self. Our souls are like waves of the sea; when the wave breaks onto the shore it loses its individual identity, but is still part of the greater sea. This reflects the mystical ideas of Hinduism and Buddhism. We can call this the classic Eastern religious point of view.
So which is true? Does the soul die when we die? Does the soul maintain its individual identity after we are gone? Or does the soul return to some eternal soul of the universe? For my literature class, the popular answer is possibility #2. The soul survives and maintains its identity. I read the book The Lovely Bones about a murdered fourteen year old girl who sits in heaven watching her family cope with her death. She lives in a heaven of her own choosing but is frustrated by her inability to really help her family. The novel was a bestseller and the movie version will come out in January. I can think of countless other works of literature on the same theme, from the classical musical Carousel to the movie Ghost to the television show Ghost Whisperer. In the popular Western mind, the soul survives in some kind of world to come, and seeks to communicate and help those still in this world.
Countering this point of view is the atheistic materialist view of many militant thinkers – Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett among the most famous. All that exists is a material world. What we call the soul is merely part of that material world. The fancy word materialists use for the soul is epiphenomenon. This is something that exists because of the way our brains are hardwired, similar to the picture on a television. The picture has no reality beyond the wiring of the television; and when the television breaks, the picture is disappears. According to Dawkins, Dennet et. al, so when we die, the soul disappears.
My plan is to explore the third possibility. Perhaps the soul is not located in the brain at all, in fact is not located in any particular space at all. Modern physics speaks of non-locality. This is the reason many of the greatest quantum physicists such as Erwin Schrodinger and David Bohm also become mystics. Our soul is part of some greater reality, with the illusion that it is located behind our eyes. But each of us is part of something much more; our soul exists beyond space and time. This is something worth considering before we trade our soul for a bowl of soup.



“Jacob was a mild man who stayed in the camp.” (Genesis 25:27)

This week I want to teach a little bit of kabbalah. According to Jewish tradition, the Torah can be read on many levels. One of the most intriguing is called Sod, the mystical understanding of the Torah’s words. On this level Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are no longer simply human beings. They represent various aspects of reality, or perhaps better, aspects of God. On the Sod level the Torah is no longer about human beings, but about the dynamics of the interplay between various attributes of God. There are ten such attributes altogether, known as sefirot. We will look at three of them.
The story of the first patriarch Abraham is really the story of the attribute known as hesed. The word hesed means kindness – it is the outflowing of energy towards the other. Abraham’s hesed never ceases; even when he is recuperating from his circumcision he runs out to help the three visiting messengers. Abraham is that part of God which is constantly flowing out to help others, whether providing for others or showing mercy towards others.
Hesed in and of itself is a good thing. But too much hesed is a source of imbalance in the world. For example, imagine a parent who gives a child everything that child desires, who never holds anything back from the child. Such a child will never learn to become self-sufficient. Or imagine a judge who overflows with mercy, always finding a reason to let a prisoner go. Such a judge will cause criminals to multiply in the world. Hesedmust be limited by some kind of restraint.
The second of the sefirot is called gevurah – literally strength. I like to call it restraint. It takes strength to restrain from constant giving, to hold oneself back. Gevurah is represented by Isaac, the second of the patriarchs. Isaac is far more passive in the Torah than either his father or his son. He was the only patriarch who was never permitted to leave the holy land. There is a restraint to staying in one place. Unlike Abraham who arranged a marriage for Isaac, Isaac allows his sons to find their own wives. There is a passivity to him, perhaps as a result of his near sacrifice.
Gevurah is an important value. There are times we need to restrain from overflowing towards others. This week is Thanksgiving, an important family time. Inviting guests is certainly a mitzvah. But I remember one year when a family member said to me, “Can’t we ever have a holiday dinner alone with just our family.” There is a time for some family privacy and restraint. Gevurah is important but it also has limits. Imagine the parent who never gives his or her child anything. Or imagine the judge who always demands strict justice, with no room for mercy. Gevurah can be out of balance.
In this week’s portion we read of the birth of Jacob, the third patriarch. Jacob represents the sefirah of tiferet, literally beauty. But perhaps a better translation would be balance. Jacob’s goal is to find a balance between the outpouring of kindness he learned from his grandfather and the quiet restraint he learned from his father. He will take many years to find such balance. Balance is clearly lacking when he forces his brother to sell him his birthright for a bowl of soup. And balance is also lacking when he blames his beloved wife Rachel for being unable to bear children. In fact, Jacob only finds the balance after wrestling with an angel until dawn.
Our own lives, like Jacob’s, ought to be a search for balance. How much do we give to others; and how much do we hold onto for ourselves? When are we merciful to others and when do we demand justice? How much do we involve ourselves in the community and how much do we protect our family’s privacy? When do we practice kindness and when do we show restraint?
The great sage Hillel taught, “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, then what am I?” This is a statement about finding the balance. Like the story of Jacob, it is the search fortiferet.



“Isaac loved Esau because he had a taste for game, but Rebecca loved Jacob.”
(Genesis 25:28)

Isaac and Rebecca had many favorable qualities, but they were not parents of the year. First of all, each one favored one of their sons. Playing favorite among children would fuel the problems between the two brothers and lead to a twenty year estrangement. However, this is not the issue I want to deal with today. Rather I would like to look at two kinds of love – mother love and father love.
Rebecca loved Jacob as only a mother can love a child – unconditionally, with no expectations and no conditions. In her eyes he could do no wrong. Isaac loved Esau, but it was a conditional love. He was a father who made demands of his oldest son. His son must bring him game to eat. (One wonders whether Esau’s love would continue if Esau announced one day he was becoming a vegetarian and would no longer hunt.)
Later the rabbis would differentiate between Rebecca’s unconditional love and Isaac’s conditional love. “Any love which depends on some condition, when the condition vanishes the love vanishes; a love which does not depend on any condition will never vanish.” (Avot 5:16) Nonetheless, all of us love sometimes unconditionally and sometimes with conditions. And this is particularly true when we speak of a parent’s love for a child.
Erich Fromm in his book The Art of Loving differentiates between two kinds of love, mother’s love and father’s love. Fromm is careful to remind us that these are archetypes, to use Jung’s term. “Of course, when I speak here of mother’s and father’s love, I speak of the ideal type … I do not imply that every mother and father loves in this way. I refer to the motherly and fatherly principle.” Each of us has a little bit of mother and a little bit of father in us.
What is mother’s love? According to Fromm, it is love with no expectations. To quote Fromm again, “There is nothing I have to do in order to be loved – mother’s love is unconditional. All I have to do is to be – to be her child. Mother’s love is bliss, is peace, it need not be acquired, it need not be deserved.” Every child needs this kind of unconditional, total acceptance – love with no conditions and no expectations. But children need something else. That is where father’s love comes in.
Fromm writes regarding fathers, “Father is the one who teaches the child, who shows him the road into the world.” To Fromm, a father’s love is conditional. It contains expectations; it makes demands. “The mother’s and the father’s attitudes toward the child correspond to the child’s own needs. The infant needs mother’s unconditional love and care physiologically as well as psychically. The child, after six, begins to need father’s love and guidance. Mother has the function of making him secure in life, father has the function of teaching him, guiding him to cope with those problems with which the particular society the child has been born into confronts him.”
Once again, it is important to say that every parent has a little bit of both mother and father in him or her. (In fact, sometimes I see too much Rebecca and not enough Isaac in myself.) Children need the kind of love that is filled with expectations and rules, love that carries with it the possibility of disappointment. One of the truths I try to express in my counseling is that children need mothers and fathers. When I speak to single moms bravely doing it alone, I advise them to find a significant male (grandfather, uncle, rabbi?) to be present in their child’s life. I have similar advice for single dads going it alone.
Parenting is a balance between a mother’s love and a father’s love. In fact, in Hebrew there is a word for father (av), a word for mother (aim), a word for parents in the plural (horim), but no word for parent in the singular. Perhaps the Hebrew is teaching us that parenting is not generic. Fromm is certainly controversial. But perhaps he is right – every child needs some of Rebecca’s love and some of Isaac’s love if that child is going to prosper in life.



“And Esau said, I am at the point of death, so of what use is my birthright to me?”
(Genesis 25:32)

Some of my greatest moments in the rabbinate are when I teach the high school students in my Torah Corps. Last week a number of ninth graders told me how excited they were that the movie Rent was opening. I have seen the Broadway play, love the music, and was looking forward to the opening myself. (Incidentally, the movie was wonderful, although I missed some of the music from the original show that was cut from the movie.) I was surprised that these young people were so familiar with a musical dealing with alternative life styles, starving artists, drug abuse, and HIV.
I asked them a question about the story. The main female character is a nineteen-year-old girl named Mimi, based on the original Mimi in Puccini’s La Boheme. In the opera she is suffering from tuberculosis. In the play and movie, Mimi is a nineteen-year-old heroin addict who is HIV positive and earns her money dancing at a strip club. This is hardly the kind of character that ought to be familiar to our suburban Jewish kids. And yet they knew her story. So I asked them, “What would make a nineteen year old girl become a heroin addict?”
After much discussion, we pinned down various causes. There is peer pressure. And there is the joy of rebellion against parents. But perhaps most important, there is the quest for instant gratification. A person on drugs puts a chemical in his or her body and feels instant pleasure. It fulfils that part of us which says, “I want what I want and I want it now.” The drive for gratification is behind many of the problems that plague us humans. In Judaism we have a name for our appetites out of control, this drive for instant gratification. We call it the yetzer hara, the evil inclination.
On the other hand, sometimes we are moved to act in a way that goes against our appetites. We do something because we know in the long run it is the right thing to do, even if our emotions are crying to us “do not do it.” For young people, an example might be doing a homework assignment even when it is not immediately due, giving charity when it is more appealing to spend the money at the mall, avoiding unhealthy foods, smoking, or drugs even when all of one’s friends are using them. We call the drive to do the right thing the yetzer hatov, the good inclination. Within every human being there is a constant struggle between the evil inclination and the good inclination.
This week’s Torah reading is built around the ongoing conflict between Jacob and Esau. An expert on kabbala might say that Jacob and Esau are not simply human beings, but forces at work in the universe. They represent some deeper realities. Let us explore this idea further.
Esau was an outdoorsman who liked to hunt. He was red in complexion; today in modern America we would probably call him a redneck. One day he comes home from the hunt famished and sees his brother Jacob cooking a lentil soup. He asks for some soup, and Jacob agrees to give it to him in exchange for his birthright. Esau answers, “I am at the point of death, so of what use is my birthright to me?” He is willing to sell something precious in the long term to satisfy his immediate appetite. Esau represents the evil inclination. He is all appetite, the appetite out of control.
Jacob on the other hand was a man on the tents. The rabbis interpret this to mean that he was a scholar, willing to study to find the right path to go on. Next week we will read how Jacob falls in love with Rachel. To gain her hand in marriage he agrees to work seven years for Laban, his future father-in-law. After seven years he receives the older sister Leah in marriage, and must work a second seven years for Rachel. Yet all this time seems short in his eyes because of his love of Rachel. Jacob is someone willing to work now for a future gratification. He takes a long-term view of what is worthy. He represents the good inclination.
Esau and Jacob struggle even while in their mother’s womb. The evil and the good inclination struggle within each of us. The only question is, which one is going to win that struggle. The answer lies in our hands.



“When Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see, he called his older son Esau and said to him, My son. He answered, Here I am.” (Genesis 27:1)

Let me begin with a true story. A college president at a very prestigious university on the east coast suddenly quit his job. He explained to the board of trustees that his wife of over forty years was ill with Alzheimer’s. She needed a full time care taker, and as her husband, that was his job.
The board of trustees was dumbfounded. “You have a well-paying, prestigious job. Why would you give it up to take care of her? After all, she does not even know you. When you are in her room, she cannot even see you.” The college president calmly replied, “True, my wife no longer sees me. The problem is, I can see her!”
True love begins with the ability to see the other. In our portion, Isaac was blind. He was unable to see his beloved son Esau. He could not tell Esau from his brother Jacob. That is how Jacob was able to sneak into Isaac’s tent and steal the blessing meant for the firstborn Esau.
The Rabbinic Midrash said that Isaac’s blindness was not a literal blindness. Rather, he was blind to Esau’s true nature. Esau used to bring him game from the hunt to eat. “Isaac loved Esau because he had a taste for game.” (Genesis 25:28) His inability to see Esau’s true nature was caused by his love of food. How often do bribes blind us to someone’s true nature. “Bribes blind the eye of the discerning and upset the plea of the just.” (Deuteronomy 16:19) How often do we not see the other because we only see ourselves, our own needs and wants. This was Isaac’s great mistake.
This is a mistake many of us make. How often have I counseled a woman who was a victim of abuse by her husband or boyfriend. I would ask her, “When you started dating him, did you see his true nature?” She will answer, “I was so much in love, I was so happy, he was so good looking, I guess I did not see his true nature.” Perhaps love is blind. But blindness is no way to enter a relationship.
In a similar way, many parents do not see the true nature of their child. A child will be acting out in school, not doing work, disrupting the class, perhaps even using drugs. The teacher or the principal will raise the issue with the parents. But the parents refuse to see that their child is in trouble. Perhaps admitting that a child has a problem threatens their self-image as a parent. Or perhaps it threatens their dreams for their child. But they are blind to their child’s nature. And in their blindness, they do not help their child.
Love means taking away blinders and truly seeing the other. It means seeing their strengths and their weaknesses, their wonderful qualities and their needs. It means focusing on the other and not on ourselves. Perhaps if Isaac had been less concerned with eating his son’s game, he would have seen that Esau was a needy child meriting special attention. (Some moderns have suggested that Esua had an attention deficit disorder.) We cannot help the other until we see the other.
Love begins with seeing. To see we must take away our blinders. Only when we stop seeing ourselves and our needs, can we truly see the other and their needs.



“When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors, but Jacob was a mild man who stayed in camp.”
(Genesis 25:27)

Some people live by their appetites. And some people live by their vision.
Esau was a man who lived by his appetites. He was a hunter, an outdoors man, he was called Edom red because of his ruddy complexion. If he lived today, one can almost see him as the classic redneck, driving his pickup with the shotgun across the back. Esau lived a life of instant gratification.
We see this appetite most clearly in the story of the lentil soup. Esau returned from the field famished and saw his brother Jacob cooking lentil soup. He traded his birthright to satisfy his appetite with a bowl of soup. The greater privilege of being the first born had no meaning to him when he was hungry.
Esau is not all evil. In fact, it is easy to feel sorry for him as he cried out in pain after his brother stole his blessing. To quote a modern idiom, Esau wore his emotions on his shirtsleeve. In one scene, he displayed both pain and anger. He made no secret of his intent to murder his brother, forcing Jacob to flee his home and live abroad for twenty years.
Esau also married two local Hittite women, daughters of idolaters, to the consternation of his parents. His sexual appetite overruled his filial loyalty.
Jacob on the other hand was a man of the tent. The Rabbis saw him as someone steeped in learning and preparing for taking over the covenant from his father. I certainly do not support his method in stealing his brother’s blessing. (In next week’s portion he is punished for this.) But Jacob was willing to take a long term view, sacrificing now for future fulfillment. This comes out most clearly when he went to work for seven years before he was allowed to marry his beloved Rachel. (He was given the wrong wife, and then had to work an additional seven years.) Unlike his brother who acted out on his sexual appetite, Jacob delayed gratification for long term gain.
All of us sometimes act on our appetites. And all of us sometimes act on our long term vision. We each have a little bit of Jacob and a little bit of Esau within us. Each of us is involved in an ongoing internal struggle. Do I satisfy my appetite now? Or do I delay gratification for a long term gain? This question comes out when we decide whether or not to eat the extra helping of food, act out on a sexual desire, bend the rules for a some extra profit, display anger towards loved ones, or decide whether or not to apologize for some wrongdoing.
The Rabbis have a name for the drive to act out on our appetites without concern for the larger consequences. They call it the yetzer hara, the evil inclination. They also have a name for the drive to do the right thing, even if our appetite is crying out to do otherwise. They call it the yetzer hatov, the good inclination. Each of us must struggle between our yetzer hatov and our yetzer hara.
Who is going to win in this struggle? Rabbi David Bockman tells a story he learned from an American Indian elder. The elder was describing his inner struggle: “Inside me are two dogs. One of the dogs is kind and good. The other is mean and evil. The mean dog fights the good dog all the time.” When asked which dog wins, he reflected for a moment and replied, “The one I feed the most.”



“The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau.” (Genesis 27:22)

In this portion, Jacob stole the blessing designated for his older brother Esau. Isaac their blind father suspected that the young man who came for the blessing was really Jacob. His hands were covered with animal skins to make them hairy like Esau. But the voice remained that of Jacob. Isaac spoke one of the most quoted verses in the book of Genesis, “The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau.”
This particular verse has profound meaning even today. Who is Jacob and who is Esau? What does it mean to speak like Jacob, but to have hands, to act like Esau.
Esau was a man willing to sell his birthright for a bowl of lentil soup. According to a wondeful insight from my administrative assistant Rhonda Fatt, Esau lived life on a purely physical level. Soup was important. A spiritual matter like a birthright had no meaning for him.
Esau was also named Edom, a Hebrew word meaning red. He became the progenitor of the ancient Romans, people who lived by the sword. Esau was a ruddy, lusty man. Today, he would probably be a red neck, driving his pick up truck with a shotgun on the back, enjoying his beer, pursuing his appetites. Esau was a hunter and a man of the fields, who loved the outdoors. At a very young age, he married two Canaanite women, much to the chagrin of his parents who were hoping for a more spiritual marriage.
Esau did not receive his father’s blessing because spiritual matters were not important to him. What was important was to satisfy his appetites, to fulfill his desire for meat, for drink, for sexual pleasure. Esau was probably a man who was fun to spend time with, to hang out at the local tavern drinking and swapping stories. But there was no spiritual side to him.
Jacob on the other hand was the opposite, a deeply spiritual man. He stayed in the tent while his brother was out hunting. According to an ancient Midrash (Rabbinic tale), he was learning Torah with the classical teachers Shem and Eber. Jacob was a momma’s boy, the favorite of his mother Rebecca. He learned to cook from her, and was making the pot of lentil soup when his brother returned from the hunt. Later, he would show his spiritual sensitivity with his famous dream of the ladder reaching to heaven, with angels ascending and descending.
We can think of Jacob and Esau not as real people but as archetypes. Esau represents the physical, the person who lives life to satisfy his or her appetites. Jacob represents the spiritual, the person who seeks a higher purpose in life, even if it requires self-control. Jacob and Esau are really two ways to view the world.
With this in mind, Isaac’s words make sense. The voice is the voice of Jacob, a person with spiritual concerns. But the hands are the hands of Esau, the actions are merely to satisfy appetites.
How often do we meet people who fit this description. They talk about the importance of spiritual matters, of religion, of God, of ethical living. But their actions show that they live to fulfill their lust, to satisfy their appetites. Their actions belie their words.
Our goal is to become like Jacob, not only with our words but with our actions. Life is more than the fulfillment of appetites, it has a greater spiritual purpose. Jacob and not his brother received the blessing of the covenant so that he could teach the world that lesson.



“These are the generations of Isaac the son of Abraham, Abraham gave birth to Isaac.”
(Genesis 25:19)

“A generation goes and a generation comes.” (Ecclesiastes 1:4) So wrote King Solomon in the book of Ecclesiastes. My wife and family have felt the passing of generations with the loss last week of Dora Zuchoff, my mother-in-law. With her death the last of my children’s grandparents is gone. The torch has been passed to a new generation.
The moving from generation to generation is a major theme in Genesis. The long lists of who begat whom are not in the Torah to fill space. They are there to speak of the importance of the links that tie generations. In last week’s portion, Abraham and Sarah passed on to the next world. Isaac is the new patriarch. His experiences, the birth of his children, and the passage of responsibilities to the next generation are the major themes of this week’s portion.
How can we understand the meaning of generations? In my forthcoming book The Ten Journeys of Life I speak of two metaphors, the cycle and the chain. Animals live in the world of the cycle. The human quest is to break out of the cycle, to see life as a chain.
To demonstrate the world of the cycle, let us look at the beautiful Disney movie The Lion King. The movie begins with Elton John singing the theme song of his movie The Circle of Life. A baby lion is born and held high for all the animals to see. The song tells of a great cycle, with events repeated over and over as each new generation comes. At the end of the movie, a new generation of lions is born, and the same scene is repeated once again.
To the animal world, life is a cycle. Each generation repeats what was done before. The life of a lion or a kangaroo or a parakeet is almost precisely the same as the life of these animals one generation ago. If we went back ten thousand generations and looked at the way a lion lives, it would be more or less the same as today. It was the power of this cycle that Disney caught so beautifully in the movie. Birth, weaning, adulthood, procreation, death, the cycle continues unchanging from generation to generation.
Thomas Cahill, in his bestselling book The Gifts of the Jews; How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels, wrote that the ancient Israelites beginning with Abraham gave the world a new metaphor. To quote Cahill
“All evidence points to there having been, in the earliest religious thought, a vision of the cosmos that was profoundly cyclical. … The Jews were the first people to break out of this circle, to find a new way of thinking and experiencing, a new way of understanding and feeling the world.”
The ancient pagan world, like the animal world, saw life as an endless repetitive cycle. The gift of the Bible was the vision that we humans can rise above that cycle, that we are more than mere animals. When God told Abraham to go forth from his home, God was saying break out of the cycle and found something new. Abraham introduced to humanity a brand new vision of the purpose of living.
The Bible introduces a new metaphor, one with a beginning and an end. It is best represented by a chain, with each generation a new link. Each generation builds and adds to the previous link. Previous generations contain a repository of wisdom and knowledge on which a new generation can build. Each new generation stands on the shoulders of their parents and grandparents. Each new generation sees itself as closer to the perfect Messianic age still to come. Humans experience a link between generations, an appreciation of the past and a vision of the future, which animals can never know.



“Isaac loved Essau because he brought him game, and Rebekah loved Jacob.”
(Genesis 25:28)

In this portion we see one of the great mistakes made by too many parents. They fail to love their children unconditionally. Isaac loved Essau only because he was a hunter; if Essau failed as a hunter, would Isaac still love him? Rebekah chose to love Jacob instead of Essau, because obviously he had certain qualities his brother lacked. Neither parent loved both brothers unconditionally.
What does it mean for a parent to love a child? In a key scene in Steven Spielberg’s movie Prince of Egypt, Moses’ mother Yocheved rushed her baby down to the river hidden in a basket as marauding Egyptian troops searched for baby boys to toss into the Nile. She sang baby Moses a love song and sent him down the river to his fate, knowing that she would probably never see him again. Pharaoh’s daughter pulled him out of the river and adopted him.
In the original Biblical story, Pharaoh’s daughter actually hired Yocheved as a wet nurse; she fed her own son and then, when he was weaned, forever give him up. Imagine the love, and the desperation, putting aside her own needs to save her child.
A similar theme arises in the famous story of King Solomon, and the two women who claimed the same baby. King Solomon said, cut the baby in half and give half to each woman. The true mother was the one who said, “Let the other woman have him.” True love means the willingness to totally sacrifice for the needs of the child.
As I read these stories, I think about parents during the holocaust who gave their children away rather than allow them to fall into the hands of the Nazis. What an overwhelming act of love to risk never seeing one’s own child so that the child might have a chance to survive. Thousands of such hidden children survived World War II; some raised in non-Jewish families or even monasteries adopted the Christian faith.
I contrast these cases with the reality I often see as a rabbi. I witness many custody battles involving divorcing parents, or occasionally adoptions. Parents will fight for their right to maintain custody of a child, even if it means destroying the child in the process. Often they will rip apart their former spouse in front of their child, ignoring the need of every child to love both mommy and daddy. Their concern is with their own needs, not the needs of their children.
Most parents claim they love their children. Yet too many parents have children to fulfill some kind of inner need they have, to satisfy their own ego, to live out their dreams. This is the meaning behind the old joke about the mother who points to her three year old and her five year old, “This is the doctor and this is the lawyer.” This problem of living our lives through our children seems to be a particular weakness of Jewish parents. We even have a phrase for it – naches from the kinder. Too often we receive our own ego satisfaction from the professional success of our children.
We will be most successful in raising our children if we view parenting not as fulfilling our particular needs, but rather fulfilling the needs of the child. Setting aside our needs for someone else entails sacrifice. As any successful parent will tell you, it is in the sacrifice that we discovery the true joy of parenthood.