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We All Have Two Sides

"Esau Selling His Birthright to Jacob" by Mathias Stomer

Rabbi Samuel Cohon’s Torah Talk on Parshat Toldot 5779

This week’s Torah portion of Toldot includes the treachery of Jacob and the foolishness of Esau, the famous story of brotherly rivalry that sets in motion this central tale in Genesis. It is a tale of twins who are anything but fraternal in their interactions. Jacob is a lover of tents, a homebody, whose mother loves him; Esau is a hunter and outdoorsman, a man active in the extreme and more or less devoid of thought.

In our weekly portion Jacob fools his family twice: first he cons the hungry Esau into selling his birthright, his inheritance, for a bowl of lentil porridge. Then, at the instigation of his mother Rebecca, Jacob fools his father Isaac into giving him the principal blessing, the spiritual heritage of the leadership of the people who will someday be known as Israel.

Why is it that Jacob is the one who will become the true father of our people? He is clever and verbal, cerebral, but he clearly lacks basic moral qualities that we should find critical. But Esau, too, is no bargain, all physical exertion and emotional outburst, instinctive but unreflective, all id to Jacob’s superego. In fact, it is through both of them that the great story of God’s oneness is carried forward.

Through both of them, for all their flaws, God finds a way to work for the future and for destiny.

The message is complex, but useful. The truth is that we are all both Jacob and Esau, partly thoughtful, partly instinctive. We, each of us, are also twins in this sense: we can act with deliberation and care, or forcefully and without judgment. And we all have the capacity to be either ethical or unethical.

In that dichotomy lies our innate humanity. And in the persons of Esau and Jacob we can see ourselves and learn that it is only through God’s providence that we can truly find our own Promised Land.

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