Thursday, July 09, 2020

A depiction of Yaakov & Esav.

Last time we closed with R. Arama’s telling us we should love and want good outcomes, oppose and object to bad outcomes and those who would bring them. In his view, Yaakov and Rachel acted to support what needed to happen, and therefore acted appropriately.

A Restored Meritocracy

R. Arama reads the idea into Tehillim 24 in a way too long to review, but it shows him Yaakov’s “stealing” or “cheating” were in the name of a higher truth and therefore proper [today, many would object on Kantian grounds, the idea of good and bad, lying and truth, should be absolute categories; in the parts I skipped, R. Arama makes clear he believes such usually negative acts are sometimes valuable in the name of moving the world to a better place. His view makes life a slipperier slope than we usually think, with morality plausibly pliable, the person wielding it the one who knows if s/he is using those powers for good or for evil. I’m not sure his is the only way to read it; as always, we’re here to hear, not to spout our own views.]

Ins and outs aside, R. Arama thinks Yaakov broke the grip of primogeniture, put the world back in a place where first-borns no longer had the legal presumption of inheritance. To emphasize the point, in the next generation, Yosef—second youngest of Yaakov’s sons—is given the double portion of a first-born, two of his sons becoming tribes. A generation after that, Yaakov turns Efrayim into the first-born by switching his hands when blessing them.

Monarchy, another area where first-born usually inherit, also had its rules upended at the start. Er, Yehuda’s first-born, died in his father’s lifetime, and the kingship passed through his later children, the twins he had with Tamar. There, too, Zerah stuck his hand out of the birth canal first, making him first-born, and then Peretz pushed his way out, and Peretz was the ancestor of David [himself a youngest, although R. Arama does not note it].

Among David’s sons, Shlomo was not first-born, and R. Arama suggests Yaakov chose Rachel as his favorite wife because she, too, was not first-born.

The breaking of the grip of the first-born explains why Hashem attributes the original plan of having first-borns serve in the Mishkan, Bamidbar 3:13 and 8:17, to their having been saved from makat bechorot, the plague of the first-born in Egypt. Until Yaakov’s time there would have been no need for an explanation; first-born always took the important positions. After Yaakov, being first-born was not supposed to carry particular weight among Jews, until events in Egypt renewed their significance (as beneficiaries of a miracle; other rights were still supposed to go to those most deserving, in R. Arama’s presentation).

At the Golden Calf, the Levi’im’s dedication, their willingness to punish and even kill family members whose guilt called for it, earned them the rights of service instead.

The Ends Might Justify the…

In his reading, then, Yaakov realized the blessings were slated for someone unworthy, an outcome clearly displeasing to Hashem. He was therefore zealous for Hashem’s purposes (R. Arama uses the verb the Torah uses about Pinchas, kinah, I think to imply that Yaakov, like Pinchas, correctly violated the usual laws and norms in the name of a higher purpose).

Knowing Esav was unworthy, knowing Hashem does not tolerate evildoers to come before Him, as phrases in Tanach say, Yaakov realized the blessings were in danger of being lost. For R. Arama, the choice was not who would receive the blessings, the question was if anyone would, as only a worthy person could get them.

To translate to our lives, R. Arama thinks Yaakov shows the necessity of making all possible efforts to secure whatever perfections we can, to push aside all who would deny them to us, with all our effort. In his view, Hashem set up the whole incident to test Yaakov’s willingness to make the necessary efforts, as well as to give him an opportunity to actualize his internal commitments, a way to raise Yaakov’s level, perfect his character. [He does not address the crucial question of how far we should or may go in pursuit of those perfections, a key issue to such a worldview. Its contrast to how we tend to think today still makes it worth considering, in my mind, even as we must remember how few of us are of the level of Yaakov or Pinchas, to make those kinds of choices.]

Some Specifics of the Story

This is the point where R. Arama goes through the text line by line and, as usual, we have very limited room for his series of specific points. I will take only the ones I found most interesting.

The parsha opens with a seeming redundancy: these are the descendants of Yitzchak, son of Avraham, Avraham gave birth to Yitzchak. R. Arama says the verse means to stress Avraham started anew, as if he had no connection to his idolatrous ancestors. As Yevamot 22a tells us, a convert becomes as a newborn, with no relatives.

In his view, Jews are not descendants of Terach, Shem, or Noach; Jews come from Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov. (He reads Yeshayahu 51:1-2 to make the point, where the prophet tells the Jewish people to look to the rock from which they were carved, Avraham and Sarah, the prophet’s way of telling us to go back no farther, as they were all idolaters.)

The Boys

R. Arama thinks Hashem forced Yitzchak to wait until he was 60 to have children, to let him grow beyond the impetuous and overly physical time of youth, to produce children from a body more in tune with better goals. [I find it interesting he thinks it took until Yitzchak was 60 for that to happen; I have long wondered whether the early generations of the Torah experienced time differently, 60 being a third of Yitzchak’s life and therefore more akin to our 30.]

Giving Rivkah twins allowed all or most of the negatives of physicality—R. Arama specifies the poison of the serpent—to go to one of them, leaving the other (Yaakov) free of it. The fighting during the pregnancy, as Midrashim had it, was the babies dividing this world and the next, Esav taking more of the purely material, Yaakov freed of those negatives.

At the end of the parsha, when blessing Esav, R. Arama thinks Yitzchak told Esav he would be able to overcome his brother when Yaakov or his descendants turn away from their path, the path of the intellect, when their hands fall (the phrase to lift or drop hands comes from Moshe at the first war against Amalek; R. Arama is reminding us of a Mishnah in Rosh Hashanah that wars are won and lost by the Jews’ closeness to Hashem, not by physical valor. He is further translating closeness to Hashem as a function of following the intellect, the objective truth about how the world works).

The focus on the intellect also explains why we hear nothing about Yaakov’s physical appearance at birth. We hear he held Esav’s heel as a sign of his focus on elements of life Esav stepped on, the intellectual ones, also part of what made him an ish tam. Esav, as Bereshit Rabbah 67 says about him and other evildoers, was a slave to his appetites, not in control of them.

The righteous are the opposite, the Midrash says (I am skipping the prooftexts). They control their appetites, channel them to good purposes. When Jews fail to learn to imitate the righteous in this way, exile comes to teach them to restrain their material sides, lessons they were supposed to learn from Torah and mitzvot [and, it seems to me, a message he was trying to convey to his listeners].  

Esav’s Studied Rejection

Esav modeled the opposite kind of conduct. He made the deal with Yaakov, had a full and leisurely meal, with time then and after to reconsider. Instead, he denigrated the rights of the first-born, mocked Yaakov for buying something worthless. In doing so, he forfeited any claim the sale was made under undue duress, R. Arama says, for reasons people today might question.

He thinks that when we act under duress we regret it and disclaim it as soon as the coercive factor is gone. Hunger sated, thirst slaked, Esav should have expressed his upset at what he had been forced to do. His not doing so shows the coercion was not the reason he did it.

[It’s an arguable psychological claim. It could be people in R. Arama’s time acted as he has just said, but in our time, some people forced to act a certain way are embarrassed about what they did, and cover it by insisting they wanted to do it, only years later accessing their true feelings about the incident. I have no idea how Esav felt about what he had done, and I’m not sure we have ways to know. It’s part of the challenge of trying to psychologize figures in Tanach.]

Regardless of the specific issue, it brings us to the end of a sha’ar where R. Arama has posited the problems with primogeniture, thinks the Jewish people began with a rejection of special rights purely by virtue of being first-born, took proper although usually immoral action to ensure important goods went to the right people, and that Yaakov was the beginning of a people who knew to focus on intellectual/spiritual goals and values, keeping the physical subordinate to them. 


Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and nonfiction, most recently “We’re Missing the Point: What’s Wrong With the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It.” He lives in Bronx, New York, with his wife and three children.

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