Posts Tagged 'Esav'

Marshmallow Experiment: Nadav, Avihu, Esav, and the Kosher Kids

As an Orthodox Jew living in the modern world I often get asked about my dietary restrictions. I get questions all the time. Why do you keep Kosher? Is this Kashrut code? What are all these little symbols? Do you really think the Creator of the universe cares what you eat? Wait how long do you wait between meat and milk? And so so so many more questions.

I was think about these questions while reading Shmini, this week’s Torah portion. There we read a whole code of dietary restrictions. May they be on land, in the sea, in the air, or even in the land we learn which ones we, Bnai Yisrael, can and cannot eat. Beyond this Kashrut code in this week’s Torah portion we  also learn about the death of Nadav and Avihu. After their deaths God says to Aaron,”‘Drink no wine nor strong drink, you, nor your sons with you, when you go into the tent of meeting, that you die not; it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations.” ( Leviticus 10:9)Many commentators take this as an explanation for the death of his sons Nadav and Avihu. What is the connection between this and this Kashrut code?

When thinking about this question I thought of the depiction of Esav  and Yaakov in their youth. There we read:

And the boys grew; and Esav was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Yaakov was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. Now Yitzhak loved Esav, because [his]trapping was in his mouth; and Revkah loved Yaakov. ( Genesis 25: 27-28)

The simple meaning is that Yitzhak loved Esav because Esav put his trapped game into Yitzhak’s mouth. On another level Esav actually trapped is game with his own mouth. There was no delay between trapping and eating. It was one action with no delay and no delayed gratification. In a way the Torah is depicted Esav as the child who “failed” the Stanford marshmallow experiment. This image is juxtaposed to Yaakov who was in the tent and his people Bnai Yisrael who uphold the Kashrut code. In following these laws I can never just go and eat. I am constantly coaching myself to get the benefits of delayed gratification. We are warned that if we like Esav, Nadav, and Avihu do not think before drinking or eating we will run the risk of giving up our long-term aspirations for short-term rewards. That is why I am one of the Kosher kids.

 

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Between Brothers

In VaYishlach, the Torah portion two week’s ago, Yakov is preparing to reconnect and to reconcile with his estranged brother Esav. Here we read about the mysterious encounter between Yakov and the angel. We read that:

And he ( Yakov) took them, and sent them over the stream, and sent over that which he had. And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. ( Genesis 32: 24-25)

This is clearly am important moment. This is when Yakov and our whole nation become Yisrael. But, why did Yakov return over the Yabuk? On this, Rashi quotes the Talmud:

And Yakov was left alone. Said Rabbi Eleazar: He remained behind for the sake of some small jars. Hence [it is learned] that to the righteous their money is dearer than their body; and why is this? Because they do not stretch out their hands to robbery.(Hullin 91a)

Why would Yakov risk so much for these little jars? What was in these jars? If we go back to the beginning of his journey, we recall Yakov’s dream with the ladder. Upon waking up he consecrated that place with oil:

And Yakov woke out of his sleep, and he said: ‘Surely God is in this place; and I did not knew it.’ And he was afraid, and said: ‘How full of awe is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’ And Yakov rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put under his head, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it. ( Genesis 28: 16-18)

One reasonable reading is that these “small jars” had more of this consecrating oil in them. So why did he need them at this moment?

To understand this we need to understand Hanukkah. On its surfaces Hanukkah is a simple holidays. We see the themes of light breaking through the darkness, a small group banding together to beat a much stronger force, and the power of having faith in community. But like everything else in Jewish life nothing is ever as simple as it seems. So let’s look deeper into the three miracles of Hanukkah. One miracle is that small group of zealots were able to beat the stronger forces and regain control of the Temple. Keeping Yakov’s dream in mind we should not forget that when recovering the Temple they also recovered the Even haShetiya– the foundational rock that was his pillow and was at the center of many of our stories ( see Dome of the Rock). When they recaptured the Temple they found on small jar of oil for the menorah in the Temple. The second miracle was that despite the fact that this small jar only had enough oil for one day it lasted for eight days. This story about the miraculous Hanukkah oil has allowed us to look past focusing solely on the military victory. This is important in that the war was not a black and white fight between the Jews and the Greeks. Rather, it was a civil war between a small group of religious zealots and a larger group of their Hellenized Jewish brethren. In my mind this is itself the third miracle of Hanukkah. Our ability to tell the story of the second miracle of the oil to overshadow the first miracle of a civil war. The story of the oil helped cover over the other story of the recovery of the Temple with its foundational rock.

This year is special in that Hanukkah shares the calender with Thanksgiving. On its surface they are similar in that they are both days of giving thanks. But what is Thanksgiving? It is traced to a poorly documented 1621 celebration at Plymouth in present-day Massachusetts. We retell the story of the first settlers to America who found salvation when they reached another foundational rock- Plymouth Rock.

But is that the real story of Thanksgiving? On October 3rd 1863 President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday. There we read:

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union…It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.

Like the third miracle of Hanukah, Thanksgiving is not really a story about the Pilgrams, but rather the constitution of a ritual of reconciliation post-civil war. Both Hanukkah and Thanksgiving represent the re-creation of national mythologies for the sake of mending the wounds of fighting between brothers. We in camping appreciate the impact of a good story regardless of its being true. Camp in its essence is an artificially manufactured community built on rituals, traditions, and history that need not be based on fact. It is here in this miraculous fabricated narrative that we create enduring memories of brotherhood. So while the story might not be true, the community could not be any more real.

So now I return to Yakov. Why did he return to get the small jars of oil? Like the Rabbis take on Hanukkah and Lincoln’s proclamation of Thanksgiving, Yakov was getting the oil in preparation to reconcile with his brother Esav. The stories we tell are the foundational rocks of our culture. The true miracle of our holidays is the oil that helps us rewrite those stories to make peace between brothers. Have a very meaningful Thanksgivukkah. Happy holidays.

Wrestling Club

In VaYishlach, this week’s Torah portion, Yakov is preparing to meet and reconcile with his estranged brother Esav. Here we read about the mysterious encounter between Yakov and the angel. There we read:

And Yakov was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Yakov’s thigh was strained, as he wrestled with him. And he said: ‘Let me go, for the day breaks.’ And he said: ‘I will not let go of you until you bless me.’  And he said unto him: ‘What is your name?’ And he said: ‘Yakov.’ And he said: ‘Your name shall be called no more Yakov, but Yisrael; for you hast striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.’ And Yakov asked him, and said: ‘Tell me, I pray of you, your name.’ And he said: ‘Wherefore is it that you do ask after my name?’ And he blessed him there. (Genesis 32:25-30)

Who did Yakov really fight, man or angel, or was it perhaps a dream in which he found himself in a struggle with phantom demons? This is interesting disagreement between the Rambam and the Ramban. Did this wrestling constitute an external event or an inner prophetic experience through the medium of a dream? It is understandable that after a profound experience one would question the reality of that experience. In another way it is interesting to think that Yakov internalized the character of Esav.
I was thinking about this question of internalizing the other when reflecting on the relationship between Rabbi Meir and his master Acher, Rabbi Elisha Ben Abuyah. While Acher, literally “the other”, became an apostate, his student Rabbi Meir went on to be a very important Rabbi and a central figure to the Mishana.. There we read:
Our Rabbis taught: Once Acher was riding on a horse on Shabbat, and Rabbi Meir was walking behind him to learn Torah from his mouth. Said [Acher] to him: Meir, turn back, for I have already measured by the paces of my horse that thus far extends the Sabbath limit, He replied: You, too, go back! [Acher] answered: Have I not already told you that I have already heard from behind the Veil: ‘Return all you backsliding children’ — except Acher. ( Hagiga 15a)
It is prohibited to ride on a horse on Shabbat and it is prohibited to walk beyond a certain distance. Rabbi Meir left the comfort of the house of study to learn from his master even though his master had gone off the derech, the path of Jewish law. Is Acher real or just an internalized character in Rabbi Meir’s life? This story like the story of Yakov and the angel make me wonder how we internalize the traits of our opponents. Maybe this Esav character is now actually part of Yakov in the same way that Acher is now actually part of Rabbi Meir. How else would we have learned about this interchange between Rabbi Meir and Acher if it was not reported to us by Rabbi Meir. The first rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club.

For All Those Years

In Vayetei, this week’s Torah portion, we read of Yakov’s escape to Haran. Last week he stole the birthright and the blessing from Esav and now he wants to evade Esav’s wrath.  There in Haran he falls in love with Rachel. Lavan convincing him to work for 7 years for Rachel’s hand in marriage. Lavan dupes Yakov into marrying Rachel’s older sister Leah instead. When confronted for deceiving Yakov, Lavan replies, “It is not so done in our place, to give the younger before the first-born” ( Genesis 29:26). Many questions arise from this situation. I wanted to discuss two now. How in the world did Yakov not realize that he was sleeping with Leah and not Rachel? What did Lavan mean by his response to Yakov?

On the first question I refer us back to Toldot, last week’s Torah portion. There we read of Rivka’s deception of Yitzhak. There the blind Yitzhak asks Esav for some food. There we read:

Now therefore take, I pray of you, your weapons, your quiver and your bow, and go out to the field, and take me venison; and make me savory food, such as I love, and bring it to me, that I may eat; that my soul may bless you before I die.’ ( Genesis 27: 3-4)

Rivka overhears this plan and tells Yakov to intervene and to follow her plan. There we read:

Go now to the flock, and fetch me from two good kids of the goats from there; and I will make them savory food for your father, such as he loves; and you shall bring it to your father, that he may eat, so that he may bless you before his death.’ ( Genesis 27: 9-10)

At the core of this deception is the issue of perception. ( I realize that I am reading this differently then I did last week.) Yitzhak is blind, but that does not mean that we cannot taste. So how did this deception work? How might someone mistake goat for venison? Either Yitzhak is just not that perceptive or Rivka has been serving him goat meat for years and telling him it is venison.

In either case we might have some answers to our questions. Maybe Yakov like Yitzhak is just not that perceptive. While that is not that satisfying, it is interesting to realize how much Yakov is like Yitzhak.  This leaves us with the second question. What did Lavan mean?

It is hard as the reader not to read it as sarcastic. So we would read Lavan’s reply as, “It is not so done in our place as compared to your place, to give the younger before the first-born as you stole the birthright and blessing from your older brother Esav.”  But we the readers of the Torah know what Yakov did, but how would Lavan have known of Yakov’s decption of Esav and Yitzhak? It is possible that Lavan does not know anything of Yakov’s misdeeds. Maybe he is referring in a back-handed way to Rivka and her ways. She did grow up there with him in Haran. Maybe Rivka like Lavan are tricksters. For all of those years maybe Rivka was deceiving Yitzhak serving him goat and claiming it was venison. In this way Lavan is claiming that Yakov is no different from Rivka who is no different from himself.  As the Roman Philospher  Marcus Tullius Cicero said, ” It is the peculiar quality of a fool to perceive the faults of others and to forget his own”. We know that Lavan is a fool, but what is Yakov? It takes Yakov much of his life to realizing his similarities to both the positive and negative qualities of his parents. Like many of us, Yakov spends his whole life reconciling his identities. In this process of wrestling with our various identities we all become Yisrael.

Blind Taste Test

In Toldot, this week’s Torah portion, we read about Yakov’s deception and act of stealing the blessing from his brother Esav. This story starts off with a blind Yitzhak growing aware of his age. He calls Esav. There we read:

Now therefore take, I pray of you, your weapons, your quiver and your bow, and go out to the field, and take me venison; and make me savory food, such as I love, and bring it to me, that I may eat; that my soul may bless you before I die.’ ( Genesis 27: 3-4)

Rivka overhears this plan and tells Yakov to intervene and to follow her plan. There we read:

Go now to the flock, and fetch me from two good kids of the goats from there; and I will make them savory food for your father, such as he loves; and you shall bring it to your father, that he may eat, so that he may bless you before his death.’ ( Genesis 27: 9-10)

At the core of this deception is the issue of perception. Yitzhak is blind so he cannot see the food or who is bringing it.

This reminds me of the final chapter of Malcolm Gladwell‘s Blink. There he writes about how orchestras hold “blind” auditions where musicians literally play behind a screen. So-called expert judges are able to hear with “just their ears” rather than look first and, in that blink of an eye, make instant (often unfair) assumptions based on what they see. A tiny woman, for example, could never be a great French Horn player because she couldn’t possibly have the strength or lung capacity. Gladwell writes,“Until they listened to her with just their ears … they had no idea she was so good.”

This seems to be the case with Yitzhak as well. He says that he wants venison because it tastes savory, but in the end he gives the blessing to the child that brings him the goat meat instead. Until he tastes with his mouth and not with his eyes he did not realize what he truly really wanted. His blindness was like a screen, helping him blink and reveal the right savory taste. But why did he think he wanted Esav’s dish?

In last week’s Torah portion we read about Esav and Yakov as children . There we read:

And the boys grew; and Esav was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Yakov was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. Now Yitzhak loved Esav, because he did eat of his venison; and Rivka loved Jacob. ( Genesis 25:27-28)

Yitzhak saw in Esav a virile masculine outdoorsy child. Yitzhak is drawn after the memories of Esav’s venison which blinds him to the gifts that Yakov has to offer. Ironically it is his actual blindness that helps him see. We are all blinded by our assumptions.

I was thinking about this when reading  of the Gur’s ban on soy products. According to a report in BaOlam Shel Haredim based on a HaMevasser report, Gur has now banned soy products like veggie hot dogs from its yeshivas due their Rabbis’ fears that the hormones in soy foods will cause the bodies of young teen students to become feminine in appearance and thereby cause their rabbis and older students to become sexually aroused seeing them. They are worried that soy will damage the spirituality of its yeshiva students by accelerating their sexual maturity. Doctors and scientists find no scientific evidence to support Gur’s decision to ban what is the cheapest – and, probably, the healthiest – protein available. They, like Yitzhak, seem to be blinded by their perception that venison is more masculine.

We all make assumptions that cloud our vision. It is sad to realize how we are overlooking the gifts of so many people by holding fast to these assumptions. You would think that we, the descendents of Yakov, would advocate to put up the screen so we could have a better sounding orchestra and more savory meal.


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