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Divrei Torah Parshas Toldos

Parshas Toldos 5778:  The Role of the Jewish People in the World

In this week’s parsha the Torah relates how Yaakov Avinu “stole” the brachos (blessings) from his father, Yitzchok Avinu, that were really meant for his wicked brother Eisav .

The story of Yaakov and Eisav is one of the most puzzling narratives of the entire Torah. From a very young age, Yaakov was righteous and developed into a diligent torah scholar. By contrast, Eisav is described as a hunter, a man of violence who lived by his might and conquest. Chazal (Bava Basra 16B) describe him very negatively as a murderer, idolater,and womanizer all rolled into one. A mere glance at the opening account of their lives (Bereishis 25:27), leaves us with very little question as to which one is deserving of being the progenitor of the Jewish Nation.

The story takes a peculiar turn almost immediately. Whereas their mother Rivkah Imeinu favors the righteous Yaakov, their father Yitzchok seemingly favors Eisav – “because his game was in his mouth” (25:28). Yitzchok desired to give the firstborn blessings to Eisav, apparently to designate him as his primary heir. How could Yitzchok have been so easily misled? Why didn’t Rivkah simply point out to him Eisav’s true nature? Couldn’t she have influenced him to favor Yaakov, the righteous brother?

A careful reading of the pesukim shows us that this was not the case and Yitzchok was not really fooled by Eisav’s behavior.

As Yitzchok approached old age, he asked Eisav to hunt and prepare him a meal so he could bless him before his passing. Yitzchok especially warns Eisav not to steal the animal and that he was to slaughter it properly (see Rashi to 27:4). We can understand from this that Yitzchok suspected that Eisav could engage in thievery and therefore admonished him so that he would not resort to theft when bringing food for Yitzchok. Yet for some unknown reason, Yitzchok favored Eisav as the more deserving son, the one worthy of receiving the brachos.  What could possibly be the reason for this?

Rivka, having overheard her husband’s instructions, wisely conceived a plan. She dressed Yaakov in furs to resemble Eisav’s hairy exterior and handed him cooked foods she had prepared herself. She then sent him in to receive the blessings in Eisav’s stead. Rather than leveling with her husband, Yitzchok, telling him the true nature of their wicked son Eisav, Rivka Imeinu tricked him into blessing the truly deserving son.

Yaakov did as Rivkah directed him and successfully received the blessings from Yitzchok.  However, he nearly gave himself away in the process. This was not because Yaakov was a poor impersonator but because he did something Eisav would never have done. He used Hashem’s name in his speech. He attributed his quick arrival (after allegedly catching his hunt) to Hashem saying, “the Lord Hashem chanced [the prey] before me (27:20).”

Yitzchok said to himself that it is not the practice of Eisav to have the Name of Heaven ‘Shagur befiv’ (fluent in his mouth) and this immediately aroused his suspicion.  Yitzchok  asked, “Gisha na ve’amushcha – Come close if you please, so I can touch you” (see Rashi on Bereishis 27:21),
As the Chazal point out, he wanted Yaakov to come close so that he could feel his arms which, thanks to Rivka’s disguise, felt hairy like Eisav’s.

A question arises as to what Yaakov Avinu was thinking. After he went through all that trouble to hide his true identity from his father, and thought of every possible method his father might use to reveal who he really was, one would think that he would be a little more careful in his choice of words. The same way he thought it might be necessary to wear a goat skin on his arms, he should have been a bit more careful to use the same mannerisms of speech as Eisav, and to leave Hashem’s name out of his conversation for awhile. This apparent slip of the tongue almost cost him his life and the future of the Jewish people!

My ancestor, Rabbi Asher of Stolin (1760-1828), explains Rashi’s words “Shagur befiv” -fluent in his mouth”, not to mean fluent as it is simply read but rather from the words of the Gemara (Sanhedrin 104A) ‘shigra tanura vekilsa- she ignited the oven and incinerated it’. What Rashi is saying is that when Yaakov said the words, “the Lord Hashem chanced [the prey] before me”, he said Hashem’s name with fervor and emotion. We can assume that Eisav also used Hashem’s name regularly since he was trying to portray himself as a righteous person, however, he never said it with such emotion. It was the way Yaakov Avinu said it that aroused Yitzchok’s suspicion. Yaakov did not have to omit Hashem’s name from the discussion in order to continue the ruse since Eisav also used Hashem’s name regularly. However, he could not curb his hislahavus (his emotion) when mentioning Hashem’s name since that came from his penimius (his inner spiritual essence), and although he was disguised as Eisav, his penimius did not change and therefore he couldn’t help but sound like himself.

Perhaps we can also add that Yitzchok never compared his two sons; he looked at each one’s good traits individually. He therefore never paid attention to the difference in how they said Hashem’s name. Only now, when he thought he was speaking to Eisav and heard Hashem’s name said with such fervor, did he realize that Eisav did not normally speak that way. He realized that something was amiss. That is why he asked Yaakov to come close — so he could touch him to determine which son was there.

Yitzchok’s intent to give the brachos to Eisav was because Am Yisroel really has a dual role in the world  (1) the role of being spiritual and delving into Torah and tefila  — the role of “Yaakov” and, (2) the role of being “men of the field”, working and elevating the physical world to spirituality. The Yaakov role is to be internally righteous – to study Torah, to become more spiritual, and to develop a relationship with Hashem. The studious, tent-dwelling Yaakov was clearly grooming himself for such a role from his earliest years.

But, the Jewish people are not meant to be a secluded nation of saints living separate spiritual lives in monasteries. We are to be the leaders of mankind by partaking in this world and elevating all physical things. We must dedicate “al choimer” – physical mass – to Hashem.

Am Yisroel thus has a twofold mission to fulfill – a private role – developing their internal relationship with Hashem; and a public role as “people of the field” and strongman of the world – elevating mankind to be fully submissive to Hashem.  Yitzchok rightly recognized that ultimately, Eisav’s role as “a man of the field” would be a critical one in our service of Hashem. This role would help bring the entire world – not just the Jewish people – to salvation. Thus, in spite of all of Eisav’s personal failings, Yitzchok knew that his abilities were needed for the development of a true nation of Hashem.

Yitzchok was right, to be sure. It was not simply a matter of Rivka explaining to him that Eisav was wicked. Yitzchok was aware of that (even if not completely so), yet he still favored his elder son.. Rather, Rivka devised an alternate, though risky, plan that would ultimately prevail. In her eyes Eisav was too wicked to fulfill his role in Am Yisroel. Therefore, Yaakov would have to assume two roles. He would have to fulfill his own personal role within Yisroel and Eisav’s role as well. Not only would he be the private man of letters, but he would have to deal with the rough and tumble outside world, and take arms against his foes.

This is precisely what Yaakov intended to convey when he entered Yitzchok’s tent, feigning to be Eisav. While pretending to demonstrate his newly-acquired role as “man of the field,” he also spoke gently, invoking the name of Hashem with a bren (fervor). He was not simply trying to imitate his brutish brother Eisav. He was projecting himself as the son who truly deserved Eisav’s blessings. He would possess the hands of Eisav yet speak with the voice of Yaakov. He was the new composite brother, who would fulfill both roles, his original role and the role of a kinder and gentler Eisav. When Yitzchok met with Eisav and realized that he had, in error, given his blessing to Yaakov, he nonetheless concluded “so too will he be blessed” (Bereishis 27:33) — Yaakov would keep his blessings.

We find that when Yaakov returned from Lavan’s house the pasuk says (Bereishis 33:18) ‘Vayavo Yaakov Shalom ir Shechem – and Yaakov came in peace (or, more loosely translated, complete) to the city of Shechem. After spending 14 years in Yeshivas Shem V’Eiver learning Torah, and then another 20 years physically working for his uncle Lavan he truly excelled in both areas of his avodah; he was complete.

Parashas Toldos 5773: What is the Significance of Esav’s Rejection of his Birthright?

The Gemarah [1] relates that on the day of our forefather Avraham’s passing, Esav the wicked one committed five sins. He had inappropriate relations with a betrothed maiden, he murdered King Nimrod, he denied the fundamental belief of the existence of G-d, he denied the principle of the resurrection of the dead, and he demeaned the birthright of the firstborn. The Gemarah finds scriptural sources for four of Esav’s sins through the means of drashos (exegesis), however, the sin of belittling the right of the firstborn is stated clearly by the pasuk [2] ויבז עשו את הבכרה – and Esav denigrated the birthright.
What is the significance of the right of the firstborn? Even prior to the construction of the Mishkan, the tabernacle, divine service was already being performed. These rituals included sacrificial offerings [3] and giving the priestly benediction [4]. Initially these privileges belonged to the firstborns until the sin of the Golden Calf when subsequently they were reassigned to the Kohanim and Levi’im.
It seems a bit confounding that of all the five sins the only one the Torah makes a clear reference to is Esav’s defamation of the right of the bechor (firstborn). Seemingly this sin is on a far lesser stature than the other four: inappropriate relations with a married woman, homicide, and rejection of the belief of Hashem are all of the seven Noahide laws [5]. The denial of the principle of the restoration of the deceased, although not required by Noahide law, is one of the thirteen principles of Jewish faith, Therefore it is understandable that it was considered a sin for Esav. However, the sin of mocking the privilege of the firstborn is no sin at all; it is merely a viewpoint. If so, even if homiletically it is considered a sin, it still does not come even close to the other sins. Why then does the Torah only give citation to this sin?
Reb Moshe Feinstein [6] explains this sin of Esav’s with the words of the Rambam [7]. “Whoever accepts on himself the fulfillment of the seven Noahide laws and is careful in its adherence is considered to be from the righteous among the gentiles. However, this is only if he accepts and fulfils them in view of the fact that it is mandated by Hashem as stated in the Torah that was given to us by our teacher and master Moshe and that these distinct laws were previously given to Noach and his descendants. From the words of the Rambam we see clearly that a Noahide must believe in the divinity of the Torah. As such if he were to deprecate the Torah he is considered liable.” We know from Chazal (our Rabbis) [8] that our forefathers fulfilled the Torah even prior to its being given on Sinai, per se Esav most definitely knew of this and is considered accountable for degrading the priestly service. Although this explanation does actually shed light on why this precise sin was considered an indiscretion, it still has not focused on the gravity of this particular wrongdoing over the other four.
The Toldos Yaakov Yoseph [9] says that Torah law states that the firstborn receives a double inheritance; however, this is only after the death of the ‘moreish’ (one who dies intestate). This he explains is the meaning of the verse “he got up and went out and Esav denigrated the birthright”. He did not pay heed to what will come about – his twofold share due him by birthright and he only lived for the moment. Based on this I would like to elaborate with a few explanations on these verses. What is the significant underlying implication of Esav’s show of contempt towards the right of the firstborn?
Reb Boruch of Mezhibozh [10] explains the pasuk [11] ואתה עיף ויגע ולא ירא אלקים – you were faint and weary, and did not fear G-d. That if a person feels fatigued after his performance of a mitzvah it is indicative of his lack of conviction in his service of Hashem. If he would be fully earnest he would not become physically drained for he would see the true significance of his actions. The pasuk says ויבא עשו מן השדה והוא עיף – and Esav came from the field and he was worn out. Esav was returning from slaying King Nimrod who was infamous for throwing Avraham into the burning furnace, as well as for numerous other heinous acts. Thus killing him could have been perceived as a mitzvah. Indeed there are some commentaries [12] that explain that Yitzchack’s great love toward Esav [13] was in part as a result to his doing away with the sinful Nimrod. However, Yaakov realized from Esav’s fatigue that he had not killed Nimrod for the sake of a mitzvah rather that he was a simple murderer. He therefore consequently understood that it was not befitting for Esav who was a killer to render sacrificial services [14] as he was not in touch with spirituality. Essentially Yaakov understood from his attitude that serving Hashem was not considered a very great honor in Esav’s eyes.
The Pasuk further says [15] ויאמר עשו הנה אנכי הולך למות ולמה זה לי בכרה – and Esav said “behold I am going to die, and what benefit shall the birthright be to me”. Our Rabbis [16] teach usאין התורה מתקיימת אלא במי שממית עצמו עליה – the Torah is only everlasting by one who exerts himself to the utmost in his service of Hashem, to the extent that he collapses from total exhaustion. This is then what Esav was implying “behold I am going to die” – I am required to exert myself to the point of expiration in order to serve Hashem. Therefore, “what benefit shall the birthright be to me” – and I, Esav am not interested in giving up all the worldly pleasures in return for my firstborn privilege that is, to serve Hashem as a Kohen/priest, and to receive reward later (which is indicated by the fact the bechor/firstborn gets a double inheritance later on as explained by the Toldos Yaakov Yoseph).
Now we can fully understand why out of all the five sins Esav committed on that fateful day the Torah only clearly refers to Esav’s degradation of the right of the Bechora/firstborn. It ultimately is this sin that was the core of all of Esav’s depravities. If Esav would have honored the bechora and what it symbolized (reverence toward service of Hashem) he would then have had a fighting chance not to fall prey to the evil inclination. Esav’s lack of spiritual grounding would ultimately allow him to commit the other most grievous sins. It is therefore understandable why the Torah makes overt mention only of Esav’s denigration of the ‘bechora’. This offense, despite its appearance of being somewhat inconsequential, was actually more serious than the others, for it shows Esav’s total disregard for spirituality, which in turn was the cause of his infamous decline.

[1] Tractate Baba Basra 16B

[2] Bereishes 25:34

[3] See Tractate Zevachim 112B, as well as the Bereishis Rabbah 63:14.

[4] See Rashi Parshas Vayechi 49:3 where Rashi quotes the Medrash (Bereishes Rabbah 99:6) that the right of the firstborn was to give priestly blessings.

[5] The seven laws which are binding to all gentiles are the requirement to have a body of civil law, the prohibitions against idolatry, immorality, murder, sacrilege, thieving, and eating the limbs off of live animals.

[6] Rabbi Moshe Feinstein 1895-1986, in his sefer on Baba Basra Dibros Moshe He’ara 79.

[7] Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (“Maimonides”) 1135- 1204. In his book Yad Hachazaka the laws of Milachim 8:11

[8] See Tractate Yuma 28B

[9] Rabbi Yaakov Yosef HaKohain of Polnoye who passed away in 1784. He was one of the earliest and closest rabbinical disciples of the Baal Shem Tov. He was the first to author a book of Chassidic doctrine, called Toldos Yaakov Yoseph.

[10] 1753-1812, he was a grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of the Chasidic movement.

[11] Devarim/Deuteronomy 25:18

[12] Reb Chaim Vital (1543-1620) in his sefer Eitz Hada’as Tov.

[13] See verse 25:28

[14] The Zohar 3:214A actually rules that a Kohen who has committed murder is forever prohibited from performing the service in the Temple. The Gemarah in Tractate Brachos 32B is seemingly in agreement. The Tosfos Yom Tov in Bechoros 7:7 also rules so.

[15] 25:32

[16] See Tractate Brachos 63B




Parshas Toldos 5775: What Role Does Yichus Play in Tefilah?

This week’s Parsha begins with our Patriarch Yitzchock and Matriarch Rivkah davening to Hashem to be blessed with children. The pasuk [1] states, “vayei’aser lo Hashem – And Hashem hearkened to him (Yitzchock).” Rashi references the Gemarah [2] that explains why Hashem answered Yitzchock’s tefilah (prayer) rather than Rivkah’s. “You cannot compare the prayers of a Tzadik (a righteous person) who is also the son of a Tzadik to the prayers of a Tzadik who is the child of a Rasha (evil person).” Yitzchock was a Tzadik and the son of the Patriarch Avraham the Tzadik. Rivkah was a great Tzadaikes, but she was the daughter of Besuel the Rasha.

Many commentaries find this gemarah challenging. It would seem that a person who rose to great spiritual heights in spite of his negative and evil environment to become a truly righteous person should be on a more lofty level than a person who was raised in an environment conducive of righteousness. Indeed the Gemarah [3] already states such, “B’Makom she’baalei teshuvah omdim ein tzaddikim gimurim yacholim laamod – the baal teshuvah (penitent) ascends to a spiritual perch which eludes even the righteous person. In other words, one who has prevailed over his inglorious past has achieved more and will be elevated beyond the status of he who has always been righteous. Why than were Yitzchock’s prayers more effective than Rivkah’s prayers?

Rebbe Naftali Tzvi of Ropshitz [4] would often speak about the great yichus (family heritage) he had from both the paternal and maternal sides of his family.

He once remarked about the benefits of his yichus: Take a person who’s a real tzadik, a great scholar and serves Hashem in every way. He gets up at midnight and cries over the destruction of the Temple for hours, then he immerses himself in a freezing cold mikvah and spends the rest of the night delving into the hidden and revealed parts of Torah. Come daybreak, he goes to shul (synagogue) and davens for hours. After davening he returns to the study of Torah. It is close to midday before he can nourish himself with a meager breakfast. However, he partakes of that meal with a small sense of entitlement. After all his exertions, he thinks, does he not deserve that minimal diversion?

On the other hand, the pedigreed Tzadik, the virtuous man who is descended from totally righteous people after practicing the same devotions described here, would nonetheless approach his scant repast with an attitude of utter humility. Since his ancestors were great tzadikim, he gives a heavy sigh and asks of himself, “Am I really serving Hashem with all my ability? I have still not reached the lofty spiritual levels of my ancestors.”

That, says the Ropshitzer is the value of yichus.

(On a side note this can be the explanation of an oft quoted chazal [5] “One should constantly demand perfection of oneself by asking, ‘When will my deeds reach the level of the deeds of my Forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchock, and Yaakov?’ ” That it is our spiritual legacy as Jews, children of these great and holy men; to always be able to see ourselves as people of yichus, descended from spiritual giants, and humbled by their great accomplishments.)

Dovid HaMelech (King David) writes “Lev Nishbar vinidka elokim lo sivze – Hashem will not scorn a broken and humbled heart” [6]. The Gemarah [7] teaches us, ” it is written, ‘ u’levodo be’chol levavchem’ “and to serve Him with all your heart” ‘. What sort of Avodah – service of Hashem is there with the heart?,” queries the Gemarah  – “Tefillah (prayer)”, the Gemarah concludes. We can now read this pasuk, “lev (heart) nishbar vinidka alokim lo sivze,” the prayer of the broken hearted is never scorned by Hashem.

The seforim write that in order for someone to truly exert himself in davening he must first come to the realization that he is truly unworthy before Hashem. When one comes to such a powerful comprehension and cries out to Hashem, placing his heart in His Hands, he eliminates all of the prosecuting angels that might even threaten the continuity of his existence.

This realization of praying a Tefilah leoni – a poor man’s prayer, that is, realizing that Hashem owes him nothing and to beseech Him in utter humility is something that Tzadik the son of a Tzadik can more readily attain then a tzadik who is the son of a Rasha. As the Ropshitzer Rebbe said the son of a tzadik is never satisfied by the level of his service to Hashem, because he has not attained the spiritual hights of his ancestors.

This week’s Parsha, and the statement that Hashem responded to Yitzchock’s tefilah more favorably than to Rivkah’s, can be understood similarly. It is almost impossible that Rivkah with all of her greatness could have been able to present her plea to Hashem with the same level of humility as was Yitzchock, for surely she was aware of her superiority to her father Besuel. How could she avoid some feeling of entitlement of Hashem’s kindness in light of how far she risen above her ignoble origins? Yitzchock, on the other hand, feeling dwarfed by his father Avrohom’s accomplishments, was able to approach Hashem with total modesty, relying not on his own merits, but instead imploring of Hashem’s infinite mercy. Yitzchock’s prayers were pure, free of any taint of smugness to a greater degree than Rivkah’s prayers could have been and therefore Hashem responded to his prayers more readily than to hers.


[1] Bereishis 25:21

[2] Tractate Yevamos 64A

[3] Tractate Berachos 34B

[4] Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Horowitz of Ropshitz, 1760–1827

[5] Tanna D’vei Eliyahu, Chapter 25

[6] Tehillim 51:19

[7] Tractate Taanis 2A