Friday, December 2, 2016

Feeding Souls and Nurturing Citizens: Parashat Toldot

This week's portion is parashat Toldot. We encounter two brothers, Jacob and Esau, who represent two different approaches to decision making. Jacob is the scholar and the schemer, the one who is willing to forgo short-term satisfaction in order to achieve long-term aims. On the hand you have Esau who is the hunter and the straight-shooter, who puts the fulfillment of basic needs in front of long-term, strategic aims. Jacob is clever (and often duplicitous) and Esau is candid (and often naive.) Jacob acquires great wealth and power but is never at peace, while Esau follows his heart and stomach, but does not live his life on the run.

The Jewish tradition, and in particular the rabbinic tradition, favors the priorities and character of Jacob over Esau. The rabbis excuse Jacob's misdeeds, and vilify Esau's ostensibly innocent actions.

However, we miss a great deal of wisdom when we overlook or demonize Esau's choices. Jacob had the ability to think in the long-term because his short-term needs were provided by his mother, Rebecca. Esau needed to think about immediate gratification because he did not receive the attention or coddling of his mother, but rather spent his time serving his sick father, Isaac. Esau also trusted his brother, and therefore, never believed that relying on him for basic care and hospitality would cost him his birthright.

It is easier to be generous and strategic when your basic needs are cared for by others. It is much more difficult to be a conduit of generosity, empathy, and critical thinking when your stomach is empty and your soul needs tending. If the most basic of someone's concerns are not addressed -- feeling respected and cared for -- then we are misguided to expect the kind of empathy and long-term thinking we would like to see in our fellow citizens.

Let us focus on feeding and nurturing (physically and spiritually) our fellow citizens at this moment. These acts of care have tremendous implications for our people and our body politic. As our rabbi's taught, "Ein Kemach, Ein Torah." Without food, there can be no study. This is a moment that demands learning -- let us feed one another so we are ready and able to address the demands of citizenship that this moment demands.

Shabbat Shalom and Hodesh Tov!