Many of us know the story of Jacob and Esau, the brothers who could not be more different from one another. But what do these brothers have to teach us about reimagining our Jewish present and a new Jewish future? in this week’s On the Other Hand, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, puts the story into a new perspective as he teaches about Parashat Tol'dot.
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Welcome to episode 45 of On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, we reflect on more than 2,000 years of Jewish wisdom in just 10 minutes with modern day commentary on the weekly Torah portion. Of course, we think there are plenty of ways to interpret Torah. We want to hear what you think. So talk to us on Twitter. Our handle is @ReformJudaism, and like us at Facebook.com/ReformJudaism and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.
This week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, teaches us about Parashat Tol'dot. He wonders how we can make sure that there is always a blessing for everyone and how we can for broaden, widen, and deepen who we are and who we are becoming.
This week, we focus our attention on Parashat Tol'dot. “Tol’dot” literally means generations, and we focus, once again, in the book of Genesis on the next generation. There seems to be a, almost a generational obsession, will there be a generation after us? Of course, that does seem to be a pretty long-standing Jewish, maybe, obsession, and maybe just smart communal focus, that we always are thinking about who will carry this tradition forward. Who are the people who will value and live and internalize and teach the core of what the Jewish tradition is all about?
Well, the generation we're speaking about happens to be Isaac and Rebecca. And they don't have children, and they are at their wits end. And finally, finally, finally Rebecca becomes pregnant not with one, but with two. And we know these remarkable twins that are born in Jewish history. You know their names, Jacob and Esau.
They could not be more difficult, I mean different. They are literally opposites. So, you have Jacob who is this soft spoken and very quiet, inside kind of boy. And then there is Esau who is a rugged, hairy, strong, masculine, athletic type, and somehow these two are from the same family. Go figure.
One of them really values the birthright. It's not the first born. The first born is Esau, and there's that incredible drama where Jacob, who so values having not only the birthright but the mantle of leadership on his shoulders, that he literally engages in some trickery with his brother Esau. And he finagles the blessing from his father.
What I'd like to just spend a moment thinking about is that I think so much about Jacob. You know, he's the guy—so much of Jewish education is focused on Jacob, the one who loves going to Hebrew school. And by the way, I taught a lot of Hebrew school. I love kids who love Hebrew school. You know, the ones who quietly did their reading and answered the questions.
And then, like, we don't know what to do with the Esau of Jewish life, the one who, he's playing lacrosse, and then he's playing football. And he's got wrestling practice. And in some way, we the Jewish community, have lost a lot of our next generation today because we have a very narrow sense about what really qualifies somebody for, not just Jewish leadership, but for Jewish involvement, engagement.
And I think we've got so many young people today who are asking the question, like, really? Am I really a part of this Jewish community? Am I valued? Are my gifts sought out?
And I just love to use the biblical story, to bust out and not, obviously, talk only about boys, because they're the same—the same many different typologies of young girls, as well. How do we have a broad enough circle, not only of involvement, but welcome? I think of, our community, we opened a camp for science and technology a couple of years ago just north of Boston. What was amazing is there were all these young people who kind of felt like I think surely Esau felt, which is like, they don't know who I am. And I'm not valued, and they don't have something for me.
And I just think of all those young people, frankly, who are looking for an anchor of meaning in their life, to have a place where they belong no matter if they're doing well in school, not doing well, they always know that they're part of this community by virtue of who they are, not just for their accomplishments. So we have so many challenges to not just worry about the next generation—if we could just have a dollar for every member of our people that ever worried about the Jewish future, we'd be trillionaires.
But the point isn't worrying about the Jewish future. It's about being creative about it, and being visionary enough to see Jacob and Esau, and Rachel and Leah, and all the different individuals with all their unique gifts, somehow an essential part of who we are. So when it comes to the birthright, it's not just for one. I think the birthright is for all.
And in the end of the parashah, there's that moment where Isaac is blessing his son Jacob, who is once again involved in some trickery, is dressed up like his brother. And there's an incredibly painful plea after Esau comes in and says to his father, is there no blessing for me? And honestly, of all the cries in the Bible, that's one that just pierces the heart. Can we think of all the young people today who would cry out, is there no blessing for me? Is there no place for me?
And I think we, as a Jewish community, I think we have to think big and just imagine a Jewish present and future, where there's a place for all of us. Those of us who are waving our arms saying, I love Jewish learning. Those of us who prefer shooting baskets or doing ballet or even our scientific or academic pursuits. Let's figure out a way not to put our favoritism on one or a few, but on the many, and that will reimagine the Jewish present. It will reimagine the Jewish future.
And so as we think about Tol'dot, we've been around for generations. I pray, I hope you'll join me, in hoping that we'll be around for generations, but I don't want us just to survive. I don't want us to hang on and keep going. I want us to thrive and to regenerate and to reimagine. And to do that we need every single one with what uniquely you can bring.
So is there a blessing for you? Absolutely. Is a blessing for me? I hope so. And are we going to choose? I hope we don't have to.
So is it possible that Parashat Tol’dot gives us a lesson in the dangers of that favoritism, in the danger of focusing all of our parental or communal energy on one type of youngster? And instead to broaden to widen and to deepen who we are and who we are becoming?
Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah. If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism including rituals, culture, holidays, and more.
On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. Until next week, l’hitraot.