On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah --Tol'dot: The Value in Both Esau and Jacob

Parashat Tol’dot tells the story of Esau and Jacob—two archetypes. Most people have a little bit of Esau and Jacob in them, even though Esau hasn’t historically been an honored typology in Jewish life. In this episode of On the Other Hand, Rabbi Jacobs walks us through some prominent Jewish figures who have a little Jacob and Esau in them, and why Esau deserves a little more love.

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[URJ Intro:] Welcome back to “On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah,” a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the President of the Union for Reform Judaism, teaches us a bit about the Torah portion of the week in about 10 minutes or less. This week, Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about Parashat Tol'dot. And he asks, what happens when we either or ourselves?

[Rabbi Rick:] This week, we focus our attention on Parashat Tol'dot from the book of Genesis-- Tol'dot meaning generations. And we're talking about, still, the first generations of the Jewish people. We have Abraham and Sarah. We have Isaac and Rebekah. And Isaac and Rebekah are blessed in the opening of this parashah with beautiful, beautiful sons-- happen to be twins, not identical twins, but actually quite different.

And the typologies of Esau and Jacob to me are typologies I want to delve into. Who's Esau? He's “ish yode'a tzayid, ish sade.” He is a skillful hunter. He's a rugged outdoorsman.

Who's Jacob? He is an “ish tam, yoshev ohalim.” He's a quiet, studious, introspective person, who like to go to the library or just stay in and reflect and just have a different stance in the world.

So, if you think of Jacob and Esau, they're not just two characters from the first generations. In some ways, they're archetypes-- the archetype of this strong, muscular, individual, and the quiet, more reflective. And sometimes, these are two parts to the same person that each of us may have an Esau or a Jacob within us.

But if we just look a little historically, the Esau has not been an honored typology in Jewish life. In Greco-Roman times, sports were always associated with idol worship. And it's just not who we were. And maybe in many places who we still are.

The book of Maccabees describes the wicked Jewish Hellenizers, those who not only became part of Hellenistic life, but they went to the gymnasium. And they exercised and were part of all of these athletic activities. The Talmud condemns Romans sports, thinking of them as sadism and gladiatorial combat.

It is not the typology of the Rabbinic sage. We have a Sage, Reish Lakish, who is, in fact, someone who has the strength of a gladiator. But what's notable, mostly, is they also has this Torah scholarship and this Torah wisdom that he acquires.

In modern times, you have the early Zionist movement. Going back, you think of Theodor Herzl, the Zionist Congress in 1898 and his right-hand co-thinker named Max Nordao, who expressed the Zionist longing for the creation of a muscular Jewry.

Right, the Jews could not be the victims of any culture's hatred. We had to be strong, defiant. In order to settle the land, we had to be those people in order to defend the land. We think of the modern Maccabiah games, right? The celebrating the sports.

So, I want to reflect on a couple of these typologies. But first, a story that Sigmund Freud tells. So, one day, Jacob Freud told his son, Sigmund, the following story. This is recounted by Sigmund Freud. Says, when I was a young man, his father began, I went for a walk one Saturday.

I was well-dressed. I had a new fur cap on my head. And someone came up to me with a single blow, knocked my cap off into the mud and shouted, Jew, get off the pavement. Would did you do, asked young Sigmund Freud? Well, I went into the street. And I picked up my cap, was his father's quiet reply.

I don't think that's what Esau would have done. I think that's what Jacob would have done. And maybe honestly if we think about it, there wasn't much else to do. But the whole question of, where is that typology of the strong? And it's not just a sports persona, but the persona that is embodying strength.

And the other is embodying very often a kind of, if you were, just to follow the sort of the typology, almost the galoot or the Diaspora or the exile persona, which is, we can't be that strong, because we're not that secure in the places where we lived.

So, let's just think about some of these typologies. So, I love some of the characters from Jewish sports. Or that great scene in the movie, Airplane? There's guy on a plane and so stops the flight attendant, says, hey, do you have anything to read-- something really short and thin?

She says, oh, I've got this book of Jewish sports heroes, the perfect volume. Well, people make this joke-- how many Jewish sports heroes are there? And what kind of heroics do they display? Well, it turns out, friends, on the podcast, there are a lot of pretty impressive people.

Did you know Menchy Goldblatt, for example. And you're thinking, Jacobs, you're reaching far. Menchy Goldblatt-- who the heck was Menchy Goldblatt? Well, it turns out he was a member of the University of Pennsylvania's basketball team in the 1920s.

Listen to this-- he won All-American honors. He was the first Jewish captain of a team in Penn's history. OK, he also was for a little while the director of Camp Harlem, our Reform Jewish camp outside of Philadelphia. And do you love this guy's nickname-- Menchy Goldblatt?

Can you imagine he must have been really a tough guy, right? He was called the Mench, the kind, wise, loving person, which is what a mench is. So I love that he, somehow-- I didn't know him, because I am old. He's from the 1920s that he was able to be an incredible competitor but also bring menchlishkeit.

I think of Hank Greenberg. Like, who doesn't love Hank Greenberg? Course we know Sandy Koufax, of course, wouldn't pitch on the high holidays. Well, before Sandy Koufax wouldn't pitch, there was a guy named Hank Greenberg, who was quite a slugger for the Detroit Tigers.

And he also didn't play on Rosh Hashanah. It was pretty impressive. But the most famous and inspiring moment is when Hank Greenberg was playing first base. And Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play in major league baseball, was walked. Or I didn't remember-- maybe got a hit.

He gets to first base. And he's leading off. And Greenberg is trying to hold him back. And pitcher throws the ball to Greenberg. Jackie Robinson slides back in to first safe. Crowd starts to boo. And Greenberg puts his hand out and helps Jackie Robinson up.

And the crowd gets quiet, because Greenberg knew, as a Jewish player, he knew what it was like to face prejudice and to not be welcomed. And then, of course, he became quite a notable player. And people change their tune a little bit.

And he wanted to make sure that the first black player in the major leagues understood that there was a sense of solidarity. OK. To me, Hank Greenberg is both Jacob and Esau. So is Menchy Goldberg.

Now, let's be clear. We've got some heroic women to celebrate, as well. I didn't know Agnes Keleti. Turns out she competed in 1956. She also won Olympic medals. And she has a story that the only way she escaped the Nazis is she posed as a Christian maid and married a fellow gymnast.

She went in later in her life to live in Israel-- 10 Olympic medals. I mean, that's heroic. And what about Aly Raisman-- grew up in suburbs of Boston. And her rabbi, Rabbi Keith Stern, tells the story, She was training hard to be a gymnast. She's one of the most celebrated gymnasts.

She had her bar mitzvah. She managed to honor her commitments. She is the only Jewish person listed in the top 100 athletes by ESPN in 2017. And she's looking to compete again. And she's had the MeToo courage to be a very outspoken person against the coach who really is the embodiment of everything we're fighting against in the MeToo movement.

I think with Agnes Keleti and Ali Raisman, you got two more Jacob and Esau's. You've got strength. You've got courage. And at the same time, you have this Jewish values base. Now, I don't know about everybody on the podcast. I played sports.

And sometimes being Jewish versus being athlete, Hebrew school versus organized sports-- it sometimes was a conflict. You had to choose. We don't want to make a choice. We want to be able to choose sports and being Jewish. We've got this great 6 Points Sports camp we have in Greensboro, North Carolina.

We also have now a 6 Points Sports in Los Angeles out in California. Bring your Jewish passion to your sports, bring it to all parts of your life. And we need to overcome this typology that one, typology strength is less Jewish. And studious individuals are the Jewish typology.

We've redefined-- I think modernity has redefined it. Zionism has helped redefine it. And our Jewish communal landscape sees the value in both of these. Now, of course, in the Torah's narrative, Esau doesn't really get a fair shake. And I think that's important to note.

But in our world, we can reinterpret. And we can see the power of both these brothers. And we can see the power of finding the ability to stand up and defend our people to be strong on a basketball court on gymnastics floor, and any place that we find ourselves and to bring our moral courage to each and every one of those places.

So, when we think about Esau ish yode'a tzayid ish sade. Let's see those qualities-- those qualities of strength and backbone in all of us. And let's also see that to be an athlete or a person with that kind of strength doesn't mean I can also be a lover of ideas and learning.

These are part of the essential traits of a person of depth and character. So, let's defy the ancient typologies. The Greco-Roman world could see it as an either or. We don't. And let's embrace the very best of these models. And let's see if we can bring those Qualities

Your inner Esau, and your inner Jacob. Your inner Ali, and your inner Agnes. Your inner Hank and your inner Menchy. Let's see if we can't bring all of those. And in so doing, make new typologies for the Jewish present and the Jewish future.

[URJ Outro:] 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!