This Side Up

Parashat Toldot 5779

Meir Sendor

In the continuing saga of fixing our roof, we had to have some work done on a leaky balcony, which included hauling away some debris. The man who did the hauling, who was highly recommended, comes from the nearby Arab village of Akhbarah, which is mentioned in the Gemara as the site of the important Batei Midrash of Rabbi Yannai and later of Rabbi Yosi bar Avin in the Talmudic period. He’s a sweet older man, driving his tractor and wooden cart through Tzfat patiently at 8 kilometers an hour from place to place. We chatted while he waited for the cart to fill, and when he was about to leave he brought us some pecans he had with him from his tree at home. I ate some while sitting down to write this post – fresh and sweet. There are moments when you get a glimpse of the simple, friendly good-heartedness that should be possible among all people in this struggling part of the world.

This week’s parashah features the initial struggles of Yaakov Avinu with his dangerous twin brother Esav, born moments before him. First, Yaakov takes advantage of Esav in a weak moment to buy from him the firstborn birthright. Later, with his mother Rivka’s urging and help, he engages in a deception to receive a blessing for success that his father Yitzhak announced he intended to give to Esav. But according to Rabbi David Kimchi the most essential blessing for Yaakov is the one he receives from his father at the very end of the parashah: “birkat Avraham – the blessing of Avraham,” to continue the lineage, the inheritance and the great spiritual destiny of Avraham and Sarah. It was meant for Yaakov all along, and Yitzhak always intended to give it to him, because he knew Yaakov was worthy of it (Gen. 27:4). So why did Yaakov need to struggle so hard and engage in apparent deceptive tactics for the birthright and the previous blessing?

The Gemara Moed Katan relates that R Shimon bar Yochai was once visited by two rabbinic scholars and was impressed with their learning. When they took leave of him, he encouraged his young son Eleazar to run after them and ask them for a blessing, since they are “people of substance.” So Eleazar runs and catches up with them:

They said to him “what do you want here?” He said to them: “Father said to me ‘go to them and they will bless you.’” They said to him: “Let it be HaShem’s Will that you shall sow but not reap, you shall bring in but not give forth, you shall give forth but not bring in; your house shall be ruined and your temporary dwelling shall remain; your table shall be messy; and you shall not see a new year.” When he returned to his father he said: “Not only did they not bless me, but, on the contrary, they cursed me!” He said: “what did they say to you?” [He told him what they said.] His father replied: All those are blessings!  “You shall sow and not reap” means you shalt bear children and they shall not die. “You shall bring in and not give forth” — that you shall bring into your house wives for your sons, and your sons shall not die, so their wives will not need to leave your house.” “You shall give forth and not bring in”—that you shall have daughters and their husbands shall not die, so that they shall not be compelled to return to your house. “Your house shall be ruined and your temporary dwelling shall remain”– this world is your temporary dwelling and the world to come is the real house… “Your table shall be messy”— with sons and daughters. “And you shall not see a new year” – that your wife shall not die, so that you shall not be compelled to marry another (Moed Katan 9a-b).”

So Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai shows his son Eleazar how to decipher what the two scholars said. It’s a clever passage. But we can ask: why did the two scholars couch their blessings in such a way in the first place, such that the meaning is not obvious and even seems to be the opposite? Why make Eleazar work to understand that things are not always as they appear? Perhaps exactly for that: to make him work to understand that things are not always as they appear. It’s a vital life skill.

In the Gemara Pesachim (50a) it relates that Yosef, the son of Rabbi Yehoshua, once fell ill and fainted and had a near-death experience. His father asked him “what did you see?” He said “I saw an upside-down world. Those who were above here were below there, and those who are below here were above there.” His father said to him: “my son, you saw a clear world.” The point is that it’s this world that is upside-down. It’s as true today as it was then. We live in a world where violent groups like Hamas and Hezballah and ISIS and violent nations like Iran and Syria, that cruelly bully and abuse their own people and terrorize others, are coddled and appeased, where moral relativism has left people unable to recognize the difference between good and evil, where lies and propaganda propagated by unprincipled media poison people’s minds. A recent article in Tablet by Richard Landes on the way the Western media collaborates with Palestinians in staging and creating fake news to make it seem like Israel is a brutal aggressor and Palestinians the innocent victims makes chilling reading. As much as ever we need to learn how to see through lies and discern truth in an upside-down world.

This was what Yaakov Avinu had to deal with. Rashi brings the midrash Tanchuma that Esav deceived his father Yitzhak, pretending he was morally upright and careful in mitzvah practice (Gen. 25:28), whereas in fact he was a cruel and violent bully. When it seems like such deception will earn Esav a powerful blessing which can be misused for even more oppression, Yaakov engages in what seems like reprehensible deception himself, but it’s deception to turn an upside-down situation right-side up. Yaakov had to struggle to bring forth the true and honest blessing in this world.

So, too, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s son Eleazar, who will become the great Rabbi Eleazar, known in the Talmud for his moral discernment, learns to recognize positive blessings hidden in what seemed like negative terms.

Maybe this skill can be taken further. In Tehillim 92, which we read on Shabbat, it says:

(ז) איש בער לא ידע וכסיל לא יבין את זאת: ח) בפרח רשעים כמו עשב ויציצו כל פעלי און להשמדם עדי עד:

A crude person does not know and a fool does not understand this. When the wicked flourish like grass and all the workers of iniquity sprout, it’s to destroy them forever.

Does this mean that the current period in which terrible violence and falsehood are flourishing in the world is a kind of catharsis, as the Psalm suggests, that the worst elements of Western and Middle Eastern culture are being brought out into the open, to be recognized for what they are and ultimately rejected by honest people of good heart? It’s hard to see a blessing in all this perversity. The First World War was supposed to be “the war to end all wars.” The Shoah was supposed to teach humanity “never again.” The Psalm is encouraging us to learn to read reality deeply and with nuance.

We were taking a visiting family on a tour of Tzfat yesterday and popped in to the venerable, colorful Beit Knesset Abuhav, one of the oldest synagogues in town, founded by the exiles from Spain in 1492. Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, the warm and dynamic Chief Rabbi of Tzfat, who has occasionally dealt with controversial issues and taken controversial positions, happened to be giving a talk to a visiting group of high school students from a public school. We came in at a point in which he said to them: whatever the world looks like, however difficult and complicated things might seem in your life, remember to see through it all that HaShem loves you and His blessings are all around you.

And a simple gift from a good-hearted Arab neighbor is a reminder there are good people everywhere who help us all turn the world right-side up together, and there’s a blessing in that.


3 thoughts on “This Side Up

  1. Chaya & Walt Massefski

    Shavua tov, Rabbi,

    Thank you for your weekly blog – it enhances our Shabbos. We had a follow up question from this post. You write, “…Yaakov engages in what seems like reprehensible deception himself, but it’s deception to turn an upside-down situation right-side up.” We can understand that Yaakov is allowed to deceive in this situation because the individuals involved are Yaakov and Esau. But it seems possible that once we allow anyone to deceive, we have said that the end justifies the means. And from there, it seems possible that we end up right back at the “moral relativism” you describe in the preceding paragraph.

    Would it be possible for you please to share any thoughts on how giving Yaakov a “pass” on deception does not open us up to others using the same argument, that they are “[turning] an upside-down situation right-side up?”

    With thanks and warmest best wishes,

    Chaya & Walt

    1. Rabbi Meir Sendor

      Walt and Chaya, thank you for your thoughtful question! For more than two millennia ethicists have been debating whether the moral value of an action should be guided and judged by prior ideal principles or by assessing practical consequences. Most current views seem to advocate for some combination of these perspectives.
      One of the problems with moral relativism is the flattening of all values to one level, rather than acknowledging there is a hierarchy of values, and certain supreme values such as respect for life and the immorality of violence, for which all human beings are responsible. Cultural relativism, a corollary of moral relativism and a form of covert racism, implies that so-called third world cultures are too primitive to be held to moral standards. I’m writing this while Hamas in Gaza is bombarding Israel with over 100 rockets and counting, and a young teen has been critically wounded.
      Rabbi Yaakov Yitzhak, the Hozeh of Lublin, comments on a statement in the midrash Kohelet Rabbah 87: “whoever is merciful to the cruel will end up being cruel to the merciful.” He says that a person needs to know how to act appropriately. Sometimes you need to be gentle and merciful, other times you need to be the opposite. In parashat Toldot, Yaakov is described as an Ish Tam – a Man of Simplicity and Wholeness: not just Simple, but a Man of Simplicity, a ba’al midat ha-temimut – a master of the quality of simplicity. Simplicity did not rule over him – he controlled his simplicity and knew when to be simple and when not. Applied to Yaakov’s struggle with Esav, his point is that when it was time to act to buy the birthright, or to get the blessing, so that a violent, immoral, dangerous brother not get hold of these powerful spiritual tools to harm others, and there are no other effective options – Yaakov acts.
      It’s true that self-centered, small-souled people might twist the Torah’s teachings for their advantage, and so the rabbinic tradition tries to clarify the circumstances and implications of controversial passages such as this one. For instance, the Malbi”m, Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel Wisser, suggests that we should assume that Rivka and Yitzhak are a loving couple and honest with each other, and Rivka would have had a heart-to-heart talk with Yitzhak to dissuade him from giving the blessing to Esav. Yet clearly Yitzhak was not convinced and defended his intention reasonably and planned to move forward with his plan. Only at this point would Rivka, still feeling strongly that this was seriously wrong and an emergency situation, encourage Yaakov to take extreme action. They struggled with this decision, and there are many indications in the text that Yaakov was reluctant but resigned that this was the only way. This is not a blanket precedent for deception.
      The Torah, and its vast and deep halakhic tradition, embraces the complexity of this world. Its laws and its narratives deal with complicated moral and spiritual dilemmas and it offers guidance for navigating the complexities of our own lives. It does not give simple answers – its method requires us to dig deeply and wrestle with conflicting goals and principles, and ask questions such as yours. Rabbi Yaakov Leiner of Iszbicz says the Torah can be taken at multiple levels. For those looking for black and white moral certainty and simplicity, it offers principles that can guide them through most situations in life. For those with a good heart and a more robust moral and spiritual constitution, who recognize that this world is complicated, it helps us grow morally and spiritually to be able to wrestle with life’s dilemmas towards the highest good. As Emmanuel Levinas says: “Torah is a religion for adults.”

  2. Chaya Massefski

    Rabbi Sendor,

    Our deepest gratitude for your response to our question. Your words have sparked new thoughts and conversation around simplicity and complexity which we will continue to explore and share.

    As always, we are thankful for the opportunity to learn with you. With warmest best wishes,

    Walt & Chaya

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