parshat toldot (genesis 23 – 25)
Recorded live on Clubhouse on November 4th from Tzofar in the Arava of the Negev Desert in Israel with Rabbi Adam Mintz in New York, we explore Yaakov’s name and career path and struggle with his twice stolen blessing. We ask how parents could give a child a name such as “heel-sneak” or “heal grabber’ and how Israel could emerge from such crooked timber?
Special “guests” include Shmuel Yoseph Agnon and Isaiah Berlin
Sefaria Source Sheet: www.sefaria.org/sheets/358410
Geoffrey Stern 00:03
Welcome to Madlik, my name is Geoffrey stern and that Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish text or tradition. We also host a weekly disruptive Torah discussion on clubhouse every Thursday evening at 8pm. Eastern today along with Rabbi Adam Mintz we explore Jacob’s name and career path and struggle with his twice stolen blessing. I’m broadcasting live from the Negev in Israel. So join me in the desert as we explore stealing your blessings. So welcome, another week of disruptive Torah. And as I said, I am in the Negev, and I’ve been talking to my buggy mates as we dune buggy across the desert and my camping mates about the Parsha. So you are going to get some very Israeli and secular Israeli cultural Israeli insights into this parsha that I am very, very excited to share with you. So as I said in the intro, we’re really going to focus on the personality that is scripted for Yaakov known in English as Jacob, and the personality and the career path that he has starts from the first moment of his birth. In Genesis 25: 26. It says then his brother emerged [because he was twins with a guy named ESAV]. And his brother emerged holding on to the heel of a Esav. So they named him Jacob. Yaakov comes from the word. Ekav, which means heel. So right from the beginning, from the moment he was born, there is this relationship with Esav, clearly, but it’s a special relationship. Because unlike Achilles, whose heel also plays a major role in his life, at least it’s HIS heel. In the case of the alcove, he gets his characterization by grabbing on to his brother’s heel. And then of course, as we talked about in the pre party, there’s two stolen blessings. And we’re not going to really get into all the details about how the blessings was stolen, mostly because we all know the story, the first stealing of the blessing. And I’m saying that in quotes, because I’m going to ask the rabbi in a second, whether he feels in fact that they were stolen. But the first episode is when he Esav who’s a hunter, very vibrant, comes home after being out in the fields, and sees a pot of, of lentils, red lentils on the table that Yakov is about to eat. And he just says I could die for those lentils. And sure enough, Jaco takes advantage of the situation. And he says, Well, no problem. I will sell you these lentils for the birth right, because he was ultimately the second born child, he came out second grabbing onto that heel. And Esav went ahead and said, Sure, not a problem. Fast forward to later on in the Parsha. We know the second episode, which is where Yaakov dresses up in a garment that makes him feel Smell Taste like his brother, and he goes to his father who is blind, and he impersonates his brother, and gets the blessing in that way. So let me stop here and ask you, Rabbi, and anyone in the audience, do you feel that these blessings were actually stolen? And if they were, were they stolen twice? Or just once? What’s the deal?
Adam Mintz 04:21
Okay, first of all, Geoffrey, it’s so nice that you’re able to do this all the way from the Negev. And I look forward to the perspective that you’re going to share from your friends who are with. I think the simple reading of the text is that the blessings are stolen once. It’s only the second time the story with Jacob dressing up like Esav with his and his father being blind. That was trickery. The first time he took advantage of his situation. I don’t think we would say that that’s dishonest. He took advantage of a situation Esav should have been more careful. So I think it’s an interesting question what the relationship is between the first story about the soup? And the second story about stealing the blessings? Does Jacob feel as if he’s legit in taking the blessings? Because he bought them from Esav? The Torah never says that. Exactly. Does the Torah mean that? Is that supposed to be understood? So I’m not quite sure. So your questions a good question. I don’t think he stole them twice. But I think there is a fair question about what the relationship is between story A and story B.
Geoffrey Stern 05:41
So as I said in the intro, I’ve been camping in the desert of the Negev. And as any of you who are campers or have seen Blazing Saddles, will know that campers do end up eating beans into the trip. And so sure enough, one night, we were served beans this week. And I said, you know, what’s, what’s the connection between beans and and this week’s parshah with Jacob, Yaakov and ESAV. And the Israeli says, well, there is an expression and it’s called NAZID ADASHIM and Nazi Adashim is the opposite of something that I was aware of which is ONAH, you’re not allowed to charge too much for something by biblical law, NaZID ADASHIM is when you buy something for much, much less than it’s worth. So if you go ahead and Google that you’ll see in Wikipedia, two examples from literature of how these words are used. So one example is the guy had to sell an interest in his company, for a lot less than it was worth mamash nazid adashim It was really a case of nazid adashim. So from the Hebrew vernacular of modern day Hebrew, I think it’s pretty clear whether it was actual stealing, or gross taking advantage of a situation. It certainly was not something that if anything, we would put on a pedestal and say, this is the way we want to live our lives. Even if you look at the prophets, like Jeremiah, Jeremiah says, In 9: 3 “beware every man of his friend, turn not even a brother. For every brother takes advantage, every friend, is base in his dealings”, and the words that he uses for every brother takes advantage is Kol ach Akov Yakov. So here you have both modern day Hebrew and the prophets themselves. Jeremiah is in the business of bringing the Jews back to proper behavior. And clearly the reference is to a Yakov. But it’s even deeper than that. It’s almost his vernacular way of saying, you know, the brothers should not take care of brothers and they shouldn’t be grabbing the heels. So I do believe that both traditional Jewish texts and the way the story is carried on in modern Israeli culture. The premise is that Yakov did not do a good thing that’s for sure. Whether it was outright stealing or crass, taking advantage of his brother, is up for grabs. But before you respond, Rabbi or anyone in the audience, what I would like to add to my question is, what sort of a name is it for parents to give their child or if you want to look at it as literature, the author of our holy text to give to one of our patriarchs a name that ultimately means heel or a heel grabber? It It’s so strange. I mean, Rabbi this Shabbat you’re going to be talking about what did Isaac see in ESAV, who was out there hunting and earning a living, but what did he see and his wife see in their son that they would give him such a name? There’s literally nothing nice you can say about using the word Yaakov which could mean crooked. I mean when when armies attack from the rear, the word that is used is attacking the heel, the Ekev. And we all know what Amalek is hated for it attacked the rear of the Jewish people. Rabbi, what do you make of this? And how could anybody call their child? Yakov?
Adam Mintz 10:25
It’s fantastic question. I mean, the simple answer to the question, of course, is that Yaakov held on to the heel of Esav when they were born. So actually he was named after an event that took place in his life. Now, that doesn’t answer your question. It’s still not a good name. But you have to know something, you know, they always ask the question the book of Ruth, the sons, the husband of Ruth and the husband of her sister in law, Orpa names are Machlon and Kilion means disease, andKilion means destruction. And you have the same question, Geoffrey. And that is, how in the world could you name your kids disease and destruction? And I think the answer they give is that in the Bible, the names are not always names that were given by parents at the birth of the children. Sometimes it’s the Bible, giving these names to these people, reflecting what their life was about. They want you to identify these people. So Machlon and Kilion were bad guys. They died young. So they’re called Machlon and Kilion . And Yaakov. Interestingly enough, if we take this view, the Torah wants us to know that he was a very complicated guy, and that he basically made his way by being cunning. It’s not only this week, Geoffrey, next week, he’s gonna do exactly the same thing except with his father in law, Lavan, you know, when he has this kind of very strange way in which he’s able to take the flock of Lavan. Now, he’s also someone who is tricked. Because next week, Laban tricks him and gives him the one daughter rather than the other daughter. So, so Yaakov lives a life of trickery. And if we understand like the verse in Jeremiah, that the word really means trickery. That’s the way we remember Jacob, as someone who lived a very complicated life. He’s the first one of the forefathers, who actually, his life is not straight. His life is very, you know, very crooked, back and forth, and forth and back. And I think it’s our job to try to figure out what do we think about this guy Jacob, were named after him. By the way, Binay Yisrael, the children of Israel were named after Jacob. But interestingly, just on your point, we’re not called B’nai Yaakov. We’re called B’nai Israel. I don’t think that’s a mistake. Right? They don’t want to call us b’nai Yaakov, B’nai Yisrael the word Sarita means either to struggle or to be victorious over, that’s a much better name than Yaakov.
Geoffrey Stern 13:27
If I can interpret what you’re saying a little bit, is first of all, yes, there are many instances where our names in the Bible foreshadow what is to come. And if what is to come is not that pretty? You might get a lame name like, you referenced. Of course, that begs the question here a little bit, because as you say, Yakov is our patriarch, we are the children of Jacob. So this is not a side character. Or you could certainly not say that Yakov is the bad guy in this story. The story continues from him. So I would like to suggest that maybe his name foreshadows a name change. And of course, we all know that Yaakov evolves into Israel. And that becomes kind of an interesting dynamic here. Do you think there’s any any any thought to that where one needs to grow into a name? I mean, if we look at Yakov as the one who follows the crooked path, the schemer, the conniver, the one who basically has to claw his way up by his bootstraps, and then we look maybe at the future Parsha where he fights with the angel and he wins and and gets a new name. Maybe in his case, he’s foreshadowing, this change in terms of whether it’s his parents or if we look at it from a literary point of view, the author of this story, do you think there’s any basis there?
Adam Mintz 15:24
I’m sure there’s basis there. This week’s portion and next week’s portion are Jacob, the conniver. Jacob’s name is changed two weeks from now in Vayshlach, by then he’s done conniving, he meets his brother Esav right when they’re both older and successful. And they actually have a confrontation. I mean, it doesn’t turn out to be a bad confrontation, but they have a confrontation, there’s no more of the conniving in Jacob. He is someone who goes out and he has the self confidence to have a confrontation with his brother. So I think that there’s no question that Jacob evolves, develops into Israel, and were named after Jacob with the name Israel. And that’s the Jacobwho has 12 sons and one daughter, that’s the Jacob who goes down to Egypt, that’s the Jacob who basically is able to reconcile his family and we’re gonna have plenty of weeks to talk about that. That’s a very interesting idea. And that is a Jacob might have been responsible for the fact that the family split apart that he favored Joseph, but in the end, it’s Jacob, who brings the family together. And it’s a nice story, because at the very end of the book of Genesis, we have the story that everybody is there, around Jacob when he passes away, because he’s able to bring everybody together. So the story of Jacob and in a very straightforward way, he’s not the conniver anymore. He’s very deliberate and very straightforward. So it might just be that the second half of the book of Genesis, is the development of the character of Jacob.
Geoffrey Stern 17:09
So I think you’re absolutely correct in terms of if you look at the book of Genesis, you get that resolution at the end, for sure. But what I would love to do is maybe we’re being a little harsh on Jacob, on Yakov may be looking at Yaakov’s need and ability to work the system work around the system to break a few rules, to get where he needs to be. Maybe it’s not all, Jacob, but maybe there’s a theme here that Jacob is meant to open our eyes to. And so when I started thinking along those lines, I started thinking of Abraham and Isaac, the parents, both of them either went down to Egypt or went down to another place when there was a famine. And for whatever reason, both of them lied about the relationship with their wife. Abraham had a beautiful wife, he was afraid that he would be killed if it was known that that was his wife, and he said, It’s my sister. And again, so now I’m kind of sensitized. We’ve talked before about the fact that the Abraham with Lech Lecha is a wanderer, comes from the other side of the tracks, so to speak, and that’s where the word Ivri comes from M’ever, but maybe we haven’t focused enough on the more pathetic side of being a wanderer, maybe we have looked at it as too heroic. And maybe what this Pasha is making us do and what Yaakov is making us do is to understand a little more the pathos of being that wanderer, that stateless person, that one who has to land on his two feet and, and try to get a grave for his wifewithout any leverage talking to the locals, the landowner [belonger], so to speak, and has to lie about the relationship with his wife, which has to be the most emasculating thing that a person could do. And, and then I came across a beautiful verse in Isaiah 40, it actually comes from the Haftorah, that we say, after Tisha B’Av called Nachamu, and it it has a verse and it says, Let every valley be raised and Every hill and mountain made low, let the rugged ground become level and the ridges become plain You guessed it, right? If you guessed that my buddy who was driving the dune buggy with me, we started talking about crooked roads and bumpy roads. And he brought up this verse and a book by Agnon that I’ll get to in a second. But even if you look at this worse verse when it says that he makes the ground level, it says Vehaya Ha’akov L’misur the word for crooked ground is that old word. We’ve been talking about this akov. And the Midrash has an amazing interpretation of this path of this story. Of course, Isaiah is consoling the Jewish people, he’s talking about the future. And he’s gonna say that in the future, things are going to be straight, the road is going to be flat. And the Midrash says that, yes. Not only that, but unlike when you left Egypt, and you went to Pharaoh, and you said, Hey, Pharaoh, we need to go to the desert, to pray to our Lord. And you literally had to lie. The first or second time when you were talking to Pharaoh about what you really wanted to do. We want national independence, we are human beings. No, you made up a little white lie. And the Midrash says that in the future in the final redemption, we’re not going to have to lie anymore, we can take the straight path. So it really put it clear in front of my eyes, that we’re looking at this theme of knowingly knowing that we as people, and we have a mythology of having to do that corner cutting and having to grovel and having to break a few rules. And this theme is more than just Yaakov. Does that resonate with you at all rabbi?
Adam Mintz 22:15
It does resonate with me. I’m waiting to hear the rest. Yes, that does resonate.
Geoffrey Stern 22:20
So the rest is that the guy who I’m driving with says, and you have to read a book by ag known, and the book is called Vehaya Ha’akov L’misur And the Crooked shall be made Straight. And through modern technology, I have my Kindle with me. I’m in a tent, I’m able to download, unfortunately, only an English translation of this work. And it’s an amazing story about a guy and his wife who had childless who owned a store in Eastern Europe, a hardware store. And all of a sudden, like Job, everything goes wrong. The local nobleman favors another retailer, so he raises their rent. Once the rent goes up, their taxes go up shortly after they go bankrupt. And now the the the hero of our story, a guy named Menasha Chaim has to make a decision when the decision is he’s going to go to other towns, and he’s gonna become a shnorer. And in his mind becoming a snorer a fundraiser for himself is close to stealing. And one of the stories that he tells is in the name of the Rebbe of Kochnitz. And it’s called the Gulden thief, not golden, but gulden. Because this chasid goes to his rebbe. And he says, I’m just not making it. I can’t make ends meet. And so the rabbe says, You know what you need to do, you would be a fantastic thief. So he goes out. And this is a hasidic story. And he starts, he says, I need a gulden once a week. It’s like a shekle, it’s like a pound to survive. So he breaks into stores, he breaks into homes, he opens up the safe, the safe could be full of hundreds of 1000s of dollars. He takes out one gulden and it’s a long story. But in a sense, what it’s doing is it’s talking about stealing in a way that is very simpatico you feel for this thief. And there are many different little side stories in the book and I assure you that if you read it, you will love every minute of it. But the most fascinating part story is that when he leaves his town he goes to his rabbi to get a letter saying that this man is very righteous so he can use this letter to fundraise to shnur And he’s a bashful young guy, and he just finds it, it’s difficult to use this letter and he’s, he’s really a loser. And at every turn, he’s losing money. And finally he meets another beggar in a tavern. And the otherbegger says to him, Well, why are you doing so badly and he shows him the letter. And the other beggar says, Listen, I’ll buy that letter off of you. Because you don’t have to use it. I know how to use it. I can make a lot of money with that letter. So he sells him the letter he now has money in his pocket. He gets drunk. The guy who bought the letter thinks he’s going to be rich and he gets drunk. The only problem is the beggar who has the letter dies. So now he dies with this letter in his pocket saying that he is Manassa Chaim, and he’s a good guy. Well, his wife, Manasseh Chaim’s wife has been waiting at home. And now she hears that her husband has died. So she goes to the rabbi and the rabbi says, Well, you have the letter. So you can say that he died. And she gets remarried. Now. Moshe Chaim, is coming back to town come back, he comes back. And no one recognizes him. And he talks to a beggar. And the beggar says I’m off to the circumcision of the child born to this woman who was your wife, but of course, he doesn’t say was your wife. Now he realizes he has to leave town. Because if he becomes apparent, that will ruin his wife’s life, and the child will become a bastard. So he strats to start sleeping in the cemetery because he wants to die. And the cemetery man starts putting together this beautiful gravestone. And he comes in looks at it, and his name is on it. And it turns out, his wife says, I want a beautiful gravestone for my first husband. And so you can imagine … what Agnon does, in my mind, is he parallels the story, as you were saying, Before Rabbi were a Jacob cheated his brother, Esav, what comes around goes around next week, we’ll find when he goes to Lavonne. He’s cheated. But you literally have this sale of this letter, very reminiscent of the porridge. It is absolutely fascinating. But at the end of the day, what one is left with is this sense of what it was like to live as a minority without a gulden to scratch together, begging for your life. And there was nothing heroic about it. But it was who we were. And it makes you look at this whole story from a whole different perspective. And you start to wonder, maybe 200 years ago, they read this story much differently. Maybe they saw in Yaakov themselves. And that was the question I was left with after reading the book, I just looked at the whole story totally differently.
Adam Mintz 28:26
So that first of all, thank you for sharing the book and the story. And it’s amazing that they’re in the Negev, you discovered this book, and you read the book I love the whole the whole background. But you know, that is so interesting to say that we see ourselves as Jacob. And really, Geoffrey, the sermon that you’re giving is, do we see ourselves as Jacob? Or do we see ourselves as Israel? Which name do we see ourselves, and that were called the children of Israel, but maybe depending on when you lived and what the situation was and how difficult it was? Maybe we get comfort in the fact that we’re the sons, the descendants of Jacob, that we know how to…. I think the word they use today is operate in a very hostile world.
Geoffrey Stern 29:22
And what would goes with that is, so profound because nowadays we talk about people who are victimized or have a sense of being a victim. And of course, that gets back to the part of the story that we talked about or foreshadowing a name change, you know, how do you kind of respect and understand the pathos of the Yaakov and still be able to see the Israel as the Ideal, the successful person who can stand on his two feet? How do you get around making the Yaakov, the heel grabber something that you can kind of sympathize with, understand, both in yourself and in others without making it into a model. And that, to me was a fascinating part of the story as well, I must say that the other thing that came to mind…. is I loved a thinker called Isaiah Berlin. And he wrote a book called The Crooked Timber of Humanity. And it was taken from a saying of Immanuel Kant, who believed all morality was perfect. But the concept was, that we are human. And being human, dictates what ultimately the outcomes are. In Kohelet, Ecclesiastes sees, it says, 7: 13 consider God’s doing, who can straighten what he has twisted, and in so I think part of it also, is this recognition of who we are. And the direction that Isaiah Berlin took it was that he grew up in an age where Communism and Nazism and all of these isms, these ideals will literally responsible for the deaths of millions of people. And his concept was that if the Timber of humanity is crooked, then making it straight, making some sort of ideal, which has no basis in the matter of fact, nature of our lives of our trivial lives and pathetic needs, makes no sense. And his concept was, get rid of the ideals and think of the practical things that you can do. And more importantly, understand that there might not be a resolution to every question, and that there might be more than one side, ultimately, that life can be murky, and that we all might be heel grabbers.
Adam Mintz 32:29
I mean, you go from it from OG alone to Isaiah Berlin. And you know, what you see really is that this idea of the need to sometimes be a heel grabber, and to gain comfort in the fact that one of our ancestors was a heel grabber is an extremely powerful idea. And I think just as we, as we reach 8:30, I think, Geoffrey, that you really, you put you put this in perspective, I think we always start by saying, we’re the children of Israel. And I think by sharing the unknown story and sharing Isaiah Berlin’s insight. I think what we really see is it’s not so simple. And Yaakov’s his life was not so simple. And the way we look back and we associate with those lives is not so simple. And that being a heel grabber is not necessarily something that we need to be ashamed of. But you know, different situations require different kinds of reactions. So that’s fascinating, and I look forward Geoffrey, to next week. continuing our conversation we’ll talk about Vayetze, we’re gonna continue our conversation about Jacob’s life so Shabbat Shalom, you’re gonna get to Shabbat before we will. But Shabbat Shalom, enjoy the Negev enjoy Toldot in the Negev and Shabbat Shalom, everybody. We look forward to seeing you next Thursday night at 8pm to discuss Parshat Veyetze.
Geoffrey Stern 33:54
Thank you so much rabbi, Shabbat Shalom to everybody. And please know that this part this was recorded and it will be published as a podcast, and it will include a Safira source sheet so you can go ahead and look at all the sources but forget about all that and run out and buy that book by Agnon. It is amazing and it’s called And The Crooked Shall Be Made Straight. Shabbat Shalom to you all.
Adam Mintz 34:24
Shabbat shalom. Bye bye
Sefaria Source Sheet: www.sefaria.org/sheets/358410
Listen to last week’s episode: Life is with People and so is Death