The birth and development of two of the most seminal personalities in Jewish consciousness is the subject of this week’s Parsha.
And the youths grew up, and Esau was a man who understood hunting, a man of the field, whereas Jacob was a wholesome man, dwelling in tents. (Genesis 25:27)
Rashi quoting the Midrash interprets “understood hunting” as a hint that Esau was deceptive, especially with his father (Isaac). Esau asked questions about personal conduct and religious observance that lead Isaac to believe that Esau was exceptionally pious. How do the words “understood hunting” imply a deceptive personality? The verse could have described Esau as a hunter but instead it stressed that he is one who understands hunting. A hunter is one who understands the skill of stalking. He appears to be an innocent bystander when in fact his heart is filled with the desire to kill. By hiding, using decoys, and other enticements, the hunter is able to ply his trade.
Jacob had a disposition diametrically opposed to his brother, Esau. He was wholesome and dwelled in “tents,” a word throughout classical Jewish literature that indicates spirituality and/or Torah study. The Talmud says that the tents referred to in this verse are the tents of Shem and Eber (Ever). Noah’s son Shem and Shem’s grandson Ever directed an academy in Be’er Sheva, where the traditions and practice of ethical monotheism were studied and upheld in the hope that they be passed on to future generations; these concepts were eventually included in the Torah given at Sinai. The “tents” Jacob dwelled in were the classroom or academy of Shem and also the academy of Ever. Being as Shem was older and had a better grasp of the teachings, he was acknowledged as the most prominent scholar of the time. The question is, why did Jacob study in both academies; if Shem was the greater scholar, why didn’t Jacob just remain there?
In Torah study and spirituality in general, the ultimate objective is not to study with the most prominent scholar, rather it is to learn from whomever one can, even the lesser scholar, if the teacher is one (s)he relates to; the one to whom his/her heart is drawn. The most important thing in Torah and Judaism in general is that the individual makes a personal connection with it. For secular academic study, making a personal connection to the material is a luxury, not a necessity. An engineer, doctor, or physicist needs to be proficient with certain knowledge but making it a part of his or her life is not a prerequisite. Why is being Jewish and making a personal connection to the Torah different?
The answer begins with Abraham, who was tasked with ensuring that there would be a continuation of the monotheistic teachings he had uncovered and made it his business to transmit. It began with his own family, and that is why G-d made a covenant with him.
For I have known him, to the end that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of the LORD, to do righteousness and justice; to the end that the LORD may bring upon Abraham that which He hath spoken of him.’ (Gen. 18:19)
Abraham is our paradigm that being Jewish does not mean merely to partake in a culture, cuisine, sense of humor or other things which are part of our sociological group. Just as Jacob went to study in the place (even the less prestigious place) that allowed him to make a personal connection to the teachings, so that he too may command his children and household after him. We are here today not because of our culture but because we have transmitted something of significance.
In 2014, JJ Goldberg wrote an article in The Forward entitled “More Dire Signs of Liberal Jewry’s Demise.” (http://forward.com/articles/208681/more-dire-signs-of-liberal-jewrys-demise/). The dearth of serious Jewish education for the overwhelming majority of American Jewry is the cause, says Goldberg, of why Jewish culture has not been successful in creating proud Jews who are connected to their roots. There are many statistics in the article, all of which reveal something unique in the Jewish saga at this point in time.
We are encountering a situation that is a first in Jewish history. Classically, the question has been, how the Torah loyal Jew will face modernity. “Tradition Confronts Modernity” and similar topics are what have been the bread and butter of writers and lecturers on the Jewish scene since the Enlightenment. The classical question has been, is it possible to retain traditional Torah values and observance in a secular world; will it last more than another generation or two? Ironically, the modern-day question is, can secular Jews confront the world with their secular Judaism and survive? Can a Jew transmit the Jewish message and survive, if (s)he either never learned the message or learned it but did not connect to it? Both logic and statistics say that it not possible. We teach our children to have a work ethic, be honest, nonjudgmental, tolerant, and loving because we greatly believe in these values; they are part of our lives and we want the next generation to embody them. If we wish to do the same with Judaism, we need to connect to it the way we connect with other ideas that are part of our existence.
Where does it begin? One needs to learn and emotionally connect to what (s)he is learning because it will be a challenge to transmit and represent Judaism if one does not know what Judaism represents. The Torah teaches that each of us has an inner beauty and the way to bring it out in ourselves and in others is to learn, connect, and make an emotional attachment to our people, our Torah, and its values and ethical instructions. In short, go out and find yourself a tent, a place where authentic Torah is being transmitted. In addition to mind blowing original thought, you will find happy people eating, drinking, and having intelligent conversation but the most important thing you will find there is your Jewish self.
(Sources: (Hirsch Chumash v. 1, p. 427; Gur Aryeh, Genesis 25:27