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 Parshat Toldot 5782        November 6,2021

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

The rivalry between brothers that is the core of this week’s Parsha is legendary; twin boys who are locked in a sibling rivalry that seems to know no bounds. Jacob has the brains; Esau has the brawn. Jacob is clever in how he dupes his brother, but he knows that one small step over a line and Esau could crush him. Of course, at the prodding of his mother, Jacob steals the blessing from his blind father and does cross that line, and by the end of the parsha Jacob is forced to leave home lest his humiliated brother, kill him. It is not a pretty picture.

In this tent of intrigue, where is Isaac? Where is their father? Why doesn’t Isaac step in and put a stop to this constant struggle between his sons? On the one hand, the text tells us that Isaac is, is no small part, responsible for this out-of-control rivalry. He favors his older son. He favors Esau for being all that Isaac could never be. We see in Esau something of Ishmael, Isaac’s brother who was sent away when Isaac was young. Jacob makes his alliance with his mother; Rebecca and the two of them scheme to defy Isaac and steal the blessing from Esau. Not only is there no communication between the brothers, but there is no real communication between the parents either.

Bereshit Rabbah, the collection of Midrashim, or stories about Genesis, focuses on the blindness of Isaac. The Torah tells us that “Isaac was old and his eyes too dim to see.” The text seems to indicate that this is not an ordinary case of blindness. Is it macular degeneration, that some of his eye is blind but he sees with peripheral vision? Maybe this is about cataracts, and the lenses of his eyes can no longer focus. Maybe Isaac is blind to the misdeeds of his son Esau; maybe he can see perfectly well but can’t see the flaws in his favorite son. Isaac can’t even see the hurt that this preference causes his younger son, Jacob.

The midrash goes on to note that Isaac will live five years longer than his father, Abraham. Abraham, God’s faithful servant, dies five years earlier than planned so that he will not live to see the many terrible sins of his grandson Esau. Abraham is spared the pain by dying. According to the midrash, it was at the shiva for Abraham that Esau came in and sold his birthright for a bowl of lentil porridge. Esau was out hunting while everyone else was sitting shiva. Abraham never knows the crimes of his grandson, the sins that Isaac is blind to.

We can speculate all we want about this dysfunctional family. We can try and analyze why everyone seems to be scheming against everyone else. But what difference does it make? By next week, our parsha will be focused on Jacob, and Esau will just be a side story about the founding of the Israelite people. Why do we have this study of a family that has gone wrong? Why do we learn about the blindness of our patriarch, Isaac, and the trouble that it causes?

The Fuchsberg Center for Conservative Judaism in Jerusalem has long put out Divrei Torah on the weekly parsha. Many famous Rabbis have contributed to these “Torah Sparks” over the years. Currently, the author Ilana Kurshan writes the Torah commentary. She takes note of all the midrashim on this parsha and then comments on the point they are all trying to make. She wrote this week: These midrashim about Isaac’s blindness continue with the rabbinic assertion that “seven things are concealed from humanity.” The rabbis go on to list these seven “blind spots”: 1. No one knows when he or she will die. 2. No one knows when the end-of-days will come. 3. No one can fathom the depth of divine judgement. 4. No one can predict what is going to succeed financially. 5. No one can intuit what another person is thinking in his heart. 6. No one knows what is happening inside a woman’s womb. 7. And no one knows when the evil kingdom of Rome will be toppled. This list is surprisingly relevant today, even in an age of stock market forecasters, ultrasound machines, and political pundits. Who among us can say with certainty which of our investments will succeed, or whether the baby we so eagerly expect will be fully healthy, or when the current political leader will be deposed?”

The reality of life is that we are all blind. We are blind to what we don’t want to see. We are blind to what we don’t want to believe. We are blind to what we cannot imagine. We want to see the good in others and that often makes us blind to their faults. Ms. Kushan however tells us that as human beings, there are just some things that God does not want us to know, some things that God refuses to let us see.

We are not permitted to see the date of our death. We are commanded to live every day as if it could be our last. We do not know when our life will end so each moment is precious. How we use each and every day is all the more important because we never know if this one will be the last.

We are blind to the date when the end of days will come. If we know when all injustice and evil will come to an end, we will no longer do our part to make this world better. What incentive would we have to do the work of Tikkun Olam, the repair of the world, if we know that soon it will all get fixed anyway? Why would we want to do good if in a short while it will all be good? Why would we not be tempted to do evil if the consequences will all be nullified when the end of days comes. It is always better that we work for a better world than to just sit and wait for God to do the work for us.

We are also blind to the way God’s justice works. God sees the world in a way that we are not able to see it. God sees not only the good and evil of one moment, but the good and evil in all moments. God knows not only who we are but also what we are capable of doing. We have to take it on faith that God is just, even if we don’t understand that justice all the time. It would be far worse for the world if everything that happened was all random, and nothing at all matters. The reason for doing good would be gone and we would all just act in our own self-interest all the time.

Our fourth level of blindness is about the results of our financial decisions. There is no way to always know what will be successful and what will bring disaster. It would be nice if every financial decision would go well, but, as they say, “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t true.” We are all taught to be cautious when someone tells us that “this is guaranteed to be a success.” Anyone who promises this kind of success is always a fraud.

Number five is that we can’t know what is in the heart of someone else. I often say that being married does not make anyone a mind reader. Being a friend does not make anyone a mind reader. Being a co-worker does not make anyone a mind reader. Communication depends upon us being able tell others what is in our mind and in our hearts. There is no reason to believe that if we didn’t tell someone how we feel, they would have any idea what we are thinking. If we find ourselves wondering how someone could do something that “they should know” that we don’t like, if we didn’t tell them, then they have no idea how we feel. So many of us suffer in silence, stewing over wrong committed by others who have no idea that we are offended. Even the toughest family feuds can be avoided if we are just honest about our feelings, and we speak up when we are offended. All it might take is a simple apology. After all, they had no idea what is in your heart.

The sixth blindness of life is what happens in the womb before we are born. As Ms Kurshan says, even with all the ultrasounds and x-rays and needle biopsies, there is still much about the health of a child that can’t be known until the baby is born. The birth of a healthy baby is still, after all the centuries of wisdom, all the wonders of modern medicine, it is still a great miracle. At the moment of birth, two things must happen in what is biologically the shortest of time. The umbilical cord must close, and the lungs must open. Exactly why these things happen is not known, but without them life would not be possible. We can do all we can to help both of those biological events, but they remain, a great miracle, and we remain blind about how it all happens.

When the Rabbis of the midrash talk about Rome, they are making a political statement. To the Rabbis, Rome was an evil government. It was unjust, it depended on corruption, bribery, and payoffs to get things done. Soldiers regularly would shake down those passing by for money with impunity. Justice could be bought. And yet, just as we do today, they prayed for the welfare of the government because things would be even worse without even the most unfair laws of the land. The soldiers kept the highway bandits at bay. If you had money you could live a pretty comfortable life and while the punishments were cruel, criminals were punished for their crimes. As the Rabbis taught, without the fear of the government, people would eat each other alive. Whatever restraint people have is due to their fear of punishment from the government.

Unjust governments eventually fall. We just are blind to which event will be the undoing of a leader. Sometimes it is arrogance. Sometimes it is corruption, sometimes public anger over an injustice. Sometimes it just takes patience to see corrupt leaders get what they deserve.

These, according to the midrash, are humanities “blind spots.” For some of these, it is better that we don’t know the future. For others, the future will eventually come and then the wrongs of the world will be corrected. Some of these we may never live to see, some of them we will just be glad when they arrive. For all of them we must have faith in God.

Despite the schemes and intrigues of Isaac’s home, it all worked out well in the end. The brothers reconciled. Jacob left home and discovered a strength he didn’t know he had and started a family that would change the world. We humans have learned how to live with our blind spots, we can live with them through the faith we have in our God, who set all of this in motion. We are only commanded to do all we can to make this world better, and then we have faith that God will be there to help us work through our “blind spots.”

There is much in our world we cannot see. There is much in our world we may never understand. But with God’s help, together we can make things better. God helped Isaac with his blindness. God will help us in our moments of blindness as well.

May we always see the world with clear eyes, but may we also know that our eyes can’t see everything. We must do what we can. We must work to understand. And we must have faith that in the end, God will help us see past the blindness to the better world beyond.

May God open our eyes to the world as God opened the eyes of our ancestors as we say…

Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Mon, February 26 2024 17 Adar I 5784