Parshas Toldos: Yaakov And The Real World

(This week's essay might be a little disjointed, so fair warning. The end point remains strong, but there are some tangents along the way.)

We know that we should pay close attention to the first time something is mentioned in the Torah. Or at least so we are told. When it comes to Yaakov and Eisav it's not just a typical difference between brothers. They each have two completely separate ideas on how to view and approach the world. They are, in many ways, mutually exclusive. Yet the Torah is strangely silent about their differences. Most things we know come from Midrashic literature. There's a lot more explicit heroism in the Torah by Moshe, Dovid, Shlomo, Avraham, Yitzchak, and so forth. By Yaakov, however, we really only get business, dreams, stealing, brachos, and that's about it. It is not a life full of heroism. Eisav, too, is not so bad, seemingly, from the posukim alone. No murder. No rape. Not even theft. From the text alone, he seems like a decent guy, even.

And so the main topic of this discussion will be whether or not we actually should buy into the whole “reading into the first time something is mentioned in Tanach” thing. Let’s begin.

The story of Toldos and Yaakov starts without much emotion or personality. Rivkah gets pregnant. She has a difficult pregnancy. First comes out a "red" baby who is called Eisav, then out comes Yaakov, holding onto the heel of his brother. Yitzchak was 60 when they were both born. Then the posuk says "and the boys grew up..." and proceeds, as we shall soon see, to list their differences.

This all opens up the big discussion of nature versus nurture. And, as we know, reality is a little bit of both. But the Torah did not have to say "when they grew up" before describing their differences, but it seems to be making a strong argument for nurture as defining and creating a person over their natural disposition from birth. It was only after they grew up that their differences, because of their upbringing, became apparent. Indeed, Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch blames Eisav's problems on his parents, saying we should not be scared to reprimand even the greatest characters in Tanach (although we are anyway). People make choices in life — and this is an important idea in our general service of God. But moving on…

The Torah then gives its pivotal description of the brothers. "Eisav was a man that knew how to hunt, and was a man of the field. Yaakov was a man of simplicity (whatever that means), a dweller of tents". Weird descriptions. And that's it, too. They are not nearly as extreme as we would think from what we “know” to be the truth. "Man of the field" and "a simple man". That's it. And we hardly can even understand what those two things mean just from reading them. And by the way, Eisav's description of being a "man of the field" is not so different from Yitzchak's description when he goes to the field to pray what we now know to be Mincha. And saying that Yaakov is a "simple man" might not be the greatest compliment to begin with either.

There are more questions here too, believe it or not.

Rashi comments on the words "a dweller of tents" and says that these tents are the tents of the yeshivah of Shem and Eiver. Where in the world does Rashi get this from? It's not obvious at all. Ibn Ezra, for instance, who does not like fancy explanations, says that Yaakov was, in fact, a shepherd, and the tent was simply a shepherd’s tent. Seems simple enough. Perhaps Rashi gets his idea from the fact that "tents" is plural in the posuk. But it's still not very clear how he makes the leap to Shem and Eiver.

The Kli Yakar, though, is the commentary on Eisav that we are all told. He says that Eisav would entrap women from their husbands, and he would sleep with them when they were engaged (which is arguably even worse). He also comments on Yaakov saying that the word "tam" can mean either "simple" or "complete" in literal translation. He explains that it means that Yaakov was born circumcised, Yaakov was born complete. He was thus protected from sin in contrast to Eisav. So the two explanations of the brothers are contrasting with one another. Lest you think that Yaakov was actually born circumcised, it simply means that he was protected from the sins of arayos because he did not stray from his tent. This is, of course, in stark contrast to Eisav who spent his days "in the field". “The field” is a place where people can get away with things. You are away from people. There is no law. A tent is the exact opposite. It's the suit and tie. Rules and regulations.

Amazing ideas from the reading of one posuk.

The S’forno adds that the fact that the word “tent” is in plural form in the posuk means that Yaakov's Torah was not confined to one tent. First it was just his shepherd's tent, but it soon spread to a second tent. A tent of meditation and contemplation. A yeshivah.

You see, Yaakov did understand the world, lest you think otherwise. Yaakov did both. If all the distinctions between Yaakov and Eisav are important — and we have established that they are — this one is by far the most important.

Sherlock Holmes uses a particular method in the Hounds of Baskervilles. He collects all the evidence of the case of mysterious barking dogs at night and presents all the clues to Watson. He asks Watson what the best clue of the all is, and Watson proceeds to guess one after the another to no avail. Holmes assures him they are all wrong. When there are no clues left to guess, Holmes reveals his little game. That was exactly the point. It was what was not there that was the biggest clue of all. (No one, in the story, actually reported hearing any sounds at night. The entire story was completely fabricated, and Holmes proceeded to solves the case. Sorry — spoiler alert.)

This kind of thinking is crucial for reading the posuk that lists the differences between Yaakov and Eisav (and in general, too). In a ten stanza poem where the first eight stanzas rhyme and the last two don't, that is meant to show you something. It is meant to call our attention. The distorted note here, the most important thing in our posuk, is that by Eisav it says "man" twice, but by Yaakov it says "man" only once. Eisav gets both "man who knew how to hunt" and "man of the field". But Yaakov only gets "a simple man". Why does he not also get "man of tents" and instead specifically gets "dweller of tents"?

You can, of course, give the famous answer that Yaakov would not be defined by his job. He would answer the question of "What do you do?" with something other than his profession. Perhaps. But there is something much, much deeper here.

There was something that motivated Rashi's explanation of the posuk that we quoted above:

  1. “Sits” refers to Yaakov's living lifestyle. Stable, more subdued. Eh. Not a great answer in terms of helping us understand Rashi’s explanation.
  2. Maybe there is something bad in referring to a man of Torah as “man”. It's not supposed to be only an individual connection. It is a community. And it is a community thing here in the posuk as well.

But here is our suggestion:

Perhaps the ideal state of learning is not “man”.

A kid’s table at a meal amongst family and friends is a very hard thing to decide on. Put the wrong person there, and it can be the worst thing in the world. Kids on the verge of adulthood want to be treated as such. They want to be treated as an adult.

But by Torah, youth is somehow superior. A Torah scholar is called a "Talmid Chacham", an "apprentice". Our greatest scholars are students? When do they graduate to just "Chacham"? Why are our greatest scholars still apprentices, still students?

That is just the point. Being part of an evolutionary process is best. You should never feel that you are done. Youth means that you still have ways to go. Believing you are done is death — it is an admission that you have completed all that you could possibly complete. You're finished. Youth is also rebellious, willing to change things. To shake the status quo. This is how one should approach learning Torah.

And it was this, then, that motivated Rashi — the fact that the posuk went out of its way not to reference Yaakov as a “man” of Torah/tents implied that he instead went to seek growth.

We still have a few problems with Rashi that we have to resolve, and to do so, we will (largely) stay within the world of drash that Rashi is operating within:

  1. Who are Shem and Eiver? Since when were they so great?
  2. What about Yaakov's father? Why would he leave his father, the greatest scholar alive at the time, to go study elsewhere?
  3. What is their curriculum at this yeshivah? There was no revealed Torah then, so what did they learn?

The traditional answer to that last question is that there is big-picture-Torah, and minutia-Torah. Prior to the giving of the Torah there was no Chumash, but there certainly was contemplation of Divine will. This makes good sense, in truth. But it only strengthens the question of why Yaakov did not continue to learn with his father and grandfather — the greatest contemplators of God to ever live?

Let's first answer who Shem and Eiver were. Shem is a survivor of the flood, and was the only one from the saga of Noach who was better off after the flood than when he started. Eiver is two generations later during/after the story of the Tower of Babel. Their tent teaches of life-coping skills — something they are experts on due to their predicaments. How do you overcome and grow beyond your environment? That is what was taught there. This is not to say that Yitzchak's home was not a good environment — but still, you can always build beyond things. You can always grow beyond your environment. And Yaakov had to learn how to grow beyond Eisav.

Calling Yaakov a “man” would mean that he was not willing to grow. What they taught at the yeshivah of Shem and Eiver was how to move and grow beyond even the greatest of environments. It taught how to become your own person.

Yitzchak could not teach this to Yaakov. He was a man only of Torah. So too was Avraham. Yaakov has to leave to learn how to make it in the real world. He is the epitome of the modern Jew. He is the Father we should strive to be like. Not Avraham. Not Yitzchak. But Yaakov. Someone who knew how to perfectly balance both things, and someone who never considered himself a finished product.

And the answer to the question as to wether or not we should carefully read the first time something is mentioned in the Torah should be abundantly clear as well — because the smallest of minutiae in the text always unfold into seemingly infinite pools of commentary, speculation, analysis, and teachings.

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