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Parsha Toldot

This week, the Parsha confronts us with a troubling moral dilemma. One of our greatest heroes, our patriarch, Ya'akov, is depicted twice in grossly dishonest conduct. In the first case he (it seems) tricks Eisav into selling his birthright as the firstborn son for a measly meal of bread and lentil stew. In the second, he tricks his father, Yitzchak, into blessing him instead of his brother. These incidents are especially troubling given that Ya'akov is the forefather we most associate with honesty. How are we to understand these incidents?


Many solutions have been proposed to these questions. Some have articulated that perhaps Eisav understood what he was giving up in the first incident, so it wasn't trickery. The blessings were just the natural result of that sale. Of course, this explanation still leaves us with a bad taste, because we know that, objectively, the birthright is worth more than the meal and Ya'akov still tricked his father.


Others have proposed that Ya'akov was really just taking what was already his. In truth, Ya'akov should have been born first but Eisav stole a march on him when they left Rivkah's womb. As such, Ya'akov was merely restoring the order of succession to what it was already intended to be.


However, I think that the real reason for Ya'akov's behaviour here is because he looked forward to the future. Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya'akov were consciously starting a new people. That nation would be built not around ethnicity but around a vision of ethical monotheism which they could bequeath to their descendants and, in due course, share with the entire world. Eisav, the brutish hunter, the thug, was manifestly unsuitable for this mission.


Sometimes there are no good options. We can choose to sully ourselves with the world of politics, perhaps even endangering our good name, in the right cause, or we can choose to sit quietly and do "the right thing" and bring far worse outcomes to the world. Had Ya'akov not taken the path the Torah tells us, the Jewish people would not have come into existence, we would not have received the Torah, and our unique voice would not have been heard.

In the final analysis, we should honour Ya'akov for the difficult choice he was forced to make. May we never face such choices ourselves.

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