Torah Weekly

For the week ending 22 November 2014 / 29 Heshvan 5775

Parshat Toldot

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair -
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After 20 years of marriage, Yitzchak's prayers are answered and Rivka conceives twins. The pregnancy is extremely painful. G-d reveals to Rivka that the suffering is a microcosmic prelude to the worldwide conflict that will rage between the two great nations descended from these twins, Rome and Israel. Esav is born, and then Yaakov, holding onto Esavs heel. They grow and Esav becomes a hunter, a man of the physical world, whereas Yaakov sits in the tents of Torah developing his soul. On the day of their grandfather Avraham's funeral, Yaakov is cooking lentils, the traditional mourner's meal. Esav rushes in, ravenous from a hard days hunting, and sells his birthright (and its concomitant spiritual responsibilities) for a bowl of lentils, demonstrating his unworthiness for the position of firstborn. A famine strikes Canaan and Yitzchak thinks of escaping to Egypt, but G-d tells him that because he was bound as a sacrifice, he has become holy and must remain in the Holy Land. He relocates to Gerar in the land of the Philistines, where, to protect Rivka, he has to say she is his sister. The Philistines grow jealous of Yitzchak when he becomes immensely wealthy, and Avimelech the king asks him to leave. Yitzchak re-digs three wells dug by his father, prophetically alluding to the three future Temples. Avimelech, seeing that Yitzchak is blessed by G-d, makes a treaty with him. When Yitzchak senses his end approaching, he summons Esav to give him his blessings. Rivka, acting on a prophetic command that the blessings must go to Yaakov, arranges for Yaakov to impersonate Esav and receive the blessings. When Esav in frustration reveals to his father that Yaakov has bought the birthright, Yitzchak realizes that the birthright has been bestowed correctly on Yaakov and confirms the blessings he has given Yaakov. Esav vows to kill Yaakov, so Rivka sends Yaakov to her brother Lavan where he may find a suitable wife.


Once More With Feeling

“...And he prayed to G-d...” (13:17)

They say that every ba'al teshuva wakes up one day to find that he's “frum-from-birth”.

The unbridled, headlong enthusiasm of a new commitment to Judaism; the thrill of rising at four in the morning to immerse in the mikveh and don those mystical black boxes and pray with the holy of the holies; the transcendent feeling of Shabbat — waking up on Sunday morning and thinking it's Monday; the thrill of sitting in the succa; of hearing the otherworldly cry of the shofar; of the light of the Chanuka candles “replacing” the Xmas tree...

Would that it last forever! But sooner or later most ba'alei teshuva wake up and find themselves struggling to make the minyan on time and to keep their the latest news out of their thoughts during the Amida silent prayer — the same struggles as I assume exist for many of their brethren FFBs.

“...And he prayed to G-d...”

Rashi comments: "You cannot compare the prayer of a righteous person who had righteous parents to that of a righteous person whose parents were unrighteous."

Ostensibly the reverse should be true — the prayers of someone who manages to overcome his background and the negative effects of his upbringing and cultural milieu should be more powerful than those of someone who did not have such challenges.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 39) makes the point, "Let Ovadia, who dwelt with two evil people (Achav and Izavel) and learned not from their ways, give prophesy about the evil Esav who dwelt with two righteous people (Yitzchak and Rivka) and failed to learn from their ways."

The Talmud teaches, "The Old is more difficult that the New." (Yoma 29a)

When you learn something new, you know you don't know it and thus you exert yourself to delve deeply and thoroughly into the matter until it is completely clear. However, when something is "Old" — when you've already learned it and you think you know it — in reality the rust of forgetfulness has already begun to obscure the fine points and intricacies. Someone who, despite this, exerts himself to re-learn something he has already learned with the attitude of someone who is approaching the subject for the first time is therefore on a higher level.

Despite growing up in the home of Avraham where the service of G-d was a well-trodden path and "Old", Yitzchak spared no effort to find his own way in the service of G-d. He took the Old and he made it New. Rivka, on the other hand, grew up amongst evil and depravity. Her righteousness was a reaction to her background — it was New — and thus her prayers were less powerful than those of Yitzchak.

The real challenge of being a ba'al teshuva is when the gloss starts to wear off the enthusiasm that was fired by a rejection of the hedonism and superficiality of the secular world.

That's the moment that separates the men from the boys. Are you going to be satisfied to coast along for the rest of your life and just “phone it in”? Or are you going to take that Old sugya and make it new and vibrant?

Are you going to sit back on your laurels and watch them wilt?

Or are you going to become a ba’al teshuva all over again?

  • Sources: Based on Rabbi Simcha Zissel of Kelm in Michtav M'Eliahu (Vol III, page 124) as seen in Lekach Tov

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