One Minute Torah: Toledot 5779

If my grandmother, of blessed memory, could have been at CBJ last Shabbat, she would have been appalled.

If my grandmother, of blessed memory, could have been at CBJ last Shabbat, she would have been appalled.

It was one of the most uplifting Shabbatot I have experienced in a long time. Thanks to #ShowUpForShabbat, our numbers were up. (Anti-Semitism has always pulled Jews together. I wonder if the attraction will last.) NBCC members swelled our numbers further. Services feel different when the room is full and everyone is engaged. At the end of Power Hour, Pastor Hurmon and Rabbi Ezray stood side-by-side before the mix of our people, and I saw the light of God shining from their faces.

Pastor Hurmon blessed us in the name of Jesus. Had you asked me a week ago if that was ok, I would have said “no way.” But in the moment, his words were filled with such humility and feeling, to me it was ok. He made it clear that he was speaking the language of his faith, not of a universal faith that he hoped to impose on us. The only universal was our shared humanity.

But my grandmother–she grew up in Warsaw in the 1920s. Her brother was once attacked on the street by a group of men who pulled out part of his beard. She and her friend had had stones hurled at them, with taunts of “dirty Jews” and “Christ slayers.” Before she reached her teenage years, she moved to a poor neighborhood in Brooklyn, and all the fears she had developed toward Polish Christians were transferred to African-Americans. Had she lived to see an African-American pastor blessing our synagogue community from the shulchan, she wouldn’t have just been appalled. She would have been dumbfounded.

This cycle, I find Parshat Toledot to be deeply sad. Still in the womb, Jacob and Esau are already fighting. Jacob is not just Jacob, he is later named “Israel”, and he is the emblem of the people that bear his name. Esau is not just Esau. The red-haired youth is also called “Edom” (red), and he is the emblem of the people that once inhabited the pink-tinged hills that stand above the southeast bank of the Jordan and northeast shore of the Red Sea.

Lest the reader miss the implications, the text spells it out for us. God tells Rebecca: “Two nations are in your womb…One will be stronger than the other, and the bigger one will serve the younger.” The Israelites and the Edomites–always striving, always competing. In later times, the rabbis identified Edom with Rome, and then with Christendom. They fantasized that someday the world order would reverse, and Edom would serve Israel.

Our parshah ends with Jacob wronging Esau so badly, Esau swears violence against him, and Jacob runs away. Jacob lives in exile for over two decades. When the brothers are finally reunited, they embrace. Apparently, all is ultimately forgiven, the fighting of their youth forgotten. But the rabbis, still under oppressive Roman rule, were not ready to forgive. One school of thought holds that when Esau fell on Jacob’s neck, it was not to kiss him but to bite him.

This past Shabbat morning represented the many ways in which we have let go of a centuries-old fight. We are letting go the lines that divide Jacob from Esau, Israel from Edom. We are ready to embrace. Let’s just be sure we do not look for new lines to draw, as we allow the old ones to fade.