Do not be Fooled by Appearances……
It is written in Mishlei (Proverbs) 16:32 that: “It is better to be patient than mighty, to have self-control than to conquer a city”. Pirkei Avot 4:1 referring to this, says, “Ben Zoma said: Who is powerful? He who controls his inclination [to evil], as it is said: “He who is slow to anger is better than the strong; and he who rules over the spirit of it, than he who takes a city.”
I have been thinking about this a lot this week since this past September I had to meet with a community to resolve a conflict over damaged infrastructure. At first, I thought: “This will be easy to fix”, “What could go wrong?” My ignorance and pride blinded me, so I missed the main point of conflict resolution: Communication. I learned that to resolve conflicts, not everything is muscle, not everything is money, and not everything is a good idea. What’s important is to introduce solutions with a healthy dose of humility and by listening and speaking.
Isaac is regarded as a “weak man”. He was not an Abraham willing to fight five kings to save Lot, or a man willing to expel his son Ishmael, or to sacrifice his only son, or to face an Ephron the Hittite or a Pharaoh while keeping his temper. It is said of Isaac that he was a “pampered son”, a man “who dwelled in tents”. He was not a warrior, with a strong bow, living by the sword. In the barbaric society of those days, he would have been a man unfit to form a nation or to govern as a “strong and self-confident leader.” From this perspective, I would like to develop my message. As men and women of emunah, faith, we don’t need to demonstrate characteristics that make us think that we are “fit” to be leaders nor to generate changes within society. Rather our goal should be to have self-control and to learn from what happened to me when appearances deceived me and resulted in a loss of time and health.
In the Akedah, in Bereshit 22, we read how Isaac, knew how to hold his temper and be obedient when faced with being sacrificed by his father. How many of us would have had the ability to lie still on the altar and not run away? In the end, an apparent weakness was truly to his credit. He was a man who honored his father, who had emunah, and this was a strength, not a weakness.
Then, we read that Isaac was told not to mix with the Canaanite women causing him to have to wait for a wife until he was 40, and he remained a one-woman man. At that time and even today, sexual self-control is an Achilles heel in a sexually corrupt society. Canaan was not exactly a healthy place to raise a child, since the women were not sexually pure. We see, by Isaac’s behavior, the effect of the spiritual and moral “nutrition” that he received from his father Abraham, as we read in 25:19 “Abraham fathered (nurtured) Isaac” – Avraham holid et- Yitzchak אַבְרָהָ֖ם הוֹלִ֥יד אֶת־יִצְחָֽק. Our sages say that the general idea of this portion would be like saying: “Abraham gave birth to Isaac”, that he nourished him in his actions, in his works, in his thoughts to be a man worthy of continuing the spiritual and physical descendants of his father and that his life would reflect his way of being, of his essence.
Then we read in chapter 26, how patient Isaac was in digging wells. He did not despair when famine hit the land where he lived nor did he flee to Egypt due to the scarcity, but instead, he learned to listen to the voice of the Eternal (26:3-6) and managed to maintain his finances. How many people today are in trouble because they cannot manage their finances? I won’t go into detail, but in my country, there are too many “easy” options to finance debt, due to our tastes, expenses and needs. How do we act in the face of an economic crisis? For example, how do we deal with having surgery? Or how do we deal with living above our means for pleasure items? …not only for sexual pleasure, but also for things that satisfy our ego, our pride, showing off -“Look what I have!,” or being “overtly generous to show how blessed I am by the Eternal.”
It is sad that instead of controlling our spending, we prefer to live a life of luxury filled with unnecessary things so as not to deprive ourselves of pleasure. Do you know that most nations owe more than 100% of their GDP, gross national product? For example, in El Salvador, 75% of the population cannot live on their salaries, and so they resort to “easy” but expensive and extra financing through credit cards, overdrafts, “short-term installments for commercial housing”, etc. In contrast, during times of crisis, Isaac dedicated himself to planting crops and digging wells, not to getting into debt, to the point that the Torah says that he became very wealthy (26: 13-16).
We also read about Esau in this portion. He was an apparent strong man, virile, and powerful within his Canaanite society, but he also fulfills those characteristics in Mishlei 6:16 -19: “There are six things that the Lord hates, yes, seven that are an abomination to him: Haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood; A heart that thinks bad thoughts, feet that run quickly towards evil; The false witness, who breathes lies, and the one who sows discord between brothers.”
Let’s examine these characteristics of Esau described in Mishlei:
First, “arrogance” (haughty eyes). Bereshit 25:32 tells us that before receiving his blessing, Esau decided that it was not enough for him, “And Esau said, Behold, I am at the point of death so what good is the birthright to me?” Yaakov offered him gifts and then we read later in Bereshit 33:9 “And Esau said, I have much, my brother.” Both expressions portray the idea of arrogance, born out of an ungrateful heart that cannot appreciate anything beyond the material.
Second, “a lying tongue.” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks expounds upon the following comment by Rashi 25:27: “Esav, says the Torah, “knew how to catch (yodea tzaid).” Isaac loved him “because he caught with his mouth (ki tzaid befiv).” Esav, Rashi says, caught Isaac through his mouth. This is Rashi’s comment to “he knew how to catch.” How do we understand this? Esau changed Ahalivama’s name to Yehudit (Jewess) to deceive his father into believing that she had renounced idolatry, but it seems that the Shechinah withdrew from Isaac’s house when his daughters-in-law entered. Then we read in 27:36 “For this reason he was named Yaakov, for he has deceived me twice: he took my birthright, and now, behold, he has taken away my blessing.” Did Yaakov really deceive him? Did Esau not sell his birthright and blessing to him like the noonday sun? (25:33). That is, Esav uttered lies.
Third, “Hands that shed innocent blood.” Bereshit 25:27 says, “and Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field.” We see this same idea in Nimrod, a powerful hunter. The Midrash says that on the day he was tired of the field, he came in from killing Nimrod, and the blessing of his father indicates that he would live by his sword.
Fourth, “A heart that thinks evil thoughts“. Bereshit 27:41 says, “And Esau bore a grudge against Jacob for the blessing with which his father blessed him, and Esau said in his heart, the days of my father’s mourning shall end, and I will kill Jacob, my brother.” Holding a grudge, desiring the death of one’s neighbor are evil thoughts.
Fifth, “feet that hasten towards evil“. Bereshit 28:9 tells us that after Esau realized that his wives were not to his father’s liking, because they practiced idolatry, he ran to find Ishmael’s daughter and took Mahalat as his wife. Bereshit Raba 67:8-13 states that this marriage was a guideline for Esau to plan the death of Yaakov and Itzhak, so this marriage was a ke-mahala (as an affliction) and that this woman was as wicked as his previous wives.
Sixth, “The false witness, who breathes lies.” Esau used “outward” goodness to deceive his father, such as hunting and preparing soups to please him, but with wrong intentions. Thus Isaac is said to have been blinded for as Shemot 23:8 says, “And you shall not receive a bribe, for a bribe blinds those who see and perverts the words of the righteous.”
Seventh, “he who sows discord among his brothers”. It is clear that the breakup of Itzhak’s family came when Rivkah realized that Esav was planning to murder his brother forcing him to flee for 20 years.
When we compare the Haftarah with these characteristics, it is not strange that God hates Esau, as we read in Malachi 1:2-3 and repeated in Mishlei where it says that he fulfilled those qualities that make a human being hated by God. If Esau had not been a man dominated by his emotions, his evil thoughts, short-term desires, and immediate pleasures, and had been like Yaakov, an ish tam, a man of integrity (25:27), perhaps there would have been a different outcome.
We live in a world of illusion. The word “olam” portrays the idea of eternity, but also of concealment. This is a world of concealment, i.e., it covers up the truth, so that we can easily be deceived by appearances. We may admire certain people, but are they capable of governing themselves or is their life a mirage? Self-governance is not about who has the ability to “restrict oneself, to make oneself suffer, or to deprive oneself”, rather it is about who can fulfill the original design for mankind. We were created to exercise lordship, dominion over creation, however, how many people today live like slaves of creation and do not lord over it? Some may be slaves to an herb like tobacco or marijuana, others are slaves to sugar, others to alcohol, and others to paper money, among many things. It is time for us to govern, but especially ourselves.
My desire on this Shabbat is that we emulate the characteristics of Isaac and not those of Esau, that we be “Ish Tam or Isha Tama”, that we live a life of balance and with Parnasah (riches), and in this world of apparent contradictions, of disguises, that we be light, as Tehillim 36:9 says, “For with You lies the fountain of life; In Your light will we see the light.” Being close to the Bore Olam eliminates hiding because He illuminates everything we prefer to conceal.