Friday, December 23, 2005

 

Last Week's Torah Portion

In last week's portion, we have another example of God responding to people where they are: in this case, the frightened Jacob who fears "the gig is up", receives his new identity of Israel (does this help him to hide from what he has done in a sense?). We Jews believe that God is not some high-in-the-sky perfectionist, but rather takes people as they are and forgives us as we truly repent and seek to make restitution for our wrong-doings.

But such return to God does not come easy. In order to do so, we must struggle -- with ourselves. Jacob becomes Israel only after he struggles with his appreciation of what is divine in him. Does he become perfect afterwards? No. Can anyone? No. But he does struggle, and that is what is important. Indeed, while Christianity has often diverged from Judaism in matters of whether our repentence and restitution are sufficient for atonement of sins, the teachings of Jesus presented in the Christian Bible, continue with this Jewish line of thought: God "forgives sins as we forgive those who sin against us" and Jesus doesn't proclaim the blessing of the faithful but the "poor in spirit". The kingdom of heaven does not belong to those who have perfect faith and no need to struggle with themselves, but rather to those who struggle and those who wonder if God will provide a ram and, thus fearing this lack, make provisions for themselves.

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Another motif in this portion, besides the notion that blessings belong to those who struggle to spiritually better themselves and God responds to such people where they are, is the theme of the younger sibling inhereting the spiritual birthright. First Isaac and then in this part of the Torah, Jacob. Judaism is being iconoclastic here: spiritual rewards do not come from birth, but from a personal engagement to spiritually improve oneself. For all of his flaws, and he has many, Jacob at least tries whereas Esau is content to sell his birthright for a mess of pottage.

Of course, as spiritually blind as Esau is, at least he loves his father. Some authorities state that Isaac's bind for Esau is a sign of Isaac's being stunted by the experience of the Akedah. Others note that the Jewish tradition seems to favor, in modern terminology, not only the younger brother but also the Mamma's boys (Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau). But perhaps the real lesson of the portion is that, even if Esau is another Cain, everyone has their good side. And even if Jacob was the "chosen one", everyone has their rough side. God does not throw up his hands, so to speak, that people are not perfect and demand some substitutionary atonement for it. This would not make sense -- why would an omnipotent and omniscient God allow people to behave in an unforgivable manner. God responds to people where they are and reaches out to them so long as they struggle to meet the Hand reaching out to them.

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