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Parshat Toledot: Macho Man

Every man wants to be a macho macho man
To have the kind of body always in demand
Joggin’ in the mornings, go man go
Workouts in the health spa, muscles grow
You can best believe me
He’s a macho man
-Village People

This week’s Torah reading begins the saga and conflict between brothers, Jacob and Esau. Even though twins at birth, you could not imagine two more opposite personalities. The Torah tells us this both in terms of their divergent looks as well as different natures by describing Esau as hairy with ruddy complexion while Jacob never needed to visit the waxing parlor. Esau was an outdoorsman who loved hunting while Jacob was bookish and preferred the safe confines of house and tent. They were even opposites in terms of the affection they drew from their parents. Isaac favoured Esau and felt more of a kinship with him while Rebecca favoured Jacob. You get the sense that Esau was a man while Jacob was a momma’s boy.

There is another subtle difference that the Torah points out, and this small distinction in the text defines the vast gulf between these two. When the Torah mentions Esau’s naming it says, וַיִּקְרְא֥וּ שְׁמ֖וֹ עֵשָֽׂו – and they called his name Esau. But when it then describes Jacob’s it says, אַֽחֲרֵי־כֵ֞ן יָצָ֣א אָחִ֗יו וְיָד֤וֹ אֹחֶ֙זֶת֙ בַּעֲקֵ֣ב עֵשָׂ֔ו וַיִּקְרָ֥א שְׁמ֖וֹ יַעֲקֹ֑ב afterwards his brother emerged (from the womb) and he called his name Jacob.

The naming of Esau is plural, “they called his name…” but the naming of Jacob is singular, “and he called his name…” Who is doing the naming and why is it plural for one of the boys and singular for the other? The Kli Yakar commentary (Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, 16th century Poland and Prague) points out that the Torah is not describing the bris ceremony where the parents publicly name their child, but that it was a reflection of their differing personalities and people’s reaction to each of them.

The they of “they called him Esau” is referring to the fact that everybody knew of Esau. He was out there, he was popular. Most of the people of his time could relate to him. He was outdoors and a hunter. He was a gever – a man’s man who was admired and known. Today they might call it toxic masculinity. He was Putin (before he became an evil leader) riding a horse barechested and playing ice hockey. Mr. Macho Man. Hence the plural, everyone knew of Esau.

Jacob on the other hand was quiet, alone and hidden away from the spotlight. He was not famous or known by many and hence his naming was in the singular. Everybody knew of Esau. Hardly anyone heard of Jacob. 

But it was Jacob with whom God continued his covenant. It was Jacob who became Israel and changed mankind more than any other people. And herein lies the difference between Esau and Jacob; a difference that carries on throughout history to their progeny. Of Edom/Rome/Western society versus Jacob/Israel and the Jewish people.

Esau is famous and fashionable. The masses can relate to him. He is of the material and superficial world. He will get thousands of likes and millions of YouTube views. He is out there and super popular. The quality may be shabby but that is precisely the point. It’s eye candy, bubble gum music but easy to digest and the masses love it. His religion is nice and easy and it draws in billions. 

Not so with Jacob. The masses don’t relate to him, only a specialized few can. His is the spiritual world, the deep, the thoughtful and he doesn’t appeal to throngs of people. Jacob’s world is more complex, more involved and not easy to live by. He doesn’t create a religion for billions but a fraction of that and the numbers barely move from one century to the next. No band-wagon jumpers onto Judaism. Too hard. Too many rules. Too much to study. He will be lucky if he gets a thousand YouTube views. And there is no such thing as herd mentality with Jacob’s people. Quite the opposite, two Jews three opinions.

Esau is of the here and now, the right now, and it all looks like an amazing Hollywood production that excites you for the moment even though it leaves you empty as soon as it’s over. Jacob won’t provide that, instead he will give you some quiet slices of wisdom, truth and morality that you will mull over, digest, adopt and keep forever.

But this is how it works in life. Most often the deeper and more meaningful things are those which go completely unnoticed and ignored by others. Indeed, the Talmud says that “Blessings come to those things that are not spoken about.” Real greatness comes about through consistent, daily choices of goodness, honesty and integrity. Not though some one-off up-on-the-stage Super Bowl half-time show. 

This ability to look past the flash and the glam and to see real substance, real spirituality and true Godliness is best expressed in an episode in Tanach with the prophet, Elijah. He is told by God to wait by a cave for God to appear to him. As he does, a powerful bone-rattling wind comes along. But Elijah receives prophecy that God is not in the wind. It is then followed by a rock-shattering earthquake and again Elijah is told that God is not in the earthquake. Then a blazing fire came forth and Elijah was informed God was not in the fire. Finally Elijah hears a still small voice, and then and only then does he cover himself with his cloak to meet God who appears and speaks with him.

Most people look for some life-altering experience in Esau’s world. They think they will discover it in the places where everyone commonly believes they will find it. The masses follow the crowd to get a slice of Esau’s hunt. Back then it was tasty deer, today it’s fame on Instagram. People flock to stadiums and arenas and concert halls filled with tens of thousands to get a shot of It. If all believe it so, then it must be and surely from the loud and thunderous they will experience something that will transform them forever.

Not really, because that isn’t where you find God. You will find Him where Elijah found Him – in the quiet tents of Jacob that are filled with goodness and truth. You will find Him in the afterthought of Yaakov who is named so because he is eikev – a heel. Trodden upon and overlooked. 

Ignore the dramatic winds and earthquakes and fires because that isn’t where you find God and Truth and Meaning. No, they are found in the still small voice; the quiet places that are too subtle for most and ignored by all. It is in these quiet places where you will find the Creator of the Universe. And this is where you will probably find yourself as well

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