The voice of Jacob, but the hands of Esau

By Rabbi Stefan J. Weinberg

Parashat Toldot

Jacob and Esau are born to Rivka in this week’s sedra, Toldot. While in their mother’s womb, the Torah text instructs us, “va’yitrotz’tzu habanim b’kirbah — the two boys struggled while in their mother’s womb,” foreshadowing the twins’ future conflict.

Esau, the firstborn is identified as “ish tza’id — an outdoorsman.” Jacob is referred to as “ish tam — a mild-mannered individual.” 

The Midrash further develops these character traits. Esau is characterized as the rugged individual, responding to his impulses, a hunter who thrived in the natural environment; he had a deep level of affection for his father. 

Jacob was the intellectual; he planned for the future. He preferred to remain indoors, studying, learning, developing his mind; he had a closer relationship with his mother.

The boys’ differing personalities soon occupied a pivotal role in the future of B’nai Yisrael. Who should assume the leadership position of the Jewish people? Who would be tasked with the job of spokesman and leader of God’s people? The firstborn who seemed to eschew his birthright, or the younger son whose demeanor seemed more suitable for the role of leadership?

The storyline reaches its apex when the blind Isaac responds to Jacob with the unforgettable words, “Hakol kol Yaakov v’hayadaim yidei Esav — the voice is the voice of Jacob but the hands are the hands of Esau.” 

Do we not all live with a degree of internal conflict? We know what it means to believe in One God, to believe in the time-tested values of our tradition. But, we often choose to worship our state, our nation, our society and its many appealing norms. We speak confidently about the values of justice and compassion, teaching them diligently to our children. Yet, when engulfed by the rigors of everyday competition in the workplace, we regularly lose sight of these cherished values. On Shabbat morning, we are touched to the core by the messages embedded in our texts; but on Monday morning, periodically we find ourselves assuming a very different posture. 

We Jews have a concept called “mitzvah.” Typically explained as “commandment,” it implies a deed. It translates an idea into action; a statement is actualized. The body performs in concert with the mind. 

As the aging Isaac is confronted by the scheming Jacob, we are reminded of an essential truth: We are judged by our actions. Unfortunately, we are proficient at rationalizing; we can create remarkable justifications for our actions. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we all live with a certain degree of inconsistency. 

One of the essential goals of our Jewish tradition — the reason we probe the depths of our Tanakh and rabbinic literature — is to rise above the dichotomy between our words and our actions. One day, the resonant message of our tradition will compel us to live according to the way we speak. 

In response to our defiant world, let us all turn off social media (at least on Shabbat), tune out the diatribes of those who spew hate, and disregard the constant barrage of those who thrive on disparaging us.

May our actions speak for themselves. Act, engage, and touch another human being with our deeds. May we all live to see the day when the voice is the voice of Jacob and the hands are the hands of Jacob, reflecting our integrity. As this week’s prophet, Micah proclaims in the Haftarah of Parashat Balak, “What does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

Stefan J. Weinberg is the rabbi of Congregation Anshai Torah.

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