I wrote an article in examiner.com on a troubling aspect of the current Torah reading:
A few years ago, I attended a special exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art featuring “The Gates of Paradise,” magnificent bronze doors on loan from the Baptistery in Florence, fashioned by the renowned Italian sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti. The doors depict images of ten famous scenes from the Bible, from Adam and Eve to Solomon and Sheba. Next to me stood two women, one of whom was not familiar with the stories behind the artwork. When she heard the infamous story of Rebecca and Jacob’s conspiracy to steal Isaac’s blessings, the listener was aghast, exclaiming in sincere shock, “how is it that we name our children Rebecca and Jacob after such evil people?!” In another unflattering reading of the story, celebrity radio minister Fulton Sheen would inspire his listeners by declaring, “If a thief and liar like Jacob could become chosen by G-d, anyone can!” Such criticism of this seminal event and of Jacob in particular, is extremely problematic. After all, Jacob is eventually named “Israel”, equated with perfection (Pesikta Rabati 1:1) and considered the epitome of the human evolution that began with Adam (Zohar Yitro). Any condemnation of Jacob is essentially a condemnation of the Jewish people which would evolve from and be named for him. Why then would God have the Jewish nation emanate from such a morally ambiguous act?
Even more confusing are Isaac’s decisions that prompted Jacob’s deceit. Our tradition teaches that Jacob was the personification of truth and goodness (Yalkut Shimoni Tehilim 15) while his elder twin brother Esav, the intended recipient of Isaac’s blessings, was deemed the root of evil (Pesikta Zutrata Genesis 36, et al.). There are several indications that Isaac knew about Esav’s ungodly nature (Genesis Rabba 65:19 et al.). The question one must ask is how Isaac could make the colossal mistake of nearly handing the mantle of the Jewish nation to Esav in the first place. The truth is, Isaac had no reason to believe that one of his children would advance Abraham’s dynasty to the exclusion of the other. The logical assumption was that the rogue Esav and the timid Jacob would enter a partnership, each contributing their strength to the development of the nation (Malbim and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Genesis.). Esav would manage the physical aspect of nationhood, including organizing the military; building national infrastructure and government; and creating agricultural and economic viability (for example, see Eliyahu Rabba 18 and Shabbat 33a). Jacob, on the other hand, would lead the spiritual aspect, dedicating his life to Torah study, prayer, and Godliness (Genesis Rabba 63). Isaac’s bifurcated blessings to each of his sons clearly express this vision. Whereas Esav’s blessings were almost entirely related to the material world (Genesis 27:28-29 10. Genesis 28: 3-4), Jacob’s “Blessing of Abraham”(Genesis 28: 3-4) focused on the continuity of God’s sacred relationship with Abraham’s progeny. Isaac’s vision of complementary leaders also illustrates his defining trait of “Din” or strict justice, which acts as an instrument of categorization and definition, resolving concepts into their individual components (Rav ChaimVital, Mevoh She’arim et al.).
In complete opposition to Isaac’s picturing of a nation led by separate powers, it was Rebecca who understood that a nation on a spiritual mission could not succeed in a fragmented state. For Jacob and for Israel to survive as God’s nation, she claimed it was imperative that the physical inheritance not be divorced from the spiritual one–that splitting these two essential elements would mean damaging the very foundation from which the nation was formed.
It is easier to understand Rebecca’s position if we first examine the way Torah defines the interrelationship between physical and spiritual. Essentially, we are told that the purpose of God’s creation of a physical universe was to provide space for human existence (in Kabbalistic terminology, tzimtzum). Without the physical, there would be God’s presence alone, leaving no room for our existence (Ibid.). As a result, to devalue the physical is to devalue our own existence and impair any ability to connect with God, for only when we possess our own distinct physical existence can we fully connect to spirituality, another word for Godliness. We are taught that in the ultimate human state, soul and body are fully combined, since without the physical body a soul is in an imperfect transitory state (Derech Hashem 1:5).
Throughout history, humanity has struggled to explain the apparent dichotomy between “physical” and “spiritual.” Some say the physical universe is all there is, while others vilify it as an obstruction to attaining a true spiritual self. Once we understand that meaningful reality only exists within a synthesis of physical and spiritual, we can shed this painful conflict that forces humanity to remain inevitably torn. The physical is, therefore, not inherently evil or profane; nor is it simply a vessel, or a means to a holy end. The physical grants each of us our unique space so that spirituality can be transformed from the realm of the universal to the realm of the individual. In other words, though God exists beyond the physical, we as spiritual beings cannot exist without the physical providing space for that existence (See Mesilat Yesharim 26 et al.).
Rebecca thus implored Jacob to prepare food, representative of the physical realm, and to aggressively appear as Esav’s clone, to prove that the physical and the spiritual can and must be unified. Consequently, Jacob’s declaration of “I am Esav, your firstborn son” involved none of the denial of a classic lie (aside from the fact that lying is permitted in critical situations: see Yevamot 55b). It was an unapologetic assertion to his father that he could connect to the physical world on the level of Esav, and that these powers should not be segregated (Ohr Hachaim Genesis 27, Rav Tzadok HaKohen Toldot, et al.). Indeed, Isaac sensed Jacob’s connection to the Garden of Eden (Tanchuma 16 18.Genesis Rabba 67:2) where physical and spiritual were once integrated at the highest level. That is why, when Isaac realized what Jacob had done, he confirmed Jacob’s physical blessings instead of reacting with anger (Genesis Rabba 67:2). Finally, this concept is eventually symbolized by Jacob’s ladder, which represents the necessary interrelationship of the realms of the heavens (spiritual) and the earth (physical) along an uninterrupted continuum (Genesis Rabba 69:7).
Although our physical universe seems eternally polarized between good and evil, eternal and ephemeral, religious and secular; the Torah’s definition of holiness lies specifically in the successful integration of both the physical and the spiritual. Societal and religious conventions sometimes convince us that the physical world is the antithesis to holiness; however, Rebecca and Jacob taught us that the objective is “Tiferet” or “synthesis” (Zohar Chadash, Yitro), where our physical and spiritual selves are intertwined in a single whole, each dependent on, and developing from, the other (Tikunei Zohar 70). Our jobs, our health, our physical desires, should not be viewed as an unfortunate consequence of life in a physical universe or even as a means to a spiritual end. Rather, our physical existence is the form that allows us to develop as unique spiritual beings. To deny the physical is to deny the very aspect in which the spiritual is manifest, and ultimately, our ability to attain holiness.