Vayishlach 2004

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

Jacob instructs his agents to state the following in his name to his brother Esau. "Please accept my gift which was brought to you inasmuch as G‑d has been gracious to me and inasmuch as I have everything (kol)." (33,11)
Esau said, "I have plenty (rav), my brother; let what you have remain yours." (33,9)

Beginning in last week's Torah portion and continuing into this week's, we are presented with the powerful story of two very different brothers - their relationships with their parents and each other. The Torah describes these brothers - "...Esau became a man who knows hunting, a man of the field, but Jacob was a wholesome man abiding in tents." (25,27) The Sifse Chachamim tells us that until they reached the age of Bar Mitzvah they were similar. Esau's actions were considered pranks attributable to his youth. However, from that point on, it became abundantly clear that these two brothers were quite different. Esau turned to idols and Jacob turned toward the study hall. Esau became a hunter, not only in terms of animals but also in terms of "trapping" his own father as well. He would ask questions to appear very devout. For example, he asked his father how tithes were to be taken from straw and salt, knowing perfectly well that these two items were not subject to tithing. Esau would wait upon his father providing him with meat, which he had freshly killed. Jacob was morally pure, saying what he believed to be correct and spending most of his time studying in the school of Shem and Eber. (Rashi)

In their confrontation as grown men years later, this difference is personified in a most subtle manner. It seems apparent from what the Torah tells us, that each of the brothers was a rich man in his own right. And yet, in their description of their possessions, there is a world of difference. Jacob, in describing his possessions, uses the Hebrew word kol - everything. G‑d has blessed him and he is more than content with his physical possessions. As in his teens his major pursuit in life is study - acquiring knowledge which will enable him to live the G‑d ordained lifestyle. Esau, however, uses the Hebrew word rav - plenty - to describe his wealth. In this manner, Esau indicates that he is as well a rich man but, unlike Jacob who states he has everything, is still intent on acquiring more. It is, therefore, understandable that Jacob, fully conversant with the character of his brother, appeals to his sense of greed, his need for continued acquisition, by sending him gifts as a prelude to their meeting. For the person who does not seek the spiritual, who does not seek the true sublime moral life of being in harmony with G‑d and eternity, finds only one joy in life - acquisition. Once an item is possessed, it has no meaning. He simply must possess more and more and more. It simply never ends. The thrill of acquiring more of the physical world is the stimulus for his very existence.

Since my childhood, I have heard the United States referred to as the capital of conspicuous consumption and the crassest form of capitalism. Americans are constantly driven by one desire and one desire alone. We want more things. We never seem to have enough.

The truth is that we live in a land of abundance in every area of human need. I vividly recall our first visit to the green grocer shortly after moving to the United Kingdom. A modest store with a few display counters, I was shocked at the sparsity of fruits and vegetables. When we asked for two pounds of apples, the green grocer seemed astonished. "Rabbi," he said, "we don't sell our wares by the pound. We sell them by the piece." I looked about and realized that other customers were purchasing two oranges, three apples, etc. Ladies came into the store with small wicker baskets on their arms by which they would carry home their purchases. Needless to say, we became the green grocer's favorite customers. When he spied us coming down the road, he would set chairs for us and put on the kettle so that he might offer us a spot of tea.

Our affluence as a society has made an indelible impression upon the rest of the world. Accustomed to shopping for our fruits and vegetables in stores that are overflowing with choices, presenting the best produce available on this planet, we were now purchasing fruits and vegetables that in the States were usually marked down in price for quick sale as they had past their prime.

This sense of Americans as shallow consumer oriented individuals, uninterested in the moral and spiritual pursuits of life, later day Esaus, has effected my view of our fellow countrymen as well.

It therefore was a wonderful revelation for me and, I suspect, for many others in our country and no doubt a terrible frustration for our European friends, to listen to the pundits' evaluation of the recent Presidential election.

Going into the election, the pivotal issue for Bush was touted as Iraq. Should our efforts in Iraq just prior to elections seem to be ineffective, Bush would lose. Jobs, the economy in general, were as well viewed by those in the know as key to the election of Kerry or Bush. And now, in the aftermath of the elections, it seems that these very same pundits have changed their tune. Over the last few days, they have been stating that the issue that defined this election was morality. Can you imagine that? The conspicuous consumer is concerned with morality. The crass money oriented America, which seems to the rest of the world as ever bent upon devouring everything this planet has to offer, elected its President on the issue of morality.

Even our fellow Jews have begun to change. Willing to excuse the bizarre behavior of others in the name of freedom and self-expression, willing to ever raise and thicken the wall of "separation of church and state" as the key to freedom, some Jews are realizing that our society has gone completely amuck. We no longer have a moral touchstone in society. People, no matter the repugnancy of their behavior, are allowed to do almost anything they wish under the rubric of individual freedom. The quest of our patriarch Jacob to seek the moral and ethical truths of human existence for all humanity is overshadowed by the lust of an Esau.

The United States faces real moral and ethical issues it must resolve. They cannot simply be brushed under the carpet by waiving the banner of individual expression and separation of church and state. We are social beings. Our life means nothing if we are forced to live in absolute isolation. We need to interact with our fellow human beings and the world around us, thus calling into question the fundamental issue of how this interaction is to manifest itself. Science has as well placed before us moral questions of Solomon like proportions. We need to seek moral and ethical standards in life. We need to enter the "study hall," as Jacob did pouring over G‑d's word, to guide the moral direction we must adopt if we are to survive as a cohesive society.

Let's pray that the present analysis of the recent Presidential election is correct. America must be a society that ever considers and acts upon the moral imperative for its own sake and for the sake of humanity as a whole.