Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Parshat Toldot and Halloween

I wrote this week's online Torah Commentary on Parshat Toldot for Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York.

Here is the text in its entirety. Happy Halloween!

Translation:
Genesis 27:22-24
(22) So Jacob drew close to his father Isaac, who felt him and wondered. “The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau.” (23) He did not recognize him, because his hands were hairy like those of his brother Esau; and so he blessed him. (24) He asked, “Are you really my son Esau?” And he said, “I am.”

Excerpted from The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition, editor W. Gunther Plaut (NY: URJ Press, 2005). Used by permission of URJ Press, www.urjbooksandmusic.com.
Original Text:
Commentary

Saul Kaiserman,
Director of
Lifelong Learning

HERE IN NEW YORK CITY, it is impossible to not notice that it is Halloween this week. But, it should be noted that costumes and trickery are as ancient as the Torah. One of the most famous stories is in this week’s portion, Tol’dot.

Isaac has two sons, Esau and Jacob. Nearly blind and in his dying days, Isaac intends to give his blessing to his favored son, Esau. But Jacob, the younger son, is his mother’s favorite, and with her help, Jacob disguises himself as Esau. He costumes himself as his hairy brother by putting goatskins on his arms and his neck. When Isaac reaches out for Jacob’s hands, he feels the goat hair and is deceived. The trick works! Jacob receives his father’s blessing in place of his brother.

This is just one of the many tales in the Bible in which people wear a disguise or conceal who they are in order to achieve their goals. In some stories, a disguise enables the wearer to engage in forbidden behavior. For example, after King Saul outlaws sorcery, he puts on a disguise so that he may consult a soothsayer. (I Samuel 28:8) At other times, a disguise provides a way to ascertain another’s true intentions, as when Joseph, in the attire of the governor of Egypt, takes care not to be recognized by his brothers. (Genesis 42:7) Still other times, the deceit arises out of a fear for safety, as when Abraham professes to the Egyptians that Sarah is his sister rather than his wife. (Genesis 12:12-13)

From the earliest passages of the Bible, in the story of Adam and Eve, clothing is associated with dishonesty. After disobeying God by eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they recognize their nakedness, sew together fig leaves and hide themselves. (Genesis 3:7-8) It is a thin line between clothing and costume, between dressing up and deception.


Biblical stories of deception often end badly, with negative consequences for those involved. Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden of Eden. When, at King Saul’s bidding, the soothsayer successfully raises the spirit of the prophet Samuel, the ghost foretells the king’s own death. The lies Abraham tells about Sarah result in a plague on the house of Pharaoh, that only end when Abraham admits who he really is. Esau is so infuriated by Jacob’s theft of the blessing that he vows to kill him; Jacob is forced to run for his life, never to see his mother again. Years later, his own children — in a well-known story — trick him into thinking that his most beloved son, Joseph, has been slain by wild animals.

Jacob worries whether he will be discovered as a fraud but never is concerned whether his actions are right or wrong, or with Esau’s feelings. Jacob’s trick is successful, but he, and his family, live and die with the consequences of his lie. Let us be more careful than Jacob and think not only whether our disguises will be effective but also of whom we may hurt when we wear them.
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