Eliezer Shemtov
Trying to make a difference

Do you prefer life sweet or spicy?

Parasha Tools

Toledot

Very often one feels bad – in spite of their varied and valuable achievements – because he or she feels they are being dishonest. “Yes, I know I did a favor to so-and-so, but I know myself and I don’t always act this way; I’m really a bad person.” Or “yes, I may be a good friend but I am a lousy son / father / husband / boss / father-in-law / son-in-law / brother”.

This attitude can deflate any self-esteem and motivation one may have, necessary for continuing to move forward in life. “It’s not worth doing good,” he thinks, “because I know myself and I know that sooner or later I will end up reverting to my true self. It’s not worth the effort.”

What can you tell someone that is so disillusioned by his or her own personal shortcomings?

An answer can be found in this week’s reading, Toledot [1], where we read about an episode that according to our sages contains the key to understanding the greatest conflict in human history: the inner struggle that most of us have.

The Torah tells us about the pregnancy of our matriarch Rebecca. She felt something strange about her pregnancy and went to look for G-d’s word to clarify her doubts about it. It turns out that every time she passed by a house of idolatry she felt as if the fetus wanted to push its way out and the same thing happened every time she passed by a house of Torah study. “What kind of schizophrenic am I carrying in my womb?,” she wondered.

The answer she received from the prophet, Shem, reassured her. “There are two nations in your womb; two powers will diverge from within you” [2]. She was not carrying a schizophrenic, hypocritical, or indecisive being, but two individuals, each subscribing to a different reality and struggling to make his preferred one prevail.

Indeed, when the twins were born, the first to come out, Esau, dedicated his life to hunting (of all sorts) while Jacob who came out second, clinging to the heel of his brother, devoted himself to the study of the Torah. One was devoted to an earthly, self-centered life and the other to a spiritual other-centered life.

According to the Chassidic teachings [3], each one of us is a battlefield where two different souls – one “animal” or vital and the other, G-dly – face off against each other. It is not necessarily a conflict between the desire to do good and the desire to do evil, but rather a struggle between thinking, speaking and acting according to materialistic and egocentric criteria and behaving according to spiritual and altruistic values. Sometimes one wins and sometimes the other wins. Inconsistencies in man are, therefore, not a symptom of hypocrisy or instability, but of the human condition the way it was designed to be. Man has two “antennas” that capture and respond to two opposing realities. He must choose which of the two opinions to follow.

“OK,” I hear you thinking, “you reassured me by telling me that this tension is not my fault and is not something to be ashamed of. But there seems to be no end in sight! Will I ever be able to eliminate my animal and egocentric instincts? And if not, what is the point of continuing to insist on a struggle that is relentless and endless?”

The answer lies in another verse from this week’s reading [4]. When Isaac wants to bless his son Esau, he asks him to prepare for him some “delicacies,” in the plural.

Jewish mystical teachings [5] understand this specific request from Isaac to his son to also represent our Heavenly Father’s request to His people: “Prepare me some delicacies.”

What does this mean?

In general, there are two types of delicacies: sweet and spicy. “Sweet food” represents the life and work of the Tzadik, the righteous individuals who have no need to fight their animal instincts as they have them totally eliminated. “Spicy food” represents the service of the Beinoni, the one who continually fights against his animal instincts, transforming them into spices that help produce a rich dish of sharp, spicy food.

There are two different, equally valid, life missions: 1) to be perfect; 2) to fight against one’s flaws. Sweet food might serve as dessert; main courses are usually not sweet, but spicy.

Life is not meant to be a cynical, endless, fight, without hope of an eventual victory over one’s instincts. Life is meant to be a constant struggle in which one can celebrate victory every time he or she does not give up and does not give in to think, speak or act according to one’s egocentric instincts.

So, this week’s tool is: do not get frustrated by the need to fight your instincts all the time; celebrate the fact that you still have what to fight for and have the power to do so.

1. Genesis 25:19-28:9
2. Ibid, 25:23
3. See Tania ch. 9
4. Genesis 27:4
5. See Tania Chap. 27

About the Author
Rabbi Eliezer Shemtov, born in in Brooklyn, NY in 1961. Received Smicha From Tomchei Temimim in 1984 and shortly after was sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, may his merit shield us, together with his wife Rachel to establish the first Beit Chabad in Montevideo, Uruguay and direct Chabad activities in that country. He has authored many articles on Judaism that have been published internationally. Since publishing his popular book on intermarriage, "Dear Rabbi, Why Can't I Marry Her?" he has authored several books in Spanish, English and Hebrew dealing with the challenges that the contemporary Jew has to deal with.
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