The Spiritual Cosmopolitan: Can You Be Religious and Worldly?

 

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“Isaac loved Esav…but Rebecca loved Jacob.” (Genesis 25:28)

It’s not difficult to understand why Rebecca loved Jacob. He was a parent’s dream child, studious and pure. Trying to understand why Isaac loved Esav though, is a bit more complicated. The reason the Torah gives for Isaac’s love for Esav is: “ki tzayid b’fiv” – that he trapped him with his mouth, referring to the venison Esav would bring his father to eat. The Midrash says “ki tzayid b’fiv” refers to Esav’s deceiving of his father with his mouth, asking Isaac how he should tithe salt and straw, which does not require tithing.  Thus, Yitzchak’s love for Esav was prompted either by the food Esav hunted for him, or Isaac was deceived into thinking his son was more religiously committed.

The classic psychological approach is that opposites attract. Isaac, who was raised in the spiritually pure home of Abraham, is attracted to the more aggressive and physically-based son Esav, whereas Rebecca, who comes from the more materially based home of Betuel and Lavan, is drawn to her spiritual and pure son, Jacob.

Years ago, I heard a very different approach with a completely different take on Esav. The Torah refers to Esav as an “ish yodea tzayid” – “a man who knows how to hunt”, but also as an “ish sadeh” – a “man of the field”. That phrase could be understood as someone comfortable navigating the material world, in contrast to Jacob who the Torah calls “yoshev ohalim”—one who remained inside his tent and studied. Perhaps this is what Isaac came to love in Esav and believed was vital for Jewish leadership: Esav was not simply a hunter but someone who could also manage the outside world, a quality Isaac understood would be necessary to share his father’s tradition of monotheism with humankind. Only having the knowledge and piety – what Jacob represented, without the ability to deal to relate those principles to the outside world would just not cut it.

This approach to Jacob and Esav may help us understand Isaac’s love for Esav and Rivka’s favoring of Jacob, and ultimately who should receive the birthright blessing. Isaac and Rebecca may have disagreed as to whether it would be better to take a spiritual personality like Jacob and imbue him with the worldliness needed to spread Judaism, or work with Esav, “the man of the field”, and infuse him with the Torah values he lacked. Like other disagreements between our Patriarchs and Matriarchs, it was Rebecca’s approach that was ultimately accepted: only a Torah personality like Jacob could receive the blessings and lead the Jewish people. The worldliness would then just have to be learned.

But still, this division between a Torah or spiritual personality on one hand, and a worldly one on the other remained intact until Joseph came on the scene. For Joseph, by his own life example, taught that one could live as a Jew, committed to their spiritual tradition and at the same time be a player in the “real” world, as Joseph himself became viceroy of Egypt.  Joseph represented both the “Ish Tam” – the man of purity (Jacob) and the “Ish Sadeh” – the man of the field (Esav) – a Torah Jew who could also play the field. And he did it well, rising to the heights of political leadership, while at the same time maintaining a strong Jewish identity. Our Sages teach that Joseph carried the image of his father Jacob and proclaiming God’s name in polytheistic Egypt.

This unique approach to Isaac’s love for Esav helps explain something curious which takes place later in Parshat Vayishlach: When Jacob finally meets up with Esav after all those years of running, the Torah in describing this dramatic encounter between the two brothers, tells us that Jacob placed his many children behind their respective mothers. When Esav approached, the mothers came first, protecting their young who followed behind. “Then the handmaids came forward – they and their children and they bowed down. Leah too came forward with her children and they bowed down”. (Genesis 33: 6,7).  Afterward, the Torah says that Joseph and his mother Rachel came forward and bowed: “Joseph and Rachel came forward” (Ibid).  As Rashi points out, each mother walked before their respective children, protecting their children except for Rachel and Yosef. Unlike the others, Joseph walked first with his mother behind him, which is even more dramatic considering Joseph was the youngest. Unlike the others, Joseph was able to stand in front of his mother and confront Esav face to face. Because until Joseph came on the scene, Esav lay snug in the idea that to be a worldly personality, you couldn’t also carry the mantle of Torah. Joseph’s life would one day prove Esav wrong. Joseph’s life would demonstrate that there not be a split between a religiously devout individual and a sophisticated person of the world.

The verse in the prophets tells us: “And the house of Jacob shall be fire, the house of Joseph flame and the house of Esav for stubble” (Ovadia 1:18). Based on this verse the Radak wrote that the seed of Esav will fall only to the hands of Joseph. It was only Joseph who carried on the purity and “dweller of tents” character of Jacob as well as being the “man of the field” qualities of Esav that could stare Esav down and provide the greatest lesson to all of us living as Jews in the modern world. The lesson is that one can participate in and contribute to the greater society and remain committed to ones’ Torah tradition. It may not always be simple or easy. We may face challenges in trying to synthesize these two worlds, but the life of Joseph teaches it can be done.

I recently shared this message with my students at MJE since Shabbat begins earlier these days. Those not raised in Shabbat observance, but who are starting down that noble path, are challenged with the issue of leaving work early on Fridays. Making that change may appear to hinder our ability to excel in the outside world. It may give the impression to our colleagues that we consider something more important than our work. But Joseph taught us that if we are proud of who we are, and we are good at what we do, ultimately, we will garner even more respect from others. The biggest evidence of this is found right here in New York City with doctors, lawyers, people in business and finance, teachers, and social workers, who are both Sabbath observant and respected in their professions. Recently, I had a meeting with a prospective donor in his midtown office. I asked him if he knew of a Mincha prayer service that I could join, and he brought me to another office in the same building. Within five minutes a dozen associates filed into the office, other partners and associates from this very prestigious law firm who took a few minutes out of their busy day to pray. These were successful people in their field but also devoted to their Jewish tradition.

Years ago, when my son Yosef was in elementary school, he got hit with a ball so hard I had to run him over to his pediatrician, a highly regarded physician who greeted us with a big “Shabbat Shalom”. After examining my son, the doctor explained all the intricacies of a concussion and instructed me to call her on Shabbat if certain symptoms reappeared. I took her instructions seriously, not only because she is an excellent doctor, but also because I know how seriously she, an observant Jew, regards the Sabbath.

We live in a culture that generally respects religious observance, and we are appreciated that much more when we have a lifestyle and a code of ethics to which we adhere. I am not suggesting we wear our religion on our sleeves. That is never helpful. But when we remain true to who we are and we share our uniquely Jewish perspective, we bring more than just the product or service to our clients, patients, or customers. We bring a sense of integrity and a value system that has stood the test of time, sharing some of the light of our Torah to where it is needed most. There are sometimes conflicts, but we only need to look back to Joseph for some guidance and inspiration.

Shabbat Shalom

About the Author
Rabbi Mark Wildes, known as The Urban Millennials' Rabbi, founded Manhattan Jewish Experience (MJE) in 1998. Since then, he has become one of America’s most inspirational and dynamic Jewish educators. Rabbi Wildes holds a BA in Psychology from Yeshiva University, a JD from the Cardozo School of Law, a Masters in International Affairs from Columbia University and was ordained from Yeshiva University. Rabbi Mark & his wife Jill and their children Yosef, Ezra, Judah and Avigayil live on the Upper West Side where they maintain a warm and welcoming home for all.
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