Author Archives: Gary Rubin

About Gary Rubin

Gary Rubin was the former Managing Director of UJA-Federation's Commission on the Jewish People. He died suddenly in April 2003.

Overcoming Destiny

Provided by the UJA-Federation of New York, which cares for those in need, strengthens Jewish peoplehood, and fosters Jewish renaissance.The following article is reprinted with permission from the UJA-Federation of New York.

The Torah portion of Toldot, which begins,"And these are the generations of Isaac, son of Abraham,"(Genesis 25:19) explores the meaning of human experience as the Biblical story passes from one generation to the next. This reading tells the story of the birth of Jacob and Esau, their struggle for dominance over each other, and the ultimate selection of Jacob as the Patriarch through whom Jewish destiny will be transmitted. It also offers two distinct theories of history, indicating different approaches on how humans should conduct themselves in the face of momentous choices.

Defining Fate

The first theory of history is that human destiny is controlled by iron fate. We are born with a certain character, follow its dictates throughout our lives, and die without fundamentally changing our nature or, by extension, our effect on others. In this approach, our life course is set from the moment we enter this world.

The Torah conveys this view of history in its descriptions and explanations of names. The names that people are given at birth determine their character for their entire lives.

At the beginning of Toldot, we are told, "The first one emerged [from the womb] red, like a hairy mantle all over, so they named him Esau" (meaning "hairy" or "rough") (Genesis 25:25). Indeed, as long as he lives, Esau will reaffirm this birth experience by acting wildly, roughly, ruled by passion and emotion.

His brother arrives hanging on to Esau’s heel (25:26), and so receives the name Jacob, derived from the Hebrew for "heel." This name signals that Jacob’s whole life (and, according to Rabbinic interpretation, the lives of his descendants) will be consumed by a struggle for dominance over his brother.

Moreover, the name Jacob has another meaning, as Esau makes clear after his younger brother preceded him to Isaac and received his blessing. "That is why they called him Jacob," Esau says in 27:36, meaning "sneak" (Everett Fox’s translation), charging that his brother has stolen both his birthright and his blessing. Esau is asserting here that Jacob must act like a sneak since that is the Hebrew root of his very name. In other words, Jacob’s actions mirror his personality that was destined since his naming at birth. In fact, later on in Genesis, the narrative will again highlight these qualities in Jacob’s confrontation with Laban.

The Torah states this fateful view of history most clearly in the first confrontation between Jacob and Esau. Esau, the man of the wild, arrives home to find the domesticated Jacob cooking a lentil stew whose color is red. The Torah relates Esau’s demand as follows: "And he said ‘Give me some of this red red, because I am tired;’ therefore they called his name Red."

The Meaning of a Name

The appellation for "Red" in this sentence, Edom, becomes the name of a nation at war with Israel throughout the Bible and later Rabbinic literature. Again we see that the stress is on ironclad destiny; Esau’s name is red, therefore he must act wildly and violently.

Does the Torah abandon us to this rigid view of history in which we are condemned to follow character traits impressed on us at birth? That there is an alternative approach is the major point of the second great story of Toldot, that of Isaac’s blessing of Jacob.

Isaac at first wants to confer the fateful blessing that will decide the future of Jewish history on Esau, his first born. Doing so would have reinforced the notion that fate is determined at birth. Since Esau is the first-born, he by nature receives the primary blessing.

But the Torah narrative overrides natural history and shifts the blessing to the younger son, Jacob. Thus, the seemingly ironclad rule of destiny as represented in primogeniture is shattered when Jacob and his mother Rebekah, acting on their sense of moral right, demonstrate that human action can defeat rigid fate. The story of Jacob’s blessing is an affirmation of the freedom of humans to act in the world according to their sense of right and justice and not be bound by seemingly natural laws like the privilege of the first born.

Women Altering Fate

This principle of the superiority of human freedom over blind fate is critical to the Torah, and it is repeated throughout Genesis. The younger son is favored over the elder in both the first set of brothers we meet in the text, Cain and Abel, and the last set, Ephraim and Menashe. This point is emphasized in Toldot though the juxtaposition of the theory of free history and the theory of unyielding destiny.

It is no accident that the chief orchestrator of the story of the blessing is a woman, the Matriarch Rebekah. Frequently, when the Bible wants to shatter a pattern, it is a woman who will step forward to discard the old and champion innovative thinking. Thus, Sarah overrides Abraham’s clinging to primogeniture and insists that Ishmael leave the house so that Isaac can assume the mantle of Jewish leadership.

Later in the Bible, Hannah dismisses the advice of her husband, Elkanah, to be satisfied with her childless lot and prays for a son. The result is the birth of Samuel, the great prophet and reluctant innovator of kingship in Israel. Ruth punctures the Biblical prohibition against members of the nation of Moab entering into marriage with Jews; her descendents include Israel’s greatest king, David.

Overcoming the Ordinary

In each of these instances, the normal male-dominated world of the Bible is shaken by the emergence of a female who, through her decisive action, represents that everyday assumptions about the world can be broken by humans acting with a sense of purpose and justice.

The Bible places these two theories of history side-by-side. Both govern human behavior. In most cases, humans will follow natural rules such as primogeniture or make little effort to alter their basic characters. But Toldot teaches that we need not be constrained by rigid rules or personal habits. Like Jacob and the women of the Bible, we have the capacity to overcome the ordinary, achieve greatness and change the world.

The Duality And Unpredictability Of Human Nature

The following article is reprinted with permission from the UJA-Federation of New York.

Why are we so fascinated, year after year, by the story of Genesis? While many of us have read the Creation saga since childhood and revisit it annually as the cycle of Torah readings begins anew, we eagerly return to the same episodes. Perhaps this is because, as a new year gets under way, we don’t know how our lives will evolve — and that is the very point of this story.

The Torah’s second sentence describes God’s spirit as “hovering” over the waters. As Everett Fox notes in his superb translation, we can learn the meaning of “hover” from a sentence near the Torah’s end, when Moses presents his poem to the People of Israel just before his death. There, he describes an eagle rousing her young out of their nest and “hovering” over them as they seek to take wing (Deuteronomy 32:11).

The fate of our children is unknown as we guide them out of our homes and toward taking responsibility for themselves in the world they will inherit as adults. We do our best to prepare them for an independent life, but like the biblical eagle, we can at best “hover” near them, giving them the space they need to strike out on their own. Similarly, at the very beginning of the Creation story, we learn that God’s character is to “hover” over the earth, imparting His values, but forever unsure how his creatures will act when given independence. Before Genesis is over, we’ll read many examples of people who both fulfilled and confounded His hopes. Uncertainty is built into the very structure of the world.

Modern commentators have emphasized the fundamental unpredictability of the apex of God’s creation, human beings. In his commentary on Genesis 2, the revered Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik masterfully suggested the ambiguous nature of human beings. He notes that verse 8 describes God as “placing” Adam into the Garden of Eden to enjoy its pleasures, which focuses on the passive and hedonistic consumption of the natural environment. In contrast, verse 15 repeats the placement of Adam in the Garden, but he is now “taken” to Eden and given the task, “to cultivate it and to keep it.”

The emphasis here is no longer on pleasure, but on commandment. God has actively taken Adam out of a state of complacency and conferred on him responsibility. The human being is now a meaningful actor, controlling the environment, not just existing within it. To these two dimensions a third is immediately added, for just three verses later, God creates Eve to be a “fitting helper opposite him.” Humans do not simply relate to their surroundings; they are fundamentally social beings, requiring mates. But as the Torah shrewdly notes, the nature of a “mate” is ambiguous. She (or he) is a “helper,” but also “opposite,” the Hebrew kenegdo being derived from the word meaning “different” or “against.”

In commenting on only 10 verses, Soloveitchik brilliantly explicates the Torah’s view of the variability of human nature. The very varying descriptions of Adam and Eve, the primal man and woman, aren’t mutually exclusive. Human beings are both individual and social, competitive and cooperative, hedonistic and hard-working, controlling and influenced by others. Genesis stresses our ambiguous and unpredictable nature.

A similar theme emerges in Avivah Zornberg’s insightful commentary on the first book of the Torah. She notes that God created humans at a unique “pivoting point.” Animal life is essentially horizontal, driven to spread out over the earth; it’s romesset, or “crawling” (1:21), moving out in groups or herds, controlled by instinct. But while humans also are commanded to “fill the earth” (1:28), their essential posture is God-like, for they stand erect or vertical, in a commanding position.

God directs Adam both to proliferate and to rule. He is the only creature to be simultaneously horizontal and vertical, meaning that he is fundamentally capable of animalistic debauchery or of high moral achievement. Humans are created to be ambiguous, with no hint of whether their lives will produce disaster or greatness.

Anything is Possible

Genesis 4, the story of Cain and Abel, also expresses this ambiguity. This episode begins the longest sustained theme in the Bible: the triumph of the younger brother over the older. It recurs in the stories of Ishmael and Isaac; Esau and Jacob; Reuben and Judah; Joseph and his brothers; and Ephraim and Menasheh. Beyond Genesis, it’s found in the fact that leadership is conferred on the younger Moses, not the older Aaron, and that King David is the youngest among his brothers.

By frequently repeating this theme, the Torah clearly meant to convey a powerful message. Primogeniture, the primacy of the first-born, was an “iron rule” in the ancient world. The eldest son was thought naturally to merit leadership and to be entitled to an enhanced inheritance. The victory of biblical younger sons, who are depicted as wiser and more righteous than their elders, is meant to demonstrate that humans can shatter nature’s seemingly ironclad laws through purposeful action. They can shape history to overcome the limitations of the natural world.

This lesson only can be conveyed in a world in which primogeniture is the norm. The triumph of the younger in these stories is remarkable because the dominance of the elder is the usual experience. Here again, the Torah stresses the essential duality of human nature: we’re usually ruled by nature and submit to its imperatives, but also can shape our own futures through acts of will and intelligence. From its very beginning, the Torah sets forth both possibilities. How we turn out is largely up to each of us.

So no matter how many times we’ve read Genesis before, we keep returning to it, for we still don’t know the ending of the story.