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Parshat Toledot Esau

11/09/2018 07:56:34 AM



In Parshat Toledot Esau sells his birthright to Jacob for food when he is “dying” of hunger.  Then later Jacob also gets the blessing of the firstborn by tricking his father with his mother’s help.  These two things together seem to be an inheritance which is irretrievably lost to Esau.  He is effectively disinherited.

Esau becomes part of the line of Ishmael – marrying one of his daughters.  Jacob marries into the Abrahamic side of the family.  As Jacob never receives a material inheritance from Isaac that we know of, the birthright is transformed into the right for one’s children to be God’s people.  As father of the 12 tribes, Jacob, whose name is changed to Israel, is truly the father of the Children of Israel, as our people are referred to for the rest of the Torah. 

Can a birthright be lost?  Not really.  No matter how much one renounces one’s family, one’s inheritance, one’s religion of origin, it is always part of the self, the memories are stored in the brain.  The learning structures of the brain, the communication skills, the emotional personality are all formed in childhood.  These neurological structures remain part of us.

Judaism is our birthright/or inheritance, whether or not we are born to a Jewish mother.  We all have a relationship to that birthright – probably a complicated one!  Being born of a Jewish mother bestows the birthright easily – although it must be confirmed by b’rit milah and/or naming under the Covenant. 

We all accept, reject or ignore parts of the birthright.  Yes, even an Orthodox Jew born into an ultra-observant home does not observe all 613 commandments – some require sacrifice in the Temple, which no longer exists, for example.  Orthodox Jews do not spend their lives atoning for the sin of not fulfilling these commandments.  They ignore what they are unable to fulfill.  For those of us who follow Judaism outside of the Orthodox framework – what is called liberal or progressive Judaism – including Conservative, Reform, secular, humanistic, etc….we make many choices about what part of the birthright we will accept or follow.

It is a feature of human psychology that we tend to take for granted that which is given to us.  Those things we have to work for have more value.  This is the source of the paradox of the convert – the person who converts to Judaism often is more actively involved in pursuing religious observance and knowledge than someone born into the faith.  It is logical, though.  Someone who has to work for the birthright in the first place also works to keep it. 

Not everyone knows that it is possible to lose the Jewish birthright under Jewish law, or Halachah.  If a Jewish mother renounces Judaism and actively converts to another religion and practices it, her children are required to go through a modified conversion ceremony if they want to be considered Jews.  It is not enough just to have been born of a mother who was Jewish at the time. 

However, unlike our ancestors, we can recover a lost birthright.  It is not ever irrevocably lost.  This was the genius of the Rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud who invented the religion of “Judaism” as we know it.  They were the architects of the process of Teshuvah that we follow at the High Holy Days – which is predicated on the idea that God is always waiting for us to return, and is prepared to forgive and restore us to our former relationship.  Teshuvah was not available to our matriarchs and patriarchs – their losses were much more profound.  Our birthright is always recoverable.  All we have to do is reach for it.

Sun, July 21 2019 18 Tammuz 5779