Toldot - Strength of a Thousand Men By Rabbi Eli Birnbaum

November 15th 2017



Coca-Cola isn’t kosher.

That was the discovery made in 1933 by Rabbi Tobias Geffen, leader of the small Orthodox community in Atlanta Georgia (1910-1970). Based near the company headquarters, Rabbi Geffen soon found himself swamped by a stream of letters from across the country inquiring as to the kashrut status of what was rapidly becoming the nation’s favourite drink.

As the storm clouds gathered over Europe, Rabbi Geffen emerged as a hero of the day as he successfully convinced[1] the company to substitute its non-kosher animal-derived glycerine for a vegetable-derived equivalent. “The best friend thirst ever had” could finally be enjoyed by Jews from the ‘Brooklyn Bible Belt’ throughout the year and even on Passover.

What many of you will have ‘clocked’ by now is the fact that in order to certify the product, Rabbi Geffen needed to examine the full list of ingredients, including Coca-Cola’s legendary ‘secret formula’. Rumours abound as to how he managed this, including theories that he was shown a vast list of ingredients – but only some of them were actually components of the formula, to the slightly less far-fetched argument that he was locked in a soundproof room with Santa’s team of lawyer-elves and made to sign multiple documents swearing absolute secrecy.

In any event, the most carefully-guarded secret in the history of carbonated beverages was revealed. To a humble Jew in Georgia.

In this week’s portion, we read about the birth of Jacob and Esau[2]. The prelude to their birth is deeply complicated. Rebecca, unaware that she is carrying twins, is concerned about the excessive movement within her womb. She resolves to seek guidance from a Prophet of God, a form of ultrasound probably not covered on the NHS. The prophet, identified by the commentaries[3] as Shem, son of Noach, informs her of profound portents regarding her offspring:

“Two nations are in your womb, and two regimes will separate from your innards. Each nation shall draw on the other for its strength, but the mighty will serve the younger.” (Genesis 25:23)

Shem’s prophecy – echoed millennia later by J.K Rowling[4] - is striking for its complexity. Instead of waving away Rebecca’s concerns with a simple ‘Congratulations, it’s twins’, he more than adds to them by painting a stark picture of offspring destined to be locked in a never-ending battle for primacy, trapped in a spiral of fate wherein the ‘stronger’ paradoxically serves the ‘younger’. The ambiguity is torturous. Either way, these two children will shape the future of humanity for better or for worse. One will carry the mantle of material prowess, the other the crest of spiritual perfection[5].

A question that further troubles the commentaries is the acutely troubling episode later on in this week’s portion when Jacob seemingly deceives his father – at Rebecca’s behest! – to con him out of making Esau the Chosen Nation!

“Now Rebecca was listening as Isaac spoke to Esau his son…so Rebecca said to Jacob her son…’listen to me my child, to that which I will command you. Go to the flock and bring me two young goats, and I will prepare a delicious meal for your father, as I know he loves. Then bring the meal to your father and he will eat, so that he will bless you before he dies’.” (Genesis 27:6-10).

As the children grew up, it became clear that Esau was the ‘mighty’ referred to in the prophecy, which meant that his younger brother Jacob was destined to ‘rule’ over him; despite being relatively weak. Yonatan ben Uziel[6] explains that the ‘servitude’ in question was the concept that Esau’s material and physical aptitude would serve to forge a civilised, technologically developed world wherein Jacob would have the time and space to nurture the planet’s spiritual wellbeing. These twins were to be the pillars upon which society rested, each one “drawing strength from the other” as they worked hand in hand towards global perfection.

But Esau careened drastically off the rails. In an infamous showdown, he sold his birth-right; his claim to the material world, for a humble bowl of soup. The Torah’s unique choice of verb, “and Esau spurned the birth-right” rather than the more logical “and Esau sold the birth-right” indicates that its sale meant nothing to him[7]. At that moment, he chose a life of hedonism and instant gratification over the long-haul slog that 400 years in Egypt followed by millennia wandering the four corners of the globe would entail.

But Isaac didn’t know that. How and why he was so easily duped by his firstborn son is a discussion for another time, but as he lay there, old and blind and prepared to bestow the blessings of eternity on Esau, Rebecca realised a terrible truth…

Isaac was completely unaware of the prophecy she had received from Shem[8]. Despite being a greater prophet than Shem and therefore presumably well-informed of the crucial message “the mighty shall serve the younger”, Isaac was – figuratively and literally – blind to this fact.

And so, with the future of the Jewish People resting solely[9] in her hands, Rebecca made a choice. Confused, perplexed and utterly at a loss to explain her husband’s obliviousness to his eldest son’s hidden vice and youngest son’s hidden greatness, Rebecca makes a decision whose consequences she will silently bear for the rest of her life. She sets into motion the events that would lead to Jacob receiving the primary blessing, and with it – infinite responsibility.

You see, Rebecca’s parting words to her beloved Jacob as he prepares to flee the wrath of his mightier brother are hauntingly poignant:

“And now my son, hearken to my voice: flee for your life to Laban my brother in Charan! Stay with him for as long as it takes, until your brother’s anger subsides and he forgets what you have done to him. Then I will send for you and bring you back from there. Why should I lose you both on one day!” (Genesis 27:43-45).

Esau’s anger does subside. He may not forgive or forget, but reconciliation is palpable[10].  

Tragically, Rebecca dies before she can see her decision come to fruition. Unlike every other Patriarch or Matriarch, her death is concealed[11], hidden in silence like the painful secret she carried with her from the days of her pregnancy into the cold embrace of the unknown. What became of Jacob in my brother’s house? Did he transcend the idolatrous decadence there and cleave to the spiritual sensitivity I saw; the sensitivity my illustrious husband was blind to? And what will become of his relationship with my eldest child? Will Esau ever truly forgive him? And if not, will Jacob succumb to the millennia of exiles, inquisitions and holocausts destined to haunt his offspring?

Rebecca took these questions, along with the secret truth she had carried in her heart for almost a century[12], to the grave. Rebecca lived her life with a quiet dignity. But the decisions she made, and the conviction needed to stick to them despite being battered by confusion, uncertainty and the burden of human destiny on her shoulders, goes beyond what we would consider extraordinary. She lived with the strength of a thousand men.

 



[2] Genesis 25:24-28

[3] Rashi to 25:22

[4]‘The Prophecy of Professor Trelawney’, Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix, 2003.

[5] See Me’am Loez to Genesis 33:12. This idea is echoed further in the Torah’s description of the two boys: Esau is an ‘expert hunter, a man of the field’, whereas Jacob is a ‘wholesome man, meditating in the tents of study’ (Genesis 25:27)

[6] Genesis 25:23

[7] Seforno to Genesis 25:34

[8] The following is based on the Ramban to Genesis 27:6

[9] Shem died roughly 10 years before the episode of the blessings, hence the prophecy couldn’t be corroborated.

[10] Genesis 33:1-17

[11] See Rashi to Genesis 35:8

[12] Rebecca was 43 when she conceived and received the prophecy. She was 133 when she died. 

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