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The Modern Jew
By Yosef Y. Jacobson


Here is a parable from Chassidic tradition:

A long time ago, a man who had been wandering through a forest for several days, not knowing the right way out, found himself at nightfall enveloped in the darkness of the woods. He was alone, frightened, and lost. Suddenly he saw a glimmer of light in the distance. His heart grew lighter as he caught sight of a traveler carrying a lantern who was slowly approaching him.  

“Well, now I shall certainly find out which is the right way out,” he thought.  When the two travelers neared one another, he asked the man with the lantern, “Tell me, which is the right way out of the woods? I’ve been roaming about in this forest for several days.”  

The man with the lantern said to him, “My friend, I do not know the way out, for I too have been wandering about in this forest for many days.  But one thing I can tell you, do not take the way I came. That way is not the way, for it will lead you astray.” He said to his fellow traveler, “Let us look for a new way together.”  

The Blessings

Isaac grows old and his eyes become dim. He expresses his desire to bless his beloved son Esau before he dies. While Esau goes off to hunt for his father's favorite food, Rebecca – the mother -- dresses Jacob in Esau's clothes, covers his arms and neck with goatskins to simulate the feel of his hairier brother, prepares a similar dish and sends Jacob to his father with the food.

Jacob receives his father's blessings for "the dew of the heaven and the fat of the land" and mastery over his brother. Jacob, dressed in Esau's clothes, has taken Esau's blessing (1).

The absurdities of this story are numerous. One question cannot be ignored: Is this the proper way for a woman to behave, to contrive a scheme to outsmart her husband's planning? If Rebecca had a good reason as to why Esau was undeserving of his father's blessings, why couldn't she communicate it directly to Isaac? Why couldn't Rebecca "follow" the glorious old tradition of Jewish wives who commonly explain to their husbands how wrong they are?

Indeed, Rebecca had a good argument against granting the blessings to Esau, one that Isaac would certainly understand. The Bible attests that Jacob was "a wholesome man, a dweller of the tents of study," in contrast to his twin-brother Esau, who is described as a "skilled hunter, a man of the field (2)." Rebecca favors Jacob for good and just reasons. Esau -- the hunter, the man who "despised his birthright" and had sold it for a dish of lentils (3) -- was clearly a bodily and material human being, not destined to be the faithful follower of an invisible, transcendent G-d. The Abrahamic covenant must surely pass through Jacob, the "wholesome man, a dweller in the tents."

Jacob's descendants became the nation of Israel, who granted the world the vision of ethical monotheism; while Esau fathered the Edomite nation and ultimately the Roman civilization with its culture of ruthless power and great material achievement (4).

So why would Rebecca not share this insight with her husband, instead of manipulating the situation?

The Future

Much ink has been spilled on the subject (Cf. the essay “The Identity Crisis of the Jew”). Today, let me share with you a moving idea by one of the spiritual masters of Jewish thought (5).

Rebecca, he suggests, knew that Jacob’s grandchildren may one day strip themselves of their grandfather’s garments, and don the cloths of Esau. The matriarch of Israel was aware that the day will come when the Jew might be compelled to replace Jacob’s dress with Esau’s: Inside he will be Jewish, but on the outside he will seek to appear and project like Esau.

Rebecca understood – as only a mother could understand – the confusion and ambivalence that will most certainly consume her descendants following thousands of years of a tumultuous history, singular in the annals of any people. Rebecca, in short, keenly grasped the identity crisis of the Jew in the modern era.

The Jew in the modern era has not found a way out of the forest of confusion that might lead him to a clearly patterned life of Jewish living and commitment. He does not know what kind of Jew to be. He has not decided what kind of synagogue he should belong to – Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructions, Renewal, Chasidic, or any at all. He is not certain whether he wants his children to receive an intense Jewish education, a “light” Jewish education, or no Jewish education at all. He has not made up his mind whether the people of Israel are really a chosen people, or if the Bible is, indeed, the word of G-d; and he is not sure how Jewish he should be: Should he accept Sabbath and Kosher, or should he stick to Yom Kippur and Hanukkah? Should he be perturbed if his children intermarry, or should he embrace it?

In our era, many a Jew is not sure weather he is Jacob or Esau. Even more: he is not sure if there is difference between the brothers. From the perspective of their “garments,” viewing themselves externally, Jacob and Esau are identical: They eat the same, enjoy life the same, struggle to make money just the same, and feel the same in so many ways.       

Rebecca could have persuaded her husband to grant the blessings directly and straightforwardly to Jacob. But then, these powerful spiritual energies would have been transmitted to the Jacob of old, the Jacob who looked like Jacob from within and without; the wholesome Jacob, the dweller in tents. How about – thought Mother Rebecca – the Jacob who would one day in history become entrenched in the glittering embrace of secularism, and appear like Esau, would he or she be lost to the blessing? Would he or she become disconnected from our people?

Rebecca knew the answer: No! They too needed to receive the blessing; they needed it even more than the Jacob who was dressed like Jacob. Even the Jacob who looks just like Esau is an integral part of the covenant, of the legacy of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  

No Background?

A story:

One of the most extraordinary philanthropists in the Jewish world today is George Rohr from New York City. Mr. Rohr once met the Lubavitcher Rebbe on one occasion just after Rosh Hashanah. George thought it appropriate to present the Rebbe with a “spiritual” gift. For that Rosh Hashanah he set up a “beginners” service at his synagogue, the KJ synagogue, in Manhattan, and on Rosh Hashanah 120 unaffiliated Jews attended this new service. Mr. Rohr decided to announce this to the Rebbe and was sure the Rebbe would receive much delight from this good news. When his turn arrived, he confidently strode up to the Rebbe and said, “Thank G–d, this Rosh Hashanah we set up a beginners service in our shul and had 120 Jews with no Jewish background participate!”

Until that point the Rebbe had a broad smile on his face, but when Mr. Rohr told him the news, the Rebbe’s face dropped, and Mr. Rohr searched his words for anything he may have said that had upset the Rebbe.

“What?!” said the Rebbe.

George repeated, “…120 Jews with no Jewish background.”

“No Jewish background?” asked the Rebbe. “Go and tell those Jews that they are all children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob…”

The moment Rebecca dressed her son Jacob in Esau’s clothes to receive Isaac’s blessings, she insured that the spark of Judaism, the essence of the Jewish soul, the fountain of Jewish faith, would remain embedded in the hear of every single Jew forever, even the Jew that so many others dismiss as merely an Esau. We must hold hands with each other hand and search to rediscover our lost path.


1) Genesis ch. 27.
2) Ibid. 25:27. 3) ibid. 25:34. 4) Esau lived in the ancient country of Edom, or Idumaea, southeast of Israel. The relationship between Edom and Rome is a frequent theme in rabbinic literature and explained in Otzar Yisrael (Eisenstein), under the entry of Edom. 5) Chedushei Harim Parshas Toldos, by the first Gerer Rebbe, Rabbi Yitzchok Meir of Ger.

Posted on December 26, 2006
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