Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Brilliance of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Daniel pointed me to the works of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

The man is brilliant. This is literary Torah.

These are definitely the most original ideas I've read in a long time; his thoughts are elegantly presented and he utilizes many sources, including those that are secular in nature. Well-read, obviously cultured and extremely polished, it is a pleasure to read what he writes.

The best way to prove it to you is to give you an example.

The majority of us have always been taught that Jacob was correct in deceiving his father in order to receive the blessings. This has never sat well with me, as I prefer honesty to trickery. Comes Rabbi Sacks and explains:

    One thing stands out about the first phase in Jacob’s life. He longs to be Esau – more specifically, he desires to occupy Esau’s place. He struggles with him in the womb. He is born holding on to Esau’s heel (this is what gives him the name Jacob , “heel-grasper”). He buys Esau’s birthright. He dresses in Esau’s clothes. He takes Esau’s blessing. When the blind Isaac asks him who he is, he replies, “I am Esau, your firstborn.”

    Why? The answer seems clear. Esau is everything Jacob is not. He is the firstborn. He emerges from the womb red and covered in hair (Esau means “fully made”). He is strong, full of energy, a skilled hunter, “a man of the fields.” More importantly, he has his father’s love. Esau is homo naturalis , a man of nature. He knows that homo homini lupus est , “man is wolf to man.” He has the strength and skill to fight and win in the Darwinian struggle to survive and the Hobbesian war of “all against all.” These are his natural battle-grounds and he relishes the contest.

    Esau is the archetypal hero of a hundred myths and legends of the ancient world (and of action movies today). He is not without dignity, nor does he lack human feelings. His love for his father Isaac is genuine and touching. The midrash, for sound educational reasons, turned Esau into a bad man. The Torah itself is altogether more subtle and profound. Esau is not a bad man; he is a natural man, celebrating the Homeric virtues and the Nietzschean will to power.

    It is not surprising that Jacob’s first desire was to be like him. That is the face he first saw in the mirror of his imagination, the face he presented to the blind Isaac when he came to take the blessing. But the face was not the face of Jacob , any more than were the hands.

    Nor was the blessing he took the one that was destined for him. The true blessing was the one he received later when Isaac knew he was blessing Jacob , not thinking him to be Esau.

    Jacob’s blessing had nothing to do with wealth or power. It had to do with children and a land – children he would instruct in the ways of the covenant and a land in which his descendants would strive to construct a covenantal society based on justice and compassion, law and love. To receive that blessing Jacob did not have to dress in Esau’s clothes. Instead he had to be himself, not a man of nature but a person whose ears were attuned to a voice beyond nature, the call of the Author of all to be true to that which cannot be bought by wealth or controlled by power, namely, the human spirit as the breath of G-d and human dignity as the image of G-d. [emph mine]
In a dazzling display of literary brilliance, Rabbi Sacks zeroes in on the words Jacob uses when he meets Esau for the second time:
    יא קַח-נָא אֶת-בִּרְכָתִי אֲשֶׁר הֻבָאת לָךְ, כִּי-חַנַּנִי אֱלֹהִים וְכִי יֶשׁ-לִי-כֹל; וַיִּפְצַר-בּוֹ, וַיִּקָּח.

    11 Take, I pray thee, my blessing that is brought to thee; because God hath dealt graciously with me, and because I have enough.' And he urged him, and he took it. (Genesis 33:11)
What does Jacob mean, take my blessing?

Answers Rabbi Sacks:
    It should now be clear exactly what Jacob was doing when he met Esau twenty-two years later. He was giving back the blessing he had taken all those years before . The herds and flocks he sent to Esau represented wealth (“the dew of heaven and the richness of the earth”). The sevenfold bowing and calling himself “your servant” and Esau “my lord” represented power (“Be lord over your brothers, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you”). Jacob no longer wanted or needed these things (“I have everything” – meaning, “I no longer need either wealth or power to be complete”). He is explicit. He says, “Please take (not just “my gift” but also) “my blessing.” He now knows the blessing he took from Esau was never meant for him, and he is returning it.
Sheer and utter literary genius.

In one beautiful moment, everything falls into place. Jacob is someone who has to struggle to determine his identity; if he dons the mask of Esau, does that make him Esau? No, it does not. He has to accept the fact that he is who he is and that he is not his brother and then he must make amends, give back what he has stolen.

This is brilliance.

To read the full dvar Torah, please click here for the PDF file or access Rabbi Sacks' website, go to years 2003-2004 and click Vayishlach.


Anonymous said...

There is a Migadim article that says something similar, but with less flowerly language and more rigorous analysis of the pesukim. I don't have it in front of me, but it must be from 10 to 15 years ago. IIRC, Migadim journals are now available via the hebrew Gush site.

Juggling Frogs said...

His hagadah is fantastic, too.

I ordered and received his siddur a month ago. The lucidity of his English translation of the tefilot and the commentary is stunning. I switched to it as my daily siddur.

(I had been using the previous siddur by another publisher for 20+ years. As an American, davening for the royal family of England isn't a priority, but the siddur is a joy to use. The typeset is elegant and beautiful, too. It has quomatz hakatan and gadol as two distinct characters, which is as useful to me as a pocket-knife: I didn't know I needed it until I had it, and then found it indispensable.)

I had the privilege of hearing him speak at our school a few years ago, just as "Dignity of Difference" was published.

What a treat! He was just as engaging and compelling in person as he is in print.