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Finding Our Voice


Shabbat Toldot 5778 | November 18, 2017
I have to admit. Preparing to speak with you on Shabbat each week, sometimes I feel like a local broadcast news anchor. I often refer to the too numerous calamities and tragedies we monitor from the comfort of our homes and synagogue seats. I do so not to upset us but to learn from Torah Jewish values to guide our responses and understandings. That was not my plan for this week, until I read the following in the Times of Israel.
Prime Minister Netanyahu addressed by videoconference the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in Los Angeles this week. Something he said touched me.
“I just saw the pictures of the destruction in Iran and Iraq from this week’s earthquake. And I saw these heartbreaking images of men and women and children buried under the rubble. So, I am proud to announce tonight that a few hours ago I directed that we offer the Red Cross medical assistance for the Iraqi and Iranian victims of this disaster.”
The Prime Minister continues. “I’ve said many times that we have no quarrel with the people of Iran. Our quarrel is only with the tyrannical regime that holds them hostage and threatens our destruction. But our humanity is greater than their hatred. Israel continues to be a light unto the nations and this is what I am proud of. And all of you can be proud of Israel’s morals, and Israel’s might.”
The ethics of the Prime Minister’s statement reflects proper regard for all human beings. It may be necessary to oppose a neighbor who seeks to harm you. It is never right to disavow yourself of another person’s humanity. Isn’t this often our complaint when enemies deny the basic fact of our humanity as Jews and Israelis?
I congratulate the Prime Minister and the Government of Israel for this just act. I also regret letting you know Israel’s offer of aid to the earthquake victims was immediately turned down by the Iranian regime.
Inside Israel, however, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s announcement received praise. Yair Lapid, head of the opposition Yesh Atid party noted, “Netanyahu did well to offer assistance for those affected by the earthquake in Iran and Iraq. The Jewish people are among the leaders in human morality and compassion.”
While we take a moment to pat ourselves on our collective backs, let’s look into the source of our moral values for deeper insight into human nature. This morning we read of Jacob, who disguised as his brother Esau, comes forward before their father Isaac to receive blessing as if he were the first-born son. Esau, who earlier in our portion sells Jacob this very birthright, then comes before their father to receive a blessing and leaves angry with Jacob for his deceit.
At this ultimate moment, Isaac, whose eyes are dim, invites his son forward. “So, Jacob drew close to his father Isaac, who felt him and wondered, ‘the voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau.’” This poignant phrase catches our attention. Does Isaac know he is being fooled? What, if any, are his suspicions?
Guided by Midrash, I am struck by the conflict between Jacob’s voice and Esau’s hands. What Prime Minister Netanyahu called Israel’s morals and Israel’s might. I imagine that Jacob’s voice is one of compassion and caring. Jacob is said to be the more mature, more learned, more sensitive of the two. Esau’s hands are quite skilled and tough. They have known the hunt of the field, the scratches of battle.
The Midrash declares: “Jacob wields power only by his voice; Esau wields dominion only by his hands.” Another view states: “when the voice of Jacob withdraws within itself then the hands are the hands of Esau. One beckons to him, and he comes.” Finally, a third perspective: “when Jacob speaks wrathfully with his voice, the hands of Esau have dominion; when his voice rings out clearly, the hands of Esau have no dominion.”
It’s an accurate portrayal of human nature. We are torn between our morals and our might. We are torn between our voices, which speak our thoughts and values, and our hands, with which we react more instinctively and physically. Jacob’s disguise before his father reveals our choice. We all have acted on emotion, out of anger, or immediately before our inner voice calmed or controlled us. We have all done with our might over another what was expedient, even when we knew it to be wrong, or even immoral.
Israel relates to Iran and her proxies in Lebanon and Gaza most frequently with Esau’s hands, with mighty military responses to acts of terror and the firing of rockets. This week, Israel spoke through Jacob’s voice rather than Esau’s hands. Through Israel’s moral voice of compassion and kindness.
There is a lesson in this event for all of us. Whenever we get the chance, while shopping in a store, speaking or texting on our phones, meeting someone for a discussion, or balancing the geo-political challenges of keeping a country secure and its citizens safe, responding to people with our caring moral voices, and not with our mighty hands, responding to people with kindness rather than out of anger or frustration, responding to other people’s needs and not only needing to defend ourselves, protects and renews our shared humanity.
Life’s most difficult choices are usually pretty complicated. Our choices are not always simple or clear. Remember Isaac’s confusion. “The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau.” We often confront this conflict between Jacob’s voice and Esau’s hands. Precisely at such times, whenever possible and not dangerous, we need to try finding our voice, choosing Jacob’s voice of conscience and ethics within us. As Prime Minister Netanyahu stated and we must strive to make true, “our humanity is greater than their hatred.”
© 2017 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
Sat, March 2 2024 22 Adar I 5784