Toldos (Genesis 25:19 – 28:9) Hunters vs Shephers

Reading Time: 4 minutes

GOOD MORNING!! The concept of ‘separate realities’ always amazes me. We human beings all get the exact same world put in front of us. And yet it can look so different to each and every one of us. There was a stark example for me this week. The Chief Rabbi, speaking on behalf of the United Hebrew Congregations of Great Britain wrote about Jeremy Corbyn stating, amongst other things, that “a new poison” (of anti-Semitism) had taken hold in Labour “sanctioned from the very top”. I saw another letter this week, addressed to Jeremy Corbyn, from a group of Orthodox rabbis disagreeing with the Chief Rabbi and saying, amongst other things, “….at this time we also relay our gratitude for your numerous acts of solidarity with the Jewish community over many years….’ It’s quite astounding how human beings can look at the same circumstances and see something completely different. It’s always good for us to consider whether what we see is absolute reality – or our version of it. I do believe in absolute truth; but I equally know that I am biased by my own opinions. Finding a road through them, to something deeper, is not always easy or obvious. 

Torah Portion                                                      

This portion chronicles the historic struggle between Jacob and Esau. The fight begins while they are yet in the womb and continues until today. Esau hates Jacob, the Rabbis tell us. Anti Semitism has been one constant in the erratic history of the Jewish Nation.

Jacob, the younger twin, is a ‘man of tents’ – a philosopher and thinker. Esau, on the other hand, is a hunter – a man of the world. Esau sells his birthright to Jacob for the price of a bowl of soup. A birthright is esoteric and soup is much more practical. Not knowing about this arrangement, Isaac wishes to give the birthright to Esau. In the famous story, with Rebecca’s assistance, Jacob tricks Isaac into giving it to him instead. It makes for dramatic and tense reading.

Davar Torah

I want to share an idea that I have come to value and appreciate over the years from my great friend Simon Wolfson. He has taught it to me, but more so he lives it – the best way to teach.

In Jewish tradition, Jacob, father of the Jewish Nation is the man who epitomises Jewish values; Esau, his brother, epitomises the opposite. But from a cursory reading of the Bible, this is not obvious. Only in rabbinic literature does the difference become apparent. 

The distinction, Simon explained to me, is at a very fundamental level. Esau was a hunter; Jacob a shepherd. The most basic of human societies is the hunter-gatherer society. Common thousands of years ago, we have developed a great deal since then and very few outposts of this primitive way of life remain. 

The problem with hunter-gatherers, Esaus, is that they do not contribute. Their way of life is one of taking from the world without giving anything back. The more animals they kill, the less animals there will be. In such a society, other human beings are naturally rivals. If another person gathers the fruit from the tree, there will be none left for me.

A shepherd, or famer, on the other hand, contributes. Shepherds, Jacobs, tends to their animals, nurtures them, breeds them and usually creates more resources than they require. The shepherd produces a net gain in terms of resources; the hunter a net loss. For the shepherd, other human beings are potential allies. He requires assistance to maintain, breed and grow his flock. And the more people work together, the more there is for everyone. (It is true that human beings hunting together will catch more than individuals, but there is a natural limit based on the scarcity of resource in the locale. Beyond that limit, other human beings become a liability.)

It’s hard, at the best of times, for us humans to respect, value and appreciate others. Looking after number one is natural to us from birth. Contributing is something we only learn later on. It is almost impossible for the idea that people are of immense value, created in God’s image, to develop in a hunter-gatherer society. At best, people will learn to tolerate, perhaps even value, members of their own tribe. But not beyond.

Shepherds and farmers, however, are the foundation of our modern society. People working together to develop the world for a common benefit. Of course, we are all still human, but the reality of shared interests and increased productivity when working together, is fertile ground from which the ideas of peace, love and tolerance can arise.

Jacob, as a shepherd, represented this can-do attitude – building the world, embracing others, working towards a good and decent society for all humans to enjoy together. 

Esau, the hunter, represented the opposite; small minded, self-centred, protectionist; seeing other human beings as pawns in his world, not worlds unto themselves. 

Jews are the inheritors of Jacob’s values. As such, contributing to the common good, building a decent society, sharing and valuing all of humanity as potential collaborators in this great and wonderful game of life is at the very core of our being. There are many who share those values with us. But there are also many who see the world like Esau. All of human history is about which of these worldviews will prevail. The right one will win only if we ensure that it does. 

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt

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