Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Toldot
To dedicate this lesson

This Culture Is Not for Us

...In recent generations, [the] struggle [between Yaakov and Esav] has taken on a new and even more complex nature, and it is important that we not be misled by it. Today, the culture leading the world is Western culture, and the morality leading the world is Western morality. This culture and morality are upgraded versions of X-ianity, with a more refined and pretty face. Many Jews who encounter this Western morality find in it an echo of Judaism, and are inclined to think that it is an "upgraded Judaism," Heaven forbid...

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Rabbi Netanel Yossifun

Heshvan 30 5783
Translated by Hillel Fendel

One of the greatest Talmudic commentators was R. Shmuel Eliezer HaLevi Ideles, known most often as the Maharsha (whose public memorial celebration will be this Wednesday, 5 Kislev). The Maharsha's teachings spread throughout the Diaspora, such that in certain circles the Maharsha's teachings are considered foundational for an understanding of the Gemara, in much that same way that Rashi's teachings are considered foundational explanations.

There is a tradition among Breslav Hasidim to tell stories about the Maharsha as a segula for healing, and even Kabbalists tell the stories that Rabbi Nachman of Breslav would tell about the Maharsha.

As it is known, the Maharsha would waste no time from Torah study every night of the year. He had long hair, and he would tie a rope to the ceiling of the room, so that when he would start to nod off, the rope would pull on his hair and wake him up.

It was said that though the Maharsha studied Torah every single night, there was one night on which he did not – Xmas – on which he would withdraw from his learning and instead deal with his accounting books. One year, the Gentiles informed on the Maharsha saying that he despises X-ians. And the informers brought as proof of their words that every night of the year the Maharsha learns Torah, and only on the night of the birth of their "Messiah" does he withdraw from his studies.

That very year, on Xmas night, the Maharsha was reviewing his expenses as he did every year, when suddenly one of his Torah books fell from the shelf. He picked it up, kissed it, and returned it to its place. A few minutes later, the book fell again – and the Maharsha picked it up, this time placing it more firmly in place. When it then fell a third time, the Maharsha said to himself, "There is a Divine message here." He thereupon opened the holy book and began to search for the message – and precisely at that moment, policemen burst into his home and found him studying Torah as usual.

This story alludes to a perpetual spiritual struggle that unfolds and takes shape throughout the generations. The struggle was born in this week's Torah portion Toldot, and is intensified throughout the generations of Exile, and nowadays takes on new and deceptive faces.

In the Torah portion, twins are born - Yaakov and Esav. Even before their birth, their mother was informed that her two sons will ultimately head nations that will perpetually rival each other, and ever since they fought over the firstborn rights and blessing, until Yaakov managed to buy the firstborn rights and receive the blessing. Even in the blessing in which they are both blessed, this constant struggle takes a central part - Yaakov was told: "Be strong for your brother," and Esav was told: "And you will serve your brother, and you will take off his burden and and lift it upon your neck."

Many times, a struggle is waged between two foreign and opposing forces, but what's uniquely fascinating about this struggle is that it is a struggle between two twins, who are nourished from the same source. It is very blatant that Yaakov received the blessing precisely when he was dressed up as Esav, from whom he had previously purchased the birthright. That is to say: The wicked Esav had something very important that Yaakov needed for the completion of his own character and personality. In Kabbalistic language, we can say that Esav had a spark of holiness within his impure shell, and that Yaakov was unable to represent sanctity in the world until Esav returned to him that missing spark. Therefore, he bought this spark from Esav, and received the blessing only when he was dressed up as Esav.

And indeed in the Haftara reading of Toldot we read: "Is not Esav a brother to Yaakov, and I love Yaakov, and I hated Esav." Yaakov and Esav are twins, and according to the Hassidic masters, they were identical twins, but Esav took the same forces of Yaakov and dressed them in foreign clothing. So Yaakov was tasked with redeeming those forces and restoring them to sanctity.

This is the background for that which our rabbis taught throughout the generations, that X-ianity is identified as the successor to Esav. X-ianity took a Jew, and parts of Judaism, and turned them into the cornerstone of its spiritual path. However, like Esav, it took these points of truth and dressed them in foreign and distorted garb - and so parts of "Yaakov" fell into the hands of "Esav." X-ianity thrived because of these points of truth that it took from us, but this small amount of truth it possessed actually contained much lies and deception.

Those who do not study Torah on X-mas (a custom particularly practiced by those in the Diaspora, where impurity is rampant) do so in order that Torah study will not fall into the hands of the impure, for we do not need additional forces of Yaakov falling into Esav's hands.

On the contrary, as mentioned, the uniqueness of the struggle between Yaakov and Esav - between Judaism and X-ianity - is the fact that it is a struggle of a "twin brother" who tries to steal Judaism itself, and it is up to us to shed his disguise and restore to us the parts of us that are in his hands. 

In recent generations, this struggle has taken on a new and even more complex nature, and it is important that we not be misled by it. Today, the culture leading the world is Western culture, and the morality leading the world is Western morality. This culture and morality are upgraded versions of X-ianity, with a more refined and pretty face. Many Jews who encounter this Western morality find in it an echo of Judaism, and are inclined to think that it is an "upgraded Judaism," Heaven forbid.

Indeed, they are correct in that there is something of Yaakov's character here, but this is exactly the part that was corrupted when it fell into the hands of the twin brother - Esav. This is precisely why it is said [ed. note: by the Prophet Malachi]: "Is not Esav brother to Yaakov? I loved Yaakov, but Esav I hated." That is, they are similar but different, and the same parts that are beloved when they are with Yaakov are hated when they are with Esav.

One of the most important thinkers on the Israeli Left said a few years ago in a meeting with religious Jews that Judaism started thousands of years ago, and throughout the years two currents were created from its force - the Judaism of our time and Western morality. "My friends and I" - so claimed the thinker - "when we came into contact with Western culture, found ourselves in it more than we found ourselves in modern Judaism, since it too was born from us."

Our response to this thinker, was that pure Judaism is certainly more loyal to Judaism than are isolated facets of Judaism that became mixed up with pagan conceptions and foreign cultures. But alas, in truth this struggle is not new; this is the same age-old struggle between Yaakov and Esav, and we should not be confused by it.

And just as the Maharsha merited to receive Divine Providence to open the Torah on that impure night, and was protected nonetheless from it falling into the foreign hands, so may we merit to maintain our purity and the purity of Judaism, and to proudly facilitate Yitzhak's blessing to Yaakov: "May the older serve the younger!"

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