Parshas Toldos – Helping the Great Become Greater

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פרשת תולדות

We are all familiar with the ma’amar Chazal that teaches us about Eisav’s wicked behavior, his wicked predispositions, even before he came out into this world. Even when he was still being carried in the stomach of his mother Rivkah, he was already formenting his plans of wickedness. בשעה שהיתה עוברת על בתי עבודת כוכבים עשיו רץ ומפרכס לצאת We are told that when Rivkah, carrying the twins within her, would pass by a בית עבודה זרה, she would feel Eisav agitating within her. Eisav, before he was even born, was chomping at the bit to get out. He couldn’t wait to get out already, and run towards the house of idol worship (Bereishis Rabbah 63:6).
And as we learn this מאמר חז”ל, we understand it like all the children in cheder do. And how could we not? All the pictures, all the illustrations that the books draw for us, engrave it even deeper in our minds. He’s pictured for us as a scary looking man, with a wicked scowl on his face. And he’s adorned with weapons of war. Eisav was born wearing boxing gloves, according to one picture that someone showed me.
And so, of course, most of us understand this מאמר חז”ל the wrong way. Do you know what it means to grow up in the house of Yitzchok and Rivkah?! It is certain, that Eisav had the potential to be a great man! And yet, everyone understands simply that he was wicked from birth. זורו רשעים מרחם, they say. But they are understanding it the wrong way.
The idea that Eisav was born with the predetermination for wickedness, to be the eternal enemy of Yaakov and the עם ישראל, is a mistake. And not only is it a mistake, but it stands in contradiction to the fundamental principle of בחירה, our free-will. Nobody is created a רשע מרחם. Such doctrines, of being born burdened with sin, you find in corruptions of Judaism, among the foreign religions who speak of perverse ideas like “original sin” and concepts that are alien to the Torah truth.
The Rambam in his Hilchos T’shuva (5:1-2) tells us that everyone, everyone without exception, has the potential to be a tzadik. אל יעבור במחשבתך דבר זה שאומרים טפשי האומות ורוב גולמי בני ישראל שהקדוש ברוך הוא גוזר על האדם מתחילת ברייתו להיות צדיק או רשע, אלא כל אדם ואדם ראוי להיות צדיק כמשה רבינו – “Don’t even let pass through your mind that which the fools of the gentiles, and most of the non-thinking ones of our own people as well say; that Hakodosh Boruch Hu decrees on a person even before his birth whether he will be righteous or wicked. The truth is that every single person without exception can choose to be a tzadik like Moshe Rabeinu.” Everybody can choose good. And not only that, but everyone can choose to be a tzadik. And this concept is so fundamental, that to make any exception, even in the case of Eisav, would be a contradiction to the fundamentals of our emunah.
So what do these מאמרים that speak of Eisav as an avodah-zara’nik, as a fighter, and a rough and tough hairy fellow, really mean? Our whole lives, we have believed these words in a most superficial way, and it’s only right that we begin to scratch the surface of the truth of these statements. And we must take the time to do so, because Hashem is teaching us profound lessons here, and to study them year after year, as little children do, is almost a waste of our precious time.
When Rivkah approached the prophet of Hashem to inquire about the unusually difficult pains caused by the children within her, one of the things she was told was the following: ורב יעבוד צעיר – “And the older will serve the younger” (Bereishis 25:23). Now people think that this was a punishment, a prophetic declaration of Eisav’s progeny having to suffer the eternal punishment of being subservient to the progeny of Yaakov. Now, certainly, it is absolutely true that the nation of Edom, would have to be subservient to the עם ישראל. And in our history it happened that way. Sometimes we find that Edom was forced to be slaves, and to serve as a tributary to our nation. In the days of Dovid Hamelech, Edom was conquered, and the children of Eisav became subject to the עם ישראל, by having to serve as a tributary, and as servant-slaves, thus fulfilling the words of the prophet that were said to Rivkah.
But you have to know that while servitude to the עם ישראל was most definitely a קיום of the נבואה of the “the older shall serve the younger,” it was not a prophecy of punishment, as most imagine. There could be no נבואה of punishment before Eisav was even born, and before he even began to act on the free-will that was available to him.
This נבואה was merely a statement of fact, a revelation of how the history of the world was to unfold. “Eisav will serve Yaakov,” said the Navi to Rivkah. And דבר השם לא ישוב ריקם – “The words of Hashem would undoubtedly be fulfilled.” However, and this is a most important point, how it was to play out throughout history was still left up to the free-will choosing of Eisav. He had the potential to work in tandem with Yaakov, and to be the dynamo, the prime mover that was to invigorate the great mission of Yaakov in this world. And he had all the talents needed to do just that. But if he wouldn’t be willing to take on that role, the role that would be his perfection in this world and the next, then the words of Hashem, ורב יעבוד צעיר would still come true. Only, in a much different form. Eisav would have to serve the progeny of Yaakov, in the less sublime, and less successful position of being a lowly servant, subservient to his younger brother, instead of as an equal partner.
And we see this great potential of Eisav already at the moment of his birth. ויצא הראשון אדמוני כולו כאדרת שיער – “And the first one came forth ruddy, and covered all over like a hairy garment” (ibid. 25:25). And to be born with more hair than expected, somewhat of an unusually mature appearance for a newborn, certainly signified the great capabilities of Eisav. Covered with a coat of goatlike hair foretold of his potential to have the boldness of the he-goat who walks ahead of the flock, ready to battle for the sake of protecting the innocent flock. And he was אדמוני, ruddy, giving off the appearance of an energetic soul, a man ready to accomplish. And there is no doubt that those who were present at Eisav’s birth recognized that. And that’s why he was named Eisav. עשיו is derived from the word עשה, to make. He was a made man from the beginning. His ruddines, his hair, his look of maturity, was apparently a portent of a man capable of great things. He was expected to be a man of action, who would accomplish great achievements. His appearance as a “made” man inspired hopes that he would “make” great achievements.
Eisav was born to do battle, a man of great גבורה. He would be an active man, capable of heroic deeds. All the talents needed for success were found in Eisav. But all these prophetic omens, those told to Rivkah, as well as the ones that we discern from the circumstances of his birth, could have been realized in more than one way. The choice was his. It could be a battle for good, or a battle against good.
If Eisav would choose to use the gifts given to him by Hakodosh Boruch Hu in the optimum way, he would have battled on behalf of Yaakov. By assisting Yaakov in spreading the dvar Hashem, he would have achieved his greatest success. But if he would fail in fulfilling his primary role of being the dynamo that would support Yaakov, then the prophecy of רב יעבוד צעיר would be fulfilled no less, but only in a different way. The progeny of Eisav would continue fulfilling their purpose as the helpers of the עם ישראל, only that they would be acting as mere puppets, instead of as the prime movers in history.
The function of helping the good ones will always be the function of Eisav. The אומות העולם are forever busy in the laboratories and the factories, developing and inventing and growing, and creating opportunities for the עם ישראל. The only thing that they lack is intention. I say “only.” But really it is the intention that creates the success, because if they would have willingly fulfilled their role, they would have been so much more effective.
The Gemara in Avodah Zara (2b) tells us the following prophecy about the end of time. When the nations of the world gather together and stand before Hashem to be judged, Hashem will demand of them, “With what did you involve yourselves in this world?” And the Roman Empire will speak up first. And they will respond with many convincing arguments of the good that they brought to the world. “We established marketplaces, and built many bathhouses. We made food and all of the various needs and wants of this world available. And we amassed much gold and silver. We set up systems of money and commerce, and the world has benefited greatly. And then they will make the following bold claim: וכולם לא עשינו אלא בשביל ישראל – “And we did this all, only for the sake of the Jews, so that they should be able to involve themselves with Torah, mitzvos, and Your service.”
From this Gemara we see that the progeny of Eisav, will one day realize what their purpose is here in this world. They will recognize with full clarity that they are busy all the days of their lives with assisting the עם ישראל. And they are absolutely right. The function of the development of the world, that the אומות העולם are involved in, is for the benefit of Hashem’s people. And Hashem guides all of history in this way. Only that the אומות העולם are not doing it for the proper purpose. Hashem responds to the claims of the אומות העולם like this: שוטים שבעולם כל מה שעשיתם לצורך עצמכם עשיתם – “Whatever you have done, you have done only for your own benefit.”
The prophecy of רב יעבוד צעיר is absolutely true in every generation. Only that if they had recognized their purpose, instead of merely acting as a tool in the hand of Hashem, they would have accomplished so much more. The energy, the power, the man of action that Eisav was, could have changed the world, and the course of history, in ways we can only imagine.
When we are told that Eisav was agitating to leave his mother’s womb as she passed by the בית עבודה זרה, it means that he was agitating to use his strengths. He was a capable fellow, and he wanted to make his impact felt in the house of idol worship. And he was more than prepared, more than suitable for the task. The ruddiness, the hair, the maturity of this newborn, were the signs of great כוחות. The only question that remained was how would these כוחות be used. And that was left for Eisav to choose.
Eisav was agitating, pushing to to get out, to get out and start doing. And it’s only now, in retrospect, that we say that he was agitating to serve avodah zarah. Only because of his ultimate failure, because of what occurred at the end. As we read the Medrash, we look back in sadness, and we think of what could have been. Because actually, all of that strength, all of that agitating, was a sign of the great potential of Eisav to fulfill the prophecy of יעבוד in the most sublime and perfect way, by dedicating his strength towards helping Yaakov in the fight against avodah zarah.
If only Eisav would have realized, if only he would have understood his role, how different history would have turned out. There are many examples that I can tell you, but we’ll talk about one. And that is the noble story of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. And it is the one instance of a Roman Emperor, a descendant of Eisav, who was subservient before the Torah leader, Rabbi Yehuda Ha’Nasi, and the tremendous achievement that resulted. Chazal reveal to us that the Emperor of Rome, took upon himself the position of being a secret disciple of Rebbi. And he willingly offered himself, and all of his abilities, to serve in the assistance of all that Rebbi needed.
It was only because of Antoninus the Pious, who humbled himself before Rebbi, that we achieved the completion of the Mishna. Now that we have a finished Mishna, it appears to us to be so simple. What of it? Rebbi Yehuda Ha’Nasi convened the sages, made some editorial changes, and they took a vote and decided that from now on the Mishna is closed.
But that is an oversimplification of history. There is not a chance that Rebbi would have simply had the authority to do such a thing. Why would the wide swath of Jewish communities across the world accept Rebbi’s authority to implement such a radical change. Why would the great Torah communities in Bavel accept the decision of Rebbi to seal the Mishna? There were many sages who believed that the Mishna should remain an open book. And that just as the Mishna had continued until now, for centuries and centuries, with each successive generation of sages adding their opinions, so too it should continue that way.
So what was it that presented this great opportunity for the achievement of the sealing of the Mishna, which set the structure of Torah learning in golus for the next two thousand years?
And the Gemara in Gittin gives us the answer: מימות משה עד רבי לא מצינו תורה וגדולה במקום אחד – “Since the days of Moshe Rabeinu we didn’t find one instance where there was a man who contained in his person, both excellences, that he was the greatest Torah sage and also that he was the most powerful man among the Jewish people. Until Rebbi came along” (Gittin 59a). And you have to know that the authority that Rebbi yielded, the wealth and authority and power that Rebbi possessed was from his “disciple” Antoninus Aurelius. It was the backing of Antoninus that gave Rebbi the power to yield control over the Jewish nation. He caused Rebbi to be tremendously wealthy. And he gave Rebbi the confidence needed to wield power that was almost unequalled in our history. Rebbi had the resources of the Roman Empire behind him.
And so we see what was accomplished when Eisav was willing to use his power to make Yaakov great. And that was the fulfillment of ורב יעבוד צעיר , in its most perfect way. And who knows what could have been accomplished throughout history if the men of strength, the men of power, authority, and wealth, would have been willing to give their full backing to the Torah leaders. The dynamic spirit that could have been provided by those capable of wielding power would have given the Torah leaders the authority they so needed. And the outcome would have been great; accomplishments that would have been impossible otherwise.
And the tragedy unfolds when those who could provide the abilities and strengths needed to promote great achievements, do not do so. I told you once how Rabbi Yisroel Salanter זכרונו לברכה had made great plans to further the Torah and Avodas Hashem in the world. And he heard that Moshe Montefiore, the Lord Mayor of England, was coming to visit Russia. Now this was a glorious opportunity in history. Sir Moshe Montefiore had everything that Rav Yisroel Salanter lacked. He had money, and he had prestige, and he had authority, and he had friends in high places in government. But Rav Yisroel had everything that Sir Moshe Montefiore lacked. Rav Yisroel was a gadol batorah, he was a man of great vision, and of great plans for the עם ישראל. And he knew how to execute these plans to perfection. And he knew that if he could get together with Moshe Montefiore, they would be able to turn the world upside down. They would be able to bring back the whole Am Yisroel to Torah, and who knows what they could accomplish together!
And Rav Yisroel made great attempts to meet Moshe Montefiore, but לא איסתיעא מילתא, it didn’t happen. Moshe Montefiore had a German Jew as his secretary, Dr. Levy. And Dr. Levy had his own ideas about Russian Jewish rabbis. He had his own ideas of who the real leaders of the Jewish people are, and therefore Rav Yisroel was never able to meet Sir Moshe Montefiore. The shidduch never took place. And that is one of the great tragedies of our history.
Sir Moshe Montefiore certainly did good things. And Rav Yisroel זכרונו לברכה certainly did even greater things for the Am Yisroel. But what they could have done together, would have changed the course of history.
And in our own lives there are many parallels to this idea. Very many. And if we ignore these lessons, then we run the risk of choosing wrong, like Eisav our great-uncle did. And like Sir Moshe Montefiore and his secretary did. And like so many other examples where those who had the abilities and the strengths to make Hashem great in this world, to make Torah great in this world, backed away from their opportunity for perfection in this world.
Many people are not born to be leaders. And what of it? So what? Not everybody is gifted as to be capable of being a leader, of standing in front of of all great ideas, leading the way. There is not enough room on the mizrach vant for everyone. But the fact that you are not to be the star, the leader, in this world, does not in any way mean that your opportunities in this world won’t make you the leader in the next world. The gifts and the talents and the capabilities that you do have are your own personal opportunity for greatness. And if you learn to harness your כוחות for the sake of Klal Yisroel, then you will achieve the greatness that Eisav never did.
But one of the greatest, and most often overlooked opportunity, is the opportunity to succeed at what Eisav failed in. And that is the opportunity to be of assistance to the leaders of our nation, the builders of the Am Yisroel.
Here you have a man, and he’s busy with his own life. His family, his learning, and he’s working hard trying to eek out a living. You know it’s not so easy to pay the bills today, when the liberals in our government are taking away so much of our hard-earned money. So he’s a busy man. But he has his hand in all good things. Every good project, every good endeavor that he comes across, he’s there to lend assistance. He gets on board with every project possible. Some big, some small, but he’s lending his energy, his כוחות to the cause of spreading the דבר השם. And because of him, many of the projects are even transformed. His abilities and his ideas often are a boon to a good endeavor, making a good program great. By joining the “leaders,” by assisting those who have already gotten things off the ground, he adds an effectiveness that would have never been realized.
When we started giving the Gemara lecture here, there was a man who took upon himself to hand out flyers, informing others of the new opportunity. Nobody asked him. But he saw an opportunity for greatness, and he grabbed it. Now, he wasn’t capable of giving the lecture, not at all, but he realized what he was capable of doing. And in doing so, he changed the face of this shul forever.
One man can change the course of the עם ישראל. Mr. Shelby, an “ordinary” man, organized these Thursday night lectures many years ago. He created this lecture out of nothing. He dedicated his enthusiasm and his energy towards a good cause, and his enormous influence is still being felt. It didn’t require tremendous wealth or prestige. It required dedication and energy, and a willingness to get involved.
I know a man, who runs a big organization. And he’s doing wonderful things for כלל ישראל. Great things. I won’t tell you which one, because he wouldn’t be happy. And he told me recently that without the few people behind the scenes who make things move, he would be nowhere. There is a wide variety of people who are lending their hand, lending their assistance, and their strengths and expertise, and they are the organization. He’s the “leader” so to speak. He’s the one who runs the show. But it’s the others, the ones who joined in later, who added the much needed כוחות that made it a success. One man made the connections he needed to find a new warehouse. One man’s constant advice turned him into a success. Another person set up a new filing system. One man is simply doing the deliveries. But without these people adding their כוחות, their ideas, and their energy, the success we see today would have never occurred.
There is no end to the list of chesed organizations, of Torah programs, and all the remarkable institutions in כלל ישראל. And they all can be invigorated by the non-leaders who are willing to take the back seat, and do what has to be done behind the scenes. There is no end to the vitality and effectiveness you can add by joining the “leaders” and adding your כוחות to the mix. And I’ll give you an עצה. Take a look around you, and try to imagine, “What can I do to make things better? What can I add to this program? What abilities, what energy can I offer to that cause? And then get busy.
And by no means are we speaking only of big organizations, big programs. Every one of us is capable of making an impact, an effective impact, in many of the small programs that surround us. Your local shul, shiurim in the neighborhood, a local chesed g’mach, a children’s learning program. So what that it’s not “your” program?! It’s still your opportunity! One of the biggest failures, is letting opportunities for greatness pass by. And that’s exactly what Eisav did. He had all the abilities needed to make Yaakov great. And to make Yaakov great, means to make Hashem great.
And that’s one of the secrets of what Chazal tell us about the tenth man who comes to Shul after the other nine had already arrived early, and were waiting for a minyan. We are told that the tenth man who arrives is נוטל שכר כולם. He gets a reward equal to all of the מתפללים together. And that’s because a man who comes along and adds his being, his energy, his ideas to a good cause, can transform the good deed into an exceptional one. And he is just as important as the ones who created the good cause.
Very many people have the opportunity to lend just their prestige to a good cause. And even that can be a greatness. You add your name to the cause, your prestige, and you’ve energized the cause tremendously. רבי מכבד עשירים – Rebbi was careful to always honor the wealthy people.” Now, someone might think it was because Rebbi wanted to מחניף them, to have access to their money when he needed. But that’s not true at all! Rebbi had all the wealth that he needed. He didn’t need the עשירים at all.
However, Rebbi recognized the power and the prestige of a wealthy man. And he recognized that every wealthy man is a firebrand and a sparkplug, a man with potential to do great things with his capabilities. And Rebbi wanted the עשירים to recognize that as well.
And it’s not only the wealth of money that can lend assistance to the Torah causes. Everyone possesses their own form of wealth, and their own gifts and talents, their own forms of energy, that can be directed towards making the name of Hashem great.
Even encouragement can be the greatest tool for activizing a good idea. At one point many years ago, we stopped giving the short shiur on mussar seforim between Mincha and Ma’ariv. For a certain reason we had to stop. And then one man approached me, and encouraged me, he pressed me, to restart it. And we did. We did, and because of that man we have studied together the whole Chovos Halevavos, the Sha’arei Teshuva, the Mesillas Yesharim, and now we’re learning Cheshbon Hanefesh together. All because of that man who energized us with his encouragement.
Like Eisav, we all stand before this great test of supporting the leaders of our nation in their cause for good. We stand on the precipice of success and failure. And it’s only our בחירה, the choices we make, that will determine our success or chas v’shalom the opposite. Very often, your perfection in this world will be to do what Eisav didn’t do. And that is to use your talents, your gifts, your כוחות, your capabilities, your money, whatever it is, to help the Yaakovs of this world; to help the leaders succeed in making Hashem’s name great. בכל מאדיך means with everything that you have. You have to love Hashem and serve Him with your whole being, all of your capabilities. And in the eyes of Hashem – and those are the only eyes we care about – your success in being the helping hand wherever it is needed, is the greatest success possible, and is your ticket to Olam Habah.
Have a wonderful Shabbos