Ahavas Sholom – an Historic Landmark and Sacred Space

Newark's Last Remaining Synagogue born of the Great European Migration at the turn of the 20th Century

145 Broadway, Newark, NJ 07104
Phone: 973-485-2609 | Email: cahavassholom@optimum.net


Rays of Torah, November 17, 2023

“Of Hands and Heart”
Parasha Toldot, Genesis 25:19—-28:9
by Rabbi Eliyahu Ben Lewi

The powerful influence of genetics on human conception and development is undeniable. Human genetic makeup is known to be a determining factor regarding the distinctive traits in our morphology, the predisposition or strength of our immune system and even certain behaviors. We may be inclined to act in a particular manner or excel in certain activities not as a matter of environmental conditioning but an innate gift from those who bore us. Consideration of the various ways we are impacted by hereditary factors would lead us to rationally conclude that human beings are a byproduct of their predecessors, and thus, wired to mirror and perpetuate their forbearer in both physical and intrinsic matters. It should follow that siblings will be identical in more than mere physicality as they derive from the same source. However, this assumption is not only challenged but rebuffed if we closely examine the noted difference between siblings.   

During childhood, my family nucleus consisted of my mother, my father, two brothers and one sister. I am the second in birth order, only preceded by my eldest brother. Within our family there appears to be a pervasive interest and dedication to the pursuit of spirituality. On both my maternal and paternal genetic line there are consecutive generations of people who have chosen pastoral care as a profession. In the two generational household that I was raised in my father, grandfather, and grandmother were dedicated clergy. As children we were inculcated with the importance of spiritual development and service. My younger brother and I were committed to following the spiritual and genetic path paved by our parents.

My eldest brother proved to be an exception to the family’s genetic and environmental influence. The distinction in his character, interest, and behavior were noted at a young age. Unlike myself and my other siblings, my eldest brother did not exhibit great interest in religious/spiritual practice. He would participate in the expected religious functions as a perfunctory task to demonstrate compliance with parental expectations. This statement is not a projection, but what he would freely express. He is what many might considered to be a contemporary man or “man of the times”. As we were growing up, he spent considerable time and resources ensuring that he donned himself in the clothing brands and fads of the day which was not a concern for any other member in the household. Although we were very insulated in our religious community my brother would always find ways to exercise and engage in his personal interest.

This is not an uncommon occurrence, yet it often strikes us as a phenomenon. We all know of people whose proclivities and innate interest differ from their parents. We speak to this with cliches like” he’s the black sheep of the family’ or “that apple fell far from the tree”. How do we account for the gulf in character and behavior that exists between siblings who share the same genetic pool and environment during their formative years? What factors determine who we become more than nature and nurture?

In this week’s parasha we read the saga of the twin boys, Jacob and Esau, and their different approach to obtaining a blessing from their father, Isaac. We are told that Rebecca, the twin’s mother, learns of Isaac’s intent to bless Esau before he dies. Rebecca quickly devises a plan that would call for Jacob to assume the identity of his eldest brother to facilitate the prophecy, “Two nations are in thy womb. The elder shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25”23). Although Jacob attempted to disguise himself by wearing his brother’s apparel, making his arms hairy, and having the scent of his sibling, Isaac remained suspicious regarding the identity of the person he was speaking with. His apprehensions resulted in a series of requests intended to vet the speaker since he could not see. Isaac noted that the voice was that of Jacob, yet he acquiesced and blessed him when he felt Jacob’s hands which were hairy like Esau’s.  Hence we are told “and he discerned him not because his arms were hairy”( Genesis  27:23).

The 13-century commentator, Chizkuni, points out that the strongest indicator for Isaac to have relied on was the hands and not the voice. He adds that a person can be better understood by their actions and not speech which can be used to mislead.

There are two important lessons about the attainment of self-actualization that can be derived from studying Esau and Jacob’s pursuit of the blessing. Some people adopt Esau’s approach to personal fulfillment. Like Esau they mistakenly pin their hopes on entitlement. They expect their spiritual and physical aspirations to be achieved despite their passivity. They harbor the idea that success is something that can be bequeathed, and they reject the importance of dedication, hard work, and discipline. It is a grave mistake to believe that any divine allotment is not hinged on personal conduct and character. The chances of success in any endeavor when our habits and behaviors are not congruent with our goals are slim. Esau’s investment of time, effort, and resources were concentrated in the physical aspect of his life. Torah tells us he was a man of the field.  Yet there is strong evidence that he felt entitled to a blessing that was spiritual in nature. How ironic is that?

Jacob’s effort teaches us that one can only expect a blessing when they are true to themselves. Although his father blessed him in his disguise, Isaac withheld from giving him the blessing of Abraham. Jacob would not receive this blessing until he was standing before his father as himself- a man not of the field but who dwelled in tents.

Society can sometime lead one to believe that success is based on conformity. Many people look at the lives of those they consider to be successful and seek to mimic them to the extent of developing a false sense of self. The mounting everyday pressures to fit the mold leads some to sacrificing their traditions, ancestry, birthright, dreams, hopes, and the things that they really regard as valuable. This is tantamount to suicide. What dies is the potential and purpose that the CREATOR assigned you which makes you a unique contribution to the world.  Like Jacob, even if one obtains some worldly possessions by portraying a false self, what results is a nagging sense of discontent and self-alienation. The ultimate blessing that is related to your divine destiny can only be obtained when you honor, appreciate, and work on the talents and gifts afforded to you.

The study of nature and nurture has been and will remain of interest to human beings. It is not always easy to determine which one is the dominant force in any phase of our life. However, we must not disregard the importance of either one. And when you remain ambivalent about where you are and where you are headed, rest assured that you need not look any further than “your hands and heart”. As James Allen stated in his book As a Man Thinketh, “We don’t attract what we want but who we are.”

Shabbat Shalom!