Jews are known as the People of the Book. This designation speaks to Judaism’s focus on the intellect, its emphasis on theological argumentation and dedicated study. However, it is clear from the Torah that Jews also come from a long line of people rooted in the earth — from the first humans in the Garden of Eden, placed there to till and to tend, to Moses, who learned how to lead the people by being a shepherd.
Like any nomadic tribe, the early Israelites were a people whose daily life revolved around the cycle of the seasons, and whose knowledge of the natural world was vast. The yearly calendar of holy days found in the Torah revolves around the sprouting of seeds and the harvesting of produce, from counting the days of the grain harvest during the time of the Omer to the celebration of Sukkot, the festival of the harvest. Guided by laws like “bal taschit,” the commandment not to destroy, Judaism is a tradition rich with ecological wisdom about respecting the integrity of all life on the planet, no matter how small.
Long ago, in our ancestral past, a deep split somehow occurred in Judaism, creating a division between the person of intellect and the person of the earth. This week’s “parasha” (Torah portion) might be read as the beginning of the story of that split.
As the parasha begins, we encounter Rebekah struggling through pangs of pregnancy. In the throes of frustration and anguish, Rebekah calls out to God, “Im kein, lamah zeh anochi” — if so, why do I exist? God answers by telling Rebekah, “Two nations are in your womb, two separate peoples shall issue from your body.” We learn from these words that Rebekah, in affect, is experiencing not only the pain of bringing forth new life, but the gravitas of birthing a duality into existence.
No sooner are we intrigued by God’s foreshadowing remarks to Rebekah than Jacob and Esau tumble onto the scene. Almost immediately, we begin to learn of all that divides them from one another. In his essay “Restoring a Blessing,” Shamu Fenyevesi Sadeh writes, “Esau fell in love with the mountains of Edom, the pyramid peaks, the steep canyons and the long sandy plains stretching to the valley floor. Esau was a hunter and a wanderer. Jacob preferred the cool shadows of the tent; he was a thinker.” We read that Esau is called “Admoni,” coming from the root “aleph,” “dalet,” “mem,” playing on the word “adamah,” earth (Genesis 25:25). Described as a skilled hunter knowledgeable in the ways of the land, the text calls Esau an “ish sadeh” — a man of the field (25:27).
Jacob, on the other hand, far from being a rugged man of the field, is said to have “dwelled in tents.” Picking up on the plural of the word tents, the rabbis ask what exactly were these “tents” of Jacob? They explain that one was the tent where he lived, and the other was a place of learning. The Targum — an interpretive translation of the Torah into Aramaic — describes Jacob as a bookish scholar, spending his days frequenting the schoolhouse, occupied with matters of the mind.
As the writer and philosopher Wolfgang Goethe writes in his unpublished work “Polarity,” “Whatever appears in the world must divide if it is to appear at all. What has divided seeks itself again, can return to itself and reunite. In the reunion of the intensified halves it will produce a third thing, something new, higher and unexpected.” In Parshat Toldot, the two halves of Rebekah’s twin pregnancy and childbirth are now split, but as the Torah unfolds and Jacob and Esau later reunite, something new will emerge when the brothers meet again.
On the banks of the Yabbok River, Jacob stands completely and utterly alone with the darkness of the night, the rush of the waters by his feet and the thoughts in his head as he prepares to reunite with Esau. Out of nowhere an angel, some say the spirit of Esau himself, emerges and wrestles with Jacob until dawn. As the sky turns from black to indigo, rays lifting the cover of the darkness, the wrestling match dies down and Esau’s spirit begins to pull away. But, before he can go, Jacob clutches at his brother’s spirit and demands a blessing from him. It is in this moment that Jacob is renamed Yisrael — one who has struggled with God.
Through this reunification of Jacob, our archetype of the person of intellect with his brother Esau, our archetype of the person of the earth, comes the identity Yisrael (in English, Israel). Understood in this way, the Jewish people, subsequently named “Yisrael” (millennia before the state of Israel), are those who grapple, wrestle and struggle to bring together the knowing of the earth with the understanding of the mind.
Fully embodying the name Yisrael means reuniting the Jacob and Esau within each of us. Today, intellectual grappling and physical engagement with the natural world must not only be appreciated as two streams of wisdom, but must flow together and nourish one another. It may just be the synergy of these two ways of knowing that is needed to produce new and powerful possibilities to lead us through our current ecological crisis.
The story of Jacob and Esau demonstrates how the holy work of reunifying that which has been split can bring into existence something “new, higher and unexpected” — and possibly, something which we desperately need.
Rabbi Adina Allen, Rab’14, is an entrepreneur working at the intersection of Judaism, embodiment and creativity. She helps to empower Jewish adults to activate their creativity and claim their role as inheritors and innovators of the Jewish tradition.