November 27th, 2019
“Who is wise? One who recognizes the consequences of their actions.” -Pirkei Avot
In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Toledot, a new generation of our ancestors face the perils of a famine – this time, it is Isaac & Rebecca. Despite this, Isaac is blessed by God1 with an abundant harvest, providing him with considerable wealth, which the Philistines envied. Tensions between the “haves” and the “have-nots” become particularly elevated when the optics suggest that nothing was done differently by the recipient to have earned the disproportionate levels of wealth and resources than their struggling neighbors. All the more so is this true during times of heightened desperation, such as during times of environmental disaster. This resentment can escalate into attempts to sabotage the good fortunes of the privileged, which we most certainly see in the Philistines’ plugging up Isaac’s wells, which had been dug by his father’s servants. In response, Isaac relocates, digs more wells, and sees identical plenty, followed by retaliation from his neighbors. The whole process repeats another time – upon which the Philistines make peace with Isaac, now understanding that Isaac’s bounty despite the famine is from divine origins.
However, before we find ourselves overly sympathetic to the Philistines, they destroy the sources of water multiple times before forcing Isaac to relocate and start again. Eventually, they argue with Issac2 and simply take over the land and wells instead. Each time Isaac departs a settlement, God’s blessing goes too, rendering the wells useless. Though the Philistine’s frustration with Isaac is understandable, resorting to sabotage and intimidation is not a productive solution to their desperation. With that said, it is not until peace terms are made that Isaac even welcomes the Philistine leadership to his table, let alone aiding their poor and most desperate – extending his blessing to those who needed it most. Isaac’s passive approach certainly does not improve the situation for anybody involved. It is only once he is approached by Abimelech to make peace does Isaac extend hospitality and generosity to the Philistines. Had he taken a more direct approach from the start, Issac could have de-escalated the situation much sooner. Perhaps this is why Rebecca was such a good fit for the passive Isaac – she, like Abraham, was quick to go to great lengths to extend help to a stranger (see last week’s dvar for a further analysis of Rebecca’s noble generosity), and perhaps this is why she, not her husband, was informed by God directly of the prophecy of Jacob’s supremacy over his elder twin brother Esau.
Furthermore, let’s contrast Isaac’s gifts of peace with the two gifts given by Jacob to his slighted brother Esau. Isaac only extends gifts and hospitality following making peace with the Philistines – somewhat odd, considering that Isaac could have utilized this approach to make peace instead of relocating 4 times. Twice we see Jacob open his hand to his brother Esau – however, the two approaches used by Jacob are radically different. In the first instance, Jacob uses food he cooked to extort his elder brother into surrendering his birthright (additionally, he uses his culinary prowess to manipulate his father into blessing him instead of his brother). Following multiple decades of being manipulated while in exile, the changed Jacob, now Israel, is proactive with his generosity, preceding his potentially life-threatening reunion with Esau with such gifts, honoring Esau above himself by identifying the gifts as being from “Your servant, Jacob”3 – very similar language used by their grandfather, Abraham. Ultimately this proves successful, as Esau runs to embrace Jacob, weeping at their reunion.
Though Jacob’s gift of peace takes place years after taking Esau’s birthright, when given the opportunity to confront his vengeful brother, his alacrity to offer him humble gifts of peace prove to be far more effective than their father’s passive approach with the Philistines.
We should learn from Isaac’s needless headache! The climate crisis is here and will continue throughout our lifetimes. Rather than adopting a prolonged, tense approach between those with and without means, we must brace ourselves for the coming disaster with open hands and hearts to swiftly aid those less privileged than ourselves. Environmental injustice is one and the same as economic injustice, therefore our approach should be strategic and forward thinking, in the spirit of adult Jacob with Esau and Rebecca with Eleazar, instead of reactive, as in the case of Isaac with the Philistines. As the years pass, our ability to reshape our society to brace ourselves for the coming disasters diminishes – which will cause far more destruction to our environment and economy than the upfront, forward thinking investment into a sustainable economy.
Will our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren be thankful that we tightened our belts and innovated to ensure a secure world and society for them – or will they lament our inaction which sealed their doom? Will we reject fossil fuels, animal agriculture, and plastics, on individual and society-wide levels, in our day-to-day lives to ensure a future for ourselves and future generations? Or will we, like Isaac, just cross our fingers and hope everything works out in the end?
Let us humbly and honestly ask ourselves: are we climate deniers, or do we just act like them?
We Jews are not known as the children of Isaac; we are not even known as the children of Jacob. We are B’Nai Yisrael – children of Yisrael, the older, wiser, and kinder Jacob. May we live up to that title by humbly submitting to the dangers ahead, opening our hands to those who need it, and proactively building safeguards in case we are faced with the worst possible outcomes. For if we are defeated, at least we will be standing on two feet, instead of surrendering decades earlier.