Year after year around Thanksgiving time, Hollywood turns up the heat. As we enter the winter holiday season, our country is bombarded by movies that are meant to be blockbusters. I am always amazed at the extent to which these blockbuster movies are adventures or fantasies, movies that force us to take a leap of faith beyond reality. The most successful films become franchises that repeat over and over again. Right now, pop culture is captivated by 007, the 24th film in the James Bond franchise. Next month, after much hoopla, the seventh Star Wars film will hit the silver screen
Why do blockbuster fantasy movies always take the country by storm? Certainly the popularity of familiar storylines and identity with characters help. Special effects also go a long way towards making them entertaining spectacles. But the key reason people turn to film or any dramatic media, is the escape it offers from the harsh realities of our world. What could be more comforting than the opening lines of the signature song of Disney’s classic, Pinocchio: “When you wish upon a star/makes no difference who you are/anything your heart desires/will come to you.” If only the world were so simple. Whether in print or on the screen, we turn to fantasy as an escape from the confusing world in which we live, a world fraught with evil and destruction.
Wouldn’t it be nice if somehow by magic we could bring back to life those who died in terrorist attacks in Israel in recent weeks? Imagine if we could use the Force to summon Israel’s enemies to a bargaining table to finalize peace in the region. Alas, we are not able to use the Force or summon any kind of magical powers to rid the world of its problems. Our world demands more of us.
At first glance, today’s Torah reading seems to confirm the “When you wish upon a star” thinking that we find in many films. The essential point of conflict in the story of Jacob and Esau is who will get their father’s blessing. When Jacob, disguised as Esau, stands before Isaac, he receives Isaac’s innermost blessing:
כח וְיִֽתֶּן־לְךָ הָֽאֱלֹהִים מִטַּל הַשָּׁמַיִם וּמִשְׁמַנֵּי הָאָרֶץ וְרֹב דָּגָן וְתִירֽשׁ:
May God give you of the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth, abundance of new grain and wine. Let peoples serve you, and nations bow to you; Be master over your brothers, and let your mother’s sons bow to you. Cursed be they who curse you, blessed be they who bless you.” (27:28-29) One might think that this blessing is a kind of hocus pocus incantation, like one would read in J.R.R. Tolkein or J.K. Rowling, two authors whose works also were adapted into blockbuster film serials. In fact, it is possible that Esau also believes that the blessing has a magical quality when he learns what happened and lets out a loud and bitter cry. Esau’s interest in the blessing was its material benefit. In the end, Esau receives from Isaac a very similar blessing of his own promising him the fat of the earth and the dew of heaven above.
Blessings are not magic, however. Even in their most materialistic forms, the purpose of blessings is to acknowledge the ultimate power of God in the world. Elsewhere, the Torah explicitly prohibits practices of magic and divination that seek to undermine God’s authority over all creation. Isaac is more sophisticated than we often give him credit for in recognizing the distinction between a blessing and a magical incantation. This is most evident at the end of the parasha when Isaac blesses Jacob as he is about to flee from Esau’s wrath.
Isaac says: May El Shaddai bless you, make you fertile and numerous, so that you become an assembly of peoples. May He grant the blessing of Abraham to you and your offspring, that you may possess the land where you are sojourning, which God assigned to Abraham.” (28:3-4)
Nechama Leibowitz, one of the great Torah scholars of the 20th century, contrasts the blessing originally intended for Esau and the one Jacob received in his own right. On the one hand, Esau was promised abundance, fatness, power and dominion-material blessings. Jacob, however, is charged with the Abrahamic mission, which is essentially spiritual. It demands responsibility on the part of Jacob in addition to the promise it offers him.
In a twist on Shakespeare, Abraham Joshua Heschel writes: “To be or not to be is not the question. The vital question is: how to be or not to be.” Heschel further writes: “Man in prayer does not seek to impose his will upon God; he seeks to impose God’s will and mercy upon himself. Prayer is necessary to make us aware of our failures, backsliding, transgressions, sins.”
Jacob in his youth is far from perfect, and the Bible does not try to hide his faults. However, he has a greater sense of the ultimate purpose of prayer. By the end of Parashat Toledot, Isaac realizes that prayer is not merely a shopping list one sends to God, but a means to bring Godliness into the world and that the person to do that is Jacob. More than the other patriarchs, Jacob shows the greatest amount of growth. He makes mistakes and pays dearly for them. Ultimately, though, it is Jacob who recognizes the power of prayer to transform himself, as we shall see in the coming weeks.
In many fantasies, there are forces of good and forces of evil. The characters on either side of the divide lack the ability to change. The struggle between the two, therefore, is not a struggle over the hearts and minds of humanity. Rather, it is a pure power struggle devoid of moral implications. It is a struggle over the outside world and material objects. The victor is the one who comes up with the stronger magic tricks.
The Jewish understanding, on the other hand, is that we all have free will to choose between good and evil. Our world is not decided by the
wave of a magic wand but by how we treat one another. When we pray, we have the potential to find the strength within ourselves to make ourselves and the world better.
May the implicit lesson of Parashat Toledot and the readings of the coming weeks inspire us to approach prayer as a vehicle to improving ourselves and the world around us. Amen.