An old adage states: Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it. The story most associated with this dictum is, of course, that of King Midas and the Golden Touch. Being granted his heart's desire, Midas experiences the shadow of his request when his food turns into metal and his daughter into a gleaming statue. What had initially appeared a blessing actually became an unmitigated curse.
I often think of this lesson when I read this week's portion, Toledot. Here we learn of the birth of Jacob and Esau, as un-alike temperamentally as twins can be. Esau, the first born, is a mighty hunter, earthy and impetuous; Jacob, a homebody, is more ethereal and calculating.
From the womb, it is clear that Jacob is trying to supplant Esau. He's born clutching Esau's heal and when they are teens, Jacob actually sells his famished brother a bowl of soup. Jacob's goal is to acquire Esau's birthright, and with, it the elder's prerogative to be spiritual head of the family. Tensions boil when Rebecca, who favors her younger son, covers Jacob's arms with goat skins so that he can masquerade as his much hairier twin.
Jacob surreptitiously receives his father's blessing, the primogenitor's right to a double share of any future inheritance. All hell is about to break loose when Esau returns, so Jacob is hurried off to Rebecca's ancestral home in Mesopotamia.
When the disguised Jacob appears before the nearly blind Isaac he states, "I am Esau, your first born." As one reads on in Genesis, one senses an ironic justice at play, as if God is telling Jacob, "You want to be Esau? Now you'll discover just what this means."
Upon arriving in Mesopotamia, Jacob needs to access the earthy side of himself if he is to survive. He learns what it is to toil outdoors in order to feed himself and his family, and the pain of being deceived by loved ones. The intrigue he visited upon his parents is now mirrored by his own fractious sons and wives. It is the ability to grow from these experiences that helps shape Jacob into the patriarch he becomes — Yisrael, a true champion of God.
Recently, I read a poll indicating that more than 75 percent of Americans choose "celebrity," "movie star" or "sports hero" as the career they'd most like to pursue. Not only did these answers strike me as shallow (doesn't anyone aspire to teach, invent or cure disease?) but, like Midas or the young Jacob, I wonder if the respondents realize exactly what they're wishing for.
Aside from the physical beauty or natural talent these fields demand, would most people want paparazzi in their faces or their misdeeds the grist for scandal? How many would put in the hours of rehearsal or practice to "make it," only to be vulnerable to the whims of popularity or the onset of age? Often, we compare only the radiant side of our dreams to the limitations of reality.
The drama of Toledot continues into next week's portion, Vayetze. At its start, a young Jacob dreams of angels and heavenly ladders while trying to negotiate terms with God. Later, a more grounded Jacob dreams again, this time of breeding livestock to better provide for his family. Soon thereafter, a voice beckons Jacob home. Perhaps it was creatively encountering reality that launched Jacob's mature journey back to the Promised Land. where real angels now waited to greet him.
Rabbi Howard A. Addison is the religious leader of Congregation Melrose B'nai Israel Emanu-El in Cheltenham. E-mail him at: [email protected]