On Friday November 22nd, the IJC was host community to the World Union of Progressive Judaism (WUPJ) Shabbat Around the World. Progressive Jews from every continent joined a large contingent of IJC members for Kabbalat Shabbat and Ma’ariv from our sanctuary at Beth Hillel in Brussels. Our rabbinical intern Brian Doyle-Du Breuil led the service together with Anneke Silverstein and our High Holiday Cantor joined us with his wonderful voice and guitar from Athens. In addition to welcoming our Zoom visitors and guiding us through the service, Brian also gave a short Dvar Torah on the portion of the week – Toledot.
Outer Appearance and Inner Character
Sometimes when we read stories, the descriptions of characters often tell us something about the persons themselves, about who they are, about their personality. I’m thinking of Voldemort in the Harry Potter series. The novels describe him as having “[…] pale skin, a chalk-white, skull-like face, snake-like slits for nostrils, red eyes and cat-like slits for pupils, a skeletally thin body and long, thin hands with unnaturally long fingers, no hair or lips.” When we read a description like this it’s hard to disagree: the way we look can speak volumes about the people we are.
This kind of thing isn’t so frequent in Torah, but now and then it’s clear as day. Esau in this week’s parashah Toledot is described a hairy man – a bit of a bear – and we’re told he even emerged from the womb with a mantle of red hair covering his body (Bereishit 25, 25). His brother Jacob, on the other hand, is smooth skinned. He even reminds his mother of this in Bereishit 27, 11 when they both conspire to trick their almost blind father Isaac into giving his blessing to the wrong son: “But my brother Esau is a hairy man and I am smooth-skinned” says Jacob. While hairiness and smoothness are clearly important for tension in the plot – Jacob isn’t so sure about his mother’s plan, thinking Isaac will recognize him even with a hairy goatskin draped over him – they are also important for the contrast between the two characters. Their contrasting exterior reflects their contrasting personalities.
Outer appearance here in Toledot is clearly a sign of inner character. Esau is the wild man of nature, a hunter, strong and burly, a man of the fields. Jacob on the other hand is a shepherd, smooth skinned and civilized, a tent dweller. Jacob’s smoothness also alludes to his character, perhaps even his ‘smoothness’ in the wily sense since the word for smooth used here halaq is often related to flattering and misleading words.
Just about everything about our two brothers is different: their external appearance, their character, their occupation, their deeds, their words, and their thoughts. Zvi Shimon of Bar Ilan University describes Esau’s personality as “[…] impulsive, living for the moment, ready to sell his birth right for a bowl of lentil stew, willing to give up his future for the enjoyment of the moment […] Smooth-skinned tent-dwelling Jacob, however, is characterized as being wily, complex, and thinking in the long term, a person capable of developing deep culture and continuing the heritage of Abraham.” So, the description of the brothers is intended to do more than just make the plot interesting, it tells us something about the personalities involved.
Today’s world is dominated by appearances, but there’s a difference with the world of Torah and its stories. Our appearance tends to be contrived and manufactured rather than an expression of our natural state. Some men want to emphasize their wildness and grow beards. Some people wear coloured lenses to disguise the real colour of their eyes. Some work hard to beautify themselves, often taking on an almost complete disguise.
There’s nothing wrong with manipulating our exterior looks. It’s part of the way the culture of beauty has evolved. But changing our exterior doesn’t change the person we are inside. It only creates the person we might like others to think we are. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder we say, but the eye of the beholder can’t see what’s inside.
What We See & Who We See - on Zoom
Covid-19 has limited our lives, and particularly the way we interact with one another. Most of our exchanges these days are restricted to Zoom or another form of video conferencing. But Zoom, it seems, only lets us see outward appearances, talking heads on a screen, often very small and, in some cases, reduced to the basic essentials. Maybe that’s one reason why we miss our real live gatherings so badly. We long not only to see each other, but more importantly to go beyond the surface, go beyond the appearance – hairy or smooth – to encounter people in all their dimensions.
I read a question on a Facebook stream recently. Someone was asking whether Jews made images of God – like paintings, statues, stained-glass windows – and of course the answer was no, we don’t, it’s pretty foundational really, God has no physical form. But one response caught my attention. It said if you want to see God you just have to look in the mirror. We are all made in God’s image and likeness.
So maybe Zoom, for all its limitations, is another window to God. No matter what we see – or want others to see – on the outside, it’s who we see that counts. Divine beauty is inside Esau and Jacob, you and me.
We are all images of God, and we get to see God in every screen on Zoom!
Brian Doyle-Du Breuil
IJC Rabbinical Intern
 Based on Zvi Shimon, “Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Leah.” https://www.biu.ac.il/JH/ Parasha/eng/toledot/shim.html