Sunday, November 7, 2010

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Brett Mayer on Toldot

With Hanukkah fast approaching, our thoughts turn to candles, presents and, of course, latkes. Unlike last year, I will be able to celebrate Hanukkah HERE, with all my friends and family – and with latkes. Last year I was at junior nationals in Ohio. Let’s just say, it’s not easy to find latkes in Ohio.

Guess what I’ve just done? I’ve stereotyped Ohio. In fact, there are lots of Jews in Ohio, especially in Cleveland where I was, and I read recently that there are many excellent places to get latkes near Cleveland.

But, believe it or not, to say that all Jews eat latkes is another stereotype. I Googled “Jews who don't like latkes” and got 23,700 results!

These stereotypes are harmless, of course, and there are much more dangerous ones, including some that are harmful to Jews. There are some who still believe that Jews have horns. Some of them live in Ohio.

But some may live in Connecticut too. Any time you make any general statement about an entire group, you are walking on, shall we say, thin ice….

Parents are often guilty of stereotyping their children. We see it in our portion. In fact, stereotyping children was practically invented in our portion.

We have the twins, Jacob and Esau – or, I should say, in birth order, Esau and Jacob. They wrestle in their mother Rebecca’s womb and the struggle continues throughout their lives. Even the Torah stereotypes them, seeing them as opposites. Esau is described as a hunter, a but of a bully, an outdoorsy guy, and not too smart. Jacob, meanwhile, is a scholar who sticks to the tent. We would call him a geek or a nerd.

The Torah, like Rebecca, favors Jacob, but Jacob was a much more complex person, and so was Esau. Jacob is a sneak who deceives people. His name, Ya’akov, actually means “heel,” not only because he came out of Rebecca’s womb clinging to Esau’s heel, but because the word heel, in Hebrew and English, can also mean someone sneaky, who tricks others. But Jacob is also an outdoorsman, like Esau. In next week’s portion, he camps out, sleeping under the stars. He turns out to be strong enough to roll a heavy rock from a well, when he meets Rachel, and he turns out to be a great shepherd too.

Esau, on the other hand, isn’t just Mr. Tough Guy. He is the one who reaches out, in the end, to make peace with Jacob. And when he hears that Jacob has gotten the blessing meant for him, he cries. Esau has a sensitive side.

So if you read the Torah carefully, it is not saying that athletes by definition have to be insensitive apes and that and that people who are good students can’t be athletes.

I think it is possible to be both a good student and an athlete. I know that I have tried to be both.

Maybe the Torah actually is telling us that we shouldn’t stereotype, and it uses Jacob and Esau to tell that story. When the twins wrestle in the womb, maybe it’s not about their being rivals, but about their acting as one whole person. Neither of them really becomes whole again until the meet up many years later, after another wrestling match. Their forgiving embrace is a sign that they at last have become whole again.

To be a whole person means to be full of contradictions. I can be intensely competitive on the ice, while off the ice, I can be just a calm, casual, friendly, good old nice guy. But either way, I’m still me.

Fortunately, this year’s Junior Nationals will be happening in a place that is much harder to stereotype than Ohio.

Salt Lake City.

Once you get beyond all the differences, we’re pretty much the same. For my Mitzvah project, I ran in a five K race, raising money for cancer research. I also collected bottles and cans to donate for cancer research.

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