Sunday, November 4, 2018

Toldot (You Know How I Feel)

Our forefather Jacob is a deeply flawed hero.  Yes, he grapples with the Divine and thereby wins the name that will define the Jewish people—Israel, the God-wrestler. 
But he also plays favorites among his children, cons his uncle Laban out of half his flock, and responds with indifference to his daughter Dinah’s rape and the carnage that follows in its wake at the hands of his eldest sons, Reuben and Shimon.  And in this week’s Torah portion, Toldot, he steals his older brother Esau’s birthright and blessing, following his mother Rebecca’s lead by dressing up in animal skins to trick his half-blind father.  When a confused and suspicious Isaac inquires, “Which son of mine are you?” Jacob baldly lies, “I am Esau your firstborn.”

Or does he lie? 

Contemporary commentator Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg suggests that in disguising himself as his powerful brother, in some significant manner, Jacob actually becomes Esau:  “Jacob assumes the costume of Esau, takes on what had been Esau’s role.  This involves Jacob in a new, complex, and dangerous sense of himself. . . . He now carries all the explosive energies, symbolized by hair, by strong limbs.  Jacob, then, is really Esau, as he lays claim to the energies of his twin brother.”  We see evidence of this in the very next verse, as Jacob—previously described as a lifelong homebody—leaves everything behind to start a new life in a new place.

I suspect that all of us have, at some point, felt this sense of possibility and new beginnings.  It’s daunting—but also exhilarating—to receive the gift of a fresh start.
Nina Simone expresses the feeling perfectly in her thrilling version of “Feeling Good” by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, featured on Ms. Simone’s classic album, “I Put a Spell on You.”

The music starts slow, then builds to a fever pitch of joy:

Birds flying high
You know how I feel
Sun in the sky
You know how I feel
Reeds driftin' on by
You know how I feel

It's a new dawn
It's a new day
It's a new life
For me
And I'm feeling good. . .

And this old world
Is a new world
And a bold world
For me
That is exactly how I imagine Jacob feels as our portion ends: Leaving home, he is stepping into his adult life, with all of the challenges—and, more significantly, all of the exciting adventures—that this opportunity offers.  He is, perhaps for the first time in his life, truly joyful.

That joy comes to a climax toward the end of the song as Nina Simone, a descendant of slaves and an icon of the civil rights movement, speaks of what it means to feel free:

Stars when you shine
You know how I feel
Scent of the pine
You know how I feel
Oh freedom is mine
And I know how I feel
And I’m feeling good

Sometimes blessings are hard won—and since, as Talmud teaches, according to the labor, so is the reward—that only makes them more precious.  This is why Jacob is a hero, despite all of his flaws.  He is a person who is constantly in the state of becoming, and thereby one in whom we can readily see ourselves. 

May this week bring freedom and change, new days and new dawns.

To hear Nina Simone singing Feeling Good: 

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