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Parashat Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:8)

“And his father Isaac answered, saying to him, ‘See, your abode shall enjoy
the fat of the earth and the dew of heaven above.’” (Genesis 27: 39)

Parashat Toldot is all about relationships and conflict, both real and conceptual: Esau versus Jacob, Rachel versus Isaac, trust versus betrayal, and truth versus falsehood. Because of all the drama, it’s easy to overlook a small but powerful statement about our relationship with the physical environment.

When Jacob enters Isaac’s tent disguised as Esau, Isaac is suspicious and quizzes him (Gen 27:18-24). Once he is satisfied, Isaac eats the prepared meal, and then “…He [Isaac] smelled his clothes and he blessed him, saying, ‘R’eih, Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of the fields that the Lord has blessed.’” (Gen. 27:27) Is Isaac still uncertain which son stands before him? Is this a final, literal “sniff test?” S’forno (~1470 – ~1550; Italian commentator and physician) says no, it is a spiritual moment rooted in the uplifting power of the natural environment.

Blessings in the Bible are serious business; offering one requires an elevated spirit and a soul filled with joy. Smells, because of their intangible nature, affect the soul but not the body (Babylonian Talmud B’rachot 43b). Isaac’s joy is triggered by the smell of Jacob’s clothes, which recall the smells of the fields and forest. S’forno interprets r’eih as see, a command to Jacob to appreciate the beauty of the natural world as a blessing from God. This echoes the motif vayar elohim ki tov, and God saw it was good, upon the completion of each day of creation. We depend upon the land not just for physical sustenance, but for aesthetic and spiritual inspiration, too. Parashat Toldot is filled with discord; buried within it is a plea for harmony.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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