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Further thoughts on parashat Toldot

The Offense of Esau

Further thoughts on Parashat Toldot...

by John J. Parsons

From our Torah portion this week (i.e., parashat Toldot) we read: "And Jacob was simmering stew when Esau came in from the field, famished" (Gen. 25:29). The Midrash Rabbah comments that Esau saw the stew and asked why it was being cooked. He was told that it was a traditional mourner's meal because his grandfather Abraham had just died.  Upon hearing this, Esau quickly became offended that one so righteous as Abraham had died and exclaimed: "If that's the case, there is no reward for one's good deeds, and no repair from death..." In this way Esau's offence over sorrow and suffering moved him to reject reality as being inherently unjust, and by this logic he justified his godless lifestyle... Because bitterness took root within his heart, Esau despised his birthright and spurned the very significance of his life (Heb. 12:15-16).

Of course Jewish post-Holocaust theology (i.e., "theology after Auschwitz") has wrestled with these sorts of harrowing and disturbing questions, though on a far larger and more traumatic scale. How could an all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful God allow (or permit) the horrors of the Shoah? For many Jews, the Holocaust marked the practical end of their faith, while for others it marked the start of a "theology of protest."  In either case, however, the horrific reality of the Holocaust requires an authentic response from all of us. Providing an intellectual theory about the "problem of evil" seems empty and even irreverent in the face of such unspeakable acts of cruelty.  Beware of any theology that denies the reality and heartache of human suffering. Yeshua offered up "loud cries and tears" during the days of his flesh, and he wept over the pain others experienced (Heb. 5:7, John 11:35).

In Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov (1880), Ivan Karamazov argued with his devout brother Alyosha regarding the nature of faith. Ivan intellectually accepted God's existence, His wisdom, and His heavenly goal to ultimately save an alienated world, but he nonetheless challenged the idea that any future good -- even if it should be "beyond all the heart's imaginings" (1 Cor. 2:9) -- could ever "atone for" the present evil and manifold suffering found in this world. To make his point, Ivan needed to find just one case of entirely "gratuitous evil" - an irrefutable counterexample to the viewpoint that this is the "best of all possible worlds." He therefore listed a number of cases of extreme and excessive cruelty in the world, but he finally focused on a heart-wrenching account of a five year old girl who was chained to an outhouse and left to die in the Russian winter. No matter what might be offered in the way of "defense" of God, no "future good" could possibly justify the suffering of this child.  Despite the hopeful theory that God will one day "wipe away every tear," Ivan stated that he could never accept the nature of this-worldly reality: "I refuse to accept this world of God's... Please understand, it is not God that I do not accept, but the world he has created. I do not accept God's world and I refuse to accept it."

Such is the essence of the "offense" (σκάνδαλον) held within the faithless and fearful heart, an offense that objects over the decrees of God and therefore over the nature of reality itself. It is a protest, a generalized objection, to the "drama" of the universe decreed by God to be a place of suffering and pain that ultimately leads to redemption.... Spiritually speaking, this offence is the deep despair called the "sickness unto death."

I once heard the following statement: "The optimist believes that this is the best of all possible worlds; the pessimist believes the optimist is right..."  The facts remain the same for both, but what is different is something within the heart, something that moves the will to no longer recoil from the world but rather to accept it.... Faith is a type of courage, a willingness to take risks, even in the midst of ambiguity. It surrenders to God's plan and will, even if that plan makes no rational sense at the moment. Of course it is intellectually "safer" to abstain from such trust and to yield to a "hermeneutic of suspicion." It is woefully easy to play the skeptic, to toy with ultimate questions, to affect intellectual superiority -- but at what cost?  Is the supposed "defense" against being mistaken more important the risk of commitment?  But such an approach to life is a essentially a form of cowardice. Without risk, we would never marry, have children, or take hold of our dreams. Some people might dismiss the dream of God's love as nonsense and futility, but the Scriptures make it clear that such hope represents the very substance (ὑπόστασις) of our faith (Heb 11:1).

Note: For more on this subject see "Musings about Suffering," and "The Power of Hope.

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