November 19, 1998
‘Very’ Difficult Choices
Parashat Toledot (Genesis 25:19-28:9)
The word "m'od," which means "very" or "much," is a very common biblical word. At the end of the sixth day of creation, for example, when God assesses the world He has created, He proclaims it to be "tov m'od," very good. In the Torah reading this week, though, we find a very uncommon usage of this very common word. In fact, we find it twice in successive verses.
The context of these verses is the story in which Jacob steals the blessing that had been intended for his older brother, Esau. Moments after Jacob leaves the presence of his father, Isaac, with blessing in hand, Esau enters. Isaac, upon realizing that he has been deceived, and that he bestowed God's blessing upon the "wrong" son, begins to shake violently. And it is here that the first unusual usage of "m'od" appears. Isaac is described as trembling not just "m'od" (very much), but as trembling "ad m'od" (beyond very much). The picture the verse conveys is that of a trembling which is beyond anything that a person experiences over the normal course of life's events.
In the very next verse, it is Esau's turn to have an "ad m'od" experience. Esau infers from his father's state of horror and shock that something has gone terribly wrong. And when Isaac asks, "Who then was the one who brought me venison and whom I blessed?" Esau knows instantly that Jacob has struck again. "And Esau cried bitterly 'ad m'od,'" the verse reads. The power and anguish of his cry were beyond "very much." They exceeded that which is heard under ordinary circumstances of crying.
Based on these two verses, how would we then define an "ad m'od" experience, one that evokes "ad m'od" trembling and crying? An "ad m'od" experience would seem to be one that occurs completely unexpectedly, and that thoroughly shakes the foundations of our lives, violently throwing what we had believed to be a secure and happy future into a state of utter confusion and deepest uncertainty.
There are many people who are blessed to live their entire lives without such an experience. And then there are the rest of us -- those of us who have unexpectedly lost "secure" jobs, or who have discovered our marriages to be in serious trouble, or who have been struck by a life-threatening illness completely out of the blue. Yesterday all seemed well, and today our entire world is in upheaval. This is an "ad m'od" experience. And too many of us know the feeling of trembling and crying "ad m'od."
Interestingly, both Isaac and Esau find ways to cope with, and ultimately accept, the overturning of their worlds. Isaac throws himself into the hands of God, in the belief that God's wisdom is greater than his own and that God's plan is ultimately for the good. Esau (see his words to Jacob in Chapter 33, verse 9) comes to the conclusion that, to begin with, his receipt of the blessing was "never meant to be." In the end, he is not crushed by the fact that the future he had envisioned for himself was snatched away. That vision of the future was, all along, the product of self-delusion. Esau's way, as well as Isaac's, is familiar to many of us.
There is, however, a third approach presented in scripture as well. And it may be that this is ultimately the most important and useful one of all. In Psalm 119, verse 5, David expresses the fear that the day might come when he would no longer enjoy the close support and proximate presence of God, which have been responsible for his spectacular personal success. David reflects on the sins of his past and dreads the possibility that God could one day decide to abandon him "ad m'od."
Remarkably, though, David declares that regardless of what the future may bring, even should his world suddenly collapse before his eyes, he would respond by tenaciously maintaining his personal commitment to walk along God's path of righteousness. For "Your word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path (verse 105)." The pursuit of the path of meaning -- meaning that could only be obtained through his asking, even in the midst of fright and tears, "what does God want me to do now?" -- is the only response to "ad m'od" that David can imagine. Personal crisis intensifies the need for meaning, and the dogged pursuit of meaning is the ultimate mechanism for survival. From a certain perspective, this is undoubtedly the most daunting method of response. But, in the end, it is the most powerful.
In our parasha, and in our scriptures, we have models for responding to "ad m'od." And in their own ways, they can help us to reach the day when God and we together will proclaim this world to be "tov ad m'od."
Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi at B'nai David Judea in Los Angeles.
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