Toldot 5783 – Elohai Netzor
What is Tefillah supposed to “do”? For me, prayer is all about figuring out how to be the best version of myself every single day. What do I need? How can I be prepared? Can I set an intention for myself every day to strive to be the best Josh Warshawsky I can be today? What is daily prayer if not an exercise in self-discipline and self-reflection? If it is doing its job, prayer awakens us to walk a life of honor, honesty, goodness, and truth.
This idea is expressed most clearly through the prayer that Mar son of Ravina would use to conclude his Amidah prayer according to the Talmud. The prayer itself was so meaningful that it was placed in almost all siddurim after the Amidah for every pray-er to say three times a day:
אֱלֹהַי, נְצוֹר לְשׁוֹנִי מֵרָע וּשְׂפָתַי מִדַּבֵּר מִרְמָה, וְלִמְקַלְּלַי נַפְשִׁי תִדּוֹם, וְנַפְשִׁי כֶּעָפָר לַכֹּל תִּהְיֶה. פְּתַח לִבִּי בְּתוֹרָתֶךָ, וּבְמִצְוֹתֶיךָ תִּרְדּוֹף נַפְשִׁי.
My God, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking deceit. To those who curse me let my soul be silent, and may my soul be like dust to all. Open my heart to Your Torah, and may my soul pursue your mitzvot. (BT Brachot 17a)
In reading through this week’s parsha, Toldot, it almost seems as if Jacob is aware of this particular prayer as well. He struggles with his mother’s instruction to lie to his father. Jacob, the simple Torah scholar, knows this is wrong. In response to his father’s question, “Who are you, my son?” The Torah says,
וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב אֶל־אָבִיו אָנֹכִי עֵשָׂו בְּכֹרֶךָ
Said Jacob to his father, “I am Esau, your first-born” (Bereishit 27:19)
But Rashi and other commentators throughout history notice the seemingly unnecessary words, “to his father” and read the verse differently. Instead, they say that the verse should be punctuated like this:
וַיֹּאמֶר: “יַעֲקֹב”, אֶל־אָבִיו: “אָנֹכִי. עֵשָׂו בְּכֹרֶךָ”.
And he said (in a whisper so his father could not hear) “Jacob” and to his father, “I am. And Esau is your eldest”.
In this reading, Jacob’s words remain truthful though they still yield a deceitful outcome. Does this change how we should view Jacob? The rabbis do their best to make us think so, but I’m not so sure. Though Jacob’s tongue has not spoken “evil”, his lips are still creating deceit.
A lie of omission is still a lie. What must we learn from Jacob? Each day provides a new opportunity for us to walk through the world as a decent human being. In the end, the choices we make are ours alone to make. Though we may be pressured by outside forces (be they family, coworkers, or celebrities), though we may stumble and fall, the choices we make are ours alone to make.
Let us keep the words of this prayer close to heart and strive each day to be a better version of ourselves than the day before.