However, Jacob continued, my brother Esau will also ask a third question: “and for whom are these before you?” Are you ready to contribute your talents, capabilities, and efforts toward the material and cultural welfare of the general society? Are you willing to pay taxes, to develop and industrialize the country? The third inquiry is focused on the temporal aspects of life.
Jacob told his agents to answer the third question in the positive. “It is a gift sent to my master.” We feel obligated to enrich society with our creative talents and to be constructive and useful citizens. Yet in regard to the first two questions, he commanded his representatives to reply in the negative, clearly and precisely, boldly and courageously. He commanded them to tell Esau that their soul, their personality, their metaphysical destiny, their spiritual future and sacred commitments, belong exclusively to God and his servant Jacob.
The Rav here presents the proper attitude to the world. On the one hand, we are citizens of society who have much to contribute with our talents and resources. On the other, we are a distinct religious community. The Rav propounded similarly about Abraham’s self-description as a “ger ve-soshav, a stranger and an inhabitant” (23:4):
What is our position vis-a-vis modern civilization – with respect to science, to Western culture, to the countries in which we live? The answer is enshrined in these words. Certainly I am a resident, I am one of you. I engage in business as you do, I speak your language, I take full part in your social-economic institutions. But at the same time I am a stranger and, in some aspects, a foreigner. I belong to a particular world, one that is completely foreign to you. It is a world in which I am at one with the Creator… It is a world full of altars and sacrifices, a world of Torah, of lovingkindness, of sanctity and purity. You live differently, pray differently. Your conception of charity is different from ours; your days of rest are different from ours, and so on. In these matters I am a stranger in your world, and you are strangers in mine.
To my mind, there is no greater description than this of the Orthodox Jew’s role in American society. We are proud citizens, working hard and contributing to society on many levels. But we are also our own faith community with distinct beliefs and values. We see the world in terms of commands and obligations. We look to the Torah for our values. Our very conception of charity is different! The Orthodox Jew must be a valuable citizen and a cultural foreigner at the same time.
Teshuvah, repentance, served as a recurring subject of the Rav’s analysis. Human experience consists of a string of failures and successes. Our response to failure is just as important, if not more, than our response to success. The Torah attitude to personal failure is to grow from the experience, to undo our failings as much as possible and to become better people through the teshuvah process.
The Rav often dissected the Rambam’s ten chapters on teshuvah with lomdus (Talmudic concepts) and psychological insight. He also used it to explain difficult questions in the biblical narrative. For example, he asked why Abraham argued with God that Sodom should be saved if it contains ten righteous people? Why shouldn’t the wicked majority still be punished? Because, the Rav explained, Abraham had hope in the power of teshuvah (repentance). If there is a presence of righteousness in the city, even the most wicked people stand a chance of repenting. Unlike Noah, who accepted without argument the demise of all civilization, Abraham exhibited patience and hope in human potential (18:26). Those who fail must repent. Those who observe failure must retain hope in the power of teshuvah, man’s ability to repair his relationships with others and with God.
Living in prosperous America, the Rav was aware of the intoxicating allure of wealth. This society of plenty, the culture of excess and runaway consumption, is dangerous but that very threat can strengthen us. The Rav used the tools of biblical commentary to express the proper values and attitudes in the face of a prosperous but amoral (or immoral) society (39:1):