"And Yitzchak loved Eisav, for the game he put in his mouth, but Rivkah loves Yaakov" (Genesis, 25:28).

Even people not normally attuned to grammar are struck by the Torah's strange use of tenses to describe the relationship of Yitzchak and Rivkah with their children. Yitzchak "loved" Eisav, in the past tense, while Rivkah "loves" Yaakov, in the present tense. What is this meant to teach us?

The Dubno Maggid suggests a solution based on a keen observation of the world. In non-Jewish society, people define themselves and are defined by others according to what they do. In Jewish society, people are defined by what they are.

Eisav represented non-Jewish values. He defined himself and expected other to define him by what he did. He wanted to be seen as the athlete, the warrior, the storied hunter. The basis for the admiration and love of other people was what he had accomplished in the past. Should he cease to be a hunter, the admiration would cease as well. Therefore, Yitzchak "loved" Eisav, in the past tense, "for the game he put in his mouth," the things he had done in the past. But Yaakov represented Jewish values. He was defined by what he was rather than by what he did. Therefore, Rivkah "loves" Yaakov, in the present tense, a love that continues uninterrupted and is not dependent on his latest feat and achievement.

This is particularly true in our own times. Ask a non-Jewish child what he wants to be when he grows up and he will inevitably tell you he wants to be a doctor or a lawyer or a Silicon Valley entrepreneur or perhaps a rock star. Ask a Jewish child, and hopefully he will tell you he wants to be a tzaddik (righteous person), a talmid chacham (Torah scholar), a baal chessed (kind), and oveid Hashem (servant of God). Hopefully.

The Jewish child answers the question directly. He tells you what he wants to "be." The non-Jewish child, however, is not giving a direct answer to the question. He is telling what he will "do" rather than what he will "be." He has been conditioned to believe that a person's entire value is dependent on his profession or vocation. If he is a doctor he is important. If he is a mailman he is not important.

A columnist here in Baltimore recently wrote a piece decrying this tendency in society. Whenever he meets someone new at a function or party, it takes no more than fifteen seconds before he is asked, "So what do you do?" Sometimes, he is so annoyed he identifies himself as an auditor for the Internal Revenue Service, which is a guaranteed conversation stopper. Obviously, he concludes, in America "you are what you do," and what you really are - your character, your interests, your thoughts, your feelings, your opinions - do not really matter that much.

In America, you are measured by your performance, by what you do. Therefore, you may be idolized and adored one day and despised the next. If the level of your performance falls off, if you go through a stretch when you strike out instead of hitting, your fickle admirers will turn on you. After all, it was not what you are that they never admired but what you do, and when you no longer do it, there is no longer any basis for the admiration.

This is not the perspective of Judaism. In fact, it is the exact opposite. Judaism values all people for what they are, for their tzelem Elokim, for their character, their integrity, their goodness, their ethical standards, their menschlichkeit, their spiritual accomplishments. What they do for a living or for professional fulfillment is only secondary.

A DOSE OF HOLINESS

And he inhaled the scent of his garments, and he blessed him. (Gen. 27:27)

Yitzchak lost his sight in his old age, but his sense of smell was just fine. Yaakov was counting on that. He put on Eisav's garments, brought Yitzchak delicacies and asked for the blessing. Yitzchak "inhaled the scent of his garments" and gave him the blessing. And the rest is history.

The Midrash offers a completely different homiletic interpretation of these words. The word used here for "his garments" is begadav. With alternate vowelization, it can be read as bogdav, which means his renegades. In other words, when Yitzchak "inhaled the scent of his renegades," when he sensed prophetically the descendants of Yaakov who would become renegades to the Jewish people, he was inspired to give him the blessings. What exactly does this mean?

Let us consider the renegade the Midrash holds up as an example. His name was Yosef Meshisa, and he was an awful Jew. When the Romans mounted their assault on the Beis Hamikdash, the Holy Temple, this Yosef Meshisa served as their native guide. As a reward, the Roman officer gave him permission to take for himself any of the valuables he wanted. He went into the Heichal and took the golden menorah, but the Roman decided it was too extravagant a treasure for a mere commoner.

"Go back and take something else," the Roman told him.

"I cannot go back in," Yosef Meshisa replied.

"No, you must go back," said the Roman.

"But I simply cannot," said Yosef Meshisa. "Isn't it enough that I defiled the Lord's Temple once? Must I do it again?"

"Aha! What have we here all of a sudden?" said the Roman. "A pious man, no less. Well, I absolutely insist that you go back in."

But Yosef Meshisa would not budge from his resolution. The Roman beat and tortured him mercilessly, but still he refused to go back into the Heichal. In his agony, he cried out, "Woe is me, for I have angered my Creator!" Finally, he died.

What had transformed this renegade Jew into a holy martyr in a matter of minutes? One minute, he was prepared to loot the Beis Hamikdash and carry off the golden menorah, and the next, he allows himself to be tortured to death rather than violate the sanctity of the Heichal. What, asks the Ponovezher Rav, brought about this amazing change?

The answer is simple, says the Ponovezher Rav. Stepping into a holy place transformed him. He may have entered the Heichal with the worst of motives. But once there, he was exposed to the aura of holiness, and he emerged a changed man.

This, according to the Midrash, is what Yitzchak saw in Yaakov's future that convinced him to give him the blessings. He saw that even the lowest of the low among Yaakov's descendants, even the most despicable renegades such as Yosef Meshisa, would have such strong spiritual fortitude that they could be turned around by exposure to holiness. As low as they would fall, they would be one mere step from transformation into righteous people willing to die al kiddush Hashem. This was the lineage that was truly deserving of the blessings.

History has shown us that these kinds of transformations are not limited to the Inner Sanctum of the Beis Hamikdash. In the early 20th century, a Jew named Franz Rosenzweig told his story in a book entitled The Star of Redemption.

Franz was a successful author, a respected philosopher and a totally secular Jew. At one point, he was engaged to a gentile woman and was seriously considering baptism. It was during the First World War, and he served as a captain of cavalry in the German army on the Eastern front.

On the night of Yom Kippur, he found himself stationed in a small Polish town. As he made his rounds, he saw the light in the shul and heard the voices of the congregants, and out of curiosity, he stopped in to see what was going on. When he walked out a little while later, he writes, he was a religious Jew, a sincere baal teshuvah. He broke off his engagement to the gentile woman and led a life of observance from that point on.

In Germany of 1915, the idea of a baal teshuvah was virtually unheard of, unlike today when it such a common phenomenon. What brought about his incredible transformation? One thing: exposure to holiness. When he stepped into the shul and experienced the aura of Yom Kippur, he became a different person.

Such is the power of holiness, not just the holiness of the Shechinah in the Beis Hamikdash, but the holiness of just a handful of sincere Jews praying together in a small village shul. They too have the power to change a man forever.