A ‘BISSEL’ OF TORAH Parashat Tol’Dot (Genesis 25:19 – 28:9)

by Joy Scott, Am Haskalah Congregant

Parsha TOL’DOT presents an ancestral tale that haunts us with its themes of cunning and deception. As the narrative proceeds, we feel the pain of both the tricked and the trickster. We realize that each of the characters is caught in a web of relationships, a web of words, true and false, from which they cannot escape.

Like his father, Abraham, Isaac is concerned about the continuation of the family line. “The Eternal acceded to his entreaty, and his wife Rebekah becomes pregnant” (1). The pregnancy is exhausting and overwhelming , and Rebekah learns she will be giving birth to twins. After the birth of her first son, Esau, his brother Jacob appears, holding Esau’s heel.

As they grow, the brothers are drawn in opposite directions.  Esau is at home in the field, where he develops expertise as a hunter. His talent and ability to provide sustenance to his family endear him to his father Isaac. Jacob, on the other hand, stays close to the tent, learning the arts and crafts of domestic life, including the essential talent of preparing the food for the family. Rebekah was partial to Jacob(2). Together, Jacob and Esau are the stereotype of an ‘ideal’ man. Together they are both competent in the natural world, and the domestic sphere, connected to father and to mother.

These opposing yet complementary descriptions are shown in the encounter, whereby Esau, in exasperation gives up his birthright to Jacob. Esau comes in from the field, sunburned, sweaty, and exhausted from hunting. He sees his brother stirring a cauldron of stew. The famished brother cannot even utter the Hebrew word for stew, and instead stammers out a few incoherent syllables. Jacob’s reply to Esau is immediate and stunning, as if premeditated. Jacob replies that he will give Esau the stew, if he gives up his birthright. Esau, famished, sells his birthright for a bowl of stew.

The twins grow into manhood, and Isaac ages to the point that his eyesight is almost totally compromised. He calls Esau, “so that I can give you my heartfelt blessing before I die” (3). Encouraged by his mother, Jacob dresses like Esau, in effect stealing his father’s blessing. Jacob not only impersonates his brother by bringing food, wearing Esau’s clothes, but speaking in Esau’s voice.

The Parsha concludes with the power of a Greek drama, posing timeless questions about fate, fortune and the juxtaposition of human and divine will. As the curtain falls, Esau lumbers across the stage, seeking, in his own way to appease his father (4).
And, we are left with a legacy of patriarchal transformation (5).
(1) Genesis (25:21)
(2) Genesis (25:28)
(3) Genesis (27:4)
(4) The Torah: A Woman’s Commentary
(5) ReformJudaism.org