By Joy Scott, Am Haskalah Congregant
This week’s parsha presents an ancestral tale that haunts us with its theme of cunning and deception. As the narrative proceeds, we realize that each of the characters presented in Toldot is caught in a web of relationships; a web of words, true and false, from which they cannot escape.
The parsha begins: “Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebecca to himself for a wife”(1). After the marriage, similar to Isaac’s mother, Sarah, Rebecca also finds that she, too, is barren. After Isaac prays to the Lord, Rebecca ultimately conceives. However, her pregnancy was fraught with difficulties and she went to inquire of the Lord.
God answered her: “Two nations are in your womb; the two kingdoms will separate and the elder will serve the younger”(2). When the day to give birth was completed, indeed, there were twins in her womb. The first infant to emerge was a boy, they named Esau. Seconds later, another baby boy was born, who was named Jacob. Mindful of the prophecy from God, Rebecca immediately favored Jacob.
According to our sages, both Esau and Jacob were ‘pious’, each in his own way, until they reached the time of adolescence(3). At that point, their individual interests and character traits diverged. Esau evolved into a man of the ‘wilds’; he understood hunting and “was a man of the field”(4). Jacob is simply described as an individual “who dwelled in tents”(5). Unlike Esau, who was known to be impetuous and impulsive, Maimonides described Jacob as a “marginal figure, who lives on wits and subterfuge”(6).
Maimonides’ description of Jacob appears to come to fruition, early in the parsha. Esau arrives home from a day of hunting, exhausted, faint and hungry. Jacob offers him a pot of lentils. When Esau accepted the food, Jacob placed a condition on it: “Sell me, as of this day, your birthright”(7). This was the first step in the conspiracy between Jacob and Rebecca, to undermine the status and leadership of the first-born son. Isaac surely knew that Esau was of a mercurial nature, but he loved him in the same way that Rebecca loved Jacob (8).
Towards the end of the parsha, when Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see, he called to Esau: “My son, I am about to die; so go hunt and make me tasty foods, and then I will bless you”(9). Rebecca overhears this conversation and the masterful scene is set in motion. She calls to Jacob, and provides him with precise instructions on how to effectively impersonate Esau. Isaac unknowingly gave his death-bed blessing to the wrong son!
Just as Jacob was leaving, Esau arrived from his hunt, with food for his father. Isaac realized the falseness of his blessing and he “shuddered a great shudder”(10). Rebecca feared for Jacob’s life and told him to flee to her brother, Laban.
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, how to appease his father.
(1) GENESIS (25:20)
(2) GENESIS (25:23)
(4) GENESIS (26:27)
(5) GENESIS (26:27)
(6) Maimonides “Laws of the Foundation of Torah”
(7) GENESIS (26:31)
(9) GENESIS (27:4)
(10) GENESIS (27:33)