temple emanu-el
top border
Torah Commentary
Tol'dot (November 26, 2011)

Robyn Weinstein Cimbol, Senior Director of Development and Philanthropy

TOL’DOT CHRONICLES Abraham’s family into the next generation. It begins, as most family narratives do, with a marriage — between our patriarch Isaac and matriarch Rebekah. But the foundation of our historical narrative comes a few verses later with the in utero struggle between Jacob and Esau.

Isaac, commentators agree, suffered from post-traumatic syndrome. Being literally placed upon an altar to be sacrificed to satisfy the demand of a God (what kind of God would ask such a thing?) has got to take its toll on the victim. Isaac is our weakest patriarch and Rebekah perhaps the cleverest matriarch. It is she who orchestrates one of the most deceptive, yet necessary, twists in the family saga to assure an outcome that carries us through centuries. Isaac’s blindness at the dusk of his life personifies the weakness that characterized him during his life. Were it not for Rebekah’s intercession, our story would be quite different. And yet, in today’s world, we cannot help but judge her on the basis of the recurring incidents of deceit, duplicity, deception and dubious behavior.

Our historical narrative begins with Jacob/Israel, who we are taught is the “good guy.” Does anyone actually believe that Jacob thought he’d made a legitimate trade for the birthright? When encouraged to impersonate Esau to the dying Isaac, Jacob seems ill at ease. It is Rebekah who outfits Jacob, enabling the perpetuation of this fraud.

Only after Jacob receives the choice blessing does Esau discover this charade. In one of the most heartbreaking exchanges, Esau pleads with Isaac: “‘Hast thou not reserved a blessing for me? Hast thou but one blessing, my father? Bless me, even me also O my father.’ And Esau lifted up his voice, and wept.” It is out of character for Esau, the macho guy, to react in such an emotional manner; this behavior is more consistent with Jacob, the simple man, the quiet dweller in tents, than with Esau, the man with, according to Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, the Dionysiac temperament.

It is paradoxical that Jacob assumes the persona of Esau and Esau reacts with sensitivity. His pain is real, in a way that is uncharacteristically weak for this macho guy. And we too feel his pain.

The yin and yang of Jacob and Esau’s sibling relationship ends with the repudiation of primogeniture as is so prevalent throughout the Bible. Ishmael and Isaac, Leah and Rachel, Aaron and Moses, Joseph and his brothers all experience a “divine” selection that reverses the natural birth order to favor a younger child. But, in the chapters that comprise Tol’dot, it also elevates the mother above the father as the primary force in history. Perhaps Sarah’s role in the banishment of Ishmael and Hagar could be seen as foreshadowing this. The women seem to possess the capacity to see into the future and are thus compelled to transform the present to assure a certain outcome. Rebekah was chosen and could not escape her role, in much the same manner as Abraham. Only her task had more complex ethical implications and moral dimensions. We at once are impressed by her vision and angered by her trickery.

And please…does anyone think all of this was worth a bowl of red pottage?


Join the conversation and post your thoughts.

Back to Torah Study
photo of temple
One East 65th St., New York, New York 10065. Phone  212-744-1400
One East 65th Street, New York, NY 10065    (212) 744-1400 horizontal rule Member Log In | Calendar | Site Map | Contact Us | Text Size [+] [-]