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Torah Commentary
Tol'dot (November 14, 2015)

Rachel Brumberg, Associate Director of Lifelong Learning

THIS WEEK’S TORAH PORTION, Tol’dot, tells us of the line of Isaac. It includes his marriage to Rebekah; the birth of their twins, Esau and Jacob; and the selling of Esau’s birthright to Jacob. It ends with the deception of Isaac when Jacob tricks his father into giving him the blessing meant for the firstborn. In the middle of these life-cycle events we read about a famine. God instructs Isaac not to go to Egypt during this famine but rather to remain in the land that was promised to him as part of God’s covenant with Abraham. So Isaac stays there and settles in Gerar so that he can continue to receive God’s blessing.

In Gerar, something happens that I find surprising and even troubling (not that there is a lack of surprising and troubling twists in the Bible, but still…): Isaac tells the people that Rebekah is his sister. He believes that it is safer for him if people think that the beautiful woman is not his wife, lest they want to kill him for her. Think about that for a moment — Isaac clearly is putting his own safety before that of his wife’s. But what about Rebekah’s safety if people in a new place now think that there is a beautiful, eligible woman?

Next, we find out that Isaac is not even a good liar, as King Abimelech soon spots Isaac fondling Rebekah in public. The king summons Isaac to confront him on his relationship with Rebekah. Isaac admits to lying in order to protect himself. The king points out that this lie actually puts his own people in danger and at risk of extreme guilt if any of them unknowingly had relations with a married woman. So what’s the outcome of this meeting? The king orders his people not to touch Isaac, with the penalty of death to anyone who does.

So let’s recap: The king catches Isaac in a lie that he deems a threat to his own people, and in the end the same king decries that anyone who touches Isaac will be killed — thus flipping Isaac’s fear of what would happen to him to become the punishment of such a crime. For being a liar and endangering others (his wife included), Isaac gets protection and not persecution.

Troubling, right? I thought about this long and hard because I do believe that we have the Torah to teach us, and its lessons can be found even in the most unlikely places. And while I don’t have all the answers, two things finally came to me in response to this passage. The first is that perhaps the king’s reaction to Isaac’s deceit may be a fulfillment of a verse that comes just before this story when God tells Isaac to remain in the land that is shown to him: “Stay in this land and I will be with you and bless you.” (Genesis 26:3) If Isaac had told the same lie in Egypt, perhaps the end result would have been different. The teaching here being, trust in God, and you will be blessed. Or, maybe the lesson is that if you get caught in a lie, then hope that your judge is compassionate.

Second, in this story there is a hint of what is to come at the end of our parashah when Jacob deceives Isaac in order to get the blessing that belongs to Esau as the firstborn. Jacob, at the suggestion of Rebekah, disguises himself as Esau and goes to his father. Isaac, who by then is blind, believes that Jacob is Esau and gives him the blessing meant for his firstborn son. Once the blessing is given, it belongs to Jacob and cannot be transferred back to Esau. So again, as a result of a lie, one who may have been cursed (or at least gotten a lesser share) instead is blessed and promised all that there is to offer. By means of deceit, Jacob becomes the one through which God’s covenant with Abraham, passed down to Isaac, will continue to flourish.

What can we learn from this scenario? Maybe birth order shouldn’t be the sole reason for one to inherit a bigger blessing? Perhaps it should be earned rather than received by luck? Clearly Jacob is willing to get crafty, and Esau makes an assumption about how things will turn out, so he doesn’t need to try. Or maybe life just isn’t fair...

What do you think? As with any good Torah study, my thoughts just seem to be leading to more questions.

Join the conversation and post your thoughts. »

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