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Torah Commentary
Tol'dot (December 3, 2016)


Robyn Weinstein Cimbol, Senior Director of Development and Philanthropy

While Jacob was cooking a meal

Esau returned from the field

He said: “Gimme some stew!”

Jake said, “Sure, just eschew

Your birthright and all of its yield.”

— Rabbi Joe Black

Tol’dot chronicles Abraham’s family into the next generation. Like so many of the Torah portions of Genesis, this one is chock-full of iconic stories...known to practically every Religious School student.

It begins, as most family narratives do, with a marriage — between our patriarch Isaac and matriarch Rebecca. But the foundation of our historical narrative comes a few verses later, with the in utero struggle between Jacob and Esau.

Isaac, most commentators agree, suffered from post-traumatic syndrome. Being literally placed upon an altar to be sacrificed to satisfy the demand of God has got to take its toll on the victim. Isaac is our weakest patriarch, and Rebecca is 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 Rebecca’s intercession, our story would be quite different. And yet, in today’s world, we cannot help but judge her based on the recurring incidents of deceit, duplicity, deception and dubious behavior.

Jacob/Israel, 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 Rebecca 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.” (Genesis 27:38) It is out of character for Esau, the tough guy, to react in such an emotional manner; this behavior is more consistent with Jacob, the simple man, the quiet dweller in tents than 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 more in line with Jacob’s character. 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 their 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 foreshadowing this. The women seem to possess the capacity to see into the future and, thus, are compelled to transform the present to assure a certain outcome. Rebecca 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 are at once 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. »

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