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Torah Sparks

November 13, 2004 - 29 Heshvan 5765

Annual: Genesis Genesis 25:19-28:9 (Etz Hayim, p. 146; Hertz p. 93)
Triennial Cycle: Genesis 25:19-26:22 (Etz Hayim, p. 146; Hertz p. 93)
Haftarah: I Samuel 20:18 - 42 (Etz Hayim, p. 1215; Hertz p. 948)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser
Little Neck Jewish Center, Little Neck, NY

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director


Isaac compassionately prays on behalf of his wife, Rebekah, who is childless. She conceives twins, whose rivalry begins in utero. The expectant matriarch is informed by God that the sons she is carrying are "two separate peoples, and the older will serve the younger." The firstborn, Esau, is born ruddy and hairy; his twin brother, Jacob, emerges from the womb with a firm grip on his brother's heel. The names Esau and Jacob, are linked to the words for "hair" and "heel," respectively. Esau is favored by his father, while Jacob enjoys a special bond with Rebekah.

Years later, Esau, now an accomplished hunter, returns from a day's work famished. His more sedentary and mild-mannered brother Jacob sells him some stew in exchange for his birthright. A famine impels Isaac to move to Gerar, where God appears to him and renews the covenantal blessings first granted to Abraham. Repeating an unseemly experience of Abraham's, Isaac conceals his wife's identity, claiming she is his sister. Rebekah is taken by Abimelech, who returns her to her husband once their true relationship is revealed.

Isaac is blessed with a hundred fold harvest (from which the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood, Meah She'arim, takes its name). Abimelech urges the now prosperous Isaac to leave Gerar. Isaac reclaims wells dug by Abraham and stopped up by Philistines. Continued conflict occasions Isaac's departure for Beer-sheba, where God renews His blessing, and Isaac effects a covenant with Abimelech.

Esau marries two Hittite women, to the consternation of his parents. An aging Isaac, with failing vision, instructs Esau to bring him some meat in preparation for the Patriarch's formal blessing of his firstborn. Rebekah, however, contrives to secure the blessing for Jacob, instructing her beloved son to disguise himself in pelts and Esau's clothing, and to bring the visually impaired Isaac food which she prepares.

The conspiracy succeeds. Jacob bestows his blessing and status as Patriarch and rightful heir to God's covenant on Jacob, whom he has ostensibly mistaken for Esau. When Esau returns, expecting his father's blessing, he learns of the deception and is disconsolate. His father, at first resistant, grants Esau a secondary blessing, which reinforces Jacob's superior, if ill-gotten stature. Esau vows revenge on his brother, though, we learn only later, he never carries out his very understandable threat.

Rebekah conspires to protect her favorite son by sending him to Paddan-Aram to find a wife, explaining to Isaac her disgust at Hittite women such as Esau's wives. Isaac blesses Jacob again (calling into question the extent of his anger at the deception earlier perpetrated against him), and dispatches his son in accordance with Rebekah's plan. The Parshah concludes with Esau, always the well-meaning and dutiful (if at times pathetic) son, attempting to please his parents by marrying Ishmael's daughter, Mahalath. His new wife is, of course, a granddaughter of Abraham, but, like Esau himself, from outside the "chosen" line.

Theme #1: "A Walk on the Mild Side"

"When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors; but Jacob was a mild man, who stayed in camp. Isaac favored Esau, because he had a taste for game; but Rebekah favored Jacob." (Genesis 25:27-28)

Derash: Study

  • "When the boys grew up Esau became a skillful hunter of fowl and game, a man well-suited to the outdoors, a killer, for he killed Nimrod and his son Enoch. But Jacob was a man of peaceful ways, who attended the Study House of Eber, seeking instruction from God." (Targum Yonatan)
  • "'A skillful hunter - Always full of deception, for most animals are caught through trickery. But Jacob was the opposite of Esau, for he was ish tam ['a blameless, simple man']." (Ibn Ezra)
  • "After the Roman conquest of Judea (first century BCE), 'Edom' [i.e., Esau - J.H.P.] came to signify Rome, oppression, and evil. Not only was this a case of prejudicial stereotyping, it was also a misreading of the biblical intent. For Esau emerges from the text as a generally admirable man." (W. Gunther Plaut)
  • "When it comes to birth order, twins are in a special situation… In an effort to distinguish one from the other, parents and other relatives may focus on the differences between the twins and assign them niches in the family. One of them might become known as 'the athletic one,' for instance, while the other becomes 'our little actor.' On the plus side, this process of labeling may help each child carve out an individual identity and defuse sibling rivalry. But the labels can be confining. I sometimes wonder how history might have been altered if Jacob had not been so handy in the kitchen or Esau so hungry." (Laura Jana, MD, FAAP,
  • "Life is full of hard choices between less than perfect alternatives… Jacob and Esau share both good and bad traits upon which to try to build leadership for the future. God is faced with having to choose between two combinations of traits and to select what would be better for leadership of his people… In essence, the Bible tells us that a bright, calculating person who, at times, is less than honest, is preferable as a founder over a bluff, impulsive one who cannot make discriminating choices." (Daniel Elazar)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. How is the traditional vilification of Esau a "misreading of the biblical intent?" Why was a misreading necessary or desirable? Is it still desirable today? What are Esau's positive qualities? What are Jacob's shortcomings? How mightcontemporary Jewish answers to these questions differ from those of our recent and classical forbears?
  2. There is considerable irony in Ibn Ezra's characterization of Esau as deceitful and Jacob as simple and uncomplicated. Shouldn't these descriptions be reversed?
  3. The pre-eminence of younger brothers is a recurring biblical motif: Jacob supplants Esau, just as Isaac, not Ishmael became Patriarch of Israel. Moses was three years younger than Aaron, and King David was the youngest of eight brothers. What does this pattern say about Israel's self-perception? Perhaps Jacob had no "choice" but to secure both blessing and birthright, in order to perpetuate this biblical theme. How does this affect our understanding of Esau?

Theme #2: "Was Blind, But Now I See"

"When Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see, he called his older son Esau." (Genesis 27:1)

Derash: Study

  • "When our Father Abraham bound his son on the altar, the ministering angels wept, and tears fell from their eyes and were absorbed into his eyes. When he grew old, his eyes were dimmed as a result." (Genesis Rabbah 65:10)
  • "When our Father Abraham bound his son on the altar, Isaac cast his eyes on high and beheld God's Presence." (Genesis Rabbah 65:10)
  • "His eyes were dimmed by the smoke and incense of the idolatrous offerings brought by Esau's wives." (Pesikta Rabbati 12:16)
  • "His eyes were dimmed so that Jacob might secure the blessing." (Rashi)
  • "Affection impairs one's power of judgment. Isaac's affection for Esau blinded him to his faults. His powers of judgment grew dim and he was not able to see reality." (Abarbanel)
  • "Isaac could not see. This is nothing to be ashamed of unless, of course, physical defects signal underlying character weaknesses. As envisioned by the rabbis, Isaac's blindness becomes a metaphor through which we can consider why good people overlook evil staring them in the face. Sometimes we think it pays not to see evil. Looking the other way can simply become a habit; it may begin with overlooking aggravating sights and escalate to ignoring moral monstrosities." (Rabbi Baruch Feldstern)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Was Isaac actually blind? It would seem so. Did he manipulatively "turn a blind eye" to Jacob's deception, allowing him to receive the blessing while preserving his loving, paternal bond with Esau - using his physical blindness as a "cover" for his machinations? Or was Isaac, disabled in his blindness - and blind to Esau's faults - genuinely duped?
  2. The Midrash about the angelic tears suggests that Isaac was "scarred" by his traumatic experience at Mount Moriah? How might this have affected his actions in bestowing the blessing on Jacob?
  3. Similarly, how might Isaac's direct experience of the Shechina - God's Presence - have impacted his actions in blessing his sons? Was he being punished or acting prophetically? Was he perpetrating a fraud on behalf of a perceived divine plan? Was his own deception thereby justified?
  4. If Isaac genuinely intended to bless Esau, does this necessarily mean his judgment was impaired, as Abarbanel posits? Was he simply following the expected protocol, declining unilaterally to overturn a sacred precedent. Did he feel that the covenant rightfully devolved on Esau, his alleged faults notwithstanding?
  5. What moral wrongs have we grown accustomed to ignoring? How do we distinguish between merely "aggravating slights" and genuine evil? When is it our obligation to act or to speak out against moral lapses we see around us?

Historical Note

Parshat Toledot is read on November 13, 2004. On this date in 1856, Louis Brandeis, the first Jew appointed to the United States Supreme Court, and an active Zionist, was born. Reflecting the traditional, contrasting views of Jacob and Esau are these observations by Brandeis: "The Torah led the People of the Book to intellectual pursuits at times when most peoples were illiterate. Religion imposed the use of the mind upon the Jews, indirectly as well as directly. It demanded of the Jew not merely the love, but also the understanding of God."

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