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Torah Sparks

November 26, 2011 – 29 Heshvan 5772

Annual: Genesis 25:19-28:9 (Etz Hayim p. 146; Hertz p. 93)
Triennial Cycle: Genesis 26:23-27:27 (Etz Hayim p. 152; Hertz p. 96)
Haftarah: I Samuel 20:18-42 (Etz Hayim p. 1216, Hertz p. 948)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser


Isaac prays on behalf of his wife, Rebekah, who is childless. She conceives twins, whose rivalry begins in utero. God tells the expectant matriarch 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 greatly blessed. Abimelech urges the now prosperous Isaac to leave Gerar. Isaac reclaims wells dug by Abraham and stopped up by Philistines. Continued conflict causes Isaac to leave for Beer-sheba, where God renews His blessing and Isaac makes a covenant with Abimelech. Esau marries two Hittite women, to his parents' consternation. An aging Isaac, whose vision is failing, 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 his father food that 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.

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, including 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 parashah 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 she is from outside the "chosen" line.

Theme #1: "A Million Little Peaces"

And Abimelech came to him from Gerar, with Ahuzzath his councilor and Phichol chief of his troops. Isaac said to them, "Why have you come to me, seeing that you have been hostile to me and have driven me away from you?" And they said, "We now see plainly that the Lord has been with you, and we thought: Let there be a sworn treaty between our two parties, between you and us. Let us make a pact with you that you will not do us harm, just as we have not molested you but have always dealt kindly with you and sent you away in peace. From now on, be you blessed of the Lord!" (Genesis 26:26-29)

Derash: Study

According to the Philistines, Isaac's success stemmed from his ability to exploit their land's fertility; because they were jealous of Isaac, they exiled him. Now, with the patriarch in Beersheba, an area lacking their land's fertility, the Philistines concluded that Isaac's initial prosperity was the result of the tzadik's merit rather than any exploitation. They now acknowledged that Isaac truly was blessed by God. He was not someone who took advantage of them. "Had we only realized then what we know now," the Philistines concluded, "we would never have driven you away." (Chatam Sofer)

"If you want to make peace, you don't talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies." (Moshe Dayan)

"The blessings of peace are very capital, nothing finer – but one likes to be warned." (Patrick O'Brian, Desolation Island)

"Peace is not made at the council table or by treaties, but in the hearts of men." (Herbert Hoover)

"Treaties are like roses and young girls. They last while they last." (Charles de Gaulle)

Questions for Discussion

Our parashah seems to reprise a similar incident involving a peace treaty between Abimelech and Abraham, where Abimelech again was attended by Phichol (see Genesis 21:22-32). It seems historically implausible that the same two Philistines were still national leaders fully a generation later. Either an important motif simply is being reframed or, as Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz concludes, somewhat less critically, "they must have been old men in the time of Isaac." Should we read the theology of this interchange with less suspicion than its asserted timing? That is, do the Philistines truly perceive divine blessing in Isaac's prosperity? Or are their motives more materialistic, more mercenary (perhaps in part explaining the presence of a military leader), somehow more Philistine?

Would Moshe Dayan apply his famous axiom to this text? Is Abimelech's somewhat saccharine and solicitous rhetoric simply typical of peace treaties between former foes accustomed to mutual mistrust?

The Patrick O'Brian quote is spoken by a military officer, British Navy Captain Jack Aubrey, for whom peace represented an impediment to career advancement, fame, and fortune! Why might civilians today – both in Israel and elsewhere – experience some ambivalence about the prospect of peace with erstwhile enemies?

Did Isaac sincerely welcome the peace offer from Abimelech? Compare to Abraham's reaction in Genesis 21. Is peace and alliance always a desirable goal, regardless of the moral shortcomings of our prospective treaty partners? What council might Hoover or De Gaulle have offered Isaac?

Theme #2: "He Came, Esau, He Conquered"

Esau said, "Isn't he rightly named Jacob? He has deceived me these two times: He took my birthright, and now he's taken my blessing! (Genesis 27:36, New International Version translation)

Derash: Study

"My son Jacob is still too young to understand Bible stories, but I've been looking forward to the day when I can talk to him about his namesake. There's something solid and decent about the name Jacob. You can trust a Jacob. The biblical Jacob I remember from childhood wrestled an angel, fathered the twelve tribes of Israel, adored his children, honored his mother, and made peace with his wicked brother. This is why I'm finding the real story of Jacob so incredibly disturbing. It turns out I have saddled my son with a blight of a name, because the original Jacob actually had no moral compass, no filial feeling, and the heart of a con artist." (David Plotz, Good Book)

"'His name is Yakov, the trickster, for he has now tricked me twice.' Rashi here quotes the Targum, which translates tricking as outsmarting. How thin the margin is between our attempts to get ahead by outsmarting our competition, and downright deception or trickery. Perhaps Yakov couldn't mature into his role as a leader of our people until he rid himself of this name, leaving any vestige of his deceitful personality behind. Indeed, the symbolic change of his name, from Yakov to Yisrael, begins his journey to greatness. We can all deceive ourselves into thinking that we are simply getting ahead, when in fact we may be putting others down." (Rabbi Mitch Cohen)

"Trust not even a brother! For everyone will take advantage of (akov yakov) his brother. One man cheats the other." (Jeremiah 9:3-4)

"In the womb he tried to supplant (akav) his brother; grown to manhood he strove (sarah) with a divine being, he strove (vayasar) with an angel and prevailed." (Hosea 12:4-5)

"The original name of the nation – the Children of Jacob or the House of Jacob – means the House of Deception. When the angel says to Jacob, 'Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel,' the implication is that you and your children shall no longer be known by a name that signifies deception, but by a name that symbolizes honesty (yosher)… yashar (straight/honest) is the root of Israel (Yisrael) and Jeshurun (Yeshurun)." (Rabbi Yossi Turner, citing Yair Zakovitch and Avigdor Shinan)

Questions for Discussion

Esau's linguistic trickery in disparaging his brother appears to represent the mainstream of Biblical thought! Jeremiah seems to have Jacob (akov yakov) in mind when he discusses human selfishness and disloyalty. Hosea's word-play functions on several levels. Asserting that Jacob's deceptive ways (akav) began in utero, he uses the same verb here deployed by Esau. Furthermore, he twice uses the verb sarah – to strive, but, as Rabbi Turner demonstrates, also meaning "straightforward, honest" (yashar) – to describe the mature, "reformed" Jacob… that is, Yisrael. Why is the transformation of our eponymic Patriarch from duplicitous betrayer to straightforward champion of honesty so prevalent a motif in the Hebrew Bible? Why the emphasis on our ignoble origins?

Humorist and writer David Plotz's indictment of the Biblical Jacob suggests a legitimate question. If the name "Jacob" is unflattering and incriminating – rejected in favor of the more noble nomenclature, "Israel" – why is Jacob so popular a Jewish name (far more so than Israel, at least in English-speaking cultures)? As Rabbi Cohen states, Jacob "rid himself of this name" – Why do we continue to embrace it?

How, in fact, did Jacob twice deceive Esau? Was the sale of the birthright truly a deception per se? Or is it more accurately described as an act of exploitation? (Some scholars suggest that a deception in the womb, alluded to by Hosea, is intended… and that this text was "lost" or is "missing" from the Torah.) If this is the first time Isaac hears about the birthright sale, why does he not react?

Did Esau suspect that his beloved father was complicit in Jacob's "deception"? If so, was his well-spoken criticism of his brother actually a veiled indictment, a tactful rebuke of Isaac by a devoted and still loving son?

How might Hebrew names be used more effectively to reinforce Jewish identity, family history and aspirations today?

Halachah L'Maaseh

We read in Parashat Toldot: "Now Esau harbored a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing which his father had given him, and Esau said to himself, 'Let but the mourning period of my father come, and I will kill my brother Jacob'" (Genesis 27:41). Upon their reunion many years later, Esau in fact acted graciously and magnanimously, even lovingly toward his duplicitous brother (notwithstanding Midrashic assertions to the contrary). Rabbi Israel Mayer Ha-Kohen Kagan, the "Chofetz Chayim," includes among his listing of the Torah's prohibitions explicit commandments against both bearing a grudge and taking vengeance. "Revenge means repaying a person who has harmed someone, according to his own act: for example, if one asked his neighbor, 'Lend me your axe,' and he would not lend it to him; and the next day his neighbor has to borrow something from him, whereupon he tells him, 'I will not lend it to you, just as you refused me...' Bearing a grudge means that one harbors hate in his heart: for instance, if he tells him instead, 'Here, I am lending it to you; I am not paying you back as you acted toward me.…' Instead, he has to lend it to him wholeheartedly, there should be no ill will whatever in his heart…. For all matters and concerns of this world are vapid nonsense and triviality, and it is not worth taking revenge or bearing a grudge about them" (Sefer Ha-Mitzvot ha-Katzar, Prohibitive Commands #80, 81).

Historical Note

In Parashat Toldot, read on November 26, 2011, we read of Esau's reaction to Jacob's theft of his blessing – and Isaac's initial refusal to offer any additional blessing to Esau: "When Esau heard his father's words, he burst into wild and bitter sobbing." On November 26, 1955, county singer Johnny Cash debuted his top ten hit: "Cry! Cry! Cry!"

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