November 17, 2012 – 3 Kislev 5773
Annual: Gen. 25:19-28:9 (Etz Hayim, p. 146; Hertz p. 93)
Triennial: Gen. 27:28-28:9 (Etz Hayim, p. 157; Hertz p. 99)
Haftarah: Malachi 1:1 – 2:7 (Etz Hayim, p. 163; Hertz p. 102)
Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
(Temple Emanuel of North Jersey; Franklin Lakes, NJ)
Isaac prays with compassion for 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, 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
hundredfold harvest. Abimelech urges the now prosperous Isaac to leave Gerar.
Isaac reclaims wells that were dug by Abraham and stopped up by Philistines.
Continued conflict causes Isaac to leave for Beersheba, where God renews His
blessing and Isaac makes a covenant with Abimelech.
Esau marries two Hittite women, to the consternation of his parents. 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 ostensibly has 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, 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 for
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 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 she is
from outside the "chosen" line.
Theme #1: "Fertility Entreatment"
"Isaac pleaded with the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord responded to his plea, and his wife Rebekah conceived." (Genesis 25:21)
"'Isaac pleaded.' He prayed much and persistently… He stood in one corner
and prayed, while Rebekah stood in another corner and prayed" (Rashi)
"We do not learn about Rebekah's feelings concerning her childlessness, nor are
we told that she does anything to try to change the situation. Isaac could have
taken other wives to solve the problem of continuity… but he apparently does
not. Isaac's sensitivity to Rebekah stands out in contrast to Jacob, who chastises
his barren wife Rachel when she asks for children (30:2)." (Tamara Cohn
Eskenazi, Hara E. Person, The Torah: A Women's Commentary)
"Given the inextricable connection between our inner and outer lives, between
our spiritual and physical sides, prayer can at times determine the cause of our
external well-being. At best this is how I prefer to understand the termination of
Rebecca's barrenness at the beginning of our parasha. I am struck by the central
role of prayer in the story. In the course of a brief narrative, there are two
instances where first Isaac and then Rebecca turn with ease and intimacy to God
in prayer… It is not rationalizing to read this turn of events naturally. Rebecca
had every right to be tense. An immigrant without family and married to a
perfect stranger, Rebecca needed time to adjust to her new surroundings. The
absence of children only compounded the tension. Prayer did not correct a
medical problem; it alleviated a state of mind… Their common recourse to
prayer deepened their union and increased the likelihood of conception." (Rabbi
"In contrast to the stories of Sarah, Rachel and Hannah, the narrative here does
not dwell on Rebekah's long years of barrenness – twenty in all, since Isaac was
forty when he married Rebekah (v. 20), and sixty when Jacob and Esau were
born (v. 26). Nor do we read of Rebekah demanding that her husband give her
sons, as Rachel did; or that she tried to overcome being barren by giving her
maidservant to her husband, as Sarah and Rachel did; or that she cried and
prayed to G-d, as Hannah did. Rebekah's barrenness is only mentioned in a
subordinate clause, ‘because she was barren'(v.21), to account for Isaac praying
for his wife. Immediately thereafter, we read of her pregnancy. It is also notable
that this is the only story in which the active parent endeavoring to have a son is
the man, not the woman." (Yael Shemesh-Gilboa)
Questions for Discussion
Isaac, arguably the weakest and least accomplished national leader among the
patriarchs, is the only monogamous husband among them… and the only one to
pray for his wife's well-being. What does this say about the burdens of public
leadership? What does this say about the virtues of monogamy – a family
institution rather late in arriving on the Israelite/Jewish scene? Is Isaac, in fact,
the most accessible role model for husbands and fathers among the patriarchs?
What is the significance of Rashi's assertion that both Isaac and Rebekah prayed
for a child? Why are they depicted as doing so in "neutral corners"?
Do you find Chancellor Schorsch's "natural" interpretation of the power of
prayer appealing? How might the Chancellor understand the verse's assertion
that "the Lord responded to his plea"? How might couples today use prayer to
"deepen their union"?
Is the role of prayer limited to "alleviating the state of mind" of those with
medical difficulties (or those who love them)… or is prayer (for health or other
personal needs) at times effective in more literal, practical, and direct ways? Or,
"given the inextricable connection between our inner and outer lives," is such a
distinction impossible to make in absolute terms?
Theme #2: "Third Time's the Charm?"
"Esau realized that the Canaanite women displeased his father Isaac. So Esau went to Ishmael and took to wife, in addition to the wives he had, Mahalath the daughter of Ishmael son of Abraham, sister of Nebaioth." (Genesis 28:8-9)
"'He realized…' Even though no one had warned him about this matter,
nevertheless, just as Jacob understood his father's will even without being so
commanded, so, too, Esau went to fulfill his father's will without any explicit
directive." (Netziv, Ha'amek Davar)
"Mahalath… The Aramaic stem het-lamed-alef means ‘sweetness,' a more
appropriate meaning than ‘sickness,' which is the usual understanding derived
from the Hebrew." (Chumash Etz Hayim)
"When Esau realizes that his father is unhappy with his marriages to Hittite women, he
goes and marries Ishmael's daughter, a relative. Poor Esau still can't get it right.
Although this marriage is one that Isaac might not have wanted for his son either, from
Esau's point of view, marriage to Abraham's granddaughter is an act of true endogamy."
(Ora Horn Prouser, Esau's Blessing)
"Esau takes a bold but unpromising decision: as Jacob went to the home of his mother's
brother Laban, so he should go to the home of his father's brother Ishmael… But Esau
goes without his father's blessing. Far from regaining his father's good graces, he moves
farther and farther afield. Esau, despiser of the birthright, chooses marriages that will
take him and his seed beyond the covenant." (Leon Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom)
Questions for Discussion.
Does Etz Hayim miss the point? The name Mahalath simultaneously carries both
meanings: sweetness and sickness. What is the significance of this artful ambiguity to
the narrative? Similarly, what is the message in the names of Esau's Hittite wives (who
were such "sources of bitterness" to Rebekah): Yedudit/Judith (Jewess) and Basemath
Esau was concerned about displeasing his father… What about his mother? Did her
earlier betrayal, her favoritism toward Jacob lead to estrangement from Esau?
What does Esau's marriage to Mahalath reveal about his character and personality? How
might Dr. Kass (who speaks of Esau as "despiser of the birthright") and Professor Horn
Prouser ("Poor Esau") view his actions? What literary support might each cite from our
What does the Netziv mean by saying that Jacob responded to Isaac's will without
explicit instructions? Of Esau and Jacob, which more reflects the virtue of filial
In Parashat Toldot, read on November 17, 2012, Esau wryly laments of his brother, the
future patriarch: "Isn't he rightly named Jacob, for he has deceived me now these two
times? First he took away my birthright and now he has taken away my blessing!"
(Genesis 27:36). On November 17, 1973, U.S. President Richard M. Nixon told the
Associated Press: "People have got to know whether or not their President is a crook.
Well, I'm not a crook."
In Parashat Toldot, Esau hunts game at his father's instruction, and prepares the meat for
his consumption, because Isaac "had a taste for game" (Genesis 25:28). Much has
changed since the Patriarchal Period! Rabbi Diana Villa, answering a query from a deer
hunter who was contemplating conversion to Judaism, ruled in a 2004 responsum:
"Hunting is definitely forbidden in Judaism, and animals that have been hunted are not
kosher and therefore cannot be eaten. In principle, we do not learn Jewish law from the
Bible, but from the rabbis as interpreted by the sages… Unfortunately, if you wish to
continue hunting and eating the meat, you would not be able to convert (at least by an
Orthodox or Conservative rabbinic court)."