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Torah Sparks

Parashat Toldot
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)

Study: Derash

"'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 Ismar Schorsch)

"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)

Study: Derash

"'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 (Fragrance)?

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 parashah?

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 devotion?

Historic Note

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."

Halachah L'Maaseh

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)."

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