Home>Jewish Living

Torah Sparks

Parashat Toldot - Mevarekhim Hahodesh / Mahar Hodesh
November 2, 2013 – 29 Heshvan 5774

Annual (Genesis 25:19 – 28:9): Etz Hayim p. 146; Hertz p. 93
Triennial (Genesis 25:19 – 26:22): Etz Hayim p. 146; Hertz p. 93
Haftarah (I Samuel 20:18-42): Etz Hayim p. 1216; Hertz p. 948

Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, South Carolina

Rebecca, agonizing from being pregnant with twins, is told by God that her older child will one day serve the younger child. Rebecca favors Jacob, the younger twin, while Isaac prefers Esau, a brash hunter who brings his father game. One night, Esau returns home famished and agrees to give Jacob his birthright in exchange for stew.

Isaac’s ventures during adulthood mirror those of his father; he pretends his wife is his sister to protect his family from King Avimelech. Later, Isaac and Avimelech make a treaty surrounding the wells that Isaac had dug.

Fearing imminent death, Isaac asks Esau to hunt him game, after which he would bless his elder son. Rebecca overhears and tells Jacob to kill an animal and impersonate his brother. Isaac is blind and, though suspicious, gives Jacob the blessings he had intended for Esau. When Esau returns and learns what had happened, he threatens to kill his brother. Jacob flees Be’er Sheva to look for a wife, while Esau, after disappointing his parents by marrying a Hittite woman, finds another wife among the family of Ishmael.

Theme #1: Seeking Answers

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. But the children struggled in her womb, and she said, “If so, why do I exist?” She went to inquire of the Lord. (Genesis 25:21-22)

Like her mother-in-law Sarah, Rebecca is initially barren. Unlike the case of Abraham and Sarah, both Isaac and Rebecca plead with the Lord at different stages prior to their sons’ births.

R. Isaac stated: Our father Isaac was barren; for it is said, And Isaac entreated the Lord opposite his wife. It does not say ‘for his wife’ but opposite. This teaches that both were barren. If so, “And the Lord let Himself be entreated of him” should have read, “And the Lord let Himself be entreated of them!” - Because the prayer of a righteous man the son of a righteous man is not like the prayer of a righteous man the son of a wicked man. (BT Yevamot 64a)

“And she went to inquire of the Lord” (Genesis 25:22). But were there synagogues or houses of study in those days? Surely she could have gone only to inquire personally of Shem and Eber! Hence Scripture intimates that visiting a sage is like visiting the Presence. (Genesis Rabbah 63:6)

Rebecca was anxious to know “what would happen in the end” [of her pregnancy]; she wanted to know the outcome of the inner struggle which she thought was taking place within her child. Good or evil (which of the two would strike the final blow and emerge as the victor? Throughout his life, man must wage war against his evil inclination. Sometimes he will win; at other times the evil in him will gain the upper hand. But regardless of temporary reverses, he should see to it that he will be able to strike the final blow and thus emerge as the victor in the struggle. (Kol Simcha)

Questions for Discussion:

Rabbi Isaac’s comment in Yevamot turns the traditional biblical narrative on its head; even though the text clearly says that Rebecca is barren, Isaac pleads with the Lord as if he is the barren one. In many loving relationships, one partner takes on the struggles of the other, as if their struggles are one and the same. But given that, as we discover a couple of verses later, Rebecca is unafraid to confront God, why does Isaac makes the initial request of God? Does it make sense that Isaac (born of a woman who is childless until her tenth decade (would feel especially sympathetic given his own personal history?

The text in Genesis Rabbah has a difficult time imagining that Rebecca approaches God herself, hypothesizing that she instead approaches some of the great scholars of her time who can plead on her behalf. This is a difficult argument to believe, for as we see later in this portion, Rebecca certainly does not lack courage to speak boldly. Recognizing that it was the scholars who wrote the commentary, is there some merit to the idea that a scholar is on a similar level as God? Could there be an alternative reason why the midrash suggests that?

Kol Simcha frames the struggle of Rebecca’s pregnancy as not only a battle between brothers, but also an internal battle for each brother’s spirit. Both Esau and Jacob struggle during their lifetimes to act appropriately. To what extent is a struggle between people also an internal struggle for each individual who is fighting? When people argue, how much of the argument is about the actions and words of the other person? How much it is about the deeply embedded fears of each combatant?

Discussion Topic #2: Impulse and Planning Ahead

And Esau said to Jacob, “Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am famished”—which is why he was named Edom. Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” And Esau said, “I am at the point of death, so of what use is my birthright to me?” (Genesis 25: 30-32)

Esau is presented throughout rabbinic literature as a ruffian and bully. When Esau gives up his birthright for a meal, it is an unfortunate misjudgment. But our Sages felt that the episode indicated much more.

“And Esau said to Jacob: ‘Stuff me with food’” (Genesis 25:30). Rabbi Zera observed: That wicked man opened his mouth wide, as though he were a camel, and said to Jacob, “I’ll keep my mouth open, and you pack it in.” “And he did eat and drink, then rose up and came back” (Genesis 25:34), bringing with him a company of ruffians who said, “We will eat what is Jacob’s and poke fun at him.” (Genesis Rabbah 63:12, 14)

R. Johanan said: That wicked [Esau] committed five sins on that day. He dishonored a betrothed maiden, he committed a murder, he denied God, he denied the resurrection of the dead, and he spurned the birthright. [We know that] he dishonored a betrothed maiden, because it is written here, "And Esau came in from the field," and it is written in another place [in connection with the betrothed maiden], "He found her in the field." [We know that] he committed murder, because it is written here [that he was] faint, and it is written in another place, "Woe is me now, for my soul faints before the murderers." [We know that] he denied God, because it is written here, What benefit is this to me, and it is written in another place, "This is my God and I will make him an habitation." [We know that] he denied the resurrection of the dead because he said, "Behold, I am on the way to die"; also that he spurned the birthright because it is written, "So Esau despised his birthright". (BT Bava Batra 16b)

In … just six verses at the end of chapter 25 of Genesis, we see Esau defined as a man ruled by appetites, a man who lives for the moment with no regard for tomorrow. “What good is a birthright if I die of hunger today?” he says, as if people died as a result of missing a meal! And we see Jacob’s scheming side, a young man who will try to get by cleverness what he cannot get by birth or strength. …. What makes Jacob unique … is the Bible’s ambivalence about his tricks. (Harold Kushner, Living a Life That Matters)

Questions for Discussion:

Rabbi Zera claims in Genesis Rabbah that the violent imagery of Esau’s demand to be fed shows that he not only wants to satisfy his physical appetite, but also his need to dominate his younger brother. When people act aggressively, to what degree is their motivation to get what they are immediately pursuing, and to what degree are they simply trying to establish power over someone or something else?

Bava Batra intimates that the specific words Esau uses in his dialogue with Jacob shows that he is committing heinous crimes and violations of the Torah. Putting aside for a moment whether Esau deserves this treatment, does a handful of words indicate a much larger worldview? If so, what does this say about the priority to limit evil speech in our lives?

To Kushner, the transfer of the birthright shows that Esau is impulsive while Jacob is a planner. What are the pros and cons of each tendency? Is it important to strike a balance between living by impulse and living according to plan, or is it better to recognize which trait you embody more, and try to live as well as one can given that trait? Must we have a little bit of Jacob and a little bit of Esau inside us, or is it preferable to emulate one more than the other?

Find a Kehilla USY Conservative Yeshiva Donate Careers Contact us
Copyright © 2017
United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
All rights reserved.
120 Broadway, Suite 1540
New York, NY 10271-0016