TORAH SPARKS: Parashat Toledot



Torah Sparks

Shabbat Mahar Hodesh
Shabbat Mevarekhim Hahodesh
Parashat Toledot

November 18, 2017 | 29 Heshvan 5778

Annual | Genesis 29:19-28:9
Triennial | Genesis 26:23-27:27
Haftarah | 1 Samuel 20:18-42


Dvar Torah

Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

One can only imagine what was going on in Rebekah’s mind when it seemed to her that the twins in her womb were quarreling. Her anxiety piqued, she most certainly wanted to know what was happening to her: “She inquired of the Lord, and the Lord answered her: ‘Two nations are in your womb, two separate nations shall issue from your body; one nation shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger.'” (Genesis 25:22-23) This, and the many stories that follow, establish Yaakov-Esau as the paradigm of national conflict.

In the First Temple period, the Jewish tradition came to identify Esau as the nation of Edom, which was situated on the other side of the Dead Sea. The Biblical attitude toward Esau/Edom was mixed. This ambivalence is reflected, on the one hand, in the Torah’s proscription of mistreatment of the Edomites: “You shall not abhor the Edomite, for he is your kinsman” (Deuteronomy 23:8); while, on the other hand, the prophecy of Balaam reflects the fact that Edom would become a bitter enemy of the people of Israel: “Edom becomes a possession, yeah, Seir a possession of its enemies; but Israel is triumphant.” (Numbers 24:18) This attitude reached its zenith in the final verse of the prophecy of Obadiah: “And liberators shall ascend Mount Zion to bring judgment on Mount Esau; and dominion shall be the Lord’s”. (Obadiah 1:21)

The political situation which faced the Jews in Biblical times impacted their perception of Esau/Edom. The greater the threat posed by Edom to their well-being, the more dramatic the image of Edom as the source of evil in the world. And when the Edomites allied themselves with the Babylonians against Judea at the time of the destruction of the Temple, the die was cast.

Despite the historical nation of Edom eventually coming to an end during the period of the Second Temple, the struggle between Yaakov and Esau became the symbol for the Jewish conflict with a new enemy, the Romans. And when the Roman empire became Christian, Esau/Edom came to symbolize Christianity as well. With the persecution of the Jews by Rome, and the sense that the Romans (and later Christianity) had unfairly usurped the position of the Jews, the conflict between Yaakov/Israel and Esau/Edom became the archetypal battle between good and evil. (See Gerson Cohen – “Esau as Symbol in Early Medieval Thought” – Studies in the Varieties of Rabbinic Cultures)

The following midrash gives us three different readings on the significance of the symbolic relationship between Yaakov and Esau and their interaction in the world: “‘Two nations’ (spelled ‘ga’im’ which means ‘proud’) – two proud ones inhabit your womb, this one proud of his world (Rome) and the other one proud of his nation (Israel). Another interpretation: Two nations – that hate each other, this one proud of his wealth (Rome), the other proud of his Torah (Israel). Another interpretation: ‘Two nations’ – These refer to Rabbi [Judah HaNasi – patriarch of the Jews] and Antoninus [for the rabbis, a symbolic representation of the emperor].” (adapted from Midrash Tehillim 9:7 Buber ed. p. 84)

The first two interpretations see the relationship between the Jewish nation and Roman civilization as a conflict between two civilizations with contrasting values, where the success of one meant the devaluation of the other. There seems to be no room for compromise or cooperation. The last, however, is more hopeful. Antoninus, likely either the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius or Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, had a deep friendship with the legendary head of the Jewish people and author of the Mishnah, Rabbi Judah Hanasi. The Talmud’s many stories of their learning from one another signals the possibility of cooperation between the two civilizations.

Our tradition transformed the prenatal conflict between Yaakov and Esau from something geopolitical into an encapsulation of the real struggles of a minority people – its identity and culture – within the dominant broader culture. There is incredible ambivalence in this relationship. Will there forever be conflict? Must one always have the upper hand? Is there room for cooperation? These questions loom large for Jews in every generation. And, if we take our tradition seriously, they still do today.


Table Talk

Vered Hollander-Goldfarb, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

In this Parasha we get a glimpse of the life of Yitzhak (Isaac), our least storied patriarch. Here is also where the foundation of the relationship between the twin brothers Esau and Yaakov is laid, a relationship that is viewed as a foreshadowing of some of Jewish history.

1) After many years, Rivka becomes pregnant (25:21-26). Feeling that something strange is going on, she goes to seek advice and is told that two nations are in her belly and they will take separate paths. During the birth she discovers that she has been carrying twins. How do you think that Rivka understood the message when she first got it? How do you expect the message to affect how the children are raised?

2) Esau and Yaakov were twins, age difference could not account for the different directions that the brothers took. So how would you explain it?

3) In the beginning of chapter 26:1-6 we are told about a famine in the land, forcing Yitzchak to move to the land of Gerar (on the coast). Now God tells him not to go to Egypt, to stay in this land that God tell him to be in, and God will bless him. Why does God choose this moment to speak to Yitzchak for the first time? Do you see any similarities to God’s first words to Avraham (12:1-3)?

4) Yitzhak feels that he is old. He asks Esau to hunt and prepare a meal before he blesses him (27:1-4). Why do you think that Yitzhak asks Esau to do this? What purpose does the meal and the preparations serve?

5) Look at the blessing that Yaakov receives from Yitzhak when he is believed to be Esau (27:27-29). Was it a blessing appropriate for Yaakov as well? What blessing does Yaakov receive when Yitzhak knows that it is Yaakov (28:1-4)? How do you feel about Yitzhak’s understanding of his sons? Why is Yitzhak’s blindness mentioned?


Dvar Haftarah

Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

With the attention of our haftarah focused on the interaction of David with Jonathan, King Saul becomes almost a secondary character. Still, he is certainly the great tragic hero of the haftarah and his behavior is indicative of this description.

Saul is deservedly troubled by David’s threat to his rule. After all, David is a rising star who has established his military prowess. He is popularly acclaimed and is favored in the royal court, as well as being the beloved friend of Jonathan, the king’s son and heir apparent. From Saul’s standpoint, David is sure to usurp his position.

And if all of this was insufficient to disturb Saul’s equilibrium, Saul has a dark secret to which only he is privy. He knows that his position as king is precarious since the prophet Samuel has informed him that God has decided to relieve him of his position on account of his mishandling the command to kill Agag, the king of the Amalekites.

This burden weighs heavily on Saul’s shoulders, and his anxiety boils over in how he relates to David and Jonathan. His outbursts are not without good reason. Still, they exacerbate the quandary in which he finds himself. Saul feels boxed in with no way to ameliorate his condition. Instead of building alliances with David and with his son, both of whom treat him with the utmost respect and dignity, he alienates them and exacerbates the troubles he has brought upon himself. He has become his own worst enemy in his downward spiral, falling prey to his own negative attitude.

Saul’s behavior provides a valuable lesson for all of us. Hopefully, most of us will avoid the kind of dark predicament in which Saul finds himself, but no one is spared difficulties in life and we will be judged, and will judge ourselves, by how we handle them. Saul allowed his “darkness” to conquer him rather than to take control of himself, master his assets, and use them as a means for making the best of his situation instead of being self-destructive.

Saul is the author of his own fate as are we all. Tragedy did not befall him. He turned his life into a tragedy. May awareness of his story help us avoid the same pitfalls.


We would like to thank the following for their generous support of the Haftarah Commentary:

Underwriters: Rabbi Michael and Erica Schwab

SponsorsRabbi Ron Androphy, Rabbi Jeffrey & Tami Arnowitz, Rabbi Martin Flax, Rabbi Barry Dov Katz, Rabbi Ben Kramer, Rabbi Vernon Kurtz, Rabbi Robert Pilavin, Rabbi Micah Peltz, Rabbi David Rosen

Friends: Aaron Dworin, Rabbi Robert Eisen, Rabbi Jay Goldstein, Rabbi Rafi Kanter, Rabbi Dennis Linson, Rabbi Mark Mallach, Rabbi Marvin Richardson z”l, Rabbi Joel Roth, Rabbi Ronald Roth, Rabbi Neil Sandler, Rabbi David C. Seed, Mel F. Seidenberg in honor of his grandchildren and two great grandsons, Rabbi Ari Sunshine

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