Explore Jewish heritage with an amateur Jew’s commentary on Parsha Toldot, Genesis 25:19 – 28:9. Click here to read last week’s, Parsha Chayei Sara.
Parsha Toldot gives us the story of Isaac––a man who lives a comparatively simple life (at least, when you think of the Jewish patriarchs before him). His life really slowed down after his father, Abraham, tried to kill him. It’s hard to top God intervening in your impending death.
So the story of Isaac revolves mostly around his twin children, Esau and Jacob. These two rugrats come onto the scene after Isaac “pleaded with the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was barren.”
Isaac asked and Rebekah received.
“But the children struggled in her womb,” and the Lord reassured her by working His prophetic muscles again.
“Two nations are in your womb,
Two separate peoples shall issue from your body;
One people shall be mightier than the other,
and the older shall serve the younger.”
On cue, Esau comes out first “red, like a hairy mantle all over” and Jacob follows, “holding on to the heel” of his slightly older brother. Isaac was a whopping sixty years old when they were born; just a little Torah trivia to keep in your back pocket if you ever get pressured to have kids and you’re still in your late twenties or early thirties.
Two Brothers, One Blessing
Torah writers make clear the differences between the brothers early on, describing Esau as a “skillful hunter,” “a man of the outdoors,” and “the kind of guy you can have a beer with.”
Jacob, on the other hand, “was a mild man who stayed in camp.” That’s Torah for “a reflective introvert.”
Even though parents aren’t supposed to pick favorites, it’s written that Isaac favored Esau and Rebekah favored Jacob. Now’s a good time to point out that rabbinic commentators have gone through great lengths to twist the story of Esau and Jacob into one that paints Jacob in a favorable light. Jew Oughta Know host, Jason Harris, says on an episode about this story that the rabbis claim Esau is evil and the father figure for everything bad that’s happened to Jews from the destruction of the first and second temple and right up to the Nazis. But when you consider a straight reading of the text, Esau doesn’t come off all that bad. Maybe a little dopey, like any muscle-head jock you might remember from high school who doesn’t think things through.
The Torah gives us an example of this, describing a day when Jacob was cooking up a strew and Esau came by, “famished.” Esau says, “Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am famished.” In exchange, Jacob demands that Esau sell him his birthright––basically legal right to property and such. Esau thinks with his empty stomach and agrees, spurning his birthright for a lentil stew and bread.
So, yeah, not exactly a forward-thinking guy, but hardly seems to be someone we can blame for the historic persecution of Jews. Give the real antisemites their due!
Stay Clear Of Egypt
We pause our tale of Esau and Jacob for a warning. Isaac goes to Abimelech, king of the Philistines, who shares that “the Lord had appeared,” warning him, “Do not go down to Egypt; stay in the land which I point out to you. Reside in this land, and I will be with you and bless you; I will assign all these lands to you and to your heirs, fulfilling the oath that I swore to your father Abraham.”
Isaac takes the warning to heart and stays put in Gerar. But like his father before him, Isaac feared that people would ask about his wife and kill him on account of her beauty. So just like Abraham did with Sarah, Isaac lies and says his wife is his sister. The lie works up until Abimelech looked out a window and saw Isaac “fondling” Rebekah.
Abimelech is none too pleased, but nothing terrible comes of it. In fact, the Philistine king threatens his own people, warning that anyone who touches either Isaac or Rebekah will face the punishment of death.
Isaac goes on to prosper in his farming, so much so that Abimelech kicks him out because Isaac has “become far too big” for the Philistines. And so Isaac moved on and settled in the wadi of Gerar, digging up old wells his father had dug.
There doesn’t seem to be a ton of commentary out there on this episode. At best you can chalk it up to more evidence that Isaac led a quiet life compared to many of the other patriarchs we’ve heard from so far. I guess it’s like how you hear more from trainwrecks in the media than, well, good farmers.
Now we’re at the heart of this Parsha when Jacob deceives his father en route to becoming the patriarch from which Israelites get their name.
Isaac is old and can barely see; possibly blind, even. He’s counting down the clock on his life and calls Esau over for one last task before blessing him. All he wants is for Esau to hunt some game and prepare a favorite dish of his. Then, he’ll give Esau his blessing (passing on spiritual leadership of the family) and kick the bucket.
But Rebekah eavesdrops and wants to help out her favored child. She tells Jacob to “go to the flock and fetch me two choice kids [baby goats, not humans––though that would be very Torah-y], and I will make of them a dish for your father, such as he likes. Then take it to your father to eat, in order that he may bless you before he dies.”
Jacob follows his plan and they disguise him so that when Isaac touches his son, he’ll feel his hairy arms and think he’s talking to Esau. It works and Jacob gets the blessing just before Esau returns. But it’s too late. Isaac can’t take back his blessing (it’d be caught up in blessing litigation, I guess) and Esau is screwed. Realizing he’s screwed, Esau “burst into wild and bitter sobbing,” which seems like an odd reaction for a boy previously described like a meathead. Or perhaps, it’s just the kind of reaction you’d expect of someone fronting a tough exterior their entire life.
Isaac justifies his decision, saying “Your brother came with guile and took away your blessing.” That’s Torah for “hate the player, not the game.”
So now Esau has to serve Jacob but his father reassures him that he will one day “break [Jacob’s] yoke from your neck.” Harris, our Jew Oughta Know host, says that this is in reference to the fact that the kingdom of Edom will have broken off from the kingdom of Judah by the time the Torah is written in the first millennium. In fact, after listening to Harris’s episode on the story of Esau and Jacob, you get the sense that this is the first, relatively historic Parsha of the Torah.
Time to Get Out of Dodge
Remember when I said Esau doesn’t come out nearly as bad as rabbinic commentaries suggest? Well, that’s still true, but in Esau’s grief, he does vow to murder his brother as payback.
“Let but the mourning period of my father come, and I will kill my brother Jacob.”
Perhaps this is the evil seeping out that rabbis see in Esau, but Jacob really did screw over his brother. Not that murder is justified, but damn.
Rebekah warns Jacob and sends him off to her brother Laban in Haran to stay low until Esau chills out a bit. Meanwhile, Esau meets up with Ishmael to score another wife, Mahalath.
Onward with Parsha Vayetzei.