Parashat Toldot

“The Deeds of the Ancestors–A Sign for Their Descendants”
A Dvar Torah for Toledot

by Rabbi Len Levin

Imagine the story of Isaac and Rebekah, Esau and Jacob, updated to our time.

Updating the characters is the easier part. We can imagine Isaac as the child of a super-observant, conflicted family, who bears the scars of his father’s life-endangering ascetic practices and the near-permanent estrangement from a half-brother consequent on a family rift. (The character of Danny Saunders in Chaim Potok’s The Chosen has some of these traits.) He has resolved never to inflict on another the trials he has witnessed and experienced.

Rebekah is a cousin, of mixed Jewish and non-Jewish heritage, possibly from the former Soviet Union. While growing up, she heard fantastic family tales about Jews and Judaism, to which she pledged fierce loyalty, but had no direct Jewish education. She has resolved to be forever faithful to this family tradition and to the God she has been discovering in the course of her life’s journey.

Esau is “all boy” — physically exuberant, ADHD, not terribly intellectual. At school, his behavior is borderline tolerable and gets just-passing grades. His favorite sports are football and wrestling. He loves action movies and mock-violent computer games.

Jacob is an introvert and brilliant student, but morbid and asocial, possibly on the Asperger’s spectrum. He has been a finalist in the city Bible quiz the past few years and is starting to go beyond the classroom Talmud lessons and study seriously on his own.

Updating the central plot issue is harder. What is there in contemporary experience that has the exclusivity and aura of “the blessing”? Zadie Abraham’s tefillin? Inheritance of the dynastic leadership in a Hasidic sect? Whatever it is, the issue of succession arises because on the one hand, it is something that it would be wildly inappropriate for Esau to inherit, but Isaac is determined, based on his own traumatic experience, not to deprive his eldest son of that to which he is entitled by virtue of his being the firstborn.

The perspectives of the central characters are at cross-purposes, reflecting their opposite backgrounds. Isaac, who has been traumatized by an overdose of religious fervor, is sympathetic to Esau’s natural hedonistic temperament. (But he draws the line when Esau marries Canaanite wives.) Rebekah, coming to the Abrahamic faith from a more distant collateral background, champions the more serious and Jewish-identifying of the sons.

The commentators are divided as to the morality of the deception which Rebekah and Jacob jointly perpetrate on Isaac and Esau. Nahum Sarna points to clues in the biblical text where the biblical narrator seems implicitly to condemn it. Most notably, he argues that the deception that Jacob suffers at Laban’s hands on his wedding night is a case of retributive justice, measure for measure (middah k’neged middah). (See Sarna, Genesis: JPS Commentary, 397-98.) Eliezer Schweid suggests that Rebekah was unfair to Esau because of her own egoistic over-identification with Jacob (Schweid, Philosophy of the Bible [Narrative], 147-56). On the other hand, Maurice Samuel argues that Rebekah saw clearly the necessity of God’s blessing finding its appropriate recipient and struggled valiantly to achieve that objective (Samuel, Certain People of the Book, 130-85).

Whatever the merits of the immediate episode, its repercussions are felt in the near and distant future. Jacob must flee for his life to Laban, with whom he stays for twenty years, where he grows from an individual to the paterfamilias of an extended family. The hostility with Esau finds respite at the end of that sojourn, but not before Jacob undergoes a mighty self-wrestling, where his name Jacob is exchanged for Israel, possibly betokening a character transformation from “crooked / heel” to “straight / upright [yashar].” Centuries later, the kingdom of Israel-Judah will find itself in hostile rivalry with the kingdom of Esau-Edom to the south. Still later, the Idumean (<Edom) Herod will become the impersonation of the hated Roman overlordship, and the name “Edom” will be taken over to become symbolic of Rome, first in its pagan and later in its Christian incarnation. In this guise, the rivalry of Jacob and Esau will extend for the next two millennia.

What are the lessons of this story for our time? Though in my younger days I experienced the boisterous, sporting Esau-types as the threatening antipode of my quiet, scholarly self, I have lately come to live with them in greater acceptance. When there is only one spiritual blessing to go around, the fights for its ownership never cease, and are never resolved. I applaud Rebekah’s earnestness and adopt it in my own quest to express my Jewish identity. But on the intergroup level my sympathies are now with Isaac, who is able to confer nearly equal blessings on both his sons–and who today would no doubt be generous with blessings for Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, secularists, and all other earnest seekers after truth.


Rabbi Len Levin teaches Jewish philosophy at AJR.