Toledot (Genesis 25:19 – 28:9)

Toledot (Genesis 25:19 – 28:9)

A D’var Torah by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Toledot marks a clear demarcation line in the Torah to the story of Isaac, beginning with his marriage to Rebekah when he was forty years old. The chapter culminates with Isaac’s son Jacob traveling to Paddan-aram to take a wife from the daughters of Laban, his mother’s brother. Jacob’s twin brother, Esau, on the other hand, deliberately disobeys Isaac’s injunction not to marry a Canaanite woman and instead chooses his wife from the line of Isaac’s half-brother, Ishmael (whose lineage was detailed at the conclusion of the previous parasha).

Esau had good reason to be angry with his father, although he is also complicit in his own deception by exchanging the spirituality implicit in his long term birthright for the temporary satisfaction of a hunger-satisfying, red stew. Toledot details how Esau was the victim of his own impetuousness, his twin’s deceit, the complicity of his mother (who favored Jacob) in his deception, and the weakness, metaphorically paralleled by his dimming eyes, of a prematurely aging father. “One may have the dignity of old age without its years, or length of days without the dignity of old age,” proclaimed Rabbi Aha, a fourth generation Amora sage [1]. The result is that Esau’s birthright, as the first son to emerge from his mother’s womb, with Jacob a close second, holding on to his brother’s heel, is mistakenly bestowed upon Jacob. It is Jacob who, masquerading as Esau through a downright dirty trick, obtains his father’s blessing. Eventually it is Jacob who must flee to Laban to escape Esau’s wrath.

The Torah portrays the two brothers as engaged in a struggle for dominance, even in the womb.

“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” (Genesis 25:23).[2]

According to the biblical scholar, Richard Elliott Freedman, the wording of the last sentence in the biblical Hebrew is ambiguous, so that one cannot really tell which twin should serve whom.

“The decision as to who is number-one son is still God’s….The text does not in fact say that the elder will serve the younger son. In biblical Hebrew, the subject may either precede or follow the verb, and the object likewise may either precede or follow the verb. What that means is that sometimes it is impossible to tell which word in a biblical verse is the subject and which is the object, especially if the verse is in poetry.” In other words, ‘the elder will serve the younger’ can also mean “the elder, the younger will serve.’ “ [3]

As Friedman explains this verse, it’s a toss-up. My take, though, is that the implicit  mutuality of the verse is intentional in the Torah. Yet the adversarial interpretation of this verse situation persists today in real life, thousands of years later, in the Middle East.

What is not intimated in this verse, however, is that the brothers – each of them, despite having taken different paths, emerge successful and prosperous. When they eventually meet again, it is at first uncertain whether they will fight or reconcile – is the greeting of Esau, the wronged party, a kiss or a bite, or perhaps both? – but the brothers do make peace with one another (just as Isaac and Ishmael came together to bury their father, Abraham in the preceding parasha). And then Jacob and Esau part, each to continue his own life, but the pact of brotherly love and goodwill remaining.

Why is their long enmity, rather than the embrace that brought them both together, the story that has resounded through the centuries?

Last night in Los Angeles, I attended the Israeli Film Festival’s showing of a rediscovered, filmed interview with the first leader of modern Israel, David Ben Gurion in his 80s, already retired from politics and personally engaged in rebuilding the desert. He was simply a Jew, he said (to paraphrase), who wanted to live in Israel in a world where there was peace among the nations – and where people did not exploit one another but rather put the Jewish value of loving one another into practice.

“Judaism has always been more than mere expectation, or fulfillment postponed; it has always looked to some this-worldly expression of progress toward its long range hopes,” penned Rabbi Gunther Plaut [4]. Maybe it’s time to put the long-ago reconciliation of Jacob and Esau into the present tense. Maybe it’s time for a mutual embrace instead of a bite.

[1] Quoted in “Gleanings,” The Torah: A Modern Commentary, revised edition, ed. Rabbi Gunther Plaut (New York: Union for Reform Judaism), 164. Rabbi Aha was one of the Ammoraim (interpreters of the Torah), the sages who followed the first and second century CE Tannaim (repeaters of the Torah).

[2] JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1999) 48.

[3] Commentary on the Torah: With a New English Translation and the Hebrew Text, ed. Richard Elliott Friedman (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 88.

[4] “Essays,” The Torah: A Modern Commentary, revised edition, ed. Rabbi Gunther Plaut (New York: Union for Reform Judaism) 165.

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2017. All rights reserved.