by Dr. David Friedman
"Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us through His commandments, and commanded us to be busy studying Torah".
Parashat Toldot offers us a chance to interpret the lives of Jacob and Esau. There have been many different approaches to weighing their births, their relationship, their actions and the prophetic words regarding each of these Patriarchs (Jacob, of the Jewish people; Esau of the former Edomite nation). Let me offer you my viewpoint, by which the corpus of ensuing parashiyot makes the most sense to me.
Perhaps the first clue as to the nature of the twins is found in chapter 25: 21-24. There it is written:
21. And Isaac pleaded to God on behalf of his wife, because she was childless. Then God answered him, and Rivkah his wife became pregnant.
22. Her unborn boys were moving inside of her very actively, so she said, "I don't understand why this is happening to me," and she asked God why this was so.
23. So God said to her, "Two peoples are in your womb, two nations will emerge from inside of you, and be separated from each other. The stronger one will serve the younger one."
24. Her time to give birth came, and twins were in her womb. (*my translation of the text)*
Without offering any justification for what later occurred in the lives of the twins, we see that before their birth, Rivkah already understood that Esau and his people would end up being subservient to Jacob and his people. The wording of the Hebrew text is a bit vague in saying that the stronger one (Hebrew: "rav"=greater, perhaps in physical strength or numbers) would serve the younger one. Without a clear time element in this text, we can understand this to mean that in the lives of the twins, Jacob, not Esau, would emerge as the family leader of Isaac's clan. As well, through the lens of history we can see that this meant that Jacob's descendants would be prominent on the stage of world history, whereas Esau's descendants would be of little significance (thus, the "stronger" serves the "younger"). By emerging with both the family birthright and the covenant promises given to his grandfather, Jacob also fulfills the words of v. 23. Thus, the text gives us clues as to what we can expect to see unfold in their story. There is little effort given to justifying the reasons for what happens between, the twins, other than God's foreknowledge of the matter (see 25:23). Yet I believe we have textual clues that can help us evaluate the "whys" behind the action.
Our text continues to describe their relationship:
26. Afterwards, his brother was born, with his hand holding the heel of Esau. They named him Yakov. So Isaac was sixty years old when he fathered them.
27. The boys grew up, and Esau became a skilled hunter, an outdoorsman, while Yakov became concerned with spiritual affairs and spent his time indoors.
28. Isaac showed favoritism to Esav, because his hunting skills put food on his table. Rivkah, though, showed favoritism to Yakov.
29. Once, Yakov cooked a stew when Esav came in from the outdoors, thoroughly exhausted.
30. So Esau said to Yakov, "Give me a little of that red-colored stew, because I'm really exhausted." Because of this, his name was called Edom.
31. Yakov replied, "Sell me your firstborn inheritance rights today."
32. Then Esav said, "Look, I'm going to die, so what good to me (are my rights) as the firstborn?"
33. So Yakov stated, "Swear an oath to me today." And Esau made an oath to him and sold his rights as the firstborn son" (*my translation of the text* ).
Here is where many Torah students focus on Jacob's "conniving" character, as he appears to be dishonestly taking the legal birthright/inheritance rights of Esau. However, let us more closely examine these events. Sometimes v. 26 is used as proof of Jacob's nature, i.e. his name "Yakov" means "a deceiver or trickster". However, let's remember that this is *Esau's *interpretation of events (see 27:36a: "So he [Esau] said, ‘Then he is as his name, Yakov, because now he has taken away my blessing twice'"). In Hebrew, "Yakov" means "follower", and is simply describing Jacob's birth order. Esau spins Jacob's name to match *his* personal version of what happened to himself.
However one chooses to see the actions of Jacob, either as deceiving and tricky (a la Esau), or, as I favor, as desperate acts to insure that he acquires the family covenant blessings, it is clear that Esau had legally sold his first-born, double portion, family inheritance rights to Jacob. And this may be why the text explains this "sale event" in detail: it's proof that Jacob acquired the birthright legally (which is something that Esau apparently did not tell Isaac!).
Verse 25:27 describes the character and nature of the young men. Jacob is described as "tam". In our Passover Haggadah, "tam" takes on the nuance of "innocence" (in describing one of the 4 types of sons). The word *tam* is not easy to translate in our parasha's context. I prefer a translation and meaning where Jacob is set in juxtaposition to Esau, as in "one concerned with spiritual affairs." One son (Esau) is always concerned with obtaining food; the other son is concerned with more eternal matters (acquiring the covenant promises at all costs). I believe the implication of the Hebrew text points us in that direction. Levin translates this word "tam" as "righteous" or "complete" (perhaps a more "well-rounded" person, due to his interest in spiritual affairs). Levin's translation is also possible (see Y.Levin, "The Meaning of TMM in Gen. 25:27," e-mail to b-hebrew mailing list, July 12, 2007, http://lists.ibiblio.org/pipermail/<http://lists.ibiblio.org/%20pipermail/> b-hebrew/2007 July/032880.html).
Based on the above reading of our parasha, if we see Jacob as desirous of obtaining all that God had to offer his family (especially the covenant promises), and willing to do anything to obtain them-whereas Esau is oblivious to the value of the covenant promises-then we have the right background by which to evaluate the entire narrative.
It is of note that Rivkah knew what a scheming, deceptive family was truly like. She couldn't wait to escape the family of her father and her brother, Lavan the Aramean: "Then they said, ‘We'll call for the girl, and we'll ask her ourselves (what she'd like to do).' So they called for Rivkah, and said to her, ‘Do you want to go away with this man?' She said, ‘Yes, I want to go!'" (24:57-58*, my translation of the text).*
Rivkah leaves at the very first chance that she has, enthusiastically venturing into the unknown with total strangers, for the rest of her life! In our parasha, perhaps she put forth all of her efforts to help the one son whom she knew cared about God's covenant promises. She knew what was valuable in life. I will conjecture that she had grown up in a house with priorities that were similar to those of Esau. Perhaps Rivkah favored Jacob due to just personality reasons; as a parent of twins, I know it is a challenge to always love both with the same intensity and frequency. Yet it appears to me that Rivkah and Jacob teamed up to keep the covenants of God going strong in their family line. This appears to be the viewpoint of Malachi, who harshly viewed Esau, in saying: "Was not Esau Jacob's brother?" the LORD says. "Yet I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated, and I have turned his mountains into a wasteland and left his inheritance to the desert jackals (Malachi 1:2b-3, NIV). Why would Malachi see Esau and his legacy in such a negative light? (p.s. I'll admit that there are historical reasons [such as the Edomite nation being historical enemies of Israel before Malachi's lifetime]; in spite of this, though, Esau is personally mentioned in these verses).
This is an overall framework that I suggest to you, to help study our text.
I want to acknowledge the previous research done on this topic by both UMJC rabbi John Fischer, and Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, from whom I have learned much about our parasha.
May God grant us the wisdom to understand our parasha, to learn from it, and enjoy studying it!