PARASHAT TOLDOT by Rabbi Dr. John Fischer, UMJC President
Gen 25”19 – 28:9; Mal 1:1 – 2:7; Matt 10:21 - 38
This week’s parasha contains a very important part of the ongoing account of Abraham and his family as those specially chosen by God to communicate his covenant blessings to the entire world. But it is also a lesson in proper priorities and perspectives, especially when it comes to responding appropriately to Adonai. And yet, it’s a story that is usually misunderstood and as a result is inaccurately told. It’s the account of Jacob and Esau.
To do real justice to this passage would take more time than this d’rash allows because it’s a complex narrative, which also includes significant contributions by Isaac and Rebekah in addition to their two sons. It also includes a cameo appearance by Noah. So the best I can do is hit some of the highlights.
As the account unfolds we learn that Isaac and Rebekah have a problem. They are unable to have children. As observant readers we’ve seen this before; it was the same issue that Abraham and Sarah had. And it’s part of the way our Jewish Scriptures speak to us. They tell their story using repeating patterns or paradigms. Isaac’s response to this situation is to pray. The Lord answers his prayer, but with the answer come unexpected complications. The answer is that Rebekah is to have twins, twins who soon cause a commotion within their mother. Being a person who is properly attuned to God, she talks to him about her situation.
Adonai’s response to her is quite striking, and it is absolutely essential to correctly reading the account of Jacob and Esau. The Lord says that the older son will serve the younger. Contrary to every usual practice of the ancient Near East, he tells Rebekah that her younger son will be the primary heir to the promises he made to Abraham—not the older son, but the younger son. God is behind this, not Jacob; it’s a matter of God’s decision, not Jacob’s deception! (An important ancient rabbi reminded us of this in Romans 9:10–13.)
This perspective needs to shape our reading of this passage.
The parasha goes on to tell us the names of the twins, names that are significant to understanding the story. The younger son is called Jacob. Now, his name is connected to the Hebrew word for heel (akev). So he is called Ya-akev (Ya‘akov) which literally means “may he (the Lord) be at your heels,” in other words, your defending rearguard. The Encyclopedia Judaica simply defines Jacob’s name as “God protects.”
So where did the derogatory notion come from that Jacob’s name indicates he’s a deceiver? It came from Esau’s angry, slanted description later in the story: “His name, Ya‘akov, really suits him—because he has supplanted me these two times: he took away my birthright, and here, now he has taken away my blessing!” (Gen 27:36). In evaluating that description we need to recall that Esau is described as a person who “despised his birthright” (Gen 25:34) and who was “godless” (Heb 12:16). He’s certainly not a man whose behavior and attitude are intended to be copied!
In contrast the text describes Ya‘akov as a “quiet man” (Gen 25:27) CJB, NIV, et al.). But this translation completely misses the point. The Hebrew is ish tam or “complete person” as the NASB points out in its margin note. Here we hear echoes of Noah (Gen 6:9) who was described as tamim, which is from the same Hebrew root. Most versions translate that as “blameless.” (The same Hebrew word is used to describe God’s ways as perfect in Deuteronomy 32:4.) The story of Noah goes on to unwrap what tamim implies when it describes him as a person who “walked with God.” When our parasha describes Ya‘akov as ish tam, the same characteristic of walking with God echoes in the background.
This understanding of Ya‘akov is in line with our Sages’ insight concerning the other descriptive phrase found in this verse, “dweller in tents.” They understand this as an idiom for a student in a Torah academy, a person who studies Scripture and develops moral character. Both descriptions—and his name—point to Ya‘akov being a person who has proper priorities and perspectives.
The contrast between the twins is further emphasized in the next scene. Esau comes back from hunting. He’s famished. He smells the stew—the mess of pottage—that Ya‘akov is preparing and immediately wants some (instead of himself preparing the game he had just hunted). Ya‘akov asks for the family birthright in exchange. Esau responds by saying “what good is my birthright to me?” The stew was more important to him than his birthright! And our text emphasizes that this in fact was Esau’s perspective by noting his new nickname, “Edom.” (Edom means red, referring to the color of the stew.) The episode concludes with the summary statement in 25:34: “So Esau despised his birthright.” Ya‘akov on the other hand considered the birthright a real prize.
There is much more that can be said about the Jacob-Esau story. There are Ya‘akov and Rebekah’s intriguing—and badly misinterpreted—actions in chapter 27 for example. Concerning these actions, a couple of observations are important to keep in mind. Isaac never rebukes either Ya‘akov or Rebekah. Instead he blesses Ya‘akov a second time at the end of our parasha (Gen 28:1–4). Even more significantly, Adonai doesn’t reprimand Rebekah or Ya‘akov either. In fact, he blesses Ya‘akov twice (Gen 28:13 and 35:11)!
A couple of personal questions remain from reading this passage. What about our priorities and perspectives? Do we truly prize our birthright? Are we like Ya‘akov the ish tam or are we like Esau who rejected his birthright? The choice is ours.