Parshat Toledot – “Generations” – begins by recounting the family background of Isaac and ends with an account of the passing of the leadership to his son. Like his mother Sarah, Isaac’s wife Rebecca had difficulty getting pregnant; so Isaac prayed to God on her behalf. As a result, Rebecca became pregnant with twins. It was a difficult pregnancy: Even before the twins were born, they were fighting in their mother’s womb, a struggle which would continue throughout most of their lives. Esau, red and hairy, was the firstborn; the second infant came out holding onto his brother’s heel. Accordingly, he was named Jacob, which is related to the Hebrew word for “heel.”
As the oldest of the twins, Esau was supposed to inherit all of his father’s property and possessions as his birthright. He developed into an outdoorsman and hunter, while Jacob preferred the quiet and security of home. Unfortunately the parents played favourites: Isaac preferred Esau because he brought him food, while Rebecca loved the younger and milder Jacob. As the brother’s matured, their relationship deteriorated. Arriving home one day from the hunt, Esau, starving and exhausted, recklessly sold his birthright to Jacob for a pot of lentil stew.
Chapter 26 begins with famine in the Land of Canaan. Isaac and his family headed down to Gerar, where Avimelech was the king of the Philistines. Echoing an episode scene from his parents’ lives, Isaac told everyone that Rebecca was his sister. But Avimelech saw Isaac being intimate with Rebecca and confronted him. Like his father, Isaac became very wealthy. Because Isaac’s shepherds and the local herdsmen argued over water rights, the local herdsmen kept filling the wells that Abraham had dug. Isaac kept redigging his father’s wells and having them taken away from him. Finally, he moved to Beersheva. As God once blessed Abraham in Beersheva with the promise of many descendents, so God blessed Isaac there. Avimelech came to Beersheva and made a treaty with Isaac. The chapter ends with Esau’s marrying two Hittite women, which was a “source of bitterness to Isaac and Rebecca.”
Chapter 27 tells of an incident that took place many years later. Isaac had grown old and blind. He asked his favourite son Esau to hunt game and prepare him a meal after which Isaac would give Esau the blessing of the firstborn. This blessing – separate from the birthright – represented the formal passing on of the spiritual leadership of the family and the people to the next generation. (Even though Esau had already sold his right to his father’s material property, this blessing still belonged to Esau.) Upon hearing of Isaac’s plan, Rebecca instructed Jacob to prepare his father a meal, and then to disguise himself as Esau by covering his neck and hands with animal skins (Esau was hairy, while Jacob was not). When Jacob appeared before his father, Isaac wondered that “the voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau.” Nonetheless, be bestowed the blessing on Jacob. Just after Isaac finished blessing Jacob, Esau returned with the meal that Isaac had asked him to prepare. In a heartbreaking moment, Esau discovered that his brother had stolen his blessing. Bursting into wild and bitter sobs, he begged his father to give him something. Isaac did indeed give him a blessing, but it was a secondary one which could not replace what had been lost. The Torah tells us that Esau planned to kill Jacob once Isaac had died, so Rebecca again managed the situation and counseled Jacob to flee from his brother’s anger. In order to have Isaac approve of Jacob’s journey, she convinced him that Jacob should be sent back to her brother Laban to find a bride from among their own family. Isaac agreed, and gave Jacob a second blessing before he left.
“Primogeniture” means the primacy of the first-born son. In the ancient world, most people thought that the eldest son deserved both to lead the next generation and to inherit the father’s estate. It was viewed as an “iron rule” of nature. Yet one of the most frequent themes in the Hebrew Bible is the triumph of the younger brother over the older. It recurs in the stories of Ishmael and Isaac; Esau and Ja- cob; Reuben and Judah; Joseph and his brothers; and Ephraim and Menasheh. Beyond Genesis, it’s found in the fact that leadership is conferred on the younger Moses, not the older Aaron, and that King David is the youngest among his brothers. What is the Tanach teaching us by repeating this theme? Perhaps by showing younger sons who are wiser and more righteous than their older brother the Torah is teaching us that we can shatter nature’s seemingly ironclad laws through purposeful action. Although we’re part of nature and must submit to many of its imperatives, we can also shape our own futures through acts of will and intelligence. We can shape history to overcome the limitations of the natural world. From its very beginning, the Torah sets forth both possibilities. How we turn out is largely up to each of us.
Some Thoughts and Questions
Isaac’s life story shares many common characteristics with that of his father Abraham: a barren wife, two sons who had little in common with each other, a famine story, an effort to pass off his wife as his sister, a treaty with a neighboring chieftain, and a promise from God. How does he differentiate himself from his famous father and become his “own man”? (Hint: The wells that his father’s servants had dug were stopped up by the Philistines. In time, Isaac dug new wells. What is the significance of Isaac digging his own wells? What significance is there to the place names Rehoboth and Beersheva?)
One of the most frequent themes of the Heberw Bible is that of a woman who cannot have children easily. (In addition to Rebecca, think of Sarah, Rachel and Hannah.) Why is having children such an important theme in the Tanach? What lesson do we learn from these women’s being able to have children only after a long period of barrenness?
Did Jacob do the right thing in fooling his father? Some commentators suggest that Isaac actually knew that he was blessing Jacob, but pretended to be fooled in order not to destroy his relationship with Esau. The key factor seems to be Isaac’s becoming blind. It is ironic that when he had his sight he favoured Esau; and that it was only with his blindness that he was able to give Jacob his blessing. Find two clues in the story which would suggest this.
In Toledot, Jacob receives two blessings from his father. The first was intended for Esau, while the second was intended specifically for him. Compare the two blessings. Note that the first one is more concerned with material well-being, whereas the second one is concerned with spiritual matters and the future of the Jewish people. What does the comparison of the blessings suggest to you about Isaac’s “blindness”? Do you think that Isaac was aware of the differences between the characters of his sons and their divergent futures?
What could the family described in the Torah portion have done to change the situation? What advice would you have given them? What lessons can your family learn from Isaac? … from Rebecca? … from Esau? … from Jacob? Is there a difference between being treated fairly and being treated equally?
For our sages Esau becomes synonymous with Rome. Therefore, he is totally evil. Can you find anything in the text to suggest this about Esau?