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עשה תורתך קבע – אמור מעט ועשה הרבה

Parshat Toldot

Posted by rabbiart on April 21, 2008

Brothers fight – does anyone win?

Our parshah is reminiscent of Dickens, but instead of two cities, it begins a tale of two brothers. For one, it will be the best of times; for the other, it will be the worst. Their struggle begins even before birth, as the theme of barren mothers continues from Sarah to Rivkah.

In the section of the triennial cycle (25:19 – 26:22, the full-cycle first three aliyot) that we read this Shabbat, Yitzhak and Rivkah are married, but struggle to have children. Yitzhak entreats HaShem on behalf of Rivkah, and she becomes pregnant. As she feels the twins struggling in her belly, Rivkah goes to ask HaShem about her (we infer from the text) difficult pregnancy. HaShem speaks to Rebecca, telling her that two nations are struggling in her womb. They shall separate, and the younger will become stronger, and be served by the elder. The twins are born; Esav first. His brother follows, holding on to his heel.*
The brothers themselves are very different, Esav being a hunter, while Yakov is a tent-dweller (and perhaps a bit of a mama’s boy?). Two famous incidents demonstrate the brothers’ character and their relationship. We read of the first incident in this week’s parshah. Yakov demands his brother’s birth-right in exchange for some porridge. (In the second, Yakov will appropriate his father’s death-bed blessing. They will be reconciled – perhaps – only upon Yakov’s return from Padan-Aram some 20 years later.) Then there is another famine, and Yitzhak and Rivkah flee to Avimelech of Gerar, following in their parents’ footsteps, and behaving as did their parents. HaShem repeats the promise made to Avraham, adding that the promise is renewed because of Avraham’s devotion. They leave Gerar with great wealth, and travel from place to place digging again the wells that Avraham had dug. Other than the Akedah, which is primarily about Avraham, this is the only incident recorded in the Torah that tells of Yitzhak’s life. It is a duplicate of his father’s experience.
It is entirely natural for Jews to question Yakov’s behavior in demanding his brother’s birthright in exchange for food and later appropriating the blessing that typically would have gone to the first-born. (Why not? We question everything!) Our traditional commentators have struggled with it as well. In general they struggle to come to terms with the relationship between the two brothers. Rashi mentions that this incident took place on the day Avraham died, so that he would not have to see one of his grandsons devalue his birthright. A widely quoted Midrash teaches that whenever Rivkah would go past the Yeshivah of Shem & Ever, Yakov ran and struggled to come out; whenever she passed in front of gates of idolatry, Esav struggled to come out. Using standard rabbinic interpretive devices, various interpretations claim that Esav came in from the fields after either violating a betrothed maiden, or having committed murder. In general we might observe that the midrashic sources hasten to conclude that Esau’s character was mal-formed from before his birth. Therefore – the sources conclude – Yakov’s treatment of him is justified.

HaShem repeats his promise to Yitzhak

When the focus of the story returns to Yitzhak, HaShem repeats the promise that HaShem gave Avraham, except that now it is conditional. If Yitzhak continues to live in the land, HaShem will be with him, and bless his descendants, and make them numerous, and live up to the promise that HaShem gave Avraham. Why? Because Avraham listened to HaShem’s voice, and kept HaShem’s charge, commandments, laws and Torah. וַיִּשְׁמֹר, מִשְׁמַרְתִּי, מִצְו‍ֹתַי, חֻקּוֹתַי וְתוֹרֹתָי.

As we read the parshah this Shabbat we might consider the nature of our relationships with each other – and our responsibilities as inheritors of Avraham’s promise. It is easy to get along with those who think as we do, and more challenging to live in shalom with those who are different and who see the world differently. The Torah states that Yitzhak loved Esav, because Esav provided game for Yitzhak to eat, but Rivkah simply loved Yakov. No reason was necessary. As we go through life, shall we love conditionally, like Yitzhak’s love for Esav, or shall we love one another without conditions, like Rivkah?

* The name Yakov – in Hebrew יַעֲקֹב – comes from the Hebrew root עקב. This word can mean “heel”, but also “crooked or deceitful” as well as the word (in the plural) for consequences.

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