You can find the rest of the parsha text on Chabad.org at Toldot.
From My Jewish Learning
Parashat Toldot: Opening the Conversation
This portion records the first instance in the Torah of someone initiating a dialogue with God.
BY RABBI LISA GRUSHCOW
I grew up in a Conservative synagogue which, around the time of my bat mitzvah in the 1980s, was limiting women’s participation rather than expanding it. My parents, good feminists that they were, were also part of a small egalitarian prayer community, and it was decided that although I would celebrate my bat mitzvah at our big synagogue in March, I would also chant the Torah portion with our egalitarian community closer to my birthday in November. That Torah portion was Parashat Toldot, and I have carried it with me ever since.
Isaac and Rebecca are married, and Rebecca is barren. So Isaac prays to God on her behalf, and she becomes pregnant with twins. It’s a difficult pregnancy, as the children struggle in the womb. Rabbinic interpreters imagine Esau trying to come out when Rebecca passed places of idol worship, while Jacob tries to come out when she passed places of Torah study. And then, we come to the words that for me, jumped off the scroll:
She said: If so, why do I exist? And she went to inquire of the Eternal. And the Eternal answered her… (Genesis 25:22-23)
The content of God’s reply is significant: God explains that the struggle taking place in her womb will continue in the world, and that the older twin (Esau) will serve the younger (Jacob). This explains a lot of what happens next, and suggests that Rebecca’s act of duplicitousness, in which she tricks her husband into granting Jacob the blessing he intended for Esau, is actually her following the direction that God gave her. But what was stunning to me then, and continues to move me now, is the simple fact of the exchange. Rebecca, at a challenging moment in her life, asks God a question which relates to the very nature of her existence: Why am I here? Why is this happening? Why me? And God replies.
For millennia, interpreters have buffered the directness of this exchange. Rebecca inquired of God, yes, but it must have been through the yeshiva of Shem and Ever, the ancient school of Jewish learning where, the Midrash tells us, Jacob strained to emerge from the womb. Or: she went to ask the prophets (Rashbam). Or: she prayed (Ramban). Or: she went to inquire not of God, but into the nature of God (Kli Yakar). Or, in a move that seems drastic but in fact is the logical conclusion of a patriarchal view that can’t really imagine Rebecca addressing God directly, it is Isaac, not Rebecca, who asks God and is answered (Josephus’ “Antiquities of the Jews”).
Interpretation is an essential tool when we approach an ancient text. And in fact, we do have other instances in the Bible where “inquiring of God” actually means asking a prophet. One could make the case that it’s not at all obvious what it means to inquire of God, and there is great richness in the interpretations that suggest this inquiry takes the form of philosophical musings or prayer. But sometimes, we are so focused on the interpretive meaning that we miss the obvious meaning. And the obvious meaning of this text is that Rebecca approaches God with a question and God answers her.
Even more significant, Rebecca is the first person in the Torah to start a conversation with God. Adam, Eve, Noah – all of them answer God’s questions or reply to God’s commands, but none of them initiate contact. Even Abraham, who famously responds hineini (“here I am!”) to God’s call, does not start the conversation. Abraham challenges God about the destruction of Sodom and Gemorah, but only after God shares the divine plan with him, opening the door to Abraham’s response. It is Rebecca, out of a very embodied and personal struggle, who asks God for an answer and receives one.
And so, it turns out that Parashat Toldot, the Torah portion to which I was redirected after my childhood synagogue limited women’s voices, contains a powerful example of a woman’s voice, a human voice, with the courage to cry out to God and demand a response. Rebecca is worried about her children. She is worried about her own life. She wants to know why she suffers. And she doesn’t take her question to a scholar or a prophet. She doesn’t subsume it into philosophy or prayer. She speaks directly to God. Like so many women after her, she is misinterpreted and misunderstood. But God understands her, and God responds.
Our Torah is bold enough to preserve Rebecca’s conversation with God. May we, created in the divine image, also strive to hear and honor every voice. And may we, like Rebecca, have the courage to open the conversation.
From reform judaism.org
D’VAR TORAH BY: RABBI KARYN D. KEDAR
What we choose to fight is so tiny! What fights us is so great!
When we win its with small things, and the triumph makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal does not want to be bent by us.
“The Man Watching” from Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, translation by Robert Bly
Water and wells enter into the imagination of the rabbis as metaphors for spiritual sustenance, love, peace, and as a way to tap into the wellspring of God. In his commentary on Genesis 1:1, Rashi teaches that God created the waters before heaven and earth. These amniotic waters swirl within the depth of precreation where God’s spirit hovers. Then, as the creation story continues, there is a split between heaven and earth: God made the expanse, and it separated the water which was below the expanse from the water which was above the expanse. And it was so. God called the expanse Sky (Genesis 1: 7-8). Before the clouds, before the rain, before the storms, there are the waters of the heavens above and the waters of the earth below — a flow (that) would well up from the ground and water the whole surface of the earth. So fundamental are the mystical waters that the verse begins: Such is the story of heaven and earth when they were created (Genesis 2:4).
The human being is also created with the human spirit. Like the waters of creation, we exist in two worlds. We walk upon the earth, living an embodied life, physical, temporal, and often ordinary and mundane. And the human spirit, like the waters above, yearn and aspire for meaning, for a sense of purpose. We live in the between, with our feet solidly walking upon the earth and our spirit reaching for the transcendent and sacred.
Rebecca’s well and the wells that Isaac digs are at once life sustaining and spiritually instructive. They offer lifesaving water and they are symbolic, mystical, and metaphoric.
Abraham is promised that through him we will become a great and prosperous nation, as vast as the stars that light up the heavens in the dark of night and as numerous as the sands as far as the eye could see. But the covenant could only continue through marriage and offspring. So, as we read last week in Hayyei Sarah, Abraham sends his servant to search for a wife for Isaac among the tribe.
The servant ran toward her and said, “Please, let me sip a little water from your jar.” “Drink, my lord,” she said, and she quickly lowered her jar upon her hand and let him drink (Genesis 24:17-18).
The man bowed low in homage to God and said, “Blessed be God, the God of my master Abraham, who has not withheld His steadfast faithfulness from my master. For I have been guided on my errand by God, to the house of my master’s kinsmen” (Genesis 24:26-27).
Abraham’s servant is guided by the transcendent and eternal spirit of God to Rebecca’s well, and he immediately recognizes her as the woman that will become the next matriarch, hence fulfilling God’s promise. Radiant, regal, and generous, Rebecca draws from the well, offering water to the servant and the camels. This moment of recognition on one hand and graciousness on the other turns the encounter at Rebecca’s Well into a symbol of steadfast love between God and the people. Heaven and earth meet.
Meanwhile, Isaac is told by God that despite the famine in the land, Isaac was not to leave the land, not even for food and water. So, Isaac set out to find the wellspring that could sustain this young nation during the drought. He went to the place where his father Abraham had dug. Abraham, after a dispute with the Philistine king, Abimelech, had forged a treaty securing the wells for Abraham and Sarah to sustain their wandering tribe. The place was named Be’er Sheva, which means The Well of the Oath. But the treaty was broken after Abraham’s death, and the wells were closed. Isaac had to begin anew (Genesis 26).
Isaac digs the wells of Toldot in Nachal Gerar. The word gerar means to drag. As the flood waters come in from the mountains and fill the valley, stones are loosened and dragged, forming the aquifer which is the source of the well water. With a literary sleight of hand, the name of the place where Abraham dug his wells shifts in meaning. The root of the word sheva can mean oath, but it can also mean seven. The name of the city, Be’er Sheva, changes its meaning from the Well of Oath to The Well of Seven, as Isaac begins to dig seven wells. Isaac tries to find sustaining waters and instead digs wells that are named “contention and strife,” for he is dragged into a fight with the shepherds of Gerar. With this delicate linguistic change, we are taught that where there are contention and strife, there is no blessing. As long as Isaac and the shepherds of Gerar are engaged in conflict, the promised blessing is not realized.
How often do we immerse ourselves in struggle? We focus on right and wrong, determined to win and not lose, convinced of the truth of our position. Our focus becomes our reality. When we drink from the well of strife, we become stricken, afraid, defensive, and find ourselves in a spiritual state of constriction. The space between earth and our aspiration to ascend to the Highest Good becomes narrow, as if our spirit is bent over and clenched from the conflict — and we become small.
Acknowledging the metaphoric and spiritual power of these wells, the rabbis have a dream, a midnight vision swirling in the dark and shadows that took form and revealed a divine truth. Rabbi Hanina said: One who sees a well in a dream sees peace, as it is said: “And Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and found there a well of living water” (Genesis 26:19) and ultimately there was peace (BT Berachot 56b). Isaac finds the way. As taught by his father, he strikes a treaty and the strife ceases. Isaac then digs the third well, which he names Rehovot, meaning expansiveness. Once the well of expansiveness is dug, the fear is taken away and replaced by the blessing:
From there, he went up to Be’er Sheva. God appeared to him that night and said, “I am the God of your father Abraham. Fear not, for I am with you. I will bless you and make your descendants numerous, for the sake of My servant Abraham.”
If we are to struggle, let it not be driven by fear and scarcity. Instead, let us struggle to live in the between, that expansive place where earth meets heaven and the abundant flow of the waters above touch the wellspring of the waters below. Then shall we draw from the well of graciousness, blessing, and steadfast love.
As it written: With You is the fountain of life, by Your light we see light (Psalm 36:10).
From Rishe Groner
…The point of celebrating light is not to deny the darkness. It’s to notice how beautiful it is when light shines the darkness. To notice what’s possible when we dig through the cold and dark and scary, and find something bright. Like in our Torah portion, Toldot, when we find the story of Yitzchak (Isaac), who digs the same wells his father, Avraham, dug in the southern desert. Avraham’s original treaty with the local tribes had somehow expired and resulted in the wells being re-filled by the antagonizing locals, and it took a few tries of digging and re-digging until he found the place of peace and spaciousness, called ‘Rechovot’ – literally, expansiveness.
The 20th century Polish Hasidic Master Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter, known as the Sfat Emet, the Rebbe of Gur, is one of those teachers who consistently brings incredible teachings on the power of embodiment. In this scenario, he teaches how it is literally that physical act of digging through the muck, moving away physical earth for the sake of finding the water, that helps us get to that bounty that is flowing in the well.
The experience of any embodied practice, of the rituals and practices that make up the mitzvot, embodied commandments like how we walk, eat, sleep, pray and live, are the physical earth that we dig into in order to access our personal irrigation system, the water that flows through to hydrate and nourish our lives.
It’s not about getting stuck in the muck.
It’s easy to start digging through the mud and thinking that’s all there is. Forget about it. I’m here in the darkness, I’m here in the bowels of the earth, and there will be no water. Or, maybe I guess I’ll hit water, but this is a futile exercise because my neighbors have meddled with this mechanism one too many times and I’m just going to have to do it over and over again – so I give up. Let me put my face down on this earth, lick dirt, and surrender to the darkness and difficulty of my life right now.
Until the water starts to flow.
And as we engage, allowing our bodies to remember what it is to hold the Divine within us, to feel God, to access the nourishment and the hydration of a spiritual presence in our lives, and we realize that there is magic in living in the light, even as we had to dig through darkness to get there….
From The Hebrew College
Generations and Their Wells
By Rabbi Arthur Green
The narratives of Genesis, especially in readings for Va-Yera and Toledot, are an interweaving of two sets of tales. The better-known ones are the stories of our patriarchal family: the birth of sons and the conflicts between them, first Isaac and Ishmael, then Jacob and Esau.
Alternating with these chapters are accounts of our ancestors’ attempts to live among their neighbors, including repeated conflicts over wives, land, flocks, and wells. Given the terrain of the Land of Canaan, it is no surprise that water rights were an important issue. “Who dug this well?” was a question raised more than once, and the names attached to those diggings recall hostility and conflict. Finally, we are told in both chapters 21 and 26, they came to peace at Beersheva, maybe named as a place where an oath was sworn, or maybe a well that overflowed with a sevenfold amount of water—or perhaps both.
These chapters, in which both the ancestry and mission of Israel are first defined, were inherited by a people for whom life as wandering shepherds had become a distant memory. Later Jews did not fight over ownership of pasture lands or the digging of wells. Still, they passed these tales on from one generation to the next, certain that they contained great wisdom and guidance for their own very different lives. Countless generations of scholars and tradesmen, city-dwellers and town folk all over the western world, and now highly educated professional and business people scattered across the globe, gather in synagogues to read about the Abraham’s wanderings across the Negev or Isaac’s conflict over the wells in Gerar.
They are able to do this, of course, through the transforming power of Midrash. Jacob, the “simple man who dwelt in tents (*Gen. 25:27)” was remade by Midrash into the scholar, living in the twin tents of the Written and Oral Torah. Even when he “dwelt with Laban,” he kept all of the 613 commandments (32:5) of the still ungiven Torah. He did this because he had already inherited it from Abraham, who had “kept My guard (26:5),” which of course meant that he had lived the life of Torah precisely as the much later rabbis were to define it.
The wells that play such an important role in these chapters are turned into wellsprings of Torah or understanding. The fact that the Hebrew term for “well,” be’er, appears as though related to the verb-stem that means “explanation” or “commentary” was a helpful device for this transformation. “Is this well yours or ours?” now comes to mean: “Who has the proper interpretation of wisdom received from the past?” Both Isaac and Jacob, after all, had studied in the yeshivah of Shem and Ever, an elite academy that had preserved knowledge of God handed down through the generations, reaching all the way back to Eden.
But surely they were not the only students in that schoolroom. Melchizedek, who turned out to be “a priest of the most high God (14:18),” surely spent some years there as well. So too Abimelech, who seems to have known the laws of marriage, tithing, and oaths. Perhaps clever Laban had been to school there also. Who knows? Might they have all known each other and argued about the Torah of Eden, “back in the day?”
This question of interpretation thus touches on the very sensitive question of the relationship between Judaism and the ancient Near Eastern religions out of which it emerged. There is a voice within the tradition that clamors to deny any such connection. It is embodied in the well-known tale of Abraham smashing his father’s idols as the first step in proclaiming his new religion. The message of that tale is one of cultural revolution. The “pure” monotheism of Torah-religion has nothing to do with “paganism.” All those previously worshipped gods – whether in Egypt, Mesopotamia, or Canaan, were “false,” the total opposite of the one true God of our faith. The tale of Abraham as the original iconoclast is backed up by the well-known psalm verses (Ps. 116:6-9) recited in our Hallel service: “Eyes have they but they see not; ears have they, but they hear not…Like them are those who make them,” etc.
But the account of Abraham’s progeny going off to yeshivah (“Who supervised the kosher kitchen there?” one might wonder) tells another story. The product of every cultural revolution continues to reflect much of the prior civilizational matrix out of which it emerged. (Think of Stalin and Putin as czars, or of the very Anglo-Saxon roots of our own political culture.) The notion of Y-H-W-H dwelling in heaven, or of worship by means of animal offerings on an altar, and lots more, are all artifacts carried over from the prior religious settings into biblical, and even rabbinic, Judaism. We create anew, even receive a new revelation, but we always build on the foundations, even the ruins, of that which came before us.
But we need to take yet another step. If all the sages in those ancient times studied in that yeshivah (and could we please add our foremothers to that student body, as we re-create it in our imagination), who is to say that our own version of the wisdom taught there is the only one worth learning? If ḥokhmah indeed existed before the creation of this world, as biblical sources clearly attest (Prov. 8; Job 28), might some memory of it not be present in the teachings preserved by other traditions as well? How might we open ourselves to learning from them as well, without risking our own unique path?
Isaac’s need to re-dig the wells that were left over from the times of Abraham says something different about the acquisition of wisdom. It is taken as an indication that each generation’s seekers, even within an inherited tradition, need to find their own pathways to inner truth. It was the Philistines who had stuffed up the wells, says the text. But we surely know that we can be our own “Philistines.” Rabbi Mendel of Kotsk, an iconoclast within the pietistic world of Hasidism, explained it this way. Abraham served God with great humility, calling out: “I am but dust and ashes (18:27).” The Philistines, hearing him do so, all began to cry out: “Me too! I am dust and ashes as well!”—until the expression became utterly trivialized. The inner wellspring of serving God through humility became utterly stuffed up with meaningless words. Imitative piety can easily turn false, he is telling us, even in the context of a religion that is mostly conveyed by each generation imitating those came before it.
In next week’s portion, we will read about Jacob’s rolling the stone off the mouth of the well, in order to provide water for Rachel’s sheep. Here a Hasidic preacher suggests it is the “heart of stone” that keeps us from finding the flow of teaching that is waiting to emerge from our inner wellsprings. This is a Torah that is not just inherited and passed down, but needs to be renewed by the fresh water of new perspectives offered by each unique generation of its transmitters.
The many centuries of oppression Jews suffered caused those who saw themselves as guardians of tradition to define it in exclusive and narrow ways. It would best preserved and transmitted, they thought, if encased in a thick sheath of protective garb. Contact with the outside world should best be avoided, and any thought of external influences denied. New ideas and approaches had to be kept in check, always expressed in way that showed them as faithful to the past, or else expelled and denounced as heresies, as happened in the case of Hasidism itself.
But now we live in a time of freedom. It is time to replace those kotnot ‘or, the leather cases within which Torah was preserved, with kotnot or, “garments of light,” as the early sage Rabbi Meir once suggested. Letting some new light shine on our ancient wisdom, coming both from without and from deep within the hearts of new generations of readers and teachers, might help us rediscover the Torah of Eden, when it was nothing other than the Tree of Life.
From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Isaac and Esau
It’s a haunting question. Why did Isaac love Esau? The verse says so explicitly: “Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebecca loved Jacob” (Gen. 25:28). Whichever way we read this verse, it is perplexing. If we read it literally, it suggests that Isaac’s affections were governed by no more than a taste in a particular kind of food. Surely that is not the way love is earned or given in the Torah.
Rashi, citing a Midrash, suggests that the phrase translated as, “who had a taste for wild game,” and referring to Isaac, in fact refers to Esau, and should be read “there was hunting in his mouth,” meaning that he used to entrap and deceive his father by his words. Esau deceived Isaac into thinking that he was more pious and spiritual than in fact he was.
Bolstering this interpretation, some suggest that Isaac, having grown up in the household of Abraham and Sarah, had never encountered deception before, and was thus, in his innocence, misled by his son. Rebecca, who had grown up in the company of Laban, recognised it very well, which is why she favoured Jacob, and why she was later so opposed to Isaac’s blessing going to Esau.
Yet the text suggests undeniably that there was a genuine bond of love between Esau and Isaac. The Zohar says that no one in the world honoured his father as Esau honoured Isaac. Likewise, Isaac’s love for Esau is evident in his desire to bless him. Note that Abraham did not bless Isaac. Only on his deathbed, did Jacob bless his children. Moses blessed the Israelites on the last day of his life. When Isaac sought to bless Esau, he was old and blind, but not yet on his deathbed: “I am now an old man and don’t know the day of my death” (Gen. 27:2). This was an act of love.
Isaac, who loved Esau, was not deceived as to the nature of his elder son. He knew what he was and what he wasn’t. He knew he was a man of the field, a hunter, mercurial in temperament, a man who could easily give way to violence, quickly aroused to anger, but equally quickly, capable of being distracted and forgetting.
He also knew that Esau was not the child to continue the covenant. That is manifest in the difference between the blessing Isaac gave Jacob in Genesis 27 (believing him to be Esau), and the blessing in Genesis 28 that he gave Jacob, knowing him to be Jacob.
The first blessing, intended for Esau, is about wealth – “May God give you of the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth” – and power, “Let peoples serve you, and nations bow to you.” The second blessing, intended for Jacob as he was leaving home, is about children – “May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and increase your numbers until you become a community of peoples” – and a land – “May He give you and your descendants the blessing given to Abraham, so that you may take possession of … the land God gave to Abraham.” The patriarchal blessings are not about wealth and power; they are about children and the land. So Isaac knew all along that the covenant would be continued by Jacob; he was not deceived by Esau. Why then did he love him, encourage him, wish to bless him?
The answer, I believe, lies in three extraordinary silences. The most pointed is the question, What happened to Isaac after the Binding? Look at the text in Genesis 22 and you will see that as soon as the angel has stopped Abraham from sacrificing his son, Isaac drops out of the picture completely. The text tells us that Abraham returned to the two servants who accompanied them on the way, but there is no mention of Isaac.
This is a glaring mystery, tantalising the commentators. Some go so far as to say that Isaac actually died at the Binding and was brought back to life. Ibn Ezra quotes this interpretation and dismisses it. Shalom Spiegel’s The Last Trial is a book-length treatment of this idea. Where was Isaac after the trial of the Binding?
The second silence is the death of Sarah. We read that Abraham came to mourn for Sarah and weep for her. But the primary mourner in Judaism is traditionally the child. It should have been Isaac leading the mourning. But he is not mentioned in the entire chapter 23 that relates to Sarah’s death and its consequences.
The third is in the narrative in which Abraham instructed his servant to find a wife for his son. There is no record in the text that Abraham consulted with Isaac his son, or even informed him. Abraham knew that a wife was being sought for Isaac; Abraham’s servant knew; but we have no idea as to whether Isaac knew, and whether he had any thoughts on the subject. Did he want to get married? Did he have any particular preference as to what his wife should be like? The text is silent. Only when the servant returns with his wife-to-be, Rebecca, does Isaac enter the narrative at all.
The text itself is significant: “Isaac had come from Be’er Lahai Roi.” What was this place? We have encountered it only once before. It is where the angel appeared to Hagar when, pregnant, she fled from Sarah who was treating her harshly (Gen. 16:14). An ingenious Midrash says that when Isaac heard that Abraham had sent his servant to find a wife for him, he said to himself, “Can I live with a wife while my father lives alone? I will go and return Hagar to him.” A later text tells us that “After Abraham’s death, God blessed his son Isaac, who then lived near Be’er Lahai Roi” (Gen. 25:11). On this, the Midrash says that even after his father’s death, Isaac lived near Hagar and treated her with respect.
What does all this mean? We can only speculate. But if the silences mean something, they suggest that even an arrested sacrifice still has a victim. Isaac may not have died physically, but the text seems to make him disappear, literarily, through three scenes in which his presence was central. He should have been there to greet and be greeted by the two servants on his safe return from Mount Moriah. He should have been there to mourn his departed mother Sarah. He should have been there to at least discuss, with his father and his father’s servant, his future wife. Isaac did not die on the mountain, but it seems as if something in him did die, only to be revived when he married. The text tells us that Rebecca “became his wife, and he loved her; and Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.”
That seems to be the message of the silences. The significance of Be’er Lahai Roi seems to be that Isaac never forgot how Hagar and her son – his half-brother Ishmael – had been sent away. The Midrash says that Isaac reunited Hagar with Abraham after Sarah’s death. The biblical text tells us that Isaac and Ishmael stood together at Abraham’s grave (Gen. 25:9). Somehow the divided family was reunited, seemingly at the instigation of Isaac.
If this is so, then Isaac’s love for Esau is simply explained. It is as if Isaac had said: I know what Esau is. He is strong, wild, unpredictable, possibly violent. It is impossible that he should be the person entrusted with the covenant and its spiritual demands. But this is my child. I refuse to sacrifice him, as my father almost sacrificed me. I refuse to send him away, as my parents sent Hagar and Ishmael away. My love for my son is unconditional. I do not ignore who or what he is. But I will love him anyway, even if I do not love everything he does – because that is how God loves us, unconditionally, even if He does not love everything we do. I will bless him. I will hold him close. And I believe that one day that love may make him a better person than he might otherwise have been.
In this one act of loving Esau, Isaac redeemed the pain of two of the most difficult moments in his father Abraham’s life: the sending away of Hagar and Ishmael and the Binding of Isaac.
I believe that love helps heal both the lover and the loved.
 Zohar 146b.
 Ibn Ezra, Commentary to Gen. 22:19.
 Shalom Spiegel, The Last Trial, Schocken, 1969.
 Midrash Hagadol to Gen. 24:62.
 Midrash Aggadah and Bereishit Rabbati ad loc.
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
Reading this week’s Torah portion Toldot, this year, my heart goes out to Esau.
His father Isaac senses that death is near, so he sends Esau out hunting so he can prepare some game and receive his father’s innermost blessing. When he arrives at Isaac’s knee, he discovers that Isaac has given that blessing already to Jacob. “Have you not reserved a blessing for me?” asks Esau.
And Isaac replies, “But I have made him master over you: I have given him all his brothers for servants, and sustained him with grain and wine. What, then, can I still do for you, my son?”
Esau says to his father, “Have you but one blessing, Father? Bless me too!” and weeps aloud. The commentator known as the Radak embellishes Esau’s words: “can you not even grant me a blessing concerning any aspect of life which you have not given him?”
Isaac blesses him to enjoy the fat of the earth and the dew of heaven above. “By your sword you will live, and you shall serve your brother,” Isaac continues, “but when you grow restive you shall break his yoke from your neck.”
Isaac is limited by his own zero-sum thinking and his preoccupation with the idea that one of his sons has to come out on top. Having blessed Jacob to rule over his brother, now he seems at a loss for what to say to Esau.
Jewish tradition invites us to identify with Jacob, who will eventually be renamed Yisrael, One Who Wrestles With God — the name that inheres in our peoplehood. But I invite us tonight to identify with Esau. Feel what it’s like to be the older brother who ought, by all rights, to inherit land, blessing, good fortune. The brother who did all the right things, and now learns that he faces servitude rather than promise. When we inhabit Esau’s place, rather than Jacob’s, how does Isaac’s blessing make us feel?
It’s easy to see Isaac’s blessing to his older son as a kind of back-handed slap. “You’ll live by the sword, and your brother will dominate you until you overthrow him.” But I think we can find more in it if we try.
The first part of Isaac’s blessing is the same for both of his sons. Isaac blesses both of his sons with the dew of heaven, which our tradition understands as a symbol of grace. Torah too is compared to dew. Dew is the sustaining abundance that arises even in the desert, and grace is everyone’s birthright even when we’re in tough spiritual places. We too can receive Isaac’s blessing of dew: sustenance and nourishment for our tender places, kindness and wisdom to balm our sorrows and uplift our hearts.
The next part of Isaac’s blessing has to do with living by the sword. The Radak says this is the part of the blessing that is most exclusively Esau’s. We can understand it as the blessing of strength and prowess, the ability to defend oneself. At times when we may feel anxious about those who seek power over us — whether in our families, or our workplaces, or the public sphere — we can draw strength from Isaac’s blessing of skilled and ready self-defense.
And finally, Isaac’s blessing offers the certainty that the day will come when Esau will serve no longer. His future may contain servitude to his brother, but that servitude will not last forever. This may be the most important part of Isaac’s blessing, because it contains the seeds of hope. At times when we feel subjugated or mistreated, we can draw strength from Isaac’s blessing that things will get better. Isaac’s blessing reminds Esau (and us) that the tight places in life are temporary and will pass.
We all have times when we feel like Esau. Cheated and mistreated, in tight straits through no fault of our own. We all know what it’s like to be dealt a hand of cards that is not the one we had hoped for. To receive something that may not feel like a blessing: a bad diagnosis, or a door that closes, or a relationship that ends. In those moments we may feel like Esau, who came to his father seeking a sweet blessing and received a bitter one instead.
But even bitter blessings have the capacity to open us up to abundance. And developing the skill of learning to find the abundance concealed within the disappointment, the silver lining concealed within the raincloud, the gifts concealed within the blessing of the thing we didn’t ask for and didn’t want, can serve us well when times are hard — and even more so when times are sweet.
My prayer for each of us is this: When the rains don’t come, may there be dew, sustenance that nourishes even when our surroundings are spiritually dried-up. When we are in tight straits, may adversity help us hone our strength and our skills.
And when others act as though they have power over us, may we take comfort in the knowledge that our calling is to serve not those who claim dominance, but rather the Source of All. May we take comfort in knowing that we were not put on this earth to be diminished, but to be nourished and to grow until we can break the shackles of injustice. May we take comfort in knowing that even (or especially) when the night seems dark, we can have faith in the coming of the dawn.
May Isaac’s blessing for Esau this year impel us to awareness of our inner resources and our gifts. May our tradition nourish us like the dew. And may we release ourselves into the highest forms of service, and in so doing find faith in our own becoming.
From Rick Lupert
Get Ready to Rumble! (with Jacob and Esau) 7 Haiku for Parsha Toldot
Enter Esau and
Jacob. Kicking each other’s
ass on the way out.
A miracle in
Philistine. Isaac grows more
crops than the locals.
the wells Isaac digs. Here comes
real estate law.
with peace. God comes to bless. A
good day for Isaac
Poor blind Isaac. Can’t
tell his two sons apart. Tricked
by a hairy arm.
Go and get a wife
Jacob, says mom. Escape from
the wrath of Esau.
If brothers were judged
based on how many wives they
had. Esau would win.
From Rabbi David Kasher
THE KILLER IN ME – Parshat Toldot
Okay, let’s play a parshanut game. I’m going to give you a short passage from this week’s parsha – describing the origins of Jacob and Esau – and based on the first line, you tell me what doesn’t make sense about the last line.
Ready? Here goes:
The first one emerged from the womb, and he was all red, and covered with hair; so they named him Esau. Then his brother emerged, holding on to the heel of Esau; so they named him Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when they were born.
When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the field; but Jacob was a mild man who stayed in camp. Isaac loved Esau because he had a taste for game; but Rebecca loved Jacob. Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, famished. And Esau said to Jacob, “Give me some of that red, red stuff to gulp down, for I am famished!”— and that is why he was called Edom [- “The Red One]. (Gen. 25:25-30)
וַיֵּצֵא הָרִאשׁוֹן אַדְמוֹנִי, כֻּלּוֹ כְּאַדֶּרֶת שֵׂעָר; וַיִּקְרְאוּ שְׁמוֹ, עֵשָׂו. כווְאַחֲרֵי-כֵן יָצָא אָחִיו, וְיָדוֹ אֹחֶזֶת בַּעֲקֵב עֵשָׂו, וַיִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ, יַעֲקֹב; וְיִצְחָק בֶּן-שִׁשִּׁים שָׁנָה, בְּלֶדֶת אֹתָם. וַיִּגְדְּלוּ, הַנְּעָרִים, וַיְהִי עֵשָׂו אִישׁ יֹדֵעַ צַיִד, אִישׁ שָׂדֶה; וְיַעֲקֹב אִישׁ תָּם, יֹשֵׁב אֹהָלִים. וַיֶּאֱהַב יִצְחָק אֶת-עֵשָׂו, כִּי-צַיִד בְּפִיו; וְרִבְקָה, אֹהֶבֶת אֶת-יַעֲקֹב. וַיָּזֶד יַעֲקֹב, נָזִיד; וַיָּבֹא עֵשָׂו מִן-הַשָּׂדֶה, וְהוּא עָיֵף. וַיֹּאמֶר עֵשָׂו אֶל-יַעֲקֹב, הַלְעִיטֵנִי נָא מִן-הָאָדֹם הָאָדֹם הַזֶּה–כִּי עָיֵף, אָנֹכִי; עַל-כֵּן קָרָא-שְׁמוֹ, אֱדוֹם
Do you see the problem? Take a moment… Got it?
The issue is there in that last phrase: “that is why he was called ‘The Red One.’” It seems like he got that nickname, ‘Edom’ (אֱדוֹם), because he was so interested in eating that red stew (the word for ‘red,’ in Hebrew, is ‘adom’ (אָדֹם) – different vowels, same letters. Now, not only is that a strange reason to give someone a new name – just because of a meal they once ate – but more to the point, there is a far more obvious reason why Esau would have been called ‘The Red One.’ For the very first thing we learn about Esau, the moment he is born, is that he is “all red.” Now that is a reason to call someone ‘The Red One’! So why does the story attach Esau’s nickname to some red lentil stew, when it could have tied it to the man himself?
Of the classical medieval commentators, the only one who deals with this problem directly is the French Rabbi Samuel ben Meir – the Rashbam. He writes:
It is because Esau was all red that he desired red food.
הוא אדמוני ונתאווה לאכול אדום
So there is a connection between the name, Edom, and the first verse that describes Esau as a reddish baby. It was precisely because of his own red color, says the Rashbam, that he wanted to eat red food. But this is an odd suggestion. People don’t usually shape their tastes around the color of their skin. And anyhow, this still doesn’t explain why we wait until Esau eats the “red, red stuff” to give him the name which he could very naturally have been assigned at birth.
The Kli Yakar, a 16th century commentary by the Chief Rabbi of Prague, helps flesh out the Rashbam’s connection between the color of the man and the color of his desires:
The reason he was not called ‘The Red One’ immediately when he was born, because “he emerged all red,” is that this was “nothing new under the sun,” for many children are born reddish-colored, because their blood has not yet fully circulated… and then they change to their regular color. So they thought that perhaps Esau’s red color was just temporary, and not part of his nature. But when he said, “Give me some of that red, red stuff!” they wondered why he didn’t just call it by its name: “lentils.” So they figured that he was then revealing his true nature – and that he was drawn to redness because of the strength of the red bile inside of him. Therefore, he loved anything that was related to his own temperament, anything red. And that is why he was then called ‘The Red One,’ because it was then that it became truly clear that his nature was red – and that he was born under the sign of Mars, which meant that he would become a man who spilled blood.
מה שלא קראו אדום מיד כשנולד על שם ויצא הראשון אדמוני, לפי שאין זה חדש תחת השמש כי כמה ילדים נולדים אדומים לפי שעדיין לא נבלע דמם… ולסוף ישתנה ויחזור למראיהו על כן חשבו מולידיו שמא מראה אדומה זה במקרה ולא בטבע. אך כשאמר הלעיטני נא מן האדם האדם הזה קשה למה לא קראם עדשים בשמם, אלא ודאי שגלה דעתו שלא היה מתאוה אליהם מצד עצמו כ“א מצד מראיהם האדומה, והורה בזה כי מזג טבעו נוטה אל האדמומית ביותר מצד תגבורת מרה האדומה שבו, ע”כ היה אוהב כל דבר המתיחס למזגו, והוא כל דבר אדום, על כן קרא שמו אדום כי אז נודע באמת שטבעו אדומה והוא יושב תחת מזל מאדים, ועל שם היותו גברא אשד דמא.
Many babies, explains the Kli Yakar, are born with a reddish hue. There was nothing unusual about that. But Esau’s extreme desire for red food, and even his calling it “red stuff” – as if the color was the only thing that drew his attention – showed that he had an inner tendency toward red, that this color indicated something fundamental about his nature. It was then that they knew he was truly a “Red One.”
Now, what does that mean? What is a “red” temperament? The Kli Yakar ends by giving us some startling features of this personality type: 1.) He was born under the sign of Mars, and 2.) He would “spill blood” – that is, become a murderer. Yikes! Where is he getting this from?
Well, first, obviously, Mars is the red planet, and blood is red. And there are linguistic connections there as well. Mars, in Hebrew, is called Ma’adim (מאדים), and blood is called dam (דם), both potentially related to the word for red, adom (אדום). But the Kli Yakar is also specifically referencing a passage in the Talmud that discusses the effect of astrological constellations on birth. And there it says explicitly:
One who is born under Mars will be a man who spills blood. (Shabbat 156a)
מאן דבמאדים יהי גבר אשיד דמא
The dominance of the red planet during one’s birth, they speculate, can cause you to become a “Red One,” a person who cannot help but seek out red things – and blood among them. You are a killer by nature!
Now this is a surprising statement on behalf of the rabbis. For it is a highly deterministic model of the universe. We are guided, it seems, by the movement of the planets. Human beings are then simply born with a certain temperament, and have no choice but to play out their preordained character. Could this be a Jewish belief? What, then, of free will?
The Talmud continues, however, by offering a way out for those born under a bad sign:
Rav Ashi said, “Or [the child can become] a surgeon, or a thief, or a butcher, or a circumciser.”
א“ר אשי אי אומנא אי גנבא אי טבחא אי מוהלא
There is hope, says, Rav Ashi, for the children born under Mars. They will have an inclination to draw blood, but that does not mean they have to become murderers. They can find other, more productive means of seeking out “red stuff.” They can become doctors, for example – still working with blood, but now for the purpose of healing rather than harming.
In other words, we are, to a certain extent, the products of our nature. Our character is formed, in part, by the circumstances of our birth. But we have the potential to direct our inner drives towards either good or evil, creation or destruction. This is where our free will is exercised. We have no control over the our essential nature, but we can choose how we direct it – and that can mean the difference between a killer and a king.
I say “king” pointedly, because the Midrash points out that there is one other person in the Hebrew Bible who is called a “Red One” as soon as we meet him:
Then Samuel asked Jesse, “Are these all the boys you have?” He replied, “There is still the youngest; he is tending the flock.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send someone to bring him, for we will not sit down to eat until he gets here.” So they sent and brought him. And he was all red, bright-eyed, and handsome. And the Lord said, “Rise and anoint him, for this is the one.” (1 Samuel 16:11-12)
יא וַיֹּאמֶר שְׁמוּאֵל אֶל-יִשַׁי, הֲתַמּוּ הַנְּעָרִים, וַיֹּאמֶר עוֹד שָׁאַר הַקָּטָן, וְהִנֵּה רֹעֶה בַּצֹּאן; וַיֹּאמֶר שְׁמוּאֵל אֶל-יִשַׁי שִׁלְחָה וְקָחֶנּוּ, כִּי לֹא-נָסֹב עַד-בֹּאוֹ פֹה. יב וַיִּשְׁלַח וַיְבִיאֵהוּ וְהוּא אַדְמוֹנִי, עִם-יְפֵה עֵינַיִם וְטוֹב רֹאִי; וַיֹּאמֶר ה קוּם מְשָׁחֵהוּ, כִּי-זֶה הוּא
The anointed one here is none other than David, the most celebrated of Israelite kings. He is to become the great hero of the Jewish people, destined to bring us glory.
But wait… like Esau, he was “all red,” admoni (אַדְמוֹנִי)! It seems David was also born under a bad sign. Is he destined to be a killer as well? Yes and no, says the Midrash:
When Samuel saw that David was “all red” – as it says, “they sent and brought him. And he was all red” – he became afraid and said: Will this one, too, become a murderer like Esau?? But the Holy Blessed One said to him, no, for he is “bright-eyed.” Esau killed out of his own desires, whereas this one will only kill on the order of the Court. (Genesis Rabbah 63:8)
וכיון שראה שמואל את דוד אדמוני, דכתיב (שמואל א יז): וישלח ויביאהו והוא אדמוני. נתיירא ואמר: אף זה שופך דמים כעשו?! אמר לו הקב”ה: עם יפה עינים. עשו מדעת עצמו הוא הורג, אבל זה מדעת סנהדרין הוא הורג
David did have the same tendencies that Esau had. He was a Red One, destined to spill blood. But like the surgeon or the circumciser, he learned to control his nature, and to use his “redness” in the service of his people. Yes, he would spill blood, but only in wars on behalf of the nation, and sanctioned by the law. He would not – perhaps could not – be a peaceful man. But he could direct his violent passions toward the good – or, at least, toward the “necessary evil” of war.
Now, this all seems like important information… if you happen to be a Red One, born under the same sign as Esau and David. If you are born with those natural predispositions, you’d better take care to harness them well. But what relevance does it have for the rest of us?
We have been playing a lot with language throughout this journey: adom (אדום) – red; Edom (אדום) – The Red One; Ma’adim (מאדים) – Mars, the red planet, and dam (דם) – red blood. We cannot leave off without mentioning one other related word:
Adam (אדם) – The Human Being.
‘Adam,’ the name given to the first person, is also strikingly similar to the word for ‘red,’ adom – again, different vowels, same letters. Now, most readers have assumed that ‘Adam’ comes from ‘adamah,’ the earth from which the person was formed. As it says in the creation story:
The Lord God formed the person (Adam) from the dust of the earth (adamah). (Gen. 2:7)
וַיִּיצֶר ה אֱלֹקים אֶת-הָאָדָם, עָפָר מִן-הָאֲדָמָה
But the 19th-century German commentator, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, gives a different explanation for the name “Adam”:
Adam – As we have explained, this comes from the language of “red,” whose ray of light is least broken of all the colors of the spectrum, which is to say, that the Human Being, the Red One, is the most direct revelation of God on Earth.
אדם – כדפירשנו מלשון אדום, הצבע שקרן אורו נשברה פחות משאר קרני הצבעים, זאת אומרת, האדם-אדום הוא גילוי אלקים הישיר ביותר הנמצא בעולם
We are all red ones. We are made up of the red clay from which we were formed, we have red blood pumping inside of us, and – like Esau and David before us – we all have the potential to do great harm or great good – to murder each other senselessly, or to manifest the glory of God on Earth.
The Torah seems to be well aware of these possibilities, several chapters later, in the following rhythmic verse, which plays again with these same letters we have been tracing all along:
Whoever spills the blood of the person (shofech dam ha-adam), by the person shall their blood be spilled (ba-adam damo yishafech),
For in the image of God was the person made. (Gen. 9:6)
שֹׁפֵךְ דַּם הָאָדָם, בָּאָדָם דָּמוֹ יִשָּׁפֵךְ: כִּי בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹקים, עָשָׂה אֶת-הָאָדָם
Will we act according to our “redness,” and spill the red blood of our fellow human beings? Or will we live out the image of God that is also contained in every one of us?
The next verse tells us how we might redirect our nature:
So you, be fruitful and multiply, and abound upon the earth, and increase on it. (Gen. 9:7)
וְאַתֶּם, פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ; שִׁרְצוּ בָאָרֶץ, וּרְבוּ-בָהּ
Abundant life or bloody death. The choice is ours.
From Jewish Sacred Aging
Toldot: Re-digging The Wells of Our Fathers!
Rabbi Richard Address
This week’s Torah portion, as usual for Genesis, features a wealth of challenges, drama and meaning. We meet Jacob and Esau and their drama is set in motion with the birthright story. Again, the older will serve the younger and internal family dynamics will swirl around trickery and, perhaps, parental favoritism. Just another Biblical family !
However, I want to look at another aspect of this portion, an aspect that is often overlooked given the sweep and passion of the Jacob and Esau story. It is Isaac, that bridge between generations, and his encounters with the people with whom he resides. In chapter 26 Isaac leaves the territory of the Philistines. They had stopped up the wells that Abraham had dug. So Isaac moves on and camps at the wadi Gerar “And Isaac dug anew the water wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham and which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham’s death; and he gave them the same names that his father had given them.” ([26:18]). A few things come to mind here. First, we know the importance of water then and now and how water is also seen as a symbol of cleansing, transition and even transformation. Isaac attempts to re-dig the wells of his father. As we get older, do we not do this as well? Is there not a time, for many of us, when we come to realize that so much of who we are is really based on where we have come from? In our attempt to live our own life, we cannot escape the imprint of our own parents.
In their book “Sparks Beneath The Surface”, Olitzky and Kushner cite a teaching on this verse that notes the desire for adults to often return to our roots.We seek to appreciate the wisdom and contributions of our parents (and their flaws). “There is a redemptive quality about the wells. When Isaac digs them, he finally realizes what his father went through. Realizing his father’s wisdom, Isaac now calls the wells by the very same name that Abraham had given them…The struggle for Isaac (and for us) is like coming home. Spiritually mature adults realize that their parents are in them.” (p. 31)
Think about this concept of being “spiritually mature”. SO many of us carry around a spiritual or theological structure that is, at best, adolescent, as we have not really confronted our beliefs since youth. Yet, Torah reminds us that part of our own growth is not only physical, but spiritual, and in that growth, we often come to understand our place in our own family’s chain of tradition. We return to dig our parents wells, seeking that nourishment, but in an adult and maturing way. Perhaps that is part of the wisdom of elderhood.
Rabbi Richard F Address
From Brian Yosef Schachter-Brooks
The Tent is in the Field- Parshat Toldot
When psychological pain burns, it can feel like there is a war going on inside. The mind feels stuck and the emotions are seething. As Rivka (Rebecca) says in Parshat Toldot when the twins in her womb fought with one another: “lama zeh anokhi- why am I like this??”
In the throws of psychological suffering it is natural to question why we should have to feel thus, to question why circumstances are such, to complain bitterly against Reality. Ordinarily, such questioning is an expression of resistance and only creates more suffering. But if you go deeper with your questioning- questioning into the nature of your mind, into the nature of your resistance, you can find the path that leads to liberation. As it says of Rivka’s questioning: “Vatelekh lidrosh et Hashem- she went and inquired of the Divine.”
How do you “inquire of the Divine”? The Divine is Reality- so we have to look at what is really going on. Notice that there is this urge within to control- to bend the world to “my” will. This is the first-born twin- Esav (Esau) who is called “ish yodea tzayid- a man who knows trapping”. The mind seeks to know how it can “trap” the world into conforming to its will. But the other twin, Yaakov (Jacob), is an “ish tam”. “Tam” means both “simplicity” and “taste”; to be simple means to not seek control, but rather to “taste” this moment.
The Esav seeks externally, running out into the “field” to see what he can “trap”. The Yaakov dwells in the tent of the heart, cultivating the nectar of bliss that flows from intimate connection with the inner level of Being. But not to worry- all that outward seeking leaves the Esav drained, as it says- “Esav came in from the field, exhausted”. Eventually, Esav gives up his seeking and returns to drink of the true nourishment: “Pour into me some of that very red stuff!” he says to Yaakov. The word for “red” is “adom”- a slight variation on “adam” which means “human”. This is the nourishment that every human needs! In other words, we cannot live merely by manipulating the world, because no matter how much we are able to make the world conform to what we think we want, manipulation only reinforces a sense of separateness, and this separateness blocks the true sustenance, the vital flow of life energy that you can feel and connect with now, the moment that “now” becomes your aim. Not what you want now, but the “now” itself. But for Esav to receive this nourishment, he has to surrender his “birthright”; he has to give up on his self-image, his identity. To fully enter the present is to surrender the “me”- the time-based identity.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be effective in the world or that we shouldn’t have the intention to fulfill our will. That would be madness. In fact, Yaakov is not complete until he gets outside his tent and learns to work in the field as well. Only then, after enduring the hardships of working outside for many years, is he able to make peace with his brother. The inner and outer come into harmony, because the inward quality of the “tent” and the outer quality of the “field” are not really separate anyway. As it says in Pirkei Avot, “Torah is good together with an occupation because the exertion of both of them makes sin forgotten…”
This means not merely that one should spend some time on Torah and some time on earning a living, but rather that one should remain rooted in the Timeless while doing one’s work in time. Only then can your thoughts, words and actions flow from the Place of the Timeless, bringing true blessing into manifestation. May this Shabbat be a wellspring of nourishment from the Timeless tent of the heart! Good Shabbos!
Was Jacob Right to Take Easau’s Blessing?
Was Jacob right to take Esau’s blessing in disguise? Was he right to deceive his father and to take from his brother the blessing Isaac sought to give him? Was Rivka right in conceiving the plan in the first place and encouraging Jacob to carry it out? These are fundamental questions. What is at stake is not just biblical interpretation but the moral life itself. How we read a text shapes the kind of person we become.
Here is one way of interpreting the narrative. Rivka was right to propose what she did and Jacob was right to do it. Rivka knew that it would be Jacob, not Esau, who would continue the covenant and carry the mission of Abraham into the future. She knew this on two separate grounds. First, she had heard it from God himself, in the oracle she received before the twins were born:
‘Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples from within you will be separated;
one people will be stronger than the other,
and the elder will serve the younger.’ (Gen. 25: 23)
Esau was the elder, Jacob the younger. Therefore it was Jacob who would emerge with greater strength, Jacob who was chosen by God.
Second, she had watched the twins grow up. She knew that Esau was a hunter, a man of violence. She had seen that he was impetuous, mercurial, a man of impulse, not calm reflection. She had seen him sell his birthright for a bowl of soup. She had watched while he “ate, drank, rose and left. So Esau despised his birthright” (Gen. 25: 34). No one who despises his birthright can be the trusted guardian of a covenant intended for eternity.
Third, just before the episode of the blessing we read: “When Esau was forty years old, he married Judith daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and also Basemath daughter of Elon the Hittite. They were a source of grief to Isaac and Rivka”(Gen. 26: 34). This too was evidence of Esau’s failure to understand what the covenant requires. By marrying Hittite women he proved himself indifferent both to the feelings of his parents and to the self-restraint in the choice of marriage partner that was essential to being Abraham’s heir.
The blessing had to go to Jacob. If you had two sons, one indifferent to art, the other an art-lover and aesthete, to whom would you leave the Rembrandt that has been part of the family heritage for generations? And if Isaac did not understand the true nature of his sons, if he was “blind” not only physically but also psychologically, might it not be necessary to deceive him? He was by now old, and if Rivka had failed in the early years to get him to see the true nature of their children, was it likely that she could do so now?
This was, after all, not just a matter of relationships within the family. It was about God and destiny and spiritual vocation. It was about the future of an entire people since God had repeatedly told Abraham that he would be the ancestor of a great nation who would be a blessing to humanity as a whole. And if Rivka was right, then Jacob was right to follow her instructions.
This was the woman whom Abraham’s servant had chosen to be the wife of his master’s son, because she was kind, because at the well she had given water to a stranger and to his camels also. Rivka was not Lady Macbeth. She was the embodiment of loving-kindness. She was not acting out of favouritism or ambition. And if she had no other way of ensuring that the blessing went to one who would cherish it and live it, then in this case the end justified the means. This is one way of reading the story and it is taken by many of the commentators.
However it is not the only way. Consider, for example, the scene that transpired immediately after Jacob left his father. Esau returned from hunting and brought Isaac the food he had requested. We then read this:
Isaac trembled violently and said, ‘Who was it, then, that hunted game and brought it to me? I ate it just before you came and I blessed him – and indeed he will be blessed!’
When Esau heard his father’s words, he burst out with a loud and bitter cry and said to his father, ‘Bless me – me too, my father!’
But he said, ‘Your brother came deceitfully [be-mirma] and took your blessing.’
Esau said, ‘Isn’t he rightly named Jacob? This is the second time he has taken advantage of me: he took my birthright, and now he’s taken my blessing!’ Then he asked, ‘Haven’t you reserved any blessing for me?’ (Gen. 27: 33-36)
It is impossible to read Genesis 27 – the text as it stands without commentary – and not to feel sympathy for Isaac and Esau rather than Rivka and Jacob. The Torah is sparing in its use of emotion. It is completely silent, for example, on the feelings of Abraham and Isaac as they journeyed together toward the trial of the binding. Phrases like “trembled violently” and “burst out with a loud and bitter cry” cannot but affect us deeply. Here is an old man who has been deceived by his younger son, and a young man, Esau, who feels cheated out of what was rightfully his. The emotions triggered by this scene stay with us long in the memory.
Then consider the consequences. Jacob had to leave home for more than twenty years in fear of his life. He then suffered an almost identical deceit practised against him by Laban when he substituted Leah for Rachel. When Jacob cried out “Why did you deceive me [rimitani]” Laban replied: “It is not done in our place to place the younger before the elder” (Gen. 29: 25-26). Not only the act but even the words imply a punishment, measure for measure. “Deceit,” of which Jacob accuses Laban, is the very word Isaac used about Jacob. Laban’s reply sounds like a virtually explicit reference to what Jacob had done, as if to say, “We do not do in our place what you have just done in yours.”
The result of Laban’s deception brought grief to the rest of Jacob’s life. There was tension between Leah and Rachel. There was hatred between their children. Jacob was deceived yet again, this time by his sons, when they brought him Joseph’s bloodstained robe: another deception of a father by his children involving the use of clothes. The result was that Jacob was deprived of the company of his most beloved son for twenty-two years just as Isaac was of Jacob.
Asked by Pharaoh how old he was, Jacob replied, “Few and evil have been the years of my life” (Gen. 47: 9). He is the only figure in the Torah to make a remark like this. It is hard not to read the text as a precise statement of the principle of measure for measure: as you have done to others, so will others do to you. The deception brought all concerned great grief, and this persisted into the next generation.
My reading of the text is therefore this. The phrase in Rivka’s oracle, Ve-rav yaavod tsair (Gen. 25: 23), is in fact ambiguous. It may mean, “The elder will serve the younger,” but it may also mean, “The younger will serve the elder.” It was what the Torah calls a chidah (Numbers 12: 8), that is, an opaque, deliberately ambiguous communication. It suggested an ongoing conflict between the two sons and their descendants, but not who would win.
Isaac fully understood the nature of his two sons. He loved Esau but this did not blind him to the fact that Jacob would be the heir of the covenant. Therefore Isaac prepared two sets of blessings, one for Esau, the other for Jacob. He blessed Esau (Gen. 27: 28-29) with the gifts he felt he would appreciate: wealth and power: “May God give you heaven’s dew and earth’s richness – an abundance of grain and new wine” – that is, wealth. “May nations serve you and peoples bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you” – that is, power. These are not the covenantal blessings.
The covenantal blessings that God had given Abraham and Isaac were completely different. They were about children and a land. It is this blessing that Isaac later gave Jacob before he left home (Gen. 28: 3-4): “May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and increase your numbers until you become a community of peoples” – that is, children. “May He give you and your descendants the blessing given to Abraham, so that you may take possession of the land where you now reside as a foreigner, the land God gave to Abraham” – that is, land. This was the blessing Isaac had intended for Jacob all along. There was no need for deceit and disguise.
Jacob eventually came to understand all this, perhaps during his wrestling match with the angel during the night before his meeting with Esau after their long estrangement. What happened at that meeting is incomprehensible unless we understand that Jacob was giving back to Esau the blessings he had wrongly taken from him. The massive gift of sheep, cattle and other livestock represented “heaven’s dew and earth’s richness,” that is, wealth. The fact that Jacob bowed down seven times to Esau was his way of fulfilling the words, “May the sons of your mother bow down to you,” that is, power.
Jacob gave the blessing back. Indeed he said so explicitly. He said to Esau: “Please accept the blessing [birkati] that was brought to you, for God has been gracious to me and I have all I need” (Gen. 33: 11). On this reading of the story, Rivka and Jacob made a mistake, a forgivable one, an understandable one, but a mistake nonetheless. The blessing Isaac was about to give Esau was not the blessing of Abraham. He intended to give Esau a blessing appropriate to him. In so doing, he was acting on the basis of precedent. God had blessed Ishmael, with the words “I will make him into a great nation” (Gen. 21: 18). This was the fulfilment of a promise God had given Abraham many years before when He told him that it would be Isaac, not Ishmael, who would continue the covenant:
Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!” Then God said, “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. As for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation.” (Gen. 17: 18-21)
Isaac surely knew this because, according to midrashic tradition, he and Ishmael were reconciled later in life. We see them standing together at Abraham’s grave (Gen. 25: 9). It may be that this was a fact that Rivka did not know. She associated blessing with covenant. She may have been unaware that Abraham wanted Ishmael blessed even though he would not inherit the covenant, and that God had acceded to the request.
If so then it is possible all four people acted rightly as they understood the situation, yet still tragedy occurred. Isaac was right to wish Esau blessed as Abraham sought for Ishmael. Esau acted honourably toward his father. Rivka sought to safeguard the future of the covenant. Jacob felt qualms but did what his mother said, knowing she would not have proposed deceit without a strong moral reason for doing so.
Do we have here one story with two possible interpretations? Perhaps, but that is not the best way of describing it. What we have here, and there are other examples in Genesis, is a story we understand one way the first time we hear it, and a different way once we have discovered and reflected on all that happened later. It is only after we have read about the fate of Jacob in Laban’s house, the tension between Leah and Rachel, and the animosity between Joseph and his brothers that we can go back and read Genesis 27, the chapter of the blessing, in a new light and with greater depth.
There is such a thing as an honest mistake, and it is a mark of Jacob’s greatness that he recognized it and made amends to Esau. In the great encounter twenty-two years later the estranged brothers meet, embrace, part as friends and go their separate ways. But first, Jacob had to wrestle with an angel.
That is how the moral life is. We learn by making mistakes. We live life forward, but we understand it only looking back. Only then do we see the wrong turns we inadvertently made. This discovery is sometimes our greatest moment of moral truth.
For each of us there is a blessing that is ours. That was true not just of Isaac but also Ishmael, not just Jacob but also Esau. The moral could not be more powerful. Never seek your brother’s blessing. Be content with your own.
 Critical readings of Rivka’s or Jacob’s conduct appear in several midrashic works: Bereishit Rabbah, Tanhuma (Buber), Yalkut Reuveni, Midrash ha-Neelam and Midrash Socher Tov (to Psalm 80: 6). Among critical commentators are R. Eliezer Ashkenzi, Tzeda le-derekh, and R. Yaakov Zvi Mecklenberg, Ha-Ktav veha-Kabbalah. All these interpretations are based on the textual clues cited in what follows.
 For a more detailed explanation, see Covenant and Conversation Genesis: The Book of Beginnings, Maggid Books, 2009, 153-158, 219-228.
 This later became the tenth of the ten commandments.
From the Maqam Project
From Tori Avey
What the Ancient Israelites Ate: Jacob’s Stew
From Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan
Words, Positive and Negative (5773/2013)
Next, his brother came out [of the womb], his hand holding Esav’s heel (ekev), so they called his name Jacob Ya’akov (Bereisheet/Genesis 25:26).
What a fascinating detail about the second twin baby’s birth! In approximately 40% of twin births, both babies present in the headfirst fetal position. But no statistics are available to document how often the second twin extends its arm during the birthing process, opens its tiny curled fist, and closes it again on the nearest tiny object. No wonder the baby’s parents celebrated this amazing oddity in the baby’s name. And no wonder the baby’s unusual name attracted the attention of generations of commentators.
Keli Yakar (1550-1619) notes the etymological connections between words: ekev means “heel” and akvah means “trickery.” Thus, he says, “Ya’akov” means “trickster,” and Ya’akov lives out the destiny of his name. Many of Ya’akov’s accomplishments result when he plays a trick on others; many of his troubles result when others play a trick on him.
Ba’al Haturim (1269-1343) uses gematriya to connect words that have the same numerological value. Ya’akov has the same value as mal’ach Elohim, messenger of God, and hagan eden, the garden of Eden. Though Ya’akov’s life was full of pain and sorrow, he struggled within himself and grew into a master of blessing. He could, with his words, help others discern their own essential natures and find direction.
Two commentators analyzing the same word, each offering a different focus: one finds the troubles implied, and the other finds the blessings. Words hold so many meanings, explicit and implicit! In this week of personal blessings and political troubles, may we be aware of negative rhetoric, and also find positive words of greeting to uplift one another.
From Chaya Lester
From Rabbi Michael Zion
The Art of Parenting: Being the Mother ofboth Yaakov and Esav
Parashat Toldot | Heshvan 5772 | November 2011
It is rare to gain insight into who our parents are as parents. A holiday visit after a long period apart might raise that moment of realization: Oh, so that’s the kind of parent my mother is! Observing how my parents act with my children has raised the same understanding: So that’s what my dad was like… The insights about our parents often become insights about ourselves: I guess that’s why I am so…
Of all the mothers of Bereishit, I find Rivkah to be the most fascinating, as a person and as a parent. Ambitious, tough, smarter than you, Rivkah is unique in the bible: she is a real go-getter. We are introduced to her watering a stranger’s ten camels, in an act that will land her a wealthy husband. After years of barrenness, when she experiences a severely painful and debilitating pregnancy with twins, she becomes the first seeker of existential meaning:
Rivkah became pregnant.
But the children almost crushed one another inside her,
so she said: If this be so, why do I exist?
And she went to demand God. (Genesis 25:22)
וַיִּתְרֹצְצוּ הַבָּנִים, בְּקִרְבָּהּ,
וַתֹּאמֶר: אִם-כֵּן, לָמָּה זֶּה אָנֹכִי?!
וַתֵּלֶךְ, לִדְרֹשׁ אֶת ה’. (בראשית כה:כב)
Rivka’s strategic thinking comes to the fore in this week’s parsha when she pushes her preferred son, Yaakov, to steal his brother’s blessing. It is a troubling ethical moment, but also a fascinating parental moment. Rivka is not only favoring one son over the other, but she is pushing her chosen son beyond his comfort zone. She is so certain in her acts that she takes responsibility for any consequences as she ignores his strong objections:
Yaakov said to Rivka his mother: …
I will be like a trickster in his eyes,
and I will bring a curse and not a blessing on myself!
His mother said to him:
Let your curse be on me, my son!
Only: listen to my voice and go… (Genesis 27:11-13)
וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב, אֶל-רִבְקָה אִמּוֹ: …
וְהָיִיתִי בְעֵינָיו כִּמְתַעְתֵּעַ; וְהֵבֵאתִי עָלַי קְלָלָה, וְלֹא בְרָכָה.
וַתֹּאמֶר לוֹ אִמּוֹ: עָלַי קִלְלָתְךָ בְּנִי;
אַךְ שְׁמַע בְּקֹלִי, וְלֵךְ קַח-לִי.
In trying to imagine how Rivka convinced Yaakov to do this (and how she convinced herself of the legitimacy of her actions), I hear a different mother’s voice. Langston Hughes’ 1922 poem, of a Harlem mom prodding her son to keep climbing up the social ladder, could easily be put into Rivka’s mouth:
Mother to Son | Langston Hughes
Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
Rivkah has worked hard to get to this moment. She walked through splinters to get out of Lavan’s house, out of the darkness of Avimelech’s grasp, and out of the clasp of barrenness. She will not see her life’s destiny (“why do I exist?”) become lost to an older son who has chosen the wrong path in her eyes, or a younger son who does not grab his destiny like his mother did. She wants her travails to be about something, and the way she’s going to make that happen is through her son Yaakov, even at the cost of thrusting him into a dark corner of his own. Rivkah is a tribute to those many parents who pushed their children to demand more from life, sometimes even at the risk of losing their own authenticity, but hopefully to the benefit of the world at large.
Allow me one more twist: In the last mention of Rivka in the parsha, the Torah gives a tiny hint that opens up an entirely untold episode of Rivka’s parenting. As Yaakov leaves for Lavan’s house, the text describes Rivkah in unique terms:
[Yaakov] went to the country of Aram,
to Lavan the son of Betuel the Aramean,
the brother of Rivka, the mother of Yaakov and Esav.
וַיֵּלֶךְ פַּדֶּנָה אֲרָם
אֶל-לָבָן בֶּן-בְּתוּאֵל, הָאֲרַמִּי,
אֲחִי רִבְקָה, אֵם יַעֲקֹב וְעֵשָׂו.
This last description, “Rivkah, mother of Yaakov and Esav” throws all the close bible readers off. Who needs this extra piece of biographical information here? As Rashi puts it, in a rare moment of interpretive befuddlement: איני יודע מה מלמדנו – ”I do not know what it teaches us.”
Nechama Leibovitz, in her ever inspiring essays on the parsha, answers Rashi’s query by suggesting that the text is opening up a window to Rivka as the parent of Esav as well, not just Yaakov’s doting mom. One wonders – what are the missing episodes of Rivka’s parenting that this verse is alluding to? How many pep talks did Rivka offer to Esav, how often did she give him a Langston Hughes’ style motivational?
Perhaps even at the very moment when she is preferring one son over the other, she is doing that as a parent of both, not only one. Rivkah reminds us that choosing to throw your lot in with one destiny does not mean that your complex ties with the alternative destiny must necessarily be severed (as my teacher Rav David Bigman once said, about a different parenting dilemma: “The tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that God’s two children are warring with eachother. What is he going to do?”). Even when faced with the toughest of choices, we are also at some level the mother of both options, Yaakov and Esav …
The story of Rivka shines a light on the complicated art of parenting: How much we push our own agendas and stories onto our children’s lives, and how much we are living the lives our parents have pushed us to live. It is easy to call for authenticity above all else, but the truth is that there are times when shoving a hairy coat in your child’s face is exactly the right move, and then there are times when living your parents’ dreams would be an act of tragic blindness. Perhaps Yaakov would have been best served if Rivka would have taught him to ask for himself her question: “If this be so, why do I exist?” But then again maybe he needed to be pushed into his brother’s blessing and out to his uncle’s home in order to reach the point where he could start his own existential journey. Through those dilemmas, there’s an element of thankfulness to those people who walked the tightrope of those decisions, raising us and being parents to both the Yaakov and the Esav within us.
From Rav DovBer Pinson
Energy of the Week: Parshas Toldos
Utilizing Tension to Create New Possibilities
This weeks Torah reading opens with the words; “And these are the generations of Yitzchak/ Isaac… he was forty years old when he took Rivkah/ Rebecca…for a wife…And he prayed…opposite his wife, because she was barren…and his wife conceived”(25: 19-21)
Yitzchak and Rivkah have already been married for a while and have not been able to conceive. Now something shifts. Yitzchak prays “opposite his wife,” and they are finally blessed with children.
The masculine energy in the universe is a forward outward movement, which can manifest as assertiveness, extraversion and contribution. The feminine energy is manifested as inward movement, acceptance and receiving. It is important to note that men and women alike contain both masculine and feminine energy in varying degrees.
In our narrative, Yitzchak was raised, fed and housed by his parents. He is essentially a man with no voice, having not even chosen his own wife. At the age of forty, he had yet to take a stand. He was in effect, existing in a place of femininity, as the AriZal teaches.
His wife was completely representative of femininity and therefore they were unable to create something new together.
In order to create a new existence, opposing forces need to come together. The antithesis creates the possibility of a synthesis and a new direction. From the tension and eventual fusion between opposites, a third reality, or a new life, emerges.
Yitzchak and Rivkah were not able to have children, produce an ‘other,’ because they were of the same. When Yitzchak finally stood ‘opposite’ his wife, embodying the quality of the masculine, and she stood opposite him as the embodiment of femininity, they prayed ‘opposite’ each other and then they were able to come together and create new life.
Prayer is when we take a stand ‘opposite’ what life presents to us, demanding a change in reality. Such as a sick person who prays to be healed. Yet, simultaneously we need to open ourselves up to the Creator in radical acceptance. The Hebrew word for prayer/Tefilah in numeric value equals 515. This is the same as the names of Yitzchak and Rivkah combined. Yitzchak is 208 and Rivka is 307 which together equal 515.
The prayer of Yitzchak and Rivkah that creates new life is the embodiment of effective communication with Hashem.
The Energy of the Week:
This week’s Torah reading gives us the strength to create new realities and existence, by utilizing the power of opposites and the eventual merging of the opposing forces. Whether these opposites exist within yourself, or between yourself and others, the idea is to use the tension to create a new force.
Understand that it takes polar opposites to create a new entity – and embrace the opposing energies within yourself and within your relationships. Observe how things that seem at odds with each other can bring about new realities and consciousness into the world.
In the workplace this may translate into finding that the person with whom you experience tension is actually capable of increasing your productivity – through that very tension. Or as another example – within a relationship – the ways that you differ from your partner, spouse, friend or child may create a tension that can be utilized to engineer change and new direction. Too much ‘yes’ and like-mindedness doesn’t stimulate growth. An occasional pull in the opposite direction can create just the right amount of tension which will increase the energy and produce creativity and change.
This week, see if you can view the things which ‘oppose’ you, as creative opportunity! Utilize the energy which is created from opposing forces to bring forth something new. Think of it as two batteries which when ‘mismatched’ create a force of energy between them – and make use of that energy!
PULLING THE STRINGS 2008
Trickster Rebecca, I wish you’d known better
than to pit your sons one against the other
like Isaac and Ishmael, jostling and angling
for the lone blessing in their father’s hands.
If you had taught your bookish son, the one
who stayed in the tent weaving stories
and your rough red-bearded hunter
whose heart chafed against being indoors
to see one another as sides of the same coin
think how much drama we could have been spared!
Then again, blind Isaac may have seen more
than we know. He tried twice to shame Jacob into truth.
God must have told you we need this tension
to shape the Israel we’re meant to become.
From Rabbi Simon Jacobson
The Power of a 3596 Year-Old Tremble
A human shudder is mentioned three times in the Torah (and several more times in Tanach):
The first – in this week’s Torah portion: Isaac shuddered a great, very great, shudder when Esau approached Isaac to receive the blessing that Jacob had already “stolen” (Genesis 27:33).
The tribes shuddered when they discovered the money planted in their sacks (Genesis 42:28). “What is this that G-d is doing to us?” they asked with sinking hearts as they realized that they were being held accountable for the blood of their brother Joseph whom they sold into slavery.
At Sinai – the people in the camp shuddered (Exodus 19:16). Indeed, the entire mountain shuddered violently (19:18).
The sages actually connect these three shudders: According to Rabbi Judah (Zohar I 144b) Jacob’s anguish over the loss of Joseph was a punishment for causing his father Isaac to shudder.
The Midrash (Ohr Ha’afeilah in manuscript) says that due to Isaac’s shudder his children shuddered at Sinai.
What connection is there between these three events?
Every shudder reflects a serious disturbance. When we become aware that things are not aligned we shudder.
Our universe in general and each person individually, is dichotomous in nature – comprised of matter and spirit, body and soul – two forces driven in opposite directions. The battle between matter and spirit creates serious turbulence, which lies at the root of all existential loneliness and despair – more than enough reason to shudder.
However this dissonance is not always apparent.
The story of Jacob and Esau reflects the struggle of life itself resulting from the tension between matter and spirit. The twin brothers Jacob and Esau embody two personalities and two nations that are odds with each other from their moment of conception (in Rebecca’s womb): “Two nations are in your womb. Two governments will separate from inside you. The upper hand will go from one nation to the other.”
Esau and Jacob represent two forces in each of our lives and in the world as a whole: Esau, the “skilled hunter, a man of the field,” symbolizes the body, the material world, whose untamed elements need to be conquered. Jacob, the “wholesome man, who dwells in the tents,” embodies the soul, the spiritual world. Initially these two worlds do not co-exist. Matter and spirit are at war with each other. “When one rises the other falls.”
In mystical terms the struggle between Jacob and Esau represents the process called Avodat habirurim: Everything in our material existence contains Divine “sparks,” i.e. spiritual energy, and we are charged with the mission to extricate, redeem and elevate these sparks, to uncover the spiritual opportunity embedded in every experience, and thereby refine the material universe and transform it into its true purpose: a vehicle for spiritual expression.
Originally, Esau was to be Jacob’s partner in the endeavor to redeem the Divine “sparks.” Esau’s warrior was meant to tame the crass elements of materialism and shaping them into vehicles of the sublime. But the material Esau first needs the spiritual Jacob for direction and focus. To gain the material blessings that Isaac had designated for Esau, Jacob garbs himself in Esau’s clothes, to redeem the powerful energy within matter (for further elaboration see: Jacob and Esau: Two Nations, The Twins, The Power of Human Exertion).
After Jacob camouflaged as Esau receives Isaac’s blessings, Esau returns from his hunt in the field and presents himself before his father Isaac. As Esau enters Isaac’s presence, Isaac senses the profound dissonance between matter and spirit, between Esau and Jacob. And he shudders violently: Something is wrong, terribly wrong.
What exactly caused Isaac to be seized with such a violent shudder?
One opinion is that Isaac shuddered when he realized that Esau was not who Isaac thought he was: Isaac “saw Gehennom [hell] open beneath him” (Rashi – from Tanchuma Brocho 1. Zohar ibid). According to this opinion, Jacob was not punished for this shudder (see Ohr HaChama Zohar ibid). A second opinion is that Jacob was also the cause of his shudder. So though G-d agreed that Jacob should receive the blessings, but because he caused his father such pain (i.e. he made him aware of the deep discord), Jacob would later be affected in turn with the loss of Joseph.
Joseph being sold by his brothers was another manifestation of the schism between matter and spirit. See The Selling of Joseph.
And finally, Isaac’s shudder caused the Jewish people to shudder as they stood at Sinai. The Psalmist writes: “From heaven You caused sentence to be heard, the earth feared and was still” (Psalms 76:9). Explains the Talmud (Shabbas 88a), that until Sinai “the earth feared” because the universe’s material existence was tenuous without its connection to its spiritual purpose. When this connection was established at Sinai the earth “was still.”
It was therefore quite appropriate that standing before Sinai “the people in the camp – as well as the mountain – shuddered.” [Perhaps the mountain “shuddered violently” because the people were after all children of Jacob, and thus not quite distant from their spiritual calling. By contrast, the mountain was very much part of the material “earth” which stood in fear.]
Yet, even after the stillness affected by Sinai the battle rages on, but now we are armed with the formal tools to bridge Esau’s matter with Jacob’s spirit.
3596 years ago our grandfather Isaac shuddered a violent shudder. He shuddered for the misalignment of the universe. He shuddered for every painful experience that would take place over the ages. He shuddered when he saw the terrible consequences of the battles between Esau and Jacob – the wars that would be waged between these two global powers, two forces in history – Rome and Jerusalem.
He shuddered as he realized how difficult, how enormously painful the struggle would be throughout history between the forces of matter and the forces of spirit.
His shudder continued to reverberate throughout the eons.
But the shudder of a Tzaddik is not mere fear. It absorbs some of the shock and pain – making it easier for us to weave our way through the challenges.
And weave we did. Through all the havoc, persecutions and expulsions, we stand today at the threshold of a new world: A world which will finally be “still” – at peace with itself, with its neighbors, and above all – with its Divine purpose.
Some shudders have such power.
From American Jewish World Service
Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster
As an activist, learning about the work of previous generations can be inspiring—and terrifying. I begin to wonder if I will ever be able to accomplish what the leaders of eras past did, or be willing to take the same risks. For example, when I was in elementary and middle school, the fight to end South African apartheid was often in the news and many of the young activists were not much older than I was. I remember thinking: “What would I be able to do to show such strong moral leadership and live up to their example?”
I imagine that the patriarch Isaac felt the same anxiety, as he is often seen as living in the shadow of his father. Abraham was a trail-blazer, taking his clan to a new land to establish a monotheistic religion and forming an everlasting covenant with God to found a new nation. He did not leave a lot of space for the son born to him late in life, Isaac, to do more than continue his legacy—much as the achievements of earlier activists can feel limiting to today’s aspiring leaders.
Yet our awe for these accomplishments is often tinged with disappointment when we find that our predecessors’ work was left unfinished. We sometimes feel as though we’re fighting the same battles, still struggling for a renewed and repaired world despite their best efforts. In Parshat Toldot, Isaac experiences this frustration, discovering that some of his father’s achievements were not fully realized. In one example, a conflict over the digging of wells that Abraham had attempted to resolve in his day reignites when Isaac comes to dwell in the same land. Abraham’s tenuous treaty with the local Philistine king, Abimelech, collapses when Isaac begins to prosper, and the Philistines stop up the wells that Abraham had dug, forcing Isaac from the land.1
I can understand how Isaac, re-entangled in a conflict of the past, might be discouraged, tempted to give up on finding his own resolution. Indeed, at first he tries to avoid conflict by moving—three times—to dig new wells, comforting himself with the thought that God has blessed everyone with a lot of space in which to live.2
But when the quarrel over water follows him to Beer-sheba, God appears, launching a turning point for Isaac: “I am the God of your father Abraham,” God says. “Fear not, for I am with you, and I will bless you and increase your offspring3 The blessing, simultaneously invoking the greatness of his father and foreseeing Isaac’s future as his own man, gives Isaac the courage to secure the lasting peace that Abraham failed to achieve. When Abimelech later comes to meet him with an entourage, Isaac, backed by God’s assurance of support, has the strength to confront the Philistine king about his harassment: “Why have you come to me now, seeing that you have been hostile to me?”4 Stunned by Isaac’s directness, Abimelech is forced to recognize God’s hand in Isaac’s prosperity, and swears a treaty between them that holds for future generations. The Torah underscores that the conflict has been finally put to rest: While Abimelech and Abraham merely parted ways after their treaty5 Isaac and Abimelech depart “in peace.”6
Just as Isaac had to finish the work left behind by the patriarch Abraham, we too often find that previous generations of iconic activists left us to resolve some of the greatest problems of global injustice, even after their groundbreaking achievements. Despite the freedoms gained by the historic fall of apartheid, South Africa today still faces tremendous xenophobia7 and racism,8 with many black citizens still living in abject poverty,9 marginalized in shantytowns and slums. We see this tension elsewhere too: Tremendous strides were made during the 1970s to reduce the number of people around the world who were hungry and malnourished, but in recent years, the commoditization of staple foods and the collapse of local agricultural systems have led to a world where more than 1 in 7 people are chronically food insecure.10 In many countries, thanks to the work of grassroots feminist organizations, the rights of women continue to advance; but many women around the world still face gender discrimination, and sexual violence is increasingly being used as a weapon of intimidation in armed conflicts.11
We have inherited an awe-inspiring legacy as well as profound problems left unresolved. Our task, like Isaac’s, is not to be intimidated by our predecessors’ renown, nor discouraged by the challenges they left behind. God’s blessing inspired Isaac to move the story forward despite the barriers, to find sustainable solutions to the problems that were left for his generation. It is up to us find the inspiration and confidence in our day to pick up where our predecessors left off, and to strive to leave the world “in peace.”
1 Genesis 21:25 and 26:18-22
2 Genesis 26: 19-22.
3 Genesis 26:24.
4 Genesis 26:27.
5 Genesis 21: 32.
6 Genesis 26: 31.
7 Madondo, Tafadzwa T. “South Africa: Xenophobia Déjà vu and Human Rights in South Africa.” allAfrica.com. 8 October 2009. http://allafrica.com/stories/200910080942.html
8 Malala, Justice. “South Africa: Racism runs deep.” BBC News. 30 August 2000. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/903379.stm
9 “South Africa poverty ’emergency.'” BBC News. 23 October 2008. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/7685253.stm
10 “Fighting Hunger from the Ground Up.” AJWS. http://ajws.org/hunger/campaign_at_a_glance.pdf
11 Kelemen, Michelle. “In War Zones, Rape Is A Powerful Weapon.” NPR. 21 October 2009. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=114001201
Parshat Toldot 2010
Rabbi Susan Nanus
Im ken, lamah zeh anochi? “If so, why is this me?” These are the words that Rebecca utters when she finds herself pregnant at the beginning of Parshat Toldot. After waiting for almost twenty years to conceive, Rebecca discovers that she is going to have twins, but it is not the blessing that she expected. The text reveals that “the children struggled in her womb,” and as Rashi explains, “the pain was great.” The Eytz Chayim commentary adds that “the fetal movements are spasmodic and she has fears of miscarrying.” Something is terribly wrong, and though Rebecca has realized her long-desired dream of motherhood, she is not filled with the joy and celebration she anticipated, but rather with suffering, anxiety and apprehension.
Heartsick and in agony, Rebecca finds herself asking one of the universal questions of the human condition. “Why me?” This existential query is one that we all recognize and that most of us have experienced when we ourselves have been in pain, whether it be physical, emotional or spiritual. “What did I do to deserve this? Why is this happening to me? Where is G-d?”
Whereas Rebecca was able to turn to G-d and actually receive an answer to her query, that is rarely, if ever, the case today. As Jewish spiritual leaders, trying to explain the reason for suffering is undoubtedly one of the most difficult challenges that we will ever face. How can we ever justify the injury or death of a loved one, the onset of illness, the loss of one’s home or livelihood?
Throughout centuries of Jewish tragedy, Jewish sages, scholars and philosophers have wrestled with this almost unanswerable question. Their responses have been varied and often unsatisfying or unacceptable to modern Jews, either blaming the victims or advising us not to challenge G-d’s wisdom. Though the Kabbalah teaches that everything happens for a reason and has a deeper meaning, this is a very difficult concept for most people to accept. And while Rabbi Harold Kushner’s position that G-d is not all-powerful and cannot prevent suffering is rational and makes sense, it is not very comforting.
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, however, viewed suffering as a natural part of life and even necessary for the growth and elevation of the soul:
“When the time comes for a person to rise from one level to the next, he must first experience a fall. The whole purpose of the fall is to prepare for the ascent.”
Furthermore, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto suggests that “suffering is meant to motivate a person and awaken his heart to repent.”
They do have a point. When we are suffering, our concern with trivialities immediately disappears. We suddenly comprehend what is really important, and oftentimes, we reevaluate and refocus our lives towards those values.
Is this comforting to someone who has lost a child or been struck with cancer? I’m not sure. But as Viktor Frankl discovered during the Holocaust, suffering is bearable if it has meaning. If we cannot receive a direct answer from G-d like Rebecca, perhaps we can ponder these encouraging words from Reb Nachman: “Try to understand this… No matter how far you fall, never allow yourself to be discouraged. Remain firm and resolute and pay no attention to the fall at all, because in the end it will be transformed into a great ascent. This is its whole purpose.”
From Rabbi Avram Davis
In this week’s parsha we enter into the realm of blindness: why we are blind to so many things, and how our blindness drive us to remember or to forget.
Gen. 27:1: When Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see.
Genesis Rabbah 65: His eyes became dimmed from seeing [literal translation] – from the impact of that vision. For when Abraham bound his son on the altar, the ministering angels cried, as it is written, Listen, the Arielites cry aloud. Is 33:7. And tears dropped from their eyes into his eyes, and were imprinted into his eyes. And when he became old, his eyes became dimmed, from seeing.
From too much seeing, Isaac became blind. From seeing what? His father seeking to sacrifice him? Inter-family fighting and hostility? The lateness of God’s speaking out to stop his slaughter?
It is blindness and sadness. A deep, mind-altering sadness. And it affects everyone in the story.
In the story, Isaac favors Esav, and his wife Rebecca favors Jacob. Their love is reduced to tricking and lying to each other – imposing blindness on the other, as well as they can.
Isaac yearns for the emptiness of the open field. The non-constriction of things. The simplicity of the life. And so he favors Esav. He is haunted by the past. He loves Esav, not because they are so different, but because they are both so broken, filled by the blindness of life around them.
When Rebecca first comes upon Isaac, he is meditating. Where is he meditating? He is meditating on Mt. Moriah, the place of his own sacrifice. He wants to forget. And Esav wants to forget. Esav says: “Of what use is my birthright?”
That is, his place in the family; his place in life. Esav wants to forget. He says: “Of what use is my birthright?” And Isaac wants to forget. Does his blindness help him see less or force him to see more?
All of us, often, want to forget. And so we make ourselves… blind. In one way or another.
Does this blindness help us or hinder us in our quest for life and greater understanding?
The Torah is not really making a judgment here. It is only detailing how people often are: drawing a picture of life and the complications that come with consciousness. It is pointing out the humanness of our teachers in the Torah, so that by understanding them and their struggles, we can more easily understand ourselves.
From Rabbi James Stone Goodman
November 2nd, 2010 |
O holy Shabbat Toldot
If so why
me [Genesis 25:22]
it hurts too much for complete sentences
two worlds struggling within her
one world actually
one world split in two.
We’re working on bringing them back together
been working on it for the last
three, four thousand years.
She goes to inquire of God
this is the second most important word in the Torah
lidrosh – to inquire [25:22]
fill in the spaces
the white fire.
Rashi says she goes to inquire
at the beit ha-midrash
the study hall of Shem and Ever
quoting the Targum Yonatan.
She goes to the study center
where she finds you over a text
we are all in the beit midrash
the house of explication
all the time.
Rebecca steps out of the story
and finds the future
she walks through a mirror
to enter the inquiry of students
she comes to the Beit Midrash
where we are all sitting.
It’s her request that is so difficult.
She is asking for some significance to her suffering
Im zeh lamah zeh anokhi —
if this why this . . . I . . .
She gets what she asks for — a larger me.
Her story expands — two nations are struggling within you [25:23]
we howl at her
she gets what she asks for, a context for her suffering.
She gets context in the beit midrash
forever we will associate suffering
Rebecca steps out of her own story joins ours.
Our circle is oracular and redemptive.
Why? Because it teaches meaning.
The response to suffering becomes learning
suffering is an inadvertent teacher.
And these are the generations of Isaac Abraham’s son,
Abraham fathered Isaac. [Gen. 35:19]
Isaac is Abraham’s son
notice how Isaac authenticates his life –
he is Abraham’s son.
Abraham fathered Isaac
that is how Abraham authenticates his life –
he is the father of Isaac.
The word generations toldot is written half haser (partial).
Was it not enough that each of them
father and son, derived his worth from the other?
When one of them was haser/lacking,
he could fill up with the other.
I love you enough, said Abraham, I love you enough
I give you the gift of my love
when you cannot find it in yourself.
I love you that much.
I love you enough, said Isaac,
to give you the gift of my love
when you cannot find it in yourself
I give it to you
I love you that much.
I told my loved ones –
I love you that much
whatever you cannot find in yourself
you may fill your emptiness
The Commit: O holy Shabbes Inspiration Toldot
*Every Shabbes characterized by maqam cognate to Maqom signifying place
Mahour is used only twice, on Toldot and Balak.
Mahour means disappointed, or angered,
when Esau and Balak are disappointed.
It is a higher pitched form of maqam Rast.
Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebecca … as a wife (25:20)
For three years, from the Binding of Isaac at age 37 to his marriage at age 40, Isaac was in the Garden of Eden.
Marriage is a time of increased enmeshment in the material. It is a time when one begins to engage in the most physical of human drives; it is also a time when one is forced to begin, in earnest, the business of earning a livelihood, often at the expense of loftier and more idealistic pursuits. Thus the Zohar refers to marriage as a person’s second birth: first, the soul enters into the body and assumes a physical existence, then, at a later point in life, it further “descends” into the physical state by marrying.
Therein lies the lesson to be derived from the fact that, prior to his marriage, Isaac spent three years in the Garden of Eden, abandoning the physical state for a wholly spiritual existence. In order to ensure the success of the most physical phase of a person’s life, it must be prefaced by a period of spiritual preparation. Although the primary objective of our mission in life is the development and sanctification of the physical world, one must enter that world well equipped with the spiritual vision of the divine purpose and with the spiritual fortitude to carry it out.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
And Jacob was an innocent man, dwelling in tents (25:27)
The academy of Shem and the academy of Eber.
Jacob cooked pottage (25:29)
That was the day on which Abraham died, and Jacob made a broth of lentils to comfort his father Isaac.
Why lentils? Just as the lentil has no mouth, so is the mourner speechless… Just as the lentil is round, so mourning comes round to all the inhabitants of this world.
Isaac dug again the wells of water… and he called their names after the names by which his father had called them (26:18)
Behold the humility of Isaac. A person acquires a house and gives it a name; then his son comes, adds a new part to it, and calls it by a different name. Not so Isaac: all the wells which Abraham dug and named, although they were entirely stopped by the Philistines, when Isaac redug them a second time he did not give them new names, but reinstated the names given them by his father.
And what reward did he receive for this? The other Patriarchs had their names changed: Abraham was first called Abram and later Abraham; Jacob was initially called Jacob and subsequently given the name Israel. Isaac, however, was given the name “Isaac” from G-d even before his birth, and his name was not changed for all generations.
I know not the day of my death (27:2)
Seven things are concealed from man: the day of death, the day of the Redemption, the absolute truth in a judgment; also, no man knows how he will earn a livelihood, what is in his neighbor’s heart, what a woman is bearing, and when the wicked State [Rome] will fall.
The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau (27:22)
“The voice is the voice of Jacob”–no prayer is effective unless the seed of Jacob has a part in it. “The hands are the hands of Esau”–no war is successful unless the seed of Esau has a share in it.
From Rabbi Miles Krassen
If we follow the path of involution from the non-dual ground of Be-ing through the increasingly veiled stages of manifestation, we find that the deepest energetic quality of Be-ing is Divine Love. In Kabbalah, Divine Love (Hesed) is represented by Avraham, whom Be-ing calls, Avraham, My Lover… (Isaiah 41:8.) Were it not for Avraham, who personifies the continuously pulsating, sustaining power of Love, no world could manifest. Yet for the manifest world to evolve and reach its fullness, a contraction of Love is required, because Love in its most intense form overcomes and precludes any separation and individuation. So Divine Love, an emanation of Divine Wisdom, restrains a bit of itself and sacrifices its beloved all-embracing state as an offering to Be-ing. The G-ding Power tested Divine Love… (Genesis 22:1.) …Take your beloved all-embracing state and elevate it as a sacrifice, above and beyond the (dualistic) world-space in which YaH is only discerned as a spice. (Genesis 22:2.)
Thus Divine Love itself, through its sacrifice and devotion to Be-ing, makes way for its own opposite and offspring, Gevurah (Restraint and Discriminating Judgment). Avraham (Divine Love) birthed Yitzhak (Gevurah). (Genesis 25:19.)
Yitzhak is the progenitor of dualistic consciousness. These (two) are the offspring of Yitzhak consciousness, which descends directly from Divine Love. (Genesis 25:19.)
Yitzhak suffers greatly from the loss of his Mother, Sarah the Shekhinah. His relationship to Divinity is a terrifying one, because he doesn’t know where to find Her; His progenitor Avraham’s Power of Love was Yitzhak’s Fear…(Genesis 31:42.) Yitzhak calls Divinity “Fear,” because in Yitzhak-consciousness, one fears that Divinity is something that can be lost.
So why did Sarah prophetically name him Yitzhak (He will laugh)? Because the more he awakens and returns to the Shekhinah, the more he can recognize the joke of dualistic consciousness, which appears dual but is really One. Laughter comes through reuniting with the Shekhinah. (Proverbs 31:25.)
However, before one can ascend from Yitzhak-consciousness to the level of Divine laughter, it is necessary to come to know oneself clearly on the level of the personality. Happily, Yitzhak attained a level of dualistic understanding through his devotion to a descended emanation of the Shekhinah. (Genesis 25:20.)
Contemplating the Shekhinah, Yitzhak turned himself over to Be-ing; praying that his devotion would be fruitful. Be-ing responded by transforming him so that he was aware of the dualistic tendencies within his soul. (Genesis 25:21.)
Yitzhak-consciousness is characterized by inner conflict. The Midrash says that Rivkah suffered greatly while pregnant with the twins, Ya’akov and Esav. Whenever she passed a holy place, Ya’akov would start kicking and trying to break out of her womb. Whenever she would pass by an unholy place, Esav wanted to come out. In Yitzhak-consciousness the soul (Rivkah) is troubled by an internal struggle between competing tendencies: the yetzer tov (positive urge) and yetzer ha-ra’ (negative urge). Two tendencies contended within her; so she thought, ‘if that’s the way it is in dualistic consciousness, what’s the point of this I AM?’ and she turned to Be-ing for an answer. (Genesis 25:22.)
Yitzhak-consciousness is essentially a struggle. Sometimes one tendency prevails and sometimes another. For that reason, it is often difficult to discern if any real progress is even being made. Reassurance and direction depends on reliance on a higher source for guidance. Be-ing informed the soul that there are two ego-driven tendencies within the depths of our personalities and our instincts are pulled in two directions; one will ultimately become stronger than the other… (Genesis 25:23.)
As long as one doesn’t get the joke of dualistic experience Yitzhak-consciousness can never lead to redemption. Both positive and negative tendencies within Yitzhak-consciousness are egoic and support a dualistic view. Nevertheless, for us to evolve, the holy, positive tendency has to prevail and become stronger through liberating and elevating the holy sparks that are also present in the yetzer ha-ra’.
And the old one will serve the younger. (Genesis 25:23.)
A wise but impoverished child is better than an old foolish king. (Ecclesiates 4:13.) The Zohar likens the “wise, impoverished child” to the yetzer tov and the “old, foolish king” to the yetzer ha-ra’, because, according to rabbinic tradition, the yetzer tov appears in us at a later stage of development. As we progress, older structures from earlier stages of development remain part of us, but now they can serve more evolved objectives. Although, like Ya’akov, the newly emerging, more evolved personality structure makes mistakes in its early stages, we recognize its superiority, because it arouses us to aspire to higher goals.
May we all realize that dualistic consciousness is the offspring of Love.
May our newly emerging aspirations lead us higher and closer to Divinity.
May we recognize the egoic nature of even our best impulses
And, discovering the joke of dualistic consciousness,
Laugh together in our reunion with Shekhinah.
Rabbi Moshe Aharon Ladizhyner
From Rabbi Shefa Gold
~ Rabbi Shefa Gold’s Torah Journeys ~
Jacob and Esau are born after wrestling with each other in Rebecca’s womb.
Isaac re-digs the wells of his ancestors.
WE CARRY within us the Great Duality, the fruit of the Tree of Good and Evil. Like Rebecca, we are pregnant with dilemma, with paradox. Carrying this contradiction can feel so painful that we forget that it is a pregnancy. We forget that we are in the process of birthing. In agony we cry out, “Im Keyn, Lama Zeh Anochi?” 1 (If life is like this…with so much suffering…Why am I?)
The blessing comes in the awareness that we are indeed birthing Life. We are always birthing ourselves.2 The whole drama of Life moves through the narrow passage of our personal experience, and we are stretched wide and torn open in the process. At some point, the contradiction within us will be made apparent. We will then have the opportunity of expanding to embrace the complex dilemma of our human situation.
TO BE FULLY HUMAN is to be connected to our lineage, to experience the presence of our ancestors within us. We receive the blessing of lineage by embracing the ancestors who live inside of us; we offer them our compassion and courage, we receive the merit of their efforts, and we learn from their mistakes. Through our love their power is freed, their wounds are healed.
Through the story of Toldot we learn to access our lineage. In his time, Abraham accomplished the great work of digging deep wells of spiritual sustenance, but by Isaac’s time, the wells had become obstructed. Isaac lost access to the wealth of his lineage. In re-digging the stopped up wells of his father Abraham, Isaac finds that the process is neither simple nor easy. In fact he digs three wells before acheiving success – connection with the source.
EACH WELL HAS A NAME that describes a marker on the journey towards deep connection.3
ESEK – “CONTENTION”
SITNAH – “ENMITY”
REHOVOT – “SPACIOUSNESS”
FIRST WE DIG the well of ESEK/CONTENTION. We scrabble in a rocky argument with our inheritance, rubbing up against its hard edges, fighting its constrictions, and opening to its contradictions.
THEN WE DIG the well of SITNA/ENMITY. There we taste the contradictions of the tradition within us. When we come to know the suffering and struggles of our ancestors and the whole human family who have stood against one another, we cry out, “Im Keyn, Lama Zeh Anochi?” 4 (If life is like this…(with so much suffering)…Why am I?)
AT THIS POINT, the very moment of birthing, we dig the well of REHOVOT/SPACIOUSNESS. The well of our ancestors becomes a fountain connecting the dark depths of our human story with the wide skies of awareness.
IN THE STORY of Toldot we learn of the tragedy of deception between brothers that results from the narrow belief in the scarcity of blessing. Our family is torn apart because of the conviction that only one of Isaac’s sons can receive his blessing.
This system of limiting blessing and creating hierarchy is born of the belief that love and blessing are finite, that there are winners and losers. This idea is drawn from the well of CONTENTION.
When I deceive my brother or attempt to steal the blessing from my sister, I am drawing on the well of ENMITY (whose waters are poison) which will only drive me to greater thirst.
From the well of SPACIOUSNESS comes the wisdom that our fates are bound up with one another. Your loss, your suffering is also mine, and true blessing is shared. At the well of spaciousness I slake my thirst with the knowledge that the source of blessing knows no bounds, and that we are capable of accessing that blessing directly.
THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE
IN THE MIDST OF PAIN AND STRUGGLE, the spiritual challenge is to remember to ask the question, “What am I birthing?”
Pain narrows our awareness, disguises itself as the whole of reality, saps our strength and makes us forgetful of the holy process of birth. Our only path to divinity is through our humanity. When pain presents itself we must remember that it is a doorway. The only way is through.
Each contraction brings us closer to new life. The challenge is to remember the promise of life even as we cry out, even if our cries are filled with despair. The cry will open the ancestral well. Bearing the pain of our humanity, digging through ESEK, through SITNAH to the well of REHOVOT, we can receive the legacy of our mothers and fathers who struggled and birthed new life.
THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE of drawing from the well of our ancestors is to receive their essence and make it our own. There is always the danger of getting caught in the forms that we have inherited without tasting and knowing their essence. We must let our unique creative flow be invited and opened by the legacy that we inherit.
For Guidlines for Practice: see link http://www.rabbishefagold.com/toldot/
From Aviela Barclay Soferet
Sad Lamed: Be-reyshit/Genesis 27:30 Parashat Tol’dotShare
Fri at 1:48am
וַיְהִי, כַּאֲשֶׁר כִּלָּה יִצְחָק לְבָרֵךְ אֶת-יַעֲקֹב, וַיְהִי אַךְ יָצֹא יָצָא יַעֲקֹב, מֵאֵת פְּנֵי יִצְחָק אָבִיו; וְעֵשָׂו אָחִיו, בָּא מִצֵּידוֹ.
And it happened that as soon as Yitz’chaq had finished blessing Ya’aqov, and Ya’aqov had barely left the presence of Yitz’chaq his father, that Esav his brother returned from his hunting.
Vayehi ka’asher kilah Yitzchaq l’vareykh et-Ya’aqov vayehi akh yatzo yatza Ya’aqov mey’eyt p’ney Yitzchaq aviv v’Eysav achiv ba mitzeydo
In most types of Torah Ketav or script, the letter Lamed has what is called a Tag or a Keter, a single crownlet. Normally – in fact in all cases – the Tagin point upwards. Very rarely some scribes will, in the word that says Yitzchaq “was finished” – כִּלָּה kilah – blessing Ya’aqov, the Tag of that Lamed is written by the Sofrim/scribes pointing downward and curled (Sefer HaTagin, Torah Sh’lemah).
This is the only instance in our tradition where this is done – and it’s hardly ever done at all anymore, even though it’s a standard agreed-upon feature.
From this we learn that this particular brakhah/blessing was transmitted through Yitz’chaq to Ya’aqov from The One Above and did not simply come from Yitz’chaq to Ya’aqov. Therefore, it was no mistake that the younger brother, Ya’aqov, was raised above the elder brother, Esav, and the deception which the Prophetess Our Mother Rivqah engaged her favourite son in was Divinely inspired.
Now we can all stop feeling guilty!
Copyright © A. Barclay.
From Rabbi Uzi Weingarten
ADVICE, LOVE AND HUMILITY
Rabbi Uzi Weingarten
There are four times in the Torah that one person says to another, “listen to me” (Hebrew, “sh’ma b’koli”). Thrice it is Rebecca speaking to her son Jacob, in this week’s Torah portion, and once it is Jethro speaking to his son-in-law Moses. Yet, while the same words are used, the dynamics couldn’t be more different, and accordingly, they produce radically different results.
Jethro, visiting Moses and the Israelites in the desert after they leave Egypt, sees a difficult situation. Moses is serving as a one-man legal system, and people are standing in line all day in order to have their cases heard (Exodus 18:13-14).
It is immediately clear to Jethro that this state of affairs is untenable for both Moses and the people (18:17-18). Based on his organizational experience as “priest of Midian,” Jethro knows what needs to be done (18:19-23). He prefaces this by telling Moses:
Now, listen to me (Hebrew, “sh’ma b’koli”)
I will counsel you
And let God be with you (18:19)
In this week’s Torah portion, Rebecca thinks that Isaac is about to bequeath to Esau the spiritual legacy of Abraham, and does not consider Esau to be worthy of this role (Genesis 27:1-5). She wants Jacob, the more spiritually oriented of her two sons, to receive the blessing, and wants him to use deception in order to get it. She says:
Now, my son, listen to me (Hebrew, “sh’ma b’koli”)
To what I command you (27:8)
Two differences between these verses catch my attention. The first is that while both Jethro and Rebecca say “listen to me,” Jethro “counsels” Moses, while Rebecca “commands” Jacob.
The second is that after Jethro counsels Moses he adds, “and let God be with you.” Rashi, quoting the Midrash, explains this verse as meaning, “go and consult God.” Rebecca adds no such disclaimer. This is a crucial difference. Jethro does not want Moses to simply take his word for it. Part of his “counsel” is that Moses “go and consult with God.” Jethro invites Moses to receive some inner indication, through prayer or meditation or whatever other means, that this is the best course of action. He suggests that Moses reflect on whether or not this advice resonates with him. Jethro does not insist on it being heeded.
We honor others and treat them with dignity when we offer them counsel and then leave it to their inner wisdom, and to the Divine guidance they receive, to determine the best course of action. When we “offer advice without insisting,” we are being kind without being coercive or possessive.
In addition, this kind of advice is an expression of humility. It recognizes that we each view life from a particular point of view. We see through our individual eyes, through the lenses of our own education and the filters of our unique experiences, including our unresolved emotional baggage. Do we ever truly know what is best for the other? (I once defined humility for myself this way: “I barely know what is right for me, how can I know what is right for you?”)
Jethro’s “counsel” contrasts strongly with Rebecca’s “command” to Jacob. She does not ask Jacob for his opinion, and when he voices concerns about her command (Genesis 27:11-12), she dismisses them, repeating her earlier command: “Just listen to me” (27:13). Rebecca is so convinced that she is right, and that the ends justify the means, that it does not occur to her that she might be badly misjudging the situation.
There is something violent and abusive about coercing a course of action on another human being. And there is a disconnection from humility when one is convinced one knows what is best for another. “Commanding” another person to act in a certain way is an awesome responsibility. What if things are not as one imagines them to be?
And in fact, things are not as Rebecca imagines. She is concerned that Isaac will give Esau the spiritual leadership. However, as Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno (16th cent., Italy) and many modern commentaries demonstrate, Isaac from the beginning reserves the spiritual blessing, “the blessing of Abraham,” for Jacob (28:1-4). The blessing that Isaac intends for Esau, of economic abundance and political superiority (27:28-29), is one for which Esau is actually better suited than Jacob. In other words, Isaac intends a blessing for each of his sons, based on their respective strengths. He may be blind, but he sees clearly, accurately assessing the situation and distributing blessings accordingly.
Rebecca may also be convinced, based on the oracle that she heard during her pregnancy (25:23), that Esau, the eldest, is to serve Jacob, the youngest. And yet, such oracular pronouncements capture only the moment. As Rabbi Moshe Shamah (Sephardic Institute, Brooklyn NY) writes: “What is predetermined is [only] the opportunity, disposition or possibility for a particular outcome.” Prophecies are not the final word. Human beings have choice and are able to affect outcomes by their actions. By blessing each son and giving each a role, Isaac hoped that instead of them struggling, they would work together.
In addition to the incorrect assumption regarding Isaac’s intentions, Rebecca completely misjudges the outcome of her command to Jacob. Esau refuses to accept the stealing of his blessing, and responds to Jacob’s deceit by plotting to kill him. For the third time Rebecca tells Jacob to “listen to me” (27:43) and skip town for “a few days,” until Esau’s anger calms down and he forgets the deceit that was done to him (27:42-45). Rather than advise Jacob to reconcile with Esau, she commands him to disappear for a while until Esau “forgets.” Of course, this is hardly a moral or ethical way to resolve things. But then again, Rebecca is convinced of the righteousness of her cause and that the means justify the ends.
However, Esau does not forget. The “few days” turn into twenty years, and Rebecca never again sees her beloved son. Instead, she spends the rest of her life with the two men she deceived and whose trust she betrayed–her husband Isaac and her other son Esau. Her heart yearns for the son she loves and whom she will never see again because of her “command” that he act deceitfully.
Finally, and key to understanding this story, Jacob himself does not receive the blessing he stole. The “blessing of Abraham,” to teach the way of God to the world, is the blessing that was intended for him and he was given with no deceit. And indeed, the children of Jacob filled the world with knowledge of the one God and the path of “doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly” (Micah 6:8) that God asks of us. The blessing that Jacob took by deceit, however, the blessing of economic and political leadership, is one that he himself did not realize in his lifetime, nor, on the whole, have his descendants. Living in ghettos is not exactly “from the dew of the heavens and the fat of the earth and an abundance of grain and wine.” Nor have “nations served” the children of Jacob, on the whole (Genesis 27:28-29). It is we who served them.
I list the various ways in which Rebecca is badly mistaken simply to illustrate the pitfalls of being certain that we know what is right for others and imposing our ideas on them. “Commanding” others to adopt a given course of action, overriding their objections, not inviting them to listen to their inner guidance, as Rebecca did, is contrary to the Torah’s wisdom on how to be helpful.
The results speak for themselves. Rebecca’s command brings about the breakup of the family and great human suffering. Jethro’s counsel results in human suffering alleviated, justice more accessible, greater ease and comfort for all, and “people finding their place in harmony” (Ex. 18:23). Advice given properly can be a great kindness we do for others.
© 2002 Rabbi Uzi Weingarten
Commentary on Toldot
Rivka’s questions, our answers (Radical Torah repost)
Here’s the d’var Torah I wrote for this week’s portion in 2006, originally published at the now-defunct Radical Torah.
In the early lines of parashat Toledot, Yitzchak pleads with God because his wife Rivka has not yet conceived. God responds, the text tells us, to this plea; Rikva does conceive — but she feels the dangerous struggle in her womb, and she says, “If so, why do I exist?”
The story continues from there in the way we have all come to recognize: the promise that her younger son will rule over the elder, the birth of hairy Esau and grasping Jacob, the twin birthright stories, the trickery.
But as a reader I’m reluctant to move on, caught by the moment of Rivka’s anguished cry. I imagine her tossing and turning on a bed of blankets, trying to find comfort despite the palpable struggle of the child (she does not yet know there are two) in her womb. Perhaps she fears miscarriage, or that her baby will tangle itself in the umbilical cord as it thrashes inside her.
And so she cries out. If this is happening — and it is happening; the struggle inside her feels like it may kill her — then why does she exist? Why has her life led her to this moment?
It’s a question with no answer, a kind of existential eikha. It is the nature of our existence that risk arises, and it is also our nature to fear and resent that risk when it comes. We build the best lives we can manage, we put our hearts and our time into what we do, but no amount of effort is proof against suffering. The possibility of loss is always at our heels.
Jacob is at Esau’s heel, grasping it so tightly that he is named “Heel-grabber” when the two have emerged from the womb. Maybe he wants to hold his brother back; maybe he just wants something concrete and familiar to hang on to as he emerges from the womb into the strange and unpredictable new world.
And Esau? Esau is a woodsman, a hunter, a man of appetites so strong that, the text tells us, one day he comes home so hungry he willingly trades his birthright for a bowl of stew. If Jacob is all about attachment, Esau is all about desire.
We chart our lineage back to Jacob, so of the twins it is he who interests us most. In a certain sense, Jacob is a pair of twins all by himself; for now he is Jacob, who allows his mother to orchestrate the trickery which will subvert the natural division of power between himself and his brother, but later in life he will become Israel, the God-wrestler.
Many teachers have offered the insight that we can see in ourselves the necessary tension between Jacob and Israel. One interpretation holds that Jacob represents our lower selves, and Israel our higher; another, that Jacob represents our embodiment and Israel our spirituality. (A hint of this can be read into the line mah tovu ohalecha ya’akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael — “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob; your dwelling-places, O Israel.” Jacob is the part of us which inhabits earthly tents, buildings with walls and doors; Israel is the part of us which creates a home for the Shekhinah, the presence of God, to dwell.)
But I wonder what we might learn if we tried to integrate in ourselves not only Jacob’s two faces, but also the relationship between Jacob and his twin. How would we understand ourselves if we embraced both Jacob’s underdog qualities and Esau’s physical strength, Jacob’s ability to hold on for dear life and Esau’s connection with the red earth, Jacob’s attachment and Esau’s desire?
This line of thinking would not spare us from the moments of anguish that we, like Rivka, are heir to. There will be times when what we desire to birth into the world will tangle within us, as though we carried conflict within our own skins. And we can never know in advance what we’re midwifing into being.
But creating divisions between brothers — or divisions within our understandings of ourselves — perpetuates the long line of familiar and familial conflicts that make the book of Bereshit so recognizable to us today. What would happen if we answered Rivka’s question — “if this is so, why do I exist?” — with the intention of creating connection and common ground between the disparate parts of our families, our world, and ourselves? How then might our own toledot, the tale of our own generations, be different in years to come?
By Rabbi Beth J. Singer from The Women’s Torah Commentary Edited by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, 2000.
This is part of Rabbi Beth’s commentary which especially resonates with me.
The Power of Prayer
One remarkable element of this story is that, in the course of Rebecca’s terribly difficult pregnancy she goes directly to God: Va-telech lidrosh et-Adonai, “She went to inquire of Adonai.” God responds to her inquiry with the world’s first (Divine!) ultrasound. God tells Rebecca, “You’ve got twins!” Traditional commentators generally skip over this section, which is odd, since it is rare and powerful that God and any individual enjoy such intimate communcation. With the words telech lidrosh we learn that it is Rebecca who initiated this human-Divine interaction. While the verb lidrosh means “seek” or “inquire” it also has the connotation of seeking God in prayer and worship. The verb is used for this meaning in many other places throughout the Torah.
It makes sense that a religious woman experiencing gut-wrenching pain would pray to God, but for what? In this case, she prays to better understand her pain. After all, pain may be better endured if the one in pain knows that something momentous will be the result of that pain. The spare detail imparted by these few words suggests that Rebecca is already in possesion of a strong spiritual life when she goes to inquire of Adonai. When Rebecca prays, God answers her immediately.
The text does not address the nature of her relationship with Isaac. We can only surmise that it was intimate and loving, that throughout their years of infertility they supported and loved one another. But there is not doubt of the strength of Rececca’s relationship to God. This aspect of Rebecca’s birth story suggests to us the possibility of attaining higher levels of self-awareness and understanding by seeking God in prayer, when faced with our own existential challenges.
Finding Meaning in Life’s Struggles
Rebecca’s words to God are heartfelt, yet puzzling. Feeling wretched from the struggle going on inside her womb, Rebecca cries out to God, “Im ken, lama zeh anochi?”. Though the idiomatic meaning of Rebecca’s words is, “If this is so, why do I exist?” we can break up the phrases as if they were pieces to a jigsaw puzzle. Imagine them as fragments of a prayer that Rebecca is unable to vocalize in one smooth utterance. Yet God understands perfectly, because God can hear the longings of her heart, longings that connect the puzzle pieces. Im ken. “If so.” Rebecca accepts the facts of her situation. Lama zeh? “Why is this?” She looks to God in order to find meaning in her suffering. Amidst her agony, that Rebecca spits out anochi, “I”, suggests that her question is of an existential nature. God hears her anochi as: “But who am I? What the meaning of my life in contradistinction to these beings growing inside of me?” When assembled, the puzzle pieces of Rebecca’s heartfelt prayer teaches us that asking existential questions is part of the spiritual process of discovering meaning in our lives. Life’s greatest struggles can teach us who we are- if we are not afraid to ask the questions.
REB SHOLOM BRODT
(from an email sent on 11/27/2008)
And these are the descendants of Yitzchak the son of Avraham; Avraham fathered Yitzchak. Yitzchak was forty years old when he took Rivkah – the daughter of Besuel the Aramite, the sister of Lavan the Aramite, for himself as a wife. Yitzchak prayed to G-d, opposite his wife, because she was barren. G-d accepted his prayer, and his wife Rivkah conceived.
The children struggled inside her. She said, “If so, why am I?” She went to seek Hashem.
G-d said to her, “There are [two esteemed individuals the forebears of]two nations in your womb, two kingdoms will separate from your innards, kingdom against kingdom will struggle. The elder will serve the younger.”
The term of her pregnancy was complete, and behold, there were twins in her womb.
The first one came out reddish and completely (covered in hair), like a fur coat of hair. They named him Eisav (Esau). Afterwards his brother emerged, and his hand was grasping Eisav’s heel. He called his name, Yaakov. Yitzchak was sixty years old when they were born.”
Bereishis 25: 19-26.
My Personal Yaakov and Eisav
We have learned many times the teaching of Rebbe Nachman zt”l, that when you learn a story in the Torah, you must find your ‘self’ in the story. (The stories of the Torah are not only history, they are MYSTORY, YOURSTORY AND OURSTORY!) As long as you think that the story is only about someone else, you don’t yet understand the depth of the story. It’s about you and me; it’s about every one of us. We are in these stories and we have yet to resolve them fully.
Chassidus explains the above passage describing the birth of the Yaakov and Eisav as the story of one’s soul and being. Not only is it difficult to understand others, we hardly understand ourselves. Why do we do good and bad? Why do we do we act in ways contradictory to our beliefs? Why don’t we do only the good? Why are we kind and mean? Why do we desire good and evil? Are we insane, ‘chas v’shalom’?
The children struggled inside her. She said, “If so, why am I?”
Specifically on the verse: G-d said to her, “There are [two esteemed individuals the ancestors of] two nations in your womb, two kingdoms will separate from your innards, kingdom against kingdom will struggle. The elder will serve the younger.” Chassidus explains that here the Torah is teaching us that each one of us will be experiencing this struggle of Yaakov and Eisav in our own lives. Yaakov represents the “nefesh haEloki” – the Divine soul – the Yetzer haTov – the inclination and will to do good; while Eisav represents the “nefesh habahamis” – the animal soul – the Yetzer haRah – the inclination and will to do bad. We, living humans [as opposed to angels and animals] are composite beings, consisting of both a Divine soul and of an animal soul, living together in our beings and struggling with one another for dominion.
The Divine soul is portrayed as ‘seated’ in the intellect, while the “seat” of the animal soul is in the left ventricle of the heart. The Divine soul seeks and yearns to be united with Hashem – its direct source of life. The animal soul on the other hand, though it too originates in a very high place is interested in self-gratification. The Divine soul sees itself as connected in the Unity of Hashem. The animal soul sees itself as a separate entity and is concerned only with its own needs and desires. Even when it acts kindly to another it does so for its own sake.
These two ‘kingdoms’ are in constant struggle; each seeks to be the sole ruler over the “small city” – that is, you, the individual. As one rises, the other gathers its strength once more and attempts to overthrow the other. Most of the time victories are short gained – they do not last long. After doing a mitzvah we are still tempted with transgressions. After transgressing, we feel remorse and want to do Tshuvha. Such is the ongoing struggle that is taking place within each one of us – except for the rare individuals who are either completely righteous or completely wicked.
Further Hashem is teaching us that we are not meant to do away with the “yetzer harah”; we are not ‘kill’ the animal soul. Rather it is our task to educate it, so that it will join with the Divine soul in serving Hashem, in making this world – the lowest of all worlds, into a dwelling place for the Shechinah. And this is Hashem’s promise, “The elder will serve the younger.”
The above teaching is based on various selections in the Tanya – see Chapters 26-29. Now if we might take this understanding as our base let’s take another look at a few more verses in this passage.
“And these are the descendants of Yitzchak the son of Avraham; Avraham fathered Yitzchak.”
We are the descendants of Avraham Avinu – our father Avraham. Just as Avraham Avinu fathered Yitzchak, meaning that he provided him with the spiritual capabilities to become Yitzchak the tzaddik, so too, he is my father and your father and is always there to give us strength in serving Hashem.
“Yitzchak was forty years old when he took Rivkah – the daughter of Besuel the Aramite, the sister of Lavan the Aramite, for himself as a wife.”
Forty, is the age of ‘binah’ – deep understanding. Forty years complete a generation, a major cycle of life, and deeper wisdom and understanding are to be acquired. We are aroused and come to an understanding that we need to go forward, to grow, and the holy opportunity (Rivkah) presents itself. The opportunity may even arise from within a corrupt environment (Lavan).
“Yitzchak prayed to G-d, opposite his wife, because she was barren. G-d accepted his prayer, and his wife Rivkah conceived.”
Here we learn that in order to find success in our growth, we need to pray for Hashem’s help, without which, the arousal may remain barren.
“The children struggled inside her.She said, ‘If so, why am I?’ She went to seek Hashem.”
Once we start moving towards our goals, we are so to speak, pregnant. The birth has not yet occurred, but we are definitely pregnant. And so very often, the pregnancy may be a turbulent one – as Rashi explains an intense inner struggle was taking place within Rivkah.
Verse 22: [They] clashed. You must [admit] that this verse asks for a Midrashic explanation, for it does not clarify what this struggle was, and it is written [regarding her exclaiming], “If this is so, why did I desire this?” Our Sages explain … When she would pass the doorways of Torah study of Sheim and Eiver, Yaakov would agitate and rush to come out. When she would pass doorways of idol-worshipers, Eisav would agitate to come out….
She said, if this is so. [That] the pain of pregnancy is so great…
Why did I desire this? Why did I long and pray to conceive?
As we attempt to move forward, to improve ourselves and live a more meaningful and holy life we find ourselves in unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory; there are many concerns and many unresolved questions and issues. This can be very painful, so much so that we question why we ever even considered moving forward, for it seems that we may end up worse off than before. Even though what was, was not so great, but at least it was familiar. Moving forward might even make us question our self-value as beings; our self-knowledge and self-esteem are endangered.
“She went to seek Hashem.”
We learn from Rivkah Imeinu – our mother Rivkah, that when this occurs, when every step forward seems to raise even greater questions and fears about what you are doing, the best thing you can do is to go and seek guidance from Hashem. This seeking is deeper than our other prayers. To seek and to search for Hashem in the midst of our confusion, to seek to know what Hashem is trying to teach us in our hardships, is to go into a very deep conversation and relationship with Hashem.
In the depths of this conversation, you may stand before Hashem and ask Him what He was dreaming about when He dreamt of creating the world and placing you in it. This is the practice of “hisboddedus” that Rebbe Nachman taught us to do – to frequently and regularly speak to Hashem in a very personal way in your mother tongue; to speak with Hashem as your closest friend and partner in life; to ask Hashem to reveal His glory to you, in whatever situation you find yourself. Rebbe Nachman said that if we do this sincerely, Hashem will surely reveal Himself to us and provide His loving guidance.
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