Summary: Toldot is the 6th parasha in the Book of Genesis spanning chapters 25:19-28:9. The parsha begins with Isaac & Rebekah after their marriage, their barrenness and the birth of twins Esau & Jacob. It describes the children’s characters – Esau a hunter and Jacob a scholar – and sheds light on their contentious relationship with each other. The Torah states outright ‘Isaac loved Esau and Rebekah loved Jacob’.
When they were still young, Esau, who’d returned from the fields famished, found Jacob cooking a lentil stew. When he asked for some, Jacob insisted Esau first sell his birth-right – leading to increased resentment.
During a famine in the land, Isaac prepared to move his family south. The Almighty appeared in a vision promising Isaac the blessings of Abraham – many children and a land to inherit.
Isaac settled in Gerar, the land of the Philistines. There, asked about his wife, he referred to her as his sister. Avimelekh discovering the truth, confronted Isaac’s deception. While continuing to reside in the area, Isaac farmed the land with great success. But as his wealth multiplied, the local people became jealous and he moved away to a place where his father had once dug wells.
After the death of Abraham, the local people had stopped-up the wells, so Isaac re-dug them. But the Philistines complained the wells belonged to them. Isaac called the first one Esek (strife) and when the same occurred a second time, he named it Sitna (hatred). Only after moving away again was he able to dig a third well that went uncontested. So he called it Rehovot (expansion).
Leaving the Philistine area, Isaac journeyed to Be’er Sheva where again he had a vision that his children would be blessed. There he built an altar and cried out in the name of G-d. Regretting their decision to have chased Isaac away, Avimelekh and his officers seek him out. Isaac rebukes them but acquiesces to their request for a treaty. On the day his Philistine visitors left, Isaac was informed his servants found water in Be’er Sheva.
Esau at age-40 took 2 Hittite wives for marriage – Yehudit and Basmat; this became a sore point for his parents.
When Isaac reached old age and his sight had failed him, he summoned Esau, tasking him to hunt some delicacies, in order to merit Isaac’s blessing. Overhearing, Rebekah quickly intervened telling Jacob to impersonate his brother and surreptitiously receive the blessing instead. Rebekah prepared a plate of delicacies from 2 local goats, dressing Jacob with their hairy skins.
Though Isaac cautiously tried to verify the true identity of the person in front of him, he eventually blessed Jacob. No sooner had Jacob left then Esau appeared. Horrified his brother had again taken what was his, Esau cried out in anguish until Isaac found a blessing for Esau as well. The incident hardened Esau’s resolve to kill his brother.
When Rebekah heard Esau’s intentions, she complained to Isaac that Jacob mustn’t marry any of the local women. So, Isaac summoned Jacob, sending him away to the home of his uncle Laban, Rebekah’s brother. When Esau saw that Jacob had been sent away, he added a third wife – Mahalat, from the B’nei Ishmael.
Comment: Just as there were uncomfortable silences during the story of the banishment of Hagar & Ishmael, there are enormous difficulties in teaching the stories of Toldot. Two examples would be ‘why did Rebekah resort to deception to get the blessings for Jacob when she might have just explained her convictions to Isaac?’ And, ‘how does the desired outcome of having Jacob receive the blessings justify the deception of Esau and the anguish it caused?’
Some Torah commentaries assert that the story of Genesis is about finding a way back to the Garden of Eden through reconciliation or tikkun. This was the aim of the Noah story which ended unsuccessfully. It continued with Abraham in the hope that one righteous individual would restore our broken link to the Divine.
Seen in this light, the family of Abraham was meant to carry on his legacy and eventually become a nation, and in that capacity serve as a guiding light unto all other nations. To the uninformed outsider, then, the challenge for both Abraham and Isaac was to have an heir worthy of carrying on this mission. And so, if the prerequisite for choosing the next generation who receives the mantle of leadership is righteousness – it defies rationality when the key figures act in ways that seem less than honourable.
There is no quick or easy answer to resolving this dilemma. Those willing to look at the scriptural texts for what they contain, will no doubt find them difficult to explain away. One approach that can be applied is to recognise that all of these acts had significant consequences.
Just as the banishing of Hagar was a precursor for the years of servitude Bnei Yisrael would experience in Egypt, so too, did Jacob’s deceiving Esau lead to years of strife between the twin brothers and their descendants. Except for the last 17 years of his life when he was reunited with Joseph, Jacob suffered continuously from deceptions brought against him.
By contemporary standards, we’d find it hard to respect the deceiver over the deceived. Let the stories of Toldot teach us that the end doesn’t justify the means.