Student Teaching in the New Millenium

5771 Toldot

In Genesis on December 13, 2010 at 4:04 am

Why is such emphasis placed on Jacob duping Esau? I appreciate that, in these times, the possessions of the father passed to the first born son. He is still underhanded here. Why is it necessary that he is so? Why does Rebekah encourage the behavior? It is said later that Esau’s choice of wives pained her, but is this even an issue at this point in the narrative? Hertz says that the birthright was not physical or material but spiritual, that the firstborn acted as the priest, that Esau’s behavior did not demonstrate he valued this position, and that Jacob was in fact testing Esau, not tricking him. Why does this ring apologetic? Why do we go to lengths to validate these kinds of actions?

Why does Isaac repeat Abram’s deception, passing his wife Rebekah off as his sister to Abimelech in Gerar? What purpose does it serve here? Abram was rightly concerned for his life: Pharoah displays incredulousness but no sympathy to Abram for his act. Abimelech, on the other hand, is conciliatory, and seems to have meant no ill towards Isaac before or after the fact. Indeed, he pursues a peace treaty after the fact. Why then does Isaac deceive Abimelech? Is this simply a case of like father like son? Or is something else at work here? I don’t want to think it was for the material gain.

Why does Isaac bless Jacob twice? And why does Isaac deny Esau the second blessing, perhaps the most important blessing of the two, the designation of Jacob as inheritor of the God’s covenant with Abraham? In the first instance, Jacob is dressed as Esau. Isaac feels something is wrong, but blesses Jacob anyway. When Esau confronts Isaac, he blames Jacob, saying he came by guile and stole Esau’s blessing. Is Isaac’s blessing for Esau really helpful? How do we know Isaac did not know that Esau would rebel against Jacob? If he loved Esau that much, wouldn’t he know his moods? Wouldn’t it have been more helpful to bestow Jacob’s second blessing on Esau? Isaac tells us that blessing was not for Esau, that it was for Jacob. Was it attached to the first blessing? Or was it always intended for Jacob in Isaac’s mind? If the first blessing was originally meant for Esau, and the second was originally meant for Jacob, why not switch the two because of Jacob’s deception?

Is it possible Isaac and Rebekah favored Jacob, that Isaac was always the favored son? The Torah states that Esau’s taking of Hittite wives, idolaters, was a source of bitterness to Rebekah and Isaac, not just Rebekah. Then the Torah immediately embarks on this narrative, the second “duping” of Esau. Why? Is Isaac setting Esau up with material well-being before issuing the covenantal inheritance to Jacob? Where Abraham asked for God’s blessing for Ishmael and Isaac, to ensure Ishmael was taken care of, was Isaac’s intention similar for Esau? Or, did Isaac want to be tricked? If Jacob is the intended beneficiary of God’s promises, why does this exchange even matter?

The theme of the Haftorah prophet, Malachi, seems to be proper kavannah in priestly acceptance of sacrifices. The end of the Haftorah emphasizes the importance of the priest in guiding people properly. He exhorts the priests to glorify God’s name. Although I still feel Hertz’ passage is apologetic, he does have a point here: can someone who would so lightly give up this role be trusted with it in the first place? I ask back: could someone who gained such a role by graft be trusted with it any better?

Why couldn’t Esau and Jacob both be chosen? God says:

Two nations are in thy womb,
And two peoples shall be separated from thy bowels;
And the one people shall be stronger than the other people,
And the elder shall serve the younger.

This seems a clear choosing of Jacob on the face of it. Esau came from the womb first, Jacob was second. The remainder of the portion bears this out. Jacob won the birthright and inheritance of the clan, including Esau’s servitude. Esau marched on Jacob with a superior force. From this perspective, the prophecy is given and fulfilled. There are some ambiguities though. Can we say that Esau was truly born first? Jacob was born holding onto Esau’s heel. Does this mean they were born at the same time? Also, who took the first breath? Isn’t it said that, from a Jewish perspective, life begins with the first breath? Who truly breathed, that is, lived, first? Esau? Or Jacob? We do not know. Who is “the elder” and “the younger”? We do not know either. Is it clear who is stronger than the other? In Vayishlach, Jacob won a fight with a “heavenly being.” This seems pretty strong to me. Who serves who? Isaac awards Jacob with Esau’s servitude. Jacob is servile to Esau later, presenting gifts like tribute and calling Esau “my lord.” The passage ends with “the elder shall serve the younger” and not “the elder shall serve the younger forever.” This is important, because this means the lot of the elder may be to serve the younger, but not forever. The second half of the prophecy is fulfilled in both directions and is impermanent. Isn’t Esau’s primacy defined equally with Jacob’s? Aren’t they both chosen?

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  1. Yes. Both are chosen.
    The Ashlamta happens understanding the burden of Malachi.
    How does he read the parsha?
    In the end Elijah turns the generational hearts,
    but what about the brothers and Ishmael?

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