Student Teaching in the New Millenium

We Lack Understanding (5772 Toldot)

In Genesis on November 27, 2011 at 11:25 pm

Jacob offering a dish of lentils to Esau for his birthright, 18th century painting by Zacarias Gonzalez Velazquez (PD-1923)

Again, yet again
Brother against Brother, tears
in the Mother’s eyes

Malachi 1:1 – 2:7
Genesis 25:19 – 28:9

Why does the public imagination attach a storybook spirit to the Torah, when one of the major themes is brother against brother?  Cain killed Abel.  Did Abraham quarrel with his siblings?  Likely, if his father was an idol maker.  See the story of Abraham and the idols in Bereshith Rabbah.  Ishmael made sport of Isaac.  This week, we read about Esau and Jacob.

But the children struggled in her womb (Gen. 25:22) is the first direct mention of the children.  Can we infer from this that rivalry colored their relationship?

Why does the Torah lead with but the children?  Why not say “and his wife Rebekah conceived twins” in the preceding verse?  Is this Torah simply stating that the children didn’t kill each other in the womb, by referring to them as twins later, when birth was at hand (v.24)?  Or, is the Torah referring to all children, regardless of filial status?  Because we can associate the words womb and life with one another, does the Torah say we struggle in life?  Because, the text does not say “the children struggled with each other“, simply, the children struggled in the womb.  Or, are relationships a struggle?  Because relationships are a part of life.  Or, is understanding in relationships a struggle?  For when the boys grew up, Esau became a skilled hunter, a man of the outdoors; but Jacob was a mild man who stayed in camp (v.27).  And, later, when asked to sell his birthright, and Esau said “I am at the point of death, of what use is my birthright to me?…he ate and drank, and he rose and went away.  Thus did Esau spurn the birthright (v. 32,34).  Did Esau mean “of what use is my birthright to me?  I need food!”  Did Jacob mean “Anyone can have food, but only one can have the birthright.”

Let us ask:  who understood who?  Jacob knew what he was asking for.  Did Esau understand Jacob’s condition?  Perhaps, and perhaps not.  We read First he took away my birthright and now he has taken away my blessing! in 27:36, which suggests that Esau did understand.  If we subscribe to Akiba’s perspective that the Torah employs economy in words, we can infer that Esau didn’t understand until later, because the Torah doesn’t mention any misgivings on Esau’s part until later (ibid. 27:36).  In the context of the initial incident, he rose and went away.  A simple conclusion to a simple conclusion.  When did Esau understand?  It may have taken years, for the text says next, thus did Esau spurn the birthright (25:34), and then there was a famine in the land…and Isaac went to Abimelech…in Gerar (26:1), and then when Esau was forty years old, he took to wife…(26:34), and then when he (Isaac) said “I am old now…” (27:2).  Why mention Esau’s age and then Isaac’s?  To illustrate how much time had passed for Esau to understand.  When Esau was forty, Isaac would have been one-hundred.  According to Rashi on 27:2, Isaac is one-hundred and twenty-three years old.  Jacob, and Esau, would have been sixty-three.  If we count from Esau’s marriage age, twenty three years had passed for Esau to understand.  How much more if we counted from when the boys grew up (25:27)!

Another interpretation:  thus did Esau spurn the birthright (25:34) refers to when Esau was forty years old, he took to wife…(26:34).  How?  Is the birthright Esau’s to give?  If we follow Abraham’s and Jacob’s examples, Abraham assigns the birthright to Isaac, and Jacob assigns the birthright to Judah.  Would a silly transaction over soup sway a parent?  What about wives who were a source of bitterness (26:35)?

Why pair this portion with the selection from Malachi?  Is the prophet stating the priests lack understanding when he says I have shown you love , said the Lord, but you ask “How have You shown us love?” (Malachi 1:2), or is he accusing them of maliciousness?  If the prophet meant to imply malicious intent on the part of the priests it would be reflected in the text.  How else can we interpret “How have You shown us love?”  How about, “what have you done for us lately?”  Self-centeredness.  So we are left with a lack of understanding, or, callousness.

Why do people read Jacob as the villain and Esau as the victim in this week’s episode?  The Torah says Esau said, “Was he, then, named Jacob that he might supplant me these two times?  First he took away my birthright and now he has taken away my blessing!”  (27:36)   Are those the facts, or Esau’s side of the story?  Is this reality, or “fill-in-the-blanks” material for the imagination?  Have we established reasonable doubt around the first accusation of the birthright?  What about the blessing?

Did Jacob trick Esau out of his blessing?  No.  How do we know this?  The text states Rebekah said to her son Jacob, “I overheard your father speaking to your brother Esau, saying, ‘…prepare a dish for me to eat, that I may bless you…before I die.’  Now, my son, listen carefully as I instruct you.” (27:6-8)  Rebekah is the initiator, not Jacob.

Is Jacob, then, innocent in the case of the blessing?  No.  “But my brother Esau is a hairy man and I am smooth-skinned.  If my father touches me, I shall appear to him as a trickster and bring upon myself a curse, not a blessing.” (27:11-13)  Jacob’s concern is his own well-being, not his brother’s.  Self-centeredness.  Callousness.

Is Jacob, then, innocent in the case of the birthright?  No.  A translation of the name Jacob is “heel.”  My father points out, what sort of person would force a trade of something so precious for a bit of food under duress?  If we remember Esau’s lack of understanding, what sort of person would take advantage of someone’s ignorance?  Again, callousness.

Is Jacob alone callous?  Esau spurns the birthright, and marries the Hittite women, who were a source of bitterness (26:35).   Esau was unaware at this time that the Canaanite women displeased his father Isaac (29:8), but this is no defense:  Esau’s later understanding of this fact suggests that Esau acted without regard for his parents.  Isaac passes Rebekah off as his sister to protect himself in Gerar.

Are Rebekah’s actions callous?  Yes, though of a different order than Jacob’s, Esau’s, or Isaac’s in Gerar.  Rebekah acted in Jacob’s interest at the expense of Esau.  Why?  Rebekah’s motives are stated clearly:  Isaac favored Esau because he had a taste for game; but Rebekah favored Jacob (25:28) and “I am disgusted with my life because of the Hittite women.”  (27:46)  Isaac behaves similarly towards Esau:  clearly intending to impart his blessing to Esau regardless of Rebekah’s feelings, or his own for that matter.  How do we know this?  We are told Esau’s wives are a source of bitterness to Isaac and Rebekah (26:35) immediately preceding the narrative concerning the blessing.  Did Isaac know of Rebekah’s feelings?  Likely, if we accept the text as is, and suppose no confrontation between Isaac, Rebekah and Jacob after he learns what happened.

Perhaps the Torah teaches us that everyone is callous.  Is callousness acceptable?  After all, declares the Lord, Esau is Jacob’s brother; yet I have accepted Jacob and rejected Esau.  (Malachi 2:3)  The prophet echoes Rebekah’s favor of Jacob over Esau, and similarly echoes Esau’s distress.  And Esau said to his father, “Have you but one blessing, Father?  Bless me too, Father!  And Esau wept aloud.  (Genesis 27:38)  | The people damned forever of the Lord (Malachi 1:4).  Parents are prone to callousness towards others where their children are concerned.  How this must feel within a family, when one child is favored over another!  Perhaps callousness is not acceptable, isn’t right, but is part of human nature, even a part of our shared divine nature, and can be understood, though not readily, and not without grief.  So, we circle back to a lack of understanding, again.

Is the Torah trying to teach us that understanding is the challenge?  Not only against the backdrop of fact, but against our own callousness?

  1. Very well done!

  2. Teachers should not only teach the lessons of the books, but should also teach the moral virtues.

  3. Jacob traded lentil stew to his brother Esau for his birthright even though Esau was exhausted unto death Gen.

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