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Someone Who Never Gave Up

  • Someone Who Never Gave Up

    Tol'dot, Genesis 25:19−28:9
D'var Torah By: 

Of all the things a child receives at birth, the purity of a newborn soul is without question the most important. When we stare at a little human being we ponder the possibilities, the endless potential that creates a flurry of visions in a parent's mind. However a baby's character soon emerges. The parents of a bar or bat mitzvah will often recall that ever since birth their child has been strong-willed or easygoing, outspoken or impressionable, gentle or strong, vulnerable or powerful. Far be it from me to address the nature/nurture debate in these few lines but the parasha surely gives us pause to think about it.

In Toldot, we see history repeated when Rebecca, like her mother in-law, Sarah, before her, is faced with apparent infertility. But Isaac's wife does conceive, and Rebecca shall give birth to battling twins whose rivalry begins in the womb. "Two nations," Rebecca is told by Adonai "are to issue forth from you," (Gen. 25:23), and, more than this, "the older shall serve the younger." Rebecca survived a tortuous pregnancy. According to the midrash, if she walked in the vicinity of a place of idol worship, Esau pushed and squirmed in her womb. If she passed a Beit Midrash, House of Study, Jacob lunged to break forth from his mother's body. Twin sons vying for power even as they swam in the peaceful waters of gestational being. Infants born with divine prediction of their fate.

Were they deprived of their potential? Could it have been possible to shape their characters, in the words of the rabbis, to become two children who yearned to make their way to the House of Study? Though a child is born but once, our souls are reborn every day. Do we so easily relinquish to fate the character of our children, our students, ourselves? Is it not our role as adults, parents and teachers, to be tenacious in our resolve to teach Torah and soothing words of tefilah, "prayer," to the wild and unruly, the untamed and unstudied children, enabling them to become lovers of Adonai and mitzvot?

Esau's name, we learn in Toldot, means "hairy," derived, perhaps, from a Semitic root meaning "thick-haired." A midrash teaches that this name was appropriate because Esau was asui, fully created or developed at birth. Esau could also remind us of those who are thick-willed. Esau, not a soul completely created - asui, but Esau, one who is asiyah, a soul that is always in the process of being created.

Ask around. How many great cantors, rabbis, Jewish educators, and synagogue presidents rebelled against Jewish learning or spent time in religious school hallways? What a gift to the Jewish community are those parents and teachers, those leaders who never gave up but struggle tenaciously to lead all students to the life renewing wellspring of Torah.

For further reading: Burton L. Visotzky, The Genesis of Ethics (Crown, 1996).

Rabbi Elka Abrahamson is president of the Wexner Foundation.

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Three Blessings
Davar Acher By: 
David Katz

[Watson is thinking] Colonel Ross still wore an expression that showed the poor opinion he had formed of my companion's ability, but I saw by the inspector's face that his attention had been keenly aroused.
"Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?" [asked the inspector of Holmes]
"To the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime."
"The dog did nothing in the nighttime."
"That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes.

- From "Silver Blaze" in Tales of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Macmillan, 1963).

Everyone knows that Jacob dressed up like Esau and stole his brother's blessing from their father, Isaac. (Gen. 27:1-40) But did Jacob really steal that blessing? At least one rabbi is not so sure.

Rabbi Yochanan said: "The moment Isaac heard his son mention God's name (Gen.27:20), he knew it was Jacob and not Esau." (Genesis Rabbah 65.19)

There is a controversy as to whether or not Isaac knew he was being deceived, but this mystery can be solved. The answer lies within the story itself and can be discovered by any enterprising detective.

Here is the blessing that dim-sighted Isaac gives to the disguised Jacob (Gen. 27:28-29) "May God give you /Of the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth, /Abundance of new grain and wine. Let peoples serve you, /And nations bow to you; Be master over your brothers, /And let your mother's sons bow to you. /Cursed be they who curse you, /Blessed they who bless you."

Esau returns and cries bitterly when he finds out that his blessing has been stolen. He asks his father, Isaac, for a blessing. Here is the blessing Isaac gives to Esau (Gen. 27:39-40): "...See, your abode shall enjoy the fat of the earth /And the dew of heaven above. Yet by your sword you shall live, And you shall serve your brother; But when you grow restive, You shall break his yoke from your neck."

But this is not the end of the story, for when Rebekah finds out that Esau is planning to kill Jacob in revenge, she sends Jacob away. Just before Jacob flees, Isaac bestows still another blessing on him (Gen. 28:3): "May El Shaddai bless you, make you fertile and numerous, so that you become an assembly of peoples.(Gen. 28:4) May God grant the blessing of Abraham to you and your offspring, that you may possess the land where you are sojourning, which God gave to Abraham."

Now the questions any detective would ask are:

  1. "Why are there THREE blessings in the story?"
  2. "How do they differ?"
  3. "Which one of the three blessings is the real blessing?"

To determine which blessing is the real one, stop and compare these other blessings now:

  • God's blessing to Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3)
  • God's blessing to Isaac (Gen. 26:1-5)

    Note that central to both these blessings is the promise of the Land of Israel and many offspring. So which one of the blessings given to Jacob and Esau is the real one? Which one promises land and seed? Only the third blessing is real!

The Answer to the Mystery
Isaac always intended to give Jacob the real blessing. He did not know which son stood before him when Jacob dressed up like Esau; Isaac was confused. Afterward, when Isaac called Jacob to him - when he was sure it was Jacob to whom he was speaking he gave Jacob the real blessing.

The Motive?
But what was his reason for wishing to give Jacob the covenantal blessing? What was Isaac's motive for tricking his sons into thinking that Jacob had been given the real blessing from the very beginning?

Esau had married out of the faith and thereby embittered his parents, Isaac and Rebekah. Isaac knew that Jacob would better be able to carry on the religious tradition.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Esau did not know what the feelings of his parents were before he married out of the tribe. When should parents discuss the subject of mixed marriage with their children? What age should the children be? Is it ever too late to bring up the topic?
  2. How should the subject of mixed marriage be brought up? What should be the goals of such a discussion?
  3. Isaac and Rebekah tried to control the outcome of their children's actions. To what extent should parents insert themselves into the lives of their children today?

For Further Reading:

Paul and Rachel Cowan, Mixed Blessings, Marriage between Jews and Christians (Doubleday, 1987).

At the time of this writing in 1996, David Katz, RJE, was the Rabbi of Temple Israel, Staten Island, New York.

Reference Materials: 

Tol'dot, Genesis 25:19–28:9
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 173–189; Revised Edition, pp. 172–189;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 133–156