The Torah has a way of conveying great drama in concise language. As a work of literature, it also incorporates some of the most sophisticated techniques of foreshadowing and thematic coherence. We see a masterful illustration of this literary virtuosity in the opening section of this week's Torah portion.
Genesis 25:19 opens by telling us that we will learn of the descendants of Isaac—namely, Jacob and Esau, his twin sons. The first instance of foreshadowing appears in the very next verse. Rebecca, we read, is "the daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-Aram, the sister of Laban the Aramean" (25:20). This web of relationships becomes important a few chapters later when Rebecca urges Jacob to flee to her brother Laban to escape Esau (27:42-45).
The next verse in our chapter informs us that Isaac prayed to God because Rebecca was barren (25:21). Not only does this remind us of Sarah's difficulty in conceiving, but it also foreshadows her daughter-in-law Rachel's later struggle with infertility (16:1-2). The final instance of foreshadowing in these opening verses is the description of the conflict between Jacob and Esau in Rebecca's womb. Jacob and Esau will, of course, struggle in the womb, at birth, and throughout their lives until their reconciliation (25:22-23). (For an in-depth analysis of this foreshadowing, see Michael Fishbane, Text and Texture [New York: Schocken Books, 1979], pp. 40-48)
Not only is our parashah's opening an example of literary artistry in its foreshadowing, but it also introduces this primary theme in Jacob's life-struggle. The theme reaches its climax in Jacob's wrestling with the "angel" in Parashat Vayishlach (Genesis 32:25-30), but it is clearly suggested in our reading. Struggle is inherent in Jacob's upbringing. Not only does he compete with Esau, but his parents also conflict in their preference of sibling. Rebecca, we are told, prefers Jacob, while Isaac has greater affection for Esau. Their preferences originate with the brothers' varied personalities. Esau prefers the life of the field and the outdoors while Jacob prefers to dwell within his tent. Perhaps this personality difference represents the struggle between the two varying modes of life in ancient Israel—that of the nomadic shepherd and the land-based farmer.
The brothers' struggle both reprises that of the first brothers-Cain and Abel-and foreshadows those of brothers to come, in particular, Jacob's sons (see 4:8; 37:4, 11). What is the purpose of emphasizing conflict between siblings? It can be seen on a variety of levels, including political, economic, and religious. Yet the struggle between Jacob and Esau can also mirror the inward-outward dichotomy we each experience as human beings. Esau, we can say, represents our outer appearance. He is the front we present to the world, what others see with their eyes. He is action, as indicated by his name Esau, which sounds similar to the Hebrew word, asiyah, "action." Jacob is our inner self. He is the self of introspection and study.
Historically, this inward-outward struggle has been portrayed as a conflict between body and soul. Yet, I think a more accurate way to describe the Torah's approach to this tension is as the struggle between the visual and the auditory, sight and sound. In this reading, Esau represents the the visual; his mastery of the hunt embodies a visual display of power, of what we see (25:27). Jacob represents the ear, the power of the auditory sense. He demonstrates this by valuing the spoken transfer of the birthright and by so desiring his father's spoken blessing that he is willing to take extraordinary steps to receive it (25:31-33; 27:11-29).
That Jacob emerges as the triumphant brother—the one who carries on the legacy of Abraham—suggests that the ear is ultimately more powerful than the eye. We can observe this in modern political campaigns. They employ all kinds of visual imagery designed to sway us. Think of the the flags and signs. Think of the backgrounds for the lecterns and the camera's constant panning of people, which are designed to catch our attention. Now these images can be important. But listening to candidates' words, what they say, how they say it, is, I think, a better gauge of what they're about.
This is not to say that hearing provides perfect perception of the truth. Words and sounds can deceive us well. That is why our tradition teaches us to strive to filter out the true sound from the echo. The Rabbis, for example, are very clear that on Rosh HaShanah, we are commanded to hear the sound of the shofar, and not its echo (see Babylonian Talmud, Rosh HaShanah 27b). Hearing the sound and not its echo is difficult. How often do we talk with our friends and family and listen only for what we want to hear? How many times are we seeming to listen to someone when we are really thinking about where we are going for dinner later? How many of us have talked on the phone and read e-mail at the same time? To listen attentively is to be truly present, and it can be a struggle. It often depends more on one's heart rather than one's ears.
Studying Torah is an exercise in cultivating that listening heart. We listen for the insights in the words, stories, and characters. In yeshivot and in our synagogue Torah study programs, Torah is not studied in silence. It is debated with words, and even song, and with a vigor that nourishes the soul.
Rabbi Evan Moffic is senior rabbi of Congregation Solel in Highland Park, Illinois.
Two girls from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania were nervously riding a New York City subway. They relaxed when seeing a familiar sight. Upon spotting a Chasid one whispered to the other, "'Look! A Lincoln impersonator!'" The New York Times, "Metropolitan Diary," October 12, 2009).
It's easy to make mistakes. Sometimes we see what we want to see—or hear what we want to hear.
His eyesight failing, Isaac was unsure whether the son he was about to bless was his beloved Esau or Jacob. Isaac lamented: "'The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau!'" (Genesis 27:22). He dismissed what he actually heard and misled himself. Rebekah, Isaac's wife, likewise misconstrued things. Previously God had informed her "'the elder [Esau] shall serve the younger [Jacob].'" (25:23). Having overheard Isaac readying to offer Esau his innermost blessing (27:4), Rebekah wrongly feared that God's prophecy would be subverted. Enlisting Jacob's support in a scheme to present him as Esau, Rebekah tellingly mischaracterized Isaac's proposed blessing to his brother as God's (27:7).
Yet true blessing can never be purloined. Hence Jacob was blessed a second time to openly and unequivocally affirm his role in the covenant (28:3-4). Jacob had not succumbed to selective hearing: in contrast Esau was less discerning. Determining to marry at forty like his father Isaac, Esau was oblivious to his parents' concern over prospective mates. The text relates that "Jacob obeyed (literally heeded) his father and mother" (28:7). Esau in turn only listened to what he wanted.
Hearing bespeaks life and cognition. When nearing the end of life, our other senses may falter but hearing often remains. The incantation of a people in love with words, Judaism's prayer par excellence is the Sh'ma, "'Hear, O Israel . . .'" (Deuteronomy 6:4). Still, to trust even this sense takes discernment, learning, experience, and faith. For as Torah recognizes, there's always the temptation to simply see or hear what we like.
Rabbi Eric Polokoff is the rabbi at B'nai Israel in Southbury, Connecticut.
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