The telling and retelling of family stories is essential to the creation of identity. Without family stories, each of us is adrift on the sea of human experience, unable to find safe harbor or more than temporary mooring. We need our stories, even when the tales reveal imperfections and errors of our ancestors, even when we discover that their behavior and judgment are flawed.
Parashat Tol'dot presents an ancestral tale that haunts us with its themes of cunning and deception. As we read through the narrative, we feel the pain of the tricked and the trickster, realizing that each of the characters are caught in a web of relationships, a web of words true and false, from which they cannot escape.
This story is particularly compelling to the modern reader because the majority of this parashah focuses on one nuclear family. The portion opens with Isaac pleading to God "on behalf of his wife, for she was childless" (Genesis 25:21). Like his father Abraham before him, Isaac is concerned about the continuation of his line. (See Genesis 15:2, Parashat Lech L'cha.) Isaac's articulated focus is not on himself, but rather on his wife, Rebekah. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Hara E. Person point out, "We do not learn about Rebekah's feelings concerning her childlessness, nor are we told that she does anything to try to change the situation" (The Torah: A Women's Commentary, ed. Tamara Eskenazi [New York: URJ Press, 2008], p. 135). The text reads, "The Eternal acceded to his entreaty, so his wife Rebekah became pregnant" (Genesis 25:21).
The next two verses set up the rest of the story: "The children pressed against each other inside her. She thought: 'If this is so, why do I exist?'" (Genesis 25:22). Eskenazi and Person write, "Interpreters often say that Rebekah is bemoaning her physical pain. However, the text mentions only that the pregnancy is unsettling, not that it is painful. . . . Far from complaining about her condition, Rebekah is wondering about her role in such destiny." God responds to Rebekah's query, and Eskenazi and Person comment: "God's answer (v. 23) confirms such a reading, since it refers to the children's future" (ibid, p. 134).
Like Hagar before her (Genesis 21:17-18), Rebekah is addressed directly by the Holy One, who informs her that her sons will compete with one another and that "the elder shall serve the younger" (Genesis 25:23). The story continues, confirming God's prophecy, for after the arrival of the first twin, who is named Esau, his brother appears, "holding Esau's heel" (Genesis 25:26). The biblical reader is accustomed to the text's choice of eponymous names that have multiple meanings. As Eskenazi and Person note, " Yaakov, which echoes the word 'heel' (akev) . . . can also be translated as 'he will act crookedly'" (ibid., p. 137).
As they grow, the brothers are drawn in opposite directions: Esau is at home in the field, where he develops expertise as a hunter and stalker of game. His talent and ability to provide sustenance to his family endear him to his father Isaac. Jacob, on the other hand, stays close to the tent, learning the arts and crafts of domestic life, including the essential talent of preparing the food upon which each family member depends. "Rebekah favored Jacob" (Genesis 25:28). Together, Jacob and Esau are an "ideal" man: comfortable in the natural world and competent in the domestic sphere, connected to father and to mother. The rabbis who composed the midrash extend Jacob's expertise to the world of study, further rounding out the portrait of a whole or complete man: Esau represents physical health, and Jacob, intellectual and spiritual health (see Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, Genesis: The Beginning of Desire [Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1995], pp. 169-170).
These complementary descriptors are fully played out in the first birthright encounter (Genesis 25:29-34). The reader can almost see the physically imposing, hirsute Esau, sunburned and sweaty from the exertion of hunting, as he meets his pale, slight, retiring brother sitting under the protection of the tent, stirring a steaming cauldron. The juxtaposition of these two extreme types can be seen as leading inevitably to the subsequent tragic-comic exchange between them. As Robert Alter notes, "The [Biblical] writer comes close to assigning substandard Hebrew to the rude Esau. The famished brother cannot even come up with the ordinary Hebrew word for 'stew' (nazid) and instead points to the bubbling pot impatiently as (literally) 'this red red.' The verb he uses for gulping down occurs nowhere else in the Bible, but in rabbinic Hebrew it is reserved for the feeding of animals" (Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary [New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2004], p. 131). Jacob's reply to Esau's request is immediate and stunning, and as if premeditated; "each of Jacob's words, in striking contrast to Esau's impetuous speech, is carefully weighed and positioned" (Alter, ibid.). Esau's reply and willingness to sell his birthright further fill out the portrait of a man whose physical hunger eclipses his discernment, and Jacob begins to fulfill the double prophecy of both besting his brother and "acting crookedly."
This powerful exchange, like many essential family transactions, seems to take place far from the eyes and ears of the boys' parents. Although Jacob is sitting with a pot of food that had presumably been prepared for the consumption of the entire household, there is no mention of the presence of any others who witness this brief but fateful encounter. Indeed, the text continues with a separate strand of the story, and the reader must wait a full chapter before the story of the brothers continues.
The twins grow into manhood beyond the eyes of the text, and in Genesis 26:34, Esau, at age forty, marries two Hittite women, who "were a bitterness of spirit" to his parents. Nevertheless, Isaac, his eyesight now compromised by age, calls Esau and asks him to go into the fields to hunt him some game "so that I can give you my heartfelt blessing before I die" (Genesis 27:4). Armed with the information of the stew-for-birthright exchange in Genesis 25, the reader is prepared for the high drama that ensues. The scholar Lori Hope Lefkovitz remarks that "from a psychodynamic point of view, this story is, in Erich Auerbach's memorable phrase, 'fraught with background' about family dynamics and alliances, and family secrets" ("Passing As a Man: Narratives of Jewish Gender Performance," in Narrative 10:1 [Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2002], p. 4). Rebekah enters the story to ensure that her sons' destinies will be properly fulfilled, but it is the behavior of Isaac and Jacob that ultimately determines the outcome of this next chapter.
Encouraged by his mother Rebekah, Jacob dresses like Esau in order to receive his father's blessing. Lefkovitz argues that Jacob's "dressing like a man" is a necessary prerequisite to his assumption of the patriarchy: "the deception that earns Jacob the patriarchy reads as a story of his ability to fool his old blind father into believing that he possesses the requisite virility, signified by a metaphoric assumption of animality, to be a patriarch" (ibid., p. 1). She continues, "The older boy who is supposed to inherit according to the rules of primogeniture is represented as unbridled masculinity and the younger, whose role it is to reverse the rule of primogeniture, represents the threat of the more maternally-allied aspects of the patriarch himself. If the brothers divide gendered traits between them, then Jacob's putting on of animal skins is a kind of cross-dressing. . . . But since he presumably is a man, Jacob . . . is a man in drag enacting masculinity" (ibid, p. 5). In the course of the masquerade, however, "the play becomes the thing"; by pretending to "be" his brother, Jacob actually becomes Esau.
Between them, Jacob and Esau possess not only the qualities of complete manhood, but also the requisite traits for leadership. Thus Jacob must become more like Esau. The reader witnesses this transformation. Jacob not only impersonates his brother by bringing food, wearing Esau's clothes and animal skins, and speaking in Esau's voice. When his blind father questions him about his identity, Jacob responds not once, but twice that he is Esau (Genesis 27:19, 27:24). Zornberg cites several Chasidic commentators to support this transformation, noting that the acquisition of the birthright for stew is simply the first step in assuming the identity of his twin. "Jacob . . . is really Esau, as he lays claim to the perceived energies of his twin brother" (ibid., p. 172). By becoming Esau, Jacob assumes the mantle of the patriarchy. In crossing the threshold of his father's bedroom to receive Isaac's blessing, Jacob accepts a complex masculine identity, a complex human identity that will, finally, enable him to lead the Jewish people.
Isaac, too, is transformed in this encounter. Zornberg writes, "If the entry into Isaac's room represents a kind of moral birth to full personhood, we can identify the climax of the scene as the moment where Isaac recognizes that the hybrid being in his arms carries his own blessedness within himself" (ibid., p. 175). Both traditional and contemporary readers struggle with Isaac's role in bestowing the blessing upon Jacob; Eskenazi and Person comment, "Although Isaac is depicted as a weak and passive dupe, the overly exaggerated and repetitive details presented here beg the question of how complicit Isaac is in the ruse" (pp. 144-145). Isaac's repeated questions to Jacob can be read as confirming his acceptance, however heavy-hearted, of God's intention. Isaac's "shuddering" (Genesis 27:33), his trembling and shaking become a physical echo of Esau's bellowing cries of betrayal and loss when he discovers the outcome of his successful ruse.
The parashah concludes with the power of a Greek drama, posing timeless questions about fate and fortune and the juxtaposition of human and divine will. At Rebekah's urging, Jacob goes forth to save his own life and to make possible the life of the Jewish people. Isaac's final blessing makes explicit that Jacob will carry on the line: "May God . . . give you the blessing of Abraham-you along with your descendants-to possess the land in which you have sojourned, that God gave to Abraham!" (Genesis 28:3-4). As the curtain falls, Esau lumbers across the stage, seeking, in his own way, to fulfill his father's wish for his sons to marry within the extended family. By choosing a daughter of Ishmael, his father's estranged brother, Esau increases, not decreases, the distance between himself and his parents, and between himself and his brother. In becoming Esau, Jacob expands his identity and his vision, bringing together diverse aspects of manhood to compose a stronger, more complete whole. Once again, Esau's hungers prove to be more powerful than his understanding of his destiny. And we are left "with this heaviness to bear" (Linda Zisquit, "Posit," in The Torah: A Women's Commentary , p. 180), a legacy of prophetic challenge to primogeniture, a legacy of patriarchal transformation.
At the time of this writing in 2007, Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell , Ph.D., was the Rabbinic Director of Congregational Networks – East for the Union for Reform Judaism.