Out of the Depths of Torah: The Analogies of Parashat Toldot
By Rabbi Heather Miller
Some of the most powerful stories that have stood the test of time are those that can be understood as analogies — the ones where the relationships between the characters as the center of the story. You can take those relationships and swap out who the characters are and apply it to so many different aspects of life.
For instance, Romeo and Juliet, this great Shakespearean story primarily about the relationship between two people whose cultures and societies would rather not see them together— instead of literally thinking about this story as a case of the Capulets against the Montagues, we can also swap out those characters and see this as a story about interfaith relationships, interracial relationships, relationships between people from warring neighborhoods or countries. We can think about it in so many different ways that opens up our understanding of the story, it opens up truths of life for us.
The relationship is so relatable that it compels us to understand the story in a new way. We might even place ourselves in each of the roles and delve into the unexplored.
These kinds of stories inspire centuries of passionate literary criticism expounding upon every detail, and the similarity of the story to contemporary issues. In the 50s it was the Sharks and the Jets in West side story critiquing a society built upon socioeconomic and racial divides in New York. In the 90s with Leonardo DiCaprio there was a version that was a critique of the valorization of guns, ammo and bravado. Beyond these social commentaries, anyone who has personally ever experienced a tragic breakup can relate to the themes of hatred and passionate love articulated in the story. Those are the feelings that are front and center in these stories that compel us to compare it to contemporary issues.
This week’s Torah portion, Toldot, is one of those stories where relationships take center stage. They are so relatable, they can be explored as analogies for many contemporary situations. First, I’ll share with you story, then let’s see how it might relate to our lives today:
The story this week begins with a barren wife, Rebekah, for whom her husband Isaac pleads to have a child. God responds favorably and Rebekah discovers she is twice blessed! But being pregnant with twins is hard for her because they struggle in her womb. She asks, “why am I created?”God then reappears and tells her that two warring nations are within her. God tells her that the older will serve the younger. Eventually the twins emerge, Esau is first, with Yaakov right on his heels. In fact, the name Yaakov comes from the Hebrew word for “heel.”
The boys grow and we discover that Esau, the elder, is a red headed hunter, a man of the outdoors, while the younger, Jacob, is a man of the home, mild and rarely straying from camp.
We are told that Rebekah favored the younger, Jacob. I’m guessing this is either because he helps around the house more often or because of God’s earlier promise that he will be the father of a great and successful nation.
But Isaac, we are told, the father of the story favors Esau. The text tells us why: because he enjoyed the meat that Esau would bring home.
One day, while Jacob was making lentil stew, Esau came in from the field, famished. And he came in and said to Jacob, “Why don’t you gimme some of that red stuff you’re making over there that you’re cooking?”
Here’s the interesting part. Jacob replies, “First sell me your (firstborn) birthright.”
Acknowledging that he is at the point of death, Esau gives in and scarfs down the soup.
Years pass, and when Isaac senses he is coming to his end, he summons his favorite, Esau and requests that Esau go out to the field and hunt so that his favorite meal can be prepared and Esau can then receive the blessing.
Obediently, Esau goes. When he leaves to do so, Rebekah, who’s favorite was Jacob, had overheard the request, quickly finds Jacob and tells him what will happen. She instructs Jacob to grab two choice animals from the flock, and she will make the meal so that Jacob can pretend to be Esau acquire the birthright.
I wonder, did she do this because she favored the younger son, or was she trying to fulfill God’s promise that the older should serve the younger? Or did she know about the earlier deal of the switched birthright and she was trying to fulfill it? The text doesn’t tell us so that’s up for debate.
In the end, Isaac is fooled and Jacob gets the birthright, but only after Jacob really pretends to be Esau by using sheep’s wool to pretend he has hairy arms like his brother, and answers that he is Esau after Isaac asks him twice “who are you, my son?”
When Esau comes in from the hunt, he immediately realizes what has happened and the text says that he burst into wild and bitter sobbing. He is devastated because he has been betrayed by his brother, and his father refuses to offer another blessing.
I love this story’s intense feelings of the characters— and all amazing the questions it raises. For instance:
Who is the underdog in this story? Esau or Isaac?
Who is blameless in this story— or at least who is less to blame for the negative results and this devastation that Esau feels and the alienation of the brothers? How much culpability can be assigned to Rebekah for encouraging the deceit? Or to Esau for rudely demanding food in the first place? Or to Isaac for offering one blessing but only one and refusing another for Esau? Or even to God for setting up two warring nations in the womb of one woman in the first place or predicting the rise of one over the other?
Rabbis over the centuries thought about Jacob as representing Israel, and in the vast majority of the commentaries, they paint him as the “good guy.” — after all he is the one who continues the line of the Jewish people, so therefore we have to go back and see him as the hero of the story. And remember, in a future Torah portion in fact his name does change to Israel representing each of us. He is glorified in commentaries for centuries!
The relationship between Isaac and Esau can be seen as:
A) warring nations Israel vs. Rome— a meek and even keeled peaceful people vs. brut barbarians and hunters. Each of these communities have been cast in these lights.
B) as the body spirit rivalry— Rebekah had both of the in her. The body with physical needs and the spirit that transcends and offers us a highter calling than our baser instincts.
C) as a parable told by Rebbe Nachman Breslov of a king whose wife birth to the prince on the same day that a maidservant gave birth to a son, and nurses switched the children at birth so that the prince was raised in the maidservant’s quarters and the maidservant’s son grew up in the castle. Rebbe Nachman thinks that perhaps Jacob was meant to be the firstborn all along but that somehow Esau was born first as evidenced by him holding onto the heel of Esau when Esau emerged first like, “No, I should be born first!”
In these stories we root for Jacob to get the birthright. We want hi to get the birthright. We want our spirituality to prevail over our physicality. We want the right person to get what he was looking for. We are encouraged to see it as justice and restoring order and righteousness.
But there are problematics with this!
I was talking with one of my bat mitzvah students yesterday (a red head!- so you know where this is going), and she takes the side of Esau— she sees him as a legitimate firstborn child who she feels should have been able to claim his birthright. Through her eyes, Jacob seems to be a petty younger sibling who takes sibling rivalry too far! To not give your brother food when he comes in from the hunt and only to do so under the qualification of giving up the birthright. Through this story is that no one is actually perfect.
My students often ask me, how can we be part of this tradition where no one is perfect? We thank about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. What kind of tradition is this where no one is perfect? The ones we put on pedestals are not even perfect. I think it is nice that we don’t have these saints that we, by comparison, would feel horrible. That if they had to work through the warring spirits within themselves, we, too, have the human condition where we also have to think about how we portray ourselves and how we conduct our affairs in this world.
Perhaps the most relatable selection of text from this week’s Torah portion is the part where Isaac is trying to pass himself off as his brother, Esau. As he approaches Abraham, Abraham asks him, “Mi Atah/ Who are you?” Especially in this context when he is pretending to be someone who he is not, it is a call to each of us on shabbat and other times to think about how we can be who we say we are in this world. How do we express who we fully are.
This Torah portion calls us to ask, “Who are you?” Who are yourself, your fullest self around? Who brings you out in all that you are, comfortably, safely, genuinely?
May we each take our time this Shabbat to consider who we are, to remember our love for the study of Torah, and to be able to comment on these stories for many years to come especially in a place like BCC that welcomes who we are in the fullness of all that we are. Shabbat Shalom.