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Torah Sparks

November 10, 2007– 29 Heshvan 5768

Annual: Genesis 25:19-28:9 (Etz Hayim, p. 146; Hertz p. 93)
Triennial Cycle: Genesis 25:19-26:22 (Etz Hayim, p. 146; Hertz p. 93)
Haftarah: I Samuel 20:18 – 42 (Etz Hayim, p. 1216; Hertz p. 948)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

Isaac marries Rebecca, who is childless for 20 years. Isaac prays on her behalf and she conceives. She feels the children struggling within her, goes to inquire of God, and is told that there are two nations in her womb. Rebecca gives birth to the twins Esau and Jacob. When the boys grow up, Esau, Isaac’s favorite, becomes a hunter, while Jacob, Rebecca’s favorite, is a homebody. Esau sells his birthright to Jacob for a pot of stew. Because of a famine, Isaac and Rebecca go to Gerar, a Philistine community. God appears to Isaac and confirms the covenant He had made with Abraham. Like his father, Isaac tells the Philistines that Rebecca is his sister and his lie is discovered. Isaac prospers, inciting the envy of the Philistines, who stop up the wells originally dug by Abraham. Abimelech, king of Gerar, sends Isaac away and further conflict over wells ensues. Isaac travels to Beer-sheva and concludes a peace treaty with Abimelech. When Isaac becomes old and blind, he announces his intention to bless Esau. Rebecca overhears and conspires with Jacob to secure the blessing for her younger son. When Esau discovers that his blessing has been stolen, he vows to kill Jacob after their father has died. Rebecca tells Jacob to flee to the home of her brother Laban in Haran.

1. Born to Be Bad

But the children struggled in her womb, and she said, “If so, why do I exist?” She went to inquire of the Lord, and the Lord answered her, “Two nations are in your womb, two separate peoples shall issue from your body.” (Beresheit 25:22-23)

  1. Our Rabbis interpreted it [vayitrotzitzu – struggled] from the root ratz [run] – when she would pass by the doors of Torah of Shem and Eiver, Jacob ran and struggled to come out, when she would pass by the door of idol worship, Esau struggled to come out. (Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1105, France])
  2. Why did Jacob wish to come out when Rebecca passed by the doors of Torah academies? After all, according to the Talmud (Niddah 30b), when a child is still in the womb, “they teach him all of the Torah.” Why should he prefer the Torah academies of Shem and Eiver? Evidently it is difficult for a righteous person to be in the same location as a wicked person, even if he is studying Torah from an angel. (Rabbi Bunim of Pshischa [1765-1827, Poland])
  3. There were twins in her womb (25:24) The word for twins – tomim – suggests complete – temimim. Each of them was complete in his ways. One was completely righteous and one was completely wicked. (Hatam Sofer [Rabbi Moses Schreiber, 1762-1839, Pressburg, Hungary])
  4. Rabbi Hanina ben Papa expounded: The name of the angel in charge of conception is Night; he takes each drop [of semen] and places it before the Holy One, saying to Him, “Master of the universe, what is this drop to become, a strong man or a weak man, a wise man or a fool, a rich man or a poor man?” But he does not say, “A righteous man or a wicked man?” Rabbi Hanina added: Everything is in the hands of Heaven except the fear of Heaven. (Talmud Niddah 16b)
  5. We know that Esau began to make light of his birthright at an early age. It was Esau’s attitude toward the sacred birthright that impelled Jacob to seek an opportunity to divest him of it. From this we may learn that if we should see a sacred object such as a Torah scroll in the hands of a wicked man, the righteous are permitted to get it out of his hand even by means of deceit if need be. (Sefer Hasidim [Rabbi Yehudah He-Hasid, 12th century, Germany])

Sparks for Discussion

One of the most basic teachings of Judaism, stated, for example, in the passage from the Talmud Niddah 16b, is that each human being has free will, the ability to choose to do good or evil. In fact, each of us faces this choice every day of our lives. Yet the midrashim above and many others insist that Esau was irretrievably evil (and Jacob similarly righteous) even before birth. Why do the rabbis portray the twins this way? How does the passage from Sefer Hasidim help to explain this contradiction?

2. Why the Jews

And Abimelech said to Isaac, “Go away from us, for you have become too big [elsewhere, mighty] for us.”

  1. In this verse you find the basis and root of anti-Semitism. The reason the anti-Semites envy and hate us is because they believe we are mightier than they. (Hafetz Hayim [Rabbi Israel Meir HaKohen, 1835-1933, Poland])
  2. He [Abimelech] said to him: “All the might you have gotten – is it not from us? [mimenu] Originally you had only one flock of sheep and now you have many. (Beresheit Rabbah 64:6)
  3. Leave the town where the ministers of state and magnates live; for you have grown too rich for us and this is like thorns in their eyes... The text implies that a similar fate will befall the Jews in the Diaspora when they will be restricted in their right of domicile. (Ha’amek Davar [Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, 1817-1893, Lithuania])
  4. How are the universality, depth, and permanence of anti-Semitism to be explained? Why such hatred and fear of a people who never constituted more than a small minority among those who most hated and feared them? Why, nearly always and nearly everywhere, the Jews? Many answers have been offered by scholars. These include, most commonly, economic factors, the need for scapegoats, ethnic hatred, xenophobia, resentment of Jewish affluence and professional success, and religious bigotry. But ultimately these answers do not explain anti-Semitism; they only explain what factors have exacerbated it and caused it to erupt in a given circumstance. ("Why the Jews? The Reasons for Anti-Semitism"; Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin)

Sparks for Discussion

Why did the Philistines resent and envy Isaac? The commentators suggest reasons that sound all too contemporary – you are too powerful, you have become wealthy at our expense, you are more successful than we are. How do you explain anti-Semitism? How does Israel fit in? Is anti-Semitism a significant problem for North American Jews? Do you expect this to change?

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