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Torah Sparks

Parashat Toldot
November 22, 2014 – 29 Heshvan 5775

Annual (Genesis 25:19-28:9): Etz Hayim p. 146; Hertz p. 93
Triennial (Genesis 26:23-27:27): Etz Hayim p. 152; Hertz p. 96
Haftarah (I Samuel 20:18-42): Etz Hayim p. 1216, Hertz p. 948

Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, SC

Rebecca, agonizing from being pregnant with twins, is told by God that her older child will one day serve the younger child. Rebecca favors Jacob, the younger twin, while Isaac prefers Esau, a brash hunter who brings his father game. One night, Esau returns home famished and agrees to give Jacob his birthright in exchange for stew.

Isaac’s ventures during adulthood mirror those of his father; he pretends his wife is his sister to protect his family from King Avimelech. Later, Isaac and Avimelech make a treaty surrounding the wells that Isaac had dug.

Fearing imminent death, Isaac asks Esau to hunt him game, after which he would bless his elder son. Rebecca overhears and tells Jacob to kill an animal and impersonate his brother. Isaac is blind and, though suspicious, gives Jacob the blessings he had intended for Esau. When Esau returns and learns what had happened, he threatens to kill his brother. Jacob flees Be’er Sheva to look for a wife, while Esau, after disappointing his parents by marrying a Hittite woman, finds another wife among the family of Ishmael.

Theme #1: Meet the In-Laws

When Esau was 40 years old, he took to wife Judith daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Basemath daughter of Elon the Hittite; and they were a source of bitterness to Isaac and Rebekah. (Genesis 26:34-35)

Esau separates himself from his family by marrying against the wishes of his parents.

The last verses of the chapter that report Isaac’s worldly successes starkly point to the crucial area of Isaac’s failure. Esau, at the revelatory age of 40, quite on his own takes two Canaanite wives, wives who “were a bitterness of spirit unto both Isaac and Rebekah.” Isaac, though materially blessed and prospering, has averted his gaze from both the future and the past. He has lived with apparently little awareness of what he and he alone can transmit. But when Esau, his favorite, takes foreign wives, even Isaac is dismayed. The covenant with Abraham is in grave danger. Isaac seems impotent to save it. -- Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom

For forty years, Esau used to ensnare married women and violate them, yet when he attained forty years he compared himself to his father, saying, “As my father was forty years old when he married, so I will marry at the age of forty.” -- Genesis Rabbah

Parental authority was not such as to leave no room for the feelings of the young couple. There were love marriages in Israel. The young man could make his preferences known, or take his own decision without consulting his parents, and even against their wishes. -- Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel

Questions for Discussion:

Does Kass’s interpretation of the timing of the blessings Isaac intends to give to Esau make sense? Are Isaac’s actions spurred by the wives Esau had taken? Does it help explain why Isaac would want to give his blessings even though he is a long way from death? Should we learn from this example to try to say important things to the people we love before it may be too late?

Genesis Rabbah theorizes that Esau had womanized for many years before deciding to marry, based on the timing of when Isaac married. Do we often do we find ourselves “becoming our parents,” or at least emulating the life choices they made even though they may seem random to us? Can Esau’s decision to marry when he does be seen as an earnest, yet horrendously failed, attempt to please his father?

De Vaux supports the idea that marriage in biblical times were not always arranged by the parents. Based on the previous midrash from Genesis Rabbah, would it make sense that Esau is trying to please Isaac and Rebekah by trying to show that he can be proactive with his life choices? Alternatively, is Esau using his opportunity to be independent to try to spite them?

Theme #2: The Voice

Isaac said to Jacob, “Come closer that I may feel you, my son -- whether you are really my son Esau or not.” So Jacob drew close to his father Isaac, who felt him and wondered. “The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau.” He did not recognize him, because his hands were hairy like those of this brother Esau; and so he blessed him. (Genesis 27:21-23)

Isaac suspects a problem just before giving the blessing he intends for his first-born, but fortunately for Jacob, his father does not explore those suspicions very much.

Note that the word “ha-kol” (“the voice”) is spelled in the Hebrew text without the vav, and may therefore be read as “ha-kal”, meaning “light” or “faint.” This is to teach us that whenever the voice of righteousness as symbolized by Jacob becomes faint, evil as embodied by the hands of Esau will gain control. But when the voice of Jacob gains full strength, (when “kal” becomes “kol” through the addition of the vav), the hands of Esau will no longer be in control. -- Vilna Gaon

Jacob is roused [here] to closeness with Isaac, and becomes bonded to him. He attends him, and Isaac eats. They become completely tied to one another … [Isaac] then becomes joyful, and filled with compassion. -- Zohar

Incidentally, this is the reason that a blind man is allowed to be intimate with his wife. Although he cannot see her, he can assume that she is his wife by her voice. -- Even HaEzer

Questions for Discussion:

The Vilna Gaon reflects a common rabbinic theme of Esau as the “bad son.” Is this reputation deserved? How would the story of Isaac’s blessings seem different if told from Esau’s point of view? Is it possible for us to sympathize with the anger he feels toward his brother? Can we relate to his anguish when he realizes that he is not able to receive the blessings he had been promised because Jacob had gotten to his father first?

The Zohar claims that Isaac and Jacob are close, even though the biblical text rarely reflects this; after all, the text explicitly says that Esau is Isaac’s favorite. In fact, the closest moment between them is clouded by deception and untruth. When a relationship comes together on the basis of lies, what does that say about the nature of that relationship?

Intentionally or not, Even HaEzer adds an important layer to the scientific fact that no two human voices are exactly the same; therefore, someone who cannot see can still feel a bond to someone else simply by listening. What does this fact teach us about the importance of listening to all voices in our communities?

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