Posted on November 5, 2021 by Jay Lavroff
Parsha Toldot, Genesis 25:19−28:9
In this week’s Torah portion, Toldot, begins an epic wrestling match between two very dissimilar twins, Jacob and Esau. The Torah is full of bitter sibling rivalries, for example Cain and Abel, and Joseph and his brothers. But the struggle between Jacob and Esau is different. It is so deeply rooted that it actually begins before they are born, with fighting in their mother’s womb.
Their differences are apparent from the moment of birth. Esau, the first born, and was large, hairy and red, while Jacob was small and fair. Jacob, an opportunist from the start, was born holding on to Esau’s heel, apparently in both a last ditch effort to win that intrauterine wrestling match and an initial attempt to steal Esau’s birthright. This feud continued through adulthood, until one of them took the high road and ended it all. You may be surprised to learn that the peacemaker was not the twin who found God’s favor and would later be known as Israel. If you come to services next week you will hear more about that.
Here are twin brothers who are polar opposites; so different that each of their parents preferred one over the other. Isaac favored Esau, a rugged man of the field and a hunter, and all the things that Isaac was not. Rebecca doted on the younger, quieter and more vulnerable Jacob. As you can imagine, this made for a high degree of family disfunction. And despite his “bookish” demeanor, it is Jacob who emerges as the schemer, the deceiver and the wrong-doer.
As the twins get older, Jacob never misses a chance to try and accomplish what he began before the boys took their first breath; to eclipse his older brother. In one of the best-known episodes in the Torah, Jacob strikes a crushing blow. Esau returns from hunting and is famished. Jacob is cooking a stew, and Esau asks for some. Instead of sharing with his brother, Jacob offers to exchange the food for Esau’s birthright. Esau, perhaps not appreciating the significance of the birthright, or maybe just thinking with his stomach, agrees, saying “what good is my birthright if I die of starvation.”
The intrigue is far from over. In another familiar story, Jacob takes advantage of his aged and blind father Isaac, in order to again swindle his brother. This time he has an accomplice, his mother Rebecca. Isaac tells Esau to go hunting and prepare Isaac’s favorite meal, and when he returns, Isaac will give Esau his blessing. Rebecca overhears this and hatches an elaborate plan with Jacob to steal the blessing. Jacob will put on a disguise of goat skins to make the blind Isaac think it is Esau’s rough skin. When Jacob brings food to Isaac and Isaac asks who he is, Jacob lies and says that he is Esau. Isaac cannot see but is not deaf, and he is suspicious of the imposter. He tells Jacob to come near and feels the goat skins, saying “you sound like Jacob, but you feel like Esau.” Isaac asks a second time, “are you really Esau?” and Jacob, undeterred, lies a second time and says he is. And so Jacob steals the blessing that rightfully belongs to Esau. The blessing is highly significant, as Isaac says that the recipient will have the bounty of the earth and nations will serve and bow down to him. Jacob, it seems, has finally realized his goal of being elevated above his older brother.
When Esau learns that Jacob has stolen his blessing he is furious and vows to kill Jacob. Jacob, showing himself to be not just a thief but a coward, flees. Fortunately, despite the jealousy, betrayal, hatred, and resentment, this is not the end of the twins’ story. As I said earlier, one of them is wise enough to make peace.
But a nagging question lingers; why is the dishonest, conniving Jacob the brother who is extolled and immortalized? Why is he allowed to capitalize on his crimes? And what about Esau, the victim? Why is he relegated to a comparatively minor role in the Biblical odyssey? Is it because he gave in to base impulse and traded his birthright for a bowl of stew? Or was he too dull to appreciate the importance of the birthright and therefore too rough a character to merit the role of patriarch?
Does it really matter?
While very different people, these are both Isaac’s sons. Why couldn’t both their talents could be appreciated? We know that Jacob is a critical link, perhaps the critical link, in the story of the Jewish people. If not for Jacob there would be no Joseph coming to power in Egypt, and therefore no migration of Jacob to Egypt, and therefore no enslavement, and therefore no Moses and no Exodus, and so on. But what would have happened to us as a people if we did not accept the needed contributions of people like Esau? The shrewdness of the Jacobs of the world may have come to nothing without the resourcefulness and strength of the Esaus.
Toldot reveals that the one who on the outside appears superior and finds favor in the eyes of others is not always what they appear to be. Jacob is dishonest, he covets what his brother has, and he takes advantage whenever he can. He does not stand up to his mother when she conspires to steal the critically important blessing from his ailing father. Instead, consistent with his selfishness, his only concern is that the plot will be discovered and he will be punished. Conversely, Esau, despite his coarse mannerisms, appears to loving and respectful, honest and forthcoming. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is he who eventually ends the feud.
We must be careful about labelling others. We must see others for who and what they really are, not what they appear to be. And while we like to see in others what we would like to see in ourselves, we need to adequately appreciate our differences as well. So we should remember Esau, not just for being duped by his twin brother, but for his own qualities and talents, and the wisdom to ultimately put aside his considerable but justifiable anger, which in turn secured the future of our people .