Tol'dot (November 29, 2008)
Genesis 25: (19) This is the story of Isaac, son of Abraham. Abraham begot Isaac. (20) Isaac was forty years old when he took to wife Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. (21) Isaac pleaded with the LORD on behalf of his wife, because she was barren; and the LORD responded to his plea, and his wife Rebekah conceived. (22) But the children struggled in her womb, and she said, “If so, why do I exist?” She went to inquire of the LORD, (23) and the LORD answered her, “Two nations are in your womb, Two separate peoples shall issue from your body; One people shall be mightier than the other, And the older shall serve the younger.” (24) When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. (25) The first one emerged red, like a hairy mantle all over; so they named him Esau.
Excerpted from The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition, editor W. Gunther Plaut (NY: URJ Press, 2005). Used by permission of URJ Press, www.urjbooksandmusic.com.
Tol’dot has many stories that seem to repeat or reinforce prior ones. For example, both Sarah and Rebecca have late pregnancies; both Abraham and Isaac have sons, and they in turn each have their own biographies. Isaac’s deception in presenting his wife, Rebecca, as his sister in order to save himself is an echo of the actions Abraham (then Abram) took in Egypt, when Sari posed as his sibling. Isaac endures repeated famines while remaining in Israel all his life. There are also incidents involving ownership of wells and nonaggression pacts, as well as codes advising who should and could be married to whom — and the inevitable family reactions.
But these are not the most recognizable stories that we associate with Tol’dot. Perhaps the one best known to all is that of Esau and Jacob. Even in Rebecca’s womb the twins are adversaries, continuing their conflict during birth; as adults the hunter Esau rivals the shepherd Jacob. The elder Esau is favored by Isaac, while Jacob is the beloved of Rebecca. Family deceptions and manipulations abound, be it selling or stealing or giving up one’s birthright or dressing up a son to fool a blind father. It is all in Tol’dot. And somehow we accept this story, almost at face value, as the direct link from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob.
Perhaps some personal interpretation is now in order. To me, Tol’dot describes eternal dichotomies: the material vs. the cerebral, the before vs. the after, good vs. evil. In these dualities, the entities not only are present simultaneously but are dependent upon each other and must react to each other. It is our challenge to recognize this and to act and react accordingly.
The “good” Jacob does things that he knows are questionable, even if he does them on instructions from his mother. The “bad” Esau truly wants his father’s blessing and does as his father asks, even reconciling with Jacob at a later point. Both Esau and Jacob act as they do because of who they are. And in order for this story to have meaning, they both need each other. The line from Abraham to Jacob becomes clear.
As was foretold, two nations were created from the sons of Isaac. Jacob became Israel and Esau married the daughter of Ishmael. Is one good and the other evil? One could infer from Tol’dot that indeed one nation would be mightier than the other. Understanding which is which, of course, is thorny.
Perhaps Tol’dot can be linked to Purim, when one is to “attain a state” in which Mordecai and Haman are indistinguishable. The possibility of Esau and Jacob (or Jacob and Esau) falling into that category is what intrigues me the most about this parashah.
Click here to view the Torah Commentary Archive.
Back to Torah Study