Insight on the Weekly Torah Reading: Toldot

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The Proper Foundation

By Michael Chessen

In this week's Torah reading of Toldot, we witness the birth and development of Jacob, father of the twelve tribes which would sow the seeds of what would ultimately become the Jewish people. Various commentaries on the Torah have pointed out that neither Abraham nor Isaac had the merit to beget the twelve tribes because each of them bore a personality trait, which, though essential to fulfilling their spiritual missions, nevertheless resulted in the birth of a spiritually deficient son: Ishmael's sexual immorality was the extreme expression of Abraham's loving kindness, and Esau's spilling of blood was the extreme expression of Isaac's spiritual zealousness. While Abraham loved Ishmael no less than Isaac, and Isaac loved Esau no less than Jacob, both Sara and Rebecca were forced to take extreme measures to neutralize the apparent or even potentially negative influences which Ishmael and Esau posed for the righteous Isaac and Jacob.

Jacob's character was a synthesis of Abraham and Isaac, a balance which we link with "truth" in our daily prayers("give truth to Jacob..."). However, the question which begs our attention is how truth coexists with Toldot's central drama which has Jacob posing as Esau in order to receive the blessings which Isaac had intended for Esau. While it was Rebecca who "cooked up" this scheme, Jacob's only initial opposition to carrying it out was on the basis of his potentially being exposed, and not because of it possibly being the wrong thing to do.

If Abraham was the breaker of new ground and Isaac its guardian, Jacob is the one who has to begin the task of building upon it. In dealing with the numerous spiritual challenges which lie beyond the tents of Torah study which he frequented, Jacob has to be able to deal with problems which often fail to offer simple black and white solutions. Jacob's future dealings with his treacherous uncle/employer, deceptively named "Lavan"(white) vividly demonstrate this principle.

While Esau had developed into a "cunning hunter", he was nonetheless utterly incapable of perceiving and understanding the complexities of life. He sells his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of soup, not just because of hunger, but because he was "going to die". There was no tomorrow beyond the needs of his stomach. When Esau later marries two women with seemingly praiseworthy names, "Yehudit" or "Jewess" (kosher style) and "Bosmath" or "fragrant one", the bitter reaction of both Isaac and Rebecca belies any connection between these women and their lofty appellations. When Esau realizes that he has greatly displeased his parents, he marries a third, apparently more "kosher" wife, but fails to see the need to send the others on their way.

Although the future of the Jewish people necessarily had to rest with Jacob rather than Esau, there was nevertheless a need for Jacob to incorporate a measure of his twin brother's survival skills together with his own high spiritual ideals. Upon Isaac's blessing Jacob in the guise of Esau, he utters one of the most famous verses of the entire Torah: "The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau". (Genesis 27:22) Whether Isaac fully realized the significance of this statement is open to interpretation. But it in any event elegantly testifies that the future patriarch who was born a synthesis of Abraham and Isaac had struck a balance of his own.

Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom!

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