Toldot (Genesis 25:19–28:9)
Toldot means “generations” or “descendants”
Discussion by Barry Blum, at KBS Shabbat, November 26, 2022
A quick summary: Isaac and Rebecca endure twenty childless years until their prayers are answered and Rebecca conceives. She experiences a difficult pregnancy as the “children struggle inside her;” God tells her that “there are two nations in your womb” and that the younger will prevail over the elder.
Esau emerges first with Jacob clutching at Esau’s heel. Esau grows up to be “a cunning hunter, a man of the field;” Jacob is “a wholesome man,” a dweller in the tents of learning. Isaac favors Esau; Rebecca loves Jacob. Returning exhausted and hungry from the hunt one day, Esau sells his birthright (his rights as the firstborn) to Jacob for a pot of red lentil stew.
Because of famine in the land, Isaac moves to Gerar in the land of the Philistines. Isaac introduces Rebecca as his sister, out of fear that he will be killed by someone coveting her beauty. He farms the land, reopens the wells dug by his father Abraham, and digs a series of his own wells: over the first two wells there is strife with the Philistines, but the waters of the third well are enjoyed in tranquility.
Esau marries two Hittite women (such a marriage is contrary to the Abrahamic covenant). Isaac grows old and blind and expresses his desire to bless Esau before he dies. While Esau goes off to hunt for his father’s favorite food, Rebecca dresses Jacob in Esau’s clothes, covers his arms and neck with goatskins to simulate the feel of his hairier brother, prepares a similar dish, and sends Jacob to his father. Jacob receives his father’s blessings for “the dew of the heaven and the fat of the land” and mastery over his brother. When Esau returns and the deception is revealed, all Isaac can do for his weeping son is to predict that he will live by his sword, and further predicts that Esau’s tribe will be marauders on the borders of Jacob’s lands.
Jacob leaves home for Cḥaran to flee Esau’s wrath and to find a wife in the family of his mother’s brother, Laban. Esau marries a third wife—Mahalath, the daughter of Ishmael.
To me the outstanding features of this portion are the prediction of warfare between two nations, the lying and cheating involved in the selling of the birthright, and the deception of one brother initiated by that child’s mother. I see the outstanding message as the inevitability of family strife, the inevitability of warfare (based on family strife), and beyond that the struggle of our sages to justify this behavior of our patriarchs and matriarchs.
The events in these tales presumably preceded the telling and then writing down of these stories. There must have been cheating, lying and deception going on, as well as warfare, and therefore our sages must have felt it necessary to describe or even create some rationale to explain what led to the circumstances that the Hebrew people found themselves in at the time of the writing of these stories of Genesis.
I wonder if the message to us is that deception and warfare are not only inevitable but also useless. I posit that no one wins wars. Maybe individuals or communities or even nations win battles, but there has never been and maybe there will never be any winning of an all out war.
Let’s look at Toldot:
Jacob and Esau begin their fight while still in the womb! How nuts is that?! It’s clear from the start that one boy is favored by the mother and the other by the father. Shalom bayit? I fear not. Jacob, who failed to get born first, then cheats his brother of his birthright – with a pot of lentil stew! Another demonstration of how petty the beginning of any war is. And then dressing up in goatskin to fool his blind father does not show much nobility in this man, Jacob, even if HaShem did choose him as a model for the Jewish people.
Let’s look at the first mention of murder in the Torah, Cain and Abel:
The world’s first brothers. One a herdsman, one a farmer. As they sing in “Oklahoma:” Oh the farmer and the cowman should be friends, Oh the farmer and the cowman should be friends. One man likes to push a plow, The other likes to chase a cow, But that’s no reason why they can’t be friends.
What do the brothers fight about? They disagree about what kind of offering God really wants. So one murders the other. That makes sense. We still do that today – one religion claims that they know what God wants and they are willing to kill anyone who has a different belief about what God wants. Or even what God’s name is.
Let’s look at Abraham’s sons, Ishmael and Isaac:
Ishmael was Abraham’s first-born. Isaac was Sarah’s first-born. At Sarah’s insistence, Ishmael and his mother, Hagar, were sent away (to one of the wells that Esau went to later). Did Isaac “win” and Ishmael “lose?” Their descendants are still at war.
Let’s look at the American Civil War:
Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox but the Confederate flag has flown all over the south since then (until recently). Slavery was abolished but Jim Crow took its place and there are many who still are blocking American children from learning about this. Is that war really over?
Let’s look at World War I, “the War to End All Wars:”
The Allies, including Serbia, Russia, France, Britain, Italy and the United States were opposed by the Central Powers made up of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire. The end of the war saw Germany humiliated which led directly to the rise of Hitler. Europe and the Middle East were divided by the victors into many unnatural nations that created even more animosities. Just over 20 years after the “end” of WWI, WWII began.
Let’s look at World War II:
The Axis powers: Germany, Italy and Japan, declared war against the Allies: France, Great Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union and to a lesser extent, China. This war may have saved Judaism from total annihilation and those of us who were alive then and now recall it as a “good war” that needed to be fought even though an estimated 70–85 million people perished. The Allies won. Yes but since then, former allies have been fighting with each other and former enemies have been allied with each other. And now, even Nazism, Fascism and anti-Semitism are arising again in Europe and in the United States despite our belief that we won.
Let’s look at the last national election:
Need I say more? It’s not over either.
I see that our sages sought to understand what caused the strife they found in the world and made up these stories – or from our religion’s perspective, the stories were described by God and dictated to Moses at Sinai so that we could understand and learn the causes of strife in the world. These stories show that mothers and fathers can have favorites. God can have intentions for us that are not immediately revealed. Human beings do deceive, cheat and lie to one another. Excuses for bad behavior are made in the name of a Higher Purpose. But to what end, to what ultimate end?
I believe that there is a righteous way to live life. I think it is best summed up in one or more of the different versions of the Golden Rule.
You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your kinsfolk. Love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD. — Leviticus 19:18.
– or –
Do (or do not do) to one another as you would (or would not) want another to do unto you.
Confucius said it. Jesus said it. George Bernard Shaw said it. It’s a practical bit of advice that does not require God to make the point but certainly includes God in making the point. We need to behave to have good lives. This is not to insure a pleasant afterlife. This is because it’s the right thing to do. It’s right because God tells us it’s right, or it’s just right because it’s right. Does it matter why? Either way we must be prepared to fight for what’s right even though there may be no winner.
Toldot illustrates this by first describing the struggle of the two children within Rebecca’s womb and the message from God that the younger will prevail over the older. Yes, it must have been that it did happen often in ancient times that the younger did prevail over the older – so our sages needed to explain the “why” of this happening. The text suggests undeniably that Rebecca favored Jacob and that there was a genuine bond of love between Isaac and Esau. Isaac’s love for Esau is evident in his desire to bless him.
Toldot shows that Isaac was not deceived as to the nature of his elder son. He knew what he was and what he wasn’t. He knew that Esau was a man of the field, a hunter, mercurial in temperament, a man who could easily give way to violence, quickly aroused to anger, but equally quickly, capable of being distracted and forgetting. He also knew that Esau was not the child who would fulfill the Covenant that God made with Abraham.
When Isaac was deceived by Rebecca and Jacob to give the blessing intended for his first-born to Jacob instead, we see this dialog in Toldot, Chapter XXVII:
38 And Esau said to his father, “Have you [but] one blessing, my father? Bless me too, my father.” And Esau raised his voice and wept.
39 And his father Isaac answered and said to him, “Behold, your dwelling place shall be the fat places of the earth and of the dew of the heaven from above.
(The descendants of Esau seem to have been given much of the material wealth on the planet, especially the petroleum,)
40 “And you shall live by your sword, and you shall serve your brother, and it will be, when you grieve, that you will break his yoke off your neck.”
(Esau and his descendents were destined to be marauders against Jacob and his descendants.)
41 And Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing that his father had blessed him, and Esau said to himself, “Let the days of mourning for my father draw near, I will then kill my brother Jacob.”
In fact, as history did and continues to unfold, there was and still is enmity between the descendants of Jacob and the descendants of Esau, and this story is a way of explaining it. It wasn’t explained in a nice and sweet way, it was explained by recalling lies and deceptions as part of our own history.
Decisions needed to be made at that time for the well-being of the Jewish People. Or at least our sages needed to explain what did happen in terms that would lead to the well-being of the Jewish people. Was this just? Was this moral? Well, the Jewish People have existed and in many ways thrived for several thousand years after these episodes in Toldot – so there must be an explanation. We must have done and must still be doing something right.
But I definitely remain confused.
I don’t believe that deception and telling lies is praiseworthy.
But I understand it may be necessary at times.
Perhaps there always needs to be at least a really big tzimmes when it is required
I do not believe that wars are ever really won but I do see the need to fight battles over what we consider “important” issues.
Anti-Semitism has been described as “the longest hatred,” with roots stretching back to before the Christian era. Found throughout the world – even in societies with few or no Jews, it seems to have little to do with actual Jewish people. I believe it arises from people like Esau who are either frustrated or angry with their own lives. They need someone to blame.
I believe that the Jewish perspective on life, living, social interaction and law is critical to the success of humankind – so even if we are repeatedly called to defend Judaism in battles against anti-Semites – we must always do so.
It is said that history is written by the victors. Maybe it’s written best by the survivors. And that is true victory.