Commentary for Toldot

26 Nov

Jacob and Esau were twins, raised by the same parents in the same household, but they developed very different outlooks on life. Esau was materialistic. He was a hunter who used the materials around him to build his bow and his arrows. He would go out hunting, make his kill, then used every part of the animal; the flesh was used for meat, the hide for clothing, and bones were repurposed as tools, all of which he could either use himself, or sell off to buy other things that he wanted. Jacob, on the other hand, was very spiritual and studious. He was content to simply sit around his tent all day and learn and philosophize the day away. Esau didn’t care for all of that spiritual mumbo-jumbo, and Jacob would have been content to sit in a sparsely-furnished tent and learn all day, eating only when he truly needed to.

Just as Esau didn’t understand the value of a relationship with God, Jacob had a poor grasp of the market value of things, and how to assert himself in financial dealings with others. At the ripe young age of fifteen, though, neither boy had any grasp of the world his brother immersed himself in.

Esau was the firstborn, and thus, by societal birthright, was designated to inherit the leadership of the Jewish People. One day, when the boys were fifteen, Esau had just come back from hunting and was very hungry. He saw his brother cooking a simple lentil stew and asked him for some of it. Jacob, who had no idea how cheap a simple lentil stew was, told his brother that he would sell him the entire pot of stew in exchange for his birthright. In Jacob’s mind, he was offering something valuable in exchange for something valuable. In Esau’s mind, he was receiving the inexpensive stew in exchange for an utterly worthless birthright, so he took the deal, and both brothers walked away content.

Years later, when their father was failing in health, he called Esau too him and asked Esau to make him a meal so that he could bless him. Esau, believing that his fathered intended to bestow worldly possessions upon him, eagerly went out to hunt some game for his father. Jacob, acting on the advice of his mother, Rebecca (who was herself acting to fulfill a prophecy she had received when her sons were still in the womb), believed that Isaac was going to bestow upon Esau the blessing of leadership of the Jewish People, which Jacob had purchased so many years ago. Jacob disguises himself as Esau, and brings the dim-sighted Isaac a meal, and receives the birthright instead. When Esau returns and hears about this, he assumes that Jacob has stolen the inheritance of worldly possessions that should have rightfully been his as the firstborn. Esau vows to kill Jacob, and Jacob flees to his uncle’s house in Haran, and the brothers do not speak again for many years. One misunderstanding caused by an inability to understand the things that the other valued ripped the family apart for many years.

Interestingly, both brothers may have been entirely wrong about the blessing that Isaac had intended to give to Esau when he told him he wanted to give him his “innermost blessing (Gen. 27:4).” What Isaac truly wanted was for his sons to understand each other. While Jacob, who always kept an open mind, would eventually learn how to see things Esau’s way (albeit after many years of exploitation at the hands of his uncle Lavan), Esau, whose name comes from the word esuy, meaning “accomplished,” believed himself to have already accomplished all of the learning and training he needed in his life, and thus was not open to other points of view. Isaac’s blessing for Esau was to be the ability to open his mind and learn that his view of the world and his brother’s were not mutually exclusive. Indeed, the tribes of two of Jacob’s sons, Isasschar and Zevulun, are seen in Rabbinic literature as having just such a relationship, with the scholars of Isasschar helping the merchants of Zevulun lead rich spiritual lives in exchange for financially supporting the scholars.

Every person needs to be able to see the value in both the spiritual and the material. In the daily Amidah we pray to God for wisdom and knowledge, and we pray to God for financial success and sustenance as well. Similarly, the prayer for the congregation makes no distinction between those who show up to the synagogue to pray every week and those who pay to keep the lights on. Every individual, and every community, need both in order to thrive.

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