Commentary for Toldot

7 Dec

This week’s parshah contains one of the nine times in the book of Genesis where the text notes that someone cries. The other eight instances fall rather neatly into one of two categories: someone cries at the death (Gen. 23:2. 50:1), apparent death (37:5), or apparently imminent death (21:16) of a family member, or upon reuniting with a family member they thought they would never see again (29:11, 33:4, 45:14-15, 46:29). Of these, the only apparent outlier is Jacob kissing Rachel upon first seeing her in 29:11, but the circumstances of their meeting- Jacob has run away from his brother Esau to go live with his mother’s brother’s family in Aram, and Rachel, who probably bore a resemblance to her aunt Rebecca, is the first “familiar” face he sees- put this into the category of reuniting with a family member he never thought he would see again, which is supported by the fact that this is the only time in the Bible that a man kisses a woman who is not his wife or his mother.

The real outlier is the one that occurs in this week’s parshah, when Esau cries upon learning that his father Isaac has given Jacob the blessing Esau wanted for himself. This incident is a very important one not just in Jewish history, but in understanding the Jewish outlook on what is important in life.

Earlier in the parshah, a hungry Esau sells his “birthright” to Jacob in exchange for a pot of stew (Gen. 25:29-34). Now, after a brief interlude of chapter 26, chapter 27 tells the story of Jacob and Rebecca conspiring to ensure that Jacobs receives the “blessing” of the firstborn as well.

It is important here to note the distinction between the terms “birthright” and “blessing.” Although it sounds counter-intuitive to our modern ears, the term blessing in ancient times often had more of a financial component. In this case, the blessing being conferred is that which God gave to Abraham and Isaac. God formally promises the blessing to Isaac in 26:3-4, which makes it clear that the “blessing” in question is the inheritance of the Land of Israel rather than any sort of special spiritual role (Isaac was already the spiritual leader of the Jewish People, so what more could he need on that front?). A “birthright” conversely, denoted a special spiritual role in ancient times according to Chief Rabbi of the UK Joseph Hertz (Hertz Chumash, p.94). Esau did not care about the “birthright” so he sold it for nothing. When it came to the “blessing” of financial success, on the other hand, he cared a great deal.

Though he coveted his father’s wealth, Esau had clearly not been paying attention to what his father had sought to teach him. Gen. 26:5 makes clear that the financial “blessing” is contingent upon Isaac’s obedience to God’s commandments. Thus, in the latter half of the chapter, Isaac is not concerned by the Philistines attempts to seize his wells because he knew that God would provide sustenance for him, his family and his followers, which God did in the form of new wells.

In Gen. 27, Isaac sends Esau out with instructions to catch him game and prepare it for him as a meal in order to receive the blessing. While Esau hurries off to do so, Rebecca cooks Isaac’s favorite dish and disguises Jacob as his hairier brother by dressing him in Esau’s clothes and covering his hands and neck in goat skins with instructions to go before his father and present himself as Esau. When Jacob does so, Isaac asks him how he has succeeded in his task so quickly, to which Jacob replies, “because the Lord your God granted me good fortune (27:20),” leading to Isaac’s well-known reply that “the voice is the voice of Jacob yet the hands are the hands of Esau (27:22).” This statement shows that Jacob has learned what Esau has not: that the spiritual “birthright” and the financial “blessing” are inseparable because it is God who is truly responsible for all of our successes.

When Jacob bought the birthright from Esau he asked for the “birthright” because that was what he was interested in. He understood that the financial success was incidental, and he and Rebecca only act to ensure that Jacob receives the financial “blessing” once it has become clear that Esau does not intend to tell Isaac that he has sold the spiritual birthright to Jacob. They act not for the financial aspect of it but because this makes it clear that Isaac is unaware that it is Jacob who is the rightful next spiritual leader of the Jewish People, but he will never be publicly accepted as such without Isaac conveying this authority upon him, which occurs as part of the blessing because- as Isaac, Rebecca, and Jacob all understand- there is no way to separate the “blessing” from the “birthright.”

When Esau arrives with the game he has caught and prepared for his father and they both realize what has occurred, Esau weeps because he will not be able to receive the financial “blessing” he so covets. At this point in his life Esau is over forty years old, with a family of his own and still stands to inherit considerable wealth from his father, which he will no doubt be able to supplement with his own considerable hunting skills, and yet here he is, crying- something that is only otherwise done in the book of Genesis in moments of grief over the death of a loved one or in ecstatic joy at a reunion with a loved one- over the fact that he will be getting less money than his brother. Esau’s reaction here shows his inability to understand what is truly important in life, and thus teaches us why he was unfit to be a leader of the Jewish People.

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