Drash on Parashat Tol'dot
Rabbi Jonathan Keren-Black
Leo Baeck Centre for Progressive Judaism
East Kew, Victoria
Who’s to blame for the family breakdown which comes to its head in this portion? Everyone, it seems, from God down! God, as far as the biblical author is concerned, stopped Rebecca from getting pregnant for twenty years, until Isaac pleaded for her. Then God responded – by giving her twins, who struggled even inside her, causing her to ask God why. God tells her that she has twins that will become two nations, and the older will serve the younger. As they grew up, the parents developed favourites – Isaac preferring Esau, the hunter, because he liked the taste of game, but Rebecca preferred Jacob. When Esau came in famished and asked Jacob for food, Jacob, who perhaps knew of the prediction she told him God had made, asked Esau to swap the food for the first-born rights. Hardly brotherly love and compassion! But Esau agreed, saying he was on the point of death - what good would his birthright be if he was not alive? Hard to believe there was no other food around in this proto-Jewish home! As the text tells us, Esau, monosyllabically: ‘Ate, drank, got up and went’ and thus spurned his first-born rights. No doubt he knew that his uncle Ishmael, also Grandpa Abraham’s first born, got little when, at the end of last week’s portion (Gen.25:5), Abraham had left all his wealth to their father Isaac instead, when he had died.
Perhaps Esau was preoccupied with the unfolding famine in the land. His father Isaac went with Rebecca to the Philistine area of G’rar where there was food, but he pretended she was his sister, as he was worried that he might be killed if someone wished to take her as their wife. He probably remembered that his father had done exactly the same with his mother in G’rar many years before, but it hardly seems an appropriate way to treat your wife! He was allowed to sow the land there, and had a remarkably successful harvest (a hundred times as much as he sowed – ‘me’ah sh’arim – from which the new area of Jerusalem established in this week back in 1874 was named).
When Esau got married to two Hittite women, the brief note tells us that they were a source of bitterness to both Isaac and Rebecca. Clearly they weren’t from the family, but it seems that even then the parents couldn’t always control who their children fell in love with and chose to marry. We might wonder if they should have made more of an effort for shalom bayit, even if only to enjoy and perhaps influence the grandchildren, and share their stories?
Never-the-less, Isaac decides to pass on the first-born blessing to Esau, and tells him to go and hunt some game and make his favourite dish, and then he’ll bless him. Now the behaviours of our patriarchs and matriarchs is often not as laudable as we might expect – one of the things that makes them so believable and valuable is that they are so human and flawed. Isaac had, after all, very nearly been murdered at this own father’s hand, albeit, as we are told, in a dramatic demonstration of Abraham’s obedience to God! But now we seem to have a further descent – Rebecca hatches a plan to trick her husband into giving her favourite son Jacob the first-born blessing. Perhaps she is upset by Esau’s new wives – and by hearing that Isaac is planning to bless Esau anyway. Or perhaps she recalls God’s promise that the older will serve the younger, and decides to take the opportunity to move this along. We are, after all, ‘God’s hands’! And so Isaac gives the special blessing to the younger son, making him master over his older brother. When Esau finds out, he is furious, and threatens to kill his brother. Mum suggests Jacob go away to uncle Laban for a while.
Of course, in the following narrative, the trickery continues: Jacob falls in love with his younger cousin Rachel, but is tricked into marrying her older sister Leah first. Laban says pointedly ‘it is not our practice to marry off the younger before the older’! But that’s next week’s portion. Suffice it to say that we can learn as much about how NOT to behave from our ancestors as how we should, if we are to create a world of more peace, harmony and trust!