Drash on Parashat Toldot 2018
Rabbi Jonathan Keren-Black
Leo Baeck Centre for Progressive Judaism
East Kew, Victoria
Why did Jacob go to Uncle Laban in Haran?
The portion starts by telling us that Isaac married Rebeccah when he was forty. As with Abraham and Sarah, they have a problem conceiving – as older parents often do – but we are told that God answers Isaac’s prayer and she becomes pregnant with twins. The babies writhe inside her and she goes to ask God: ‘Im kein, lama zeh anochi? – If it is so… why this… me?’ God apparently tells her ‘Two nations are in your belly, and two peoples will issue from your body, one mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger’. When they were born, the boys looked quite different, so she always knew that the older, hairy one would serve the smooth-skinned younger.
The boys grow up and are indeed quite different, and each parent has a favourite – and she prefers the one who will rule! Esau sells his birthright to Jacob – it seems to mean nothing to him at the time. When Esau is forty, at the same age as his father did, he gets married. We learn that his two Hittite wives, Judith and Bas’mat, were a source of bitterness to Isaac and Rebeccah (26:35), but at this point the text does not indicate why – perhaps it is obvious that they are ‘outsiders’?
Now Isaac is old and blind, and asks Esau his hunter son, his favourite, to make his favourite dish. As we know, Rebecca intervenes – it seems she has been waiting all these years to bring about God’s prediction. Although he is suspicious, Isaac goes ahead and gives his younger son Jacob the special blessing meant for the first-born.
From chapter 27 we shave a record of Esau’s reaction – but I suspect that we usually simply jump to Jacob being sent off to uncle Laban, and dreaming of the ladder to heaven on the way. If so we miss Esau's poignant and painful pleading with Isaac for some - any - blessing at all (vs 34-40).
We are told that ‘Vayitz’ak Tz’akah’ he ‘Cried a cry’ (a rare word which surely not coincidentally sounds similar to Yitzchak –their father – who, named after laughter, the opposite of cries of anguish, is hardly known for his sense of humour! Similarly the rare word ‘vaya’akveni’ is juxtaposes with Ya’akov – Esau says ‘this ‘Heel’ has supplanted me (‘kicked me out’?). First, he took away my birthright’ (though the story has already told us that years before, he sold it to Jacob for the lentil stew) ‘and now he takes away my blessing.’ (but doesn’t the blessing come with the birthright. Did Esau never realise the gravity of his decision before this?). ‘Have you not reserved a blessing for me?’ Isaac answers him ‘I have made him a master over you (incidentally we now discover that Isaac has other sons as well, since he says ‘over all his brothers’). What else can I do?’ But Esau pleads ‘Surely you have more than one blessing?’ and he weeps out loud. So Isaac gave him a blessing, but it is a ‘mixed blessing’: ‘By your sword you will live, and you shall serve your brother, but eventually you will break free of him’.
At verse 41-45, Esau tells himself he'll kill Jacob, after his father dies, but he must have been muttering, or also telling others, since his mother Rebeccah hears of his plan, and takes it seriously, telling Jacob to ‘flee away’ (b'rach l'cha – which has echoes of ‘lech l’cha’ which God said to Avram when he is to leave his own parental home) to her brother Laban until Esau 'forgets what you (note, she doesn’t say 'we', even though she set up the deception) have done to him’!
Then in verse 46 we see another bit of Rebeccah's scheming - she comes up with a plan to get Isaac to send Jacob away, and says; 'if Jacob marries one of these Hittite women, what ... to me... life? (‘Lamah li… chayim’ – compare this to chapter 25:22 at the start of the portion: ‘Lamah zeh... anochi...’ before the twins were born). Whilst she seems good at tactics, perhaps she is less good at expressing them – or she presents herself appear less sure and confident, at least when speaking to figures of authority?
So Isaac does as she suggests, calling Jacob and telling him to go to uncle Laban to find a wife. If we read this as one narrative, then perhaps we can say a) that since Esau kept his anger 'b'libo', Isaac has not been aware of the urgent need to send Jacob away from him - or perhaps he felt he could still offer his fatherly protection? b) Or we could also see it as reinforcing the 'of course Isaac knew really he was blessing Jacob all along - but he was doing God's will, as his wife had revealed to him' interpretation.
But perhaps we really have two variants of the story preserved, as we often find - and the summoning of Jacob, and blessing him, and sending him away, is actually an alternative version of the blessing and the sending to Haran?
It is interesting that in their dislike of the local girls (revealed as Rebeccah being against 'the Hittite women' in verse 46), Isaac and Rebeccah are listed together when it becomes clear to Esau that Jacob had obeyed 'his father and mother' (28:7) after getting a blessing (whether THE blessing or a supplementary one), to the extent that Esau then goes off and find himself another wife, this time from the family (uncle Ishmael's daughter Mahalat) 28:9.
Rereading this story reveals Esau as a more feeling and emotional and responsive person than we tend to believe, even if it took longer for his understanding of the world, and his emotional maturity, to develop.