Parashat Hashavua for Toldot
Rabbi Jonathan Keren-Black
Leo Baeck Centre for Progressive Judaism, East Kew, VIC
Anyone familiar with the founding stories of the Israelite people knows that the matriarchs have pivotal roles, and not just as the mothers who (eventually) conceive and bear the next generation! This is one of the reasons that all our prayer books now list the matriarchs along with the patriarchs in the first b’rachaof the T’filahprayers, as we acknowledge that the ‘spirit of the universe’ on which we focus in our prayers is the very same essence which inspired our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob AND Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.
This pivotal (though not always praiseworthy) role is never more clear than in this weeks’ portion, Tol’dot. It is Rebecca who conceives and directs the action so that her favourite son, the younger twin Jacob, deceives his father Isaac into giving him the precious and once-only first-born blessing. They take advantage of his near-blindness to dress up Jacob, the smooth tent-dweller, as if he is his brother Esau, the hairy hunter. Having got the blessing, almost like a French farce, where Jacob slips out of one tent flap just as Esau come in the other to get the blessing, Esau is enraged, and swears he will kill his brother. Rebecca intervenes once more, arranging for Jacob to make a hasty departure to stay with her brother, uncle Laban, for a little while until Esau calms down! That is where this portion finishes, but we know that the little while will become many years, whilst Jacob works seven years to marry his cousin Rachel. Jacob himself is now tricked by Laban into marrying his older cousin Leah first, and has to work another seven years for the other sister, producing at least a dozen children through the two wives and their two handmaids, and great wealth in flocks and herds. Ultimately, when finally returning to an uncertain reunion with Esau, Jacob is renamed ‘Yisra’el’, one who struggles with God – and from which we are all named.
But returning to this week’s parasha, there is an earlier, well-known episode to the birthright story. When they were young, Jacob was cooking a lentil stew, and Esau came in famished. ‘Let me have some of that stew’ says Esau. ‘Sure’ says Jacob, ‘in return for the first-born rights’. From this we might assume that his mother had told Jacob about God’s promise, and if so, Esau was bound to know about it as well. This might explain the terse record: Esau ‘ate and drank and got up and went out, and spurned the birthright’.
But a closer look at the parasha suggests a surprisingly long time passes between these two parts of the story. There is a famine, and the family move to G’rar. Isaac sows, and reaps a hundred-fold (Meah sh’arim), and grows rich and has many flocks, and the Philistines start to block up his wells. Struggles over rights to limited water are not a new phenomenon! Patiently he packs up and moves on – twice more – and opens old wells and digs new ones, and eventually makes a peace treaty in Be’erSheva. By this time, Esau and Jacob are forty and Esau has taken two wives from the local women. Only now does Rebecca encourage Jacob to trick his father into receiving the blessing. The deal they did in their youth has lain dormant all these years. The intervening years make it harder to imagine the deceit, with two mature men over forty. The balance of responsibility must surely be carried by Jacob, who dresses as Esau, and blatantly lies and says ‘I am Esau, your older son’, when his father questions him.
Or is there something else going on? Jacob, 40 and still not married? How will God’s prophesy to Rebecca be fulfilled? A stressful and fractured relationship between the brothers. Esau, married to two local Hittite women, who Isaac and Rebecca despise. And large and growing flocks, needing ever more water. It is Rebecca’s idea, but Isaac who sends Jacob away to Laban, to find a wife in the family. He can raise his flocks and support himself elsewhere. Perhaps Isaac is not tricked after all – it is just a ruse to send Jacob off to get married. And the portion concludes when Esau finally realises that his parents don’t approve of his local wives, and he marries a third – this time also a relative, Ishmael’s daughter – but it is too late. The line has passed inexorably to Jacob, fulfilling God’s promise.