Yom Chamishi, 13 AdarI 5781
Ta anith Esther Thursday, 25 February 2021
Parashat Toldot 2013

Parashat Toldot
Rabbi Janet Burden

1 November 2013

I have always been fascinated by the way in which the Torah manages to engage us in its narratives with only a minimal amount of descriptive detail or character development.· With only the barest of outlines, the Biblical writer manages to capture our imaginations and involve us in the action.· We sense the complexity behind the simple words.· We also know that regardless of their historical accuracy, these stories ring true to human nature and human experience.

This is particularly true of the dialogue and internal monologues.· Remember how a few weeks ago, we read the announcement of Isaac’s impending birth?· We were given a glimpse into Sarah’s mind when she hears the news.· Could it be possible that she and Abraham would have intimate relations again, when he was frankly past it?· It really doesn’t matter if the story is literally true.· What matters is that the reaction is believably human.· We feel with Sarah; we care about her.

This is even more the case with Rebecca, who is a slightly more developed character.· From her actions at the well of water, we learn that she is generous, courageous and strong.· From her willingness to go with Eliezer, we learn that she is also impulsive and tends to act on her instincts.· As a character, she touches not only our heads, but also our hearts.

This is why I believe that, despite the fact that Rebecca schemes against her eldest son and deceives her blind husband, the reader’s sympathy remains – at least in part – with her.· There is something honourable in her desperation to follow her intuition to secure the outcome she believes will best fulfil the will of God.· She acts decisively, without hesitation – even though she knows that what she is doing is, at least on some level, wrong.· She is prepared to take the consequences of her actions.· Anyone who believes that Biblical texts are simplistic has never contemplated the moral complexity of this scene.·Can it be right to do wrong?· Can we do the right thing for the wrong reasons? How do we know what is “right” in such a case?

Even more challenging than the figure of Rebecca, however, is the portrait of Jacob as we see him in our passage today.·· So far, there has been little to admire in this all- important character.· Even his name means “the heel,” which may well have had the overtones in the original Hebrew that it does in English.· We have seen how Jacob was willing to take advantage of his brother in a moment of weakness to get him to sell his birthright.· The picture here is even more unflattering.· On hearing Rebecca’s plan, he shows not the slightest concern about the wrong he is being asked to commit.· His response is purely pragmatic.· He points out the weakness in his mother’s plan, namely, that he is likely to be found out.· Notably, his concern is not that he should deceive, but rather that he might be caught out in his deception.·· Remember his exact words?· “I will be like a deceiver in my father’s eyes.”· Never mind that the perception would be correct….

And when his mother reassures him that·she·will take the consequences of what they are about to do, we hear no further words of protest from Jacob.· Instead, he acts with remarkable swiftness, as the text says succinctly: “so he went and he fetched and he brought to his mother.”· What kind of a louse is this guy?· Not to put too fine a point on it, this louse is the man to whom all Jews trace their ancestry.· He becomes Israel, the father of the 12 tribes, the father of the Jewish people.

When you think about it, this is a stunning fact.· Most ancient peoples want to trace their lineage back to gods, or at least to noble and great human beings.· Not so the Jews.· In both of our main foundational narratives (the books of Genesis and Exodus), our origins are shown to be lowly.· We trace ourselves back to the humblest of beginnings:· to the trickster nomad Jacob in the one case, and to a rabble of assorted slaves in the other.·· These are·our·generations, our history – as the traditional opening words of this week’s· parashah emphasise:··Eileh toledot Yitzchak…·“These are the generations of Isaac….”··Don’t you wonder what other ancient cultures would have made of such a tribal history?· Nothing could have been more alien to them.

For me, one of the glories of the Jewish story is that it is rooted profoundly in the human – the “warts and all” kind of human, too.·· None of our ancestors is shown to be without fault.· They aren’t offered up to us as role models, either, except in the most limited way.· We might be encouraged to imitate Abraham’s hospitality, but certainly not everything else that he does.· And God forbid we should imitate Jacob as we meet him in today’s story!

Our Biblical ancestors, all of them, do foolish or even wicked things.· But equally, all of them struggle with their destiny and what it means to stand in relation to God.·· Over the next few·parashiot,·we will see how the ignoble and self-serving Jacob becomes the one who is worthy to strive with an angel and to be blessed by God.·· It is a story of real personal growth, with all of its setbacks and reversals.· And precisely because this is so, it is also a story of the greatest nobility of all:· not the nobility of high birth, but the nobility of a soul that is capable of being shaped by God.


Parashat Toldot
Rabbi Margaret Jacobi

This week’s·sidra·begins the story of Jacob, who comes from might be called today a dysfunctional family and goes on to head a family which is even more dysfunctional.· His father Isaac seems to be·traumatised·after his father had nearly killed him as a sacrifice. He never takes·centre·stage like his father Abraham or his son Jacob.· Mostly, we see him in relation to them rather than an individual in his own right.··· Rebecca, on the other hand, is active and dynamic.· She took charge when Abraham’s servant came to find her to be Isaac’s wife and she takes charge again when it comes to the destiny of her sons.· Esau is impetuous, rushing out to the hunt and selling his birthright to his brother because he is hungry. But he is also loving, rushing to do what his father asks him, with the word ‘Hineni·- here I am’, which is the response the prophets use when God calls them.

And then there is Jacob, the ancestor of our people.· He does not seem an ancestor to be proud of - he is ready to deceive and lie to his father for his own gain.· Is he a schemer or a mother’s boy who cannot think for himself, or a bit of both?

Yet the text provokes questions which hint the whole situation is more complex than it seems.· Perhaps the most glaring is how Isaac could be taken in.· The dressing up of Jacob seems farcical - Esau must have been very hairy if the goatskins on Jacob’s arms were supposed to feel like him. And if it was, as Isaac said, Jacob’s voice, why did he choose to trust in the hairy arms and not the voice? The more one reads the story, the more one has the sense that Isaac was not really deceived at all.· Isaac’s questioning suggests he knew more than he let on.· When Jacob first approaches Isaac, saying ‘My father’, Isaac responds with the very word ‘Hineni’ that Esau had used. And then he asks, ‘Who are you, my son?’· Since he knows it is his son, what does he mean by ‘Who are you?’ He may simply mean, ‘Which son are you’, as the JPS translates.· But it is like God’s question to Cain after he has killed Abel, ‘Where are you?’· God knew where Cain was, his question had a deeper purpose.·· So, here, Isaac· seems to know who the son is, but he is challenging him to answer that question for himself:· Who are you Jacob, are you honest, or are you a deceiver?· Will you follow the advice of your mother and carry on lying to me, or will you be truthful? Jacob takes the first option, maintaining he is Esau, Isaac’s firstborn.· Isaac’s further questions lead to further lies from Jacob, as he continues deeper into his deception.

Jacob does not yet acknowledge who he is. Indeed, it takes a journey into exile on his own, haunted by his brother’s threats and deceived in his turn by his Uncle, Rebecca’s brother·Laban.· There, he is forced to work for his living and the promise of his birthright must have seemed unlikely to be fulfilled.· Only after years away from his family can Jacob learn to acknowledge who he is.· Perhaps Isaac·realised·that if Jacob was determined to steal the birthright, he had to learn the hard way.· But what of Esau?· Even if Jacob had to learn a lesson the hard way, why did Esau have to lose out as a result?· We cannot know, and although we can speculate that maybe he was more suited to the birthright normally due to the younger brother, that doesn’t seem to do him justice.· But Isaac may have had his reasons - after all, we are told that he loved Esau more than Jacob, so he would not wish him hurt needlessly.

It is easy to see Isaac as a blind old man who no longer knows what he is doing. But so often, we underestimate older people.· They may appear not to understand a situation because they are hard of hearing or cannot see so well. They may even be suffering from dementia.· But years of experience can still mean that they have a wisdom that is beyond younger people. They may know the right thing to do even when it is not obvious.· A small word or action can have an effect that would not be suspected. Isaac’s question to Jacob seems innocuous. But it has a hidden depth to it and is more searching than it seems.· The wisdom of the old is not a wisdom that can be learnt from books.· It comes from observing and experiencing life,·realising·the complexities of life and having the ability to see things in the long term.· Isaac had had his share of trauma and family difficulties.· He may have learnt from them in unexpected ways.· As the book of Ecclesiastes says, as quoted in our special section: ‘How pleasing is the wisdom of the aged, the understanding and counsel of the venerable.’· Whatever Isaac’s intentions, there is no easy way out, either for Esau or Jacob. Indeed, this may have been his understanding: that the complexities of life and sibling relationships are not easily solved and that it would take years of separation for the relationship between his sons to be healed.· But the sons do come together in the end.· As parents and as children, we too hope for the healing of relationships. Let us listen to the voices of experience amongst us, learning from their gentle guidance, understanding the wisdom that may not be offered directly but is there if we take the time to really hear.· Then we may find the·fulfilment·of the well known psalm: ‘Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brothers and sisters to dwell together in unity.’