Second Part of Parashat Tol=dot in the Triennial Cycle

Bereshit (Genesis) 26:23 - 27:27[1]

Hertz 96; Plaut  185; Eitz Hayim 152


Our parashah today, the middle section of Tol=dot, contains one of the best known, and one of the most disturbing, stories in the Torah.  It is the story of how Jacob, at the instigation and with the able assistance of his mother Rivka, deceived Isaac -- his father and her husband B in order to ensure that the main blessings of that aged man went to him, the slightly younger twin, Jacob, and not to his slightly older brother, Esau. 


Is this story with its multiple lies and deliberate fraud something we want to share with our children?  Is it something that any people would want as part of its founding myth?  Apparently the answer to each question is Ayes,@ for we Jews have told the story over and over again, and we have incorporated it into the very structure of how we, as Jews, came to  be.  But why do we make so much of it?


One answer can be found in the line from William Cowper (1731-1800) that God works in mysterious ways.  But that is a Christian perspective.  In this case, for good reason or bad, all of the main actors in the story conspire to obtain a result that God has already announced.  As so often in the Torah, leadership goes to a younger sibling, more specifically a younger male sibling, when Biblical family law (what is called the birthright) says it should go to the first-born male (Shm 13:12-15; Bmd 18:15).  However, there must be more to the story than simply that everything works out as God intended.


To start, I am by no means the first person to find this story disturbing.  Plaut is most explicit in his comments on the deception of Isaac, coming as it did after Jacob had induced his slightly older twin brother Esau to give him the birthright in return for a meal (190):


Again, Jacob does not come off very well.  He practices outrageous deceit on a helpless father and a guileless brother, and he is rewarded for his deed.


One can say that Jacob does not deserve all the blame because the plot was conceived by his mother, Rivka.  I will come back to her in a moment, but Jacob raises only one objection, and that is his fear that the plot will be discovered (27:11-12).  Not a very honorable stance. Once Rivka has said that she will accept blame (27:13), Jacob eagerly enters into the plot.  Note further that Jacob, in speaking to his father, refers not to Aour God,@ but to Ayour God@ (27:20).  It seems that Jacob, who has not yet experienced his epiphany with angels rising and descending from heaven, is not really sure about God and, as usual, he is hedging his bets.


Turning to Rivka, she at least had a good excuse for her actions, for God had spoken to her (25:22-23).  God explained that her difficult pregnancy was a result of carrying twins, and that Athe older shall serve the younger.@ (A digression: A vestige of rabbinic sexism is indicated in the common view that God=s words were not given directly to Rivka but conveyed to her by some sage.  See Plaut 173; Etz Hayim 146.)  In any event, Rivka correctly interpreted God=s statement as meaning that the Abrahamic legacy was to be carried on by the twin who was the second to be born, and that twin was of Jacob.  Perhaps Rivka could be charged with insufficient faith in God, who surely did not need her help in achieving the desired results.  On the other hand, in that polytheistic and patriarchal era, she might well have interpreted God=s words as meaning that she was supposed to bring about that result.  As indicated in Anita Diamant=s wonderful novel, The Red Tent, Jacob=s women were by no means familiar with his God, and Jacob=s camp was not totally monotheistic (see Ber.35:2).


Turning to Isaac, some commentators say that he had problems with sight ever since seeing the angel coming from heaven to save him when he was bound face-up on the altar (Gen. R. 65:10).  Others say that his poor sight was emotional not physical (Etz 154).  As a result of his great affection for Esau (25:28), he was blind to what Rivka saw clearly about the different destinies of the twins.  No matter that Jacob was weaker or second born, he was the one for whom the blessing was intended.  That Jacob Astayed in camp@ whereas Esau was Aa man of the outdoors@ (25:27) is conveniently interpreted by the rabbis to mean that Jacob was studying Torah.


As for Esau, he portrayed sympathetically in the story.  Later commentary, as with that from Rashi, that portrays him as evil from birth,[2] or that uses his nickname, Edom, as a surrogate for Rome, has almost no Biblical authority.[3]  True, Esau is angry at Jacob, as he should be, and he does threaten to kill Jacob (27:41).  We have to take that threat as hyperbole because Esau makes no attempt to follow Jacob toward Haran.  As a hunter, he could surely have overtaken Jacob and killed him on the road if he had really wanted to carry out his threat.  In the end, Esau does receive a blessing from Isaac, though it is more a blessing of personal well-being than of national destiny.  Was the blessing effective?  It certainly seems so, for all of Chapter 36 is devoted to his line.


Plaut asserts that Isaac really did know that the blessing should go to Jacob, that he was Asubconsciously aware of Jacob=s identity.@  However, not being able to admit this to himself, he only pretends to be deceived (190).  Would anyone, no matter how old, confuse the hair of a goat with that of a young man, or the smell of leather with that of human skin!  As Plaut says, AIsaac is old, but not senile.@  He may even be relieved at not having to choose between his two sons, which would explain why he never chastises Jacob or Rivka when he finally has to admit that he was deceived.


All that being said, we must still agree that Jacob acted deplorably.  He may have been studying Torah, but he was no chassid. Not surprisingly, there was retribution. A few years later in life, he is deceived by his father-in-law Laban, and he later experiences the loss of his favorite wife and his favorite child. The phrase, what goes around comes around, certainly applies to Jacob. That is one possible lesson we can draw, and it argues strongly against the many commentators, Hertz among them, who try to exculpate Jacob from any guilt in getting the birthright and the blessing.[4]


The moral problem remains, and the onus falls pretty clearly on Jacob.  He thought big, and he was willing to do whatever was necessary to achieve his goals.  There is seldom any good answer, in Torah as to whether it is OK to use bad means to achieve good ends.  True, Jacob did suffer later in his life, but I am not convinced that God plays tit for tat in so explicit a way.


My problem with Jacob is not that he chooses blackmail and deception as acceptable ways to achieve his ends, but that he never agonizes about the choice.  He never suggests that, knowing what his mother knows about God=s wishes, she might have talked with Isaac.  She was loved, and it would be silly to think that she had no influence over that all too easily influenced man.  Maybe the same result could have been achieved without resort to deception.  Perhaps we should see Jacob for just what he is -- an  ambitious but inexperienced young man.  Quoting Plaut one last time (176), AMuch will happen before he becomes Israel.@  However, even that excuse is weak.  Throughout his life, Jacob continues to looking out for Number One.  Even when he chastises Shimon and Levi for murdering the men of Shechem, it is mainly because his own reputation has been sullied.


I think the real lesson comes later.  Who really inherits Jacob=s approach?  It is Reuben, who, of all the 12 sons, seems most like his father.  But whom do we see as our great ancestor.  It is Judah, the fourth-born.  Perhaps Jacob is something of an anti-model, and what we learn is that the heritage of a parent is important, but not determinative.  We each have to find our own way, and neither blame nor credit our parents.


Shabbat shalom,


David Brooks

[1]  For some reason, the triennial division of Torah readings cuts off this section with 27:27, which is just when Isaac is about to give the blessing to Jacob.  I cannot imagine why it does not go onto include verse 28, which is the blessing itself.  Even better, the reading should extend to verse 40, which would complete the main part of the story.

[2]  For example, Rashi takes the statement that Esau emerged from the womb with reddish coloured skin (*1&/$!; later Edom) was a portent that he would shed blood (Ber 25:25), and the fact that the word for twin in spelled defectively (./;) (Ber 25:24) is an indication that one of the two was wicked.  Both notes taken from the notes to Bereshit 25:25 and 25:24 respectively in The Soncino Chumash.  In the Tanach, the most adverse comment occurs in Malachi 1:2ff, and much less directly in Obadiah.

[3]  The Edomites, who were traditional enemies of Israel, descended from Esau (Ber 36:1, 8).

[4] One of the more amusing of those efforts involves Augustine who, according to Plaut, saw Jacob supplanting Esau as a model for how Christianity would supplant Judaism