This Week’s Torah Portion: Toldot

jacob and esau, twins

Name: Toldot

Reading: Genesis 25:19 – 28:9

Haftara: Samuel 1 20:18 – 20:42

Parsha Summary – Toldot

Rebecca is Pregnant with Twins

40-year-old Isaac marries Rebecca, who is barren. He entreats God for children, and Rebecca conceives. She asks God why her children struggle inside her; He replies that she is carrying two nations who will fight in life. When Isaac is 60, she gives birth to twins: a red, hairy baby named Esau and a baby who held his brother’s heel named Jacob.

Esau Sells His Birthright

Esau is an outdoorsy hunter who works in the fields; Jacob is a quiet man who prefers the indoors. Isaac loves venison so loves Esau the hunter; Rebecca loves Jacob.

When Esau returns from the field, he is faint with hunger. He asks Jacob for some of the red lentil stew he is making; Jacob replies that first, Esau must sell him his birthright. Remarking that the birthright is no use to a dead man, Esau agrees and sells his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of soup.

Isaac Meets Abimelech

Famine strikes, so Isaac goes to Abimelech, King of the Philistines, in Gerar. God tells Isaac not to go to Egypt and promises that if he stays in Canaan, He will keep His vows to Abraham and make Isaac’s descendants into a great nation. Isaac tells the locals that Rebecca is his sister; Abimelech sees them laughing together and realizes that they are married. He orders the death of anyone who bothered either husband or wife.

Isaac Digs Five Wells

well, beer shebaPreviously, the Philistines blocked the wells that Abraham dug. Isaac re-opens them and digs three new wells called Esek, Sitnah, and Rehovot. Isaac relocated to Beer Sheva where God appears to him and re-confirms the promises He made Abraham.

The Philistines realize that God was with Isaac. They come to Isaac to make peace: they dine together and part on good terms. Isaac’s servants find more water and name this final well in Beer Sheva “Shiba”.

Esau takes two Hittite wives and continues to vex his parents.

Isaac Blesses Jacob

Isaac grew old and blind. He calls to Esau and tells him to hunt for venison and prepare his favorite meal so that he can bless his son before he dies. Rebecca overhears and tells Jacob to bring two goats so that she can prepare a dish and Jacob can claim his blessing. She prepares meat and bread and dresses Jacob in Esau’s clothes. She also places the goats’ skins on Jacob’s smooth skin.

stew jacob and esauJacob brings the meal and wine to Isaac and makes him think that he is Esau. Isaac blesses him with physical prosperity, sovereignty over his brother with his siblings as servants, and eternal blessings (cursed be those who curse you; blessed be those who bless you).

Jacob leaves as Esau returns with his prepared meal. He asks his father to eat so that he can be blessed. Jacob realizes that he was tricked by Jacob; Esau begs his father to bless him too. Jacob says that he has already blessed Jacob that Esau will serve him, and Esau resolves to kill his brother.

Jacobs Flees to Haran

Rebecca fears for Jacob’s life in the wake of Esau’s anger. She tells him to leave and flee to her brother Lot in Haran and warns him not to take a Hittite wife. Isaac blesses Jacob again and tells him to marry one of Lot’s daughters and not a Canaanite woman. Esau sees that his parents dislike Canaanites, so marries one.

Torah Takeaway

This week’s Torah portion opens up one very obvious – but often unanswerable – question: Can you do something bad if it’s part of doing something good?

We know that Rebecca is a holy woman with the ability to communicate with God: when pregnant with her struggling twins, “she went to inquire of the Lord” who replied to her (Genesis 25:22-23). Recebba demonstrates an uncanny ability to lie when preparing Jacob to take Esau’s blessing, and this seems utterly at odds with someone of such a high spiritual caliber. After all, this isn’t a little white lie: in today’s legal system, it’s identity theft and outright fraud!

To vindicate Rebecca, therefore, we have to assume that was privy to three vital pieces of information:

  • Rebecca knows that Esau previously agreed to sell his birthright to Jacob in exchange for soup
  • Rebecca knows that Esau had no intention of keeping his promise and informing Isaac that his blessing now belonged to Jacob
  • Rebecca knows that God’s promise that Abraham’s descendants will be a great nation will be fulfilled through Jacob and not through Esau

While the Torah doesn’t specify that Rebecca had this knowledge, it’s likely that she does. After all, we’re told that Jacob is her favorite son, making it likely that he told her about the soup-for-birthright exchange. Equally, she’s Esau’s mother and must have known her son’s character well enough to know that he was deceptive.

Additionally, we know that she was a holy woman who talked to God directly. It’s completely plausible that she knew that God’s promises were to be fulfilled through Jacob.

Honesty is an acclaimed virtue, but Rebecca’s task here wasn’t honesty. As one of the mothers of our people, God’s promise of a strong dynasty and great nation included her, and her people’s destiny rested on the right (wrong?) son receiving his father’s blessing.

In this way, her actions were vindicated and she remains one of Israel’s cherished matriarchs.