Parshat Hashavua

Parshah Toldot: The Birthright

Shabbat Shalom! This week’s parshah begins with recalling the generations of Isaac and preparing for his future progeny to inherit the “family’s birthright”. Rebekah, Isaac’s wife, has conceived and is carrying two children in her womb. Genesis 25:23 states, “And the Lord said unto her: Two nations are in thy womb, and two peoples shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger.”

As a new parent, I find this message to be deeply disturbing. How could a parent process this news and make peace with it? Rebekah has just been told that her twins will be divided into two nations and that her younger twin will rule over the older twin. If it is predetermined that the older twin must serve the younger, does this outcome justify the manner in which Jacob, the younger twin, acquire Esau’s birthright? Everything boils down to a bowl of soup, literally a bowl of lentils and hopefully a side of hearty bread. As the parshah unfolds we learn Esau had returned from a campout in the field, usually his skillful hunting provided for his physical needs. However, on this occasion he returns home famished and in need of sustenance. Upon his return, he asks his brother, our patriarch Jacob, to share some delicious lentil soup. Of course, Jacob offers his brother a bowl of soup out of the goodness of his heart since he is aware, as we are informed by the wisdom of our sages, of the importance of assisting someone in need. But what really happens? Prior to serving his older brother the homemade meal Jacob casually asks Esau to sell him his first-born birthright. On paper and just hearing this, it sounds immoral and unjustifiable. However, the rabbinic authorities expound that the birthright is only spiritual in nature and doesn’t include tangible items; this interpretation is meant to make the transaction palatable. Yet, how can we understand this in the context of the basic mitzvah attributed to Rav Shammai in Pirkei Avos 1:15, “Make of your Torah study a fixed practice; and say little and do much; and greet ALL people with a cheerful countenance.”

Is a cheerful countenance simply a façade we put on, a superficial smile with no genuine intent behind it? Our Rabbinic tradition would generally conclude that this cheerful countenance extends beyond how we outwardly greet one another and refers to building an inclusive community. With this elucidation the concept that we should greet one another with a cheerful countenance from Pirkei Avos would disapprove of any kind of ulterior motive, such as the one that Jacob has in parshah Toldot.

Do we, as Jewish people receive everyone with a cheerful countenance? You might be asking the question, why is this important? One reason for this investigation is to hopefully elevate our kavanah, our connection and intention, during the Amidah, which is the focal point of our daily services. The first paragraph of the standing prayer includes the naming of our patriarchs and matriarchs and this reminds us and God about the promise that was made to them concerning their offspring…us. Rebekah gave birth to two children, but it is told that she and Isaac each had a favorite child. Isaac and Rebekah did not head the wisdom, ‘Love thy children with an impartial love,’ this is the wise admonition of a medieval Jewish scholar.

Isaac favored his eldest son, Esau. As a father, I find this favored language difficult and harsh. As the Jewish people, we have inherited the birthright from Jacob, but do we understand the intricacies of this transaction? We are told that Isaac had lost his sense of sight and therefore he relies on his other senses for his decision making process. Rebekah uses this to her advantage in assisting her favorite child, Jacob, in receiving the birthright blessing from Isaac. Rebekah devises a plan and puts the wheels in motion. Rebekah’s plan involves transforming Jacob into Esau by placing fur on his body to mimic his brother and adorning Jacob with scents from the field that would be more commonly associated with his brother. This scheming is deplorable because honesty is a precept of the Torah, it is included in the 9th commandment, “thou shalt not bear false witness…”. in Genesis 26:5, the verse specifically mentions ‘Torahs’ in the plural form. What does this mean? Ramban understands this plural form to mean both the written and oral Torah. This is understood to explain that Abraham and Isaac possessed knowledge of both the Torah and Oral Law. In light of this, how could Rebekah be involved in deceiving her husband and betraying her eldest son by breaking the 9th commandment? Rebekah cannot use ignorance of the law as a defense, because the Oral Law reveals all of the details missing from the Written Law (Torah).

Nonetheless, Jacob receives the blessing intended for Esau and the birthright. Immediately after Jacob departs, his brother returns home anticipating receiving his father’s blessing and his birthright. Isaac expresses his confusion and informs his son Esau that he had just given him his birthright and blessing. Esau realizes that his father has been duped and that Jacob has stolen his blessing. Esau beseeches his father for a blessing, but Isaac declares that he is unable to give any additional blessings. The family has been shattered. Rebekah sends Jacob away for his protection and to eventually find a wife. Esau takes a wife from the house of Ishmael to the dismay of his family. What can we take away from parshah Toldot? Family dynamics can be extremely dysfunctional and our patriarchs and matriarchs were not without their faults. This does not excuse their actions nor should we feel content to conclude that the ends justify the means. We must understand that life can be messy and dysfunctional, but we must strive to learn from the missteps of our ancestors. We should not be ashamed of our heritage, but we should also not repeat the errors of those who came before us. Ultimately Jacob and Esau are able to reconcile, but this does not occur until many years after Jacob flees from home.

May we uphold the 9th commandment and strive to reconcile when we have acted wrongly sooner rather than later. We are human and we will have moments when we falter. May we not lose sight of what is most important – our relationships with one another. May we understand our birthright as a responsibility to be a light among the nations and act accordingly by greeting everyone with a cheerful countenance!

Shabbat Shalom!