Parshat Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9)
The history of Yitzhak and Rivka’s family is recounted in great detail in this week’s portion, Toldot, along with all of their complexities. After twenty years of infertility, they become proud parents. Rivka’s pregnancy was no walk in the park, though. The young mother-to-be senses trouble in her womb – “and the children struggled within her” (Gen. 25:22) – and tries to ascertain why. She seeks answers from Hashem (it is unclear whether she prayed or went to a great tzaddik – some say that she went to the Beit Midrash of Shem and Ever), and is told that she would give birth to twins. As soon as she hears the joyous news, she is also told that “one kingdom would be mightier than the other kingdom” (ibid. v. 23), or, in other words, a difficult struggle between these two brothers would ensue.
Just as with the best of families, the twins don’t get along. In fact, the tension between them rises constantly, until, at the end of the parsha, it erupts. The process had already begun when the two were in their mother’s womb. Esav emerges first, but Yaakov doesn’t give up without a fight, and holds onto his brother’s ankle in an effort to delay him. The children grow up, and Yitzhak favors Esav, while Rivka favors Yaakov. Later, Yaakov buys Esav’s birthright for a bowl of lentils, which Esav eats after returning from the hunt in a famished state. Seemingly, this wasn’t a very fair deal – Yaakov was taking advantage of Esav’s distressful situation.
The schism between them climaxes when Rivka discovers that Yitzhak was to give Esav the coveted birthright blessing. She reveals this to Yaakov, and following his mother’s instructions, Yaakov wears furry clothes that make him feel like his brother. Esav has gone on a hunt, per his father’s request, and, taking advantage of his brother’s absence and his father’s blindness and vulnerability, goes to his father and receives the blessing.
Esav now returns from the hunt, rather content. Suddenly, he discovers what has transpired, and lets out a mighty cry, threatening to kill Yaakov. Rivka, protecting Yaakov, sends him out of the country to her family, instructing him to return only once his brother’s anger had subsided. This is where the story ends.
If we were to look at this story through a wide-view lens, we’d notice a cavernous gap between Avraham’s and Yaakov’s stories. Just last week, we read about how Avraham conducted fair and honest negotiations with Ephron to purchase a burial plot for his wife, at its full retail price. His relationships with the nations of the land, and others in his surroundings, seems to be excellent, and based on the principle of fairness. He prays for the people of S’dom, struggles to save his nephew Lot’s life, and more. Yaakov, on the other hand, seems to be taking very different approach. He seems to be doing all he can to fight his brother, to push him aside, and to usurp his status.
The Torah does not describe a utopian reality. It challenges us to deal with difficult and complex situations. It is easy to tell others to “always be fair and ethical” with those with whom you come in contact, as they raise various demands and express their whims, even if they are exaggerated, as they were in Avraham’s case. You could compare this with those who accuse the IDF and the State of Israel of immorality while keeping silent at the sight of human rights abuses in Syria.
There may be situations where it is best to take an example from Avraham’s conduct, but sometimes, we must learn from Yaakov. We read in Tehillim: “With a pure one, You show Yourself pure, but with a crooked one, You deal crookedly.” (Ps. 18:27) You don’t always give your rivals everything they want. Sometimes, you need to know how to use various tricks to secure the advantages you’ll need in the future. Yaakov’s approach, not just Avraham’s, has been emulated in Jewish history.
There is, however, one condition. Even if you need to do something that is not ideal, you mustn’t do it joyfully, as if rejoicing over someone else’s misfortune. Here, the verse tells us how Esav comes back from the field, only to find that the blessing intended for him had been stolen. He lets out a great cry. In the Midrash, our rabbis teach: “Yaakov caused Esav to let out a great cry. When did Esav repay him? At Shushan (in the time of Purim), as it is said regarding Mordechai (Esther 4:1) ‘and he let out a great and bitter cry’.”
Our rabbis did not let Yaakov off the hook, and specified the price the nation paid for what Yaakov did. Hundreds of years after the incident between the brothers, a holocaust almost occurs in Shushan, the capital of Persia. Haman wanted to destroy the Jewish People, and in response, Mordechai lets out a great and bitter cry. Our rabbis link Esav’s cry with the terrible decree over the Jewish People. The lesson learned from this is that even when one must do something that harms another, one must never rejoice at an adversary’s misery, God forbid.
Yaakov and Avraham epitomize approaches that seem diametrically opposed. Avraham is a man of great faith. He addresses the entire world, and it is for good reason that in our tradition, Avraham’s actions are likened to an open mountain, which can tolerate all around it. However, of all his progeny, only one remains: Yitzhak. Yishmael is forced to leave his home, just like his younger brothers, the children of the concubines that Avraham begot at a very advanced age (he had six more children with a woman named Ketura, according to the Torah’s account in last week’s parsha).
In contrast, the world Yaakov builds faces inward. Later, he would have twelve sons, and none of them would “leave the fold”. Yaakov builds a home, not a mountain. Indeed, when building a building, we need to know what to do with anyone who tries to harm the structure, its contents, or its inhabitants. Yaakov is there, in full force, to ensure the continued existence of this unified house, which would produce generations of families to come.
[Translated from the Hebrew by Ilan Yavor]