Parshat Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9)
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Efrat, Israel – “And Isaac loved Esau, because the game was in his mouth; but Rebekah loved Jacob” (Gen. 25:28)
Of all the myriads of questions which rise up from this week’s portion of familial intrigue, sibling rivalry, filial deception and maternal manipulation, perhaps the one that gives rise to all the others is why the Patriarch Isaac prefers the more aggressive, extroverted hunter Esau over the whole-hearted, introspective and studious Jacob.
I believe it is superficial, even a bit crass, to suggest that it was because Esau provided his father with his favorite dish of food, venison; after all, what is at stake at this moment is who was to continue the Abrahamic legacy, who would be the standard bearer of “the blessing to all the nations of the earth,” commanding his progeny and his future household to guard the pathway of the Lord by living a life dedicated to compassionate righteousness and moral justice (Gen.18:18-19). Who was the more likely candidate for that taks: the burly and materialistic Esau or the gentler and more bookish “tent dweller” Jacob? So why does Isaac favor Esau? In order to properly respond to this query, we must take another look at Abraham’s legacy. Yes, he was so inspired, “inspirited” if you will, with the Divine pathway of compassionate righteousness and moral justice that with missionary zeal he would erect altars wherever he went, not in order to offer sacrifices, but rather to call humankind to the service of God (see Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Laws of Idolatry, 1-3 and Book of Commandments, Positive Commandment 3). To this end, he functioned like a Chabad emissary, opening his tent to dislocated wanderers, hosting them and teaching them about ethical monotheism; and because of his passion, he even castigates God Himself for punishing all the inhabitants of wicked Sodom and Gomorrah: “Will God then destroy the righteous together with the wicked…? Far be it from You, the moral judge of all the world, not to act with moral justice” (Gen. 18:23, 25).
But there is also another side to the leadership of Abraham, another aspect to the legacy which must be perpetuated by Abraham’s heirs. One cannot enthrone compassionate righteousness without denuding cruel corruption; the good can never hope to triumph if the evil is quietly countenanced.
And so the Bible records—within the context of Lot leaving the more ethical and spiritual Abraham for the greener pastures of materialistic Sodom—how four marauding kings attacked the other five kings within the Fertile Crescent (Gen. 14). Chedorlaomer, the king of Elam (Persia)—apparently the most powerful of the four aggressors—subjugated the conquered five for twelve years.
For the next thirteen years, the enslaved kingdoms rebelled; in the fourteenth year, Chedorlaomer struck back with a vengeance and the five kings fled, three to nearby mountains with the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah, falling into bitumen pits. The four aggressor kings went into Sodom and seized all their assets and took their people captive including Lot, Abraham’s nephew—a weak act of terrorism, abusing the weak and unprotected.
Abraham sprang to action against the four terrorist kings—together with 318 men from his household (apparently his converts). He won a resounding victory, returned all the captives and refused to take any of the booty. Melchizedek the king of Shalem (Jerusalem) greeted Abraham with bread and wine, “blessing Abraham to God Supreme, Possessor of heaven and earth, and blessing God Supreme who delivered Abraham’s enemies into his hands” (Gen. 14:19-20). Abraham emerged a great international military hero—who fought together with God against the enslaving terrorist kings to free the captives. After this second legacy, the battle against terrorism, comes chapter 15 containing Abraham’s Covenant with God.
Now let us return to patriarch Isaac. Abraham’s legacy was that of the spirit as well as the sword. Could Isaac ever measure up? Could anyone ever measure up? One more piece remains before we can answer our initial question; we must read between the lines of the Bible. Our portion of Toldot deals with familial strife in the struggle to appoint the right successor to Isaac. Chapter 25 concludes with Esau spurning the legacy of the first-born; chapter 27 opens with an aged and blind Isaac, who requests venison from his beloved Esau before he gives him the blessing of the firstborn. Chapter 26 seems to be completely misplaced, totally interrupting the story line and harking back to an earlier incident between Isaac and Abimelech, the Philistine king of Gerar. Now Abraham had also encountered Abimelech, made a treaty with him, received permission for him and his progeny to dwell in Gerar and dig wells in Gerar. All of this seemed forgotten when Isaac now meets Abimelech.
Abimelech stopped up Abraham’s wells, and as soon as Isaac prospered, Abimelech tells him, “Go away from us, because you have become more powerful than us”—or “your power has come from what you have taken from us” (Gen. 26:16).
Isaac leaves quietly. Abimelech again confronts Isaac, desirous of making another treaty; he now claims that, after all, he had only done well to Isaac; he did not harm him and he allowed him to leave (sent him away) intact, be’shalom. And Isaac concludes another treaty. The chapter ends with Esau marrying two Hittite wives, and the next chapter begins with Isaac’s request of Esau to bring him venison so that he may give him the blessings.
I believe the Bible is explaining to us in this chapter 26 why Isaac prefers Esau over Jacob. The legacy of Abraham demands military prowess alongside ethical integrity; if “Abrahamism” is to succeed, we must teach ethical monotheism and defend it militarily.
Since the latter ability was lacking in Isaac, he is drawn to the more aggressive Esau. He understands that Jewish survival—and ultimate triumph—requires power alongside piety.