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The story focuses on the "generations" (Toldot) and the importance of family position and genetic heritage. In the parsha, we read that Isaac, the father of Jacob and Esau, must stay in the holy land of his father Abraham. Jacob buys Esau's birthright and in exchange gives a famished Esau, just back from the hunt, a bowl of lentils. Through a ruse designed by Rebecca, Jacob receives the blessing from Isaac, meant for Esau. Esau vows revenge and Jacob flees to live with Rebecca’s brother, Lavan. Esau marries several Canaanite women, and Jacob is tricked by Lavan into marrying his older daughter Leah; Jacob then marries her sister Rachel, whom he loves, seven years later. Jacob fathers twelve sons; each rises to become tribal leaders.


Nature Versus Nurture

To what extent do genetics determine human behaviour? How much influence does the child-raising environment exert on a person’s development? DNA testing can trace the inheritance of physical traits, such as blue eyes or dark hair, but what about social qualities? Will the child grow up to be gentle, deceitful, successful, and socially defiant? The intriguing question of "nature vs. nurture" is brought to life in this week's parsha, Toldot. How does the Torah interpret the interplay between lineage and family dynamics?

The dramatic biblical scenario begins before the birth of Rebecca’s twins, Jacob and Esau, when polarity develops in utero. Rebecca has a revelation by God about the twins' opposing natures and their respective ascents to greatness: "Two nations are in thy womb - one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger." (Bereishit 25:23)

According to the Midrash, when the pregnant Rebecca would pass a Yeshiva (house of Jewish learning), Jacob would kick with joy, but when she would walk near a place of idolatry, Esau would thrash about. At their birth, Esau emerges first from the womb, all ruddy and hairy. The fair-skinned Jacob follows, clinging at Esau's heel. As he grows, Esau becomes a trapper and hunter, Jacob a man of learning. Twin brothers could not be any more dissimilar. We see clearly here that personality traits as well as physical differences begin at conception.

Twin brothers, with shared DNA, raised in the same household, develop into two divergent personalities with radically different outcomes.

Ironically, the wild Esau and, generations later, the noble King David, were both born with red complexions. After God reassured Samuel that David had "beautiful eyes" (thus differentiating him from Esau) David overcame this apparent similarity and rose to greatness as a warrior and leader. Rebecca’s father, Bethuel, and brother Lavan, were both deceitful, yet she overcame both environmental and inherited propensities to become a righteous woman.

Scientific and philosophical theories about the relative influence of nature and nurture abound. Secular Modern theorist John Locke believed everyone started out as a blank slate, a tabula rasa. Psychologist B.F. Skinner held that a person’s behaviour is shaped by negative and positive stimuli in the environment. Professor Ronald Dworkin showed evidence that embryonic growth influences the development of genes. Zoologist Konrad Lorenz found that animal behaviour was "imprinted" immediately after birth. Psychiatrist Karl Jung theorized that shared traits in all human beings were found in the collective unconscious. Each viewpoint sheds a bit of light and harmonizes with the truth found in Torah.

Choices have consequences. Rather than blame "human nature" for poor judgment, we can control our tendencies with free will. It says in Pirkei Avot: "Know from whence you come and whither you are going." It is not enough to "live and let live;" we must consider the far-reaching effects of our decisions. The future of humanity as a whole is determined by the personal choices - for better or worse - made by individuals.

Many great leaders have risen from humble beginnings. Every person has the power to change his or her apparent destiny for good or bad. Environment is often a key factor for our quality of life, but certainly not the determining one; the ultimate choice always remains ours alone. Each one of us is a combination of our genealogical history, our upbringing, and free will; our potential is unlimited. Our choices set an example and imprint for generations to follow.


The Betrothal Scene

According to commentator Robert Alter, three stories in the Bible belong to the category of the betrothal type-scene: the betrothal of Isaac and Rebekah (Genesis 24), the betrothal of Jacob and Rachel (Genesis 29:1-20), and the betrothal of Moses and Zipporah (Ex. 2:15-21). The features that Alter finds in the betrothal type-scene are:

  • The groom (or his representative) sets out for a foreign land.

  • There he meets a young maiden (or maidens) by the well (a symbol of fertility).

  • He draws water for the young maiden.

  • The young maiden hurries home to announce the arrival of a foreigner (the narratives uses the verbs to hurry and to run).

  • The foreigner is invited to dine.

  • The actual betrothal is concluded between the guest (or the person he represents) and the young maiden.

Not all the features need appear in each of the narratives, and clearly each narrative will have certain points of emphasis and characteristic lines. For example, in the Jacob-Rachel betrothal narrative we are told that Jacob had to overcome an obstacle, namely the stone on the mouth of the well – a befitting thing for Jacob, whose entire life was one of contending. Likewise, the Moses-Zipporah betrothal story emphasizes that Moses rescued the young maidens (vayoshian) from the shepherds before watering their flock – part of his characterization as one who pursues justice, and a premonition of the role he will play bringing deliverance (moshian) to the Israelites.

Only the story of Isaac and Rebekah’s betrothal deviates significantly from the model proposed by Alter, and this deviation concerns the roles played by bride and groom, indicating a gender-role reversal. It is not the groom who draws water for the bride, rather the bride, Rebekah, who draws water for the groom’s representative, having been sent by the groom’s father; the groom is absent altogether from the story of the fateful meeting by the well. This is symbolic of Isaac and Rebekah’s entire life together: Isaac is the passive figure (as in the binding of Isaac, Genesis 22), and Rebekah, in contrast, is active and forceful. These character traits of the two are destined to come to the fore in the story of stealing the blessing (Genesis 27).

Even before we come to this story, Rebekah brings solace to Isaac’s grieving heart and fills the void in him left by his mother’s death. The Torah presents with psychological acuity how Rebekah occupied the place of her mother-in-law, both physically and emotionally, both in Sarah’s tent and in Isaac’s heart: “Isaac then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebekah as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death” (Gen. 24:67).

After twenty years of infertility, Rebekah gave birth to twins. Unlike the first matriarch, Sarah, who protected the status of her son Isaac against Ishmael, the son of her husband's other wife Hagar, Rebekah is the mother of two sons, a rejected one and a chosen one, Esau and Jacob, and she independently decides (differently from her husband Isaac) which of the two sons is worthy to carry on the family line. We are told that Isaac loved Esau for a specific reason: “because he had a taste for game” (Gen. 25:28), i.e., because he enjoyed eating the game that Esau hunted (see Gen. 27:3-4).3 We are not told why Rebekah had a preference for Jacob, but we have the impression that her love is free of personal bias and stems from a deep acquaintance with the personalities of her two sons. Many commentators and Bible scholars explain that Rebekah preferred Jacob over Esau also because she knew that Jacob had been chosen by Divine Providence, according to the word of G-d which she received during her difficult pregnancy: “and the older shall serve the younger” (Gen. 25:23).

David Hazony, author of The Ten Commandments wrote an interesting piece on Parsha Toldot which he titled “The Blinding of Issac”. Hazony describes the life of Issac as a bad remake of a great film – he says, “Many of the same plot lines are there, but without much of the magic.”

Here is an excerpt from Hazony’s book –

Indeed Issac’s adult life is a pale reflection of his father’s in many ways.

Like Abraham's wife Sarah, Isaac's wife Rebecca is barren until God intervenes. When she finally gives birth to twins, Isaac prefers the (slightly) older Esau while Rebecca prefers Jacob—mirroring Abraham's preference for the older Ishmael over Sarah's preference for Isaac. God clearly sides with the women in both cases: He tells Abraham to "harken to [Sarah's] voice," while in today’s Parsha he tells Rebecca that "the older [Esau] shall serve the younger [Jacob]."

Soon after, God speaks to Isaac (the only such direct communication he receives) and tells him not to go to Egypt despite the famine, but rather to stay "in this land . . . and I will perform the oath which I swore to Abraham your father; and I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven . . . " Again, the parallel to God's promise to Abraham is sharp and clear.

The parallels continue with Isaac's encounter with Avimelekh, King of Gerar. To protect his life, Isaac lies to Avimelekh, telling him that Rebecca is his sister—just as Abraham did with Sarah. (This time around, however, Avimelekh doesn't take the bait.) Isaac grows rich under Avimelekh's protection—as did his father. Then he re-digs the same wells that Abraham did in his day. Finally, Isaac makes a deal with Avimelekh, taking an oath of alliance, as his father did, and even naming the city of Beersheva after the oath, as his father likewise did. 

The final story of Isaac, in which Jacob tricks Isaac into giving him a blessing that he had intended for Esau, may not seem at first like a replay of an episode in Abraham's life. But in some ways it is.

This is what Hazony calls "the Blinding of Isaac,"- for the similarities it shares with Abraham's Binding of Isaac. Again, we have a story in which the patriarch is deceived: Abraham by God, into putting Isaac on the altar; Isaac by Jacob and Rebecca, who swindle Esau's blessing out of him. In both cases, what's at stake is a father sacrificing his beloved son.

And yet, despite the parallels, all along the way we have a sense that Isaac is no Abraham.

Isaac never clashes with Rebecca over their two children, the way Abraham does with Sarah. When Abraham goes to Avimelekh and lies about his wife, he packs it with a moral punch: "Because I thought, Surely the fear of God is not in this place." Isaac merely says, "Because I said, Lest I die for her." Abraham digs new wells, while Isaac merely re-digs old ones. Abraham makes his wealth as a shepherd, while Isaac makes his as a farmer. (The Bible everywhere prefers the shepherd over the farmer; think Cain and Abel.) Isaac speaks with God just once, while Abraham has various, fascinating discussions with the Divine.

The difference is clearest in the final story: While Abraham plays an active role in the Binding of Isaac, Isaac's role in his final story is passive, that of the dupe. While Abraham passes his test, Isaac fails his. Indeed, the symbolism in the stories couldn't be more striking: While Abraham's story invokes vision—Abraham "lifted up his eyes" to see the mountain, and then again "lifted up his eyes" to see the angel—Isaac is blind.

Indeed, we are left with two strikingly different figures, whose differences are made all the more apparent by their similarities. In many ways Isaac is the anti-Abraham, passive, imitative, and cautious where his father was active, original, and bold even to a fault.

These are the two figures that Jacob carries with him as he begins his own tale, two paradigms that end up laying the groundwork for the whole Israelite nation. In everything he does, Jacob will be choosing between Abraham and Isaac—creating a tumultuous, complex, and ferociously contradictory inner story of Israel that resonates throughout the Bible, and onward in history.

So, one of the biggest questions for students of The Bible, is why Jacob is rewarded for his trickery and deceit and why Esau is painted as evil. We don’t see any evidence of Esau being evil at all.

Here’s another take on this parsha, From The Genesis of Justice by Alan Dershowitz.

Some commentators go to great lengths in their efforts to justify Jacob’s trickery, arguing that since he was far more suitable to the work of leadership, and since God had prophesied to their mother that “the elder shall be servant to the younger,” he was carrying out God’s will . . .

. . . But even if all that is true, it is also true that Jacob employed means – extortion and deception – that are unacceptable in a just society. What then are the lessons to be learned from Jacob’s acts of deception?

Let me offer an interpretation from the perspective of a teacher of law. The entire book of Genesis is about the early development of justice in human society. Jacob is born into a world with few rules and many inconsistent precedents regarding deception. His father and grandfather, Isaac and Abraham, pretended their wives were their sisters in order to save their own lives. Moreover, his God is inconsistent in carrying out threats and promises. The result is a violent and lawless world. Remember too that the world of Genesis is without a hereafter in which virtue on earth is rewarded in heaven and vice on earth is punished in hell. All reward and punishment, both divine and earthly, are given in his world, where all can see the workings of justice. All too often the inhabitants of Jacob’s world saw virtue punished and vice rewarded – at least in the short run.

Along comes Jacob, whose entire life appears to offer proof that in the long run people reap what they sow. He who lives by deceit shall himself be deceived. The biblical narrative goes out of its way to show that Jacob’s deceptions against others are turned back against him – over and over again. Moreover, the deceptions inflicted upon Jacob are strikingly symmetrical with those he inflicted upon his brother and father.

What does Rashi Say About The Classification of Esau as Evil?

Here is some insight from The Orthodox Union, published in My Jewish

Esau is “a hunter, a man of the field,” while Jacob is “ish tam,” (a simple/whole man) who sits in tents. These textual descriptions, Rashi and Ibn Ezra point out, indicate that Esau is a “trickster,” a man not to be trusted, while Jacob is a “simple” or “naive” shepherd, who spends his days studying Torah.

Who is the Victim?

Yet, the comments of these rishonim (medieval sages), which echo those of Chazal (rabbinic sages) seem to be at odds with the simple understanding of the narrative.

Consider, as events of the portion unfold, who is the trickster and who is the victim. Even as they were being born, Jacob grasped Esau’s ankle, trying to force his way out of the womb first.

Later, as young adults, Esau returns from a day of hunting famished and exhausted, begging his brother for food. Jacob demands Esau’s birthright in exchange for some soup. Then, when Rebecca proposes that Jacob disguise himself as Esau in order to “steal” his berachah (blessing) from Isaac, Jacob protests–not because of the deception involved, but because he fears getting caught and consequently cursed by his father.

Nevertheless, despite these indications of Jacob’s trickery and Esau’s victimhood, Chazal find indications of Esau’s evil. They point to his readiness to sell the bechorah (birthright) as well as to the wives he took, who aggravated his mother, Rebecca. Thus it seems all the more amazing in light of Chazal’s insights that Isaac seemed oblivious to Esau’s evil and Jacob’s good such that he sought to confer his blessing upon Esau.

How are we to understand Jacob’s early actions, Isaac’s plan to bless Esau, Jacob’s theft of the berachah, and the subsequent confrontations that he faced–all in a manner that gives us insight into this Patriarch and leaves us, his children, with a message?

As noted by the Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, 19th century commentator), Isaac proposed to bless Esau with birkas haaretz (the blessing of the land)–physical plenitude and mastery over the physical world. Reserved for Jacob, and conferred upon him by Isaac before he fled to Laban’s house, was birkas Avraham (the blessing of Abraham)–the blessing that Abraham received ensuring that his descendants would be God’s chosen nation.

Isaac had no reason to think that one of his sons would be rejected; he believed they would both lead this chosen nation as partners, with Esau as General, mastering the physical world and Jacob as High Priest, carrying on the spiritual legacy.

However, Rebecca, the mother of these two brothers and, importantly, reared as the sister of Laban, (as emphasized in the second verse of the Torah portion), knew that such a partnership was impossible. She understood that Jacob needed both blessings–to combine spiritual strength with mastery over the physical world–in order to be the father of the Jewish nation.

Accordingly, she orchestrated the “theft” of the physical blessing in a context wherein Jacob would be introduced to his destiny–to be a person with kol Yaakov (the voice of Jacob) but also with yedei Eisav (the hands of Esau).

She thus wanted Jacob to undergo an apprenticeship with her brother, Laban, the master trickster, so that he would know how to combine these traits. He achieved mastery over the physical world, the Keli Yakar (17th century commentator), points out (Genesis: 31:1) when he surpasses Laban’s ability to beguile his adversaries.

After this “education,” the fully developed Jacob is commanded by God to return to Canaan, whereupon he wrestles with Esau’s angel and is given a new name: Yisrael. This new name demonstrates his completed evolution, a name by which we, his descendants, are called: Benei Yisrael (the Children of Israel).

But does this really satisfy the question why was Esau painted as evil? Perhaps it is a simple literary device meant to polarize viewpoints, good and evil, right and wrong, black and white. In order for one to be good, the contrasting character had to be bad. This is such a simplistic and childish device – but we can understand it in terms of the simple folks who would hear the story and later read it and understand that the contrast between the brothers was necessary to make the point.

In order to fulfill the theme of the younger having power over the older (we see this theme emerging right from the beginning of Bereshit and it will continue through Exodus), it was necessary to have human intervention – in the form of Rebecca.

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