Shabbat candles: 4:14 p.m.
Torah: Genesis 25:19-28:9
Haftarah: I Samuel 20:18-42
One of the very worst of the curses in Deuteronomy 28 is that “you will bear children and they will not be yours” [Deut. 28:41]. This week’s portion of Toldot is very much concerned with the question of whose children will Jacob and Esau be — Isaac or Rebecca’s? — and what kind of continuity will there be between the generations.
The parsha begins with the emphasis that this is the generation of “Isaac son of Abraham; Abraham begot Isaac” [Genesis 25:19]. There is a mutuality here. Yet, risk comes in the very next verse when we are told that Isaac has married Rebecca, the daughter of Bethuel the Aramean and sister of Laban the Aramean, a two-fold emphasis on the problematic values of her upbringing. Will Abrahamic values survive mixed in with those of Laban? Who will ultimately prevail?
One hint is Isaac’s steadfastness regarding the king Avimelech. Isaac is told to leave the place where Avimelech lives, and so he journeys to the wadi of Gerar. There, Isaac digs again the wells first dug by Abraham [Gen. 26:18-19]. That Isaac is of Abraham is never in question; he uncovers a “well of living water” by digging where his father had. Even though there is fighting over these wells with the servants of Avimelech, ultimately peace is made [Gen. 26: 31] as Isaac departs.
Wells are a continuity through another realm of Isaac’s life. He meets Rebecca when he is returning from the well at Be’er Le-hai Ro-i [Gen. 24: 62]. Nachmanides states that this is Isaac’s customary place of prayer. Be’er Le-hai Ro-i is the place named by Hagar after Abraham cast her out into the desert [Gen. 16:13]. Hagar calls the name of God, “El Ro-i,” the “God of seeing,” or the God who “sees, unseen,” in Avivah Zornberg’s reading (“The Murmuring Deep”).
Isaac’s frequenting of this locale as his customary place of prayer indicates that Isaac’s God, who “sees, unseen,” is a power that can go beyond what can customarily be seen. So the well, in this sense, symbolizes not just an uncovering of a place his father drew nourishment from, but a source of unseen and unknown sustenance.
Immediately after this peace at the wells [Gen. 26:31], comes a blow. Esau is now forty [Gen. 26:34], the same age Isaac was when he married Rebecca [Gen. 25:20]. Esau takes a Hittite as a wife, causing bitterness to both Isaac and Rebecca [Gen. 26:35].
Isaac wishes to give a “blessing of my soul” [Gen. 27:4] to Esau, the child who is “his,” whom he loves, while Rebecca wishes the blessing to go to Jacob, the one whom she loves [Gen. 25:28].
I was once teaching this portion to a group that contained a physician who mentioned that the physical manifestations of Jacob and Esau seemed based on a medical condition called “twin to twin transfusion syndrome,” which only occurs in identical twins while they are in utero. One twin takes blood from the other, causing him to have a redder appearance and be larger. Even before birth, Esau (the red one) is the “yodea tza’yid” [Gen. 25:27], cunning and skillful, as opposed to Jacob, the “plain man.” Rashi adds, “heart was as his mouth; one who is not sharp at deceiving is called “plain.”
From their earliest days in the womb, Esau took from Jacob and was skillful and cunning — the values of Laban the Aramean, the cunning one. Jacob, was clearly the exponent of Abraham’s values, even from the womb.
Isaac is the only one of the patriarchs to have to decide which of his children will truly be his, and to whom the inheritance will pass. Abraham’s choice of Isaac was made by God. Jacob, on his deathbed, blessed each of his 12 sons.
Though Isaac may have wanted Esau to be the one that his soul blessed, he in fact gives Jacob a blessing twice; once when Jacob is disguised as Esau, and once when Isaac knows Jacob’s correct identity, when Jacob leaves home to marry.
Zornberg suggests that in order for Isaac to bless Jacob he needs to be in a state where “one is not aware of oneself,” a kind of proto-chasidic state where he can become “an instrument of God.” Perhaps it is only in the realization that a child is truly not of us but his or her own autonomous being, capable of going outside of his normal “plain” way of being, that we can let him or her continue our values. For Isaac and Rebecca to allow and encourage Jacob to take on some of the characteristics of Laban as a way to continue the Abrahamic line was a hard but necessary step. And yet, the parents Isaac and Rebecca are united by the end of the parsha, in Jacob’s listening to both his father and his mother.
In his obeying both of them, he has proven that he, with his ability to access aspects of each of their heritages, is truly theirs.
Beth Kissileff is the editor of a forthcoming anthology of academic writing on Genesis (Continuum Books). She has taught Hebrew Bible and Jewish studies at Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College and Mount Holyoke College.