Parshat Toldot

By Rabbi Alicia Magal, ’03, AJRCA Professor of Liturgy & Tefillah

My husband Itzhak and I are the proud grandparents, Saba and Savta, of 7 ½  year-old  twin girls, born to our daughter Tali and her husband Craig.  The girls couldn’t be more different! Gabriella is blond while Amalia is brunette. Their personalities are quite distinct: the timing of when they sat up, crawled, walked, and now have very different likes and dislikes about what they wear, what they enjoy eating, their preferred sports and activities in second grade, their choice of instrument — Gabriella studies piano, and Amalia is learning violin — etc.   And yet, their parents and both sets of grandparents love them equally, without favoritism.  We hope to nurture them to express their individuality as they grow up, without judgment about which talents, tastes, skills, or style they each develop.


This week’s Torah portion, Toldot, Genesis 25:19 to 28:9,  meaning birthings, generations, genealogy, story of descendants,  tells the story of a very different tale of twins. Rebekah and Isaac are overjoyed to learn they will have a child after years of barrenness, but Rebekah senses painful struggles between the two yet-to-be born babies in her womb, and gives birth to two very different baby boys who seem to be opposites and adversaries from before their birth, at the moment of birth when Jacob/ Yaakov (Hebrew root Akev – “heel”) grasps Esau’s heel, and all through their growing up years:  the smooth-skinned, mild, stay-at-home Jacob, the favorite of his mother Rebekah; and the hairy, outdoor-loving Esau, whose hunting skills are favored by his father Isaac.  They are constant rivals for their parents’ attention and blessing.


After coming home from a hunting trip, Esau says he is famished to the point to death, and begs his brother for some red lentil soup. Jacob tells him he must trade him his birthright, to which Esau impetuously agrees. Years later, when their father Isaac is old and blind, Jacob tricks his father into giving him the blessing for the firstborn as well. Esau is murderously angry, so his twin Jacob flees his home out of fear of his brother, and, upon his mother’s advice, travels back to his mother’s hometown to find a wife at his uncle Laban’s house. He doesn’t realize that it will be twenty years before he will return. The descendants of Jacob (whose name will be changed to Israel through later struggles) will become B’nai Israel, the Jewish people.  Esau’s descendants are to become the Edomites, Israel’s foes.  Later in history, the name “Esau” will become a code to mean Christian Rome.


This demonizing of Esau’s qualities as a hairy hunter whose hands are stained by blood, and elevating of Jacob’s being “tam” – pure, simple, blameless – bothers me.  I understand that Jacob is singled out by his mother Rebekah based on the prophecy she received from God that “two nations are in your womb, and two kingdoms will separate from within you. The greater one will serve the younger…” (Genesis 25:23). Perhaps we also recognize, along with traditional commentary, that Jacob is the appropriate, designated one who will carry on the line and heritage of the Jewish people. But perhaps, on a metaphoric level, we also understand that these two impulses exist within us… that we each contain “twins” with both impulsive and pure aspects. We also must accept that sometimes we must follow difficult paths as Jacob had to, and that through struggle, exile, and finally maturity, as we’ll see in the next few portions, we too can fulfill our destiny.


I would wish for our granddaughters that they will be able to cheer each other on and not compete.  I pray for the day when the descendants of Jacob and Esau, and of Isaac and Ishmael as well, may all come to see themselves as part of a common ancestor, and the Abrahamic Reunion may come to fruition.  I may not see this, but I hope Gabriella and Amalia or their descendants might.