Parshat Toldot

Torah Reading for Week of November 20-26, 2011

“Reading our Story Anew”
By Rabbi Miriyam Glazer, AJRCA Professor of Literature


Every time we sit down to read, we bring our whole history with us.  Sometimes, indeed, our experience of a text is shaped less by what the text may actually say than on what we assumed it said before we even read it.  How do we open our eyes to see a text anew, and thus open ourselves to possibilities of feeling and thought we hadn’t even imagined before?

The story of Esau, which begins in parashat Toldot, offers us just that challenge.  Esau is the older son by minutes of adventuresome, determined Rebekah and mild unassertive Isaac. While his twin brother Jacob will grow up to become Yisrael, progenitor of our people, Esau has a radically different destiny. In fact, Jewish tradition has long despised him.  Esav ha rashah, “Esau the evil one”, the rabbis called him.

So evil, indeed, that tradition maintains that it preceded even his birth.  When Rebekah’s “days to bear were full,” says Toldot, “behold there were twins in her womb” (Gen. 25:24).  But the Hebrew word for “twins” in  that line  is “defective,” explains Rashi. It is missing both an aleph and a yud.  Midrash tells us that the odd spelling is because the not-yet-born “twins” themselves were defective. Only one of them, Jacob, was righteous. Before he was ever born, the other, Esau, was wicked (Braishit Rabbah 63).

And once he is born? Covered all over by hair, newborn Esau is reddish — indeed, he may be as reddish as the “red, red” lentils (Gen. 25:30) his brother Jacob cooks years later when Esau returns home from hunting. As reddish as the sandstone of Edom, the “Redland,” the rocky desert kingdom southeast of ancient Judah with which Esau becomes associated  — and which in later centuries our prophetic and rabbinic traditions loathed.

The prophet Obadiah, for example, accuses Edom of “gloating” when Judah was attacked, gazing “with glee” on the “day of disaster.” (Obadiah 12 ff): “How could you, Edom, betray those who fled/ On that day of anguish?”, he cries out.  That same rage infuses the writings of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Malachi and Joel, for all of whom Edom is an enemy, a rival to Israel ever since the birth of Esau.

Following that prophetic tradition, Edom in our literature becomes the code for the cause of Jewish suffering, the Other who ravaged our cities, exiled us, ghettoized us, burned us, tortured us, forced us to convert. For the ancient rabbis Edom was Rome and so, later, was Christendom.  Esav, ha’rashah…

But if even for a moment we allow ourselves to put aside those long-worn lenses, we may discover that the Torah’s actual depiction of Esau is more nuanced, more compassionate, than we may have thought.  Indeed, it is in describing Esau that Torah delivers one of its most emotionally knotted lines:

Isaac loved Esau, because he brought him venison, but Rebekah loved Jacob (25:28).

Now, if we were not biased against Esau, how would we interpret that line? Does Torah not call on us to feel compassion for this rejected twin, this child unloved by his own mother — and loved by his father on condition only?

Did Esau turn himself into a “skillful hunter,” in the hope that at least if he brought his father meat, his father would love him — even if his mother never would?

Later in Toldot, the young adolescent Esau will discover that his brother Jacob, with their mother’s collusion, also stole the blessing originally intended for Esau himself.  We may dismiss his pain or find reasons to find him responsible for his own loss.  But again the Torah text, in its succinct way, belies our desire to dismiss Esau.  Its words reverberate with inescapable heartbreak:

Esau said to his father,‘Have you only one blessing, father? Bless me, me also, father!’ And Esau lifted up his voice and wept”  (27:38)

If we put our prejudices aside, surely we can see that Torah is calling upon us to feel compassion for the bereft Esau.  Indeed, it models reconciliation for us, for years later the long estranged twins will themselves be reconciled.  Defying Jacob’s fears, when they confront each other in the desert,

“…Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept” (Gen 33:4).

Perhaps with that image of reconciliation in mind, in our own day we can let the words of Torah come alive for us again: we can free ourselves to perceive Esau not as the enemy we imagined him to be, but as family, as a brother, just as our ancestor Jacob, the beloved son, himself learned to do.

Leave a Reply