Posted by: Subway Conductor | November 20, 2020

A Derasha for Parshat Toldot

With this week’s Torah portion, we begin the story of Jacob and Esau. This narrative continues over the next couple of portions. In order to understand these fascinating, but also problematic episodes, we should keep in mind that Jacob and Esau are not merely individuals, but representatives of    nations. The Torah makes this explicit. Rebecca, suffering from a difficult pregnancy, goes to “inquire of the Lord.” And she is told,

“Two nations are in your womb,

Two separate peoples shall issue from your body.

One people shall be mightier than the other,

And the older shall serve the younger.”

Jacob, of course, represents Israel. Indeed, his name will be changed to Israel. Esau, in the Torah, is associated with the nation of Edom, however, in later rabbinic literature, he is associated with Rome. If we keep this idea in mind, then many of the problematic episodes in the story of Jacob and Esau can be viewed in a different light. Obviously, Jacob is the continuation of the covenantal tradition which started with Abraham. Ultimately, the story will focus on Jacob and his descendants – the Children of Israel.

In this week’s portion there is a verse that has always been a puzzle. The Torah tells us that “Isaac favored Esau because he had a taste for game, but Rebecca favored Jacob.” This would mean that Isaac preferred Esau since this son, who was a hunter, could bring his father fresh meat. How can it be that Isaac favored Esau over Jacob? The explanation that is given, “because he had a taste for game” is even more perplexing.  Did the patriarch make his choice based on his stomach? This does not make sense.

There are several solutions that are offered for this problem. Rashi gives an explanation based on a close reading of the words. The phrase translated here, “he had a taste for game” literally means “there was trapping in his mouth.” Let us remember that in Hebrew, the word for hunting and trapping are the same word. The word “game” here is the word, “that which is trapped.” And the Torah states that it was “in his mouth” which is translated here “he had a taste for.” Rashi reads this phrase, “Isaac favored Esau because he (Esau) trapped him (Isaac) with his mouth.” This is to say, that Esau pretended to be a super punctilious observer of the mitzvot. He would ask his father questions that made it seem like he was eager to observe every detail. As such, he used his mouth to trick or trap his father. Isaac was duped by his son. Why didn’t Rebecca fall for his tricks? Well, Isaac was brought up in the house of Abraham. He was accustomed to living with honest people. Rebecca grew up with Laban, who we will learn in subsequent portions, was a master trickster and con man. So, she was wary of such individuals.

I heard another solution from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who remarked that parents sometimes favor a child who is a problem over a model child precisely because he is problematic.

I believe a third solution is that Isaac saw a tremendous potential in Esau. A potential that was not ultimately fulfilled, but nonetheless, was there. There is a hint to this in the fact that the Torah tells us that Esau was “reddish” in color. There is another biblical character who is described as being “reddish” – that is King David.

I have discussed the idea previously that great people have an especially strong yetzer hara – evil inclination. Greatness is not acquired at birth, it is achieved by constant struggling to overcome our inherent nature. The stronger that nature is, the greater must be the effort to master it and, therefore, the greater the person becomes. We know that King David was not an innocent person. The Bible tells how he gave into his impulse and desire for Bathsheba. To become King David – the greatest king of Israel – he had much to overcome. Esau had this same potential and that is what Isaac perceived. Unfortunately, Esau did not become the great person he could have become. But one does not know that at such an early point in life. It could have gone either way. Isaac should be credited with having seen this innate potential in his son.

If we understand the story in this way, then this is another example of this idea that the patriarchs were not born perfect or great. Rather, they had to strive to become great. We saw this play out in the life of Abraham and we will see it over the next several Torah portions where Jacob, who is certainly possessed of a problematic nature, will ultimately wrestle to become Israel.

Good Shabbos!


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