Gen. 25:19 – 28:9
by Rabbi Baht Weiss
“I often joke that I have my own Esau and Jacob. My two sons could not be more different.”
In Toldot we learn about Isaac and Rebecca’s twin sons, Esau and Jacob. Initially we read that Isaac pleaded with God on behalf of his wife, because she was unable to conceive. And the text tells us that immediately God heard his plea, and Rebecca conceived. However, we are then told that the children struggled in her womb, and Rebecca cries out in distress, “If so, why do I exist?” God answers her directly and tells her, “Two nations are in your womb. Two separate nations shall issue from your body; One people shall be mightier than the other. And the older shall serve the younger.”
This is what we call foreshadowing.
Isaac and Rebecca do indeed have twin sons. Some say twins have a special bond and an innate sense about one another. Not so with these two boys. Esau and Jacob fought from the womb. And while they were twins, they could not have been more different.
Esau was born first. It is said he emerged like a red, hairy mantle. His name Esau, Esav in Hebrew, may be a play on the words Se’ir–hair – as he was hairy. Then his brother Jacob emerged, seconds later, holding on to Esau’s heel. The Hebrew of Jacob, Yaakov is a play on the word heel. The verb means to overreach, and Jacob tried to overreach his brother.
It is said that when the boys grew up, Esau became a skilled hunter, a man of the outdoors but Jacob was a mild man who stayed in the camp.
I often joke that I have my own Esau and Jacob. My two sons could not be more different. I always wonder how two people, with the same genes, raised in the same house can be so different. My older son is more like Jacob, more analytical, a homebody, who enjoys reading and piano and theater. We joke that he is my rabbi-in-training. He is in many ways, my mini me. My younger son, on the other hand, while only 5, is more like Esau. He is a wild man—who loves sports, police officers and firemen, is very social while also impulsive, stubborn, and lucky to be so cute. I genuinely love them both because of their differences—they add so much joy and excitement to our lives.
However, Esau and Jacob’s family dynamics were quite different—our text tells us that Isaac favored Esau because he had a taste for game, meaning he liked what his son hunted for him. And Rebecca favored Jacob.
Like Jacob and Esau, our sons always want to be the favorite—telling us what makes each of them the best child, the better child, and so on. But unlike Rebecca and Isaac-as parents, we refuse to make either child a favorite –even though it’s obvious to us that they each have a preferred parent 😊.
The basic gist of this Biblical story is that twice sneaky Jacob tricks Esau –first out of his birthright and then out of his blessing. In this first scenario, Esau comes in famished from hunting and encounters Jacob making some sort of stew. Asking to be fed, Jacob says he will give him some of his dish, if Esau is willing to sell his birthright, what is promised to the older child. Esau’s impulsive response is, “What good is it to me if I am starving to death.” For this interaction, Esau is viewed by later prophets and rabbinic commentators as “spurning his birthright.” He is blamed for being dismissive of his inheritance due to his need for instant gratification. If he had received the birthright, we would be singing the Avot to “Avraham, Yitzak v’ Esav” rather than to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Just like Ishmael, Abraham’s first-born, son, the elder child doesn’t become one of the three Jewish Patriarchs, Esau is usurped by Jacob, once again grabbing at his heel. But Esau is faulted for not valuing the birthright enough, that he was willing to toss it aside. Surley he failed that test.
The next incident is even more devious and, in my opinion, even more disturbing because it includes parental involvement. We learn that Isaac is old, and his eyes were too dim to see. He calls his older son Esau over—asks him to hunt him some game and then says he will offer him a special blessing. This is when Rebecca intervenes—she tells Jacob that she will prepare the dish for him, and he should put animal skins on his arms so that when he goes to serve his nearly blind father his dinner, he will think he is hairy like Esau and give him Esau’s special blessing.
Now, it is fair to point out that Rebecca was told by God that the older son shall serve the younger, so perhaps she felt she was doing God’s work. Or perhaps knowing her two sons, she knew that Jacob was more capable of being a leader to the Jewish people than impulsive Esau. Still, this idea of tricking a spouse and playing kids off of each other does not seem to be a healthy situation.
The line that really tears at my heart strings is after Jacob tricks his aging father into giving him the blessings, Esau appears and when he realizes his father has already given away his blessing he cries to his father and repeatedly begs, “Bless me too!…Have you not reserved a blessing for me, have you but one blessing, bless me too”
Can there be any sadder words than these? A man tricked by his mother and brother and betrayed by his father.
Why is only one son allowed to be the primary heir—isn’t there enough love in the hearts of both parents to encourage and support both of their diverse children? Rabbi Janice Garfunkel shares that this parsha “wrestles with the concept of masculinity in a way that still resonates with us today, thousands of years after it was written. Twins are born. One represents the ideal of masculinity-ruddy, hairy, an outdoorsman and a hunter, a man of appetites, one would imagine Esau as muscular, a “doer” rather than a thinker, a fighter, a jock…The other twin is literally a mama’s boy, the favorite of his mother, a dweller in tents, a maker of stews—we imagine Jacob to be more studious and thoughtful. We can easily imagine a pale Jacob wearing a slender black suit, studying Talmud or leaning over his computer…” What Rabbi Garfunkel points out that Judaism favors the intellectual over the sporty, the brains over the brawns. I wonder if this is where the stereotype of Jews being poor athletes originates–the Jew is here cunning and not physically strong. And yet we see how Israel today is changing that narrative.
What I think is most dangerous in this story is the valuing of one child over another and the expectations we place on our sons to be who we want them to be. Sometimes my older son will ask me “Mom, do you want me to be a Rabbi,” and I answer I want you to be whatever you want to be…But then I question myself—is he doing the majority of the thing he does because he wants to or is he doing it to make me proud. I don’t want to be unintentionally as manipulative as Rebecca, who even though she thinks she knows what is best for her children, doesn’t allow them the space to figure things out on their own. This cautionary tale reminds me not only how dangerous it is to show favoritism to our children, but also to put too much pressure and too many expectations on them—overlooking their own desires so that they can satisfy our own needs.
It is easy to judge Rebecca and Isaac for the way they treat their children—how they miss truly seeing them as they are. Some suggest that Isaac wasn’t really physically limited in vision, but also metaphorically limited—he couldn’t see the individual gifts of each of his children.
I am thankful that my kids are so unique—it makes life interesting–they each teach me new perspectives every day. What I must work on is making sure I truly see them for who they are, not for whom I want them to be.