The many relationships of Jacob and Esau

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By Rabbi Alan Iser

This week’s Torah portion is Toldot, Genesis 25:19 – 28:9.

At the heart of Toldot is the troubled relationship between the twins Esau and Jacob. Jacob takes advantage of a ravenous Esau to induce his brother to sell his firstborn birthright for a pot of stew. Later, Jacob, at the urging of his mother, Rebecca, deceives his nearly blind father, Isaac. Dressed up like Esau, Jacob steals the blessing, intended for his older brother.

What do the rabbis of the Talmud make of this tale of sibling rivalry and deception? They see Jacob and Rebecca as fulfilling God’s will that Jacob, although the younger brother, is the son destined and worthy to inherit the Abrahamic spiritual legacy.

In the rabbinic view, Jacob is a guileless, bookish yeshivah bachur, while Esau is a deceptive, violent person who is guilty of murder, theft, rape and idolatry. Rebecca is justified in her plot to steal the blessing because she had received a prophecy while the twins were in her womb that the older brother would be subservient to the younger; she is following the divine plan.

While the rabbinic take on Rebecca’s role is grounded in the plain meaning of the text, one might ask why she doesn’t inform her husband of this prophecy. However, the rabbinic depiction of Esau and Jacob is based on their reading into this story the future rivalry between the Roman Empire and the Jews, with Esau being deemed the ancestor of Rome (and in medieval commentaries, the ancestor of Christianity). So for the talmudic sages, the story has meta-historical significance.

Were the rabbis comfortable with deception in the service of God’s design for history? Not totally, it would seem from some midrashic comments. Isaac, they opine, suffers greatly once he realizes the subterfuge. His trembling at this realization, says the midrash, was greater than his trembling when he was bound on the altar as a sacrifice by Abraham.

The chief medieval book of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar, sees Jacob’s trembling from his own sons’ actions with Joseph as Jacob’s comeuppance. Furthermore, there is retribution for Esau’s suffering when he learns his blessing has been stolen as he bursts into a great, bitter cry. According to the midrash, God reacts to Esau’s crying measure for measure, causing the Jews to cry out in the book of Esther when they learn of Haman’s plot.

A straightforward reading of the Torah without the rabbinic lens reveals Esau to be not such a bad character. He is a rash, immature macho man who, in the end, reconciles with and forgives Jacob.

Jacob is not a blameless individual, as his very name might mean overreacher or usurper. As for Jacob, is the Torah passing a verdict on his actions? We see that he himself is repeatedly deceived by Laban in giving him Leah as a wife instead of Rachel, and withholding equitable payment for serving as a shepherd. Jacob, in turn, is deceived by his own sons when they sell Joseph into slavery but insist that Joseph has been killed.
And does the Torah hint at Jacob’s remorse for his stealing the blessing? When Jacob encounters Esau again after many years and offers him a lavish gift, the word he uses as he urged Esau to accept a gift (Genesis 33:11) is “birkhati” my blessing, an unusual locution.
Is it possible that the story of Jacob and Esau operates on two levels — the divine plan with God’s choice of Jacob over Esau, and the human level of deceit and moral consequences? Do the ends justify the means, so Jacob comes out on top, or is God’s design for history and its execution simply inscrutable to
human understanding?

Rabbi Alan Iser is a senior adjunct professor of theology and religious studies at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

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