A renaissance painting of two people, one of them Esau, speaking while crouched over a small flame
"Esau Selling His Birthright" by Hendrick ter Brugghen, ca. 1627, illustrates a scene from Toldot, this week's Torah portion.

A saga that begins with strife and ends with hope

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The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Genesis 25:19-28:9

Here, just in time for Toldot, this week’s Torah portion, I present the toldot (lineage) of Jacob and Esau (translation by Robert Alter of UC Berkeley):

Isaac was 40 years old when he took as wife Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-Aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. And Isaac pleaded with the Lord on behalf of his wife, for she was barren, and the Lord granted his plea, and his wife Rebekah conceived.

And the children clashed within her, and she said, “Then why me?” and she went to inquire of the Lord, and the Lord said to her:

“Two nations — in your womb,

two peoples from your loins shall issue.

People over people shall prevail,

the elder, the younger’s slave.

And when her time was come to give birth, look, there were twins in her womb.” (Genesis 25:20-24)

Imagine delving into this as the votes are being counted in a divided country. (I am writing this on Nov. 5 in the post-election milieu.) You may be familiar with what follows:

“The lads grew up, Esau was a man skilled in hunting, a man of the field, Jacob was a simple man, a dweller in tents. And Isaac loved Esau for the game that he brought him, but Rebekah loved Jacob.” (Genesis 25:25-28)

One day Esau returns from hunting and craves the “red stuff” that Jacob was cooking. Jacob offered to give his brother some “red stuff” in exchange for his birthright — the special honor that Esau possesses as the older son.

Enter Rebekah. When the time comes for Isaac to bestow his blessing on his sons, Jacob and his mother contrive to deceive Isaac into blessing Jacob in Esau’s place. When Esau finds that his blessing had been given to Jacob, “Esau seethed with resentment … and said in his heart, ‘As soon as the time for mourning my father comes round, I will kill Jacob my brother.’” Jacob flees.

In time, God changes Jacob’s name to Israel (Genesis 32:28-29). Jacob’s descendants are the 12 tribes of Israel, and Esau’s descendants are Edomites.

This week, 157 years ago, on Nov. 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address:

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Was the new “nation” a product of the Treaty of Paris (1783) ending the Revolutionary War, or the Articles of Confederation (1777) or, finally, the Constitution (1789)?

No. Lincoln does not go to a document that protected the slave trade. His rhetorical formula, “Four score and seven years ago”‍ (1863 minus 87), takes us to 1776, the Declaration of Independence.

“ … [D]edicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”

We still are. According to historian Garry Wills, Lincoln reinterprets the Declaration of Independence as “a matter of founding law.”

We would call that a midrash.

Here is a midrash in the Zohar, Shemot 12b, Pritzker Edition, by Kabbalah scholar Daniel Matt of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley:

Rabbi Yitzhak said, “The deliverance of Israel depends only upon weeping — when the tears of weeping shed by Esau before his father will completely end, as written as is written: Esau raised his voice and wept.” (Genesis 27:38).

Rabbi Yose said, “That weeping wept by Esau and those tears brought Israel down into his exile. Once those tears cease through the weeping of Israel, they will come out of his exile, as it is written: With weeping they will come, and with consolations I will guide them.” (Jeremiah 31:9)

Lincoln knew that only when the tears of racial oppression are ended would “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

With weeping they will come, and with consolations I will guide them.”

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.:

“… the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”

“With weeping they will come, and with consolations I will guide them.”

This saga begins with strife and it ends with hope in Genesis 35:29:

“And Isaac breathed his last, and died, and was gathered to his kin, old and sated with years, and Esau and Jacob his sons buried him.”

I imagine Esau and Jacob, burying their father, weeping on each other, ending their exile.

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan
Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan lives and works in Berkeley, California. He can be reached at [email protected].