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Predestination or free choice? Truth or consequences? To communicate or not to communicate? Parshat Toldot, encompasses some very weighty issues, some of which appear elsewhere, but not in such a concentrated dose.
Let’s take Esau and Yaacov. Are we to believe, as is indicated in many cases in the Torah, that the name a child receives reflects what he is going to be, how he is going to act? Esau was called Esau because he was hairy, and Edom because he like the red stew Yaacov prepared. He was a man of the fields, an impulsive hunter who liked the chase and did not think he had any future (which is why he wouldn’t need a birthright).
Yaacov was called that because he came into the world holding onto Esau’s heel (akev). A holder-on, a person who tries to take what others have.
Are these names supposed to determine the life trajectory of the characters? Yes and no. In this particular story, the two brothers do seem to adhere to their birth names. Esau the hunter and Yaacov the finagler – for a good cause, of course, but a finagler nevertheless. And Rashi, Ibn Ezra and other commentators adhere to this determinism.
Yet something does happen to upset “fate”, in fact the same thing happens in almost all the stories in Bereshit. The order of things is disturbed. Protocol declares that the firstborn is the leader, the one who receives a double portion, the recipient of the father’s blessing and the executor of the father’s will or legacy.
But in no story of note in Genesis does this occur. God prefers the sacrifice of second born Abel over that of firstborn Cain. Isaac is preferred over Ishmael. Yaacov over Esau. Yosef over Reuben and even Yehuda. And later, Moshe over Aharon.
In other words, the “fate” of the first born is not assured. If that can happen, then other things can change too. And we will see that, despite the midrashic efforts of the rabbis, Esau is not always bad, just as Ishmael was not bad.
Sometimes the order of the world is changed not by choice but by error. We know that lying and making false claims are the stuff of both comedy and tragedy. We have in today’s parsha a tale of bitter hatred born of lies, false claims and, we will see, a breakdown in communication.
Yitzhak wants to give the firstborn blessing to Esau. Mother Rivka is against it and she concocts a scheme whereby Yaacov can receive the blessing instead. It means that Yaacov has to lie to his father, twice saying he is Esau, but he does it, albeit fearfully, at his mother’s behest.
The resulting tragedy is four-fold. The first to be struck by the unfairness is Esau, who realizes he has been tricked out of his inheritance and he, the big blustery hunter (I think of him as Bluto from Popeye) breaks down in tears and heart-wrenching cries. The second is Yitzhak, who realizes what happened and is shaken to his very core: the blind, dying father has been tricked by his younger son. The third is Yaacov, who has a death sentence on his head from Esau and has to become a fugitive. And the fourth is Rivka, whose machinations have separated her from her beloved son Yaacov, and perhaps from Yitzhak too.
Why does all this happen? We are not told, but there seem to be enough hints that communication is one of the sources of the problem, mainly between Yitzhak and Rivka.
Yitzhak has learned to be a loner. His brother Ishmael was banished, his father tried to sacrifice him, his mother, whom he could count on, died. We see him a lonely figure, praying in the field. Rivka is in awe of him when they meet and, perhaps, never overcomes this feeling of inferiority to him. Instead, she works hard to keep the home fires burning, and the house functioning properly. Distribution of labor but not of ideas.
For example, we read that Rivka sought out God to understand why her pregnancy was so hard. God tells her that she will have twins, two nations will emerge from them and the older (Esau) will serve the younger (Yaacov). Does she ever tell this to Yitzhak? Had she done so, wouldn’t telling the truth have precluded these terrible consequences for all four family members?
The acts of our ancestors are signs for their offspring. We today seem to be continuing in the footsteps of our illustrious forebears, with our belief in predestination, our seeming tendency to prefer consequences to the truth and our overabundance of communication means that in many cases actually contribute to a lack of communication.
But we also have to remember that we can take ourselves in hand and get our act together. In fact, we will read how Yaacov, the finagler, becomes Israel the brave warrior against the greatest of odds. How we can, if we work hard, change what seems to be destiny. And the quicker the better.