Toldot, birth, a fight over the birthright!
But what are Yacov and Rivkah fighting for?
What is the meaning of this birthright they both so desperately want?
They want it so desperately that they are willing to engage in mirmah, trickery to get it. The end – the birthright – justifies the trickery, deception, and risk -- that Esau will take revenge and kill Yacov, not unlike Cayin who in a moment of passion murderered Hevel
Yacov, an esh tum, a pure person, is willing to lie to his father about who he is. Yitzhak asks him directly “who are you” – Mi atah -- an existential question is it not? – a definitional one – and Yacov tells his father “I -- am Esav your firstborn.” Let’s not split hairs by saying it is no lie and he is really saying I, Anoci, pause, Esav is your first born. Yitzhak does not believe him. He asks Yacov to come near and feels him up close and does not seem to recognize Yacov because the hands are like the hands of Esav, hairy. Note Rivkah previoulsy covered the hands with goat skin. The mother, ever protective, thinking ahead, making history not cowtowing to it.
Then Yitzhak makes his well-known declaration: the hands are the hands of Esav but the voice is the voice of Yacov. Yitzhak apparently agrees -- everything is not as it seems, but that is ok. He is satisfied & willing to give Yacov the blessing.
Perhaps he does know what is going on, and perhaps he is a participant in the deception itself, or perhaps he is too old and demented to be bothered because he is hungry and has to have his hunger satisfied, not that much different from his son Esav.
Thus he eats the fake delicacy Rivkah has prepared and smells Yakov yet again and blesses Yacov with the due of the heaven and the grain of the earth -- abundance and domination, not only over all nations but over his brother.
Yacov then is the top dog. Is that the prize he is after?
As for Esav, after pleading with his father, he gets a poor second choice, a blessing of abundance too. But he must serve his brother and must rely on the sword and when upset seems to have the right to take the law into his own hands in orderto cast his brother’s yoke from his neck.
Thus, Yitzhak, witting or unwittingly, sets in place a primal conflict, an unceasing one, between Yacov’s and Esav’s descendants.
Much earlier, almost forgotten, but in the story’s background, Yacov forced his poor brother to give up the birthright for a bowel of porridge, a little bit of red beans stirred in a pot, a little bit of cholent.
Why is Esav deserving of this fate? Why must he lose the birthright?
n A hunter, a man of the field he appears to be a violent person, perhaps not unlike Cayin. But by this moment civilization has progressed. Though Esav feels the urge to kill Yacov he never has the opportunity. Perhaps it is because Rivkah and Yacov are not innocents like Hevel. They take proper precaution and Yakov must flee. He must go to the old country to find a wife.
n Esav also seems to have no regard for his birthright, at least when hungry, as he delares earlier – I am going to die, so of what use is the birthright to me? Thus, Esav thinks mainly about the “now.” His regard for the future is low. He seeks momentary gratification.
He is governed by his appetites which
appear large. Another example is that he cannot wait for the right wife, but takes
from the women of
So can we say that what justifies the deception – the trickery -- the mirmah -- of Yacov and Rivkah is the history of the yet-to-come into existence Jewish people? Rivkah wants that future to be defined through Yacov, not through his twin Esav. She has no recourse to modern ideologies of equality or sharing. The future belongs exclusively to the one or the other. To Yacov or Esav, not both.
Prior to our Kiddush porridge, let us consider the future of Jews today – how it will be defined? For the last 500 years is not demography our destiny?
A few facts, or given a lack of complete knowledge, what appear to be facts.
According to the Encyclopedia Judaica, in 1490 there were
but 600,000 Jews in the world, of whom 450,000 lived in
n These 150,000 German, French, Polish, Lithuanian, and Hungarian Jews somehow became the approximately 6.8 million East European Jews estimated to be in the world by 1900. That is an absolutely astonishing increase, one that is very hard to fathom given that from 1648-1658 from 100,000 to 600,000 East European Jews were slaughtered by the Ukrainians bands led by Chmielnicki.
About 2.5 million of the 6.8
million Jews of East Europe at the end of the 19th century immigrated
n This vast increase in Ashkenazic Jews may be largely attributable to just 4 mothers. According to a Technion study of the DNA of Ashkenazic Jews, 40% of today’s actual population of 8 million, or about 3.5 million of us, are descended from just 4 mothers.
Is this Rivkah’s revenge?
If Toldot can be considered the birth of the Jewish people, the last 500 years has witnessed a miraculous, but extremely troubled rebirth, one agonizingly affected by the exercise of the sword.
So I end with a question -- what is the prize we seek, the birthright we want -- that of Yacov, Esav, or perhaps both. Do we want both a voice and the hands to realize our desires?