Our cat Sadie has been prescribed a hypoallergenic food that contains, of all things, venison. This actually has a connection to this week’s Torah portion, Toldot, as you’ll see. Also, since Sunday is Rosh Hodesh Kislev (first day of the month of Kislev), a special haftarah involving a new moon is read, I Samuel 20:18 – 20:42. Jonathan and David communicate using flights of arrows, which also have a tie-in to Toldot. The colors will show you the tie-ins.
Toldot, like most of Genesis, is essentially about family dynamics, pretty much a “How Not to Parent” manual. Even the apparently chronologically out of order story in Ch. 26, about Isaac, Rebecca, famine, Abimelech, and wells, reflects family dynamics. Isaac’s experiences with Abimelech recall his father’s. Isaac and Rebecca are fleeing a famine. Isaac passes off Rebecca as his sister to protect himself (this time Abimelech figures out the truth when he sees Isaac “playing with” (mitzachek) Rebecca in a clearly spousal manner) and he re-digs the stopped-up wells of Abraham. But it’s not necessarily abnormal to model your father’s exploits, except the bit about endangering your wife, of course.
The rest of the portion is full of family dysfunction: husband-wife lack of communication, sibling rivalry, parental favoritism, and threatened fratricide. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz recently gave an online talk, Why and How to Study Biblical Characters in which he emphasized that these characters were not saints but people like us, and the plain text here certainly demonstrates that. [Keep that in mind when you come across rabbinic attempts to white-wash the trickery of Rebecca and Jacob and supersize Esau’s faults.]
The root of the family fracture might be found in Ch. 25:20-27. Rebecca does not have children for the first 20 years of their marriage; only when Isaac finally entreats the Lord on her behalf does she conceive. Yet only Rebecca is told that she will have twins, that their in-utero antics are the beginning of ongoing conflict, and that the elder will serve the younger. And either Rebecca does not tell Isaac this crucial message, or he does not listen. When the twins are born, their appearance and temperaments are very different. It is not surprising that Rebecca favors Jacob, the younger twin who resembles at least in temperament: quiet, clever, opportunistic. Isaac appreciates Esau’s physicality and filial love, and is blind to Esau’s shortcomings, like his total unsuitability to be the spiritual head of the family. Maybe Esau sees that too, whence his casual trade of birthright for Jacob’s stew; the birthright involved priestly duties for the family, more suited to Jacob.
Matters come to a head when Isaac decides to give Esau the blessing that will make him his heir as head of the family. He sends out Esau to hunt some fresh game (often translated as venison) with sword and bow and arrows to make a tasty stew before the blessing. He doesn’t tell Rebecca of this momentous event, but she overhears. She convinces Jacob to deceive Isaac, pretend to be Esau, and get the blessing. She never says why. Had she told him of the elder-serving-the-younger prophecy? Or does he agree to cover his arms with animal skins and pass as his hirsute brother because he just wants the blessing? In any event, the ruse works. Isaac thinks Rebecca’s goat stew is venison and, though somewhat suspicious (“the voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau,” 27:22), he gives Jacob the coveted blessing. Esau returns and is enraged by this betrayal. Isaac gives him a secondary blessing, but Esau vows to kill Jacob once Isaac is dead. Rebecca sends Jacob to her brother Laban in Haran, ostensibly to find a nice monotheistic girl to marry, but in reality to save his life, not knowing she will never see him again. Isaac acquiesces.
Next time: what goes around comes around.
It’s not your imagination. Twins are indeed much more common than they used to be. In the U.S., about 2 percent of births were of multiples (mainly twins) from 1915 through the 1970’s. Since 1980, there’s been a steady increase in multiple births, so that in 2009, 1 in every 30 babies born was a twin, versus 1 in 53in 1980. This is mostly attributable to increased maternal age and infertility treatments (see Three Decades of Twin Births in the United States, 1980–2009 Joyce A. Martin, M.P.H.; Brady E. Hamilton, Ph.D.; and Michelle J.K. Osterman, M.H.S). This creates interesting situations in Modern Orthodox synagogues concerning the Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah for a boy-girl pair of fraternal twins. Last week, my husband Rich saw how one such synagogue dealt with this. The boy chanted the full Torah portion (Hayyei Sarah) and haftarah and spoke about the portion and his mitzvah project. So far, so usual. Then the girl came up and chanted the first 28 verses of the following portion (Toldot), from the book and spoke about that section. As Rich put it, “The two speeches and the Toldot portion were coordinated as life as a twin and some elements where partners function as one and partners function as individuals. She included her mitzvah project and why it differed from her twin brother’s in a way that reflects their individuality as people. Then they coordinated the final few minutes of a joint speech, sometimes speaking in much the way of responsive reading, sometimes speaking in unison, particularly when thanking the people who supported them.” An impressive amount of thought had obviously gone into this, in order to celebrate in a manner that both adhered to a Modern Orthodox understanding of Jewish law and spotlighted the girl and well as the boy. IGP
The Children’s Bible in a Nutshell
After Noah came Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Jacob was more famous than
his brother, Esau, because Esau sold Jacob his birthmark in exchange for
some pot roast. Jacob had a son named Joseph who wore a really loud
Every hour on the hour
Two new deer hunters decided to separate to increases their chances. “What if we get lost?” says one of them. “Fire three shots up in the air, every hour on the hour” says the other. “I saw it on TV.” Sure enough, one of the hunters gets lost, so he fires three shots up into the air every hour on the hour. The next day the other hunter finds his friend with the help of the Forest Ranger. “Did you do what I said?” asked the hunter. “Yes, I fired three shots up into the air every hour on the hour, until I ran out of arrows.”
TOM PAPA: FAVORITE CHILD
I always thought I was going to have just one kid because if you have more than one, then you’ve got to decide which one you like better. That’s always mean. It’s true. Parents always lie about it. ‘Oh, we like you all the same.’ No, you don’t. You love them all, of course, but there’s always that one kid — if he got lost — I mean, you’ll look for him, but not right away.