Parashah Tol'dot

November 4, 2021Robin Lilien

This week, we read Tol’dot, meaning “generations.” It is the story of the family of Isaac and Rebekah. More broadly, it is about how God’s covenant with Abraham continued on to another generation through his son Isaac to his grandson Jacob. The protagonist of this story is Rebekah. She was childless until she was 40 years old, then became pregnant with twins, and felt their struggle within her womb. Rebekah was told by God that these two children will branch off into two separate nations, and one nation will dominate over the other. The two brothers were born as twins and could not be more different. Esau is distinctively red and hairy. Jacob is ordinary in appearance. Their interests are completely opposite. Esau is a man of the outdoors and a hunter. Jacob is most comfortable at home in the tents.

God also told Rebekah that the elder will serve the younger, and she understood this meant the younger Jacob was to receive the covenantal blessing instead of the older Esau. We are told how Esau cared less about his birthright than his hunger and sold his birthright to his brother for some stew. At the appropriate time, Rebekah directed Jacob so that he would receive the blessing from his father Isaac. Rebekah knew she had to help Jacob achieve his destiny. In this story, Rebekah believes she is doing God’s will and will do whatever she needs to do to accomplish this. Rebekah knew she must favor Jacob since he is the one God has told her will be the leader. 

On the other side of the deception is the father Isaac, who is now quite old and has poor eyesight. Isaac asked Esau to bring cooked meat and then he would bless him. Before that can happen, Jacob has brought cooked meat for Isaac to eat. Jacob is dressed in Esau’s clothing and has animal fur on his body so that he will appear hairy like Esau to his father. Isaac repeatedly questions Jacob about his identity: “How did you find game so quickly?” “Are you really my son Esau?” Then Isaac gives Jacob his blessing. With all his questions, it seems possible that Isaac does not really believe this is Esau. Otherwise, why would he keep asking? Perhaps Isaac also knows that Jacob is the son who must have the blessing and so he goes along with this trick.

I recall learning this story when I was a child and in my simpler understanding then it seemed to be a story about sibling rivalry. Now, I see this story as being about conflict. The two brothers are in conflict before they are born. It seems as if they are jockeying to be in the first-born position as they are being born. Since only one can be born first, this sets them up for a lifetime of struggle with each other. As the brothers grow up, their conflict continues. Their lives in conflict very much reflect our world.

We live in a world filled with human conflict. On the largest scale, there are wars on our planet between nations and within nations. There are protests and marches. There are political and legal battles. On the smallest scale, there are the everyday conflicts between individuals. The history of our world is a series of stories about people and nations in conflict. That is what you read in history books. Sometimes it is because one nation or group wants to dominate another. Other times it is because some people want change and others do not want change, and of course change can affect dominance.

While conflict can be bad if it causes war with death and destruction, conflict can be good if it produces change that is positive. We all know of protests and demonstrations that have helped to change our nation for the better. Examples are the Women’s Suffrage protests and the March on Washington in 1963. These led to important changes toward equality in our country.

There are also organizations working ongoing to improve the world, Tikkun Olam. WRJ promotes progressive Jewish values, supports social justice issues, and strengthens women’s voices. We are striving to make a difference in the world. We are working for change that will positively impact lives. There will always be conflict and struggle, just like we saw with Esau and Jacob. That does not deter us.  I am proud to me a part of WRJ as we pursue the sacred mission of repairing this world.

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