The portion of Toldot tells the story of Jacob and Esau, from birth through their famous feud. It also includes Isaac’s experiences in the land of Gerar, where he re-digs the wells of his father.
The Childhood of Jacob and Esau
After many years of childless marriage, Isaac and Rebecca pray for offspring, and are blessed with a long-awaited pregnancy. The pregnancy is a difficult one, however, and Rebecca seeks the wisdom of God to understand her travails. She is told that two nations strive for power in her belly, and one day the younger one will prevail.
When the twins are born, the older child is red and hairy, and the younger emerges grasping his brother’s ankle. They are therefore named Esau (from the Hebrew word for fully-formed) and Jacob (from the Hebrew word for ankle).
The two boys grow, and develop disparate interests. While Esau hunts, Jacob remains a homebody. The Torah tells us Isaac loved Esau for the game in his mouth, but Rebecca loved Jacob.
One day, Esau returns from the field after a strenuous day of hunting, and demands from Jacob the red, red concoction he is preparing. Jacob agrees to share his lentil stew with his brother, on condition Esau swear over his birthright to his younger twin. Esau, believing he will die otherwise anyway, agrees. Jacob gives his brother the meal, and Esau eats, drinks, rises, and, the Torah remarks, spurns his birthright.
Points to Ponder
The Torah tells us Isaac loved Esau for the game in his mouth, but no reason is given for Rebecca’s love of Jacob. What do you think this means? Do you think each parent loved the other child, as well?
Like Father, Like Son
This passage contains the only stories in the Torah in which Isaac is not identified with his father or his sons, yet it is remarkably reminiscent of Abraham’s adventures.
Moved by famine, Isaac decides to leave his home in search of fertile land. After God tells him not to leave the land which He has promised to Abraham’s offspring, Isaac settles in Gerar, land of the Philistines, instead. Like his father before him, he passes his wife off as his sister, for fear that the locals might kill him and take her. As time goes by, however, nobody interferes with Rebecca, and one day Abimelech, king of Gerar, notices that the pair behaves more like a married couple than siblings. He confronts Isaac, who explains his fears. Abimelech accuses Isaac of courting catastrophe, and issues a decree that no one may touch Rebecca.
Isaac grows wealthy in the land of Abimelech, and his people become jealous. They block the wells Abraham had dug, and Abimelech himself urges Isaac to leave. Isaac moves on, redigging the wells his father dug before, and calls them each by the names his father gave them. With each new well Isaac’s men discover, the Philistines dispute their claim, until finally Isaac digs a well and is left alone. This well he calls Rehoboth, as God has at last granted him ample space to grow. From there, Isaac returns to Beersheba, where he builds an altar and his servants dig a well.
Abimelech comes to see Isaac, who is surprised by the king’s appearance after he asked Isaac to leave his land. Abimelech seeks a treaty with Isaac, like with Abraham before him (see Genesis 21:22-23), and Isaac agrees.
The chapter closes with the marriage of Esau to Judith and Basemath, two Hittite women whom his parents despised.
When God tells Isaac not to leave the land, He blesses Isaac as he blessed Abraham: that his offspring shall be like the stars in the sky. The Israel Bible cites the poetry of partisan fighter Hannah Senesh to explain the connection. “There are stars whose radiance is visible on earth though they have long been extinct,” Senesh wrote. “There are people whose brilliance continues to light the world though they are no longer among the living. These lights are particularly bright when the night is dark. They light the way for mankind.” How fitting a comparison to the Jews, whose role in the world is to serve as a “light unto the nations”!
Points to Ponder
What do you think is the significance of Isaac retracing his father’s footsteps? What can we learn from the subtle differences in their experiences?
Of Blessings and Deceit
Blind Isaac reaches a ripe old age and decides it is time to bless his beloved son, Esau. He sends the younger man to hunt and prepare him a feast so that he may be moved to give his blessing. Overhearing Isaac’s instructions, Rebecca calls Jacob and tells him to bring her two goats for her to prepare in place of Esau’s feast so that Jacob may go in his brother’s place to receive Isaac’s blessing. At first reluctant and fearing he may get caught, Jacob resists, but ultimately he follows his mother’s instructions.
Jacob brings the delicacies his mother has prepared to his father, who is immediately suspicious of how little time it took him to return. Jacob cites God’s interference, further rousing Isaac’s suspicions. However, when he feels the goat hair Rebecca had wrapped around Jacob’s bare arms, he is confused, for he says, “The voice is that of Jacob, but the arms are those of Esau.”
Isaac accepts Jacob’s feast, then offers him a blessing. He asks God to grant him the bounty of the land and power over the offspring of his brother. He asks that those who curse him be cursed and those who bless him be blessed.
When Esau returns to discover his father has already given his blessing away, he is incensed, and Isaac is frightened at having been deceived. Esau begs his father for another blessing, plaintively asking if he hasn’t something in reserve. At first Isaac insists he has given everything he can offer to Jacob, but he musters up one blessing for Esau: that he, too, shall enjoy the bounty of the land, and that he shall live off his sword. Although Jacob is destined to rule over him, there will be times, Isaac says, when Esau shall prevail.
Esau is filled with hatred for his brother over the subterfuge, and vows to kill him when their father is gone.
The blessing of “dews of heaven and the fatness of the earth” is unique to the blessings which Isaac bestows. The Israel Bible cites the mystical teachings of the Zohar in saying that this blessing is the one that has sustained the Jewish people throughout the millennia. According to Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, it is Isaac’s blessing to give because he is the only one of the forefathers who never left the land of Israel.
Points to Ponder
We will see in the next passage that Isaac blesses Jacob one more time, this time fully aware that he is speaking to Jacob. Why, then, do you think he tells Esau he has no more blessings to give?
Jacob’s Flight and Esau’s Lesson
Rebecca finds out what her older son is plotting against his brother, and warns Jacob that he should flee. To Isaac, she explains that she does not want Jacob to find a wife among the unsuitable women in the area, and their son must travel to her family to find a wife. Isaac therefore summons Jacob to send him on his way and blesses him again. He warns Jacob against marrying a Canaanite woman, and passes to him the blessings which God gave Abraham. Jacob then leaves for Paddan-aram, where Rebecca’s brother, Laban, lives.
Meanwhile, Esau sees what transpires between his brother and his parents, and realizes they disapprove of his choice of spouse. He therefore goes to his father’s relatives and marries one of Ishmael’s daughters, though he does not divorce his first two unsuitable wives.
Points to Ponder
What do you think of Esau’s decision to marry again? Do you think his motives were positive or negative?