Rabbi Michael Barclay
Toldot: Choosing to be Chosen
Toldot, the Torah reading this week is about the life of Isaac, the Patriarch who is typically talked about least, yet who is considered by many Sages to be the most holy of the three as he never leaves the Holy Land and was a master of mysticism. There is a beautiful midrash that the reason Rebecca (his future wife) fell off her donkey is that she first saw Isaac while he was meditating, and the Divine glow around him was so palpable that it overwhelmed her and she fell off the donkey.
But much of the portion is about the birth and growth of Isaac and Rebecca’s twin sons Esau and Jacob. Rebecca was unable to have children, but with prayer she is granted this greatest of blessings, but with a caveat and prophecy from God:
“Two nations are in your womb, Two separate peoples shall issue from your body; One people shall be mightier than the other, And the older shall serve the younger.”
Esau is born first with Jacob grabbing on to his heel. Normally this would mean that Esau would become the next Patriarch, but as we know, it ends up being Jacob instead. The challenging piece in this drama is how often it is said, “Jacob stole the birthright from Esau”, and how that concept has historically been used to castigate Jews as thieves all the way to present times when anti-Semites repeat the lie that we “stole” Israel.
Was it actually a theft on the part of Jacob? No, not even remotely. But we need to look at how it happened to understand the fallacy of that anti-Semitic concept.
As shown above, it was always God’s intent for Jacob to receive Isaac’s inheritance. Esau was a rugged and strong man who had no respect for his parents (he purposefully married a Canaanite woman in direct opposition to his father’s instruction). Throughout his life, Esau was concerned primarily with his physical desires and appetites as opposed to the needs of others: a personal quality that should disqualify anyone from being a leader let alone becoming the head of a nation. And besides his lack of empathy, he cared so little for the future that he sold his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of bean stew (Gen 25:29).
This may seem insignificant, but it’s not; and is a demonstration of Esau’s character. The Talmud (Bava Batra 16b) teaches that this was not just any bowl of stew. Abraham had just died, and this was specifically a lentil bean stew that was to be used for the meal of comfort for Isaac as was traditional (lentils are still served today at shiva minyans to remind the mourner of the circle of life). Esau didn’t care about the death of his grandfather nor about the pain and needs of his father…he only cared about what his body wanted in that moment (the Talmud even suggests that he was so hungry because he had just come in from raping a betrothed maiden in the field ibid.) We see here how even when confronted with the death of a dear relative, he is only concerned with himself, not others. His personal appetites control his behavior, and make his choices for him.
The wiser son Jacob also realizes in that moment that Esau doesn’t have the qualities necessary for leadership, as demonstrated by his brother’s lack of caring for others, and he offers to buy Esau’s birthright. Not for his own benefit, but for the benefit of future generations. Esau agrees, not caring about the future at all.
At Isaac’s deathbed, Jacob is disguised by his mother to appear like Esau (she covered his arms with hair so that he would seem like his hairy brother) and receive Isaac’s blessing. This too is sometimes used by anti-Semites to demonstrate the “trickery” employed by Jews, but there was actually no real trick involved: it was a dramatic play that everyone acted out. Although physically blind (but spiritually clear seeing through his many decades of mystical practices), Isaac knew in his soul if not in his conscious mind that it was Jacob that he was blessing. “The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau.” (Gen. 27:22). This entire drama was played out with all parties being aware that Jacob was posing like Esau to receive the blessing that God had promised earlier, and that Esau himself had sold years before. For the good of future generations and the survival of what would become the Jewish people, both parents and Jacob participated in this final action immediately prior to the mantle being passed to Jacob.
We rarely think about it, but how sad this must have been for Isaac and Rebecca. They knew that the future rested with Jacob, who would be the great leader; and they both knew what had to be done. But just think for a moment of the profound pain the parents must have felt in completing the prophecy and knowing that it would cause such pain for their other son, Esau. Consider the fear that Jacob would have experienced. Not just a fear of his brother’s wrath, but of the tremendous responsibility he was being given.
There are a number of important lessons we need to glean from this drama. It is imperative that we passionately refute any anti-Semite’s claim that we in any way stole Israel. As importantly, we need to remember to truly evaluate our leaders based on their concern for others and for the future. When someone like Esau wishes to lead for their own personal gain, we need to reject them in favor of those who lead as a form of truly serving others. We need to always look towards the future as we remember the lessons found in Isaac’s family; choose our leaders based on values that are eternal; and like Jacob, be willing to have the courage to take on the responsibilities of leadership when required.
May we all always choose leaders who have the courage to act right and righteously; who have the wellbeing of others and the future always in their consciousness; and may we all be the leaders we can be when we are chosen.
Rabbi Michael Barclay
November 5, 2021
1st of Kislev, 5782