General, Parasha / E-Letter

Parashat Toldot: Brothers together & apart

0 Comments 16 November 2017

In his dvar Torah to Parashat Toldot, Rabbi Shmuel Reuven Shaish explores the rocky relationship between Jacob and Esau, a dynamic we see play out in numerous examples across history. Despite the divergence between the brothers, the Torah reminds us of the common source connecting us all.

Hendrick ter Brugghen, Esau Selling His Birthright, c. 1627

Hendrick ter Brugghen, Esau Selling His Birthright, c. 1627

By Rabbi Shmuel Reuven Shaish

This is an interesting and complex Torah  portion that we read this week. The family history of Isaac, our patriarch, and Rebbeca, our matriarch, and their two children: Jacob and Esau. To this day we use the stories of these twin brothers: Jacob always represents Israel whereas the association of Esau, as Edom and the symbol of the “haters of Israel,” is constantly changing according to the flow of history.  But it is not quite according to the Torah portion itself.

Esau, an impulsive man, hunts and strives to satisfy his lusts. Jacob, the calculated one, always plans his actions and does not let his urges rule him.  Esau is ready to help, and Jacob figures out how to exploit opportunities. Esau is hungry so he seeks out food, Jacob has food, but he takes advantage of that in order to gain the first rights of the eldest which belong to his brother. For a lentil stew Esau sells his first rights, and to this day we use the expression (in Hebrew) “to sell for a lentil stew” when someone sells something valuable very cheaply. True, Jacob took advantage of an opportunity but was it a moral act to do so? I am doubtful. That is not how a brother should relate to a brother, but the fact is that is what happened.

The relationship between brothers has always, all through time, been a complicated matter. Parents are shared but interests don’t always match or positively work themselves out, and then conflicts break out, usually leaving a bitter taste. It isn’t just incidental that in the history of the nations the narratives of civil war (wars between brethren) are not simple. And when one examines the histories of peoples we learn just how many civil wars there were. Many times these ended in division, and in historical memory the people remember that they were once together, but it ended. Often one group overcomes another, and then the people remember how one “brother” exploited another. I remember when I travelled the United States, many years ago, and visited the South where I talked to people who spoke about the Civil War’ with resentment,  expressing a grudge against the North. Though they were not interested in being a separate country, they would say “it is a pity that we didn’t win.” They didn’t forget that those were “brothers.”  I found a similar approach in some of the countries of South America where,  although they separated into independent states, they still think of their neighbouring states  as “sisters’, since their  source is common,  as most of  them were liberated from Spanish rule and call it “Madre Patria” (“the mother of the nation”). Their belief is that they are sister states but could not continue together.

In our Torah portion this is especially prominent. A common historical narrative is a very uniting factor, but not always, and then there is separation. This shared history reminds us of the common origin that connects nations, even those that have diverged from another

Rabbi Shaish is a Masorti rabbi in Eilat and a member of Rabbis for Human Rights

Special thank you to Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann for translation

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