This portion, which begins with heartfelt cries for parenthood, invites us into dark and tangled family relationships of jealousy and competition, fierce love and betrayal.
This week we read Toldot, the continuation of the stories of Abraham and Sarah’s offspring and descendants. As this portion opens, Isaac pleads with God “on behalf of his wife.” The Holy One responds to Isaac’s entreaty, and Rebecca conceives.
Rebecca’s pregnancy is difficult: “The children pressed against each other inside her. She thought, ‘If this is so, why do I exist?’ So she went to inquire of the Eternal.” Within two verses, a husband and wife call upon God in their distress. Isaac cries out because he longs to become a father, and, our rabbis teach, he wants his beloved to bear his children. Rebecca’s body has become a battleground, and she cries out in fear both for her unborn children and for herself.
The response of the Holy One to Rebecca’s plea becomes the blueprint for her motherhood and charts her essential role in determining the Jewish future. God tells this first-time mother that “two nations are in your womb … and the older will serve the younger.” Her sons, who have been wrestling in utero, continue to compete for position and favor at the moment of birth. Esau emerges first, then Jacob is born holding his brother’s heel. “When the boys grew up … Isaac favored Esau, because he [Esau] put game in his [Isaac’s] mouth, but Rebecca favored Jacob.”
As the portion continues, the contrast between the two archetypal males is mirrored in the focus on food. Esau, the hunter, returns from the fields famished and encounters Jacob cooking up a savory, steaming stew. Overwhelmed by hunger, Esau exchanges his birthright for a bowl of lentil soup. The twins’ roles are reversed; the hunter willingly relinquishes his position as the first-born, and Jacob, the “homespun man,” gains status by taking advantage of his brother’s physical weakness.
Rebecca believes she is fulfilling God’s plan as she convinces Jacob to trick the now blind Isaac so Jacob will receive the blessing of the first-born. She prepares a meal of Isaac’s favorite meat, and Jacob, disguised as Esau, delivers the meal and asks for and receives the blessing meant for Esau. When Esau and Isaac discover the ruse, Esau begs for his father’s blessing, but Isaac responds, “I blessed him — and blessed he will remain.”
When Jacob initially hesitated to go along with his mother’s plan, Rebecca replied, “Any curse that you get will be on me, son.” Both Rebecca and Jacob are indeed cursed by their lies. Jacob, who tricks his brother and his father, will be the victim of trickery himself when he marries Laban’s daughters. And Rebecca, too, is cursed. She sends her beloved Jacob away and never sees him again. Yet Rebecca’s actions insure the ancestral lineage she believes is God’s will. Her actions secure Isaac’s blessing of the first-born for her beloved Jacob. And although Jacob must flee his parents’ home, he later becomes the father of the eponymous leaders of the tribes of Israel.
This portion, which begins with heartfelt cries for parenthood, invites us into dark and tangled family relationships of jealousy and competition, fierce love and betrayal. Toldot is also a portion of curses and blessings. May we read this portion this year with a renewed appreciation for the challenges and complexity of our ancestral stories, even as we seek blessing in our own, often tangled families.
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, spiritual director, serves as scholar-in-residence at Washington Hebrew Congregation in Washington, D.C.