This week in Parshat Toldot we enter into a cycle of sibling rivalry beginning with Jacob and Esau, a motif that repeats itself through the rest of the Book of Genesis.
From the beginning of the parsha, it seems almost foreordained that struggle and conflict would become the natural course of events. God responds to Rebekah’s entreaties about her troubled pregnancy with a prophetic message:
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. (Genesis 25:23)
Rebekah’s reliance on this early prophecy seems to guide her later in the parsha when she helps engineer Jacob’s stealing of the birthright and blessing from his older brother (Gen. 27).
But what if the usurping of the elder son’s power was not necessarily a fait accompli from the beginning of their lives?
In his commentary on this prophecy the Biblical scholar Robert Alter notes that some, like Richard Elliot Friedman, say that the Hebrew syntax can be read as either its traditional form of “the elder shall serve the younger” or in a different form “the elder, the younger shall serve (Alter, Genesis).” This, of course, would have led to a very different outcome in the ensuing narrative, avoiding the years of estrangement Jacob experienced with his brother.
When we encounter events or stories in the Torah that perplex or disturb us, like Jacob’s outwitting of his brother Esau, we are faced with an interpretive dilemma. Many of our Biblical commentators seek to justify Jacob’s (and Rebekah’s) deceptive behavior. Rashi draws from midrashic readings to paint a picture of Esau as wicked and undeserving of the birthright, and the later Temple service that it is connected to.
Other commentators are a variation on the same theme. They generally conclude that for the survival of Jacob and later of Israel, deception was necessary and justified since Jacob was interacting with a sibling who was morally suspect. I find that this line of reasoning usually leaves me unconvinced.
A second interpretive strategy sees the choice of deceptive behaviors as a cautionary tale. To ensure his leadership in the clan Jacob turned to deception and paid the price twice over. He had to live on the run and later was himself deceived by his uncle Laban when he was forced to work an additional seven years to marry his intended, Rachel (Gen. 29).
In this reading, perhaps we conclude that we don’t need to follow a deceptive path to achieve our goal or, that if we do, hardship might lay ahead.
But yet a third interpretive path might be to ask the question of whether this setup of having to fight for a blessing and birthright was necessary. This setup is partially based on the idea that the eldest son is assumed to inherit a double portion from the parent, thereby ensuring sufficient wealth and resources to maintain leadership in the clan unit. However, some scholarship suggests that this may not have been the case at all, and that holding the birthright did not necessarily mean economically favoring the elder child (Hiers, “Transfer of Property by Inheritance and Bequest in Biblical Law and Tradition,” 1993).
Jacob, Esau and their parents were operating in a zero-sum world with the assumption that birthright and blessing is a limited quantity — only enough to go around for one child.
But what if the prophecy that Rebekah received was actually meant to be read both ways — that each child should serve the other, and that service could also be understood as support rather than enslavement?
In this rereading, the prophecy suggests that the peoples who are greater, endowed with particular advantages or gifts, might serve/support other peoples, spreading knowledge and wealth for the greatest benefit.
The prophecy might sound like, “Two nations are in your womb … One people shall be mightier than the other [in gifts/advantages], and yet each shall serve the other [to create the greatest advantage for all].”
In an era when we are in desperate need of international cooperation and collaboration on an unprecedented scale to solve challenges that affect the survival and flourishing of the human race, perhaps we are in need of rereadings of our stories that encourage us to see the potential of new cooperative paradigms that we never thought may have existed.
Rabbi Nathan Martin serves as the associate rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel of Media and heads the Board of Pennsylvania Interfaith Power and Light, a nonprofit working with faith communities to respond to climate change and pursue climate justice. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.