by Shellen Lubin
November 21, 2020
Parashat Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9), is the first chapter in the story of Jacob, which is very near and dear to my heart, because I wrote a play about Jacob--in Haran--but that comes later. This parashat is the first part of that story, about Isaac’s blessing. Actually, there were three blessings. There are three blessings in this week’s reading:
- The blessing he intended to give Esau and mistakenly gave Jacob, thinking he was Esau (Gen. 27:28-29)
- The blessing he later gave Esau, when he couldn’t give him the one he had promised him which had been stolen by Jacob. (Gen. 27:39-40).
- And then, the “blessing of Abraham,” which Isaac gave Jacob before his son set off on his lifelong journey, referred to as Abraham’s blessing.
Isaac’s intention was to bless Esau, Jacob’s brother, because he was the elder of the two. But, because they were twins, he was the elder by mere minutes. And so do parents pit their children against each other. Talmudic scholars debate these blessings, whether Isaac really knew that he was conferring the blessing on Jacob, whether he was saving the really good one for Jacob anyway... why? because: they cannot accept: the father pitted his children against each other and made them enemies, the mother--trying to save her favorite son--gave him the means of deceit to betray his father and his brother, and, yes, that boy, that Jacob, is one of the pillars of Judaism, but not until he wrestled with the angel in the desert and thereby changed his name, much as Native Americans do on their Vision Quest, their passage from the child name (given at birth by their parents) to their adult name, discovered alone in the wild.
When she conceived her twins, their mother, Rebekah, had been given a prophecy: “two nations are in your womb, two separate peoples shall issue from your body”--two different nations that would be in a state of continual friction, even battle. You might think this formed the fundamental duality we carry, the black/white good/bad belief of most religions: ours right, theirs wrong. But it goes back even further. Isaac’s father had blessed his son, Abraham, the son of Sarah, and cast the rest of his sons--the sons of his concubines--out of the family. And there we have the crux of the hierarchical maelstrom we deal with to this day. This is the inception of privilege. I am by birth better than you, I deserve more than you, I must rule and you must serve. Isaac had no concubines, only one wife, and she gave birth only once—to twin sons. The two sons were so close: same parents, same pregnancy, same birth. Isaac believed that the two, together, would become a nation, in accordance with the promise of God to Abraham and Isaac in the “blessing of Abraham.” Still, each one had to be given a unique blessing, just for him, which would characterize his role in the emergent nation. Isaac chose Esau as leader of the Isaac nation. The blessing includes land and leadership. Esau is supposed to be given the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth, and abundance of new grain and wine. All this is given then to Jacob, when his mother directs him to put the fur of an animal on his arms and go to his father with a meat stew to steal Esau’s blessing.
When Isaac discovers what he has done, he trembles--something he has done only twice in his life--once when his father had him tied to the altar for sacrifice, and once when he realizes that he has given Esau’s blessing to Jacob. The term for this emotional wave of fear is “ad m’od.” “M’od,” the Hebrew word for “very,” refers specifically to our core humanity. Isaac’s core humanity has been shaken, because he has been deceived, Esau’s blessing has been given to Jacob, and he has little left for Esau. It is hard to know now what was in Isaac’s mind to give Jacob. At the end of the reading, Isaac gives Abraham’s blessing to Jacob before his son sets off on his life journey, afraid to stay in town as his beloved brother now hates him. Isaac now sees that there will be no Isaac-nation. His family’s destiny was to split into two lines, just as his father’s family had done.
I wrote about this, in retrospect, in the voice of Jacob in Haran:
DANIEL: My father, and his father before him, were both greatmen. God spoke to them mouth-to-ear and directed their lives. They never had to choose between right and wrong; all decisions, all judgments, were given to them in explicit commands. God demanded such loyalty that once, my grandfather, Abraham, was told by God to kill his son--my father--when my father was just a little boy. And only when Abraham had the knife poised above Isaac's tiny body did God let him know it was just a test of his devotion, and only then did he allow him to spare his son's life. I am Isaac's first born son, just minutes older than Esau, my twin. I have the birthright. I have my father's blessing. But God is not telling me what He wants from me. And if He is giving me tests, I don't know whether I'm passing them or not; I don't know if what I'm doing is right or wrong. And He isn't telling me. He doesn't speak to me. He just sends me dreams--or I have these dreams--I'm not even sure if they are from Him. And they only confuse me more, for they present more puzzles than answers.
My father and his father before him were holy men. They talked with God. They walked with God. I waited my whole life for a sign that I was their true descendant.
I thought one dream was my sign, my pact with God. Two nights before I reached Haran, when I wasn't sure how much longer I could go on. I was so tired, and the ground was so hard and
unwelcoming. But I fell into a deep, restful sleep. And then I had the dream. There was a ladder--a majestic ladder between heaven and earth. A luminous angel descended the ladder and started to wrestle with me. And even though my body was beyond exhaustion, and I didn't think I could find the strength, I fought with everything I had left in me, and I won. I pinned the angel down to the ground. And when I did, I heard a voice. It said, "If you can wrestle down your angels and your demons, then you will prosper and procreate, and your children will populate the earth." And I thought, even after the terrible things I have done?
SHELLEN: What could you have done that was so terrible? You are the blessed descendant of Abraham and Isaac. You are the first born male of the line of ...
DANIEL: (interrupting HER) No. I'm not. I am not the firstborn. I lied to you. Esau is the elder. By minutes. Eight minutes. Eight gruesome minutes. I lied to you. My twin is the first born. And I tricked him into selling me his birthright. And I tricked my father into giving me his blessing, the blessing that was rightfully my brother's. I betrayed them both. My mother told me to. She said it was God's will. She had me kill a kid goat and she cooked it as if it were Esau's fresh caught venison. And then she covered my arms with the hairy goatskin so that I would feel like Esau to my near-blind father. Of course he suspected. He begged me over and over again: (in torment) "If you are Jacob, tell me. You feel like Esau but you sound like Jacob. Are you sure you're Esau?" "Yes, father, yes." "Are you sure you are my beloved firstborn?" "Yes, father, yes." "Are you sure you are deserving of my blessing?" "Yes, father, yes."
SHELLEN: There are two fundamental issues in this story: hierarchy--the preference of one son over the other--the need to have someone rule and someone be subservient--and, then, the dishonesty and manipulation. All of them--except perhaps Esau--vie for what they want in a way that is deceitful--even if they are lying to themselves, which is not much better. As we discover in this moment, in 2020, if we did not already see it, the greatest threat to our civilization is both: these hierarchies, these caste systems, the privilege of some people, the subjugation of others, the whole “otherization” of any people; and an unwillingness to be honest, with ourselves and others, and tolisten to one another, a lack of tolerance. Pardes Yosef, Yosef Patzanovski, says, “Fear and trembling took hold of Isaac when, in a spirit of prophecy, he saw the results of hatred.” This year we saw many virulent displays that were, indeed, the results of hatred. And then, this week, Monday, the Monday that just passed, was Tolerance Day.
ZIJA: Tolerance Day? Really? One day to be tolerant, to honor the idea of tolerance?
SHELLEN: That’s what they say.
ZIJA: One day is not enough.
SHELLEN: Tolerance is not enough. We need more than tolerance, greater than tolerance. We need acceptance, empathy, respect, appreciation.
ZIJA: But what about those who are completely intolerant? Their lack of tolerance enrages me. How am I supposed to tolerate that? How am I supposed to tolerate them?
SHELLEN: Not that, but, yes, them. Yes, that’s the challenge. Tolerating even those who are intolerant.
ZIJA: Well, sorry, but no. That’s the hardest part for me. That's always been the hardest for me. I'm not sure I can do that.
SHELLEN: I know. I get it. Susan Jacoby calls it "mindless tolerance,” and we certainly can’t have that. We don’t want to place facts--observable, tangible, scientific facts--on the same level as fantasy.
ZIJA: We can’t. They are false equivalencies.
SHELLEN: But then, if we’re intolerant, they feel justified in making their false equivalencies. “See?" they say, as soon as we shut them up, shut them out, paint them with one paintbrush in just one color. “See?” they say, "You're just as intolerant as we are."
ZIJA: Ugh. So what do we do?
SHELLEN: Maybe it’s like tough love?
ZIJA: You mean like when I was little and you wouldn’t let me do something I really wanted to do unless I admitted that I hadn’t done what I was supposed to do first?
SHELLEN: And when you were a teenager, saying to you, “I love you but I’m walking away now. I’m not going to discuss this with you any longer because you’re yelling and not listening. You’re forgetting that I matter, too.”
ZIJA: Yeah. I hated that.
SHELLEN: I know, but it gave you pause without outright rejection. You know, accepting the person, if not the behavior. Tolerating the people, if not their intolerance.
ZIJA: Empathy for the underlying needs and fears, but not for their abusive--and even violent--acts. I get it.
SHELLEN: It’s the only way forward right now, when almost half our country would have given up democracy to maintain their supremacy.
ZIJA: But they won’t do it for us, will they? Can those who thrive on hierarchies and power structures have respect for those of us who abhor them, because we see how destructive they are?
SHELLEN: I don’t know.
ZIJA: Can they have empathy for the underlying needs and fears of the disenfranchised, the subjugated, the suppressed?
SHELLEN: I don’t know. But that's why we need tolerance. Because if those who are so intolerant could have tolerance, those of us who have acceptance, empathy, respect, appreciation wouldn't need tolerance. It is their intolerance that demands ours, that commands ours.
ZIJA: Can our acceptance and respect model tolerance—teach tolerance—to those who hate? It rarely has.
SHELLEN: But nothing else has ever worked at all.