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Jacob and Esau are born arguing. They are described as very different characters. In this parasha, we have the famous story of Esau selling his birthright and Isaac being deceived by his other son Jacob (with a little help from mother Rebecca) to receive his blessing.

Another voice

Toledot by Jeremy Gordon :: 5768

Jeremy Gordon is Rabbi of St Albans Masorti Synagogue

I struggle, every year, with the Rabbinic approach to this parasha. To both Ancient and Mediaeval masters it seems clear that Jacob is the goody - to be cheered to the utmost while Esau is the baddy - to be exegetically whipped at every possibility. One example will serve:

"And [Rebecca had] twins [ToMiM] in her belly." (Gen 25:24)

The mediaeval commentator Rashi says: "[ToMiM] is spelled missing a letter, but in the case of Tamar (Gen 38) twins [TAoMiM] is written in full. This is because, in Tamar's case, both twins were righteous, but in the case of Rebecca, one is righteous and one is wicked."

Poor Esau, he's not even born and already the Rabbis are painting him in ever deeper shades of darkness. But while Esau does seem a simple sort (not to mention a little hasty to sell his birthright) it's hard to see the Biblical character as such an archetypal villain. I know of the classic association of Esau with Rome and other destroyers of Jewish life, but what of the moment Esau returns with meat for his father? He realises the deceit of his brother and, cried out a tremendously great and bitter cry, and he said, "bless me, also me, my father?" (Gen 27:34) It should melt even the sternest Rabbinic heart. But the classic commentaries are unusually reticent in response to this searing howl; almost as if, unable to come up with anything nasty, they opt for silence.

It takes some digging to find anything that presents a more nuanced picture of Esau in the eyes of the Rabbis, but the nuances are there. Take this comment on the verse, "And Rebecca took Esau's fine garments [to give to Jacob when he goes to his father]." (Gen 27:15) What did Esau have fine garments for, since he was a hunter? Esau wore them to wait on his father. Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel said, "All my life I waited on my father, but I haven't reached even one hundredth of the level of Esau in honouring his father. When I waited on my father I would wear tatty garments and go out in smart garments. But Esau waited on his father in the garments of royalty." (Bereshit Rabbah 65:16)

Esau becomes a paradigm for honouring one's parents; a command the Rabbis imbue with almost ultimate importance and, oddly enough, a command Jews and Jewish ancestors seem often to have a problem with. For example in the Talmud another non-Jew, Damma Ben Netina, is held up as a model, rather than opting for Abraham, Jacob, Joseph. (Kiddushin 31a) Of course the approach of this one midrash is not typical, but we should applaud and cherish its fearlessness and honesty. By encouraging us to approve of even the archetypal 'baddy' - Esau - we shake up our comfortable bifurcation of good and evil. We are offered the chance to appreciate shades of grey in a world where the temptation to see in black and white is surely quite strong enough - without the need for sustained anti-anyone polemic.


More by Jeremy Gordon

Another voice by Helen Lewis

Helen is mother of two sets of twins, which is what sparked her interest in this topic. She is a graduate of Oxford University, Pardes Institute in Jerusalem and the Melton Adult Mini- School. She is also a Trustee of the Leeds Jewish Welfare Board, a past Programme Chair of Leeds Day Limmud and a presenter at various Regional Limmud conferences. In her spare time she is an NHS manager.

Although twin births are now so much more common than they were a generation ago, people are still endlessly fascinated by them.

It is perhaps easier to forgive Rivka for some of her later behaviour when we remember that it must have felt at times that the twins were a curse rather than a blessing; that she was alone in a strange land with just her somewhat aloof and uncommunicative husband; without female relatives to support her.

Having been through so much, does that explain perhaps why she was so protective of Yaakov? Yaakov as the second twin to be born was perhaps even more at risk than his sibling - he came out pale whereas his brother seems ruddy and vigorous. It is certainly not uncommon for couples who struggle to conceive and are then blessed with any pregnancy, let alone with twins, to be particularly protective of their offspring. The way their parents treat the two brothers also has important lessons for us - the text makes it clear that Yitzchak favoured Esav because of the food he provided him. It doesn't explain why Rivka favoured Yaakov - one explanation given is that it's because Yitzchak already favoured Esav. Does this come to teach us something about not having favourites and the dangers of parents using their children as pawns in their own relationships? It certainly doesn't seem to be a lesson that Yaakov himself applied with his own children.

Those of us who know twins know how important it is to try not to compare them with one another, however difficult that is in practice especially if they are twins of the same sex. How might Esav's life have been if he had not been a twin but firmly in his place as elder son?


More by Helen Lewis

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