Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Genesis 25:19 - 28:9
December 2, 2000 5 Kislev 5761
Rabbi Joshua Heller is director of Distance Learning and Educational Technology at JTS
This week's parashah, Tol'dot, tells the story the story of Isaac and Rebecca's twin sons, Esau and Jacob. Esau is born with a slight advantage of age, with Jacob born close at his heels. The two brothers vie, each with measures of bluster and guile and with the support of a favoring authority figure, for the birthright and the destiny of a nation. This story has been played out more than once in history- most recently between two candidates in our own day.
However, we need look no further than the Bible to see this same story played out again, with incredibly rich parallels. In our story in Genesis, Jacob first trades Esau a pot of lentils for the birthright, and then takes advantage of his father's blindness and dresses up like Esau to take the blessing, which may or may not rightfully be his. When Esau hears what his father has done in giving the blessing to Jacob, he cries "a great and bitter cry." There is only one other place in the entire Bible where "a great and bitter cry"- Ze'akah Gedolah U'marah- is found: in the book of Esther, when Mordechai learns of Haman's plot to exterminate the Jews. The Midrash (B'reishit Rabbah 67:4) connects these two verses. It says, in essence, that it is proof that "what goes around comes around." Because of the bitter cry that Jacob evoked in Esau, Haman was given the opportunity to cause great harm to the Jewish people. Indeed, there is a direct link through the generations: Mordechai, the Jew, is of course a descendant of Jacob. In parallel, Amalek, the nation which historically was seen as representative of all Israel's enemies, was the grandson of Esau. Haman is called "The Aggagite"- a descendant of Agag, the last king of Amalek, and therefore the descendant of and surrogate for Esau in his generation. However, this is only the beginning of the connection.
In the Genesis story, each parental figure chooses one favorite son, but for different reasons. Rebecca, the mother, loves Jacob without reservation. In contrast, the story tells us that Isaac, the father, loves Esau, the hunter, conditionally, "because he put freshly hunted meat in his mouth." In the scroll of Esther as well, Esther, the mother figure, loves Mordechai because of their family connection. In contrast, Ahashverosh, the father figure, loves Haman and follows his plan for financial reasons, because Haman promises him a share of the spoils of his destructive plot.
There are strong resonances between the "sales" in each story. In Genesis, Esau comes in tired from the hunt, and agrees to trade his birthright for lentil stew. Once the promise is sold, Esau sits and eats and drinks. Similarly, the "deal" between Haman and Ahashverosh is sealed with eating and drinking. Later in both stories, Jacob is able to take the blessing from Esau by taking food provided by his mother and giving it to his father. Mordechai is able to overturn Haman's decree because Esther feeds Ahashverosh at a party at which Haman is unmasked.
Our sages connect the birthright that Jacob takes with the covenantal promise, the special link with God passed from Abraham to Issac. When Esau trades away this birthright, the text tells us Esau disdained "vayivez" the birthright. The Midrash (Esther Rabbah 7:10) points out that the same word appears again in the Esther story. Haman disdained, "vayivez," doing harm to Mordechai himself, but rather sought to destroy his entire people. Haman and Esau are both disdainers- Esau for the convenantal blessing, Haman for the nation that sustained it in each generation.
The parallels continue to the climax of the story. Esau is sure that he will receive a blessing from his father as he sets out to hunt the savories with which he will earn it. It is at that moment that Rebecca thwarts him by giving his clothing to Jacob to wear. Similarly, in the sixth chapter of Esther, Haman is called in by the king and asked "what shall the king do for the man he wishes to favor?" Haman assumes that the blessing is to be for him, and asks that this person is to be dressed in royal garments. His downfall begins when Ahashverosh announces that it is Mordechai who will instead garbed in the clothes meant for him.
One of the questions often asked about the story of Jacob and Esau is why, once Isaac has given Jacob a blessing, he cannot give the same blessing to Esau. Esau asks "Do you have but one blessing?" (Genesis 37:38) Isaac's first blessing, to Jacob, is that he will gain material wealth and rule over his brethren. The second blessing, to Esau, is a much weaker one: That even though he will be oppressed, at some point he will throw off that yoke. The rules of blessing, though, are clear. A blessing, whether given properly or improperly, cannot be undone, only mitigated.
In the book of Esther, the same theme of irrevocability is presented as the simple law of the land "what is signed with the seal of the King cannot be overturned." (Esther 8:8). However, the situation has flip-flopped. It is Esau's descendant who holds the primary "blessing," and Jacob's descendants who get second-best. The King's first boon goes to Haman, in that he will have total control over the Jews and their wealth. The Jews, just like Esau, can only hope for the secondary blessing, that they will be able to fight back and overthrow that control.
Ultimately, though, the Jews do not take advantage of the blessing that Esau spurned (yayivez). The book of Esther (9:15) states that that despite their victory, the Jews never partook of the spoils, "babiza." Even Jacob himself tells Pharaoh (Genesis 47:9) that his days have been poor in quality and few in number. Indeed, there have been very few generations where the Jewish people have enjoyed the political or financial well-being promised in Isaac's blessing to Jacob.
The stories end quite differently. At the end of the book of Esther, Haman is put to death and Mordechai reaches the position of second to the King. Though the Jewish people are victorious, it is at the cost of much bloodshed (and, as Esther 10:1 points out, higher taxes). In the Genesis story, Esau does not die. In fact, even though he says, "I am about to die, (of hunger) why do I need the birthright?" in the end he has the upper hand and it is Jacob who must flee with nothing but his staff and the shirt on his back. Twenty-one years later, the two brothers, each blessed with wealth, are brought back together for an honest reconciliation, and a respectful "agreement to disagree" which allows them to carry out important tasks like the burial of their father Isaac.
These two stories, in Genesis and Esther, share common threads beyond the few connections that I've presented here. There is no way to know whether Esther's human chronicler had Genesis open at his side when he wrote down the story, or whether forces of fate and providence somehow intertwined these two sets of events. The way that these two stories are woven together does hold some lessons for us, particularly as we consider the political farce being played out not in the court of ancient Shushan, but in the courts of Florida and beyond.
One must be careful in not trying to match every detail of each story with a modern equivalent, but there are certain lessons that should be drawn. Just as only one son can attain Isaac's first blessing, only one side can ultimately win, and no one can say for sure which favored son will take the "birthright" and which will emit a "great and bitter cry" and have four years to plot revenge. We learn from the two stories that if one acts in the spirit of "vayivez"- disdain, he may "win the birthright," but the victory will be short-lived and he will never enjoy the spoils. Furthermore, the parallel across generations reminds us that a victory won in one generation is never permanent, but is always subject to challenge in another day when the roles may be reversed. It now remains for the candidates and their supporters to decide which of the stories they will take as their model. Will they play out the roles of Haman and Mordechai, leading to public unrest and assassination of character, or those of Jacob and Esau, where the vehemence of the rhetoric wanes to produce respectful disagreement and the ability to join together for the important tasks ahead?
Rabbi Joshua Heller