- Rebekah has twins, Esau and Jacob. (25:19-26)
- Esau gives Jacob his birthright in exchange for some stew. (25:27-34)
- King Abimelech is led to think that Rebekah is Isaac's sister and later finds out that she is really his wife. (26:1-16)
- Isaac plans to bless Esau, his firstborn. Rebekah and Jacob deceive Isaac so that Jacob receives the blessing. (27:1-29)
- Esau threatens to kill Jacob, who then flees to Haran. (27:30-45)
by Brian Block
Like most Jewish woman, my mother uses cooking oil as a spice. Shmaltz (chicken fat) is no longer readily available, so oil has become her essential coagulant and flavor enhancer. A quarter inch bottom lining of oil distinguishes her every recipe from meatloaf to Manischewitz passover cakes (foil pan included). The symbolism of her culinary expertise, whether intentional or inadvertent, was foreseen in Toledot, a portion that meditates on the balance of present needs and future aspirations.
Fortunately, for most Jews in America, hunger is no longer an issue. For us, food is as abundant as the stars. Our own rabbi has been a vegetarian for two decades, although I suspect it is not because he loves animals, but because deep down he despises all plants and wishes to see them boiled in oil. But without an innate understanding of hunger and the daily quest for sustenance, it is difficult to understand Esau's sale of his birthright. In our age where famine and drought seem as eradicated as polio, selling one's inheritance for a stew seems as preposterous as Jonah favoring a gourd over a city of 120,000 people. When understood, both were reasonable and commonplace reactions, and the need to attend to the future regardless of present circumstances has never lost relevancy.
While the subterfuge of Jacob stealing Esau’s birthright has been the focus of most scholars, this approach avoids the essential conflict of balancing the present and future. The fact that Isaac will inherit the birthright has been known by Rebekah prior to their birth (Gen 25:23), and as a result many commentators have explained this portion by having wily parents Isaac and Rebekah conspiring to trick both their sons into following the Lord's direction. While this approach explains “how” the birthright was given to Jacob, this interpretation avoids explaining “why” Jacob was chosen at birth over Esau. Jacob’s foresight was more important to the Jewish people than Esau’s focus on subsistence, a dichotomy illustrated through the imagery and discussion of food.
No trickery existed at the Jacob's initial purchase of the inheritance for his red stew. The portion begins with Isaac showing his preference for Esau over Jacob, as “Isaac loved Esau because he had a taste for game.” (Gen 25:28) (If God did not intend for us to eat animals, why did he make them out of meat?) Shortly thereafter, we are told that Jacob was cooking a stew... and Esau came in, from the field, and he was famished, and Esau said to Jacob, “Let me gulp down some of this red red stuff! I'm famished!” And Jacob said, “Sell me first your birthright.” and Esau said, “I'm at the point of death, so of what use is my birthright to me? ” And Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” (Gen 25:29-33) While some might argue that this is an unfair exchange, there is no subterfuge, and the language appears clear and concise. Esau wants to be satisfied NOW, Jacob wants to plan for his future.
While this initial exchange clearly identifies Jacob as the son attentive to the future, and Esau as the son grounded in present needs, most individuals reading today cannot get over the apparent unfairness of the exchange. True hunger does not exist for most American Jews, and, sadly, it is necessary to invoke the Holocaust for many to understand this connection. In most Holocaust accounts, such as Elie Wiesel's Night, hunger, not brutality is the survivors omnipresent motivation. Websites are replete with comments, such as “If they were lucky, the might find a piece of turnip or potato peel;” “The bread was supposed to last the prisoners for the morning also, so prisoners would try to hide it on their person whilst they slept;” “Morning is Hunger. Afternoon is Hunger. Evening is Hunger.” Franz Kafka once said, “So long as you have food in your mouth, you have solved all questions for the time being.” In this light, Esau's exchange seemed more balanced. What good is an inheritance when starvation is imminent?
Whether one interprets Esau's hunger as true starvation or alliterative exaggeration, Esau's focus on hunger clearly identifies him as a person who aspirations are centered on the present, and not the future. While he is not evil, this lack of future vision makes him unfit for the birthright. At the same time, Jacob's action of giving up his stew for a potential future gain shows him to proper son to guide a people who will flourish like the stars.
The next section of the portion further illustrates the conflict between present and the future goals, this time with Isaac. After all, the portion begins “This is the story of Isaac, son of Abraham,” (Gen 25:19) not “This is the story of Jacob and Esau.” After being banished by the Philistines, Isaac spends much of Chapter 26 digging wells. And while many of us remember waterhole Beersheba (meaning “oath,” where an agreement was made with the Philistine monarch) most water holes prior to this oath were disputed with native tribes, as the well's names (Esek meaning “contention” and Sitnah meaning “hostility”) suggest. Today, Americans today seem oblivious to this requirement of clean water to sustain life. In California today, a drought is “my lawn turns brown”; but in Darfur today, and even in the United States in the 1930’s a drought was “my family, crops and livestock are dying.” Isaac’s quest for water emphasizes this basic conflict of sustenance v. inheritance. If you give a man water, he can drink water today; if a man makes a well for water, he can drink water forever; if a man can make an artificial shortage of water, he can drink wine. While Isaac never attained the third level, many of his ancestors did, and the juxtaposition of Isaac's search for water with the story of Jacob and Esau's future inheritance is not coincidental, but essential. After all, the decision to give a birthright is Isaac’s decision, not Jacob’s or Esau’s. It will be Isaac’s choice to decide whether it is more important for the Jewish people to live for today or to plan for the future. A man who digs a well (or two, or three or four) is clearly planning to stay awhile, a man who is planning for tomorrow.
When the day comes that Isaac is prepared to give his blessing, Jacob seems surprisingly unprepared for the future that has suddenly become the present. Once again, food becomes an essential symbol. Rebekah alerts her son Jacob and calls him to action. Rebekah makes a dish of the kind his father loved for him to present, and Isaac, prior to giving his blessing states, “Serve me, that I may eat of the game of my son, so that I may give you the solemn blessing from my soul.” Like many of our religious prayers, and the Jacob's earlier purchase of the inheritance, the birthright appears to be in the form of an exchange or contract. Fortunately for Jacob, his mother prepares the food Isaac loves, and the future of the Jewish people is sealed with a meal.
When Esau comes shortly after Jacob leaves, “He too, made a dish and brought it to his father. And he said to his father, “Let my father rise and eat of the game of his son, so that you may solemnly bless me.” Unlike Jacob’s meal, which was specially prepared by Rebekah, this meal was prepared by Esau himself. Why didn't one of his two wives make the dish? Although he would later marry one of Abraham's granddaughters, Esau at the time was married to two Hittite women who “were a source of provocation to Isaac and Rebekah.” Perhaps, mother-in-law Rebekah's true motivation for assisting Isaac was, in part, Esau's wives. Their failure to assist Esau in preparation of the meal shows their disregard for BOTH the present and the future.
This relationship between food, the traditional role of women, and hunger and Jewish life can not be understated. Once again a Holocaust analogy helps illustrate this point. In her essay, “Cookbooks and Concentration Camps: Unlikely Partners”, Dr. Myrna Goldenberg describes how “’food talk,’ especially the exchange of recipes, boosted women's sense of community...They taught one another the art of cooking and baking, and ... reclaimed their importance and dignity...’food’ talk also enabled women to pass on a culture, the memory of murdered family and friends.” She later elaborates that “We usually teach for and to the next generation...Thus teaching imparts a feeling of hope or optimism.” Out of hunger can come future hope. Esau’s wives offer none of this hope, and much like Esau, are not fit to lead our future generations.
Even today, our Jewish festivals are as anchored on the meals and food served in the home as much as they are the prayers in the synagogue. A gustatory interpretation of Judaism provides as much enlightenment to our faith and history. What is Chanukah without latkes and jelly donuts? Is Purim complete without hamantashen and shlivowitz, Rosh Hashana truly celebrated without apples dipped in honey and challahs with raisins, Sukkot a festival without blintzes, or Yom Kippur truly holy without a fast. The Passover seder can even ascertain a Jews lineage (Do you dip potato instead of parsley? Is rice allowed during the holiday? Do your haggadahs have “Maxwell House Coffee” emblazoned on the front?). And I have not even mentioned the rules of Kashrut. As much as any inheritance, food is our sacred birthright. It's not merely about sustenance, but its about teaching and identity, and a large part of this identity is understanding hunger and its relationship to holiness. In this portion, food not only emphasizes not only contractual obligations, but our forefather's belief in the continuance of the Jewish people.