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Parashat Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:8)

“But the children struggled in her womb , and she said, ”If so, why do I exist?”
and she went to inquire of God. ” (Genesis 25:22)

Parashat Toldot introduces Jacob’s and Rachel’s twin sons, Esau and Jacob, who become archetypes for evil and good, respectively. This is surely a rabbinic construction; there’s nothing in the parasha, or portion, to warrant such a characterization (for either of them). Or is there?

Esau returns home from the hunt one day, famished, so he barters his birthright for some of Jacob’s lentil stew (Gen. 25:29-34). Rashi (an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, the pre-eminent 11th century Jewish commentator) infers from this exchange Abraham has died, since lentils are served at houses of mourning. This is because they are round like a wheel, symbolizing how mourning touches everyone, sooner or later (Babylonian Talmud Bava Basra 16b). This makes Esau callous (hunting instead of mourning), but hardly evil.

Rabbi Ramie Arian (Founding Director of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, and Jewish educational consultant) provides a deeper reading. Roundness also is a symbol of wholeness and completeness. So, the moon’s phases represent the up-and-down fortunes of the Jewish people throughout history with the round, full moon, representing the ultimate redemption (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 42a). This explains why Jewish holidays focusing on redemption (e.g., Pesach, Sukkot) fall on the 14th or 15th of the month when the moon is full.

Arian’s insight permits an allegorical reading of the text. Jacob is a dutiful grandson, but cooking lentils also means he is preparing actively for the future redemption. Esau not only ignores his grandfather’s death, but eating the lentils signifies his disregard of God’s ability to bring redemption. To the rabbis, this lack of faith is tantamount to evil.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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