Parshat Toldot: The First "Who is a Jew" Question

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by Barbara Spectre

Genesis 25: 27– 28 “When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors; but Jacob was a mild man who stayed in the camp. Isaac favored Esau because he had a taste for game and Rebecca loved Jacob”.

Submitted: December 12, 2011

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Submitted: December 12, 2011

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Parshat Toldot:The First “Who is a Jew” Question?
by Barbara Spectre

Genesis 25: 27– 28 “When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man

of the outdoors; but Jacob was a mild man who stayed in the camp. Isaac favored

Esau because he had a taste for game and Rebecca loved Jacob”.

Oh dear/deer (pun intended). The preference that a parent has for one child over

another is never a pretty thing – and in the case of Isaac and Rebecca sons, in that

they are twin boys, it would seem to be particularly insensitive. The text seems to

give a feeble reason for Isaac’s preference for Esau – literally “the hunt was in his

mouth”. But: if the text is referring to the mouth of Isaac, the father - then indeed

the translation would mean that Isaac had a taste for hunted game rather than

domestically raised meat. If that is the reason, then Isaac’s preference for Esau

seems entirely superficial; a matter of taste (literally). But the Hebrew also allows

that “his mouth” refers to Esau, the son. And if that is the case, then Isaac’s

preference for Esau could be based upon something deeper; upon Isaac’s

admiration of Esau’s character: a lover of hunting, of the outdoors – the portrait of

a robust, red man (reminiscent of the red blood of the hunt?) It would not demand

a great deal of imagination to envision Isaac being drawn to that type of personality

…. Perhaps Esau was the very image of what Isaac had wanted to be – a person who

would never submit himself to an altar, who would never passively watch as the

knife for slaughter was raised above his throat….after all the trauma of his own

near sacrifice could never have been far from Isaac’s consciousness.

In contrast, no reason is given for Rebecca’s favoring of Jacob. Unless…(and the

text is compatible with this reading), unless it is for the same reason…Isaac favored

Esau because Esau was a person who loved to hunt (and for the same reason)

Rebecca loved Jacob. And why would this be a consistent reading with Rebecca’s

nature?

We need only to refer to what we know about Rebecca from the previous weekly

reading – Parshat Chaye Sarah. An incredibly revealing story about “who is a Jew”

is told there. Isaac has no wife, and Abraham mandates his servant to go to find one

for his son in the land of Abraham’s origin. What a dilemma must have faced the

servant as his journey in the desert drew to a close and he approached the well:

what criteria should he use to choose? Should he select randomly the first young

woman he met? Should she be beautiful? Of good lineage? None of these, it turns

out, constituted the basis for his decision. Cleverly, the servant devised a scheme

that would reveal the character of the person chosen to be the second matriarch of

Israel: “Let the maiden to whom I say, “Please, lower your jar that I may drink,’

and who replies “Drink, and I will also water your camels’ – let her be the one

whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac.” (Gen. 24:14)

The beautiful Rebecca approaches the well with a jar on her shoulder.. but she does

not respond according to the criteria he had set. She exceeds it: “ I will also draw for

your camels until they FINISH drinking” (Gen. 24: 19), she says. The test had been

that the woman only had to give the camels ‘something’ to drink, not until they had

finished drinking!! There were 10 camels and the caravan had just appeared out of

the desert; Rebecca gives them to drink until they are satiated. How many jars of

water would she have to draw for 10 thirsty camels?

Indeed; Esau was a hunter, game was ‘in his mouth”, and Rebecca favored Jacob.

How could it be otherwise? It was not, perhaps, because of what Jacob was, but

rather what he was not. Jacob was not a hunter. “Who is a Jew” was born in our

Parshah; at the core stand Rebecca and Jacob and their sensitivity to all of life.


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