May We Be Known by the Work of Our Hands

May We Be Known by the Work of Our Hands

Nov 5, 2021 By Ariella Rosen | Commentary | Toledot

How does deception begin? In the telling of Jacob’s acquisition of nearly all of the first-born advantages granted his brother Esau, the moment is perhaps not what it seems.

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Esau’s Primal Scream

Esau’s Primal Scream

Nov 20, 2020 By Amy Kalmanofsky | Commentary | Toledot

Sometimes words fail us. When they do, depending on the cause and our own propensities, we resort to song, dance, or other forms of wordless expression. And sometimes we scream. Primal screams that communicate an agony beyond verbal expression resound throughout the Torah.

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Stumping Rashi: Humility and Modern Discourse

Stumping Rashi: Humility and Modern Discourse

Nov 30, 2019 By Marc Gary | Commentary | Toledot

One of the joys of working at The Jewish Theological Seminary is the ability to take courses from arguably the greatest Jewish studies faculty in the world. Last year, I audited a course on biblical grammar in the Book of Genesis taught by one of this generation’s greatest Bible scholars. While I did my best to keep up with the younger and better-educated members of the class—mostly rabbinical and graduate students—I was particularly impressed by the level of class discussion. During one class, a student offered an interpretation of the text which he argued was consistent with the grammar but different from the one offered by the professor. The professor paused for a moment and then smiled: “I never thought of that.”

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Two Nations Struggling in the Womb

Two Nations Struggling in the Womb

Nov 9, 2018 By Arnold M. Eisen | Commentary | Toledot

The map of the United States is divided almost equally between red and blue as I write this column on the morning after the 2018 midterm elections. The Republicans have increased their majority in the Senate, and lost their majority in the House. Many races were too close to call far into the evening, and were decided in the end by the narrowest of margins—even as the two major parties and their supporters apparently stand farther apart from one another than at any time in recent memory. The results confirm the widespread view that Americans have rarely been less united.

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A Family of Covenant

A Family of Covenant

Nov 17, 2017 By Daniel Nevins | Commentary | Toledot

The stories of Genesis are presented as family portraits, but simultaneously they describe the origins of a religious civilization. How did the people of Israel acquire and maintain its distinctive religious mission? Genesis offers not only a window into Israel’s past, but a blueprint for its future. Implicit is an invitation to contribute to this unfolding narrative, attaching the threads of our lives to the tapestry woven by our ancestors. 

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Two Nations in Your Belly

Two Nations in Your Belly

Dec 2, 2016 By Burton L. Visotzky | Commentary | Toledot

One of the most poignant and profound verses of the Bible appears early in this week’s Torah reading, Toledot. Our matriarch Rebecca, beset with a difficult pregnancy, asks God, “Why me?” (Gen. 25:22). And God replies to her with one of the most fateful verses of the Bible: “There are two nations in your belly” (Gen. 25:23). From that moment on, the die is cast: we are locked in a struggle with Esau / Edom. This week’s haftarah from the prophet Malachi teaches us the stakes: “Is not Esau Jacob’s brother? asks the Lord. Yet I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated” (Malachi 1:2-3).

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A Sibling Rivalry for the Generations

A Sibling Rivalry for the Generations

Dec 2, 2016 By Brian Smollett | Commentary | Toledot

Do the Jewish people exist because of a bowl of lentil soup? Toledot presents the story of Jacob and Esau, a sibling rivalry with cosmic implications. The twin brothers who would come to father their own nations struggled even within the womb. Different as they were, they both prized the birthright that the already elderly Isaac would bestow upon his first born.

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Reimagining a Fixed Image

Reimagining a Fixed Image

Nov 13, 2015 By Allison Kestenbaum | Commentary | Toledot

When I read Toledot, I can’t help but have in mind a painting called “Jacob and Esau” by Jose de Ribera. I studied this painting while taking an art history class at the Prado Museum in Madrid many years ago. It is so vivid in my imagination that not only can I recall most of the details, I also can remember the exact location of the painting in the museum. The painting is known for its lifelike depiction of fabrics and the sheep skin on Jacob’s arm used to trick his father.

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Giving Blessings on a Full Stomach

Giving Blessings on a Full Stomach

Nov 13, 2015 By Daniel Nevins | Commentary | Toledot

Some stories are rich with visual imagery, while others resound with song. But it is fragrance, specifically the smell of savory food, which infuses Parashat Toledot. Food plays an essential role in several pivotal scenes. It is with a pot of lentil stew that Jacob purchases Esau’s birthright, and it is with a steak dinner that he secures the senior blessing from his father. The first story is simple—Esau is famished and ready to trade away anything for a bowl of soup. But the second story is enormously complex.

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The Voice of Esau

The Voice of Esau

Nov 21, 2014 By Noah Bickart | Commentary | Toledot

Joyce’s Ulysses is the only text that rivals the Babylonian Talmud in both its complexity and its stream-of-consciousness–style, jumping from topic to topic. In many ways, Joyce designed his masterpiece to be a Jewish book. Its main character, Leopold Bloom, was modeled on the assimilated Jews who were Joyce’s companions in his exile from Dublin in Paris, Zurich, and Trieste. In the book, Joyce’s characters quote the Bible frequently, sometimes even in Hebrew. In many ways the Jewish tradition is used in Ulysses as a foil, or counterbalance, for the main organizing principle of the work, a modern retelling of the journeys of Odysseus on his way home from Troy.

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Father, Have You No Blessing Left for Me?

Father, Have You No Blessing Left for Me?

Nov 21, 2014 By Leonard A. Sharzer | Commentary | Toledot

In Parashat Toledot, the saga of our somewhat dysfunctional ancestral family continues, and included within is one of the family’s saddest and most poignant episodes. Yitzhak, scion of the family and heir to his father’s covenant with God, has just married at the age of 40. He and his wife, Rivkah, remain childless for 20 years, when, in response to his entreaties to God, she conceives. Unlike her late mother-in-law’s easy pregnancy at an advanced age, Rivkah’s pregnancy is complicated. We are told right away that “the children, the ‘sons’ in fact, were struggling within her womb” (Vayitrotzetzu habanim bekirbah; Gen 25:22). However, she does not know the reason for her discomfort and distress.

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In Search of God

In Search of God

Oct 29, 2013 By Julia Andelman | Commentary | Toledot

Through the unexpected and serendipitous Shabbat meal invitations that often seem to come about when one is studying in Jerusalem, I found myself many years ago sitting at the festive Shabbat table of an ultra-Orthodox family one autumn Friday night.

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The Challenge of Tomorrow’s Blessing

The Challenge of Tomorrow’s Blessing

Oct 29, 2013 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Toledot

Parashat Toledot opens in life and closes with the threat of death.

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Wellsprings of Hope

Wellsprings of Hope

Nov 14, 2012 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Toledot

As famine envelops the Land of Israel, Isaac seeks refuge in the territory of the Philistines.

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Finding Our Way (and God’s) in the World

Finding Our Way (and God’s) in the World

Nov 13, 2012 By Daniel Nevins | Commentary | Toledot

What do you make of our matriarch Rebecca? Certainly she is the boldest and most independent of the mothers. Yet Rebecca’s strength has dreadful consequences.

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Torah As Water

Torah As Water

Nov 26, 2011 By Charlie Schwartz | Commentary | Text Study | Toledot

The metaphor of Torah as water has always resonated with me. With Torah as water, the idea of learning, engaging with, and living through our sacred texts comes into focus. Just as we cannot live for long without water, so too will our lives become desiccated and empty without the study of Torah.

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Conflicted Relationships

Conflicted Relationships

Nov 25, 2011 By Arnold M. Eisen | Commentary | Toledot

At the start of this week’s parashah, and again at its conclusion, we confront the complex, conflicted relationship that binds Isaac’s twin sons to one another and to their father. The middle section of the parashah, by contrast, is concerned with the no less complex and conflicted relationship that binds Isaac and his family to their neighbors.

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Biblical PTSD

Biblical PTSD

Nov 1, 2010 By Andrew Shugerman | Commentary | Text Study | Toledot

Many centuries before the advent of modern medicine in general and care for mental health in particular, our Sages developed the symbolic language of angels’ tears to explain the hidden wounds impressed upon Isaac’s psyche in the aftermath of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac.

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Angel Tears

Angel Tears

Oct 6, 2010 By Andrew Shugerman | Commentary | Toledot

Many centuries before the advent of modern medicine in general and care for mental health in particular, our Sages developed the symbolic language of angels’ tears to explain the hidden wounds impressed upon Isaac’s psyche in the aftermath of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. Today, one finds myriad psychological interpretations of his near-death experience at the hands of his father, Abraham. In fact, a trend has emerged in Israeli poetry over the last few decades: reexamining the Akedah as a paradigm for understanding the role of trauma and fear in contemporary Jewish life.

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Searching for Signs

Searching for Signs

Oct 5, 2010 By Eliezer B. Diamond | Commentary | Toledot

This week’s Torah portion contains an ambiguity that is rarely noted, and yet it is crucial to how we understand the contest between Rebecca and Isaac. When Rebecca experiences the as yet unborn children struggling, indeed almost crushing each other, she goes “to seek God”—whatever that may mean. She is told that two nations will emerge from her womb, two nations that will contend with each other and, the divine response concludes, “ve-rav ya’avod za’ir.

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