A Sibling Rivalry for the Generations

Brian Smollet
Toledot By :  Brian Smollett Associate Provost, Curriculum and Instruction; Dean, Academic Affairs; Assistant Professor, Modern Jewish Thought Posted On Dec 2, 2016 / 5777 | דבר אחר | A Different Perspective

Esau and Jacob (1640s), Matthias Stom

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.

The word toledot here denotes the genealogies with which the portion opens (Gen. 25:19-21) but the word, fittingly, also means history. Why would the Torah establish the birthright of the ancestor whose name our people bear through acts of guile? Unsurprisingly, Rashi too was bothered by this, even going so far as to speculate on the relative order of conception versus birth for twins and concluding that Jacob was indeed the rightful heir.

But what if Jacob’s deceptions were necessary? This depiction of Rebecca, Jacob, and Esau imagines the key moment when Esau sold his birthright for a bowl of red lentil soup. The most striking personality in this depiction is Rebecca. Standing with her two sons in this crucial moment, her expression is at once one of eagerness and exasperation. Despite his claims, it seems that Esau is less at risk of starvation and more unwilling to wait for his captured prey to cook. Indeed, he sells the legacy of generations for the sake of his immediate comfort. Perhaps Rebecca knew all along the trouble that would come if Esau took up the mantle of leadership. Here she seems to wait eagerly as Jacob secures both the birthright of his father, and the hope of generations to come.