A D’var Torah for Parshat Toldot by Rabbi Benjamin Altshuler
As we gather for Thanksgiving meals this week, we begin to think about what we bring to the table. Sometimes each member of the community is responsible for a particular dish. We contribute our anecdotes and jokes, our announcements, and our efforts to steer the conversation away from politics. But we may also bring helpings of grievances, appetizers of allegiances, a serving of unspoken histories, or a charcuterie board of bit lips and clenched teeth.
In Parshat Toldot, Jacob manipulates members of his family through food and hunger. He generously provides lentil stew for Esau when his older twin returns home exhausted from the hunt. Later, he plays the role of the good son when he feeds his father Isaac on his deathbed. But Jacob does not act out of compassion — his meals come with a side of self-promotion. Jacob uses his stewardship as a bargaining chip, first for his brother’s birthright and then for their father’s blessing. Perhaps, to his credit, Jacob is cunning and so proves to be deserving of the family inheritance and the line of Abraham. According to the 11th-century commentator Rashi, Esau was not simply an outdoorsman but a loafer who hunted aimlessly — note that he returns from his hunt empty-handed. Jacob, in contrast, is a homebody and “a mild man who stayed in the tents” who develops the skills of the shepherd, nurturing his flock (Genesis 25:27). But if Jacob was so “mild,” what possessed him to demand Esau’s birthright in this moment?
Ostensibly, Isaac had planned to give his blessing to Esau, for the text tells us that “Isaac favored Esau because he had a taste for game while Rebecca favored Jacob” (Genesis 25:28). Read literally, this means that Isaac’s favor is contingent on the provision of meat while Rebecca’s love is constant. This is further evidenced when Isaac preempts the delivery of his blessing by a demand for a meaty meal (Genesis 27:4). The trickery that follows is orchestrated by Rebecca, but the blessing and benefit are granted to Jacob.
Hunger is often attributed to scarcity — there is not enough food and so some go without. But the truth is that our planet can produce sufficient food for all. So too with our ancestors; Isaac amassed enough wealth to sustain both of his sons. In Gerar, where our ancestors lived during this story, Isaac’s “yield was a hundredfold… he was very wealthy; he acquired flocks and herds and a large household so that the Philistines envied him.” (Genesis 26:12-14) Consider a revisionist history wherein the two brothers, with their diverse portfolios of skills, band together to build an empire worthy of their shared birthright, each receiving a sizable share of their father’s fortune. In a land of plenty, there is no need to fight for a portion. Jacob’s subterfuge is made possible because he takes “two choice kids from the flock” (Genesis 27:9) for Rebecca to prepare. The animals necessary for Isaac’s desired meal were already on hand — ergo, there was no need for Esau to go out in pursuit of wild game.
Jacob receives the blessing and the birthright — but at what cost? He ensures that his brother, a man of physical prowess, will bear a grudge against him for the rest of their lives — and so Jacob will live in fear. Perhaps this insecurity or the labor he performs for Laban in the coming chapters are recompense for this short-sightedness. By pitting his sons against each other, Isaac here ensures that his own sibling rivalry with Ishmael and his generational trauma are passed on to his sons, and eventually to the subsequent generation to come. Down the line, we may trace the origin of the hunger for power contested between the tribes of Israel. We hunger for change, and yet sometimes our paths are shaped by our generational narratives. As we sit down together with our communities this holiday season, may we be mindful of providing for everyone at the table, not only through the sustenance of our plates, but also through the generosity of our time and the equity of recognizing the unique gifts each of us has to offer.
Rabbi Benjamin Altshuler serves the Jewish communities of the Northwoods at Mt. Sinai Congregation in Wausau, WI. He also serves on the Rabbinic Council for AVODAH, of which he is an alumnus.