Monthly Archives: November 2015

Vayetze 5776: Jacob the Refugee

It’s not just that Jacob is a refugee when he arrives at the well near Haran; he also has a presumptuous attitude. This much is apparent from the first sentences that he utters to the local men. Calling out to them with a tone of familiarity, “My brothers, where are you from?” he proceeds to criticize and them direct them. Jacob says, “It is still broad daylight, too early to round up the animals; water the flock and take them out to pasture.” The shepherds seem to have been taking a siesta in the afternoon, using the well-worn excuse that they need to wait for more workers before returning to work. Jacob implies that they are lazy; his gallant feat of single-handedly rolling off the stone emphasizes that point. Perhaps it impresses Rachel, but I doubt it makes friends of his new neighbors.

Midrash Pesikta Zutrata (29:7) understands Jacob as a budding lawyer. His complex inquiry is designed to ascertain whether they are hired hands, in which case they still owe hours to their employer, or if they are the owners of the flocks, in which case they are missing the opportunity to maximize their profit. The Midrash concludes, “from here we learn that when an important man goes to another place and sees something out of order, that he must intervene with them and not say, ‘let my soul be quiet.’” This reading assumes that Jacob would have preferred to mind his own business, but since he already understood himself to be an “important man,” he felt obliged to intervene. A less charitable reading would be that Jacob is never willing to leave things be. He is on the lookout for opportunity, and minding his own business is not in keeping with his character.  Continue reading

Shabbat Toledot: A Full Bellied Blessing

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.

Isaac’s announcement that he requires Esau to hunt an animal and feed his father from the kill before blessing him is baffling. As a literary device, this delay in the action creates narrative space for the collusion between Rebecca and Jacob to transpire. While Esau is out hunting they will quickly kill two goats from the herd and feed Isaac. Rebecca and Jacob take advantage of Isaac’s blindness in order to trick him into making a false blessing. True, Rebecca had received a divine oracle saying that Jacob was destined for primacy, and Jacob had after all purchased the birthright. However, it seems that old Isaac had not been filled in on these details, so he is literally and figuratively in the dark. And he is hungry, waiting for his boy to bring him dinner.

But why does Isaac need to eat meat before blessing Esau? Why can’t he simply call his son in for his blessing, just as other biblical characters do? Indeed, we bless our children on Friday night before dinner, not after enjoying our meal. What is different about Isaac? Continue reading