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
Temperatures are dropping here in New York City, and winter approaches quickly. I like the cool air—it clears my mind—but then again, I have easy access to a warm and comfortable home day and night. For over 50,000 New Yorkers, there is no such luck. Many stay in shelters, like where I am now, staffing the overnight shift at Ansche Chesed, but many are unable to secure even temporary housing. Instead, they seek warmth in subway tunnels and other hidden spaces where we don’t see them. The number of homeless families in our city has risen by 73% in the past 12 years, and there are now 21,000 homeless children in our city. These statistics come from a sobering article by Ian Frazier called, “Hidden City,” in the October 28 issue of The New Yorker.
21,000 homeless children—that is a shocking number, but it helps to connect it to a face. Can you picture a runaway teenager, alienated from his family, unsafe at home, bolting out the door in terror, pointing towards a vague destination, afraid of yet another round of rejection? Alone for the first time in his life, vulnerable in the night, collapsing in a hard place, seizing stones for shelter and perhaps self defense? That homeless child, that runaway teen, is of course Yaakov Avinu as the curtain draws open and our parashah begins. Continue reading
What determined the respective fates of the twins? Were their futures foretold by Rebecca’s oracle, or rather, by its interpretation? Were their fates traded through the exchange of a bowl of lentil stew for the birthright? Or was it Isaac’s blessing, secured through subterfuge, that sealed the respective paths of the boys? Was it all of these things together, or perhaps none of them, that determined that Esau would become a ruffian, while Jacob would emerge as the spiritual father of a people covenanted to God?
Twins are a source of fascination, especially for scientists who research the relative influence of genetics and environment in human development. But even non-scientists wonder about siblings who gestated and were born together, were raised in the same environment, and yet whose paths diverged dramatically one from the other. Twins provide a special vantage point into the nature/nurture dichotomy, and allow us to imagine that it is possible to resolve the mystery of character if we can just isolate the inputs of genes or environment.
Such efforts to simplify human development are, however, prone to fail. True, there are physical characteristics and even some personality traits that are heritable, and there are certainly environmental influences that affect character development. And yet, it is never simple to say that entirely because of parentage, or parenting, that a person became the way that they are. Continue reading