Hendrick Terbrugghen, Esau Selling His Birthright, c.1626

Toldot | פרשת תולדות

Sefer Shemot | ספר שמות

Shemot 1:1-6:1  [Hebcal] [על-התורה] שמות א א-ו א

Haftarah: Yirmiyahu 1:1-2:3 (Sefardi) | Yeshayahu 27:6-28:13, 29:22-23 (Ashkenazi) | Yechezkel 16:1-14 (Teimani)

[על-התורה] (תימנים) הפטרה: ירמיהו א א- ב ג (ספרגים) | ישעיהו כז ו- כח יג; כט כב – כג (אשכנזים) | יחזקאל טז א-יד


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The last parsha having concluded with Yishmael’s lineage, the narrative now turns towards the central story arc: the fate of Avraham’s descendants via Yitzchak. For this reason, our parsha opens with a restatement of toldot Avraham, the “generations” or “history” of Avraham.1 We are then told that Yitzchak was 40 years old when he married Rivka, the daughter of Betuel the Aramean of Padan-Aram and the sister of Lavan the Aramean. Though we’ve gotten some of this information before, this pasuk clarifies relationships, ages, and nationalities as well as the fact that Padan-Aram is another name for Aram Naharayim.2

“Two nations in your womb”

[Bereshit 25:19]

Sadly, Rivka too suffers from infertility. Yitzchak intercedes with Hashem on Rivka’s behalf (וַיֶּעְתַּר יִצְחָק לַה’); his prayers are answered (וַיֵּעָתֶר לוֹ ה’) and she becomes pregnant⁠—with twins. The twins “struggle” (וַיִּתְרֹצֲצוּ) inside of her and Rivka despairs, saying “If this is so, why do I exist?” (אִם כֵּן לָמָּה זֶּה אָנֹכִי), and goes to seek an answer from Hashem (וַתֵּלֶךְ לִדְרֹשׁ אֶת ה’). Hashem explains:

וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ לָהּ שְׁנֵי גיים [גוֹיִם] בְּבִטְנֵךְ וּשְׁנֵי לְאֻמִּים מִמֵּעַיִךְ יִפָּרֵדוּ וּלְאֹם מִלְאֹם יֶאֱמָץ :וְרַב יַעֲבֹד צָעִיר

“Two nations are in your womb,
Two separate peoples shall issue from your body;
One people shall be mightier than the other,
And the older shall serve the younger.”

Bereshit 25:23

When the twins are born, twenty years after Rivka and Yitzchak marry (we are told Yitzchak is 60 years old at the birth), the first emerges “red (admoni), like a hairy mantle all over” (אַדְמוֹנִי כֻּלּוֹ כְּאַדֶּרֶת שֵׂעָר). He is named Esav (Esau – עֵשָׂו).3 As we’ll see, Esav is the forefather of the Edomites—literally, “the red ones”—and will later be associated with Rome and then Christendom.

The second twin emerges “holding on to the heel of Esav” (וְיָדוֹ אֹחֶזֶת בַּעֲקֵב עֵשָׂו) and is accordingly named Yaakov – יַעֲקֹב, “he follows,” literally, “he is on the heels of.”

We are next told that when the boys grow up, Esav becomes “a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors” (אִישׁ יֹדֵעַ צַיִד אִישׁ שָׂדֶה) while Yaakov “became a mild man, raising livestock” (אִישׁ תָּם יֹשֵׁב אֹהָלִים). Yitzchak favors (וַיֶּאֱהַב) Esav, appreciating his game, while Rivka favors (אֹהֶבֶת) Yaakov.

Esav sells his Birthright to Yaakov

[Bereshit 25:27]

One day, Esav returns to the family tent, famished, just as Yaakov is cooking a stew. He asks Yaakov to give him “some of that red, red stuff” (הָאָדֹם הָאָדֹם הַזֶּה), which Rashi explains is red lentils.4 Yaakov then says, “First sell me your birthright5” (מִכְרָה כַיּוֹם אֶת בְּכֹרָתְךָ לִי). Reasoning that he is about to die, “so of what use is my birthright to me” (וְלָמָּה זֶּה לִי בְּכֹרָה), Esav agrees. Yaakov demands an oath, which Esav swears, effecting the sale of the bechora. He eats the stew Yaakov gives him and goes away (וַיָּקָם וַיֵּלַךְ), having spurned his birthright (וַיִּבֶז עֵשָׂו אֶת הַבְּכֹרָה).

Another Famine, Another Promise

[Bereshit 26:1]

Another famine afflicts the Land—the Mikra is specific to differentiate this from the earlier famine during Avraham’s day—but Hashem appears to Yitzchak and instructs him not to go down to Egypt. As a result, Yitzchak goes to Gerar, the kingdom of Avimelech of the Philistines. Hashem further says to Yaakov:

גּוּר בָּאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת וְאֶהְיֶה עִמְּךָ וַאֲבָרְכֶךָּ כִּי לְךָ וּלְזַרְעֲךָ אֶתֵּן אֶת כָּל הָאֲרָצֹת הָאֵל וַהֲקִמֹתִי אֶת הַשְּׁבֻעָה אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי לְאַבְרָהָם אָבִיךָ: וְהִרְבֵּיתִי אֶת זַרְעֲךָ כְּכוֹכְבֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם וְנָתַתִּי לְזַרְעֲךָ אֵת כָּל הָאֲרָצֹת הָאֵל וְהִתְבָּרֲכוּ בְזַרְעֲךָ כֹּל גּוֹיֵי הָאָרֶץ: עֵקֶב אֲשֶׁר שָׁמַע אַבְרָהָם בְּקֹלִי וַיִּשְׁמֹר מִשְׁמַרְתִּי מִצְו‍ֹתַי חֻקּוֹתַי וְתוֹרֹתָי:

“Reside in this land, and I will be with you and bless you; I will assign all these lands to you and to your heirs, fulfilling the oath that I swore to your father Abraham. I will make your heirs as numerous as the stars of heaven, and assign to your heirs all these lands, so that all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your heirs—inasmuch as Abraham obeyed Me and kept My charge: My commandments, My laws, and My teachings.”

Bereshit 26:3-5

“She’s my sister” (Part 3)

[Bereshit 26:7]

In Gerar, Yitzchak, like his father (twice) before him, fears that he will be harmed by ruthless Philistines who want to take his beautiful wife for their own. Also like Avraham, he passes off Rivka as his sister. Some time later, Avimelech observes Yitzchak and Rivka in an intimate moment and realizes they are husband and wife. Once again he questions Yitzchak about his deception, which might have caused one of his entourage to inadvertently go astray. When Yitzchak explains, Avimelech bids the Philistine public to leave Yitzchak unharmed.

Yitzchak sows seeds in the land of Gerar and reaps one hundredfold, a blessing from Hashem (וַיִּמְצָא בַּשָּׁנָה הַהִוא מֵאָה שְׁעָרִים וַיְבָרֲכֵהוּ ה’). Yitzchak grows prosperous.

The Philistines stop up the wells that had been dug by Avraham previously. Avimelech asks Yitzchak to leave Gerar because he has become too wealthy in flocks. Yitzchak consents and settled in Nachal Gerar, a riverbed near Gerar. He digs up all the stopped-up wells and restores to them their names:

וַיָּשָׁב יִצְחָק וַיַּחְפֹּר אֶת בְּאֵרֹת הַמַּיִם אֲשֶׁר חָפְרוּ בִּימֵי אַבְרָהָם אָבִיו וַיְסַתְּמוּם :פְּלִשְׁתִּים אַחֲרֵי מוֹת אַבְרָהָם וַיִּקְרָא לָהֶן שֵׁמוֹת כַּשֵּׁמֹת אֲשֶׁר קָרָא לָהֶן אָבִיו

Isaac dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham and which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham’s death; and he gave them the same names that his father had given them.

Bereshit 26:18

This activity leads to disputes with the Philistines, who claim the water as belonging to them. After digging two wells that lead to strife (Esek – עֵשֶׂק and Sitna – שִׂטְנָה), he digs another over which there is finally peace, which he names Rechovot (רְחֹבוֹת): “widened space.” He proceeds from there to Be’er Sheva.

Hashem Appears to Yitzchak

[Bereshit 26:24]

That night in Be’er Sheva, Hashem appears (וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו) to Yitzchak and tells him:

אָנֹכִי אֱלֹקי אַבְרָהָם אָבִיךָ אַל תִּירָא כִּי אִתְּךָ אָנֹכִי וּבֵרַכְתִּיךָ וְהִרְבֵּיתִי אֶת זַרְעֲךָ :בַּעֲבוּר אַבְרָהָם עַבְדִּי

“I am the G-d of your father Avraham. Fear not, for I am with you, and I will bless you and increase your offspring for the sake of My servant Avraham.”

Bereshit 26:24

Yitzchak builds an altar (mizbeach – מִזְבֵּחַ) there and “invokes G-d by Name” (וַיִּקְרָא בְּשֵׁם ה’).

Avimelech arrives at Yitzchak’s camp along with his advisor Achuzat (אֲחֻזַּת) and his aforementioned general Pichol (פִּיכֹל), which, as Yitzchak observes, is rather strange given that they drove Avraham out. But Avimelech informs him that it is now clear that Yitzchak has been blessed by G-d; he wants to make a peace treaty with Yitzchak. They make a common feast and exchange oaths the next morning. Yitzchak’s associates find a wellspring the next day, which Yitzchak named Shivah (שִׁבְעָה – “oath”) and the city there, again, Be’er Sheva.

Family Trouble

[Bereshit 26:34]

Esav takes two wives at the age of 40, Yudit (Judith – יְהוּדִית) the daughter of Be’eri the Hittite (בְּאֵרִי הַחִתִּי) and Basmat (בָּשְׂמַת6 the daughter of Eilon the Hittite (אֵילֹן הַחִתִּי). They are “a source of bitterness” (מֹרַת רוּחַ) to Yitzchak and Rivka.

“The voice is the voice of Yaakov, but the hands are the hands of Esav”

[Bereshit 27:1]

Yitzchak has grown old and lost his sight. He asks Esav to take his bow and arrow, hunt him some game, and prepare him essentially a last meal. Esav responds with that tell-tale, ironclad affirmation: Hineni, here I am.

Rivka overhears this and when Esav goes out to hunt, turns to Yaakov and instructs him to go get two kids (as in young goats) from the flock as subterfuge to present to his father in Esav’s place. Yaakov objects that he will bring upon himself “a curse, not a blessing” (וְהֵבֵאתִי עָלַי קְלָלָה וְלֹא בְרָכָה) when his father reaches out to touch Esav’s hairy skin and instead feels his own smooth skin. But Rivka insists and he does as she says.

Rivka dresses Yaakov in Esav’s clothes and covers his hands and neck with the skin of the kids to make them appear hairy. Yaakov approaches Yitzchak and replies to his query that he is Esav. Yitzchak is suspicious, eventually asking the supposed Esav to come closer. Feeling the hairy kid skins, Yitzchak says: “The voice is the voice of Yaakov, yet the hands are the hands of Esav” (הַקֹּל קוֹל יַעֲקֹב וְהַיָּדַיִם יְדֵי עֵשָׂו). Satisfied, for the moment, Yitzchak blesses Yaakov; doubts rising again, he asks whether he is really Esav but motions him to bring the meal. Yaakov does so. When he bends over to kiss his elderly father, Yitzchak recognizes the scent of Esav on his clothes. Finally assured, he gives Yaakov a sincere blessing:

וְיִתֶּן לְךָ הָאֱלֹ’הִקים מִטַּל הַשָּׁמַיִם וּמִשְׁמַנֵּי הָאָרֶץ וְרֹב דָּגָן וְתִירֹשׁ: יַעַבְדוּךָ עַמִּים וישתחו [וְיִשְׁתַּחֲווּ] לְךָ לְאֻמִּים הֱוֵה גְבִיר לְאַחֶיךָ וְיִשְׁתַּחֲוּוּ לְךָ בְּנֵי אִמֶּךָ אֹרְרֶיךָ אָרוּר וּמְבָרֲכֶיךָ בָּרוּךְ:

May G-d give you
Of the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth,
Abundance of new grain and wine.

Let peoples serve you,
And nations bow to you;
Be master over your brothers,
And let your mother’s sons bow to you.
Cursed be they who curse you,
Blessed they who bless you.

Bereshit 27:28-29

Esav returns at this point and prepare a meal for his father. Approaching Yitzchak, he identifies himself as Esav. Yitzchak, realizing he has been duped, gets angry but tells Esav that the blessing inheres with the one he has blessed. Esav, upset, asks Yitzchak to bless him also, which his father says is pointless because the previous blessing appointed his brother to dominate over him. Esav realizes he has lost both his birthright and his blessing, but Yitzchak still gives him a blessing that is left to give:

הִנֵּה מִשְׁמַנֵּי הָאָרֶץ יִהְיֶה מוֹשָׁבֶךָ וּמִטַּל הַשָּׁמַיִם מֵעָל: וְעַל חַרְבְּךָ תִחְיֶה וְאֶת אָחִיךָ תַּעֲבֹד וְהָיָה כַּאֲשֶׁר תָּרִיד וּפָרַקְתָּ עֻלּוֹ מֵעַל צַוָּארֶךָ:

“See, your abode shall enjoy the fat of the earth
And the dew of heaven above.
Yet by your sword you shall live,
And you shall serve your brother;
But when you grow restive,
You shall break his yoke from your neck.”

Bereshit 27:39-40

Yaakov Flees to Lavan’s House

[Bereshit 27:41]

Esav bears a grudge against Yaakov and plots to kill him during the mourning period for their father, i.e. immediately after Yitzchak’s death. Unfortunately for his plot, he says this out loud to himself and the words are overheard and reported to Rivka.

Rivka calls for Yaakov and tells him that Esav is planning to murder him. She instructs Yaakov to go to her brother Lavan’s home in Harran, where he should stay until Esav’s anger subsides. She says she will send for Yaakov when the time comes: “Let me not lose you both in one day” (לָמָה אֶשְׁכַּל גַּם שְׁנֵיכֶם יוֹם אֶחָד).

As a cover for the real plan, Rivka tells Yitzchak that she is disgusted by the local Hittite women Esav has married and she doesn’t want the same to happen to Yaakov. Yitzchak readily agrees to send Yaakov to Padan-Aram to stay in his grandfather’s house and find a wife from among his uncle Lavan’s daughters, instructing Yaakov to avoid Canaanite women and giving him another blessing:

וְאֵ-ל שַׁדַּי יְבָרֵךְ אֹתְךָ וְיַפְרְךָ וְיַרְבֶּךָ וְהָיִיתָ לִקְהַל עַמִּים: וְיִתֶּן לְךָ אֶת בִּרְכַּת אַבְרָהָם לְךָ וּלְזַרְעֲךָ אִתָּךְ לְרִשְׁתְּךָ אֶת אֶרֶץ מְגֻרֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר נָתַן אֱלֹקים לְאַבְרָהָם

“May E-l Shaddai bless you, make you fertile and numerous, so that you become an assembly of peoples. May you and your offspring be granted the blessing of Avraham, that you may possess the land where you are sojourning, which G-d assigned to Avraham.”

Bereshit 28:3-4

The parsha closes with Esav realizing that his father is displeased with his Canaanite wives; he goes to Yishmael and takes two additional wives from his kin, Mahalat (מָחֲלַת) the daughter of Yishmael and sister of Nevayot (נְבָיוֹת).

Haftara Summary

[Malachi 1:1]7

This haftarah is the first prophecy of Malachi, the last of the Neviim (prophets). Malachi’s time is a few generations after Shivat Tziyon, the return to Eretz Yisrael of the exiles of Galut Bavel. The prophecies of Zecharia and Chaggai, however, do not seem to have come to pass. Malachi’s prophecy serves to reassure the people that as the descendants of Yaakov, they have been chosen over Esav and his descendants the Edomites, forming the link to the parsha:

אָהַבְתִּי אֶתְכֶם אָמַר ה’ וַאֲמַרְתֶּם בַּמָּה אֲהַבְתָּנוּ הֲלוֹא אָח עֵשָׂו לְיַעֲקֹב נְאֻם ה’ וָאֹהַב אֶת יַעֲקֹב:

I have shown you love, said Hashem. But you ask, “How have You shown us love?” After all—declares Hashem—Esav is Yaakov’s brother; yet I have accepted Yaakov!

Malachi 1:2

Image: Hendrick Terbrugghen, Esau Selling His Birthright, c. 1626.

Notes

  1. Rashi adds that it was necessary to restate that Yitzchak was Avraham’s son due to rumors that he was the child of Sarah and Avimelech, given that Sarah had been childless in all her years with Avraham.
  2. Ibn Ezra notes that padan means field in Arabic; Rashi adds that this is a differentiating term since there are two places known as Aram: Aram Naharayim (in northern Mesopotamia) and Aram Tzova (Aleppo in Syria).
  3. The meaning of the name is related to his appearance per the Mikra, but its meaning is uncertain. Rashi suggests that this is because he is born fully formed, עשוי, “made, formed.”
  4. Rashi on Bereshit 25:30. Rashi also notes here that this is when Avraham died.
  5. Bechora, literally, “status as the firstborn.”
  6. That’s a regular kamatz in her name, though this is name usually pronounced as a kamatz katan in modern Hebrew, Bosmat.
  7. Unless it is the day before Rosh Chodesh Kislev, making it a Shabbat Machar Chodesh with its special maftir and haftarah.