Monday, November 15, 2004

Toldot: Yaakov the ganiff (Jacob the thief)

“ . . .lifné ivér lo titén michshol . . .” do not put a stumbling block in front of a blind person . . . “ (Vayikra Kedoshim, Leviticus chapter 19, verse 14) The rabbis put an interesting spin on this. In their interpretation, a blind person was someone who was ignorant or easily tempted. A stumbling block, therefore, would be anything that might cause the ignorant or the weak-willed to sin.

Surely Yaakov/Jacob must have known that his brother, Eisav/Esau, tended to think of his physical needs first and his spiritual life later. Yet he placed a michshol—in the form of a bowl of thick soup—in front of him when he was famished, deliberately tempting him to sell his birthright. Not, mind you, that Eisav comes out smelling like a rose in this transaction either, but still . . .

Then, of course, there’s that little incident in which Rivka/Rebecca and Yaakov conspired to get Yitzchak/Isaac to give Yaakov the blessing that should have been given to Eisav as the firstborn. My rabbi the displaced “Black Hat” (right-wing Orthodox Jew) hit me with various midrashim/traditional interpretative stories justifying the theft, stories ranging from the notion that Eisav was a heretic who showed no respect for his grandfather up to and including the rather outrageous charge that Eisav was a rapist. (!)

Personally, I think Eisav got a raw deal and still gets a bum rap. Okay, so maybe he wasn’t a paragon of virtue—he did sell his birthright for a bowl of soup, after all—but he was a good-hearted son who was just trying to please his dad. He even went out of his way to marry a wife who would please his parents, once he realized just how upset they were about his choice of wives. Yes, he threatened to kill his brother after their father died, but even with an army backing him up, he didn't do so when he had the opportunity. What’s so bad about this guy?


Blogger Shira Salamone said...

If you’re interested in the story of Yaakov and Eisav, you might also want to read “The case for Esav” at and “Father, please?”at

Tue Nov 16, 12:56:00 AM 2004  
Blogger Noam S said...

In order to understand the Parsha, you have to start with the communication from God to Rivka, where He tells her that the younger will be greater, and the older will serve the younger. In the context of this Divine imperative, Ya'akov's actions, and Rivka's, are neccesary to achieve the end. From a limited mankind based view, it may appear as deception, or trickery. But, you have to look at it as a commandment from God, and you cannot ascribe that type of behavior to God. A similar situation is found with God hardening Pharoah's heart. Or even with the commandment to sacrifice Isaac. God has to be, so to speak, given the opportunity to act Godlike, outside the bounds of human perceptions of morality and fairness, and we trust that He(or She) knows what They are doing.

On a more practical basis, the elder child, among other rights and responsibilities, was in charge of religion for the family. Eisav had neither the temperment nor the inclination to carry on the traditions of Avraham and Yitzchak. He probably was relieved to be rid of that responsibility.

Tue Nov 16, 01:17:00 PM 2004  
Blogger Barefoot Jewess said...

When I read the portion this past weekend, I felt very badly for Esau, regardless of commentary. He seemed to be the victim.

But then, reading these comments made me think of the following: I think that in our lives we sometimes have to make decisions that hurt someone. I imagine it was difficult for Rebecca, even after G-d spoke to her, to encourage Jacob to deceive, and to see her other son deceived. I prefer to think that Rebecca loved both of her sons equally, yet her motherly love had to be constrained in anticipation and favour of future generations. I don't think that this was an easy decision for her; I imagine it was heartbreaking.

And, in a sense, no one was a winner in this scenario except G-d and future generations of what came to be known as the Jewish people. Without Jacob, we would not be who we are. If Rebecca was doing G-d's will, I wonder if Jacob was as well. If Isaac kind of guessed. Only Esau seems not to have a clue. And perhaps it is that ignorance that was his downfall. His insensitivity to the nuances of family and birthright. And the fact that his character was inadequate to the task of fathering the Jewish people.

I feel pain for Jacob because he had to deceive. And I feel pain for Esau because he was found lacking. It wasn't his fault in a way. He just didn't embody the characteristics needed for a founding father. He just didn't get it. I don't think less of him as a human being.

Later Jacob and Esau reconcile. Esau acted in a generous and noble manner in embracing his brother. Even though what happened to them, the deception, ensured that they could never be close, unless they were exceptional. I think that ultimately neither had the requisite greatness of character to overcome that rift. But I think that Esau overcame more.

The story really makes me wonder how much G-d's plan directs our lives, no matter what. And emphasises how some of the choices that we make are painful and bring pain to others, even if willed and directed by G-d.

Tue Nov 16, 06:29:00 PM 2004  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

oosj the Out of Step Jew said, “I agree that he was not as evil as the midrashim point out,(but don't forget that they were more concerned with Rome/Edom - who was Esav) . . . “ True, the rabbis pinned the name Esav on Rome as a code name, so that they could speak their minds about the political situation without being literally thrown to the lions. I’ll keep in mind that what they were really discussing was Rome. That’s the only justification I can think of for the rabbis to call Esav a rapist—it was really Rome that they were talking about.

We all seem to agree that Esav/Eisav/Aysav/Esau (pick one [or two]) didn’t have the strength of character to lead what would become the Jewish people. On the other hand . . .

Dilbert said, “In order to understand the Parsha, you have to start with the communication from God to Rivka, where He tells her that the younger will be greater, and the older will serve the younger. In the context of this Divine imperative, Ya'akov's actions, and Rivka's, are neccesary to achieve the end.” If HaShem never intended for Esav the firstborn to inherit the rights and responsibilities of the firstborn, why was Esav born first? My question, for those who accept HaShem’s omnipotence as a literal fact, is this: Why couldn’t the same G-d who got a post-menopausal woman (Sarah) pregnant have made sure that Yaakov was the firstborn? What was the point of all this intrigue, other than to create a fascinating story that we’ll still discussing thousands of years later?

Dilbert also said, “From a limited mankind based view, it may appear as deception, or trickery. But, you have to look at it as a commandment from God, and you cannot ascribe that type of behavior to God.” No offence, but, actually, I can and I do—which is why you’re Orthodox and I’m not. Hmm, maybe I *should* have posted about the Akédah/Binding of Isaac.

Barefoot Jewess, I’m afraid I’m going to have to disagree with you on this one—there’s no evidence *in the text* to indicate that Rivka was any more impartial in her love for her sons than Yitzchak was. Each had a favorite. But Rivka seems to have outsmarted her husband—and Esav paid the price.

Wed Nov 17, 01:13:00 AM 2004  
Blogger Barefoot Jewess said...


It is patently clear that each parent was partial to a particular sibling. However, that partiality does not necessarily translate into behaviour. It is possible to be partial to one child without favouring them. Parents can feel closer to and identify with one more than another. But this does not necessarily translate into obvious preferences, though I admit this may be a tenuous argument- the Torah does state that each parent "loved" a particular child, which can only make you go, ...hmmmm....

In this case, the proof may be in the fact that Isaac did not retract his blessing, or give the same one to Esau. Some call Isaac weak or passive, but perhaps he saw the wisdom in it. Moreover, I think it did pain Rebecca, as a G-d fearing woman, to encourage deceit and to see her other son betrayed. And it wasn't as if Esau was an outcast, or shunned by his family- he was just different.

Where you see favouritism I see tough and painful choices. Either interpretation is valid, IMO. Perhaps Rebecca was ambitious for her beloved Jacob, and G-d's words certainly inspired or reinforced that. The only interpretations I have difficulty with is where the actions of the "hero" and his supporters are completely whitewashed. I don't see perfection in the Bible.

Wed Nov 17, 08:36:00 AM 2004  
Blogger Noam S said...

In Lech Lecha, Avraham tells God, "chalila lecha, hashofet kol ha'aretz lo ya'aseh mishpat". Shame on you, the judge of the land(world) is not going make justice(act justly)? This happens as Avraham is arguing against God destroying Sdom. This concept, that God is just, and is totally just, was revolutionary at the time, and is one of the bedrock concepts of Judaism. The fact that we may not understand and comprehend the extent of the justice does not change the belief that God is totally just. A few weeks(maybe a month or two) there was an article in the Jewish Week in which the author described his Yom Kippur experience. He(a Reform rabbi) felt that in the end God had forgiven him, and he had forgiven God for all that God had done(all the innocent people dying, disasters in the world, etc.). What is the point in having an imperfect God who needs forgiveness? That is not consonant with traditional Jewish beliefs. Describing God as imperfect just because we do not understand and totally comprehend how and why things happen is hubris to an incredible extent.

As far as Esav and if he was really wicked, or just an unintellegent sensualist who was tricked out of his birthright, if you throw out the midrashim and about 2500 years of commentary, then all you have to go on is the story as written. Obviously, you can read into it what you want. However, I am not sure what you achieve by elevating Esav to the status of affronted hedonist.

Wed Nov 17, 04:50:00 PM 2004  
Blogger Barefoot Jewess said...


Yes, G-d is totally just. And hey, you may be totally correct in your post. But people suffer because of G-d's justice, it can be painful, and those issues were being addressed here. Why is this a problem?

And so what if Esau was a hedonist? He has other worthy characteristics; but he cannot be a founder. Still, he was cheated, even if it was G-d's will, and the fact that he doesn't get it makes it painful. And you think it didn't hurt Mama Rebecca to corrupt one son (Jacob got his comeuppance) and to betray the other? Just as it pained Abraham to finally resign himself to accept G-d's judgment of Sodom after a monumental, some might say, presumptuous, argument with G-d?

As for the commentary crack, ya think it all ended with the last Sage? Hey, we're making up our own midrashim and interpretations. In addition to what is so generously provided to us thru various commentaries. It may not be authoritative, but it is just as valid, even if you don't think so.

Moral and ethical dilemmas abound, yes, to this very moment, and they can be rather ambiguous. The whole Jacob-Esau issue is repeated in all generations. In that case, I don't readily assume that the consequences are G-d's justice manifest; if that were true we could all just sit back and twiddle our thumbs at the suffering of others. The stories in the Torah provoke questions and thought that apply to our situations today. Questioning and challenging is so traditionally Jewish. So, are you saying we can't draw outside the lines?

I also remember how Job's friends thought they had the answers to Job's suffering. G-d, it turned out, had a different view. About Job's friends, that is.

Wed Nov 17, 07:25:00 PM 2004  
Blogger Noam S said...

first of all, my post sounded a bit more strident than I had intended, and for that I apologize. Secondly, I may hav misread Shira in that there certainly is a difference between questioning whether God is fair(certainly ok in my book, although, if you wind up with a no answer, you have a definite problem)and believing that God is unfair(a no-no in my book). For further biblical sources on the perfection of God, see the fourth sentence in Ha'azinu(Deuteronomy) "ha'tzur tammim poalo..." The Rock, whose work is perfect...

Barefoot Jewess says that people suffer because of God's justice. That is like saying that Someone who murders a person suffers because the justice system puts him in jail. He suffers because he is in jail, and he is in jail because of the justice system. Therefore, he suffers because of the justice system. Superficially, that is correct. However what is ignored, or not seen, are other factors and variables. I certainly do not deny that millions of people suffer every day and it is a horrible tragedy and we are obligated to do everything and anything we can do to help. However, it is not God's justice alone that is causing them to suffer(we haven't done anything to help people in Darfur, for example), and we don't know how they fit into God's big picture. Therefore, to say that people suffer BECAUSE of God's justice is missing the forest for the trees. Obviously God is ultimately responsible for what happens in the world(except for what we determine with our free choice,, but how that choice is set up etc is a topic for another conversation). So, blame God, question God, as Abraham did, grieve over the suffering, it would not be human not to, but believe in God and in the perfection of His justice, even though we dont understand it completely.

Midrash crack. hmmmm. I couldn't help myself. I certainly did not mean to imply that what we have is set in stone. However, it does reflect a tradition of understanding that has accrued over the years. Can you toss it aside and find something else? of course. Is any new meaning that is found in the text valid? I would say that as long as it is consonant with the meaning of the words and does not violate halacha and the tenents of Judaism, fine. Is it going to be accepted by the masses? that is for history to resolve. However, because we are a religion with a tradition, I think that there should be at least a glimmer of a reason to put that tradition aside in finding new interpretations.

As I recall the book of Job, in the end God comes and says something like, "I am God, I created the world".

Thu Nov 18, 09:01:00 AM 2004  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

If I understand everyone correctly, Barefoot Jewess believes that G-d is just but that people sometimes suffer because of G-d's justice, Dilbert believes that G-d is just and that suffering isn't due to G-d's justice, and yours truly, being the resident apikorus (heretic), questions whether G-d is just. Any way one looks at it, the story of Yitzchak's deceptions (or whatever one wishes to call them) are troubling.

I plead guilty of tending to ignore the midrash/traditional interpretative stories. I'm generally more of a p'shat/literal interpretation person, looking at the text directly, without the filter of rabbinical interpretation, partly due to ignorance and partly because I don't always agree with what the rabbis have to say. Perhaps I should listen to oosj and try to understand both the written Torah and the midrashim in their historical context. For example, concerning the Akedah/Binding of Isaac, it helps to know that child sacrifice was a typical form of worship at that time. My husband's theory is that HaShem didn't want the actual sacrifice--he just wanted to know that Avraham was as willing to sacrifice to Him as pagans were willing to sacrifice to pagan gods. In their historical context, as oosj was saying, many of the midrashim concerning Esav were really polemics against Rome. As for the p'shat, the literal interpretation, I suppose that, in that era, the only way that Yaakov could have seized the power of the firstborn was to steal it, and it could be argued that it was necessary for him to have that power because anyone who would sell his birthright for a bowl of soup simply didn't have the aptitude (and/or the intelligence) to be the spiritual leader of the family that would become the Jewish people. I'm just glad that Yaakov got his comeuppance later in the story.

Fri Nov 19, 12:48:00 AM 2004  
Blogger Noam S said...

There is a very old story about the rabbi, priest and minister playing golf, and every time the priest misses a shot, he yells "G-d d--n, I missed it." The other two try to calm him and question his use of language. Finally on the 18th hole, the priest can sink a short putt and win, and it rims out. He shouts at the top of his lungs "g-d d--m, missed again." There is a stunned silence from the playing partners, then from out of the cloudless sky, a bolt of lightening flashes down and incinerates the minister. The priest and the rabbi look at each other, then they hear a booming voice from the heavens "g-d d--m, missed again."

Maybe I am dense, maybe my mind has been clouded by many years of day school education(I dont think so), but how can you believe in an unjust God? Or a God that is less than omnipotent? I think that it is actually easier to believe in no God at all, than a limited one.

Fri Nov 19, 08:44:00 AM 2004  
Blogger DovBear said...

Eisav gets a bum rap, but Jacob wasn't the thief. Rivka was.

Here's I'm relying entirely on Samson Rephael Hirsch who tells us that Rivka forced Jacob to carry out the charade (this is suggested in the verses when she tells him twice: do as I say, I am your mother) to save Issac from a terrible mistake.

This of the Jewish nation as a family business. According to Hirsch, Issac thought Eisav (and descendants like him) would provide the muscle; while Jacob (and decedents like him) provided the brains. According to Issac's plan, Esav would force other nations to recognize and respect the God of Jacob. Esau was to be Mr. Outside, ie: Mr. Material. Jacob was to be Mr. Inside, ie: Mr Spiritual

Rivka's insight was that this plan could not work. There are other suggestions in the verse that Issac and Rivka had argued about this. When Issac decided to go forward with his plan, Rivka acted. She sent Jacob to his fathers bedside disguised as Esav in the hope that Issac would see, finally, her point: In this world, the material is too fleeting and deceptive to be trusted. And finally Isaac did see.

Incidently, the rabbis were not blind to the crime. Though they consider Rivka the thief, the Midrash tells us that Jacob had to answer for causing pain to Esav. The word "vayizak" describes Esua's scream when he realized he'd been deprived a place in the Family business. Later, it also describes the scream of Mordichai when he sat outside the palace gate following the decree issued by Haman, Esau's descendant. On this observation the rabbis add, "Whoever says God is not scrupulous with his most-righteous followers should have his intestines torn out"


Mon Nov 22, 05:00:00 PM 2004  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Dilbert, I’m not ignoring you, I’m just thinking—your point is too serious to deserve anything less than a serious response.

DovBear, that’s an interesting interpretation, but I don’t entirely buy it. For openers, Rivka was nowhere to be seen when Yaakov hookwinked Esav out of his birthright. For closers, I don’t see Yaakov protesting—he’s just worried that he’ll be caught. Still, Rivka is certainly the mastermind of the swipe-the-blessing conspiracy and must assume some of the blame (or praise, depending on your point of view.)

Tue Nov 23, 04:15:00 PM 2004  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Dilbert, sorry it took me a few days to get back to you, but I really wanted to give your point some serious thought. You asked, “. . . how can you believe in an unjust God? Or a God that is less than omnipotent? I think that it is actually easier to believe in no God at all, than a limited one.” I guess it’s the believing-in-G-d part that’s the problem. Having spent a few years under the tutelage of a Reconstructionist rabbi, I don’t necessarily subscribe to traditional Jewish theology. Mordechai Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist movement, described HaShem as “the power that makes for salvation.” This is not exactly your typical take on G-d, traditionally described as supernatural, omnipotent and omniscient. As far as the traditional interpretation is concerning, I’m an agnostic—for me, the jury’s still out. As for a Reconstructionist interpretation, I guess the jury’s still out for me on that one, too. It’s difficult for me to deal with the question of whether G-d is just when I’m still undecided concerning whether G-d *is.* Sorry, Dilbert—I imagine you’re not going to be any happier with this response than with my previous ones.

Tue Nov 23, 04:50:00 PM 2004  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

In his Friday, November 19, 2004 post, “Can God be unjust?,” at, Dilbert said, “If you believe that there is no ultimate justice in the world, this has profound ramifications on day to day actions. Why not steal, if you can get away with it(ignoring the worldly justice system for a second)? So, for people who don't care about justice, this is carte blanche to do what you want(as long as the temporal authorities don't catch you). For people who do care, it is a horrible problem, because the onus of making sure there is ultimate justice falls to you. If you don't resuce the poor, the starving, the mistreated, they will not be recompensed in some other way to balance out their suffering. And, there is no reward for doing all these nice things, except feeling good about yourself.”

Maybe I should have responded to *your* post rather than to your comment on *mine.* You captured my sentiments, precisely. I really do believe that “the onus of making sure there is ultimate justice falls to you,” and that one does good deeds “lishma,” for their own sake, rather than in hope of receiving a reward. I operate on the “wishful thinking” principle: If G-d exists, this is the sort of G-d I would hope G-d would be, and I show honor to G-d by acting justly.

Tue Nov 23, 05:17:00 PM 2004  
Blogger Noam S said...

I agree with you that we are responsible for making sure there is justice, but I like to think that we get some help from above. Lo alecha hamelacha ligmor.... we dont have to do the whole thing, but we are not free to walk away either.

Mon Nov 29, 12:55:00 PM 2004  

Post a Comment

<< Home

<< List
Jewish Bloggers
Join >>