• Gabbai

Toldot – The Pattern of History

The Torah relates that during Rebecca’s pregnancy she felt a great deal of inner turmoil. The Midrash portrays her confusion from being pulled in different directions, leading her to question the nature and personality of her child. She sought divine counsel and she was told that she was carrying twins. “And the Lord said to her, two peoples are in your belly and two nationalities from your womb will diverge. And one nationality will contend with the other and the greater will serve the lesser.” (Genesis 25:23)

Already before they were born Esau and Jacob were antagonistic to each other. Jacob’s name was given to him because he emerged from the womb clinging to the heel of his brother, as if he had struggled to come out first. Much later, when Jacob met Esau upon his return from his flight to Laban’s home, the brothers embraced and kissed. Every Torah scroll is written with dots above these words, and the Midrash notes that Esau’s embrace was more sinister, as he attempted at that time to kill his brother. Rashi there cites the Midrash which relays a jarring statement from the great sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. “It is halacha (the way) that Esau hates Jacob.” While the term “halacha” is usually used to reference a legal ruling, here the word must be defined literally – the way. Commentaries explain that the word “halacha” is used here because there is no logical explanation for the hatred of the heirs of Esau toward the heirs of Jacob, and we need to accept it just we accept a halachic ruling the reason for which we don’t know. This doesn’t mean that anti-Semitism is always present, or that it must be present. Where it exists, however, there is often no rational explanation.

We can gain some insight into the nature of our Diaspora relationships with other nations from Isaac as well. Abraham was told that his descendants will be strangers in a land that is not their own, and they will be enslaved to a foreign nation for 400 years. Our tradition calculates that this prophecy began its fulfilment immediately upon the birth of Isaac. Exactly 400 years pass from the birth of Isaac to Israel’s delivery from slavery in ancient Egypt. If we include Isaac’s lifetime in the numbers we must also see Isaac’s lifetime as years of exile. In fact we find the beginnings of a pattern in Isaac’s life which repeats itself throughout our history. Isaac went to live in the city of Gerar, a Philistine region. His farming enterprises were extremely successful, reaching “one hundred markets.” (Gen 26:12) The subsequent verses relate Isaac’s increasing wealth, and conclude with the phrase: “and the Philistines became jealous of him.” (v. 14) The locals expressed their resentment of Isaac’s success first by sealing with earth all the wells that his father Abraham had dug. Although the local population benefited from these wells and they were shooting themselves in the foot by sealing them, they nevertheless acted irrationally in their quest to scorn and divest themselves from the contributions Abraham had made.

Next came expulsion. Avimelech king of the Philistines bid Isaac to leave. “And Avimelech said to Isaac: Go away from us, for you have become much too prosperous for us.” (v. 16)

The reason for expulsion is usually veiled, sometime