This week’s parsha is Parshat Toldot, the parsha of everyone’s favorite twins: Esau and Yaakov. Yaakov is the shepherd, the tent-bound, the cunning; Esau is the hunter, the straightforward, the gullible.
The name of the game this week is usurpation — Yaakov first gets Esau to sell him his rights as firstborn for a bowl of soup (he must have been one hell of a cook!), and then with the help of his mother tricks their father, Yitzchak, into giving him Esau’s blessing as well, that he would rule his brother.
After all that, once the news of the blessing theft comes to Esau, he comes to Yitzchak crying for a blessing. And he’s given one, but with a strange twist: Since the blessing Yitzchak gave Yaakov was that he would rule his brothers, he blesses Esau to serve Yaakov. However, he adds in a sinister-sounding clause: “But when you grow restive, you will break his yoke from your neck.”)
And can we all agree that this is probably the worst possible thing for family cohesion? I mean, it was bad enough when Yitzchak specifically told one son he would rule over the other — who does that? — but to then subvert it in the next? To use his blessings to more or less sentence these brothers to an eternal struggle for dominance? I know that Bereshit is primarily a book about fraternal struggles, but even then, this is a bit much. Even Avraham, with his favoritism (or, really, God’s favoritism — another redeeming difference) never went that far. If it were up to him, he would never have had to choose between Yitzchak and Yishmael. We can even see the difference in outcomes: Avraham’s kids joined together last week to bury him, while Yitzchak’s kids have a much rockier story. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
So the question is, why would Yitzchak add that? Was it a last-ditch attempt at equalizing the brothers? Did he want them to struggle, and for Esau to come out on top?
I’d like to propose an alternate reading.
This parsha has a lot of doubling. The twin motif comes up again and again, and there are so many callbacks to earlier stories, History repeating itself: Look at the doubled theft, for example. Or most of the opening of the parsha, the story of Yitzchak: He presents Rivka as his sister, just like Avraham did Sarah. He digs disputed wells, again like his father. He gets old and passes down the covenant to his child, like Avraham did to him.
So I propose that Esau’s blessing is also a doubling. A blessing and a promise of terrible, temporary servitude — sound familiar? To me, this can’t be anything but a callback to brit bein habetarim, the covenant between the pieces, when God tells Avraham that in exchange for his descendants’s slavery, they’ll become the chosen people. So I can’t help but imagine that Yitzchak’s “blessing” of enslavement to his brother has a similar goal: to actually enfranchise Esau in the covenant. To move the aspect of slavery into Esau, in the hopes that that will be enough to weave him back into the narrative, to take his rightful place as Yitzchak’s son.
When Esau came to Yitzchak, crying, he asked, “Don’t you have another blessing for me?!” And I propose that Yitzchak, thinking on his feet, realized that while he transferred the covenantal blessing to Yaakov, there was a piece of his legacy — the promise of slavery — that he could still give. There wasn’t ever “another blessing,” just the second half of the first and only one. This was his way of trying to include Esau in the covenant, to make him a piece of the chain along with his younger brother, to stop the cycle of fraternal enmity that makes up this entire family tree.
But do we have some more proof? Lo and behold, if we look at the gematria of Toldot to see what the parsha is really about, we see it adds up to 846, corresponding to the phrase “padeh habetarim,” “he redeemed the betarim,” referring to the original Abrahamic covenant. This is a beautiful thing! Yitzchak wasn’t some blind old man, being tricked and playing favorites — he was far-sighted, caring, and seeking redemption for his sons. He went through the pain of losing his brother over inheritance, and he didn’t want to exclude either son from his legacy.
And though it seems like it doesn’t work out — we follow Yaakov around for as long as he lives, only returning to Esau when they meet again — I still love Yitzchak for trying. For attempting to cut off hatred at its source. For the doomed attempt at inclusivity, at equity. It’s a tragic story, but a heroic one, and believe you me I’d rather a tragic hero than none at all.
Wishing y’all a heroic, inclusive Shabbat, the kind of Shabbat that renews our Covenant, that redeems our entire history and all our tragic ancestors.