Monday, December 12, 2011

Parsha Post: Toldot

(Question to the readers- I'm experimenting with a new style on this second Parsha post. More of a thematic riff and less point-by-point of things I think are weird. Let me know if you think one works more than the other. Or maybe you don't care about any of this and think I'm wasting my time. That's fine to say, too. Never let it be said I'm not open to criticism.)


I'm very biased when it comes to Toldot. For a college class on Jewish Mysticism I wrote a paper analyzing historical attitudes toward the brothers Ben-Isaac and, well, suffice it to say midrash and the Zohar are not very kind to ol' Esau. As always, I have very mixed feelings when it comes to midrash. On the one hand it can be a wonderful way of digging deeper into something, but on the other hand it often comes across as commentators bending over backwards to justify or rationalize pre-existing attitudes or conceptions. This gets particularly loaded once Jacob becomes an analogue for the Jewish people, and Esau becomes similarly identified as a stand-in for Rome, or Gentiles in general. The more symbolic the two brothers are, the more justification needs to be provided to explain why Jacob is seen as so good and Esau so bad.

The Birthright

Artscroll cites the Talmud saying that the birthright episode occurs in the context of Abraham's death and that Jacob's lentils are intended as a mourner's meal for Isaac. Artscroll says, "On that very day, Esau's sinfulness became public knowledge." It does not explicitly explain what that sinfulness was but suggests that Esau was not mourning his grandfather as he should have been. "Esau went about his evil business as usual, uninvolved in his family's bereavement." This would be more convincing if there was anything remotely hinting at him being sinful in the text. Hertz's apologetics are a little more extensive: "In primitive times, the head of the clan or the firstborn acted as the priest. Esau's general behavior hardly accorded with what was due from one who was supposed to serve the Supreme God; and Jacob suspected that his brother did not value the dignity and privilege of being the firstborn as they should be valued." Hertz goes on to call Esau "a true sensualist," noting that "the spiritual inheritance of Abraham... was not worth to him as much as a dish of pottage." By contrast, EH quotes R. Soloveitchik, who attempts to locate some justification for Esau's inability to value his birthright. Soloveitchik suggests two possible reasons for Esau's behavior: his physical hunger may be so overwhelming that he cannot think in religious terms, or the hunger may also be an indication that he "lacks a sustaining faith to give meaning to his life," particularly at moments of struggle or hardship. "He is weary of the pointlessness of life and the inevitability of death." This is a clever way of linking back to Esau's role as a hunter. As opposed to the "traditional" gloss which sees Esau's hunting as proof that he has a violent or bloody personality, Soloveitchik wonders whether a continual exposure to death may have been detrimental to Esau's spiritual development (or, possibly, whether a lack of faith from an early age coupled with regular killing may have led to the ancient equivalent of spiritual depression).

The Blessing

While the birthright episode shows Esau as kind of dumb and Jacob as resourceful, the blessing is the point where Jacob (and his mother Rebecca) explicitly conspire to steal from Esau. It's a pretty uncomfortable moment, and I've never been able to swallow much of the rationalizations explaining why Esau was so awful he didn't deserve the birthright, or why despite the fact that Jacob is a thieving jerk he's really Mr. Fantastic.

Artscroll and Hertz both lay the responsibility for Jacob's theft on his mother Rebecca, noting that she had been given prophecy that "the elder shall seve the younger." Hertz says, "Knowing how attached Isaac was to the elder son, she must have felt that it would be useless to try and dissuade her husband from his intention [to bless him]. She, therefore, in desperation, decided to circumvent him." Artscroll adds, "[because of the prophecy that one would be superior,] any plan Isaac might have to enlist them in joint service of God could not succeed-- but he had not been authorized to convey this to Isaac. Her only alternative was to deceive Isaac into blessing Jacob." This reeks of bending over backwards to me; it's more honest to say (as the EH and TMC do) that Rebecca and Isaac each had favorite sons, and that Rebecca was backing her favorite, not throwing in this totally extra-textual bit about how God swore Rebecca to secrecy so she's incapable of talking to Isaac about how Esau is a jerk and Jacob is the best think since sliced lentils. Artscroll continues to lay things on quite thick by calling Jacob's theft "his personal Akedah... because, as the Sages derive from Scripture, Jacob personified truth and the blessings would be ratified by God... But his mother was commanding him to secure those blessings by deceiving his father! For Jacob to do so was totally against his nature." Really? Because the only other episode the text mentions of him before this is him ripping off his brother, so I'm not sure where you're getting this. Various critics have gone so far as to identify Jacob as an explicit "trickster" character, something the text alludes to in Esau's wordplay when he curses his brother.

I have to say, within the confines of the text, Esau doesn't seem all that bad to me. He reads as self-centered and perhaps impulsive, but I just don't see the evidence to support all the interpretations that make him out to be sacriligeous, violent, or downright evil. If anything, these strike me as retroactive attempts to justify Jacob's repeated thefts from Esau, which can only really be explained (much less made defensible) if one argues that Esau was somehow unworthy of his birthright or his father's blessing. In the parsha, however, Esau reads as more clueless than malevolent, and Jacob comes across to me as not noble but a bit of a schemer, trying to exploit his brother's and father's weakness for his own benefit.

What's wrong with Isaac?

Until I actually started reading the chumash regularly, I never realized just how minor a character Isaac was. I had some awareness that I didn't know much about him, but since I knew he was a patriarch, I assumed that he did, well... something. But it turns out, no, not so much. His role, compared to his father and grandfather, is strangely muted. Mostly he just retreads old ground. Some commentators, particularly among traditionalists have read this as a positive, demonstrating Isaac's fealty to his father's traditions and value as a "link in the chain" between the generations (also in the process, IMO, seeing themselves as Isaac's modern-day descendants). But while following your father's traditions is well and good, the fact that Isaac is so passive, particularly when compared to his father, does beg some explanation. The EH comments on Isaac's "blindness," saying that various classical commentators saw this as a reference to the lack of clarity he showed in his treatment of his two sons. "Because his loved and envied Esau, he was blind to Esau's faults." (Thought: by the same token, he was perhaps blind to Jacob's good points?) One midrash says "Isaac's judgment is clouded by Esau bringing him his favorite foods." Another connects Isaac's blindness to the Akedah years earlier when he glimpsed "the light of heaven... Isaac was never able to see events on earth clearly after that." The EH glosses this as saying that after seeing heaven, "Isaac was naively blind to lying and deceit on earth. He could no more recognize the transparent lies of Jacob than he could recognize the unworthiness of Esau."

The TMC attempts a psychological view, noting that Isaac's parents were extremely strong personalities and that he was born in the midst of their old age, and notes that Isaac's wife Rebecca is explicitly used as a replacement for his mother. Isaac is always dominated by more aggressive personalities around him. However the TMC also claims that "Isaac is old, but not senile... throughout the episode he is subconsciously aware of Jacob's identity. However since he is unable to admit this knowledge, he pretends to be deceived... he wants to be misled, in his heart he has long known that Esau cannot carry the burden of Abraham... Weak and indecisive man and father that he is, Isaac does not have the courage to face Esau with the truth. His own blindness and the ruse of Rebecca come literally as a godsend... Note that Isaac does not reprimand Jacob, for how can he, who has deceived himself be angry at deceit? In a sense, no one, not even Esau, is deceived, for he too knows that Jacob and not he is the chosen one." This is an interesting explanation but still leaves us with the problem of Jacob's theft, which the TMC, to its credit, notes: "the problem of Jacob's morality remains the same, for Jacob believes that he is deceiving his father and he acts on this belief."

None of the liberal commentaries mention it, but I also have to wonder whether the Akedah could have had a profound influence on Isaac's personality in another way, too-- rather than "glimpsing Heaven," Isaac might have glimpsed the possibility of his own terrifying death-- at the hands of both the Earthly and Heavenly fathers who were supposed to love and protect him. Perhaps the "blindness" Isaac experiences is a result of trauma. Perhaps Isaac is passive because he is a broken, or at least very meek, personality, and this helps explain his attraction and tendency to defer to people with stronger wills than his own.

Why do we like Jacob, again?

Looking at just the text, I find it very hard to find anything very positive about Jacob here. As a character, he's coming off as fairly contemptible. There may be all sorts of nefarious things Esau has been doing in his free time, but the Torah doesn't tell us about any of them, and so while Esau may not be the ideal person to carry on the family business of being the Chosen People, at best the whole scenario comes off as incredibly dysfunctional. There's also the problem that if Jacob is supposed to be so awesome, he should theoretically have some more skills at his disposal than merely jerking his brother around. Maybe call a family meeting? Try an intervention? For all of Jacob's allegedly great attributes, he seems to mostly be good at taking advantage of others. He doesn't even try to explain himself to his brother, instead he runs away. While there may be some self-preservation logic to this, it comes off as rather cowardly, and particularly low when the dispute is with his own twin brother. Jacob is not acting like someone wise, pious, or, I have to say, all that trusting in God.

Maybe I'm a bit of a softy (or too much of a contrarian), but when I read the part about Esau crying for Isaac to bless him too, my heart hurts a little. It's a masterful bit of storytelling that provides some fascinating insight into the Torah's views on human relations. We may be forced to accept (for whatever reason) that Esau was somehow unworthy of his birthright (another hint of democratic or meritocratic leanings in a time when birth order was extremely important to social standing), but unlike Ishmael, who is always presented at a distance, the Torah is not afraid of showing us Esau's pain, and of forcing us to sit with it. The fact that he may be imperfect or the wrong son to inherit the blessing does not negate his suffering. It's not really what we would think the Torah would choose to do with a typical "bad guy," and reminds me more of tragic King Saul than say, an outright villain like Moses' Pharaoh.

I'm not the only one with strong feelings about Toldot. Even Shmuley got into this one.

Was Jacob Guilty of Deceiving His Father?

Spoiler: Shmuley claims no, even while actually admitting yes. Way to be, Shmoo. (Actually, the whole thing is quite similar to the TMC essay glossed above, though in typical Shmuley style it goes on several rambling trips into pop culture, and of course, a good book plug.)

Next time: I dig up that old Zohar paper and a good chuckle is had by all (at either my brilliant insights or painful academic writing, take your pick).

*(Sources: Five Books of Moses, by Prof. Everett Fox, Five Books of Moses, by Prof. Robert Alter, Torah: A Modern Commentary, by URJ, Etz Hayim, by JTS, Soncino Pentateuch & Haftorahs, by R. Hertz, and the Artscroll Tanach, by R. Nosson Scherman.)*

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