By Devora Greenberg
A famous teaching in Bereshit Rabbah (a midrashic commentary on the Book of Genesis) tells us, “The acts of the fathers; a sign for the children”. This means that every act of our ancestors is a lesson for us and for future generations. In studying their lives, we absorb their values and incorporate them into our own Jewish world.
When reading Parashat Toldot, I am left with a sense of discomfort in the face of the deception and theft committed by Rebecca and Jacob.
In one of the main stories of the parashah, Rebecca and Jacob scheme to deceive Isaac into giving second-born Jacob the first-born blessing: a blessing that rightfully belongs to Esau. Taking advantage of Isaac’s blindness, Jacob deceives his own father: “He went to his father and said, ‘Father’. And he said, ‘Yes, which of my sons are you?’ Jacob said to his father, ‘I am Esau, your first-born; I have done as you told me. Pray sit up and eat of my game, that you may give me your innermost blessing.’” (Gen. 27: 18-19.)
Many commentators and midrashim struggle with this negative depiction of our Patriarch and work hard to explain Jacob’s actions in such a way as to relieve Jacob from his guilt. For example, Rashi takes Jacob’s answer: “It is I, Esau your firstborn,” and explains it as follows: “[He meant] ‘I am the one who brings you [food] – and Esau is your firstborn.’” By making these additions, Rashi turns Jacob’s not-exactly-honest response into an honest one.
However, Jacob was not honest; he did deceive his father and he did wrong his brother, and the Torah does not gloss over this act. Furthermore, it seems that what goes around comes around: years later, we learn Jacob is, in turn, deceived by Laban his uncle. It appears that Laban deceives Jacob as a consequence of Jacob’s having deceived Esau. Laban says: “It is not done in our place to give the younger before the first-born,” (Gen 29:26). As a result, Jacob receives Leah. Decades later, Jacob is deceived yet again, this time by his own sons, when they bring him the blood-stained robe of his beloved son, Joseph. In these few examples, we learn how the act of deception was committed by one generation after another. Perhaps by understanding our forefathers’ actions, we must not only aspire to follow them, but also to turn away from those specific attitudes and actions that shattered their families and lives.
When Esau discovers that Isaac has been tricked into blessing Jacob and not him, we are told, “Isaac trembled violently” (Gen 27:33), while Esau bursts into a “loud and bitter cry” – tzaaka gdola u’mara – asking his father to bless him, too. Rabbi Benny Lau teaches us that Esau’s cry echoes throughout the world all the way to the heavens – a cry of a child asking for a blessing.
Esau’s cry to his father conveys a profound human feeling of pain and distress: the pain of deprivation, the unfairness of a world where some of its children are blessed and some are not. There is no way to justify it, and it is a hefty challenge to cure this wound and fix this reality.
We know that twenty years later, when the estranged brothers meet, Esau says to Jacob: “I have enough, my brother; let what you have remain yours.” However, Jacob insists on giving Esau a present since he, too, feels that God has favoured him and he has plenty.
May we all be blessed, and be satisfied with the blessings we receive.
Devora Greenberg is the director of the Rav Siach program, a joint initiative of the Masorti movement in Israel and the Ministry of Diaspora affairs. For more information, visit