Friday, November 25, 2022

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Toldot – B’resheet (Genesis) 25:19 - 28:9

Last week's Parashat Cha’yey Sarah ended with the chronicles of Yishma'el's descendants. This week’s portion opens up with the chronicles of his brother, Yitzchak.  But while “toldot” means "begetting" (root y.l.d - “to give birth”), here “toldot” starts out with the barrenness of Yitzchak’s wife. Rivka’s condition, however, is inserted in an almost parenthetical manner and is couched between Yitzchak's intercession on her behalf and YHVH's response to the plea. 

In 25:21 it says that Yitzchak “entreated” - “vaya'a'tor” (a.t.r. - ayin, tav, resh) – YHVH, and "YHVH was entreated “(vaye'ater) of him" (italics added). The very form of the verbs (“entreat” – “entreated”) - both in the original Hebrew and in the English translation - points to the closeness of the “entreatee” to the “entreater”, and the latter’s deep empathy for the former. 

When the request is granted, it takes the form of not one, but two sons, the first of whom comes out red all over (ref. 25: 25). The word for “red” is “adom”, and as we saw in Parashat B’resheet (Genesis 1-4), “adom” is connected to “dam” (“blood”), “adama” (“earth”), and thence to Adam, "the first man" who is "earthy" (ref.1 Cor. 15:47). Esav, the firstborn, illustrates, therefore, the principle that the natural precedes the spiritual (ref 1 Cor. 15:46), despite the fact that his twin turns out to be, for a considerable time period, almost as 'earthy' as ‘Hairy the Red’.

This second boy, who emerged out of Rivka's womb while holding on to the “heel” – “ah'kev” - of his brother was hence named “Ya'acov” (ref. 25:26). Coming in the footsteps of his sibling, his name, which also means "to follow", perfectly matches the order of the births. In Scripture, the image of ‘heel-holding’ or ‘heel-grabbing’ often refers to hindering or trapping someone, as we see in the following examples: 

“Dan shall be a serpent... that bites the horse's heels” (Gen. 49:17); “The trap shall take him by the heel” (Job 18:9); “They mark my steps” (literally “heels” in Ps. 56:6). The following words in T’hilim (Psalms) 41:9 hint at Messiah’s destiny: “My own familiar friend, which did eat of my bread, has lifted his heel against me”.  This type of friend and follower typically steals quietly behind, with a “crafty” intent (as indeed was the case with Messiah’s “familiar friend”). Thus, from the same root of “heel” and “to follow”, (a.k.v. - ayin, kof, vet) stem words like “crafty, cunning and deceptive”, as is illustrated by the alliteration in Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) 9:4: “surely every brother deals craftily (ah'kov ya'akov)” (italics added). 

In the first scene that brings the two siblings together, Ya'acov is busy cooking lentil broth, while his brother happens to be returning, famished and exhausted, from the field. Esav is sorely tempted when his glance strikes what he calls “ha'adom, ha'adom ha'zeh” - "this red, red stuff… therefore his name was called Edom" (25:30) - again from the root “adom” – “red”. The area of Edom, which later was inhabited by Esav's descendants, is indeed noted for its red soil. Everything about this hunter speaks of adom-adama – earth and earthiness. Whether Ya'acov anticipated his brother's famished condition or not, we do not know. Nevertheless, while in English it says, "Jacob cooked a stew", in Hebrew it says: “va'ya'zed Ya'acov na'zid” which, aside from cooking stew can also be read as: "Ya'acov devised an evil plot" (25:29). After all, 'cooking up' such a plan was only consistent with his name! The word “nah’zid” - “broth” - stems from the root z.y.d. (zayin, yod, dalet) which is shared by the verb to “cook”, and more specifically, to “boil up and seethe”. This verb also lends itself to “evil-doing” and “malice” – such as “zed” and “zadon” (e.g. Ex. 21:14, where “a man schemes” is “yazed”).  All of this seems to be at variance with the earlier description (25:27) of Yaacov, as an “eesh tam”, literally “a man of integrity” (although most translations use “peaceful” here), “living in tents” (while Esav’s lifestyle and implied disposition is very different). The inconsistency in the depiction of Yaacov’s character is not surprising in the narrative of this particular Parasha, which is replete with contrasts, masquerades, and pretense.  But as to the above-mentioned “tam” (man of integrity, peaceful), there may be an earlier hint connecting us to this description. When the twins were still in their mother’s womb, the Hebrew word used there is strangely distorted. Rather than te’omim (twins) they are called “tomim” – which can easily be associated with “tom” (the noun for “integrity, completeness or wholesomeness”). Thus, only to one of the brothers were these characteristics attributed (even though it would take many a year before he would display any sign of being “tam”). 

Ya’acov does not waste any time. He proposes right away an exchange: broth for birthright (ref. v. 31). And while in English these words form an alliteration, in Hebrew the verb "sell” (in the imperative form) – “michra”, and "birthright" – “b'chora”, sound alike. (Perhaps this linguistic association is what gave Ya'acov the idea in the first place…). Ya'acov, however, does not provide the goods until he makes his brother swear to him that he will not renege on his “sh'vu'ah” (“oath”, connected, as we have learned in previous Parashot, to being “full and satisfied”). After the deal is struck the two depart, "and he [Esau] ate, and drank, and rose and went on his way, and Esau despised the birthright" (25:34 literal translation). Note the chain of verbs, all reflecting Esav's earthly attitude and his lack of interest in the weightier matters. But until further notice, the brothers seem to be content. 

Now that Ya’acov has the birthright he is on his way to fulfilling the word that Elohim gave his mother when she was pregnant namely, that the “elder will serve the younger” (25:23). However, he has yet to acquire the double portion blessing in order to become the inheritor-redeemer of the family (Deut. 21:17). Thus far Ya’acov has certainly shown his ‘interest’ in taking responsibility as the firstborn of the family. Did Rivka share with her son what YHVH had declared to her, or was he simply ‘choosing to be chosen’, thus proving that he indeed was the one fit for this important position in the family? Additionally, if Esau were to (later) receive the double portion blessing, this role would be divided up, leaving the family without an acting firstborn. 

When the time came for Esav to claim his birthright (the right-hand blessing of the father before death), startled by his brother’s cunning, he “cried out with an exceedingly great and bitter cry: ... ‘Is not he rightly named, Ya'acov? For he has supplanted (akav) me...?’” (Gen. 27:34, 36).  The prophet Hoshe'ah (Hosea), many centuries later, traces the waywardness of the nation of Yisrael (who in this prophecy is called “Ya'acov”) to their progenitor: “In the womb he took his brother by the heel- akav” (Hos. 12:3). 

In the wake of”, or “as a result of”, or in short “because”, is the Biblical word “ekev “(again deriving from the root a.k.v).  In 26:4-5 of our Parasha, YHVH says to Yitzchak: “I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and will give your descendants all these lands, and by your descendants all the nations of the earth shall be blessed; because [“ekev”] Abraham obeyed Me and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes and My laws” (italics added). Abraham’s faith, so often mentioned in the New Covenant books, was characterized not by hearing only, but by obedience and observance of YHVH’s commandments (see James 1:22-25). Following Avraham’s implicit obedience, he was told: “And in your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because – ekev - you have obeyed My voice” (Gen. 22:18). “Ekev” is found in Dvarim (Deuteronomy 8:20): “So you shall perish because you would not listen”. It is also in David’s self-implicating reply to the prophet Nah'tan (Nathan), who challenged him with a parable following his sin with Bat’sheva (Bathsheba): “He must make restitution for the lamb, because he did this thing and had no compassion” (2nd Sam.12:6, italics added). Thus, this little “ekev” (rooted in heel) - “because” – becomes the fulcrum on which hangs the balance of justice. 

Ya'acov, too, because of (“ekev”) his actions (particularly that of deceiving his father), had to endure the consequences. By the end of the Parasha, he becomes a fugitive, running for his life from his brother, and later (in the next Parasha), is deceived by his father-in-law, Lah'van (Laban). The “heart” of Ya'acov is well described by Yirmiyahu, who says that it is “more deceitful (akov) than all else” (Jer. 17:9). 

In a few weeks' time, in Parashat Vayishlach, we shall see how Ya'acov, while on the road back from Padan Aram to Cna’an (Canaan), will plan once again to use some cunning by walking behind – which also suggests ‘following’ - his entourage, that was to go ahead of him to greet Esav. At this point, he will be met face to face, as he himself testifies in B’resheet (Genesis) 32:30, by YHVH Elohim. Yisrael, according to the name that will be given to him after this encounter at Peniel, will be made to turn around on his heels as it were (and become lame in the process), never to be the same again. Thus, when the “crooked” (“akov”) places become “mishor” – that is “straight” (ref. Is. 40:4b) - Ya'acov will become “Yeshurun” (“yashar” - straight”), true to his name “Yisra’el”, which can also be read as “yashar-el” (“El is upright”). As such, the nation is addressed by their Elohim: “But now listen, O Ya'acov, My servant; and Israel, whom I have chosen; thus says YHVH who made you, and formed you from the womb [as ‘crooked’ Ya'acov], and Who will help you: do not fear, O Ya'acov My servant; and you Yeshurun [who was ‘straightened’ by Elohim] whom I have chosen” (Is. 44:1, 2). Lastly, Ya'acov was to become one of the forefathers of Messiah, of whom it was prophesied that His heel would be “bruised” by the serpent. However, as we know, the “Seed of the woman” was destined to triumph by crushing and trampling down the serpent’s head with His heel (ref. Gen. 3:15; cf. Luke 10:19; Rom. 16:20; Heb.1:13b). 

Back to our narrative:  Following closely on the heels of the oath that Esav took by his brother’s instigation (25:31-33), YHVH reminds Yitzchak of His oath to Avraham, and at the same time cautions him not to go down to Egypt, in spite of the famine in the land (ref. 26:1-5), saying: “Do not go down into Egypt. Dwell in the land which I shall tell you” (v. 2). The imperative “dwell”, “sh’chan” (, shin, chaf, noon), is also “settle and abide” and it is from this root that “mishkan”, the “tabernacle” in the wilderness, derives its title. On this very issue, David makes an emphatic statement: “Trust in YHVH, and do good; you shall dwell in the land, and you shall be fed on truth” (Ps. 37:3 italics added). Continuing to address Yitzchak, in the next verse (25:3), YHVH says to him: “Dwell in this land…” (italics added), but this time the verb used is “gur”, from which is obtained the term “ger” – sojourner (and “fear”). Notice that above, YHVH exhorts Yitzchak to live in “the land”, whereas the second reference is to “this land”. If Yitzchak abides in the land, “which I [YHVH] shall tell you”, he will have a secure and sure dwelling. But even the usage of “gur”, does not diminish YHVH’s promises: “I will be with you and bless you; for to you and your descendants I give all these lands, and I will perform the oath which I swore to Abraham your father, and I will make your descendants multiply as the stars of heaven; I will give to your descendants all these lands, and in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed” (26:3-4). 

Immediately after this, we are told that Yitzchak and Rivka settled in Grar (notice the alliteration of “gur” and “Grar”, 26:1, which is probably intended), and when tested, by being asked about his wife, the Patriarch does not resort to the truth. Like his father before him, fear for his life causes him to present his wife as his sister, and thus he fulfills the “sojourning as a fearful stranger in this land” (when told by YHVH to “gur”- reside as an alien), rather than the former option of “abiding (sh’chan)…  where YHVH shows him”. The root g.r.r (gimmel, resh, resh) means to swirl around, stir up or drag down. Is it possible that in the Grar episode Itzchak got somewhat turned around or dragged down? What finds Yitzchak out is his act of (literally) "laughing with his wife" (26:8), translated in English "caressing" (or some other equivalent expression). If nothing else, in this episode Yitzchak remains… at least… true to his name… 

It is in this year of drought that Yitzchak, against all odds, is sowing seed. “Seed” is “zerah” (of the root z.r.a, zayin, resh, ayin, which is also shared by “arm” – “z’ro’ah”), with the yield being "one hundredfold" (26:12). Earlier (in 26:4) YHVH spoke to Yitzchak about his progeny (“zerah”), mentioning its future increase. Is the great harvest that Yitzchak reaps here (during the famine) symbolic of the future fulfillment of YHVH's word to the Patriarch, under all and any conditions? 

Yitzchak's wealth increases tremendously and his neighbors, the Philistines, are jealous of him (26:14), thus Avimelech their king demands, "Go away from us, for you are much mightier than we" (v. 16). “You are much mightier” is “atzam’ta”, from the root (ayin, tazdi, mem). The usage and meaning of this term will prove to be very significant during the Egyptian exile (in Sh’mot – Exodus – chapter 1 it is found in verses 7,9 and 20), and will motivate Par’oh (Pharaoh) to try to annihilate Yisrael. 

In our case, Yitzchak’s jealous neighbors take recourse and fill up all the wells that have been dug by Avraham's servants (ref. 26:15, 18b). In doing this they are "withholding benefits from both themselves and their cattle! But in addition to stopping up the wells, they fill them with earth so as to obliterate their existence altogether and make sure that no water would ever flow out of them again. Why did they wish the land to be desolate?[1]”  The explanation that follows, quoted from Haketav Vehakabala, points out that Yitzchak gave the wells the same names that his father had given them (as we see in v. 18). “These names, such as YHVH Will See, YHVH is My Sign, The Well of Him that Lives and Sees Me mark the kindness of the Lord."[2] This was done in order "to spread abroad the knowledge of the Lord and show the people that idols were valueless. Avraham thought out a wonderful device to help to bring those who were misled, under the wings of the Divine Presence. He called the well by a name that would drive home the lesson of the existence of the One True God. By this, he would arouse in them an awareness of the truth by saying, ‘Let us go and draw water from the well of the eternal God!’ The wells were a public necessity, and in this manner, the people were initiated into the knowledge of the true God. Whilst he was alive his fear was upon them [i.e. the locals], as they left the wells intact with their names, but after his death they reverted to idolatry. In order to erase from their memory the names of these wells, which recalled the very opposite of their false opinions, they stopped them up. With the disappearance of the wells, the names also disappeared…. Isaac followed in his father's footsteps and endeavored to dig out these same wells and resurrect their names in order to restore the crown of the true faith to its former glory."[3]  

The wording in 26:19, where Yitzchak's servants dig "a well of living water" (translated as “running water”), confirms what we have just read regarding the wells of the Patriarchs. The locals fill up the wells, and now they are being re-named, as pointed out, in order to erase the testimony of the Elohim of Yisrael. The name of the first well is “Esek”, “contention” (v. 20). The name of the next, is “Sitna”, “hostility; accusation” (v. 21). It is from the same root, s.t.n (sin, tet, noon), that we get the word “Satan” -  the “accuser”. A closely connected word to “sitna” is “sin'ah” (s.n.a, sin, noon, alef) - “hatred”. This verb is used in Yitzchak’s query in 26:27: “Why do you hate me?” A similar word, both in sound and meaning appears toward the end of our Parasha. In 27:41 it says of Esav that he "bore a grudge against Ya'acov", which is “sotem” (s.t.m. sin/shin, tet, mem). The progressive rate of hostility is seen very clearly by this string of sounds: “soten”, to accuse, “sotem”, to bear a grudge, and “soneh”, to hate”, thus demonstrating accurately how each of these conditions, if left unchecked, will lead to the next one. 

When a third well is dug up, some distance away, “they did not quarrel over it; so he named it Rechovot, for he said, 'at last YHVH has made room for us, and we will be fruitful in the land’” (26:22). “Rechovot” is of the root (resh, chet, vet), meaning, "broad, wide, or making room". Thus, enlarging and broadening the subsistence space brings relief, as we see in T’hilim (Psalms) 4:1, where David cries out: "Answer me when I call, O Elohim of my righteousness, You gave room [“hirchav’ta”] to me in trouble – literally in a place of narrowness” (italics added), words with which in his present situation Yitzchak would certainly have concurred.


[1] Studies in Bereshit, Toldot 1, Nechama Leibowitz, trans. Aryeh Newman.  Eliner Library, Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora. Hemed Books Inc., Brooklyn, N.Y

2 ibid

3 ibid




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