June 23, 2009

12 min read


Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9 )

Parshat Toldot tells the tale of the two children born to Isaac and Rebecca, Esau and Jacob.

The Jewish tradition teaches much about the greatness of Jacob, who is known also by his other name Israel. Jacob is the symbol of fidelity to God, the symbol of goodness. Our entire people have assumed his identity.

But his brother Esau is seen as a demonic character. The very name Esau evokes images of mayhem and bloodshed. Though his midrashic reputation is unchallenged, when one reads the biblical text, one wonders if he really deserves it.

We know that Esau was a hunter, an occupation that, despite any ominous overtones, is not intrinsically evil. Perhaps it is the comparison with Jacob that has put Esau in a poor light, though does that alone justify the deep enmity for Esau transmitted across millennia?

We might claim that only due to his descendants -- most notably Amalek -- has Esau earned his inauspicious reputation. Alternatively, we may assume that the actions and attitudes of his descendants helped form the midrashic reading of the texts.


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Be that as it may, the text does provide a few hints regarding the evil of Esau and its origins:

And the first came out red, all over like a hairy garment; and they called his name Esau. And after that came his brother out, and his hand took hold on Esau"s heel; and his name was called Jacob; and Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them. And the boys grew; and Esau was a skilful hunter, a man of the field; and Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. And Isaac loved Esau, because he ate of his venison; but Rebecca loved Jacob. And Jacob cooked pottage; and Esau came from the field, and he was famished. And Esau said to Jacob, "Feed me, I beg you, with that same red pottage; for I am famished." Therefore was his name called Edom. And Jacob said, "Sell me this day your birthright." And Esau said, "Behold, I am at the point of death; and what profit shall this birthright do to me?" (Genesis 25:25-32)

The description of Esau at birth, all red, probably covered with blood, seems to foreshadow the subsequent scene: Esau comes in covered in blood from the field ravenous after a day of hunting. The scene has premonitions of death. Indeed, after a day of killing, Esau comes home speaking of death.

And Esau said, "Behold, I am at the point of death; and what profit shall this birthright do to me?"

The Sages sense yet another aspect of death.

Another explanation is that Esau did not break loose so long as he (Abraham) was alive ... How do we know that Esau did not break loose while he was alive? Because it says, And Esau came in from the field and he was faint. It has been taught [in connection with this] that that was the day on which Abraham our Father died, and Jacob our Father made a broth of lentils to comfort his father Isaac. Why was it of lentils? In the West they say in the name of Rabbah ben Mari: "Just as the lentil has no mouth, so the mourner has no mouth [i.e., is speechless]." (Baba Batra 16b)

Abraham had died that day. God, in His infinite kindness, did not wish for Abraham to witness the recalcitrance of his grandson. Thus, death is in the air and Esau has death on his mind. The Midrash adds yet another angle to this talk of death: Abraham's old nemesis.1 Nimrod was pursuing Esau.

Another interpretation is that Nimrod was seeking to slay him on account of the garment which had belonged to Adam [and which Esau now possessed], for whenever he put it on and went out into the field, all the beasts and birds in the world would come and flock around him. (Midrash Rabbah - Bereishit 65:16)

The connection between Nimrod and Esau and the garment of Adam needs to be explored.


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Nimrod is introduced as the personification of rebellion against God -- his very name implies rebellion. The Zohar connects both of these themes:

Truly he [Esau] was a man of might, because he was clad in the garments of Adam and was able by means of them to lay snares for people and beguile them. Rabbi Eleazar said: "Nimrod used to entice people into idolatrous worship by means of those garments, which enabled him to conquer the world and proclaim himself its ruler, so that people offered him worship. He was called 'Nimrod,' for the reason that he rebelled against the most high King above, against the higher angels and against the lower angels." (Zohar, Bereishit, Section 1, Page 74a)

The source Nimrod's rebellion is somehow connected with the garments of Adam. These garments are themselves a symbol of Adam's sedition and the cause of all death in the world. Nimrod is attracted to these clothes and inspired by them, as is Esau at a later date.

According to another Midrash, Nimrod died that day at the hands of Esau!

Rav Tanchuma said, "The two grew up, one on the path of life, the other on the path of death ... Jacob embarked on the path of life for he sat in the tents and involved himself in Torah his entire day. Esau followed the path of death, for he killed Nimrod..." (Pirkei D'Rebbi Eliezer chapter 31)

While Abraham is alive both boys follow similar paths.2 Abraham's death unleashes within Esau a murderous rage and a preoccupation with death. Apparently, during Abraham's lifetime as a child, sitting on Abraham's lap and hearing the tales of Abraham's belief in God and the futility of the pagan gods and the pagan way of life, Esau was able to hold that odious side of himself in check.

It does not seem a coincidence that with Abraham's death, Esau seeks out Nimrod and challenges him at his own game. The object of his desire is the garment of Adam and Eve, the symbol of man's failure, the symbol of the futility of man's actions, the symbol of death. The great loving Abraham had died; Nimrod, too, will die, as will Esau himself -- and all men.

The philosophical problem of theodicy tormented the mind of Esau. The unfathomable ways of God brought Esau to seek a pact with evil, and death.

And Esau said: Behold, I am at the point to die (ib. 32). Resh Lakish said: "He began to revile and blaspheme as it is not written, What is [the birthright] to me, but, What is this to me? He denied Him of whom it is written, 'This is my God.'(Exodus 15:2). (Midrash Rabbah - Bereishit 63:13)


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The Midrash actually records the antecedents of such an approach within Abraham himself, as he contemplates his own death:

Then I said in my heart: as it happens to the fool, so will it happen even to me. (Ecclesiastes 2:15). "I have been called 'king' and the wicked Nimrod is called 'king'. Both alike died; in that case, why was I then more wise? Why did I [Abraham] jeopardize my life for the sanctification of the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, and warn people, saying, 'There is no God like Him among those above or below'? Then I said further, For there is no remembrance of the wise man together with the fool for ever, seeing that in the days to come all will long ago have been forgotten. Why [should he have said so]? When adversity befalls Israel they cry, Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Thy servants (Exodus 32:13); but do the heathen nations [in their distress] cry, 'Remember the deeds of Nimrod'? That is what is written, So how shall the wise man die even as the fool!" (Midrash Rabbah - Kohelet 2:16)

Esau identifies with this articulation of despair more than any other "teaching" of Abraham. In this soliloquy, Abraham concerned himself with the world-view of the simple man, and not only the philosopher, and therefore considered the world from a superficial perspective. Abraham was worried that due to the human condition, with death in the world, he and his teachings would soon be forgotten, his deeds dissipated like so many other passing trends. Realistically, without Abraham, the world stood a serious chance of becoming a dark and ugly place again, sliding back into the dark age from which it had emerged. Indeed, on the day that Abraham dies, all hell breaks loose:

Rabbi Johanan said: "That wicked [Esau] committed five sins on that day. He dishonored a betrothed maiden, he committed a murder, he denied God, he denied the resurrection of the dead, and he spurned the birthright." (Baba Batra 16b)

The concept of resurrection, which his father Isaac had all but experienced, could have provided Esau with the hope he needed to continue in his fathers' path. Yet this concept, this comfort, eluded his tortured mind. Ironically, Esau with his philosophy of despair, helps extinguish the light of Abraham which had shone so brightly up to that very day.


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This "fatal flaw" of Esau seems consistent with other things we know of him and his actions. Esau seems to have been a superficial man, interested in the "clothes" but not the substance beneath. When his parents express their contempt for his choice of brides, Esau, the son so concerned with his filial responsibilities, obeys the command and takes new wives, but neglecting to distance himself from the evil woman whom he had already wed.

And Esau was forty years old when he married Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Bos'mat the daughter of Elon the Hittite. And they made life bitter for Isaac and for Rebecca. (Genesis 26:34-35)

And Rebecca said to Isaac, "I am weary of my life because of the daughters of Het; if Jacob takes a wife of the daughters of Het, such as these who are of the daughters of the land, what good shall my life be to me?" (Genesis 27:46)

And Esau saw that the daughters of Canaan displeased Isaac his father. Then Esau went to Ishmael, and took, besides the wives he had, Mahalath the daughter of Ishmael, Abraham's son, the sister of Nevayot, to be his wife. (Genesis 28:8-9)

This action speaks volumes of Esau, myopically adhering to the letter of the law while abusing the spirit of the law. Only a superficial individual would even have the audacity to conduct himself in such a manner. It is likewise fascinating that of the entire population of the land he marries Hittites, who are remembered for selling the cave where Sarah and Abraham are interred. Perhaps this is another indication of Esau's obsession with death.


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The source of Esau's problems seem to date back to his birth, his ruddy pigmentation sending an ominous, chilling message to all who saw him.

But the Sages tell us of another individual who was born with a similar exterior -- King David:

And Samuel said to Jesse, "Are these all your children?" And he said, "There remains still the youngest, and, behold, he keeps the sheep." And Samuel said to Jesse, "Send and fetch him; for we will not sit down till he comes here." And he sent, and brought him in. And he was red-haired, with beautiful eyes, and good looking. And the Lord said, "Arise, anoint him; for this is he." (1 Samuel 16:11-12)

Red-haired. Rabbi Abba ben Kahana said: "Altogether a shedder of blood. And when Samuel saw that David was red-headed ... he was smitten with fear, thinking he too might be a murderer. But the Holy One, blessed be He, reassured him that he had beautiful eyes [which meant] Esau slew by his own impulse, whereas he [David] would slay only on the sentence of the court. (Midrash Rabbah - Bereishit 63:8)

The beautiful eyes of David are a mirror of inherent kindness, and of David's ability to accept upon himself the law. The Midrash associates eyes with the Sanhedrin:

Thine eyes are as doves. Thine eyes refers to the Sanhedrin who are the eyes of the congregation, as it is written, "If it be hid from the eyes of the congregation." (Midrash Rabbah - Shir Hashirim I:64)

David believed in law and justice, and killed with the blessing of the Sanhedrin. His eyes shone with love for his people. When an intransigent bully (Goliath) threatens their safety, David will kill. For Esau, though, it seems like a sport, a test of his own mortality, a dangerous and futile dance with death.

David believed that there is a "Judge and judgement" both in this world and the next. Esau denied justice in either world, and spent his days pursuing death and causing death, tortured by his own mortality and despising those who found comfort in eternal life.

The first challenge of Esau's life -- the death of his beloved grandfather -- proved too great a test. Esau came away from that experience mean-spirited, a misanthrope dedicated to spreading his disease to all who crossed his path.




    • Numerous Midrashim speak of Nimrod's hatred and pursuit of Abraham, which resulted in Nimrod eventually hurling Abraham into a furnace. The two are seen as spiritual adversaries: Nimrod represents paganism and it's inherent lack of respect for human life, while Abraham represents monotheism and it's ethical base and vision. (return to text)



  1. Rashi (25:27) based on the Tanchuma: Until the age of thirteen, the twins were indistinguishable in terms of behavior. (return to text)



    This week's shiur is
    in honor of the Bar Mitzvah of:

    Yosef Dov Kahn


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