Toldot 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Toldot

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Toldot (Gen. 25:19-28:9)


The portion begins with the birth of Yaakov and Esav, the twin sons of Yitzhak and Rikva. The brothers have several tragic encounters in this portion: Yaakov convinces Esav (the older son) to sell his birthright for a bowl of lentils, and later, after the family has traveled to Gerar and dealt with some property problems left over from Avraham, Yaakov dresses up like his brother in order to receive the better blessing from their old and blind father. Fearing for his life, Rivka sends Yaakov off to find a wife from among her clan.


“The youths grew up. Esav was one who knew trapping, a man of the fields, but Yaakov was simple, a dweller in tents.” (Genesis 25:27)


The Torah goes out of its way to tell us about the difference between Yaakov and Esav- they had different appearances at birth, they had different personalities in adolescence, and they will grow up to be very different kinds of adults. Esav is portrayed as a “Field and Stream” kind of guy, a hunter and outdoorsman, while Yaakov is more of a homebody, more intellectual, less physically vigorous than Esav.


Ironies abound in this parsha and the commentaries on it. Esav is called the “man of the fields,” a fact which will have great significance later on when Yaakov steals the blessing from Yitzhak dressed up in the rough skins of his brother. As a result of Yaakov’s deceitful action, he will be exiled and spend many years “in the fields” tending the flocks of his future father in law. Rashi, following Tanchuma and other classic midrashim, explains that Esav’s “trapping” was verbal, not physical. This midrash says that Esav would “trap” his father by deceiving him into thinking he was very pious and observant, whereas he was really a “man of the field,” who liked to pass his time hunting.

According to Rashi, Yaakov’s “simplicity,” therefore, is in direct contrast to his brother’s duplicity and lifestyle. Rashi defines “simple,” or tam, as

    not expert in all of this [Esav’s ways], as his heart, so then his mouth. One who is not sharp in deceiving is called tam.

Now, leaving aside for a moment the traditional rabbinic bias against Esav, (for which there is scant textual evidence, in my opinion), Rashi’s definition of tam is almost astounding, given what’s going to happen later in the portion, when Yaakov deceives his father and tricks him into giving him the blessing of the first born. (Cf. chapter 27.) Other commentaries, seeking to praise Yaakov, define tam– which can also mean plain, or whole- as purehearted, or simple in his faith, or whole in his devotion to Torah study. (The ancient rabbis believed that the Torah was given to our ancestors in Genesis before the revelation on Sinai. Thus, for Rashi, the “tents” in which Yaakov dwelled were places of study.)

Why would Rashi describe Yaakov as a pure and honest man, when just two chapters down the road, he’s going to engage in a complex deception of his father? The traditional commentators certainly sought to praise the characters they understood as heros, and similarly elaborated on the evil of those who came into conflict with the central characters. In the case of Yaakov, they may have even felt some defensiveness, a need to portray Esav as evil and Yaakov as purehearted in order to lessen the severity of Yaakov’s future fraud. After all, if Esav was an evil and scheming man, then he didn’t deserve the blessing anyway, and turnabout would then be fair play.

Perhaps there is a third way to understand Rashi’s description of Yaakov, an interpretation that does not deny what he will later come to do. Perhaps Rashi is hinting that Yaakov was indeed tam, in the sense of simple or straightforward, at that time, even if later on he would engage in an act of deceit. At that point in the brother’s development, Yaakov could be called simple or whole, because that described him as a human being. If, later, he did something wrong or irresponsible, that does not change his essential nature- it just means he did something wrong or irresponsible.

There is a beautiful passage in the first part of the morning prayers- the “blessings of dawn” or birchot hashachar- which begins “My God, the soul you have given me is pure.” Everybody gets to say this blessing in the morning, no matter what crazy thing one may have done the night before. Our souls are pure and whole, even if our actions are problematic. Rashi can call Yaakov tam in his speech and heart, even if he doesn’t always live up to that ideal, because one or two dreadful actions do not change one’s essential capacity for good. Yaakov was tam, even if he could not always live up to it. You and I good people with pure souls, even if we don’t always act to the level of our best selves.

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