Toldot: Camels and Character, Pt II

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Toldot

Shalom from Silver Spring, Md! This week’s parsha is Toldot, which
begins with the difficult birth of the twins Yaakov and Esav. Yaakov
persuades his brother to sell the birthright of the oldest for a pot
of lentils, and the trouble is just beginning. . . . first his
father, Yitzhak, has some trouble with wells and women with the Philistines.
Then, when Yitzhak is old and blind, he asks his “outdoorsy” son,
Esav, to hunt for some meat, but Yaakov comes first, and tricks his
father into giving him a special blessing for the eldest son. Esav
(as you might imagine) is outraged, and Rivka thinks it’s time for her
son Yaakov to get out of town, so she sends him to her brother’s house
for protection and to find a wife.

Some of you may remember the famous distinction between Yaakov, who
“dwelled in tents,” and his brother Esav, described as a hunter and
“man of the fields, as we read in Bereshit/ Genesis 25:

And the youths grew up, and Esav was a man who understood hunting, a
man of the field, whereas Yaakov was a simple man, dwelling in tents.
And Yitzhak loved Esav because [his] game was in his mouth, but Rivka
loved Yaakov. (25:27:28; compare to the first few verses of chapter
27, as well.)

It’s not clear that the Torah itself has such a harsh view of Esav,
but in later rabbinic tradition, he is seen as a violent and evil
man- it’s rather obvious that portraying him this way releases Yaakov (our
forefather) from the charge of theft and deception when he stole the
birthright- after all, if Esav didn’t deserve it (according to this
line of reasoning), Yaakov didn’t do anything wrong.

The traditional rabbinic denigration of Esav raises complex issues,
which we’ll look at another day (see link below, as well), but for
today, let’s just take it at face value that the ancient rabbis
viewed a hunter and man of the fields as violent, even bloodthirsty. They
saw hunting as a cruel way to kill animals, one that would incite the
passion for blood and killing in a person. This was contrasted- in
the view of our sages- with traditional Jewish methods of slaughter,
which were understood to be more humane, and carried out only by trained,
religiously serious men (in those days, only men.)

Again, I’ll leave aside for now the issue of whether kosher slaughter
(with a quick, sharp knife across the throat of the animal) is always
carried out in the most humane ways in modern times, because I’m
interested in a different point. Last week, when I discussed a
midrash about Avraham’s concern for his neighbors, which led him to
muzzle his camels so that they wouldn’t eat from other fields,
several readers expressed the concern that Avraham may have been a good neighbor, but it seems cruel to muzzle camels when they’re walking through
fields. To put it another way, the challenge from readers was to
connect the idea of Avraham being exceedingly concerned with
the well-being of people with his apparent disregard for the comfort
of animals.

This is a point well taken- traditional Judaism simply presumes that
a person of good character is not cruel to animals, so I didn’t
elaborate when I brought out the midrash on Avraham. What we see in
this week’s parsha is the reverse assumption- that someone who likes
to hunt (as the rabbis think of Esav), cannot be a good person,
because there is enjoyment in the act of killing. The ancient rabbis
were not vegetarians- they assumed the ancient rites of animal
offerings would be brought back some day, and they certainly assumed
people would eat meat. However, the distinction between eating meat-
from animals killed humanely, by professionals- and enjoying the
hunt is also the distinction one could make in thinking about
Avraham and his camels. If (in the midrashic imagination) he muzzled
his camels for the sake of community welfare, we’d assume he did so
in the least restrictive or unpleasant way possible.

Another reader took me to task for pointing out, last week, that one
test of Rivka’s character is her willingness to water Yitzhak’s
camels; the objection was that one can be nice to animals but cruel
to people, so it’s not a good test of character. Fair enough- but
it’s a place to start, and the reverse is presumed to be true- that
if Rivka was NOT nice to the camels, she certainly wouldn’t be a
good wife for Yitzhak.

Judaism, like any system of values and ethics, finds itself
balancing competing “goods;” in this case, it’s good to keep one’s
camels from eating one’s neighbor’s grain, and it’s good to allow
animals as much freedom and comfort as possible. Judaism insists on
the awareness of suffering in others- and “others” does not mean
only human beings. If we are to become compassionate, spiritual
beings, then our compassion will extend to all things; if God’s
mercies are upon all God’s works, then if we are made in the Divine
Image, ours should be too.

shabbat shalom,


For another take on Esav’s character, and a link to the text of the
parsha, click here:

Here’s last week’s Torah study:

Finally, for additional study, Richard Schwartz writes extensively
on animal and environmental issues in Judaism,
and you can find many of his article here:

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