Toldot: Forgiveness and Rebirth

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Toldot

Good morning! Toldot begins with the announcement that it’s about Yitzhak, but it’s really about Yitzhak’s sons, Yaakov and Esav. who first show up as twins, rivals in the womb- with matters rapidly going downhill from there. Yaakov, the younger twin, persuades his brother to sell him the birthright of the elder, and then steals his father’s blessing, by disguising himself as his older brother. Naturally, Esav is enraged by this deceit, and swears to kill him after their father dies. (Cf. Bereshit 27:41)

Their mother, Rivka, gets Yaakov out of town, and Esav settles down with another wife from his parent’s hometown:

“Esav realized that the Canaanite women displeased his father Yitzhak. So Esav went to Yishmael and took to wife, in addition to the wives he had, Mahalath the daughter of Yishmael son of Avraham, sister of Nebaioth. ” (Bereshit/ Genesis 28:8-9)

Hmm- Esav wanted to please his father by marrying a nice Ishmaelite girl, (hence, a cousin) but there’s a problem. If you jump ahead to chapter 36, the Torah tells us that the daughter of Yishmael who married Esav is not Mahalath, but Basemat (See also here.)

So it’s possible that there are two different genealogical traditions, but the ancient rabbis had a more creative explanation for this apparent change of names. According to the Jerusalem Talmud (quoted in the book Torah Temimah), the name Mahalat (or Machlat, depending on how you transliterate) is related to the word mechilah, which means to forgive a sin or remit a debt. So according to this interpretation, Esav married a woman named “forgiveness” to show that a bridegroom is forgiven all his sins- and this is just a few verses after he has sworn in his rage to kill his brother!

To me, the rabbis are reminding us that even Esav- whom they don’t like very much at all- is not a sinner, per se, but rather someone who falls short and rises up, just like the rest of us. There are moments in our lives when we have the opportunity to unburden ourselves of the past: certainly marriage or other transformative events present such an opportunity, but it’s not limited to a few instances over a lifetime. We are certainly not defined by our most foolish oaths; notice that just after Esav swore revenge on his brother, he’s also portrayed as one who cared about honoring his parents. We are all- like Esav- mixtures of anger and sweetness, hurt and care. This is why Judaism teaches that mechilah, forgiveness, is a primary virtue, one which emulates the Divine Attributes, and which is to be given to self and others, whenever it is sought.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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