Parashat Toldot

By: Rabbi Shelly Donnell & Esther Edelsburg

Kehillat Kol Haneshama, Jerusalem

            Our portion is called “Toldot Yitzhak/The History of Isaac,” despite the fact that its main focus is the life of Jacob and his conflicts with his brother Esau.  These conflicts will continue into the next portion, Va-Yishlach.

The portion that gives rise to the character of Jacob describes him as a complicated and somewhat confused character, a wise and sophisticated man who must nonetheless undergo a long and difficult process including much suffering and struggle before he is deemed worthy to change his name from Jacob (from a root suggesting cunning) to Israel (“to struggle with God,” but also suggesting the root for straight or honest- Yashar).

We come to know something of Jacob’s life even before his birth.  Rebecca was barren, “Isaac prayed to ADONAI on behalf of his wife, because she was childless.  And ADONAI answered his prayer, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant” (Gen. 25:21).  And God blessed her two-fold, “They jostled each other within her, and she said, ‘Why is this happening to me?’  So she went to inquire of ADONAI” (Gen. 25:22).  How are we to understand the words, “They jostled each other within her”?

Rashi cites the midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 63:6) and comments, “Our sages interpreted this as an expression of running.  When she passed the entrances of the Torah academies of Shem and Eber [the son and great-grandson of Noah], Jacob would run and struggle to come out; when she passed by the entrances of places of idolatry, Esau would run and struggle to come out.”  What does Rashi mean to say?  Even before they were born Jacob and Esau’s characters we already formed and set. Jacob, even as a fetus in the womb, was a pure and just man, while Esau was even then an idolater and a wildman.  If so, then is a person able to change their character?  Does a person’s character develop from nature or nurture, what is its source?

According to the prophet Hosea there was evidently another tradition that saw the struggle between Jacob and Esau going all the way back to their mother’s womb,”In the womb he grasped his brother’s heel; as a man he struggled with God” (Hos. 12:4).

However we look at it, it is possible to see the story of the birth of Esau and Jacob together with the interpretation of the sages on the words, “They jostled each other…” as metaphors for the essential psychological and social question regarding the roles of nature and nurture in character development.

  1. What are your thoughts about the question that is raised here regarding the roles of nature and nurture in character development?
  2. Can a person change their character?
  3. Jacob is called the “Father of the Jewish People,” why he and not Abraham?
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