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Toledot: Smooth Operator

Updated: Nov 20, 2018

"He asked, 'Are you really my son Esau?' And he said, 'I am.'" (Bereshit/Genesis 27:24)

The parsha name means "generations" or "descendants," and sure enough, here's where we get our first good look at the third generation of Sarah and Abraham's family.

Hendrick ter Brugghen, "Esau selling his birthright"
Hendrick ter Brugghen, "Esau selling his birthright"

It's... not an auspicious start. Esau's kind of a jock who thinks with his stomach, and Jacob's willing to straight-up lie to his dad to steal his brother's blessing.

It's easy to be uneasy about trickster figures, but it's worth remembering that they're heroes in cultures that lack military strength. But it's also worth being uncomfortable with the story, and questioning whether it's presented in praise of Jacob or in criticism of him. The Torah doesn't shy away from showing the flaws of its main characters, or from showing growth. Jacob starts out as someone who tricks his brother out of his birthright, and grows into someone who wrestles angels. He doesn't lose that fundamental trickster nature, but he learns to deploy it differently. (It's worth noticing that even though he does it offscreen, Esau also grows while retaining who he is.)

There's a more fundamental question at the heart of the story, however: what is a blessing, actually, that Jacob and Rebekah are willing to go to such lengths to secure it, and that Esau is so bitter at its loss? In the text, it's a few words spoken by Isaac; parsing out its true significance might be the work of a lifetime.

Side note: we see the name Yehudit/Judith used here for one of Esau's Canaanite wives, which is fascinating, because it means "Judean [woman]" and Judea, of course, doesn't exist--and Judah hasn't even been born yet! What was the significance of the name at the time?

Join us at 9:00 am this Saturday for coffee, donuts, and what's always a lively discussion.

Other lenses

Want to know what other Jewish thinkers are saying about this parsha?

Wikipedia has an incredible treasure trove of geekery about the weekly portion, laying out everything from the number of Hebrew letters in the parsha to summaries of classical commentaries. Prepare to go down a very deep rabbithole.

Sefaria is an amazing free resource--an ever-growing library of Jewish texts in both Hebrew and English. In addition to the Hebrew text and translation, it provides the text of most of the classical commentaries (not all of which have been translated... yet). The parsha is one of the first links on the main page.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, does a podcast called Ten Minutes of Torah--perfect for when you're time-constrained. The Union for Reform Judaism has a whole page of resources for the parsha, ranging from beginner's guides to pieces on the contemporary relevance of the portion. The Women of Reform Judaism site has a glorious archive of the entire text of The Torah: A Women's Commentary divided up by parsha.

My Jewish Learning has a summary of the portion, the parsha itself and the haftorah, and commentary.

For a Reconstructionist take, visit Reconstructing Judaism's weekly learning page.

T'ruah, the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, has a weekly d'var that looks at the parsha as a starting point for contemporary political issues.

The World Union for Progressive Judaism has a parsha commentary archive.

Keshet's Torah Queeries page provides commentary from an LGBTQ perspective (search on the portion name).

The Jewish Theological Society (the Conservative Branch seminary) provides weekly commentary at JTS Torah Online.

Yeshivat Maharat, the first Orthodox yeshiva to ordain women, has a collection of Divrei Torah written by women and organized by parsha on its site.

Limmud, a 35-year-old grassroots Jewish learning event that started in the UK and has become an international phenomenon, maintains an archive of commentaries.

Liberal Judaism's Thought for the Week provides concise but thoughtful analysis of the portion.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi Emeritus of England, engages in profound commentary on the weekly portion in Covenant & Conversation.

InterfaithFamily puts out an animated Torahlog including contemporary reactions, poetry, folk music, and Jewish scholarship on the parsha.

The Jewish Renewal movement's site maintains an archive of commentary. Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, the Velveteen Rabbi--an author and Jewish Renewal rabbi--does commentary on her site.

The #parshachat hashtag on Twitter marks a constantly-running social media conversation on the parsha.

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