Toledot foreshadows many traumas the Jewish people would experience in the ensuing millennia. Within Isaac’s family there was intense sibling rivalry, deception and dishonesty; with the Philistine King, jealousy of Isaac’s success and strife over water resources and, finally, for Jacob, dysfunction and exile.
In rabbinic literature, rather than Esau being portrayed as the victim of Jacob’s abuse (over the birthright and the stolen blessing), he was vilified as the progenitor of Edom – later to become the Roman Empire.
It became a Jewish view that after Rome adopted Christianity as its state religion, descendants of Jacob became victim’s of Esau’s heirs instead.
The late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, in his Covenant & Conversation for 5769, challenged this one-sided view, suggesting instead that Rebecca and Jacob erred in their subterfuge.
‘For each of us there is a blessing that is ours. That was true not just
of Isaac but also Ishmael, not just Jacob but also Esau. The moral could not be more powerful. Never seek your brother’s blessing. Be content with your own.’
It is suggested that Isaac’s intention was for a shared relationship between the brothers, with political power given to Esau and spiritual leadership in the hands of Jacob.
A careful reader of the Talmud will find many stories of Roman leaders meeting Jewish sages. Roman civil administration, technology and law left its legacy until today.
Quoting Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Rabbi Sacks wrote: ‘Just as in the Torah, Jacob and Esau, Isaac and Ishmael, were eventually reconciled, so will Judaism, Christianity and Islam be in future. They would not cease to be different, but they would learn to respect one another.’
We cannot change the past. But we can use the present to create
a different future. Is it time for us to reassess old stereotypes?
υ Rabbi Jeff Berger can be reached at email@example.com
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