Toldot - Philisophical Pluralism
By: Eli Fisher -Student
In Parashat Toldot, something conspicuously strange occurs. There is a recurrent theme that is unmistakably intentional. Throughout the entire Parasha, readers can see the immense effort to emphasise the familial
Parashat Toldot - Eli Fisher
In Parashat Toldot, something conspicuously strange occurs. There is a recurrent theme that is unmistakably intentional. Throughout the entire Parasha, readers can see the immense effort to emphasise the familial relationships between the characters in its stories. Had it been 'accidental', perhaps it might have been mentioned, in passing, once. But the Torah, typically economical in language, makes it clear to its readers that the relationships between each character are noteworthy, by reminding us each time a name is mentioned, how that character was attached to the others.
Sometimes, the Torah will not refer to a character by his or her name, but by his position in the family: "Ishto" (25:21); "Aviv" (26:18). In other times, the Torah refers to the character by name, but then, almost as if clarification is necessary, adds the familial relationship. For example, "...[Diber] Yitzchak el Esav bno..." [Yitzchak spoke with Esav his son] (27:3); or "Vayomar Ya'acov el Rivka imo" [And Ya'acov spoke to Rivka his mother.] (27:11). Some of these examples seem so contrived that the Torah could only want us to read something into this recurrent theme. For example, in the beginning of the Parasha, the Torah introduces us to Yitzchak and Rivka. As is commonplace in Tanach, where characters are referred to by their name and then by their father's name, we are told that Yitzchak is "Ben-Avraham". This is perfectly normal, except for two facts. First we have already met Yitzchak. This isn't an introduction; we have, in previous parshiot, been introduced to him, and we are well-aware that he is the son of Avraham. The story of Sarah's barren-ness and the rationale behind his name ("tzachek"), coupled with the story of the Akeda, do not leave us wondering whose son Yitzchak is - it's pretty explicit. Second, the words that immediately follow "Yitzchak ben Avraham" are "Avraham holid et Yitzchak" [Abraham gave birth to Yitzchak]. This tautology is so stark it almost seems like a mistake.
Additionally, when we are introduced to Rivka in the beginning of the parasha, she is referred to as the wife of Yitzchak. It tells us something we already know - that Yitzchak and Rivka are together. But the sentence structure is itself odd.
"Vayehi Yitzchak ben arba'im shana b'kachato et Rivka bat Betu'el HaArami miPadan Aram achot Lavan HaArami lo l'isha." And it was that Isaac was 40 years old when he took Rivka, the daughter of Betu'el, the Arami, from the city Padan Aram, the sister of Lavan the Arami, to be his wife.
Firstly, the sentence's main mission is to describe Yitzchak taking Rivka as a wife. But this is interrupted by a garrulous indulgence into Rivka's family. Had the Torah wanted solely to describe Yitzchak's relationship with Rivka, there was no need - we already know this. Moreover, it would have omitted the lengthy historical analysis of Rivka's family, and focused exclusively on Yitzchak. What else is strange is that, once again, there's a tautology. When the passuk says 'B'kachato et Rivka' when he took Rivka, we know that it is a reference to marriage. Why must it say 'lo l'isha' as a wife, at the end? There's no need. If anything, the passuk would have flowed much more nicely had it not been for those two final (unnecessary) words. The Torah could not have employed any tactic or mechanism more effective to emphasise and draw attention to this familial relationship, than it has.
But that's not all. As already mentioned, the passuk's description of Rivka's family is extensive and conspicuously elaborate. It is common for one's father to be identified, but extremely uncommon for more than that. It does occur, for example, in (Shmot: 31:2): "R'eh karati b'shem Betzalel ben Uri ben Chur, l'mateh Yehuda." See, I called the name Betzalel the son of Uri, the son of Chur, of the tribe of Yehuda. But this only occurs when the Torah wants to draw attention to the important ancestry of an individual. But in Rivka's case, it doesn't seem that her ancestry, or Arami heritage, is so remarkable - only that she is 'achot lavan' (Lavan's sister). Moreover, we have already been introduced to Rivka in the previous Parasha and, there too, we read an elaborate family history (32:15). This is certainly incongruous with the Torah's effort to employ as few words as possible.
There are many references to familial relationships, all unnecessary, and some obviously contrived. Doubtless, there is a message.
But one final discovery in the structure of Parashat Toldot must be pointed out. While the beginning of the Parasha has many instances of unnecessary references to familial relationships, this seems to subside, only to reappear later on in the parasha, far more emphatically. In fact, this occurs according to chapters, almost underlining how intentional the message is. The references subside - there's a drought of sorts - for the entire perek 26, and then abruptly, the references return, with more frequency, at the start of perek 27. If they were to be graphed, it would look like a parabola. But this is especially strange because when the reminders of familial connections are absent, there is peace within the family; but when they are present, there is much tension between the family members. They are most frequent when Rivka is deceiving her husband and son, when Ya'acov is tricking his father and brother, etc.
There is a particularly poignant passage in the centre of the Ya'acov/Esav debacle. It occurs at the juncture in time that Esav and Yitzchak find out about Ya'acov's scheme - that point in time, which, more than any other, was laden with anger and rage. In these psukim (30-37), a familial relationship is mentioned 14 times. At this time of heightened tension, the Torah emphasizes how these characters are connected.
But what is there to learn from all this? The message is strange because it is explicit for having been so hidden, so implicit. In that passage wherein readers are bombarded with the plethora of familial references, something so subtle can easily go unnoticed. There occurs a little word-game, and it is extremely difficult for a reader to notice the pun, amidst all the action. In passuk 36, Esav reacts to discovering what Ya'acov has done: "V'yaakveini ze pa'amayim, et b'chorati lakach, v'hinei lakach et birchati..." He [Ya'acov] has deceived me twice: he took my bchora (birthright) and he took my blessing (bracha).
The two things Yaacov cheated Esav out of, were "Bchorati" - his birthright - and "Birchati" - his blessing. Almost with perfect irony, the two things that Esav lost to Ya'acov are spelled exactly the same, except that two letters are swapped. But even more subtle than this word-game is another; and it is in this subtlety that the message is found.
This entire story has a symmetrical structure, perhaps so apt because the two main characters were twins. It is noteworthy that in the end of the story, as in the beginning, we refer to people by lengthy and unnecessarily elaborate family histories. In 28:5, at the end of the parasha, we are unnecessarily reminded that Lavan is "ben Betu'el HaArami, achi Rivka, em Ya'acov v'Esav." The son of Betu'el the Arami, the brother of Rivka who was the mother of Ya'acov and Esav. But the symmetry that follows is replete with meaning. When Ya'acov entered the world, he arrived just after Esav did. When Esav arrived at Yitzchak for his blessing, he arrived just after Ya'acov. Here we see again the interplay of B'chora and B'racha. It is no surprise that in both instances, there is a word-play on Ya'acov's name. In 25:25, 'ekev' [heel] refers to the scene of the birth (B'chora), and in 27:36, 'ya'akveini' [he deceived me] refers to the scene of the blessing (B'racha).
But here is the ultimate symmetry: when Ya'acov approached Yitzchak for his blessing, pretending to be Esav, he says "Anochi, Esav b'chorecha." (27:19). B'chorecha is a plural: "I am one of your b'chorim.". When Esav approaches Yitzchak for the blessing, he addresses as follows: "Ani bincha b'chorcha Esav." 'Bchorcha' is in single form: "I am your only bchor." (27:32) And herein lies the message.
Esav was certain that his claim to the b'chor was legitimate and therefore exclusive. Ya'acov, who felt his claim to the b'chor was legitimate, was still able to recognise the legitimacy of others' claims. The reality is that Esav was the oldest and, in his eyes, that fact is not changed by Ya'acov selling him lentil soup for the b'chora. But from Ya'acov's perspective, he had legitimately acquired the b'chora, and although Esav was technically older, they were twins. The difference was that only one of the two twins could understand that there is not one exclusive path to Bracha, that different individuals can legitimately be 'bruchim' [blessed]. This idea is all the more radical when we consider that these two twins were "shnei goyim [bebeten]," two nations in one womb who were fighting even in the womb, 'mitrotzetzim.' (25:22-3) This surely is the underlying meaning in emphasising familial relationships at the time of tension. It is almost to say "don't forget that when two nations, two peoples, go to war with each other, both nations stem from the same source, and they are each a part of the same family.
This may be extended and interpreted practically: Jews, Muslims and Christians who are engaged perpetually in hitrotzetzut, in struggles, have to be mindful that people outside their respective faith systems can find bracha. But it can also be interpreted in a philosophical way. Often, two conflicting schools of thought, two philosophies, are in a battle with no resolution. Perhaps the message of this story is one of philosophical pluralism, making room for alternative philosophies to be blessed: legitimacy does not require exclusivity.