Elliot Bramson’s Bar Mitzvah dvar on Toldot


Shabbat Shalom. The Torah portion for this week is  Toldot | תולדות | “[These are the] Generations” Bereshit, 25:19−28:9. This is the story of Jacob and Esau and how conflict changed their lives and relationship. This Torah portion also contains a story about Jacob and Esau’s father, Isaac, and his early life before his sons were born.

The theme that I noticed throughout this portion was conflict over resources. In Isaac’s early life, the conflict is about wells. This is a conflict over water, the most basic of resources. In the Jacob and Esau story, the two brothers fight for their father’s blessing, which promises an abundance of food and land. In a way, we can view the blessing itself as a resource that the brothers are fighting over.

The first conflict, over water, starts with Isaac in a wadi near Gerar. Isaac has just been kicked out of Gerar by Abimelech, the king of Gerar, because Isaac has too many people in his family. So he leaves Gerar, finds a wadi, and decides to settle there, and begins to dig wells. When Isaac’s shepherds dig the first well, the shepherds of Gerar wrangle with Isaac’s shepherds over who the water belongs to. Isaac names the well Wrangle, לְהִסְתַכסֵך (L’heestachsech). The second well they dig is argued over, too, so Isaac names it Animosity, אֵיבָה (Avah). The third well, however, they don’t argue over so Issac names it Rechovot meaning: “Now the Eternal has granted us ample room and will make us fruitful in the land.”

From my perspective, this story is about conflict – how random and unpredictable it is, but also how it can show up in multiple generations. In my Torah portion, Isaac happens to be digging for wells because of conflict with the people of Gerar. One generation earlier, Isaac’s father Abraham also experienced conflict over the resource of water when his wells got stopped up by the Philistines. It’s an endless cycle of digging new wells, then conflict over the wells, then a need to dig new wells. The conflict also seems so random. I think it’s curious how Isaac and the shepherds of Gerar quarrel over two wells, but not over the third one. Why is there conflict over some wells but not others?

So the first story of conflict in my Torah portion is about water. The second story of conflict is over blessings.

A few years after the episode with the wells, Isaac has two children, Jacob and Esau. Jacob and Esau, who are twins, start fighting before they’re even born. Their mother Rebekah feels them fighting in her womb and wonders, why this is happening so she asks God. God answers: “Two nations are in your womb, two separate peoples shall issue from your body; one people shall be mightier than the other, And the older shall serve the younger.”

After the twins are born, they continue to be in conflict. And as they get older it becomes apparent that they have very different personalities. Esau is a hunter and is very hairy, while Jacob stays home and cooks and is much quieter. Isaac favors Esau, and Rebekah, Isaac’s wife, favors Jacob.

These conflicts become much more serious one day when Esau is coming home from a hunt and is very hungry. He sees that Jacob is making a red soup and demands he give him some of it. Jacob agrees, only if Esau will sell him his birthright. Esau sells Jacob his birthright and eats the soup.

Later, when Isaac is very old and has bad eyesight, he decides it is time to give his blessings to his oldest son. Isaac tells Esau to hunt and bring him something to eat before he gives him his blessing. Rebekah overhears this and tells Jacob to go to his flock to get an animal to cook for Isaac. Rebekah cooks tasty dishes for Isaac and tells Jacob to dress up in the skin of the animal to seem that he is as hairy as Esau. Isaac then confuses Jacob for Esau and gives Jacob his blessing. After Jacob steals Esau’s blessing, Esau is enraged and wants to kill Jacob, so Rebekah tells Jacob to flee to her brother Laban in Haran.

This story is challenging from a moral perspective. Rebekah liked Jacob more than his brother and didn’t want Esau to get the blessing of the firstborn, so she planned that Jacob should steal his brother’s blessing. Not only was it wrong to steal the blessing from Esau, but Rebekah and Jacob also tricked Isaac and took advantage of him being almost blind.

Although Rebekah and Jacob clearly behave badly in this story, Jewish thinkers throughout our history have tried to portray Jacob as the good twin in order to encourage people to have sympathy toward Jacob, and maybe decide that it was ok for him to steal Esau’s blessing.

Rashi took this approach. Rashi was a Jewish commentator from Troyes (twah), in the Champagne region of France. He was born in 1040 and was best known for his commentaries on the Torah and the Babylonian Talmud. Rashi portrays Jacob as being meant to lead the Jewish people because Esau was always drawn towards idol worship, even before he was born. Rashi writes that “whenever Rebekah passed by a synagogue, Jacob moved convulsively in his efforts to be born, but whenever she passed by the gate of a pagan temple Esau moved convulsively in his efforts to be born.”

Chizkuni, another commentator who wrote about Jacob and Esau’s conflict, lived in France in the thirteenth century. His commentaries contained insights from other commentators, including Rashi. On the topic of Jacob and Esau, Chizkuni challenges Rashi’s interpretation. He says that God predicted that one child would be good and one evil, but that when they struggled in the womb it was not yet clear which one would prevail. It only became clear that Esau wished wickedness to prevail on earth and Jacob wished righteousness to prevail on earth once they were older, when Esau became a hunter and Jacob a philosopher. Clearly Chizkuni thought that being a hunter was a morally inferior occupation to being a philosopher.

Based on what’s written in the Torah, as well as the perspectives of these commentaries, Jacob and Esau were destined to always be at war. Their conflict started from when they were in the womb, and continued throughout their lives, even after they separated.

Although the Jacob and Esau story is old, it has relevance to a conflict we see today. The story of Jacob and Esau shows how a conflict over resources can start an endless war. A current endless war that also seems to be about resources is the Israel-Palestine conflict. The Israel-Palestine conflict is an argument over land and resources between the state of Israel and the non-Jewish Palestinians who lived there before the state of Israel was created. Many Palestinians believe that they were kicked off the land when the nation was created. Many Jews believe that they have a right to the land because they were there first, thousands of years ago.

It seems to me that we can think of the conflict between Jacob and Esau as a one-on-one version of the Israel-Palestine conflict. And if we apply the lens of my Torah portion to the Israel-Palestine conflict, then one message we could take from it is that shouldn’t be fighting our brothers, just as Jacob and Esau shouldn’t be fighting. But that’s a simple message to take away from this. A more complex take-away would be to think about how the Israel-Palestine conflict has been portrayed.

I did some research on the Israel-Palestine conflict and I found that many Jewish Israelis claim that they have a right to the land because it was promised to them by God. They feel that Israel is their homeland and it has always belonged to them, and some are afraid that their historic homeland could be taken away from them because of the Palestinians who claim that it is theirs. However, there are some Jewish Israelis who are sympathetic with the Palestinians and think that how the Israeli government treats Palestinians is wrong.

On the other hand, many Palestinians feel that they are being deprived of basic human rights, that the Israeli government’s laws are discriminatory towards Palestinians, and that the US government should not be funding Israel and its military. Many Palestinians think they were turned into refugees because the Jews claimed that their ancestors lived there thousands of years ago.

As Jews, it would seem that we’d have a natural sympathy towards the Jewish Israeli version of the conflict, in the same way we might feel a natural sympathy towards or connection to Jacob, in the story of Jacob and Esau. And, as I mentioned earlier, with the commentators Rashi and Chizkuni, it is possible to interpret a story of conflict in such a way as to justify any position.

Like in any conflict, the Israel-Palestine conflict is definitely being interpreted by the different sides in such a way that their actions seem justified and justifiable.

The questions that I want you to reflect on are: Do you think that you have a bias when you look at the two sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict? Do you think the Jacob and Esau conflict relates to other current events today? Feel free to raise your hands and give your opinion.

I would like to thank the people that have made this possible. Thank you Rabbi Ora for leading this service, and for helping me write this D’var Torah. I want to thank Deb, my Hebrew tutor for making learning my Torah portion and Haftorah so fun. Also, thanks for all the hot chocolate you gave me! I would like to thank everyone who came today from out of town and my friends and family. Lastly, I want to thank my parents for supporting me in having a bar mitzvah, helping me practice, and arranging my party. I can’t thank you enough! Shabbat Shalom!