Parshat Toldot
1 א

(כא) וַיֶּעְתַּ֨ר יִצְחָ֤ק לַֽיקוק לְנֹ֣כַח אִשְׁתּ֔וֹ כִּ֥י עֲקָרָ֖ה הִ֑וא וַיֵּעָ֤תֶר לוֹ֙ יקוק וַתַּ֖הַר רִבְקָ֥ה אִשְׁתּֽוֹ׃ (כב) וַיִּתְרֹֽצֲצ֤וּ הַבָּנִים֙ בְּקִרְבָּ֔הּ וַתֹּ֣אמֶר אִם־כֵּ֔ן לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה אָנֹ֑כִי וַתֵּ֖לֶךְ לִדְרֹ֥שׁ אֶת־יקוק (כג) וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יקוק לָ֗הּ שְׁנֵ֤י גיים [גוֹיִם֙] בְּבִטְנֵ֔ךְ וּשְׁנֵ֣י לְאֻמִּ֔ים מִמֵּעַ֖יִךְ יִפָּרֵ֑דוּ וּלְאֹם֙ מִלְאֹ֣ם יֶֽאֱמָ֔ץ וְרַ֖ב יַעֲבֹ֥ד צָעִֽיר׃

(21) And Isaac entreated the LORD for his wife, because she was barren; and the LORD let Himself be entreated of him, and Rebekah his wife conceived. (22) And the children struggled together within her; and she said: ‘If it be so, wherefore do I live?’ And she went to inquire of the LORD. (23) And the LORD said unto her: Two nations are in thy womb, And two peoples shall be separated from thy bowels; And the one people shall be stronger than the other people; And the elder shall serve the younger.

2 ב

Questions to consider:

  1. Why does Isaac pray to God on Rebekah's behalf? Why doesn't she pray for herself?
  2. What is the nature of the "struggle" between the siblings mentioned at the beginning of verse 22?
  3. How do you understand Rebekah's question, "If it be so, wherefore do I live?"
  4. The end of the prophecy says that Esau (the firstborn twin) will serve Isaac (the "younger" twin). Is there any indication why this is the case? What does it mean to serve? Is this fair?
  5. Place yourself in Rebekah's shoes. After feeling the struggle of her unborn children in her womb, and after receiving the prophecy, what does she think? How does she feel? What are her hopes and fears regarding the future?
3 ג

Sefer Hasidim (Yehudah ben Shmuel, aka HeHasid, 12th-13th century Germany)

And the elder shall serve the younger. Lest Jacob learn from Esau, God placed enmity in their hearts even before they were born, and the divide between them started at that time.

Questions to consider:

  1. Why would it be problematic for Jacob to learn from his twin brother, Esau?
  2. What role does God play according to this interpretation of the story? What theological implications do God's actions have?
4 ד

Rabbi Bunim of Pshischa (18th century Poland)

When Rebekah would pass the doors of the Torah academies...Jacob would struggle to come out, but when she passsed places of idolatry, Esau struggled to come out (Rashi). Why would Jacob want to come out considering that fact that the Talmud teaches that when a child is still in the womb, "they [the angels] teach the child Torah?" [He wanted to come out] because it is difficult for a righteous person to be in the same place as a wicked person, even if he is studying Torah from an angel.

5 ה

(ו) יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן פְּרַחְיָה וְנִתַּאי הָאַרְבֵּלִי קִבְּלוּ מֵהֶם. יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן פְּרַחְיָה אוֹמֵר, עֲשֵׂה לְךָ רַב, וּקְנֵה לְךָ חָבֵר, וֶהֱוֵי דָן אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם לְכַף זְכוּת:

(ז) נִתַּאי הָאַרְבֵּלִי אוֹמֵר, הַרְחֵק מִשָּׁכֵן רָע, וְאַל תִּתְחַבֵּר לָרָשָׁע, וְאַל תִּתְיָאֵשׁ מִן הַפֻּרְעָנוּת:

(6) Yehoshua ben Perachiah and Nitai of Arbel received from them. Yehoshua ben Perachia says, "Make for yourself a mentor, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge every person as meritorious."

(7) Nitai of Arbel says: "Distance [yourself] from a bad neighbor, do not befriend a wicked person, and do not despair of punishment."

6 ו

Questions to consider:

  1. How does the Rabbi Bunim text respond to the question raised by the Sefer Hasidim text regarding why it would have been problematic for Jacob to learn from Esau and the reason for the struggle between Jacob and Esau?
  2. How does your understanding of Rabbi Bunim's answer about the source of the struggle sit with you? Consider how you understand your personal, Jewish, and family values. What does or does not resonate about the answer provided by Rabbi Bunim in light of those values?
  3. All normative statements assume values. In other words, laws and norms are in many ways the concrete expression of value and belief systems. What are some of the values or beliefs that you think stand behind the normative statements made in mishnahs 6 amd 7 of Pirkei Avot?
7 ז

Rashi on Gen. 25:23

One nation will struggle against the other. They will never be equal. When one rises the other will fall and vice versa.

Questions to consider:

  1. What image of family life does this portray? How about the relationship between communities or nations?
  2. To what extent is this dynamic a self-fulfilling prophecy?
  3. What can we do to escape the Esau-Jacob relationship paradigm?