11/24/2011 01:58 pm ET Updated Jan 24, 2012

Parshat Toldot: The Weekly Torah Portion Explained (VIDEO)

Editor's note: The Weekly HuffTorah Portion is an overview of the Torah reading of the week and includes links to additional resources for study and discussion. It also gives me a chance to re-read some endlessly fascinating tales. At press time, none of the quotes below could be verified. Read the full text of Parshat Toldot with interlinear Hebrew/English.

This is the story of Isaac, the son of Abraham.

Abraham begets Isaac, who is 40 when he marries Rebecca.

Isaac pleads with God on Rebecca's behalf because Rebecca is barren. God responds; Rebecca conceives. But in her womb, the children struggle. And Rebecca is scared: "If they struggle, why do I exist?" she asks.

And God replies in God's riddle-less way: "Two nations are in your womb. Two peoples will come from you. One will be mightier than the other. The younger shall subject the older."

These are twins, Rebecca surmises. This is confirmed when two children emerge. The first comes out red and hairy. They call him Esau. The second is born grasping Esau's heel. He names him Jacob. Isaac is 60 when the boys are born.

Birthright Next

Because boys will be men someday, the twins grow up. Esau becomes a man of the wild. A wild-haired, sharp-skilled hunter. Jacob is a man of the mild. A fine-mannered, tent-dwelling momma's boy. Isaac favors Esau because Esau's got game. Rebecca favors Jacob.

One day, Esau returns from the hunt to find Jacob cooking stew. Esau is famished, of course, and says to Jacob: "That red stuff. Give me some. I'm hungry." (For this he is named "Edom," a play on the Hebrew word for red, adom.)

Jacob senses an opening and makes his move: "First, sell me your birthright, brother."

"I'm close to death," Esau says, "of what use is a birthright to me?"

"Then swear it," Jacob replies.

Esau swears and sells his birthright to Jacob. So Jacob serves and succeeds him. Esau eats, drinks and leaves.

A Life Relived

There is another famine in the land, so Isaac -- not Abraham -- goes to Abimelech, the king in Gerar. God had appeared to Isaac, telling him not to go to Egypt, to stay in the land. "I'll be with you," God says, "I'll bless you. Just as I promised your father, I will bless you. Your offspring will be like the stars. All else on earth will be blessed by you."

So Isaac stays in Gerar, and maybe thinks he's his father because the men of Gerar come asking about Rebecca and Isaac says, "She is my sister." He is scared to say the truth lest the men kill him for her beauty. But Abimelech sees Isaac cavort with Rebecca. More than cavort, really. Fondle, you might say. And the king confronts the squire: "So she is your wife! Why did you lie?"

"I feared for my life," Isaac says.

"We fear for our dignity," the king says. "What if someone had lain with her? Where would our honor be then?"

So Abimelech addresses his people, saying, "Touch her and die."

Isaac sows seeds in the land and reaps righteous reward. The Lord God blesses him indeed, and he receives a bounty of land and animal and envy. And the men of Gerar plug up all of Abraham's old wells, and Abimelech confronts the son: "You gotta go, man. There isn't room here for the both of us."

So Isaac leaves and goes to the old wells and digs them up again and names them their old names again. Isaac's men discover a spring of water, but the men of Gerar argue: "This is ours!" they cry. So Isaac names it Esek -- "contention." They dig another well and the men argue again, so he names it Sitnah -- "hostility." He goes from there and digs another well, but the men do not fight over it, so Isaac names it Rehobot and declares that God has finally given him expansive space.

And Isaac is in Beersheba when God appears to him and says, "I am the God of Abraham, your father. Have no fear. I am with you. I will bless you. You will multiply for Abraham's sake." So Isaac builds an altar there, pitches his tent and his men begin digging another well.

Abimelech enters the scene with his chief council, and Isaac says, "Why are you here? You drove me away?"

The king replies: "Well, we see now that you're a man of God and that God is with you. What do you think of a pact? We won't hurt you, if you don't hurt us. Just as we sent you away in peace. Remember? Just be blessed."

A feast is made, and all eat and drink. In the morning, the two parties exchange oaths and parted ways in peace. Isaacs servants tell him they've found water, so he names the new well Shibah. To this day, the place of the well is called Beersheba.

Esau Elopes

He's 40 years old when he takes Judith and Ba'asmat, two Hittites, as wives. Isaac and Rebecca are not pleased. In fact, they're bitter.

Too Blind To See

Isaac's old. He can't quite see. So he calls Esau, his oldest son, to him. "My son," he says. "Here I am," he answers. "I'm old. I can't quite see. I may even die soon. Go out with bow and arrow and hunt something for me. Then, prepare me a meal, the way I like, and I will give you my innermost blessing."

Rebecca is listening while Isaac speaks to Esau, and she goes to Jacob as soon as Esau leaves for the hunt: "I heard your father talking to your brother, telling him to hunt and make a meal so that he may bless him before he dies. Listen, son. Listen carefully. Go to our flock, pick the choicest kids, and I will prepare your father's favorite dish. Then, you will take it to him and he bless you."

"But Mom," Jacob replies, "Esau's a hairy guy. I'm so smooth-skinned. What if Dad touches me? I'll be found out. He'll know I'm trying to trick him. He'll curse me, not bless me."

"Then your curse should be upon me," Rebecca says. "Just do what I say, dear."

So Jacob complies, and Rebecca prepares the dish for Isaac. She finds the best clothes of Esau and dresses Jacob in them. Then, she covers all of his exposed skin with the fur of the kids and places the dish in Jacob's too-hairy hands.

Jacob approaches: "Father!"

Says Isaac: "Yes, which one are you?"

"It is me, Esau, your firstborn," Jacob says. "I've done as you asked, so you will give me your blessing."

"But how did you do this so quickly, my son?"

"It was all God."

"Come close then," Isaac says. "Let me feel you to be sure you are Esau." Jacob comes close, and Isaac feels him, saying, "You have the voice of Jacob and the hands of Esau." But the hands win out and Isaac blesses Jacob as though he were Esau. Isaac says, "You are Esau!"

"I am," says Jacob.

"Well, then, serve me this food and my soul will bless you," Isaac says, and eats and drinks and says again, "Come close, my son, and kiss me."

Jacob comes close and kisses his father, who smells the smells of the God-blessed hunting field on his clothes and blesses him: "May God give you the dew of heaven and the fat of earth. Also, lots of grain and wine. Let people serve you. Let nations bow to you. Be the master of your brothers and they will bow to you. Those who curse you, be cursed. Those who bless you, be blessed."

The Son And The Fury

Soon as Jacob leaves his father's presence, Esau, back from the hunt, comes to Isaac. With a prepared dish in hand, he says, "Rise, father. Eat this food, and bless me."

Isaac implores: "But who are you?"

"I am your firstborn, Esau," the real firstborn says.

"But. Who. Where," Isaac trembled, perplexed. "What about the food that I just ate, that was just brought to me? The blessing that I just gave? Surely, he shall remain blessed."

Esau, bitterly: "Bless me too, father!"

"Your brother is clever and took your blessing."

"Is it because his name is Jacob that he outsmarted me twice? First, he takes my birthright. Now, he takes my blessing. Do you not have a blessing for me?"

"I've made him a master over you. I have blessed him with wine and grain. What can I do?"

Esau, weeping: "You have only one blessing? Bless me too, father!"

So Isaac answers: "The fat of the earth and the dew of heaven shall be yours. You should live by your sword, but serve your brother at the same time. If you are aggrieved, you may unburden yourself of him.

And Esau, angry with hatred for Jacob, says, "May the days of morning for my father be soon so that I may kill my brother."

Rebecca hears the words of her oldest son and summons Jacob, saying, "Esau wishes to kill you. Listen. Go. Flee to Haran, to my brother Laban. Remain with him until this raging storm subsides. Give Esau time to forget what you've done. Then, I will send for you. Why should I be bereaved of both of you at once?"

Bad News Brides

And Rebecca says to Isaac, "I'm really sick and tired of these Hittite daughters. If Jacob marries one of them too, what's the point of my life?"

Isaac summons Jacob, blesses him and says, "Don't take a Canaanite woman as a wife. Go to the house of your mother's father and take a wife from the daughters of her brother. May God bless you. May you be fruitful. May you be a congregation. May God bless you with Abraham's blessing."

Jacob leaves.

Esau sees that his brother has been blessed and admonished to not take a Canaanite wife. He realizes his wives are evil in the eyes of his father and mother, so Esau goes to Ishmael and takes his daughter, Mahalat, as a wife.

Questions For Reflection

Why do "they" name the first boy Esau, but "he" names the second Jacob?

Why does Isaac copy Abraham in basically everything?

Why did Rebecca encourage Jacob to steal the blessing from his brother?

Why is Jacob rewarded for deceit?

Why didn't Isaac question hearing Jacob's voice more?

Why does it seem like Isaac only has one blessing to give?

Why is Rebecca secretly plotting throughout the parsha?

Resources for further commentary, discussion and reflection: