a.k.a. Toldot Parsha [shortened from the original and slightly abridged]
Rebecca Jacob Steals Esau’s Birthright
became pregnant. She
asked God why she felt fighting within her. God answered, “Two nations are in your womb. One state shall become
mightier than the other and the mighty one shall serve the lesser.”
Rebecca gave birth to two
boys. The first baby was red-cheeked and hairy and they named him Esau. The second, Jacob, was smooth-skinned.
When the lads grew up,
Esau took to hunting and the outdoor life while Jacob lived in tents. Isaac favoured Esau while Rebecca favoured
One day Esau came from
the field feeling hungry and faint and saw Jacob with a pot of stew. “Jacob,” Esau asked, “May I have a bit of your
stew please? I am faint with hunger.”
“You may have it, if you
sell me your birthright,” answered Jacob.
Esau replied: “If I am
going to die from hunger, what good is my birthright to me?” Esau then sold his birthright to Jacob. In this way,
Esau showed how little he valued his birthright.
After many years Isaac
became old and blind. He called to Esau: “My son, go and hunt some venison for me and prepare the tasty dish that I
love. I will eat it and then my soul will bless you before I die.”
Rebecca overheard this
conversation and told Jacob to fetch two young goats so that she could make a tasty dish for Isaac. She told Jacob
to take the food to Isaac and be blessed in Esau’s place.
Jacob did as his mother
said. Before Jacob delivered the meal to his father, his mother put hairy goatskins on his hands and neck and
dressed him in Esau’s clothing.
The plan worked, even
though Jacob’s voice nearly gave him away. Isaac felt Jacob’s hands and decided he must be Esau. He blessed Jacob,
asking God to make nations bow down to him and his descendants.
Esau returned from his hunt and brought venison stew to his father. A distraught Isaac realised that he had been tricked and told Esau that his blessing had been
given to his brother. Esau’s blessing was that he would live by the sword.
Esau vowed that, after Isaac’s death, he would kill Jacob. Rebecca got wind of the threat, and
instructed Jacob to flee to Haran, where he could stay with her brother Laban.
Rebecca told Isaac that she didn’t want Jacob to marry a Canaanite woman. Isaac agreed. He
summoned Jacob and told him to find a wife amongst his mother’s people.
Esau, hearing that Canaanite women were not considered suitable wives by his father, went to the
family of Ishmael and took one of his daughters as his wife.
Commentary on the sixth parsha (portion of the Torah)
The Torah consists of the five books of Moses, the first part of the Old
To get to grips with this parsha, our Supermaven, Sigmund Albert Spinoza, interviews
Methuselah Solomon (an Ancient Elder). Supermaven is a modern philosopher who is trying to understand Judaism
and how we got where we are. He will do this every week by investigating the Old Testament.
SAS: You’re going to have to work hard to justify this narrative to me, Solomon Methuselah! What Rebecca
and Jacob did was clearly immoral. How can we be proud of the man who spawned the 12 tribes of Israel when he
was clearly a dishonest conman?
MS: Dishonest, yes. But it was God’s will that Jacob’s children should be the progenitors of the 12
tribes. God works in strange ways. What happened was His will, no matter how unfair the story might
SAS: No, no, no! You can’t have it both ways! God is quite clearly the standard of morality in the Old
Testament. He sets down clear rules of right and wrong. Stealing the blessing of another is a flagrant injustice
and something God could not possibly have condoned. So your assertion that this was all God’s will is
MS: The story does not say that Jacob was morally justified in what he did or that God told Rebecca to be
deceptive. The story presents events and, as it unfolds, it shows us that even though wrong has been done, the
final result is in accordance with the divine plan. Nothing can subvert the will of God – not even men and women
who disobey his laws.
SAS: I’ve heard similar bad arguments before, Solomon, and simply don’t accept them. The idea that God’s
purpose is always served no matter what good or bad things people do is simply another way of saying that
everything happens for a reason, and things can only be understood at some higher level of awareness and
comprehension. It’s the sort of drivel that mystics always spout! It makes no sense!
MS: Well, let me try another tack in my defence. I think the story
provides support for the view that Jacob was at least partially justified in carrying out his
OK, that’s more promising. Let’s hear your argument.
MS: Well, we Jews are a pretty shrewd and forward-thinking people. What
Jew would sell his birthright for a plate of stew? Esau was
foolishly impulsive and shortsighted. He had no appreciation for the symbolic, or real, value of a
birthright. It’s just as well that Jacob was chosen, otherwise
what would have happened?
SAS: Much better! But how can you use that as a justification for the
MS: I suppose all I can say is that Rebecca was ambitious for her son,
and Jacob believed in his destiny. They took the chance that presented itself. They wanted the blessing more
than Esau did. Sometimes destiny has to be seized.
SAS: Well, that’s a more honest and forthright
MS: I also wanted to make the cultural point that we Jews were not
destined to be a group of hunters, but a more homebound, sophisticated, thinking group of people. So it was
the tent-dweller who prevailed over the hunter.
SAS: OK, we move from hunter-gatherers to agrarians. That’s progress. So, Jacob won
MS: Yes, he was the more promising character as far as ancestor
material went. He valued the strength of tradition in the form of the blessing because he was more
introspective than his brother. He was a thinker, while his brother was a doer. And being a tent dweller, he
had more time to think, reflect and plan a future. Jews have always valued intelligence over brute
SAS: I’m warming to the story. The role of Rebecca is particularly fascinating. The stay-at-home boy was
clearly her prime source of pride and joy. She’s the prototype
for the Jewish mother. This story is as much about the triumph of Rebecca over Isaac as it is about the triumph
of Jacob over Esau. Were you, as a man, comfortable penning a scenario like that?
MS: Well, it seems realistic enough. Jewish women have always had their say, although their means of
getting what they want has always been restricted. So they work with what they have. Even from the earliest
times in our tents, the women took charge of the Jewish homes. They often got their way. They set the tone for
life at home while the men ruled the fields and the village square. It’s the same today, and I’m pretty sure
that it isn’t going to change.
SAS: Solomon Methuselah, you’re a man ahead of your
The Parsha we have just read comes from the five books of Moses, the Torah. The
dialogues between Sigmund Albert Spinoza and Methuselah Solomon are about the meaning of the
What we know about Jewish
History, however, is based in fact, and on historical records.
If you’d like to know
more about the real history of our extended Jewish family, read on.
The Change to Rabbinic Judaism (70 – 500
This period covers the time from the destruction of Jerusalem and the second Temple up
until the time that the Babylonian Talmud was completed. This was the period in which Rabbinic Judaism became
important to Judaism and established itself as normative Judaism.
Rabbinic Judaism met opposition, for a time, from Karaite Judaism, especially in the
10th and 11th centuries CE. Karaism
continues to exist, but its numbers are small. The Karaite Jews rely solely on the Hebrew Bible as
authoritative. They reject the Oral Law (the Talmud) as binding.
The rabbinic tradition is heir to the pharisaic tradition. It maintains that Torah has
both a written and an oral form. This approach says that oral law is essential to our understanding of the
written law. Rabbis interpret Torah in the light of oral traditions and teachings.
The Talmud is a record of
rabbinic discussions on ethics, law, history and customs, and is made up of the Mishna and the Gemara. Tradition
has it that in 200 CE, Rabbi Judah haNasi finished compiling the Mishna, a summary of rabbinic debates on legal
matters. Over the next 300 years, rabbis in Babylon and Palestine discussed the Mishna, and their debates
were codified in the Gemara.
Rabbinic Judaism made Judaism independent of the Temple or geographical location.
Within its guiding sphere, Judaism became a fully “portable” religion. To be sure, Judaism had been portable
during the Babylonian Exile, but it now achieved a standard form and Jewish communities were able to develop
in similar ways throughout the Mediterranean.
Jews in the Diaspora had to adapt to living in countries where they were not sovereign
but in a minority relationship to the controlling interests of the states in which they lived. The
Mediterranean world became increasingly Christian. The Emperor Constantine convened the first conference of
Christian bishops at Nicaea in 325 CE, after which that religion began to achieve widespread dominance.
Anti-Semitism was rife.
Early Church fathers such as Tertullian, Origen, Irenaeus and Eusebius stated their
faith in terms that displayed a clear anti-Jewish feeling. Fourth century preacher John Chrysostom accused
the Jews of numerous crimes and vices.
The Theodosian Code of 438, a
compilation of the laws of the Roman Empire, may have protected Jews from violence and granted basic freedoms,
but its largest section curtailed Jewish religious and economic activities. In the 6th century, the
Justinian Code gave the Emperor the right to regulate Jewish religion. This was a fearful time for Jews because
wrong-thinking Christians felt they had a mandate from God to attack the Jews whenever they
Many Jews fled to Babylon after the fall of Jerusalem in
70 CE, and Babylon was the centre of Jewish learning from 219 CE until 1050. The Jews
of Babylon were highly regarded for their religious efforts, and established study colleges with a very high
quality of learning.
The Jewish scholars in Babylon produced the Babylonian Talmud, which eclipsed the
Jerusalem Talmud in prestige and quality.
The Babylonian Talmud consists of two categories of statement – Halachic and Agaddic.
The Halacha prescribes correct legal judgments and actions while the Agadda summarises a wealth of material
in the fields of religion, ethics and learning.
The Babylonian Talmud essentially reached completion by 500 C.E., although some of the
text did not reach its final form until 700 C.E.
By roughly 500 C.E. Rabbinic Judaism had created a wealth of literature that provided
definitive reflections on Torah and on the way Jews should conduct themselves wherever they happened to be.
Judaism had religious content, a shape and a way of understanding itself that it could take forward into the
centuries. Rabbinic Judaism, with its teachings explained and discussed in synagogues, became the definitive
form of Judaism for many centuries to come.
Some modern scholars, such as Norman F. Cantor, who wrote The Sacred
Chain, criticise the rabbis of our time. Cantor presents them as unenlightened, out of touch with
contemporary intellectualism, and lacking in leadership qualities. His radical analysis foresees an end to
Jewish identity within the next few generations and the absorption of Israel into the Arab
Many disagree, arguing that the rabbinic tradition has helped to preserve
Jewish life for centuries and will not stop doing so.
Here follows a discussion on this historical segment
by the Father, Chaya and Ben.
Three celebrants can read the parts of Ben, Chaya and their
BEN: Dad, I don’t like what people like Norman
Cantor say. How could Jewish history come to an end?
FATHER: His views are extreme, and intentionally
provocative. He’s giving us a warning.
CHAYA: I don’t think he’s very respectful of the
rabbinic tradition or its importance. It’s brought us this far in the world, so why shouldn’t it continue to
FATHER: Because, like all great traditions, it needs
to be renewed by each generation so that its life remains vibrant and vital. In some ways Cantor might have a
point, and it’s worth listening to his opinion.
BEN: In which ways does he have a point,
FATHER: Well, it’s probably true that modern Jews do
not sufficiently respect the huge wealth of tradition upon which we stand. How long have you, for example,
spent studying the Talmud? How much of the Torah do you know? What aspects of the Mishna are you passionate
BEN: Dad, you’re kidding! That stuff’s for rabbis
and scholars! I’ve got to learn things that will help me survive in the modern
FATHER: Aha! How many boys your own age are saying
exactly that! It’s part of your process of being assimilated into the very world that Cantor says we will
soon be indistinguishable from!
CHAYA: But you’re being hypocritical. You’re not
religious! Why tell Ben to pore over a whole lot of religious texts when you’d never do
FATHER: Did I tell him to do
BEN: You sort of did!
FATHER: No, what I’m really trying to say is that we
need to find ways of affirming our Judaism intellectually. The old rabbis loved scholarship not just for
religion’s sake but for scholarship’s sake too. We need more scholarly discussions in the new settings we
continually find ourselves in. The world is changing more rapidly than ever, and the modern Jew needs to
understand how his Jewish identity impacts on that world, and how that world impacts on his Jewish
CHAYA: Ha! So you want nothing less than a Jewish
intellectual and cultural Renaissance! Who’s got time?
FATHER: Well, not me, really. But that seems to be
what these critics are talking about, and it’s an exciting idea, even if unlikely to
CHAYA: Would a renewal of Jewish culture have to be
religious? I don’t think many people would be interested in committing themselves to
FATHER: No, it wouldn’t have to
Every Shabbat we read five
short sayings that express, with typically Jewish wit and humour, insightful reflections on this life of
Here are tonight’s
- The saloonkeeper may love
the drunkard but will he let him marry his daughter?
- I trust you completely but
please send cash.
- Don’t open a shop unless
you know how to smile.
- A man’s drive for profit
should be prompted by the desire to give charity.
- If you can’t do what you
want, do what you can.
Celebration of Great Lives
Every Friday night we celebrate the achievements of our Jewish family in contributing
to changing the world for the better and having an extraordinary impact on those around
Emile Berliner (1851-1929)
Emile Berliner was born in Hanover, Germany, and came to the US as a young man. His first
successful invention, in 1876, was a microphoneused as a telephone speech transmitter, which he sold to The Bell Telephone company. In
1887 he invented the flat recording disc and gramophone player, which were great improvements on the
technological models being made by Thomas Edison.He established the Berliner Gramophone Company, which he and sound engineer Eldridge R. Johnson
eventually transformed into the Victor Talking Machine Company, now known as RCA. There is no doubt that he
changed the way the world enjoyed music and he effectively began the recording business. He and his son,
Henry, were also active in the early development of helicopter technology. Emile Berliner was an inventor of
true genius who deserves our respect and admiration.
Lillian D. Wald, (1867-1940)
Champion of the urban poor, Lillian D. Wald was a
visionary leader and outstanding humanitarian. In 1893, two years after graduating from the New York Hospital
Training School for Nurses, Wald founded the Henry Street Settlement. Henry Street eventually evolved into
the Visiting Nurse Service of New York City. For more than 40 years Wald directed the Henry Street Visiting
Nurse Service, at the same time tirelessly opposing political and social corruption. She helped in the
initiation of the following reforms: revision of child labour laws, improvement of housing conditions in
tenement districts, the enactment of pure food laws, education for the mentally handicapped and the passage
of enlightened immigration regulations. Wald was instrumental in establishing the United States Children’s
Bureau, school nursing, and rural nursing in the Red Cross Town and Country Nursing Service. As first
president of the National Organization for Public Health Nursing, Wald delivered an inaugural address that
suggested a national health insurance plan. She is honoured in the Hall of Fame of New York University.
Lillian D. Wald was a granddaughter of Jewish rabbis and scholars. Also an author, publisher, teacher and
women’s rights activist, Lillian D. Wald is recognised worldwide as one of the great humanitarians and social
visionaries of recent times.
We will now sing a traditional song to conclude our Shabbat celebration. You have a
copy of the words, so please join in as we sing.
The song is sung
Farewell and an Invitation
Thank you for joining together
to share our Shabbat. May you go out into the new week with renewed strength, confidence and
We now cordially invite you to join us for some coffee and cake.