(Dvar Torah given at Temple Israel on Friday, 11/17/17.  I am very appreciative of the thoughtful insights shared with me by Gayle Held which helped me in crafting this Dvar Torah.)

Thoughts on Toledot  (5778/2017)

(Gen. 25:19 – 28:9)

Early on in this week’s Torah portion, Toldot, God addresses Rebecca as she suffers through a rough pregnancy.  God tells her that she will have twins, each of whom will be the leader of a nation.  Moreover, as it says in Genesis 25:33, וְרַב יַעֲבֹד צָעִיר /verav ya’avod tza’ir. The Jewish Publication Society translation found in our Plaut Torah commentary translates this as “the elder shall serve the younger.”  However, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes[1] that the Hebrew ---- וְרַב יַעֲבֹד צָעִיר / verav ya’avod tza’ir --- is ambiguous. We could just as easily translate it as either ----  “the elder shall serve the younger”  or as “the elder shall the younger serve.” 

When the twins are born, Esau (also known as “Edom” because of his “Admoni” or “reddish” complexion) comes out first. And Jacob (or Ya’akov from the Hebrew word “ekev” meaning “heel”) follows immediately afterward “וְיָדוֹ אֹחֶזֶת בַּעֲקֵב עֵשָׂו” / v’eyado ochezet ba’akeiv Eisav (“with his hand grasping Esau’s heel.”) (Gen. 25:26)

Esau is described as a hunter, while Jacob is a tent dweller. 

Esau is associated with the great outdoors, Jacob with the study hall.

Ultimately, these twin brothers become archetypes for alternative conceptions of masculinity.

Esau is course and uncouth.  When he comes in all grimy and smelly from the field and sells his birthright to Jacob in return for the lentil stew that Jacob has prepared, the Torah describes him brusquely: 

וַיֹּאכַל וַיֵּשְׁתְּ, וַיָּקָם וַיֵּלַךְ; וַיִּבֶז עֵשָׂו, אֶת-הַבְּכֹרָה

Vayochal, vayesht, vayakom, vaylekh; vayivez Esav et habechorah.

(“He ate, he drank, he got up and went; so Esau despised his birthright.”)[2]

According to Rashi, the most famous of the Jewish commentators of the medieval period, Esau wasn’t just uncouth, he was also violent.  The Torah reports that Esau got married when he was forty-years old, but Rashi comments:

“For the first forty years of his life, Esau would kidnap wives from their husbands and take them forcibly. When he turned forty he said, Father was forty when he married and I will do likewise.”[3]

Perhaps if they lived today, the women whom we are told that Esau assaulted during his first forty years might come forward and share their stories on Twitter or Facebook.  As it is, they remain nameless to us.

In recent weeks and months reports of sexual harassment and assault have proliferated.   It seems like every day we read of yet another man who has behaved horribly.  

But, in fact, sexual harassment and assault have been a fact of life from time immemorial

We might try to separate ourselves from this sordid tale, telling ourselves that this is a problem of the Esau’s of the world, of the sorts of men whom our tradition has rejected as being “other.” 

By contrast, a quiet, studious, domesticated guy like Jacob, whom our tradition sets up as the role model for later generations, would never be a sexual predator like the ruffian Esau.

However, one of the sad and sobering realizations of recent times has been that sexual assault, rape and molestation have been committed in this world not just by the Esau’s of the world but by the Jacob’s as well.  Not just by the politically conservative but also by the politically liberal.  Not just by the macho men but by the metrosexuals.

Our tradition includes evocations of loving relationships that help us to go beyond ourselves to the level of mystical communion with the divine.  Shabbat itself is compared to a bride.  God is compared to a lover.

And we pray that our own personal relationships share in that quality of holiness.

But, sadly, infuriatingly, we know that so often in the world, this is not the case. 

I’m pretty sure that, if we were to do a survey of the membership of our congregation, or, indeed, a survey of the families on the street where we live, we would find a high percentage of people who have experienced sexually predatory behavior, or who have known someone who did.

But Shabbat is supposed to give us a hint of the better world to come.

There must be some silver lining that we can find in the wake of these disturbing revelations. 

Well, perhaps it is merely just this:

The times are changing.

Behavior that might have been dismissed in the past as “boys just being boys” is no longer acceptable today.  Victims of sexual harassment or assault who in the past might have felt alone and afraid to speak, are now finding supportive community – both in the real world and in the world of cyberspace – so that they now have more of an ability to tell their stories.

May God help us and our society to find a way forward towards a world in which each person’s integrity is respected and protected; towards a world where interpersonal connections are based on love and respect, rather than on violence and oppression.

Shabbat shalom.

© Rabbi David Steinberg (November 2017/ Cheshvan 5778)



[2] Gen. 25:34

[3] Rashi on Gen. 26:34

Posted on December 1, 2017 .