Monday, December 09, 2019

Part 1: Stealing the Birthright

Parshat Toldot begins with an incident putting Yaakov in a seemingly bad light, where he takes advantage of Esav’s exhaustion to extract the rights of the first-born. R. Arama tells us he will discuss the norms of brotherhood, the problems with deceit and trickery, to then show how Yaakov was justified in what he did.

His opening midrash, Bereishit Rabbah 63, wonders why Yaakov cared, says Yaakov was concerned because the first-born were slated to be those who offered sacrifices (before they participated in the Golden Calf). R. Arama directs the question also at the betrayal involved, how Yaakov could turn his back on what should be brotherly love.

In his view, love starts with one’s own person, and we love others to the extent we see them as a part of our lives, their welfare itself part of our own [although he might sound as if he means this in a self-interested way, I think he means we build love by becoming more aware of how important others are to our own welfare, we train ourselves to see how we cannot stand on our own, and therefore are as invested in others’ success as our own. The wider our circle of awareness of interdependence, the greater our love for relatives, friends and strangers].

Brotherly Love and Betrayal

He points to Yehonatan, Shaul’s son, as a paradigm, where I Shmu’el 18:1 says his soul was bound with David’s, and he loved him ke-nafsho, as he loved himself. The verse (and the scholars of his time) tells us love leads a person to want the same good for others s/he would want for him/herself, celebrates loved ones’ successes, mourns their failures, shares their troubles, as an extension of the person. It was true of Yehonatan, the reason he took the various oaths to protect and serve David.

Love defined as the inclusion of others in a person’s own world blackens betrayal even more. Brothers or relatives are a most basic set of people we should see as part of our world, as close to us, more exempt from our treachery than others. It was why religious systems R. Arama knew punished such backstabbing more harshly.

Including the Torah, in his reading of Devarim 13:9, where we are told to withhold all pity from a brother or close friend who seeks to lure us to worship a power other than Hashem. (He assumes the seriousness comes from it being a relative or close friend who tries to lead us astray; I would have thought it was because they sought to bring us to avoda zara, used our closeness to imperil us.)

R. Arama thinks the same calculus underlay David’s reaction to the men who assassinated his rival Ish Boshet. The two were Binyaminites, of the same tribe as Shaul’s son [although II Shmuel 4:2 feels the need to tell us they were, because their family was apparently not always recognized as such]. When David has their hands and feet chopped off (II Shmuel 4:11-12), R. Arama thinks he was making a point about perfidy toward a relative [where I might have thought it was their betrayal of the trust of their king, their using their access to kill him without his suspecting it].

Loving Oneself and One’s Fellows

His paradigm of love reminds us to care for ourselves, too; just as we care  tensions of us, we should treat our actual selves well as well, including living up to our highest aspirations, avoiding and resisting all forms of sin. [The reminder is as necessary in our times as in his, when often the most caring people do not realize their care needs to include their actual persons as much as the people around them.]

His idea of love explains why the Torah frequently refers to Jews we do not even know as achicha or re’acha, your brother or your fellow, whom we are told to love as ourselves, the famous Vayikra 19:18, ve-ahavta le-re’acha kamocha.Vayikra 25:25 opens the discussion of the right to buy back a field with the words ve-chi yamuch achicha, should your brother become poor [for ki…achicha, translations offer “if your brother,” “if your kindred,” or even “if your fellow Israelite,” highlighting R. Arama’s point, it is treating a stranger as a brother.]

Yaakov’s Concerning Morality

All his many examples, the rest of which I am skipping, ratchet our concern with Yaakov’s actions toward Esav. We are told to treat distant relatives—with whom we might share only Yaakov as a common ancestor—as brothers, yet Yaakov himself takes advantage of his twin, withholding food he needed desperately, to extract his birthright. Years later he did it again, going behind Esav’s back to take the bl essings from Yitzchak.

Adding to our discomfort, Midrash Shoher Tov identifies Yaakov as the best example of all the qualities of Tehillim 24, including neki kapayim, having clean hands, and Aristotle listed lying for monetary gain as among the most degraded of acts. Where is Yaakov’s cleanliness of hands, purity of heart, refusal to invoke God for falsehood, R. Arama asks.

He then throws in a line I assume reflects realities of his time: he says the disapproval of these actions affects all Jews—kulanu, anachnu, all of us, we—who descend from Yaakov. To my understanding, he and his listeners were mocked or denigrated for being descended from a man who would lie or cheat to take his brother’s birthright and blessings.

R. Arama also thinks Yaakov’s actions were ineffective. If he and Rivka cared about the financial part of the blessings, they chose poorly in setting him up to have to flee for 20 years; better to have had him stick around, ingratiate himself with his father more. If we instead assume the issue was the spiritual blessings, the whole struggle is odd, since Hashem can give those to whomoever Hashem wants.

Nor is R. Arama clear on why the blessings had such drama. Avraham never blessed Yitzchak, and Yaakov blessed each of his sons. What was different here?

The Blessings Had to Go To the First-Born

As R. Arama turns to answer his questions, he throws in a comment I don’t recall seeing before; the effort to understand these issues will itself be a sort of wisdom. He may worry he will not come to a final answer, or he may want to stress to his listeners the importance of taking up the topic, regardless of reaching a final answer.

He insists from the outset it could not have been about money or the honor owed the first-born, either of which were too base a motivation to ascribe to Yaakov. Yaakov had to have been focused on the higher goods dependent on the blessings and the birthright.

Although he has no immediate sense of why they were inescapably linked, Yitzchak’s and Esav’s reactions show they were. Yitzchak’s original trembling when he realizes the blessing went to a different son than he had planned; Esav’s wailing for some other blessing; Yitzchak telling him he was limited by what he had already given Yaakov; and Yitzchak’s coming around to respecting Yaakov as the designated son, therefore sending him to marry a non-Canaanite wife, all led to his explicitly conferring the blessings of Avraham.

Hashem agrees, as we see in Shemot 4:22, telling Paroh the people are beni, bechori, Yisrael, my son, my first-born, Israel.

Vesting Rights, Switching Rights

The connection is so clear, matters so much to the story, R. Arama feels he must try to offer a reason. (His hesitations show us he was unsure of himself, explain why he said the endeavor itself has value, regardless of how good the answers he achieves. I think it’s because he is not confident he has found the answer.)

He begins with an analogy. A country had the practice of choosing their next king by qualifications, with no right to inherit the position. At one point they had a king great enough, so they agreed to gift the monarchy to him and all his descendants, the first-born taking the throne each generation. The system worked until an iteration where the first-born was clearly not qualified, but the second-born was. Worried about their future, the nobility conspired to convince the first-born, when in his cups at a feast, to forego what would be for him the burden of trying to run the country well.

While some of the analogy seems obvious on its face, we’ll start unpacking it, seeing how R. Arama read it, next time.


Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and nonfiction, most recently “We’re Missing the Point: What’s Wrong With the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It.” He lives in Bronx, New York, with his wife and three children.

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