• Samuel Lebens

Toldot: The truth behind the fiction

Updated: Nov 30, 2019

Our Parsha begins with the following verse (Genesis 25:19):

וְאֵ֛לֶּה תּוֹלְדֹ֥ת יִצְחָ֖ק בֶּן־אַבְרָהָ֑ם אַבְרָהָ֖ם הוֹלִ֥יד אֶת־יִצְחָֽק׃
These are the generations of Isaac, son of Abraham. Abraham begat Isaac.

Well of course, Abraham begat Isaac. The verse already called him, "Isaac son of Abraham"! This redundancy creates an opening for the Midrashic imagination:

R. Simeon added: Peace is considered of such importance that the Torah utters a fiction for its sake.

The Midrash then provides two examples of fiction for the sake of peace. The first appears later on in the book of Genesis. The second has its roots in our verse about Isaac and Abraham. Let's take them in turn.


For the first example, we have to fast-forward, past the looming conflict between Jacob and Esau, past the story of Joseph and his brothers, past the descent to Egypt, to the death of Jacob. When Jacob dies, the brothers of Joseph sent a message in Jacob's name. It said (Genesis 50:16-17):

Your father commanded before he died, saying: So shall you say to Joseph: Forgive, I pray, the transgression of your brothers, and their sin.

But, as our Midrash makes clear:

We are, in fact, unable to discover any such statement made by Jacob. [Jacob] was aware of Joseph’s piety, and would not suspect that he would resort to [vengeful] bloodshed.

Jacob didn't think that, after his passing, Joseph would seek revenge for the hideous wrong that was done to him, in his youth, by his brothers. It was water under the bridge. Joseph had forgiven them. But his brothers were scared. They fabricated this message from their father.


Their message was a fiction, and yet the Torah shares it with us - without even making clear that it was a fiction - because making peace between brothers is more important, it seems, than truth. The Midrash continues, with a second example:

Come and observe the importance of peace: Between the time that Sarah left the control of Pharaoh [having been held in his palace] and the time when she came under the authority of Abimelech [when she was held in his palace], Isaac was conceived. The people said: “It is hardly likely that this centenarian could father a son, she must have conceived either from Pharaoh or Abimelech.” [After all of these rumors, even] Abraham had suspicion in his heart. What did the Holy One, blessed be He, do? He ordered the angel responsible for the formation of embryos to fashion this embryo in the exact likeness of his father, so that everyone would be forced to acknowledge that he was Abraham’s son [This would reassure Abraham and restore the peace between him and his wife.]
We know that this was so from the verse "These are the generations of Isaac son of Abraham. Abraham begat Isaac" (Gen. 25:19). Since the verse states "Isaac son of Abraham," could we not know from those words that Abraham begat Isaac? Why then does Scripture add the words Abraham begat Isaac? Because everyone who looked at Abraham would exclaim: “Without doubt Abraham begat Isaac, since their countenances are so much alike.” Hence Scripture says: Abraham begat Isaac.

This isn't an example of the Torah uttering a fiction, but it's certainly a continuation of the theme. Isaac's face was going to look a certain way, but God interceded to make him look another way. Isaac ended up looking like Abraham even if that wasn't how he was supposed to look. God acted so as to distort appearances, because this distortion would subdue the rumors and create peace.


Before we look more closely at the words of this Midrash, on a skim read, it seems as if the Midrash doesn't even deny the rumors. Instead, the Midrash only reports the deceptive means that God took in order to subdue the rumors. That's hardly reassuring. We'll return to this issue later on.

Perhaps the most famous scene in our Parsha occurs when Jacob dons a costume of deer skin in order to disguise himself as his brother. This costume was placed upon him by his mother in order to achieve her goal (Genesis 27:15-17). Isaac was blind. If Jacob could only feel like Esau, to Isaac's touch, then, Rebecca hoped, Jacob might receive the blessing.


It turns out that, by the lights of our Midrash, Jacob wasn't the first member of his family to have a distorted appearance thrust upon him to achieve a goal.


God Himself had given Isaac a fake appearance from birth, in order to subdue the damaging rumors surrounding his conception. Jacob may have worn a deceptive costume, but he did so only once. Isaac's face, by contrast, had been a costume from before he was born.


Our Midrash wants us to confront the relationship between peace and truth, fiction and reality, and ends and means. This Midrash about Isaac's face, tagged onto the very first verse of our Parsha, thereby opens up the very issues that will animate our Parsha's central scene.


Isaac had wanted to bless Esau, his eldest son. In the Jewish tradition, Isaac is associated with the attribute of justice. Like justice, Isaac is blind. It doesn't matter who was more worthy - Jacob or Esau. Blind justice dictates that the oldest son receives the birthright. Perhaps he didn't know that Jacob had legally bought the birthright (Genesis 25:33). But either way, Isaac's preference for Esau runs deeper than blind justice. As it is written (Genesis 25:28):

וַיֶּאֱהַ֥ב יִצְחָ֛ק אֶת־עֵשָׂ֖ו כִּי־צַ֣יִד בְּפִ֑יו וְרִבְקָ֖ה אֹהֶ֥בֶת אֶֽת־יַעֲקֹֽב׃
Isaac favored Esau because he had a taste for game; but Rebekah favored Jacob.

A flat-footed literal translation of this verse would have it that Isaac favored Esau because he had "trapping in his mouth". Accordingly, the Midrash suggests that Isaac favored Esau only because Esau was skilled at the deceitful use of language; using words as traps, to capture the affection of his father on false pretenses. The real liar was Esau; not Jacob.

But even if we restrict our attention to the plain meaning of the verses, and put Midrashim to one side, it does seem odd that Isaac should prefer Esau. Why does his hunting make him more worthy than Jacob, the mild mannered, perhaps even studious young man, who preferred to stay indoors (Genesis 25:27)?


Perhaps the attraction is that Esau and Isaac are both men of the field; lovers of the outdoors. The first time that Rebecca sees Isaac, he is walking in the field (Genesis 24:63-65). From the word "לָשׂ֥וּחַ" in Genesis 24:63, it seems that Isaac had gone outdoors, at dusk, in order to meditate, or pray. Esau, by contrast, went outdoors to hunt. These are very different sorts of outdoorsy people!


Another contrast between Jacob and Esau: Jacob was a "smooth-skinned man", whereas Esau was covered in hair (Genesis 27:11). Esau was so hairy that Jacob disguises himself using goat skin. Esau's nation is latter called Se'ir, which means goat. His name "Esau" means ready-made, because he came out covered in hair (Genesis 25:25).


Since we don't have much to go on, and since we're trying to get to the bottom of Issac's preference for Esau, perhaps we should ask: why would Isaac prefer the almost absurdly hairy son to the smooth-skinned man?


What does hair symbolise?


When a voice speaks to Job from out of the whirlwind (in Hebrew, ha-sa'ara), the Midrash deliberately misreads the verse. It says: "from every separate hair [se'ar] of Job's head, God would speak to him."


Think also of Samson, whose superhuman strength seems to be vested, somehow, in his head of hair. In Samson's youth, the word of God is described - in the Rabbinic reading of the verse - as ringing in his ears (Judges 13:25). The Rabbis therefore imagine the ringing of the Holy Spirit emerging from the clanging sounds of his superhuman locks of hair, jangling in the wind.

Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg

Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg brings these tropes about hair together and concludes that hair, in the Rabbinic imagination, somehow "represents an ambiguous inner-outer status, originating from within the body, but [a] vehicle of energies that have their source in God."


God communicates with Job through his hair. His hair makes things ambiguous as to where he ends, and where God begins. Instead of a smooth border, our hair gives us cloud like edges, and God - after all - addresses us from amidst a thick cloud (Psalm 99:7). God lives in ambiguity.


Another Midrash, which Gottlieb Zornberg cites, describes God as nourishing every follicle of our hair. This gives rise to an image of "the human being, whose many hairs bristle with a vitality born of a complex hidden nature endowed by God."


There's a vitality to Esau; a mystique too; and a rugged ambiguity. Godly powers seem to be moving inside of him, causing every follicle of hair to bristle with life. Jacob, the mild-mannered baby-faced tent-dweller is a less attractive heir.


We're told that Isaac was distressed by Esau's taste in women (Genesis 26:34-35). But perhaps he thought that a person with so much passion and energy would be a better leader of the Jewish people, than a timid recluse, if only that passion and energy could be harnessed and directed towards the good.


But Isaac was wrong about Esau, and he was wrong about Jacob too. It's true that the growth of hair has a symbolic resonance in the Rabbinic mind; a resonance which informs the centrality of the beard in many Orthodox communities. But hair isn't always cast in a positive light. Think of Samson, once more. Moreover, hair allows for dirt to take hold, for food to get stuck. Any dirt that attaches to a smooth-skinned man falls of with ease, but will get stuck in the tangles of the hairy man.


Witness the following Midrash:

Rabbi Levi said a parable of a hairy man and a bald man that were standing on the threshing room floor. The chaff blew up onto the hairy man, and got stuck in his hair. It blew up onto the bald man, and he placed his hand on his head, and wiped [the chaff] off. So too, the evil Esau becomes soiled in sins all the days of the year, and he has no means of atonement, but Jacob becomes soiled in sin all the days of the year, [until] Yom Kippur comes, and [then] he has a means of atonement.

Esau's hair is not a sign of Godliness. It's a sign of his entanglement in the world of sin. Jacob's smooth-skin is not a sign of his timidity, it's a sign of his ability to stay clean from the taint that sin leaves behind. And however much Judaism might venerate the beard, there are times when the Bible commands the complete destruction of all bodily hair: for example, during the inauguration of the Levites (Numbers 8:7), and the rehabilitation of the lepers (Leviticus 14:9). Sometimes, somehow, hair can be an obstacle.


But how can Jacob prove to his father that he isn't too timid to act, that he does have Divine energy bubbling within, and that his hairlessness doesn't signify a lack of vitality? Rebecca can tell Isaac her opinion. She can tell him that Jacob is the right person to take the Jewish people forward, to receive the blessing of Abraham, and to inherit the birthright, but what evidence can she offer?


And yet, when Jacob dresses up as Esau, and has the gall to deceive his father, in order to win what he believes to be his right, he demonstrates to his father that he isn't empty on the inside, and that he does have the energy and passion that it takes to lead a people. It was a case of a deception that revealed an underlying truth. He comes to understand, through Jacob's deception that it really is possible to combine the purity of Jacob with the gall of Esau; to have the hands of an Esau and the voice of a Jacob (Genesis 27:22)


Isaac comes to see that the blessing belongs to Jacob. He realises that he's been wrong, for all of these years about Jacob. He tells Esau that, even though the blessing was given under false pretenses, Jacob is "indeed, blessed" (Genesis 27:33). In that verse, Isaac is shaken to the core, but perhaps only because he realises now that he's been wrong for so many years. He then calls Jacob back, of his own accord, to offer him, voluntarily, "the blessing of Abraham" (Genesis 28:1-4). Jacob's disguise had revealed a truth about himself to Isaac that Isaac had never appreciated until now. After the deception, Isaac chooses Jacob.


If we return to our first Midrash, and look more closely at its words, it's clear that it does repudiate the pernicious rumors about Isaac's conception. God commands the angel, in the words of the Midrash, "to fashion this embryo in the exact likeness of his father" - of his father. Of course Abraham was Isaac's father! But only a distortion of Isaac's appearance would allow the world to come to know this truth. The brothers told a lie to Joseph about Jacob, but that lie expressed an underlying truth about Jacob's desire for peace between his children. Likewise, and of course, Jacob was the brother who should receive the inheritance of Abraham, but only a distortion of appearances would allow Isaac to see the truth.

And here we get close to the mystical notion of a levush - a garment. A garment hides the body. And yet, the way you clothe yourself also reveals a lot about who you are. Moreover, clothing allows you to appear in public. Garments conceal and reveal. They reveal in the way that they conceal.


According to the Kabbalah, this world is a levush. We cannot see God directly and live (Exodus, 33:20). So he hides himself. He wears the world as a costume. We see his outline in the cloak behind which he hides.


We're not allowed to tell outright lies in order to make peace. But, we learn from Jacob, who is the Kabbalistic symbol for truth, that the crooked road to peace will often reveal a deeper truth, so long as we don't allow its crookedness to leave a remnant tangled in our hair.

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